News in brief

Nuclear fallout hits antioxidant show-offs  

Brightly coloured birds were more affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 than their plainer relatives, say researchers in the US and France, who studied 57 different bird species living around Chernobyl.   

They discovered that populations of birds with red, yellow or orange plumage, such as orioles and blue tits, declined more than dowdy species such as tree pipits, coal tits and chaffinches. The reason: the coloured plumage is created by carotenoid pigments, which are powerful antioxidants - chemicals that help protect living organisms from the damaging effects of free radicals. 

By splashing out on their plumage, coloured birds have failed to conserve enough antioxidants to protect their DNA from radiation damage, the researchers suggest in the Journal of Applied Ecology.   

Birds that laid the biggest eggs and those that migrated the longest distances were also scarcer - perhaps because these activities require burning a lot of fuel, producing free radicals which keep antioxidants tied up, away from their radiation protecting duties. 

It is still not clear whether the radiation levels around Chernobyl are strong enough to affect all species of birds.   


Genome transplant opens door to synthetic biology 

US researchers say they have worked out how to perform a full genome transplant. Reporting in Science, John Glass and co-workers at the J Craig Venter Institute in Maryland fused the DNA from one bacterium, Mycoplasma mycoides, into a second closely related species, M. capricolum. After hybrid DNA cells were allowed to divide, and the M. capricolum  wiped out with antibiotics, the researchers were left with M. mycoides  DNA encased in a new cellular surround.  

The technique may help Venter's team introduce a laboratory-made genome into bacteria, in order to create a kind of synthetic life. Venter has already applied for a patent for the smallest set of genes capable of supporting life. 


Scientists urged: think laterally 

Scientists searching for life elsewhere in the solar system are suffering from a failure of the imagination, according  to a new report written by the US National Research Council. The tacit acceptance that alien life will use our biochemical architecture has limited the scope of our searches to Earth-friendly conditions - such as looking for water, rather than checking on other biosolvents like ammonia or formamide, for example.  

Space missions should take note of recent advances in biochemistry, and look for elements such as phosphorus and sulfur, not just organic carbon, the report recommended. 


Institute to study how we age 

Germany's Max Planck society has formally approved the creation of a new research institute that will focus on the biology of ageing, as part of a major life sciences cluster anchored by the University of Cologne.  

The new institute will be unique, as it will focus primarily on understanding the natural ageing process and not on diseases related to ageing, said Herbert Jäckle, a scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen. He added: 'The institute will be the first of its kind in the world'.  

It will be housed in a yet-to-be-constructed Euro50 million (£33.6 million) building. Current plans call for the institute to be fully operational by 2012 with four departments, 100 staff members and an annual operating budget of Euro15 million. 


Don't blame it on the sunshine 

Global temperatures have continued to rise despite a drop in solar activity since 1985, reported researchers at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire, UK.  

The findings, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, present a serious obstacle to climate-change sceptics who argue that the sun's output, not carbon dioxide emissions, are responsible for rising temperatures.  

'These half-baked notions are usually supported by empirical correlations of climate with some solar index in the past,' Nasa scientist James Hansen told The Guardian  newspaper.  

'Thus, by showing that these correlations are not consistent with recent climate change, the half-baked notions can be dispensed with.' 


Biofuels bonus  

The US Department of Energy (DOE) has announced it will invest $375 million (£183 million) over five years in three new bioenergy research centres, located in Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Madison, Wisconsin; and near Berkeley, California. Each will bring together private companies and researchers from nearby universities and DOE national laboratories.  

The centres will work on converting the cellulose in plants to fuels, choosing different plant crops depending on their location. They should be operational by 2009.  


Colourful colloids 

A simple mixture of iron oxide, a polymer and water can take on any colour simply by having a magnetic field applied, US researchers reported in Angewandte Chemie.  

Team leader Yadong Yin of the University of California, Riverside, found that particles of superparamagnetic Fe3O4 - coated with a charged polymer, polyacrylic acid, and suspended in water - assembled into colloidal crystals that appeared brightly coloured in ambient light. Yin's team found they could affect the spacing in the crystals (and therefore the reflected light colour) by simply moving a magnet closer or further away, or applying an electromagnet. The effect isn't fast enough for video but could be used in static images such as signs or electronic paper. 


Vive la change 

French science looks set to be shaken up by a set of sweeping university reforms, adopted by cabinet on 4 July. They show the determination of newly elected president Nicholas Sarkozy to improve France's ailing university system. Most research in France takes place at huge government institutions, like the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), rather than at universities, which take local students. But Sarkozy announced he would give universities back their autonomy, freeing them from the current centralised state control. They can manage their own property, spend their own budgets, hire their own researchers, and are getting a bonus Euro5 billion over the next five years. 


Nuclear consulting tried again 

The UK government is trying to keep the public involved with its nuclear plans. It is now consulting on how to choose a site for the long-term storage of radioactive waste. Ian Pearson, at the time still UK environment minister, said the government was proposing an entirely new approach based on the concept of voluntarism - that is, communities expressing an interest in taking part in the process. UK nuclear plans had suffered a setback in February this year after a public consultation on nuclear power was condemned by a High Court judge as 'inadequate' and 'misleading'. The current consultation will run until 2 November. 


Painting tumours 

US scientists reported in Cancer Research  the successful testing in mice of an injectable 'tumour paint' with can help surgeons identify small tumours from surrounding healthy tissue. The paint consists of a scorpion peptide, chlorotoxin, which binds selectively to tumours, linked to a dye molecule, Cy5.5, that fluoresces in infrared light.