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Take That, Hackers

Two Princeton University scientists have developed an alternative to conventional encryption for sending secure messages over the trunk lines of the Net. Their approach exploits the background noise, or "jitters," created by torrents of data surging across optical fibers.

First, a device called an encoder stretches out the short pulses of light that make up a message to be secured. These stretched pulses are so quiet that they hide in the jitters. A decoder on the receiving end takes the elongated signals and restores them to their original form.

This technology could prove superior to ordinary encryption, which relies on software code called keys. "When you're using encryption, you still disclose that secure communication takes place," which may invite attention from hackers, explains Evgenii Narimanov. He developed the new approach with his colleague Bernard Wu. The technology could be combined with conventional encryption, they say.

There is a drawback to stretching signals: You end up sacrificing some of the speed that makes fiber-based communications so desirable. The secure transmission rate is around 760 megabits per second, vs. 10 gigabits for nonsecure transmissions.

One of the world's deadliest snakes may help researchers conquer dreaded "flesh-eating" bacteria. Scientists at the Methodist Hospital in Houston have discovered an enzyme that promotes A streptococcus infections, which cause strep throat and necrotizing fasciitis, a disease that destroys soft tissue, killing half its victims. The enzyme resembles a toxin found in the venom of the Australian common brown snake.

The researchers used the human form of the toxic enzyme to create a vaccine, which they tested on mice. The vaccine shielded the mice from the most invasive strep infections.The snake could help the scientists find more ways to neutralize strep. Snakes produce venom-fighting chemicals naturally, because "if you're a snake, you don't want to intoxicate yourself with your own venom," explains Dr. James Musser, executive vice-president of the Methodist Hospital Research Institute. Based on such protective molecules, scientists might develop more effective drugs

New water-surveillance systems promise to detect bioterror attacks more quickly and accurately than is possible today. Ever since the 2001 anthrax attacks after September 11, the Homeland Security Dept. has been concerned about the possibility of biological threats to public resources, including the water supply. Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories, the University of Cincinnati, and Argonne National Laboratory paired up with the Environmental Protection Agency to develop the WaterSentinel Program: software that monitors municipal water systems in real time. It is being tested in Albuquerque. Another system developed by the U.S. Army Center for Environmental Health Research and sold by a San Diego company monitors changes in fish behavior to detect potentially toxic events.

-- It's rare that a species goes from "extinct" to just "endangered." The Wollemi Pine, which flourished in the age of dinosaurs, got that upgrade in 1994 when a stand of 100 or so was found in Australia's Blue Mountains. The trees have soft fern-like needles, multiple trunks, and weird bark that looks like coffee beans coated in chocolate.

To help the trees take root around the world, consider purchasing a sapling at

-- Nukes have powered naval ships, but now the technology could make its civilian debut. Rosenergoatom, Russia's private nuclear-energy company, is building a 120-megawatt plant on a barge. When finished in 2010, it will be towed to the White Sea, in Russia's far north, to power mining operations as well as nearby towns. Details about onboard safety systems are scant, raising red flags. The U.S. developed, but abandoned, plans for nuclear barges in the 1960s.

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