1. Growing Glowing Martian Mustard

    Adapted from a University of Florida press release

    A team of University of Florida scientists has genetically modified a tiny plant to send reports back from Mars in a most unworldly way: by emitting an eerie, fluorescent glow.

    The scientists have proposed an experiment that would send 10 varieties of the plant to the Red Planet as a Mars “Scout” mission. Scout missions are focused high-priority science experiments that can be achieved for less than $300 million apiece.

    The plant experiment, which is funded by NASA’s Human Exploration and Development in Space program, may be a first step toward ...

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  1. The Mass Extinction That Left the Dinosaurs Standing

    Adapted from a University of Washington press release

    A mass extinction about 200 million years ago, which destroyed at least half of the species on Earth, happened very quickly and is demonstrated in the fossil record by the collapse of one-celled organisms called protists, according to new research led by a University of Washington paleontologist.

    “Something suddenly killed off more than 50 percent of all species on Earth, and that led to the age of dinosaurs,” said Peter Ward, a UW Earth and space sciences professor.

    Evidence indicates the massive die-off was linked with an abrupt drop in productivity ...

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  1. Galactic Habitable Zones

    Our Milky Way Galaxy is unusual in that it is one of the most massive galaxies in the nearby universe. Our Solar System also seems to have qualities that make it rather unique. According to Guillermo Gonzalez, Assistant Professor of Astronomy at the University of Washington, these qualities make the Sun one of the few stars in the Galaxy capable of supporting complex life.

    For one thing, the Sun is composed of the right amount of “metals.” (Astronomers refer to all elements heavier than hydrogen and helium as “metals.”) Moreover, the Sun’s circular orbit about the galactic center ...

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  1. Raising Baby Tubeworms

    Based on a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution press release.

    For nearly 25 years, scientists have wondered how giant red-tipped tubeworms and other exotic marine life found at hydrothermal vents on the deep sea floor get from place to place and how long their larva survive in a cold, eternally dark place. Now Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution biologist Lauren Mullineaux and colleagues have helped answer those questions.

    In a paper published May 3 in the scientific journal Nature entitled “Larval Dispersal Potential of the Tubeworm Riftia pachyptila at Deep-Sea Hydrothermal Vents”, Mullineaux and colleagues provide the first direct answer to the ...

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  1. Life's Baby Steps

    Based on a Carnegie Institution of Washington press release

    Billions of years ago, amino acids somehow linked together to form chainlike molecules. This linkage was a vital step in the development of proteins, which are found in all living systems today.

    Now Robert Hazen and Timothy Filley of the Geophysical Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and Glenn Goodfriend of George Washington University have discovered what may be a key step in this process – a step that has baffled researchers for more than a half a century. Their work, supported by NASA’s Astrobiology Institute and the Carnegie ...

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  1. How Jupiter Got Big

    How did the largest planet in our solar system form?

    The traditional view is that Jupiter first formed a rocky core, several times the size of Earth, which then attracted a still larger outer envelope of gas. This process is known as “accretion.”

    But there are problems with this model. The major problem is that if the large, gaseous planet did form by the gradual accretion of material, it would have taken a very long time to develop. Current estimates range between 10 million and 1 billion years. However, recent observations of distant stars suggest that planets have at ...

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  1. Unpuzzling Proteins

    Based on a press release from NASA Ames Research Center

    Thanks to a new supercomputer, scientists may be a step closer to understanding one of nature’s more difficult puzzles. Scientists at NASA Ames Research Center are using the SGI 512-processor Origin 3000, the most powerful parallel supercomputer of its kind, to try to determine the structure of proteins.

    Proteins play a fundamental role in living cells, acting as catalysts for all chemical reactions. Proteins also act as a kind of “nervous system” for a cell, transmitting signals from the outside environment. They assist in transporting nutrients into the cell, and ...

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  1. Space Weather on Mars

    Based on a Science @ NASA story by Dr. Tony Phillips

    Alien planets have alien weather.

    Take Mars, for example. A morning weather report on the Red Planet might sound like this:

    “Good morning, Martians! It looks like another solar storm heading our way. An X-class solar flare exploded this morning and proton counts have soared 1000-fold. More of the deadly particles are en route, so don’t leave shelter today without your radiation suit!”

