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Roundup of Recent Science Discoveries, 2002

—Holly Hartman

Mystery Skull

In July 2002, an international team led by French paleontologist Michel Brunet announced the discovery of a humanlike skull that may be up to seven million years old, twice as old as any others found. The previously unknown ape species, named Sahelanthropus tchadensis, was found in Chad, in central Africa. The remarkably complete skull was nicknamed “Toumai,” which means “hope of life” in the Goran language. Compared to the famous four-million-year-old “Lucy,” Toumai looks more modern and less chimplike, with a shorter, flatter face and smaller canine teeth.

Is Toumai a direct ancestor of later hominids, perhaps even modern humans? While some scientists support this theory, others believe that Toumai was one of various hominids that once walked, perhaps upright, on the African continent. In this model, evolution looks less like a tree, with humans and apes branching from a single common ancestor, than a bush in which various hominids evolved and became extinct. Meanwhile, some rival anthropologists think the skull is that of an ancient female “proto-gorilla.”

First Synthetic Virus

U.S. scientists at the State University of New York at Stony Brook have created the first synthetic virus. Using directions downloaded from the Internet and chemicals obtained from a mail-order company, they built an apparently identical copy of the poliovirus. When injected into lab mice, the synthetic virus caused paralysis and then death. The scientists, who published their findings in the online journal Science Express in July 2002, said that they undertook the experiment to prove the alarming fact that a functional pathogenic virus could be constructed without access to a natural virus.

Is this small step for biochemistry a great leap for bioterrorism? Scientists say that few people now have the skill to build a synthetic virus, much less one that could be an efficient bioweapon. The genome of the highly contagious smallpox virus is about 25 times as long as that of the poliovirus and has a more complex process of replication. But its synthesis may one day be possible. This being so, the experiment raises questions about the wisdom of ceasing vaccination when a natural virus has been eradicated.

More Moons for Jupiter

In May 2002 astronomers announced the discovery of 11 new moons orbiting Jupiter. This means that Jupiter is not only the largest planet in our solar system but the one with the most moons—a total of 39. The newly discovered moons are relatively small and have irregular orbits. Researchers say they are probably rocky, like asteroids, and were likely trapped in Jupiter's orbit during the first million years of our solar system.

The moons were first detected in images taken by the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope in Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Their orbits were verified at the University of Hawaii. Improved technology has been a factor in the discovery of dozens of moons in recent years, including ten Jovian moons in late 2000.

Very Personal Computer

In Jan. 2002 the Virginia-based Xybernaut company debuted the Poma (“personal multimedia appliance”), the first wearable personal computer for consumers. An 11-ounce unit clips onto a belt, a 2-ounce handheld knob takes the place of a mouse, and an inch-wide 3-ounce screen slips over one eye—an innovation the company had developed to let on-duty soldiers safely read commands.

But at $1,499, it's no bargain. The Poma is not only awkward—the screen is difficult to position, and wearers must tap at a virtual keyboard on its edge—but low on power. It may, however, foreshadow a time when instead of lugging a laptop and a cellular phone, a commuter can don office equipment as easily as sunglasses.

Elusive Element

The heyday of element 118 was short-lived. Just three years after a group of Berkeley scientists announced the discovery of the heaviest known element—element 118, or ununoctium—they officially retracted the news, saying they had been in error. Like the other heavy elements following element 100, ununoctium is not found in nature and would be expected to decay a fraction of a second after synthesis in a laboratory. However, follow-up experiments failed to duplicate the element's synthesis, and reanalysis of the original data could not confirm its decay sequence.

Cloning a Rare Breed…

A team of European scientists led by Pasqualino Loi of the University of Teramo, Italy, announced in Oct. 2001 that they had produced the first surviving clone of an endangered animal. A baby mouflon—a wild sheep found in Sardinia, Corsica, and Cyprus—was created by extracting DNA from the eggs of two mouflon ewes found dead and injecting it into emptied egg cells from domestic ewes. The resulting embryos were implanted in four domestic ewes, one of which delivered the mouflon.

The cloned mouflon lamb appears normal and is living at a wildlife center in Sardinia. This success came on the heels of failed attempts to clone an argali sheep and a gaur ox, both of which are endangered. Some researchers hope that cloning may one day help preserve endangered animal populations.

…and the Common Cat

After hundreds of cell-transfer procedures and the loss of 86 embryos, a team of scientists at Texas A&M University found their grail: a calico kitten. The first cloned pet, “CC” (for “Copy Cat”) was born in Dec. 2001 by C-section and appears healthy. Although she is a genetic clone, CC is not identical with either her genetic calico mother or her surrogate tabby mother; a cat's markings are determined partly by genetics and partly by the process of fetal development.

Scientists hope their findings may aid endocrinology research as well as endangered wildcats. However, animal welfare groups concerned with pet overpopulation have decried the project. The work was funded by Arizona millionaire John Sperling, who dreams of cloning his dog. Sperling is also the founder of Genetic Savings and Clone, a Texas company that hopes to clone pets for profit.

Dashing Dino

British scientists believe they have proof that a Tyrannosaurus rex ancestor sprinted across Oxfordshire, England, more than 160 million years ago. The well-preserved footprints, which extend nearly 600 ft, probably belonged to a two-ton Megalosaurus. At first, the giant beast seemed to be waddling at about 4 mph. But suddenly, the spacing between its footprints doubled as it broke into a run of 18 mph. Why the change in speed? Perhaps the massive meat-eater laid eyes on a tasty herbivore.

