Health & Science

A fungus that makes fuel; Hiding astronauts in a bubble; Why bullies bully; Bacteria prefer women; TV can encourage promiscuity

A fungus that makes fuel

Why drill for fuel when you can grow it instead? On a trek through the rain forests of Patagonia, plant pathologist Gary Strobel noticed a red-colored fungus he’d never seen before. When he examined the new species, Gliocladium roseum, he detected a strong-smelling gas. He brought the fungus to the lab to test it for antibiotic properties, but found something entirely unexpected: The fungus was “breathing” out an array of hydrocarbons—the same combustible compounds found in oil, gasoline, and diesel fuel. When he realized what the fungus was producing, Strobel tells Discovery News, “every hair on my arms stood on end.” The fungus makes hydrocarbons as a waste product after consuming common cellulose, the stringy plant fiber used to make paper. It’s a simple, one-step process, unlike that for most biofuels, which have to be processed and distilled. Strobel says G. roseum could be grown in factories like baker’s yeast, rather than taking up a lot of farmland, with its gases siphoned off and turned into fuel. That process “would make it a better source of biofuel than anything we use at the moment,” Strobel says.

Hiding astronauts in a bubble

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When astronauts finally make it to Mars, they might arrive inside a ship protected by a giant bubble of magnetic energy, says National Geographic News. One of the major hurdles for a human journey to Mars is that it would take months, during which a spaceship and its human occupants would be bombarded with solar radiation that would easily penetrate a metal hull. This radiation can cut through DNA like a knife, causing genetic damage, cancer, and other illnesses. Here on Earth, the planet’s magnetic field and our atmosphere protect us from most of the sun’s harmful radiation. “Life might not have been possible on Earth without a magnetic field as this first line of defense,” says British researcher Ruth Bamford. She and a group of scientists came up with the idea of surrounding the spaceship with a “magnetosphere”—a magnetic field a few hundred yards across, which would deflect the radiation. Bamford and her team tested their idea in the lab with a miniature model of a spaceship, and found that their invisible deflector shield really could work. It’s “like Star Trek coming to life,” she says.

Why bullies bully

Bullies don’t inflict pain on other people simply to establish dominance—they actually relish the suffering, says a new study. University of Chicago researchers used MRI scans to monitor the emotional reactions of a group of teenagers who watched video clips of strangers getting hurt as the result of accidents (such as having a bowl dropped on their hands) or deliberately inflicted cruelty (such as a bully stamping their feet). Most people respond to these images with a reaction in their own pain centers; in other words, they are empathizing with the victim’s pain. But teens who had a history of violent behavior and bullying showed increased activity in the brain’s pleasure and reward centers. “It just dumbfounded us,” researcher Dr. Benjamin Lahey told the New York Daily News. “They were not only indifferent to the pain—they love it.”

Bacteria prefer women

Women may be generally cleaner than men, but their skin has far more bacteria, says New Scientist. Studies have shown that women, on average, wash their hands more often and keep their environments more sanitary. But bacteria simply prefer a woman’s flesh. Researchers at the University of Colorado swabbed the hands of 51 students and analyzed the bacteria they found using a new DNA technique. More than 4,700 different species of bacteria were identified, with each student carrying a unique population of about 150 species. To the scientists’ surprise, women’s hands had 50 percent more types of bacteria than men’s. “We were pretty surprised to see such clear differences between men and women,” says study author Noah Fierer. “We don’t know the causes.” He speculated that the discrepancy could have to do with the higher acidity of male skin, hormone-influenced differences in production of oils and sebum, and the different cosmetics that are used by the sexes.

TV can encourage promiscuity

Parents who don’t let their kids watch provocative TV shows have the right instincts: A new study has found that a teenager’s likelihood of getting pregnant or impregnating a partner is doubled when the teen frequently watches TV with strong sexual content. “Sexual content on television has doubled in the last few years, especially during the period of our research,” Rand Corp. behavioral scientist Anita Chandra tells The Washington Post. “The magnitude of the association we did see was very strong.” The 2,300 kids in the study were tracked for three years; some regularly watched such shows as Friends, That ’70s Show, and Sex and the City, on which unmarried characters are depicted talking about sex and jumping into bed. Shows that highlight only the positive aspects of sexual behavior without the risks can lead teens to have unprotected sex “before they’re ready to make responsible and informed decisions,” Chandra says. The U.S. has one of the highest teen-pregnancy rates among industrialized nations, with 1 million teenage girls becoming pregnant each year.

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