ADVERTISEMENT
latest stories:

News Bytes of the Week—Popcorn lung leaves the factory

Goats sacrificed to fix airplane, Nuclear mixup and more…

Popcorn's dark side
A 53-year-old Colorado man who ate two bags of microwaved popcorn daily for 10 years apparently developed bronchiolitis obliterans, aka popcorn worker's lung, a debilitating disease previously seen only in popcorn factory workers. Inhaled diacetyl, the chemical that gives microwave popcorn its sinful buttery flavor, is suspected to gradually inflame and scar the lungs' tiny air sacs, making it increasingly difficult for sufferers to exhale. Cecile Rose, a physician who specializes in the disorder at National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver, alerted the Food and Drug Administration in July that her coughing patient's Colorado home had diacetyl levels similar to those in factories. But the news only became public this week on a health policy blog that accused regulators of ignoring the potential risk to popcorn lovers. Four major popcorn manufacturers quickly announced they would phase out diacetyl. (The Pump Handle)

Hyperactive kid? Maybe it's the food coloring.
In other junk food news, children who consumed a sweetened drink laden with common food-coloring agents and the preservative sodium benzoate were more hyperactive than those who drank identical beverages minus the additives, according to a study published in The Lancet. Parents and teachers rated kids' activity levels after downing the refreshments, finding that those who drank in the coloring and preservative were 10 percent more hyper. The researchers said the survey bolsters the debated notion that additives give kids an extra kick. (The Lancet)

Being J. Craig Venter's genome
Closing in on more affordable genome sequencing, maverick scientist J. Craig Venter has led the first sequencing of both halves of a human's genome—that of J. Craig Venter—a venture funded in part by… that's right: the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Md. Chromosomes come in two matching sets, one from each parent, but the first human genome sequences published in 2001 (one by Venter, the other by federally funded researchers) were pastiches of both sets from several different individuals. Differences between maternal and parental genes in Venter's full or diploid genome may explain why he suffered from asthma and skin cancer, if not why he's such a trailblazer. (PLoS Biology; find a poster of Venter's genome via this link)

BBC pulls the plug on climate show
In a different kind of self-analysis, the British Broadcasting Company reported that it canceled a TV special set to air next January called Planet Relief that would have encouraged viewers to briefly switch off their TVs en masse to save energy. Instead, the network switched off the show, despite spending more than a year negotiating the mass turn-off with the country's electric grid. Environmental activists accused the BBC of bowing to climate change skeptics, but network officials said they canned the special because they believed their audience did not want to be "lectured to." (BBC)

English government lab blamed for foot and mouth outbreak
Leaky drainage pipes may have allowed the foot and mouth virus to escape from a lab funded by England's Institute for Animal Health in Pirbright, causing last month's outbreaks at two farms in nearby Surrey, government investigators said. Officials told Reuters that the virus likely entered the drainage system of the aging facility and emerged during heavy rains, allowing workers to unwittingly carry it out. (Reuters)

Tsunami risk in Bay of Bengal
The coast of Myanmar along the northern Bay of Bengal may be at risk of a tsunami-causing earthquake like the one that devastated Sumatra to the south three years ago. Australian geoscientist Phil Cummins told the Associated Press that the threat is not imminent, but he reported in Nature that the crust under the bay is similar in makeup, stress patterns and historical earthquake activity to other areas with recognized potential for killer tsunami quakes. (Nature)

How to be a fifth of an inch taller
Researchers said they have confirmed the first gene for human height. A variant of the metabolic gene HMGA2 accounted for about 0.3 percent of the differences in height among more than 30,000 adults and children, according to a report in Nature Genetics. Translation: if people were otherwise identical, one copy of that variant would add about a fifth of an inch to a person's height, or double that for two copies. Don't go all GATTACA yet, though: HMGA2 mutations can also boost the risk of cancer. (Nature Genetics)

Goats sacrificed to get airplane aloft
"Officials at Nepal's state-run airline have sacrificed two goats to appease Akash Bhairab, the Hindu sky god, following technical problems with one of its [two] Boeing 757 aircraft, the carrier said Tuesday, " reports Reuters. A senior Nepal Airlines official told the news service the unspecified problem had been resolved, proving that people will do just about anything to get an earlier flight. (Reuters)

Mini dinos cleared for takeoff (no sacrifice needed)
Dinosaurs shrank in size before evolving flight as opposed to slimming down after taking to the air as previously believed, a newly unearthed fossil suggests. The 80-million-year-old bones reveal a tiny creature, measuring two feet long and 25 ounces, from the dromaeosaurid family, part of the lineage that led to birds and a relative of Velociraptor. (Science)

Wrong fish restocked
U.S. conservationists spent two decades restoring the greenback cutthroat trout to its former glory in the mountain streams of Colorado, finally succeeding last year in bringing the endangered species back up to 20 self-sustaining populations. Or so they thought. A genetic analysis of those populations has found that only four are actually greenbacks. The rest are Colorado River cutthroats, which look similar but are not endangered. (Molecular Ecology)

Dude, where's my warhead?
In a more serious blooper, last week a U.S. Air Force crew accidentally flew a B-52 bomber across the country bearing six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, instead of removing the warheads from the missiles before flight, according to press reports. Although the nukes were not activated, the fact that the mistake went undiscovered for the 3.5-hour trip between Air Force bases in North Dakota and Louisiana prompted an immediate investigation and led to a munitions commander being relieved of his duties. Rep. Edward Markey (D–Mass.) told the Washington Post that the breakdown had "frightening implications" for the security of the U.S. nuclear stockpile. (Army Times)

Stephen Hawking publishes children's book
Stephen Hawking, wheelchair-bound physicist and author of A Brief History of Time, this week published his first children's book in an expected trilogy, designed, he told reporters, to make "real science as exciting as science fiction." Co-written with his daughter Lucy, who conceived of the idea, and a second physicist, George's Secret Key to the Universe tells of kids faced with the choice of saving Earth from global warming or finding a new planet for humans to inhabit. (George's Secret Key to the Universe)

Rights & Permissions
Share this Article:

Comments

You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.
Scientific American Holiday Sale

Limited Time Only!

Get 50% off Digital Gifts

Hurry sale ends 12/31 >

X

Email this Article

X