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Science & Medicine

Researcher warns of 'invisible' invaders

East Lansing, Mich. -- Invasive species like Asian carp, gypsy moths and zebra mussels get headlines but invisible raiders are devastating world ecosystems, a U.S. researcher says.

A Michigan State University associate professor of ecology says invasive microbial invaders shouldn't be overlooked by scientists or underestimated by the public, a university release reported Tuesday.

"Invasive microbes have many of the same traits as their larger, 'macro' counterparts and have the potential to significantly impact terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems," Elena Litchman says. "Global change can exacerbate microbial invasions, so they will likely increase in the future."

Nanoparticle could extend food shelf life

West Lafayette, Ind. -- U.S. researchers say a nanoparticle can hold and release an antimicrobial agent, extending the shelf life of foods susceptible to Listeria contamination.

Scientists at Purdue University say they've developed several forms of a nanoparticle that could contain and stabilize nisin, a food-based antimicrobial peptide, keeping it effective for up to three weeks against Listeria monocytogenes, a university release said Tuesday.

The potentially lethal food-borne pathogen found in meats, dairy and vegetables is especially troublesome for pregnant women, infants, older people and others with weakened immune systems.

AGL Resources to merge with Nicor

Atlanta -- U.S. natural gas distribution giant AGL Resources said Tuesday it has agreed to merge with Nicor Inc. to create a company valued at $8.6 billion.

The deal, which would tuck Illinois' Nicor under AGL's wing, is valued at $3.1 billion. Combining the companies would vault AGL Resources of Atlanta into the Fortune 500, the companies said in a joint statement.

The companies said they have agreed to a stock and cash trade, giving Nicor shareholders $21.20 per share in cash and 0.8382 shares of the merged company, "which together represent a value of $53, based on the volume-weighted average price for AGL Resources common stock" over a 20-day trading average ending Dec. 1.

Safer source for medical isotopes hailed

Washington -- Molybdenum-99, essential for medical imaging, is being made for the first time from low-enriched uranium rather than weapons-grade material, U.S. officials say.

The United States has received its first shipment of molybdenum-99 produced in this manner in South Africa, promising a more reliable supply while allaying fears of nuclear proliferation, a release by the National Nuclear Security Administration said Monday.

Molybdenum-99 is used to make the radioactive tracer technitium-99m, used in thousands of noninvasive diagnostic scans every day, the release said.

Heavier crude use brings more emissions

Oakland, Calif. -- Heavier, thicker crude oils increasingly favored as the source for America's liquid fuels will increase greenhouse gas emissions, a study says.

As the biggest and most accessible reservoirs of light crude oil supplies are depleted, the oil industry has increasingly been turning to so-called "unconventional" stocks -- heavy, viscous feedstock and tar sands, reported last week.

More and more oil being processed by U.S. refineries is of this "heavy" variety, requiring more work -- and more energy -- to produce the gasoline, diesel and other high-value fuels that power engines the world over, says Greg Karras of Communities for a Better Environment in Oakland, Calif.

Study: U.S. lagging in computer science

Pittsburgh -- As computer technologies increasingly drive world economies, America is lagging behind in offering computer science classes to its students, a study shows.

A report by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University's School of Computer Science found computer science education missing in most American elementary and secondary school classrooms, and the number of introductory and Advanced Placement courses in computer science has declined in the last five years, a university release said Monday.

"Some states and some schools are offering some really excellent courses," Mark Stehlik, co-author of the report, said.
"But overall, the picture is pretty bleak."

Ca. 'Ghosts of the Forest' studied

San Jose, Calif. -- California researchers say they are struggling to unravel the mystery of the "ghosts of the forest," rare albino saplings in the state's coastal redwood groves.

The world's only white evergreens, the rare genetic mutants appear and disappear seasonally, the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News reported.

Researchers at Stanford University and the University of California, Santa Cruz, are hoping to learn how such helpless trees can survive.

"It is a great puzzle," said Ghia Euskirchen, director of the DNA Sequencing Program at Stanford University School of Medicine.

Mercury may be turning Fla. birds gay

Miami -- Florida researchers say high mercury levels among wading birds in the Everglades may be hampering breeding efforts by turning some of the birds gay.

University of Florida researchers studied the mating behaviors and reproductive success of four captive groups of ibises fed varying levels of mercury during a three-year period, The Miami Herald reported Thursday.

In the first year, the researchers said, 55 percent of the males given the highest doses of mercury in their feed hooked up with other males during breeding season.

"They pretty much did everything except lay eggs," Peter Frederick, a UF wildlife ecologist said. "They built nests, they copulated, they sat in the nests together."

Secret mini-shuttle lands in California

Vandenberg Afb, Calif. -- An unmanned U.S. military mini-shuttle launched from Cape Canaveral in April glided to an automated landing in California Friday, Air Force officials said.

After a 220-day classified mission, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle touched down at 4:16 a.m. EST at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Florida Today reported.

The OTV-1 is the first U.S. unmanned vehicle to return from orbit and land on its own.

"We are very pleased that the program completed all the on-orbit objectives for the first mission," Lt. Col. Troy Giese, X-37B program manager, said in a statement.

"This marks a new era in space exploration," said Paul Rusnock, X-37B program director for The Boeing Co., the spacecraft's prime contractor.

IBM: Computers may rival speed of thought

Yorktown Heights, N.Y. -- Computers using a new type of chip that integrates both electronics and optics could rival the human brain for speed of thought, U.S. experts say.

IBM unveiled a new type of computer chip Wednesday that integrates both electrical and optical nano-devices on the same piece of silicon, a technology that could make it possible for supercomputers to perform 1 million-trillion calculations, or an exaflop, in a single second, reported.

A thousand times faster than today's most powerful petaflop machines, such computers would have processing power approaching that of the human brain, IBM researcher William Green said.