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News Bytes of the Week—Attack of the space microbes

Baboons gone wild, The point of acupuncture and more…

Killer bacteria from outer space
As if cosmic rays and hard vacuum didn't make space dangerous enough, astronauts might have to contend with an unexpected threat: bacteria. Mice exposed to a strain of Salmonella typhimurium that spent 12 days in orbit on a 2006 shuttle flight were nearly three times as likely to die from the stomach bug than rodents infected with its earthbound ilk, a new study finds. Seems the microbes began to weave themselves into a resilient biofilm, possibly because the microgravity stilled the flow of the fluid bathing them, a study author told the Associated Press. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA; AP)

Acupuncture works—Sort of
Acupuncture relieves lower back pain better than conventional therapy, according to a new German study of nearly 1,200 back pain sufferers, the largest of its kind yet. But don't get too smug, alternative medicine devotees: fake acupuncture worked nearly as well as the real thing. Acupuncture significantly soothed back pain in nearly half of patients, compared with 44 percent of those who got stuck in the "wrong" spots at a shallow depth (although real acupuncture did reduce the need for pain drugs more than the fake kind). Conventional therapy only helped 27 percent of the group, suggesting that pain may be especially responsive to pinpricks, or at least the placebo effect. (AP)

A quick-draw test for bird flu?
A new test may give health officials a better chance of containing an epidemic of the H5N1 bird flu virus should it ever begin spreading from person to person. A device described in this month's Nature Medicine uses magnets to push around a droplet of liquid from a throat swab, concentrate the sample's genetic material, and check it for virus. Results came within 30 minutes instead of the hours required for conventional testing, and at a fraction of the price—ideal, researchers said, for countries that can't afford expensive monitoring. (Nature Medicine; Agence France-Presse)

China owns up to its dam problems
Chinese officials admitted this week that its controversial Three Gorges Dam has triggered massive landslides, erosion and growing pollution that could represent an ecological "catastrophe" in the making, according to state-run Chinese media. The Chinese government has spent $23.6 billion since 1993 to build the 600-foot- (185-meter-) high, 1.5-mile- (2.5-kilometer-) long dam along the Yangtze River—the world's largest and hydroelectric plant—despite concerns that it could wreak havoc on the surrounding environment. Environmental scientist Weng Lida, secretary general of the Yangtze River Forum, told China's Xinhua News Agency that "the problems are all more serious than we expected." (Xinhua)

Weird radio burst in space
A unique flash of radio waves three billion light-years away may represent a new type of space explosion that astronomers have missed until now. Researchers scanning earlier data from an Australian radio telescope identified a powerful blast in the direction of the Small Magellanic Cloud that lasted a mere five milliseconds. Too brief for most telescopes to detect, such events could be occurring hundreds of times a day, they speculate, perhaps sparked by superdense neutron stars banging together. (Science; press release)

Irish smoking ban makes sweet music
A new study finds that Ireland's 2004 workplace ban on smoking has had an unexpected benefit: cleaner accordions. Researchers report in the British Medical Journal the results of their near exhaustive survey of Irish accordion repairers—all seven of them—who noted that squeezeboxes have accumulated less soot since the ban took effect. Sooty buildup, the researchers said, can alter the instrument's pitch. (BMJ; L.A. Times)

Why baboons make bad houseguests
The Times of London reports that unruly baboons have been terrorizing the residents of a small village in the southern tip of South Africa. Emboldened by tourists doling out bananas and other treats, endangered chacma baboons from the Cape Point Nature Reserve have raided nearby Scarborough, burgling homes and mobbing local businesses for food (and wine). Among their tricks: dropping a baby baboon through security bars, who then opens a window from inside. (Times)

Do Barry Whites have bigger families?
A new study finds that men with deeper, more masculine voices may have had more success in the mating game in generations past. Researchers recorded the voices of 49 men and 52 women of the Hadza, a group of hunter-gatherers in Tanzania who do no practice birth control. Of the men, those with deeper voices had fathered about two more kids on average than those with higher pitched voices, suggesting that bass tones granted Hadza men more opportunities to mate. (Biology Letters; BBC)

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