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Aug. 5, 2010 at 6:42 PM
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Oil-hungry microbes aid spill cleanup

NEW YORK, Aug. 5 (UPI) -- Among workers involved in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill cleanup will be some very tiny ones, U.S. researchers say -- microbes that love to munch on crude oil.

One of the hidden stars of the cleanup effort is an oil-hungry bacterium called Alcanivorax, one of a class of microbes that can disassemble hydrocarbons, the building blocks of oil, The New York Times reported Wednesday.

It and other similar microbes can clean up oil in a process called biodegradation.

A report released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said early observations showed oil from the spill "is biodegrading quickly."

Microbial swarms were feasting on most remaining effects of the spill, including dispersed oil and oil forming a sheen on or just below the surface, the report said.

"Colleagues who have been sampling tell me that the intrinsic biodegradation rates are high," Ronald M. Atlas, a microbiologist at the University of Louisville, said.

"I believe that most of the oil will not have a significant impact. That's been the story with spills that stay offshore."


Computer game unlocks protein puzzle

SEATTLE, Aug. 5 (UPI) -- Computer gamers are helping U.S. scientists discover secrets about the structure of proteins -- and having fun while they do it, they say.

More than 57,000 people, many of them non-scientists, have been playing Foldit, an online game aimed at solving the mysteries of protein structure, a report in the journal Nature said Thursday.

Several top-ranked game players even outperformed state-of-the-art computer algorithms that tackle the same problem, the article said.

The game, developed by Seth Cooper of the University of Washington in Seattle, recruited the online community to help solve the mystery of how proteins fold amino acid chains that allow them to become the building blocks of life.

Players tweak, tug and twist partially folded proteins, with the aim of creating 3-D structures that are energetically comfortable for the protein to maintain.

Foldit has a good mix of the three main motivators in online gaming: competition (players score points and are ranked), camaraderie (teams can play, sharing strategies and dividing labor) and immersion (players can lose themselves in the game).

Foldit is such a success the University of Washington is starting a new center for game science, Cooper says.

"The word game has been kind of a bad word," Stanford University's Nick Yee, who studies the sociology of online games, says.

"(People say) computer games are just trivial; they're what teenagers do in their basement. This … shows you can actually use computer games to solve really hard problems."


Thought-controlled prosthetic arm tested

LAUREL, Md., Aug. 5 (UPI) -- A four-year program to create a thought-controlled prosthetic arm has yielded a prototype with nearly as much dexterity as a natural limb, U.S. researchers say.

Scientists at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory will test a Modular Prosthetic Limb system on human subjects, using a brain-controlled interface, ScienceDaily.com reported Wednesday.

The MPL provides 22 degrees of motion, including independent movement of each finger, and weighs about 9 pounds, about the weight of a natural limb. It is designed to respond to its user's thoughts.

"We've developed the enabling technologies to create upper-extremity prosthetics that are more natural in appearance and use," APL's program manager Michael McLoughlin said. "Now … we are ready to test it with humans to demonstrate that the system can be operated with a patient's thoughts and that it can provide that patient with sensory feedback, restoring the sensation of touch.

"The results of this program will help upper-limb amputees and spinal cord injury patients, as well as others who have lost the ability to use their natural limbs, to have as normal a life as possible despite severe injuries or degenerative neurological disease," McLoughlin said.


Historic census of sea life completed

SAN FRANCISCO, Aug. 5 (UPI) -- U.S. researchers say a 10-year census of marine life has identified areas of the world's oceans with the highest species diversity -- and areas most at risk.

Scientists participating in the international Census of Marine Life have tallied an average of 10,000 known marine species in each of 25 important ocean zones, and discovered 1,200 new species, ScienceNews.org reported this week.

Researchers say Australian and Japanese ocean waters, each with about 33,000 species, top the list for highest diversity among the 25 regions surveyed, and the Gulf of Mexico, surveyed before the oil spill, ranked in the top five with 15,374 species.

The seas around China and the Mediterranean Sea were also high in biodiversity.

The census identified the biggest threats to sea life, with overfishing being the most serious, followed by habitat destruction from coastal development, pollution, trawling and other human activities.

The census gives "the first integrated look at the diversity and distribution of life in the oceans," marine ecologist Daria Siciliano of Sea Web in San Francisco said.

"In the wake of an oil spill in U.S. waters that is likely the worst environmental disaster in history, I hope the public is more likely to pay attention to what happens to the oceans," Siciliano said.

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