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Not A Toy: Boeing's Big, New Missile Buster


Once strictly the stuff of sci-fi and video games, energy beams able to knock out enemy missiles are getting closer to reality. Boeing's (BA) Airborne Laser System is on track to hit a key milestone this summer. The defense contractor plans to roll out a military aircraft -- a modified 747 jetliner -- that is equipped to carry the world's first weapon based on a chemical iodine laser.

Boeing plans to mount the laser onto the jet next year, and to conduct its first "shoot-down" of a live missile in 2008. If the test is successful, it will mark the first time that a plane-mounted laser is capable of blasting enemy missiles out of the air.

The ABL team cleared a big hurdle at Edwards Air Force Base in California last year, when it conducted successful tests of the laser system alone. Boeing showed it could sustain an intense beam long enough to destroy ballistic missiles in flight. Star Wars, here we come.

A research team at Purdue University may be breathing new life into an old drug. The scientists have found that hydralazine, once commonly used to treat high blood pressure, might also repair nerve damage from spinal cord injuries, cancer, and Parkinson's disease.

When nerve cells are hurt by injury or disease, they release a toxin that causes them to die. Hydralazine "is an antidote for this poison," says Richard Borgens, founding director of Purdue's Center for Paralysis Research. And because it seems to move through the often impenetrable blood-brain barrier, it's possible that hydralazine could be given to patients as a simple injection in the arm.

Publishing in The Journal of Neuroscience, the team observed that the drug reversed nerve-cell damage more effectively than any other agent they tried. The group is now tweaking the original molecule so it doesn't cause dangerously low blood pressure in patients. They're also testing it in animal models of human brain disorders.

Remember that ad for Krazy Glue that showed a husky worker suspended from an I-beam by a squirt of adhesive on his hard hat? Now scientists say they've found bacteria able to make a glue at least twice as strong as the world's best.

Yves Brun, an Indiana University bacteriologist, found the glue by chance. He was knocking out genes in a water-borne bacterium to see which ones controlled its unusual shape: a thin tail-like stalk at one end with which it grips tight to underwater surfaces. To find out if he had snipped the right gene, he tried to rinse the microbes off a surface -- but they wouldn't budge, even under intense water pressure. When Brun called in experts from Brown University to measure the force needed to unstick the bacteria, they realized they had found a new superglue.

The bacteria should be easy to breed in order to make a commercial adhesive, adds Brun. Since the biodegradable glue works when wet, surgery looks to be a promising market. Brun is now doing further genetic work to get the bug to make more of the adhesive. He also hopes to figure out how to keep the glue from sticking to the containers in which it's made.

-- Colorful coral reefs and the teeming sea life they support stay alive thanks to a delicate symbiosis between coral polyps and the tiny algae that nourish them. But the effects of global warming, such as increased temperature and higher acidity, are killing the algae and, in turn, the coral. Experts believe 60% of the world's reefs are at risk from the bleaching that this chain reaction causes. New findings suggest that certain coral may survive widespread warming, though. Writing in Nature, researchers at Ohio State University found that some species of coral can survive by feeding on tiny sea animals called zooplankton, instead of algae. How this affects other reef life remains unclear.

-- Pacemaker-like gizmos connected into the brain have shown promise in treating depression, and may have broader uses. Researchers at Cleveland Clinic have found that so-called deep-brain stimulation could also help treat obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). In a small test described at last month's American Association of Neurological Surgeons, nine patients with severe OCD who had not responded to conventional therapies were given electro-stimulation implants. In six, the intensity of symptoms fell by at least 35%.


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