Salmonella watch: Tomatoes in the clear, but watch out for hot peppers

The Food and Drug Administration this week gave the all-clear to tomatoes but warned that some varieties of hot peppers were still suspect in a salmonella outbreak that has sickened 1,200 people in some 40 states and Canada, leaving victims with symptoms including diarrhea, vomiting and fevers. This news came as a relief to the beleaguered tomato industry, which was considered an early culprit in the scare. The FDA in early June warned consumers to avoid certain varieties of tomatoes, which reportedly cost the industry $100 million in lost sales even though investigators failed to find salmonella on any farms they checked. The FDA and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention added jalapeño and serrano peppers as well as cilantro to the list of possible salmonella sources last week. These foods have not yet been cleared, although, so far, they have only recommended that vulnerable populations—infants, elderly persons and individuals with compromised immune systems—avoid them. According to the FDA, investigators have zeroed in on a pepper-packing outfit in Mexico that it believes may be responsible for at least a portion of the outbreak. The initial source of the contamination, however, has not been identified.


Italian cyclist cut from Tour de France for doping

Italian cyclist Riccardo Ricco today was pulled from the Tour de France after he tested positive for the banned substance EPO, a hormone that boosts oxygen levels in the blood and, hence, stamina. Ricco, 24, is the third cyclist to test positive for EPO use during this year's Tour. Spanish riders Moises Duenas Nevado and Manuel Beltran had earlier been booted after testing positive for the endurance-enhancing drug. Duenas Nevado was expelled yesterday; Beltran tested positive last Friday. Cyclists have been using EPO to get an unfair competitive advantage since 1998, when customs agents found it and a host of other illicit substances in the possession of a trainer for the Festina cycling team. EPO, like testosterone, human growth hormone and steroids, improves muscle strength and gives riders an unfair boost in endurance. The substance has been used by athletes in track and field, cross-country skiing, and in March, a German billiards player even used it. (Who knew nine-ball could be so exhausting?) "If [cycling] goes on like this," David Howman of the World Anti-Doping Agency lamented to Reuters about the culture of cheating, "it won't even be a sport anymore."


NIH official nixes large HIV vaccine trial

The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) this week canceled plans for a large clinical trial of an experimental vaccine to combat the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Anthony S. Fauci, director of the NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that more research was needed on the government-developed vaccine known as PAVE (Partnership for AIDS Vaccine Evaluation) before it could be tested in 8,500 people infected with HIV, the virus that causes full-blown AIDS. The announcement comes 10 months after drug giant Merck & Co. canceled a trial of a similar vaccine after it was found ineffective at reducing the HIV load in volunteers' blood. Fauci said the trial of the newer vaccine was canceled because there was no indication that it would be any more promising than the earlier version; both used a relatively innocuous cold virus to deliver the drug.


Looking at lightning's nuts and bolts with x-rays

Researchers say that x-rays may help them predict where lightning will strike by allowing them to view what happens inside bolts as they move. University of Florida and Florida Institute of Technology engineers report in the online edition of Geophysical Research Letters that lightning zaps to the ground in 30- to 160-foot (nine- to 49-meter) stages—emitting x-rays after completing each "step". Understanding how a bolt travels, they say, is crucial in determining where it will strike. For the first time, researchers have been able to track lightning's journey using x-rays to probe its composition, much the way physicians use x-rays to peer inside the human body. Among questions they hope to answer: Do lightning strikes on airplanes produce x-rays harmful to passengers?


Tattletale Tats: Tattoos tip prison psychiatrists to trouble

What can tattoos tell psychiatrists about the mental state of prisoners locked up after being judged unfit to stand trial or found not guilty by reason of insanity? Plenty, according to a Michigan Center for Forensic Psychiatry study published in the journal Personality and Mental Health. Body art may be a tip-off that inmates are suffering from antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), a mental condition characterized by, among other traits, a lack of empathy for others, remorselessness about crimes committed, pathological lying, cheating and stealing as well as physical and emotional aggressiveness. Researchers studied a sample of 36 inmates at a maximum security state psychiatric facility and diagnosed 11 of 15 tattooed inmates as having ASPD. The inked inmates were also more likely than their bare-skinned peers to have been sexually abused, addicted to drugs or had attempted suicide. No word on whether the type of art correlated with a prisoner's mental state.


