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Plants With A Hearty Appetite For Heavy Metal


Even as factories get cleaner, the legacy of a century's worth of industrial effluvia persists. Across the U.S., canals, rivers, and lakes are tainted with traces of toxic heavy metals sent down the drain years ago. Once settled into sediment, such waste can bind with silt, making it difficult and costly to remove.

Now researchers at Ohio State University have developed a new technique for cleaning the silt that uses a combination of ultrasound and algae. First, focused beams of ultrasound vibrate the metals free from the sediment. Next, the liberated metals are passed through tiny algal buds that are bred to trap metals such as cadmium, copper, mercury, and zinc.

In the lab, OSU's process captured 30% of the mercury within minutes and netted up to 60% during longer exposures. Presented at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in March, the findings suggest that the system could be easily fitted to boats to dredge and clean industrial sediments more economically than is now possible.

Scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology used nanotechnology to partially restore sight to blind hamsters. Severed connections in the rodents' brains caused the animals to lose their sight. The MIT process enabled brain cells to recreate some broken connections. This could offer hope to victims of stroke, who can suffer speech loss and other impairments.

The MIT team injected the hamsters' brains with a solution containing protein fragments called peptides. The peptides assembled themselves into thin scaffolds made of 99% water and 1% protein. Brain cells then sent branch-like extensions called axons across the scaffolds, reestablishing neural contact. Within six weeks, partial sight was restored.

The scientists believe such a process could one day help stroke patients regain their ability to speak, and might restore some movement in patients with spinal cord injuries.

For decades, researchers have been working to harness fusion, the type of nuclear reaction burning inside the sun, for electricity. Fusion produces fewer toxic leftovers than current fission reactors, but it has proven to be a difficult and expensive target. Sandia National Laboratories may have eased the task by inadvertently generating temperatures 100 times hotter than the inside of our sun.

As part of a program to examine aging nuclear weapons, the lab was generating X-rays by zapping spools of wire with 20 million amps of electricity. When the scientists changed from tungsten to thicker bundles of steel wire, they exceeded 2 billion degrees Kelvin, which is equivalent to 3.6 billion degrees Fahrenheit.

There are some skeptics: William Parkins, the late chief scientist at the company now known as Rockwell Automation (ROK), wrote in a paper (published posthumously in March) that fusion plants would be far too expensive to be practical. But the Sandia discovery could yield strategies for building small, less expensive fusion reactors.

-- Slashing salt consumption can sometimes lower high blood pressure, but scientists from the George Institute for International Health in Sydney have gone a step further. They came up with a salt substitute that can reduce hypertension more effectively than most dietary changes, and as well as some antihypertensive drugs. Plus, their blend of sodium chloride, potassium chloride, and magnesium sulfate actually tasted like plain old table salt, i.e., sodium chloride, to most participants in a yearlong, randomized trial. These participants should know: They are residents of northern China, where diets contain two to three times as much salt as those of other world populations.

-- A key to pain relief may be sitting on your hot dog bun. A team led by Yale School of Medicine researcher Sven-Eric Jordt isolated a nerve receptor in mice that responds to the compounds found in sinus-clearing mustard oil and garlic. Reporting in the Mar. 23 Cell, the team says the receptor, dubbed TRPA1, responds to a natural inflammatory agent that stimulates pain-sensing neurons. It also reacts to lung irritants such as vehicle exhaust, tobacco smoke, and the byproducts of some chemotherapies. Identifying the receptor that responds to such assaults may be the first step toward a pain-relief drug.


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