    “Coming up next, the sunspot report, right after this word from our sponsor: Levi’s Relaxed Fit LeadPants.”

    It doesn’t sound much like the forecasts we ...

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  1. Reflections From a Warm Little Pond

    Back in 1953, Jim Kasting said, scientists thought they had the origin of life figured out. Chemists Stanley Miller and Harold Urey at the University of Chicago had simulated that crucial instant around 3.9 billion years ago when a batch of simple inorganic molecules, zapped by a bolt of lightning (or maybe just the sun’s warmth during a break in the clouds), fell together to form the prototypes for the complex organic compounds that life is made from.

    Now that was a moment. Remember it on Star Trek? The muddy puddle of ooze on the edge of Nowheresville? The ...

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  1. Keeping "Cool" at Deep-Sea Vents

    Adapted from a University of Delaware press release

    Using a novel detector attached to a submarine, a research team led by University of Delaware marine scientists has determined that water chemistry controls the location and distribution of two species of weird worms that inhabit deep-sea hydrothermal vent sites. The study, which is the first to demonstrate through real-time measurements how different chemical compounds control the biology at the vents, is reported in the April 12 edition of the journal Nature.

    The interdisciplinary research team included chemists, biologists, and marine engineers from the UD Graduate College of Marine Studies and the ...

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  1. Was Johnny Appleseed a Comet?

    Based on a Science @ NASA press release

    Four billion years ago Earth was bombarded by a hail of comets and asteroids. The shattering collisions rendered our planet uninhabitable during a period scientists call the Late Heavy Bombardment (LHB).

    It surely sounds like the LHB was an awful time for the beleaguered young planet — but perhaps the pelting was a good thing after all, say researchers. Kamikaze comets could have delivered important organic molecules to Earth — sowing the seeds for life.

    Genesis by comets is a controversial idea, but it’s just received an important boost. A NASA-supported experiment ...

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  1. Roses for the Red Planet

    It has been nearly 25 years since NASA sent biological experiments to Mars. Chris McKay, a planetary scientist with the Space Sciences Division of NASA’s Ames Research Center and a member of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, thinks it’s time to try again.

    McKay helped organize a NASA conference last year on what it might take to make Mars fit for human habitation. While the general tone of the conference was speculative—all of the participants agreed that humans aren’t likely to begin terraforming the Red Planet any time soon—McKay maintains that it was important nonetheless to begin now ...

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  1. Oily Fossils Provide Clues to the Evolution of Flowers

    Text based on a Stanford University press release

    Daffodils, tulips, roses and other flowers are so much a part of our daily lives that we take them for granted. Yet, how and when flowering plants appeared on Earth remains a mystery, a question that has gone unanswered by evolutionary scientists for more than a century.

    According to the fossil record, mosses were the first plants to emerge on land, some 425 million years ago, followed by ferns, firs, ginkgoes, conifers and several other varieties. Then, it seems, about 130 million years ago flowering plants abruptly appeared out of nowhere.

    Where ...

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  1. Focus on Europa

    Four decades of space exploration have taught us a great deal about the nine planets and dozens of moons that comprise our solar system. Yet Earth remains the only world on which we know for certain that life exists.

    Scientists and science fiction writers alike have long speculated on that Mars might also harbor life. But images of Jupiter’s moon Europa sent back by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft have led planetary geologists and biologists alike to seriously consider adding that ice-covered world to the list of possible habitats for life.

    Chris Chyba, who holds the Carl Sagan Chair for the ...

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  1. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

    Miles below the ocean surface exist some of the most fascinating habitats for life on Earth. Here, where sunlight never reaches, live complex ecosystems that can appear and disappear within a matter of decades. What provides the thermal and chemical energy that fuels these ecosystems are deep-sea hydrothermal vents, one of the unofficial wonders of the natural world.

    These vents occur at oceanic “spreading centers,” mountainous ridges where magma from deep within the Earth’s crust forces its way up to the ocean floor, creating new ocean crust and pushing the old crust out of the way. This is ...

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