- The Washington Times - Friday, February 7, 2003


The gene that gives freshly plowed soil its distinctive smell — a scent also believed to lead a camel to water in the desert — has been discovered by researchers at the John Innes Center in the United Kingdom. Geosmin is a chemical produced by a common bacterium, Streptomyces coelicolor, found in most soils. "The smell of Streptomyces may be a matter of life and death to the camel" says Professor Keith Chater. "These bacteria are also of enormous importance to humans as they are a major source of the antibiotics we use in medicine." A year ago the JIC team sequenced all 8,000 genes of Streptomyces and began sorting them. They invented a method to selectively switch off individual genes and used the technique to narrow the genes pool to find the one controlling smell.



Research into hair cells in the ear hold promise for discovering the causes of deafness. A University of Sussex neuroscientist in the United Kingdom, Corne Kros, says hair cells are the sensory receptors in the ear. "Sound vibrates the hairs, which produces an electrical current, and this current starts a chain of events that the brain then interprets as sound," Kros adds. He will use a new microscope to manipulate hair bundles on the hair cells using a "laser tweezers." This currently is done using a jet of fluid but it works only up to a frequency of 1 kHz, whereas the human ear can hear up to a frequency of 20 kHz. "If you know what sort of molecules make these hair cells work, drugs could be developed to affect them and improve hearing," he says. Kros hopes it someday is possible to regenerate these hair cells — something birds can do but mammals cannot.



Russian scientists have found so-called "safe cells" inside frozen mammoth remains. "We consider these cells conditionally alive," says Professor Vladimir Repin of the State Research Center for Virusology and Biotechnology. He says the cells were "fixed in formalin to preserve after extracting them from the mammoth body in the field. However, the inner structure of these cells is undamaged, so we suggest that the rest frozen tissues contain similar cell layers, which could be defrozen." An international research team made the find during an expedition near Yakutsk in Russia. Researchers found two well-preserved mammoth's legs, which were frozen in the soil on the bank of the Maksunokha River. Instead of digging the remains out, they washed them out with a water jet. The animal's legs with muscles and skin, covered with reddish fur, were put into the freezer and transported to the Museum of Mammoth. Scientists discovered the subcutaneous cellular tissue of the animal remains contained living cells with intact nuclei.



Scientists from the University of Aarhus in Denmark are studying how to remove sulfur from fossil fuels. The current method is to use a catalyst to bind the sulfur molecules to it. The researchers said they studied the chemical reactions that occur when the industrial catalyst combines with sulfur-based molecules in oil. They created a model of the catalyst and observed the nanoscale reactions using a technique called scanning tunneling microscopy. Commercial catalysts contain tiny metal-sulphide nanoclusters, which are non-reactive but also are so small the scientists found at the edges the clusters behaved unexpectedly. The edges acted like ordinary catalytically active metals and are seen on the STM images as a bright brim. The team's model shows how the first and most difficult step in the catalytic process occurs and now they are extending the model to look at the rest of the process. The goal is to develop better catalysts for the production of environmentally cleaner transport fuels.

(EDITORS: For more information on GENE, contact Ray Mathias at 01603 450641 or e-mail sce.mail@bbsrc.ac.uk. For HAIR CELLS, Corn Kros, 01273 678341 or C.J.Kros@sussex.ac.uk., for MAMMOTH, Vladimir E. Repin, +7 (3832) 366-501 or repin@online.nsk.su, and for SULFUR, F. Besenbacher, +45 (0)89423604 or fbe@phys.au.dk.)



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