Science: Theoretically ... Dinosaur-speak/ Mouse urine/ Mussel power/ Mir walks again

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The Independent Culture
Want to hear a "pretty accurate" dinosaur? The cry of one that has been dead for 70 million years has been reverberating around the globe on the World Wide Web - and caused its museum's Web site to crash. Tom Williamson, a paleontologist, and Carl Diegert, a computer scientist, used X-ray scans of the skull of a parasaurolophus to recreate the structure of air chambers inside the 4ft crest rising from the back of its skull. From that, they worked towards the sounds it could have made - particularly a "low-pitched, trombone wail that listeners feel as much as hear", as they say.

The New Mexico Museum of Natural History put the sound on its Web site - http://www.nmmnh-abq. - early last month. The following weekend, the site was so overloaded, with four times more visitors than usual, that it crashed four times.

A team in New Zealand is trying to synthesise a protein produced by mussels, in the hope that it can be used to close human wounds without stitches. It's the same protein that the shellfish use as their natural glue to stick them on to rocks and survive the battering of waves, and is secreted by a gland in the "foot". The key question is whether the body rejects the protein: if not, then it could make stitches redundant.

The amino acid components of the protein were first identified in 1985, but mis-sequenced - a mistake not realised until 1994. The key is dihydroxyproline, one of the rarest amino acids and not available commercially. Manufacturing that will be the team's biggest task; then they will try testing it on humans.

Things are back to normal on Mir: the computer keeps breaking down. The crew of two Russians and one American spent Sunday fixing a problem with the main computer which had shut down on Friday, and caused the failure of the gyroscope system that keeps Mir ideally oriented to catch the sun's rays to generate power.

With that done, yesterday was occupied with checking spacesuits before two spacewalks this week. The first, planned for Thursday, will try to install a new airtight rubber seal on the exit hatch of Mir's Kvant-2 module, which failed to close properly after their spacewalk last November. The resulting partial loss of pressure has affected only Kvant's docking chamber. The other spacewalk, planned for 14 January, is to retrieve American scientific equipment on the outside of the station.

Drinking mouse urine doesn't sound pleasant, but it could turn out to be good for you - if you choose the right mouse. Specifically, those genetically engineered to produce human proteins in their urine, such as the ones produced by a team at the US Department of Agriculture and the New York University Medical School.

We already have transgenic sheep that produce useful human proteins in their milk, but the advantage of animals which generate useful chemicals in their urine is that both males and females could secrete it virtually from birth.

The work is reported in the January issue of Nature Biotechnology; the mice were given a gene to produce human growth hormone. If the idea were to be used commercially, scientists would plant the gene for a particular protein into bigger animals, such as cattle.