Although scientists had evidence that smaller dinosaurs could run, many thought that large dinosaurs were too heavy and clumsy to move quickly. These tracks may be the best proof yet that the big guys could gather speed.

Green Ham and Eggs?

What do you get when you cross a pig with some spinach? Healthier pork—or so hopes a research team that has implanted spinach genes into pigs. In Jan. 2002, after three years of experiments, the team at Kinki University in Osaka, Japan, announced that it has two generations of pigs that sport the spinach gene. This is the first time that plant genes have functioned normally in living animals.

The implanted spinach gene, known as FAD2, transforms about 20% of the pigs' saturated fats into unsaturated fats, making for less fatty meat. But don't expect to see lean green bacon at a store near you—only about 1% of the pigs in the experiment inherited the spinach gene.

Mars Meteorites

Scientists confirmed in Jan. 2002 that five recently discovered meteorites had fallen from the red planet. Like most of the other 19 known Mars meteorites, these were found in Antarctica and in the deserts of Oman and the Sahara, areas with little plant cover that could hide space rocks. Scientists hope the meteorites will offer clues about whether primitive life once existed on Mars.

Each year about 20,000 meteorites reach Earth, but few are from Mars. The new meteorites probably broke off from Mars billions of years ago, after an asteroid collision, and floated through space until landing on Earth.

A New New Yorker

A centipede of a new genus and species was discovered in a pile of leaf litter in New York's Central Park. At 10.3 mm (about .4 in.) long, the pale yellow creature may be the world's smallest centipede. Nevertheless, it has an above-average 41 pairs of legs. Formally known as Nannarrup hoffmani, it appears to be more closely related to Asian centipedes than native ones, suggesting that, like many denizens of Manhattan, it is an immigrant, perhaps having arrived in potted soil.

Plants in Space?

In spring 2002 the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA began testing a machine that could make it possible to cultivate plants in outer space. Developed by the Denmark-based Rovsing company, the European Modular Cultivation System (EMCS) centers on a climate chamber in which temperature, humidity, air, light, and water can be computer-controlled. The EMCS will be tested at the International Space Station in 2003.

The extraterrestrial hothouse isn't just a high-tech gardening gadget—it may yield new evidence about the effect of gravity on plant growth. And more importantly, it could someday provide astronauts on long missions a means of producing their own food crops.

Tropical Colorado

Although Colorado is ravaged by drought today, 64 million years ago it may have been home to a lush rainforest. Excavations at Castle Rock, a site south of Denver, have yielded fossils of tropical-looking blooms, giant fronds, and trees 6 ft across—more than 100 kinds of flora in all, double the variety found in many Brazilian rainforests today. Scientists believe the plants were nurtured in a hot, humid climate with an annual rainfall of some 100 in. A vast inland sea may have provided some of the moisture.

This rainforest flourished only a million years after the dinosaurs and most other life on Earth died out, probably as the result of an asteroid collision. Scientists had previously thought that it took plant life about 10 million years to recover from the devastation. The Castle Rock fossils suggest that recovery, at least in some areas, may have been astonishingly quick.

Robo-Rats

Other rats have navigated obstacle courses, but five at the State University of New York did so by remote control—and, reportedly, enjoyed it. A research team implanted electrodes into pleasure-sensing zones of the rats' brains, as well as the zones that register obstacles near their whiskers. Using radio signals transmitted by computer, the scientists guided the rats by stimulating “touch” signals near their whiskers and rewarding them with electrical pulses, which team leader Sanjiv Talwar described as producing a “burst of happiness.” The whiskery robots skirted ledges, climbed ladders, and explored rubble via commands issued up to 1,640 ft away.

Researchers believe that the rats, by accessing areas humans and machines cannot reach, could someday aid search-and-rescue missions, minefield clearing, and, ironically, pest control. The project was inspired in part by rescue efforts following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and received funding from the U.S. military.

Segway Human Transporter

In Dec. 2001 U.S. engineer Dean Kamen unveiled the Segway Human Transporter, a scooterlike “superinvention” he hopes will transform short-distance travel while reducing traffic and pollution. Also known as “the people-mover,” the two-wheeled, battery-powered Segway is self-balancing, thanks to aviation-grade gyroscopes, and can travel up to 15 mph. “Tilt sensors” permit riders to guide the Segway simply by leaning. The problem of where Segway riders might fit among cars, bicyclists, and pedestrians has yet to be resolved.

The U.S. Postal Service and the National Park Service are exploring the Segway's possibilities, as are some corporations and police forces. Field testing by the Atlanta police in May 2002 led to the first Segway-related accident, when the machine hit a bump on the sidewalk and spilled its rider. A consumer version of the Segway will be available by the end of 2002 for about $3,000.

Ancient Chocoholics

Yet one more way the ancient Maya were ahead of their time: love of hot chocolate. In July 2002 scientists at Hershey Foods confirmed that brown stains on a 2,600-year-old Mayan pot found in northern Belize were traces of a cocoa beverage. Spanish accounts from the 1500s described the widespread use of liquid chocolate among the Maya, who consumed it with most meals. The ancient residue offers proof that they had been enjoying cocoa drinks for at least a millennium before the conquest. Mayan hot chocolate was served thick, with a foamy top, and might contain honey, maize, or chili.


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