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News Bytes of the Week: Large Hadron Collider gets its own rap song

Hot and spicy salmonella; Promising Alzheimer's drug; EPA studies nanotech safety; White Knight Two debuts; and more...
LHC Rap



CERN

LHC gets its own rap song

You know a science experiment has arrived when a rap song extolling its virtues just hit YouTube. After 14 years, CERN, the European particle physics lab near Geneva, is getting ready to switch on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), designed to seek out new particles including the long-awaited Higgs boson and the possible source of dark matter as well as study the differences between matter and antimatter. The lab says it plans to send the first particles through the LHC's 17-mile- (27-kilometer-) diameter ring in early September and gradually bring it up to full speed over two months. In honor of the impending start-up, Alpinekat, aka Kate McAlpine, a science writer for CERN, has produced a five-minute rap video starring herself and friends dancing in the bowels of the machine. McAlpine's rap, written during her 40-minute bus commute from Geneva to CERN, gives a rhythmic tour of the mysteries of modern physics and the workings of the LHC, noting that "the things that it discovers will rock you in the head." It even has a good hook.

 

Peter Piper (actually the FDA) picked a pack of poison peppers

Peppers were apparently the perps in the salmonella outbreak that sickened some 1,300 people in the U.S. and Canada since April. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced this week that it had traced the responsible bacterial strain, Salmonella Saintpaul, to a serrano pepper grown on a Mexican farm that irrigated its fields with water contaminated by the bug. The farm is located in Nuevo Leon in northeastern Mexico, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) southwest of McAllen, Tex., where authorities last week found a salmonella-tainted jalapeño pepper at a packing plant owned by Agricola Zarigoza, Inc. Government officials warned consumers last week not to eat fresh jalapeños and have since added serranos—but the advisory only covers peppers grown in Mexico. FDA officials says tomatoes, once considered prime suspects in the outbreak, are safe to eat but caution that those grown on a second Mexican farm may have played an early role.

 

New drug shows early promise in Alzheimer's trial

A drug called PBT2, developed by Australian company Prana Biotechnology, appears to improve cognitive abilities in patients with early-stage Alzheimer's disease and reduce protein buildup blamed for the debilitating neurological disorder, researchers report in The Lancet Neurology. After a 12-week course of 250 milligrams of the experimental med daily, patients scored significantly better than untreated study participants on tests  analyzing executive functions (organizational skills, planning and reasoning). The drug also appeared to reduce the amount of the protein amyloid beta (which forms toxic plaques in the brains of Alzheimer's patients) by decreasing the levels of metals such as zinc and copper. These metals help amyloid beta congeal into harmful clumps. Researchers say larger, longer clinical trials are needed to prove the drug's safety and effectiveness before it can be approved for sale.

 

EPA set to study nanotech safety

BASF Corporation, General Electric Company, NanoFilm, Ltd., and PPG Industries are the latest chemical companies to provide data to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as part of an effort to determine whether nanosize particles they use in products pose health hazards. The concern: whether there's a risk these microscopic particles, measuring up to 100 nanometers in length (a nanometer is 40 millionths of an inch), can enter the lungs of chemical workers and become lodged in tissue there and in their throats. The EPA launched the Nanoscale Materials Stewardship Program (NMSP) in January and requested that companies provide the agency with info on the composition and volume of the nanoscale materials they manufacture, import, process or use. A total of 13 companies reported the info to the EPA by its deadline Monday. Only three of those chemical providers—SouthWest NanoTechnologies, Inc., Swan Chemical, and Unidym—took the added step of sending the EPA their information and agreeing to participate in any in-depth data analysis programs that the EPA might propose at a later date. The EPA plans to issue a report on its findings within two years; the results will be used to regulate chemicals with nanomaterial content under the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA). The agency hopes that a large sample of data will provide the science needed to both rule out health and environmental hazards and help establish guidelines to ensure the safe use and handling of chemicals infused with nanosize particles. One goal is to nip in the bud any potential health problems before they become a problem, as they did with asbestos.

Bill Gates just says no to smoking at the Beijing Olympics

You can boot up but don't light up at next month's Olympics: China's pledge to host "smoke-free" games in Beijing has gotten a boost from former Microsoft executive and co-founder Bill Gates. Gates, who left Microsoft to work full-time for his Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is spending $130,000 on antismoking advertisements that will appear at the games, which kick off August 8, according to the China Daily. The Gates Foundation's latest antismoking campaign is part of the $125 million it has pledged over the next five years to fight smoking in places such as China, India and Africa. Beijing has pledged a smoke-free Olympics, banning smoking from most indoor public spaces, workplaces and spectator areas of open-air stadiums for the duration of the games. More than 350 million people in China smoke, and about one million people die from smoking-related causes every year, according to the nation's Ministry of Health.

Is that really Dino flesh? Maybe not

Remember when scientists announced that they had found soft tissue in a 70-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex fossil? Never mind. New evidence suggests those findings, which startled the public and the scientific community alike, might be bogus. Researchers led by Thomas Kaye, a paleontologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, report in PLoS ONE that slimy bacterial colonies called biofilms mimic the fleshy residues allegedly recovered from a fossilized bone unearthed in Montana in 2005. These bacterial films may have duped researchers by growing into the channels and spaces where the T. rex's blood vessels and bone cells (osteocytes) had once been, mirroring both the shape and elasticity of soft tissue. Mary Schweitzer, the North Carolina State University paleontologist who announced the 2005 discovery, stands by her claim. She says that her team's data cannot simply be chalked up to biofilm-building bacteria infiltrating old bones. She points to genetic analyses completed last year of the extracted pulpy material that indicated T. rex's closest known modern-day kin is the chicken. That work supports an emerging theory that birds are descended from dinosaurs, which is not addressed by the new study.

Virgin Galactic's White Knight Two makes its debut

Alert future space travelers: There's a new craft coming your way. Virgin Galactic head Sir Richard Branson this week unveiled his space tourism company's White Knight Two (WK2). The $100-million aircraft—dubbed Eve after Branson's mother—will have a 140-foot (43-meter) wingspan—as long as a B-29 bomber (nicknamed the "stratofortress"), and its four engines are designed to send it soaring as high as 50,000 feet (15,250 meters). Once there, its payload, SpaceShipTwo, will detach and climb to what is considered the fringe of space—over 60 miles (100 kilometers)—treating tourists to several minutes of weightlessness as well as a spectacular view. The elevating journey, however, is not risk-free. Three Virgin Galactic employees died in an explosion at a factory in July 2007 while testing SpaceShipTwo's rocket engine. But that has not deterred would-be passengers. Some 250 Virgin astronauts (including wheelchair-bound physicist Stephen Hawking) have already ponied up $200,000 to reserve a seat on the spacecraft. An official launch date has not been announced, but the company says it hopes to have WK2 aloft with its first complement of virginal space cadets as early as next year.

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