Planetary Protection Racket
As the first planet to form in our solar system, Jupiter helped to sculpt the rest [see “The Genesis of Planets”; SciAm, May 2008]. Because of its gravity, for instance, it has regulated the rate of cosmic impacts on Earth: flinging asteroids in our direction yet also clearing many hazardous space rocks out of our way. Jupiter’s net effect depends on its mass, suggest Jonathan Horner and Barrie Jones, both at the Open University in England, in an upcoming paper in the International Journal of Astrobiology. Had Jupiter one-fifth its mass, they calculate, it would have failed to clear asteroids out—and Earth might have been struck four times more often than it has been. But if Jupiter were still smaller, it would have flung fewer asteroids toward the inner solar system to begin with—and the dinosaurs might still be walking our planet.  —George Musser

Sleep during Surgery, Wake Up in Pain
General anesthetics knock out patients during surgery by suppressing the central nervous system [see “Lifting the Fog around Anesthesia”; SciAm, June 2007]. Research­ers at Georgetown University Medical Center recently discovered that these drugs also interact with specific proteins on the surfaces of nerve cells—which could also lead to increased pain when patients wake up. Studies in mice indicated that drugs that activate the surface protein TRPA1 on pain-sensing nerve cells intensify postoperative pain. These findings could explain why some patients complain of more pain than others who undergo the same surgical procedure. In the future, anesthesiologists may be able to limit postop pain by sticking to drugs that ignore TRPA1. The work appears in the June 24 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.  —Nikhil Swaminathan

No DNA Reading Allowed
Many researchers question the medical relevance of direct-to-consumer genetic tests, some of which are offered for as little as $1,000 [see “Taking Genomes Personally”; SciAm, May 2008]. State officials seem to concur. In June, citing the state’s licensing and physician oversight rules, the California Department of Public Health sent notices to stop 13 DNA-testing labs, including 23andMe, Navigenics and deCODEme Genetics, from soliciting customers. The cease-and-desist orders follow actions by New York State, which began sending similar warnings last November. The letters are in part an effort to draw federal oversight into the nascent field, which some fear can cause patients to react inappropriately to their disease risks.  —Philip Yam

Prince William Sound and Fury

Controversy has surrounded studies documenting the long-term environmental effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 [see “Sounding Out Science”; SciAm, October 1996]. According to a U.S. Supreme Court decision on June 25, oil giant ExxonMobil will pay the equivalent of 24 hours’ worth of petroleum sales to the people impacted by the 11 million gallons of crude oil spilled into Prince William Sound in Alaska. The ruling caps the total damages as­­sessed to the company at $507.5 million, a fraction of the $5 billion a jury initially awarded the plaintiffs in 1994. The court majority decided that punitive damages should be limited to the level of actual damages proved—a new legal standard for maritime cases involving tanker spills.  —David Biello