Random Samples

Science  25 Apr 2008:
Vol. 320, Issue 5875, pp. 429

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  1. NETWATCH: Delving Into Darwin


    With everything from his field notebooks to his college admission notice already on the Web, you might think there aren't many Darwin-related documents left to post. But last week, another 20,000 items—previously available only to scholars—were poured onto the Internet by The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online, hosted by the University of Cambridge in the U.K.

    Included in the new stash are background information for his writings, book drafts, and a collection of contemporary caricatures (above). There's also a manuscript of the 1842 essay that first lays out Darwin's evolutionary theory, allowing readers to compare the never-published original with the posthumously released version transcribed and edited by his son Francis. Another item undercuts the standard image of a fearful Darwin concealing his heretical thinking. He originally floated the possibility that species change not in some secret notebook but in a synopsis of his bird collections, “a document intended for somebody else” to read, says the site's curator, Cambridge science historian John van Wyhe.

    The additions aren't all hard-core science. Visitors can check out the cream-heavy dishes in his wife's recipe book and browse her diary.



    Spot and Puff not only lighten our lives, they may also act as canaries in the domestic coal mine, giving early warnings of toxicity from household chemicals, an environmental group reports.

    The Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group (EWG) took blood and urine samples from 20 dogs and 37 cats in nearby Virginia and analyzed them for 70 industrial chemicals and pollutants—including heavy metals, fire retardants, stain removers, and plastic softeners—implicated in cancers, thyroid problems, and neurological and other disorders. Among their findings: 35 chemicals in cats, including mercury levels five times as high as in humans, and fire-retardant levels 23 times as high. More than a dozen endocrine toxins may help explain the thyroid disease frequently seen in cats, said EWG scientist Olga Naidenko.

    “Pets may well be serving as sentinels for the health of our own children,” EWG's vice president for research, Jane Houlihan, said at a press conference. She argued that rising rates of diagnosis of problems such as attention deficit disorder are mirroring “increasing rates of behavioral problems in pets, so much so that there's now Prozac for dogs.” The group is pushing for legislation to tighten safety testing for new products.


    Norwegian scientists are taking environmental toxicology to a new level. They aim to collect milk teeth from 100,000 children in the hopes of detecting links between prenatal and childhood chemical exposure and diseases later in life.

    Helene Meyer Tvinnereim, a dental biomaterials researcher at the University of Bergen in Norway, is getting infant choppers from the long-term Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study, which collects blood, urine, and detailed medical data from its subjects. “Nobody ever had so much information to connect to teeth,” Tvinnereim says. Parents have so far donated dozens of teeth for the study, which she says could become the world's largest tooth bank.


    To analyze the teeth, researchers embed them in epoxy and slice them into thin sections. With a laser they remove and vaporize samples from specific layers for chemical analysis. The elements in the enamel form a record of chemical exposure in early life that the study will link to the children's health as adults. The teeth could reveal environmental precursors to diverse disorders including asthma and schizophrenia, says Tvinnereim.

    Ellen Silbergeld, an environmental health scientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, says the study—which is facilitated by a streamlined national health-care and record-keeping system—makes American researchers “green with envy.”


    CREDIT: GENE KIEGEL (C), http://www.genekiegel.com/

    This spray-on dress—which comes completely out of a can labeled Fabrican—is one of the outfits featured at TechnoThreads, “a glimpse into the future of fashion,” opening this week at Trinity College's Science Gallery in Dublin. Other fashions on display include “victimless leather” (cells cultured to form a layer of leatherlike tissue on a polymer matrix); a garment fermented from the “skin” generated by adding sugar to Guinness stout; and “Hug Shirts” embedded with sensors that pick up warmth and pressure from the body and transmit them to other hug shirt wearers.