Home  -  Back Issues  -  The Team  -  Contact Us
     Volume 4 Issue 46 | May 13, 2005 |

   Cover Story
   News Notes
   Straigh Talk
   Food For Thought
   In Retrospect
   Slice of Life
   Time Out
   Dhaka Diary
   Book Review
   New Flicks
   Write to Mita

   SWM Home


Exploding Toads
Several thousand toads in the north German city of Hamburg have mysteriously and spontaneously blown up, spewing their entrails and body parts over a wide area. Eyewitnesses say the toads swelled up to three-and-a-half times their normal size before exploding. It is like "a science-fiction film", according to Werner Smolnik of a nature protection society in the northern city of Hamburg. "You see the animals crawling on the ground, swelling and then exploding." Vets and animal welfare workers say the mystery disorder has cut a swathe through the city's toad population. "I have never seen such a thing," veterinarian Otto Horst said. So bad has the death toll been that the lake in the Altona district of Hamburg has been dubbed "the pond of death". Access to it has been sealed off and every night a biologist visits it between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m., which appears to be the peak time for batrachians to go bang. Explanations include an unknown virus, a fungus that has infected the water or crows attacking the toads literally scaring them to death.

Robots Turn Team Players
Researchers from Ottawa based Frontline Robotics claim to have created robots, which work as a team with an elected leader making the best decisions for the group. As per the study, the robots have been developed to enable them to work in groups or packs using distributed intelligence, with their actions in co-ordination to the response of other robots, much like the way social insects such ants or bees collaborating during nest-building or foraging. The robots would be applicable for a variety of military and civilian applications, and can evolve problem solving strategies in a much more significant manner compared to scenarios where each robot acts independently. "Wherever the task is dull, dangerous and dirty, robots should be in the front line," Nature quoted Frontline's head, Richard Lepack as saying, adding that the robots could provide valuable help in investigating scenes of terrorist attack, nuclear accidents or even in deep-sea construction. However, the robots in these groups don't make decisions, but simply respond in a programmed way to a set of input signals. In case the leader is somehow put out of action, the team elects another.

Presently, Frontline has put their software into commercially available, four-wheeled rover vehicles, making what they call unmanned ground units or GRUNTS, which weigh as much as 450 kilograms and still a little more than two metres. GRUNTS are intended to perform reconnaissance, detection and security tasks for military applications in conventional and urban zones. They supplement close-in perimeter guards or anti-terrorist personnel in extremely high-risk situations. GRUNTS are designed to be medium-technology, cost-effective surrogates for the perimeter security soldier. GRUNTS are hardened for battlefield survival and priced to be replaceable. They willingly put themselves in harm's way.

'Talking' Bacteria to Aid Tissue Engineering
Researchers have successfully programmed bacteria to communicate with each other -- a development they hope will have applications in the body's tissue and organ repair. Scientists at the US-based Princeton University have been able to coax bacteria to produce colour-coded patterns that help send massages to each other making living cells function like 'tiny computers'. "We are really moving beyond the ability to programme individual cells to programming a large collection, millions or billions of cells, to do interesting things," said study leader Ron Weiss. E. coli, a bacteria in the human intestine, was seen to emit red or green fluorescent light in response to a signal emitted from another set of E. coli. Cells glowed green when they sensed a higher concentration of the signal chemical and red on sensing a lower concentration. In another case, the bacteria were seen to form a bulls-eye pattern - a green circle inside a red surrounding the sender cells. According to scientists, the creation of patterns, such as the bull's-eye effect, is a key step that would help the cells secrete required material. Programmed cells also could in the future be used to control the repair or construction of tissues within the body, guide stem cells to the locations where they are needed and even build physical devices such as antennas or transmitters in places hard for humans to reach.

Eat Ice-cream Be Happy
Scientists have found that a spoonful of ice-cream lights up the same pleasure centre in the brain as winning money or listening to favourite music does. Neuroscientists at the Institute of Psychiatry here scanned the brains of people eating vanilla ice-cream. They found an immediate effect on parts of the brain known to get activated when people enjoy themselves. These include the orbitofrontal cortex, the "processing" area at the front of the brain, reports the Guardian Unlimited. The research was carried out by
Unilever using ice cream made by Walls, a company it owns. "This is the first time we've been able to show that ice-cream makes you happy. Just one spoonful lights up the happy zones of the brain in clinical trials," said Don Darling of Unilever.

Vertebrate With
Shortest Life Span

Researchers at Australia's James Cook University claim to have discovered the vertebrate with the shortest life span, a coral reef pygmy gob, Eviota sigillata, which has a tiny coral reef fish has a maximum life of just 59 days. Their study, to be published in Current Biology, depicts the whole life cycle of these fishes from the time they hatch to the time they die. This study revealed that these fishes develop as larvae in the open ocean for three weeks, nearly the half of their lives, before locating and settling on a coral reef where they grow to sexual maturity. With a reproductive life span of just 25 days, the female pygmy goby lays only three clutches of eggs, totalling about 400 eggs, in a lifetime. The father vigorously defends the minute eggs before they hatch into larvae.

Source: IANS, Guardian Unlimited, Frontline-robotics, Nature and Webindia123

Compiled by: Imran H. Khan

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2005