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Research Roundup

Cell suicide discovered

In the July issue of the journal Science, William Bowers and Howard Federoff of the Center on Aging and Developmental Biology, along with colleagues from Johns Hopkins, report a previously unknown form of cell suicide. Up to now, all known methods of cell suicide in the body have involved proteins known as caspases, says Federoff, and most pharmaceutical research on preventing the suicide is focused on that biochemical pathway. The new discovery of the involvement of a protein that is part of the body's DNA damage surveillance network offers scientists a new target for investigation.

How did ocean life evolve?

A new theory may bring scientists once step closer to answering that question. Research by Ariel Anbar, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences and chemistry, and Andrew Knoll of Harvard University suggests that oceans were far poorer in oxygen one to two billion years ago, significantly influencing the way early organisms may have evolved.

While scientists have long thought there were only two distinct stages of oceanic history, this new theory suggests there was actually an additional intermediate stage when the deep sea was not rich in oxygen but rather in hydrogen sulfide, the compound that gives rotten eggs their foul smell.

"It's remarkable that we aren't sure if the oceans were full of oxygen or hydrogen sulfide at that time," says Anbar. "This is a really basic chemical question that you'd think would be easy to answer. It shows just how hard it is to tease information from the rock record and how much more there is for us to learn about our origins."

Optics experts predict the future

Some of the world's top optics experts who attended the seventh international Near-Field Optics conference at the University last month overwhelmingly predict that near-field optics, a way to image structures just a few billionths of a meter in size, will dramatically expand the capacity of CD and hard drive storage media in less than 10 years.

Near-field optics is the study of "seeing" objects as small as 50 million times thinner than a hair, objects so tiny that light cannot bounce off them.

"Near-field optics can recognize smaller patterns than almost any conventional method in use today," says conference organizer Lukas Novotny, assistant professor of optics. "It's already being used to peek at structures just a few billionths of a meter across."

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