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News Bytes of the Week--Tiny Ants Invade Texas

Protein-folding video game and more…



Courtesy of iStockphoto; Copyright: Scott Harms

Tiny ants terrorize Texans

A new species of ant—temporarily dubbed paratrenicha species near pubens—has been giving Texans the heebie-jeebies for the past six years since its arrival in Houston via, it is believed, a cargo ship, the Associated Press reported this week. The origin of these "crazy rasberry ants" (named after exterminator Tom Rasberry) is unknown, but their cousins, commonly called crazy ants, are found in the Southeast and the Caribbean. These puny pests have ruined pumps at sewage stations, fouled computers and at least one homeowner's gas meter as well as caused the malfunction of fire alarms. The hairy, reddish-brown invaders have also been spotted wandering erratically (rather than in ants' typical regimented formations) at NASA's Johnson Space Center and close to Houston's Hobby Airport. The Texas Department of Agriculture is working with researchers at Texas A&M University in College Station and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to stop the ants, which, along with biting humans, feed on other insects (including the beloved ladybug) and even eat the hatchlings of a small, endangered grouse called the Atwater prairie chicken. About the only good that can be said of these new settlers is that they indiscriminately eat fire ants, a bane of Texas summers. In the meantime, local exterminators want the EPA's approval to use more powerful pesticides on these uninvited guests, because normal ant traps and insecticides don't appear to work.

Sensor dentures to unravel mysteries of the tongue

Scientists have had difficulty pinpointing the position and behavior of the human tongue as a person speaks. Such insights, however, would be invaluable for helping people to control speech impediments or to regain the ability to speak following a stroke or other major trauma. Now a team of researchers led by Christophe Jeannin at the Institute of Speech Communication in Grenoble, France, is sinking its teeth into this problem by creating dentures that contain a number of tiny pressure sensors to record the position of the tongue and the force it applies as it creates various sounds during conversation. The scientists are studying 20 people (all toothless)—half of whom have experience wearing dentures, whereas the rest will wear dentures for the first time. To determine where to place the sensors, the researchers first applied a powder cover to wearers' dentures. Their tongues remove the powder when they touch the false teeth and gums during speech—thus marking the places where sensors need to go. Once we understand how people speak, maybe we'll finally be able to create computers and robots that sound more like C3PO and less like R2D2.

Though not exactly party animals, sloths more active than thought

Scientists monitoring brain activity in wild, three-toed sloths in Panama have helped the famously sluggish animal dispel a spurious rumor: that they are lazy. Sloths in captivity have been known to sleep an average of 16 hours a day. But, thanks to miniaturized electroencephalograms (EEG) that fit into a made-for-sloths helmets and recorded their sleep patterns, scientists now know that, in the wild, sloths aren't perpetually snoozing. In fact, researchers report in Biology Letters that the three brown-throated, three-toed sloths they studied only slept for an average of about 9.5 hours over the three to five days that scientists monitored them. The work marks the first time a wild animal's sleep schedule has been electrophysiologically monitored. "If we can determine the reasons for variations in sleep patterns, we will gain insight into the function of sleep in mammals, including humans," said study co-author, Niels Rattenborg, head of the Sleep and Flight Group at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology. Turns out that all the shut-eye the sloths were getting in captivity was probably due to boredom—and the fact that they weren't in danger of being eaten.

Organic origami: Gamers to engineer protein folds to fight disease

University of Washington (U.W.) in Seattle biologist David Baker has decided to open part of his research up to anyone with a computer, an interest in protein science and some free time on their hands. Baker published a paper in Science in March that revealed an algorithm he'd designed to make novel proteins by randomly stringing together amino acid subunits. But, the computer only generates sequences for brand new protein recipes; the molecules then need to be folded into a three-dimensional structure to function, whether it's helping cells recognize chemicals, driving chemical reactions or the myriad other functions that proteins perform in the natural world. So, Baker recruited U.W. computer scientist and game designer Zoran Popovic to help him create an application called Foldit that consumers at home could use to help properly manipulate a protein so that it is energetically stable and has useful nooks and crannies where other proteins (or other substances) can dock and interact. The interesting twist is that there's no real endgame: Neither the players nor the scientists know when the ideal protein has been made. Baker, however, plans to test the most promising products in his lab with the hope that some organic origami master out there will stumble upon the key component for an AIDS vaccine or another breakthrough therapy.

Einstein letter sells for record price

Artist Lucian Freud wasn't the only one to break his own auction record this week. A letter written by Albert Einstein in which he referred to religion as the "product of human weaknesses" sold for $330,000 (170,000 pounds) to a private collector at a London auction. Bloomsbury Auctions had set a guide price of $12,000 to $16,000 (6,000 to 8,000 pounds) for the letter, which Einstein wrote on January 3, 1954, to philosopher Eric Gutkind. "It beats the world record for an Einstein letter by about four times," Bloomsbury managing director Rupert Powell told The Guardian.

Does network theory explain cabinet efficiency?

A new study claims to offer mathematical backing for an anecdotal observation of historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson, who observed that decision making breaks down in committees of 20 or more people. Researchers from the Medical University of Vienna simulated group voting using a network model in which one member of the group could influence the votes of her colleagues in the same political party. They found that groups of 10 or less could usually reach consensus, but groups of 20 or more were far less stable. The researchers note that countries scoring high in United Nations rankings of economic development tend to have smaller executive cabinets—Iceland, number one in development, has a cabinet of 12; the U.S., in 12th position, boasts a cabinet of 17—although there are glaring exceptions: Australia, Canada and New Zealand score high on development and cabinet size, according to Science News.

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