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News Bytes of the Week—Mystery Illness Strikes Bats

Spicing up naked mole rats, The origin of blue eyes and more…

For bats in peril, white noses nothing to sniff at
First it was bees. Now bats have come down with a mysterious ailment that's killing them by the thousands in upstate New York and Vermont, sparking fears of a massive die-off if it is not contained. Dubbed "white nose syndrome" for the rings of white fungus found around many of the affected bats' snouts, the plague claimed 13,500 (90 percent) of 15,000 bats over two years, and since last January has spread from four caves west of Albany, New York, to four other sites in the state and to one in neighboring Vermont, the Associated Press reports. The syndrome apparently kills the bats while they hibernate, depleting their fat reserves months ahead of schedule, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), which noted that the role of the fungus is unclear. In a statement, DEC bat specialist Alan Hicks called the illness "the gravest threat to bats [we] have ever seen." (New York State Department of Environmental Conservation; Associated Press)

Bible finally submitted for peer review
Answers in Genesis, the group that last year shelled out $27 million to open the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., is at it again. This time, the intelligently designed group has established its own journal for creationist scholars who want their work reviewed by fellow biblical literalists—without the scientific worldview sticking its monkey nose in. According to its Web site, Answers Research Journal exists "for the publication of interdisciplinary scientific and other relevant research from the perspective of the recent Creation and the global Flood within a biblical framework." Amen. (Answers Research Journal; Nature News)

Pharma-hired researcher gave company confidential drug study
A diabetes researcher last year leaked a confidential document to drug giant GlaxoSmithKline, which has paid him around $75,000 in consulting and speaking fees since 1999, according to a letter to Glaxo president of U.S. pharmaceuticals from Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley. Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Finance, requested more details about the company's actions after researcher Steven Haffner, a professor of internal medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, tipped Glaxo to a study he was reviewing for possible publication in The New England Journal of Medicine, a violation of journal policy. The article, published last May, reported a 43 percent increase in heart attacks among diabetics who took Avandia (rosiglitazone), Glaxo's blood glucose–regulating drug, for at least 24 weeks. Haffner told Nature News, "why I sent it [to Glaxo] is a mystery. … I wasn't feeling well. It was bad judgment." (Grassley letter; Nature News)

Venter's genomic "watermarks" decoded
When genomics pioneer Craig Venter announced last week that his team had constructed the first man-made bacterial genome, he disclosed that researchers had embedded five "watermarks" in the DNA containing coded messages. The "code" was simply the genetic code, in which the order of DNA subunits specifies a sequence of amino acids, each abbreviated by a letter. Wired Science recruited researchers not involved in the study to decode the messages, which were VENTERINSTITVTE (there is no amino acid for "U"), CRAIGVENTER, HAMSMITH, CINDIANDCLYDE and GLASSANDCLYDE. The latter three biograffiti seem to refer to Venter's co-authors Hamilton Smith, John Glass and Clyde Hutchison. (Wired Science; Science)

Why naked mole rats never ask for water at Mexican restaurants
And now, yet another weird factoid about African naked mole rats, the hairless, cold-blooded mammals that congregate in subterranean colonies: pain doesn't always hurt them. U.S. and German researchers report in PLoS Biology that the animals squirm as other mammals do when pinched or poked, but are insensitive to pain from chemicals such as acids or the molecule capsaicin, the scorching factor in chili sauce and pepper spray. The team attributes the mole rats' bravery in the face of hot sauce in part to a dearth of the pain-transmitting neurotransmitter known as "substance P": When rubbed with a herpes virus that produces P, the freaky rats felt the burn. (PLoS Biology)

Brain-tickling implant boosts memory
Electrodes implanted deep in the brain improved the memory skills of a man receiving an experimental treatment for morbid obesity. Canadian researchers were testing deep-brain stimulation as a way to suppress the appetite of a 50-year-old patient by electrically tweaking his hypothalamus (involved in learning and memory). As the electrodes were being implanted, the man reportedly had a memory burst of a day in the park with friends three decades earlier. He also performed better on complex memory tests when the stimulator was on. Unfortunately, the electrodes haven't helped his weight: they do quell his appetite, according to news reports, but when he wants to eat, he just turns them off. The study is to appear in Annals of Neurology. (press release)

Grounded: Spy satellite coming down to Earth
A van-size U.S. spy satellite has lost power and is expected to rain fragments on Earth later this month, although where they will land is still anybody's guess. The Associated Press reports that amateur satellite watchers have tracked the object, details of which are still classified, since its launch in December 2006 and immediate power failure; the news agency noted that a British hobbyist who captured video of the craft, US 193, estimated it measures 13 to 16.5 feet (four to five meters) across and weighs up to 10,000 pounds (5,000 kilograms), plummeting 1,640 feet a day from a current altitude of some 173 miles (278 kilometers). An Air Force general told the AP that pieces of the satellite would likely survive reentry, possibly carrying a small amount of the toxic rocket fuel hydrazine. Uncontrolled satellite reentries are nothing new: the biggest was that of the 75-ton Skylab, debris from which scattered harmlessly in 1979 in the Indian Ocean and Western Australia. (Associated Press Jan 27; Associated Press Jan 30)

Plastic bottles in hot water
If the term endocrine disruptor sounds scary, then don't boil your plastic baby bottles. A new study by University of Cincinnati researchers examines the rate at which polycarbonate drinking bottles—as in baby and sports bottles—release bisphenol A, a so-called endocrine disruptor that mimics natural estrogen and may interfere with human endocrine (hormone) systems as it does in animals. The key, researchers say, is the temperature of the liquid in the bottle: When exposed briefly to boiling water, the subsequent rate of bisphenol A leaching from the plastic container into its contents spiked from 0.2 to 0.8 nanogram (billionth of a gram) per hour to eight to 32 nanograms per hour. The authors say it is unclear what level of bisphenol A or similar compounds, such as phytoestrogens in soy, might pose a risk. (Toxicology Letters; University of Cincinnati)

Don't it make your brown eyes blue—a long-ago mutation, that is
Transfixed by your beloved's baby blues? You may be staring into the limpid results of a single mutation that blinked into existence some 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. Danish researchers found an identical mutation in the eye color gene OCA2 in a group of 155 Danes, five Turks and two Jordanians, all with azure peepers. The researchers say that everyone had brown or green eyes before the mutation, which blunted production of the pigment melanin. (Human Genetics; University of Copenhagen)

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