ADVERTISEMENT

News Bytes of the Week--Could Coastal Trees Have Saved Lives in Myanmar?

Dust devils greet Mars lander; Carbon nanotubes measure spiciness; Autism linked to schizophrenia ... and more
mangrove trees coast



© ISTOCKPHOTO/ALBERTO POMARES

Felled mangrove trees may have doomed the coast of Myanmar

By cutting down 50,000 acres (20,235 hectares) of mangrove trees in the 1990s, and probably more since, Myanmar may have left itself much more vulnerable to last week's deadly Cyclone Nargis, according to Surin Pitsuwan, the secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. That shouldn't be surprising: A study appearing in Science in 2005 found that regions buffered by coastal vegetation sustain fewer deaths and less damage when they are swamped by inundations from strong storms or tsunamis, such as the one in December 2004. Roughly nine million acres (3.6 million hectares) of mangrove forests have been cleared worldwide since 1980, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). More than half of that loss took place in Asia, where trees are cleared to build fish and shrimp farms as well as resorts. According to Myanmar's minister for relief and resettlement, most of the deaths caused by Cyclone Nargis were due not to the 120 mile (190 kilometer) per hour winds, but to its storm surge—some of which the forests may have been able to absorb or at least moderate.

Brittle Stars to Ocean Acidification: Bring It on

At first glance, unlike many other sea creatures, it seems that brittle stars—relatives of starfish with longer, more flexible limbs—might actually be able to adapt once the ocean becomes more acidic, according to a new study in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. Marine biologist Hannah Wood of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory in England and her colleagues subjected brittle stars to the more acidic ocean conditions that are predicted to result from increasing concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide; instead of dissolving, like other animals, the creatures grew longer limbs and were able to regenerate lost ones more quickly. This, however, came at a cost: The stars lost muscle mass in those limbs. Because the brittle star relies on these muscles to feed itself as well as for locomotion and burrowing to avoid predators, this adaptive trait may ultimately prove a poor trade-off.

Dust devils set stage for Phoenix Mars Lander's arrival

A craft orbiting Mars has spotted a pair of swirling dust devils capped by towering plumes in the "Green Valley" near the planet's north pole, where the Phoenix Mars Lander is scheduled to touch down on May 25. NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured an image of the dust devils on April 20 during monitoring of the area in preparation for the landing. The storms measured 3,000 and 2,600 feet (920 and 790 meters) tall, respectively. NASA says that should similar twisters greet Phoenix, they are unlikely to do any damage; if anything, they'll do the opposite: Dust storms are thought to have repeatedly cleaned off the solar panels of the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Call them angel dust.

Crunch time for mechanical mouths

It sounds like a late-night infomercial: a new, adjustable grinding device designed to mash up food just like a real set of chompers. But this isn't a labor-saving device. French researchers say it could be the perfect complement to electronic "tongues" being developed to test food quality and safety. Chewing, saliva, temperature and the rate of food breakdown all affect the release of chemicals that give food its flavor, so researchers built a metal chamber with a rotating floor to hold food, a spiky plunger to compress it, and a system for pumping imitation saliva in and out. (The prototype resembles a first kiss: no tongue.) Apples ground up in the mechanical mouth were similar in texture and aroma to those chewed by humans, a team of scientists report in the May 14 issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

Don't print contracts or constitutions on this paper

With so many of today's offices filling their trash and recyclable bins with wasted paper—documents printed but never retrieved, pages blank except for a header that reads "page 2 of 2," etc.—Xerox Corp. (a staple in the photocopier and printer markets) is looking for a way to get those unusable sheets immediately back into circulation. Researchers at the company's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) and Xerox Research Center of Canada are developing self-erasing, reusable paper, which the company demonstrated at a technology show it hosted recently in New York City. The chemical compounds in the paper form images when exposed to a specific wavelength of light (the company is developing a printer with a light source that can do this). In its present version, the paper self-erases these images in about 16 to 24 hours (faster, if exposed to heat) and can be used multiple times, according to NetworkWorld.com. The company admits it needs to do further work before it can bring the technology to market. For example, will faded words be legible under a microscope, exposing important information (such as Social Security numbers or passwords) thought to be erased?

Are those Buffalo wings hot enough for ya? Ask the nanotubes


Think you can handle that picante sauce sitting on a bar in front of you? Well, carbon nanotubes may soon be the judge of that. University of Oxford researchers have developed a way to measure the precise amount of capsaicinoids, the chemicals responsible for the hot taste of chili peppers, in samples of chili sauce using electrodes containing carbon nanotubes, according to a report in the Royal Society of Chemistry journal The Analyst. The researchers were looking for a way to clearly figure out how hot a particular food is without relying on the machismo of taste testers who would rather burn the skin off of their lips than admit something is too hot to handle. The scheme: put the chili sauce into a solution of ethanol and boric, phosphoric and acetic acids, then use the electrodes to measure the change in electrical current as the capsaicinoids are broken down. The greater the change in current, the hotter the sauce. Researchers say this method is more exact than the most popular method currently used, which involves adding increasing amounts of sugar water to pepper extract until the hot taste is no longer detectable. The more of the sweet solution you need, the hotter the peppers. That's known as the Scoville Organoleptic Test, in case you see it—or electrodes—on a pub menu anytime soon.

Study links autism in children to schizophrenia in parents

Autism can be inherited and is probably related to other mental illnesses, particularly schizophrenia, according to a new study. By examining 26 years of medical records that going back to 1977, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (U.N.C.) found that the parents of 1,327 Swedish children with autism were twice as likely to have been hospitalized for mental illnesses compared with the parents of 30,000 healthy kids. The pattern was the same before and after the autism diagnosis—in many cases, the parents' troubles arose before their kids were born. This suggests, the authors wrote in the journal Pediatrics, that the link is genetic and not the result of mental strain from their offspring's behavior. Depression was more common in mothers of autistic children, but diagnoses of schizophrenia were twice as frequent for both mothers and fathers. U.N.C. School of Public Health epidemiologist Julie Daniels told The Wall Street Journal that the results show a "mental illness trend in families." She added that the difference in illnesses between parents and children are likely due to other genes or differing environmental exposures.

Rights & Permissions
Share this Article:

Comments

You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.
Scientific American Back To School

Back to School Sale!

12 Digital Issues + 4 Years of Archive Access just $19.99

Order Now >

X

Email this Article



This function is currently unavailable

X