A constellation of problems for shuttle's replacement

Problems are mounting for the Constellation Program that is supposed to replace the retiring space shuttle fleet and return U.S. astronauts to the moon by 2020. Among the most severe, according to a 117-page internal NASA report posted on this week: an $80-million overrun on development of a single motor; a hard-to-open hatch door on the Orion spacecraft (to be lifted into orbit by an Ares 1 launch rocket); and the potential that the stack will vibrate itself to pieces during takeoff. Orion's official launch date for practice flights remains March 2015, but NASA had envisioned a best-case scenario of summer 2013. An agency spokesperson told the Associated Press that in principle a launch could now occur no earlier than August 2014. Some NASA watchers say the setbacks are signs of agency mismanagement, but others say they are par for the course for an attempt to return to the moon in an era of uncertain funding.


China gets blessing for ivory trade

China boasts the world's largest illegal market for ivory—as evidenced by seizures of tons of the elephant tusk at its ports, according to conservationists. And now it has an official thumbs-up to buy lots of African ivory. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) standing committee, which governs the U.N. ban on ivory trading since 1989, said China can buy from the 119 tons (108 metric tons) of ivory legally available this year from those elephants that have been culled or died a natural death in Africa. The main reason: CITES officials believe that China has clamped down on the illegal market as evidenced by those same seizures. Conservationists aren't happy with the move. "Allowing new ivory to be imported into China will [also] stimulate demand," argued Peter Pueschel of the International Fund for Animal Welfare as the decision was being made. He and others worry that the legitimate supply will allow China to "launder" illegal ivory taken from the estimated 20,000 elephants killed every year for their tusks. China joins Japan—another country known for its illegal markets—as the only countries allowed to import such legal ivory.


Chameleons can crank up the camouflage to fool sharp-eyed stalkers

We've all seen how chameleons rapidly change their skin pigment to match background colors and textures to avoid being eaten by predators. But new research shows that the protean reptiles can actually vary their visual trickery depending on the attacker of the moment. Scientists led by Devi Stuart-Fox, jointly of the University of South Africa and the University of Melbourne in Australia, exposed chameleons to two of their most common South African predators: a bird called a fiscal shrike and a boomslang snake. The shrikes have better color vision than the snakes. Sure enough, when the scientists presented a model shrike to chameleons in the wild, the kaleidoscopic lizards more carefully matched the color of their branches. The pigment duplication was less precise for serpent assailants. Why not go for full camo-protection every time? Color swaps take energy; it may make sense for chameleons to conserve it. So why intensify the disguise when hiding from duller-eyed attackers? The new paper appears in the journal Biology Letters.


You're in space: NASA asks volunteers to boldly go to the bathroom

If you plan to visit the 2200 Space Park building at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, expect to be given a specimen cup on your way in: NASA needs your urine. Scientists there are testing out a urine disposal system for the space shuttle's replacement (called Orion), and fake pee just won't fly. The new space toilet will use a chemical that binds to salt, hormones and other compounds in urine, to prevent it from clogging the narrow pipes that drain the microgravity loo. That, of course, is a big concern after the International Space Station's john went on the fritz in May. And yes, there was a "leaked" memo, which was then made public, in which the researchers request fresh urine no more than an hour old. The kidney juice collection drive will run from July 21 through the end of the month.


<b>Cancer tempting Tasmanian devils to have teenage sex</b>

Tasmanian devils aren't just hyperactive on Looney Toons. Seems a fatal facial cancer coursing through the population has driven the much-maligned marsupials to procreate earlier than normal. The devils—named for Tasmania, the Australian island off the continent's southeastern coast where they reside—live an average of five years and typically begin mating when they've reached adulthood at around two years of age. But researchers at the University of Tasmania report in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA that the animals are mating by or before the age of one‚ some 16 times more frequently than they did before the disease was detected a decade ago. Unfortunately, the researchers say this race against the clock isn't doing the trick: Tasmanian devil populations continue to decline, dropping by up to 89 percent from what they were 10 years ago in some groups. The scientists hope, however, breeding early and often will buy the animals time and beat the cancer.


Run in the sun: Bright forecast for solar-powered race car drivers

Good news for drivers of race cars powered by the sun: There's a new source of up-to-the-minute info on the amount of light hitting Earth that could give you an edge in this year's North American Solar Challenge—a rally race from Dallas to Calgary, Alberta—going on now. And it's yours for the asking. Fifteen college teams compete in the race, which began back in 1990 to promote auto and solar engineering with students. This year, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor's 200-person team is tapping a new source in hopes of fueling a win: the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which sends the U.M.'s Continuum car team near real-time data from its seven domestic and nine international solar radiation measurement stations, dubbed SURFRAD. Such info will give crucial insight, enabling drivers to best manage fuel consumption, which is key in any race, be it solar or NASCAR—and the U.M. is currently leading the race. "Anybody who needs information about the amount of solar energy reaching Earth is welcome to the data," NOAA meteorologist and SURFRAD manager John Augustine said.