Discovered: A new forensic process that predicts perps' phenotypes; the secrets of slime mold; stem cell research upheld; the universe is like a milkshake.
Stem cell research ruling. Human embryonic cell research is one of those evergreen hot button social issues, a topic scientists and religious folk can't seem to stop butting heads over. Today's federal appeals court decision is unlikely to safeguard the research from further political embroilment, but it's a mark in the pro-stem cell research tally. A three-judge panel ruled that the federal government can lawfully continue to fund human embryonic stem cell research today. Washington Court of Appeals judges Janice Rogers Brown, David Bryan Sentelle, and Karen LeCraft Henderson upheld an earlier ruling, writing that the law "permits federal funding of research projects that utilize already-derived embryonic stem cells—which are not themselves embryos—because no 'human embryo or embryos are destroyed' in such projects." [NBC News]
Predicting perps' hair and eye color. The photogenic forensic teams on CSI are always finding DNA samples at crime scenes. Now they can use those hair follicles to predict a criminal's hair and eye color, thanks to new research from Manfred Kayser and his colleagues from the Erasmus University Medical Center in Rotterdam. The Hirisplex system they developed analyzes DNA to predict phenotypes, or physical outward traits. "The test is very sensitive and produces complete results on even smaller DNA amounts than usually used for forensic DNA profiling," says Kayser. Importantly, it isn't reliant on existing databases, so it's able to provide investigators with clues about perps they haven't already come into contact with. [BBC]
Studying slime molds to understand cancer growth. Slime molds have fascinated scientists for a while now. Their complex branchings are able to solve maze puzzles and mimic tangled subway diagrams. Now, researchers are hoping slime molds can help them understand—and possibly treat—the growth of cancer. "The slime mold Physarum polycephalum, usually found growing inside rotting logs, forages for food by extending a network of thin tendrils from its edge," reports Wired. Those tendrils seek out and grow over food, secreting digestive enzymes through a complex network that scientists are still attempting to understand. Adrian Fessel, Hans-Günther Döbereiner, and colleagues in Germany and Singapore have been constructing mathematical models to understand slime molds, which have vascular networks that may hold the key to understanding how to inhibit the blood supply networks in cancerous tumors. "The results are very interesting and novel," says Toshiyuki Nakagaki of the Future University Hakodate in Japan, commenting on the present work, "and the analysis by means of a standard technique of percolation is clear and beautiful." [Wired]
I drink your universe. I drink it up. Some astronomers have long held that fractal is our best analogue for the structure of the universe. But Morag Scrimgeour of the University of Western Australia in Perth says the velvety texture of a milkshake makes for a better galactic metaphor. His new 3D map of the heavens—the largest map of the universe's structure—shows that when viewed from a distance, the universe is actually quite smooth and orderly. "If the space is not smooth, if it's distorted by large clumps of matter, then the path of light is distorted and its red shift is no longer simply related to the distance to the galaxy," says Scrimgeour. Her team reached these conclusions by mapping out 220,000 galaxies over a space equal to 3 billion cubic light years. [New Scientist]