Science Update

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The Independent Culture
A URINE test developed in Ireland could soon identify people who have been unknowingly dosed with the "date rape" drug Rohypnol, a powerful sedative that can also cause amnesia for up to 24 hours. New Scientist reports that the test can work up to a week after the drug has been taken. Rohypnol has been implicated in a number of rapes, because it is odourless and tasteless dissolved in water. Thousands of women believe they have been raped after men slipped it into their drinks.

FOETAL PIG cells implanted into the brains of two American men whose epileptic seizures could not be controlled by drugs seemed to have improved their condition, according to preliminary results. Dr Steven Schachter, of Harvard Medical School, carried out the surgery, putting in cells that produce a neurotransmitter, GABA, as part of a study to see whether the transplants are feasible and safe. One man, aged 40, had suffered one seizure per month before the operation in July, but had none since; the other had 22 in three months before the implant, compared to 13 afterwards. But it is still too soon to know how useful such an approach might be, Dr Schachter said.

IMPRINTING, WHEREBY only one of a pair of genes inherited from parents is "switched on" in an embryo, may explain why so many species cannot interbreed - and why some cloning attempts may fail.

According to researchers at Princeton University, New Jersey, mating two closely related species of mouse led to both copies, rather than one, of the imprinted genes being switched on. Equally, eggs from one species may be unable to "read" the imprinting proteins from another's sperm, says New Scientist. That would stop attempts to use cows' eggs as a "vessel" for cloning other species too.

JOHN REDWOOD, now the shadow Science Minister, told a meeting of Save British Science last week that the Conservatives "made mistakes" in cutting science funding when they were in power, but added, "We have changed". SBS, it may be recalled, was set up 12 years ago as a direct response to the Tories' cuts in science funding.

Mr Redwood also said that he welcomed the new Labour administration's increase in the science budget - pounds 700m over three years. But he added that the Conservatives would put more emphasis on tax incentives to encourage private investors to put money into research.

POWERFUL MAGNETS affect the way that cells divide, according to a team at Brown University in Rhode Island. By levitating frog embryos using magnetic fields about half a million times stronger than the Earth's, they found that the direction of cell division was changed compared to that seen in normal gravity without excess magnetism. New Scientist reports that the team is now looking for precise causes involving long cell components called microtubules.

UP TO 38 per cent of all the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is produced by respiration in the soil - where roots and similar carbon sources may be encouraged to perform more oxidation by higher temperatures, says Richard Boone, of the University of Alaska.

That could mean that global warming will increase the amount of the greenhouse gas produced by the soil, and lead to a positive feedback loop. The report appears in this week's Nature.

THE ONLY working reactor at Chernobyl in Ukraine developed a fault that forced the operators to lower its output power twice this week. In one incident, one of the 200 safety rods, which stop the reaction, became cut off from its power supply. Another had trouble with a turbine pump.

None of these problems caused a radiation leak, but pressure is now growing for the ageing reactor to be shut for a safety upgrade. However, many towns and villages in the former Soviet country already suffer power cuts for hours each day because of fuel shortages, so the repairs have been put off for two weeks thus far. In 1986 one of the four reactors at the site blew up in the world's worst nuclear accident, when a late-night test went wrong.