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March 2, 2010 at 5:44 PM
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ESA is ready for a close-up of Phobos

PARIS, March 2 (UPI) -- The European Space Agency says its Mars Express spacecraft is ready to make a close flyby of Mars' moon Phobos, passing just 41 miles above its surface.

The Wednesday 3:55 p.m. EST event will involve precise radio tracking that will allow researchers to peer inside the mysterious moon, the ESA said.

Mars Express is currently engaged in a series of 12 flybys of Phobos. Wednesday's event will be its closest flyby.

"From close range, Mars Express will be pulled 'off-course' by the gravitational field of Phobos," the space agency said. "This will amount to no more than a few millimeters every second and will not affect the mission in any way. However, to the tracking teams on Earth, it will allow a unique look inside the moon to see how its mass is distributed."

The ESA said the tracking teams will turn off all data signals from the spacecraft. The only thing the ground stations will listen for is the carrier signal -- the pure radio signal that is normally modulated to carry data.

With no data on the carrier signal, the only thing that can modulate the signal is any change in its frequency caused by Phobos' mass tugging the spacecraft. That allows researchers to study the moon's interior.

After Wednesday's close flyby, Mars Express will sweep past Phobos seven more times.


Higher IQ linked to liberalism, atheism

LONDON, March 2 (UPI) -- More intelligent children may be more likely to grow up to be liberals, a researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science suggests.

Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist, says "evolutionarily novel" preferences and values are those that humans are not biologically designed to have and our ancestors probably did not possess. In contrast, those that our ancestors had for millions of years are "evolutionarily familiar."

Kanazawa argues that humans are evolutionarily designed to be conservative, caring mostly about their family and friends, and being liberal -- caring about an indefinite number of genetically unrelated strangers one has never meet or interacted with -- is evolutionarily novel.

Data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health support Kanazawa's hypothesis. Young adults who subjectively identify themselves as "very liberal" have an average IQ of 106 during adolescence while those who identify themselves as "very conservative" have an average IQ of 95 during adolescence, Kanazawa says.

Young adults who identify themselves as "not at all religious" have an average IQ of 103 during adolescence, while those who identify themselves as "very religious" have an average IQ of 97 during adolescence, Kanazawa says.

The preference for sexual exclusivity correlated with higher intelligence, the study says.

The findings are published in the journal Social Psychology Quarterly.


Plants' root-shoot mechanism studied

LA JOLLA, Calif., March 2 (UPI) -- U.S. scientists say they've identified the genetic interactions plant embryos use to determine which end grows the shoot and which end puts down roots.

Researchers at the Salk Institute report on the conflict between two groups of antagonistic genetic master switches that set up a plant's polar axis with a root on one end and a shoot on the other.

"In what is arguably the most important decision for a plant -- setting up the root/shoot axis -- occurs during the early embryonic stages," said the study's lead author, Assistant Professor Jeffrey Long.

He said plant embryogenesis establishes a very simple structure that contains two stem cell populations: the shoot meristem, which will give rise to all the "above ground" organs such as the stem, leaves and flowers, and the root meristem that gives rise to the root system, which lies below the ground and provides water and nutrients to the plant.

"This work shows how genes interact in complex ways to establish organs along the root-shoot axis," said Susan Haynes of the National Institutes of Health, which partly funded the research. "The study reveals important parallels with the gene networks that coordinate organ formation in animal embryos, and helps us understand the critical mechanisms that guide normal development."

The findings are detailed in the early online edition of the journal Nature.


Scientist turns skin cells into heart cell

HOUSTON, March 2 (UPI) -- A University of Houston scientist says he has developed a stem cell technique that might lead to new treatments for Alzheimer's, diabetes and other diseases.

Professor Robert Schwartz, head of the university's Center for Gene Regulation and Molecular Therapeutics, said he devised a method that allows the reprogramming of ordinary human skin cells into heart cells that are similar to embryonic stem cells.

Schwartz and his colleagues said the cells could be implanted and grown into fully developed beating heart cells, reversing the damage caused by previous heart attacks. The new cells would replace the damaged cardiac tissue that weakens the heart's ability to pump, develops into scar tissue and causes arrhythmias.

The researcher said early clinical trials using reprogrammed cells on actual heart patients could begin within one or two years.

Schwartz said he and his team are now working on turning induced stem cells into skeletal muscle cells to treat muscular dystrophy.

"We're trying to advance science in ways folks never even dreamed about," Schwartz said. "The idea of having your own bag of stem cells that you can carry through life and use for tissue regeneration is at the very cutting edge of science."

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