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This article is from the In-Depth Report The Science of Star Wars

News Bytes of the Week—Lightsaber to fly on shuttle

Stem cells mend broken rat hearts, stone cold sober astronauts and more…
stormtroopers



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Houston, we've got a thrumming sound
In a photo op plucked straight from nerd heaven, a phalanx of stormtroopers converged this week on Houston's William P. Hobby Airport to escort a NASA official carrying the lightsaber prop wielded by actor Mark Hamill in the 1983 movie Star Wars. The event was hatched to drum up press for the geek icon's scheduled flight to and from the International Space Station on board the shuttle Discovery in October, in celebration of the movie's 30th anniversary, according to news reports. Chewbacca the Wookie jumped through hyperspace to California, where he handed the Jedi weapon to Roger Bornstein, director of marketing for the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, who then rendezvoused with representatives of the dark side in Texas. No word on whether space traitor Lando Calrissian was involved in the transaction. (NASA shuttle to launch Luke's lightsaber | collectSPACE.com)

A fix for broken rat hearts
Scientists this week successfully implanted human embryonic stem cells into rats that suffered heart attacks, coming a heartbeat closer to realizing the full potential of such therapy. Such cells usually die when injected into damaged hearts, but researchers from Geron Corp. were able to make the rat hearts survive and pump away, getting the blood flowing again. The secret? A "survival cocktail" of proteins injected along with the cells, researchers report in Nature Biotechnology. (Cardiomyocytes derived from human embryonic stem cells in pro-survival factors enhance function of infarcted rat hearts | Nature Biotechnology)

A new dolphin tale
Good news for Winter, a Florida dolphin who lost her tail flipper after getting tangled in a crab trap line but lived to tell the tale. Hobbled in the accident, the tenacious two-year-old mammal is now being trained to use a prosthetic tail, reports the Associated Press. The latex flipper is designed as an aid that trainers hope will help Winter grow strong in the right places and adapt to life without a back rudder. An elderly dolphin named Fuji gets an assist from a similar but smaller prosthetic she wears for a few minutes at a time. (New prosthetic may help dolphin, troops | AP)

Mightier mouse—and maybe muscle boosters
Want to build a brawnier mouse? Researchers already knew that shutting off the gene for the muscle-limiting protein myostatin doubles the muscle mass of rodents, cows and humans. Now a scientist reports that mice engineered to make extra follistatin, which deactivates myostatin, have four times the muscle of regular mice, suggesting a new target for drugs to fight muscle-wasting diseases such as muscular dystrophy. (Quadrupling Muscle Mass in Mice by Targeting TGF-ß Signaling Pathways | PLoS One)

Why flies like beer
Flies prefer the taste of CO2 in their water, according to a report in Nature. Flies were drawn to fizzing beer or dry ice dissolved in water, which excite a special class of taste receptors in the fly proboscis, but had no desire for flat soda and avoided gaseous CO2. Researchers propose that the taste draws flies to half-spoiled food, full of CO2-belching bacteria that pump out nutrients they feed on. (The detection of carbonation by the Drosophila gustatory system | Nature)

Stressed moms cradle to right
Stress may somehow be influencing mothers to cradle their babies in the arm opposite the one they would normally use. A new study of 79 new moms found that 32 percent of those showing signs of stress cradled to the right, compared with 14 percent of stress-free mothers, although depressed moms preferred cradling to the left. (Maternal stress and depression and the lateralisation of infant cradling | The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry)

NASA affirms its sobriety
An internal NASA investigation failed to confirm allegations brought last month by an independent panel that an astronaut and a cosmonaut had on separate occasions shown up for a mission a bit tipsy, the agency reported this week. NASA safety chief Bryan O'Connor, a former astronaut and shuttle accident investigator, scanned more than 40,000 records dating back to 1984 but did not turn up evidence of any such incidents, according to a 45-page report. Nevertheless, agency administrator Michael Griffin announced that NASA was reviewing its mental health policies for possible improvements. (Findings of NASA Safety Review Following Astronaut Health Reviews)

Warning: Smoking permanently damages genes
Heavy smoking may trigger long-lasting changes in gene activity, possibly explaining the persistently higher risk of lung cancer and disease in those who kick the habit, according to a new study. Researchers scanned the genes of lung cells scraped from 24 smokers, abstainers and former pack-a-dayers who puffed for 30 years or more. Former smokers showed more activity than nonsmokers in 124 genes, including several associated with lung disease—despite having quit up to 32 years earlier. (Effect of active smoking on the human bronchial epithelium transcriptome | BMC Genomics)

Spider spins giant web
Hikers at Lake Tawakoni State Park in northern Texas have been gawking at—or steering clear entirely of—a mammoth cobweb that has cocooned 200 yards of park trail, the Associated Press reports. (See photo here.) The Lord of the Rings-size web, which changed color from cottony white to mosquito brown, has confounded park officials, but spider experts say it's not that unusual. John Jackman, an entomologist for Texas A&M University, told the AP he hears similar reports every couple of years: "There are a lot of folks," he says, "that don't realize spiders do that." (Spider Web Engulfs Texas Park Trail | AP)

China to scientists: if at first you don't succeed, no big whoop
The Chinese government has apparently decided it can nip scientific fraud in the bud by alleviating the fear of failure. Xinhua, the country's state media agency, this week announced that proposed legislation would guarantee researchers continued funding after failed experiments if they can show they "tried their best." Fraud is no stranger to Chinese science: Shanghai Jiaotong University fired U.S.-educated chip researcher Chen Jin in 2006 for fabricating high-profile claims, and China's national science agency blacklisted 13 scientists earlier this month for fraud, Xinhua reports. (China legislates to tolerate scientific failures | Xinhua)

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