Scientific News

Advanced strategies to fight cancer are taking inspiration from experiments in the final frontier of outer space, researchers say.

The gravity experienced in low-Earth orbit, which is 10,000 to 1 million times less powerful than that felt on Earth's surface, allows researchers to study cell behavior that's normally masked by responses to gravity. Learning more about these processes is shedding light on how cells usually work, and how they can malfunction in the case of cancer.

"When you take away the force of gravity, you can unmask some things you can't readily see on Earth," said cell biologist Jeanne Becker of Nano3D Biosciences in Houston. "When gravitational force is reduced, cell shape changes, the way they grow changes, the genes they activate change, the proteins they make change." [6 Cool Space Shuttle Experiments]

Studying the science of biology in microgravity opens a world of possibilities! Research ranges from plant growth to cell growth and from bacterial virulence to strength in human bones. The scope of biology research provides scientists from many disciplines with opportunities to express and explore their area of interest, translating findings into treatments and applications for use on Earth and in space exploration.

Supporting this research in biological science and technology is an important part of NASA's overall mission. To that end, NASA has selected 31 investigations proposed in response to the most recent NASA Research Announcement titled “Research Opportunities in Space Biology.”

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We like the idea that food can be the answer to our ills, that if we eat nutritious foods we won’t need medicine or supplements. We have valued this notion for a long, long time. The Greek physician Hippocrates proclaimed nearly 2,500 years ago: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” Today, medical experts concur. If we heap our plates with fresh fruits and vegetables, they tell us, we will come closer to optimum health.

This health directive needs to be revised. If we want to get maximum health benefits from fruits and vegetables, we must choose the right varieties. Studies published within the past 15 years show that much of our produce is relatively low in phytonutrients, which are the compounds with the potential to reduce the risk of four of our modern scourges: cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and dementia. The loss of these beneficial nutrients did not begin 50 or 100 years ago, as many assume. Unwittingly, we have been stripping phytonutrients from our diet since we stopped foraging for wild plants some 10,000 years ago and became farmers.

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This week, researchers and others interested in the scientific utilization of the International Space Station (ISS) are meeting in Denver for the second ISS Research and Development Conference, organized by the American Astronautical Society. The three-day event is designed to discuss the current and potential research applications of the station, a critical topic as NASA and its international partners weigh the long-term future of the station, including whether to extend its life beyond 2020.

The subject of NASA’s utilization of the ISS for research is also the subject of a recent audit by the NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG). The July 8 report concluded that NASA has “made progress towards maximizing the research capabilities of the ISS, but opportunities exist for greater utilization to more fully realize the Station’s research potential and maximize the value of the United States’ investment in building and maintaining the structure.”

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TUCSON, Ariz. — THIS summer the tiny town of Furnace Creek, Calif., may once again grace the nation’s front pages. Situated in Death Valley, it last made news in 1913, when it set the record for the world’s hottest recorded temperature, at 134 degrees. With the heat wave currently blanketing the Western states, and given that the mercury there has already reached 130 degrees, the news media is awash in speculation that Furnace Creek could soon break its own mark.

Such speculation, though, misses the real concern posed by the heat wave, which covers an area larger than New England. The problem isn’t spiking temperatures, but a new reality in which long stretches of triple-digit days are common — threatening not only the lives of the millions of people who live there, but also a cornerstone of the American food supply.

People living outside the region seldom recognize its immense contribution to American agriculture: roughly 40 percent of the net farm income for the country normally comes from the 17 Western states; cattle and sheep production make up a significant part of that, as do salad greens, dry beans, onions, melons, hops, barley, wheat and citrus fruits. The current heat wave will undeniably diminish both the quality and quantity of these foods.

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CLEWISTON, Fla. — The call Ricke Kress and every other citrus grower in Florida dreaded came while he was driving.

“It’s here” was all his grove manager needed to say to force him over to the side of the road.

The disease that sours oranges and leaves them half green, already ravaging citrus crops across the world, had reached the state’s storied groves. Mr. Kress, the president of Southern Gardens Citrus, in charge of two and a half million orange trees and a factory that squeezes juice for Tropicana and Florida’s Natural, sat in silence for several long moments.

“O.K.,” he said finally on that fall day in 2005, “let’s make a plan.”

In the years that followed, he and the 8,000 other Florida growers who supply most of the nation’s orange juice poured everything they had into fighting the disease they call citrus greening.

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