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Cat's-Eye Marvels


In addition to acting eerily human, cats have something important in common with people: their eye structure. So a team of scientists at the University of Missouri at Columbia is using cats to test tiny implantable microchips that could one day treat patients with retinitis pigmentosa, a disease that causes progressive sight loss. The chips contain thousands of diodes that convert light into electrical signals, which then stimulate still-healthy cells so they can better transmit visual information to the brain. This summer, the scientists will study the cats' behavior to determine how much their sight has improved.

Fraudulent drugs place lives at risk and cost the pharmaceutical industry billions every year. The Food & Drug Administration estimates some 10% of all drugs sold are phony, and the percentage may be much higher. Yet it's difficult to spot the fakes, in part because elaborate tamper-proof packaging makes it hard to get at samples to test them.

Now scientists say they have a way to take a "chemical fingerprint" through the plastic or glass that encases the pills. It's a variation on an old technique called Raman spectroscopy, and it works by focusing a laser several millimeters beyond the pill's packaging to sample the chemicals that make up the medicine itself. Older laser techniques were "like trying to see a candle against the sun," explains Pavel Matousek, a research scientist at Britain's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Didcot, where the process was developed. "What we are doing is moving the candle against a darker background." The process could also help find explosives hidden in the packages.

A super weapon in the fight against climate change is blowing just off the coast. In waters stretching from North Carolina to Massachusetts, there is enough wind power to replace all of the region's fossil-fuel power plants and more, says a new study from the University of Delaware and Stanford University. In reaching this assessment, the group excluded deepwater and off-limit zones, such as shipping lanes and spots visible from tourist beaches. Their model showed 330 gigawatts of potential wind power, or four times the area's existing generating capacity—plenty to heat and cool buildings and to power electric cars for everyone. Offshore energy could help the region's 63 million people cut greenhouse gas emissions by 57%, says team leader Willett Kempton, a professor of marine policy at Delaware.

— The military is always interested in ideas that will reduce the amount of diesel fuel and waste that soldiers must cart around. So Purdue University engineers have come up with a tactical biorefinery that solves both problems. About the size of a small van, it separately processes different kinds of trash—food waste, paper, and plastic—into biofuels. Food scraps are fermented into ethanol in a bioreactor, while paper and plastic are refined into fuel that can be burned in a diesel engine to power an electric generator. In tests last fall, the biorefinery produced 90% more energy than it consumed.

— Scientists have shown that slashing calories can extend your lifespan, at least if you're a fruit fly. But be careful what you sniff. Experiments conducted at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston suggest the faintest whiff of food may be enough to lessen the benefits of caloric restriction. When the scientists exposed batches of long-living, calorie-starved flies to yeast smells, their lifespans shrank significantly. The smells had no impact on well-fed flies, which continued to live out their normal, short lives. The implications for human beings are unclear.


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