Highlighting science news you may have missed, and telling you why it matters in about a minute.

Huge salmon-eating owl needs huge trees

What it is: Scientists found out that the world’s largest owl — the Blakiston’s Fish Owl — is a key indicator of the health of declining forests, rivers and salmon populations.

A team of wildlife biologists found out how the rare Blakiston’s Fish Owl engages with its habitat in the great forests of Russia’s Far East.

They concluded that these giant owls which need old growth forests are those that have attained great age without much disturbance, like in Russia’s Primorye region. These giant trees not only provide large breeding cavities for the birds, but the habitat also supports healthy populations of their favourite food: salmon.

When the large trees in these forests die and topple down, they often disrupt water flow in nearby streams. The gushing river becomes a combination of slow, deep and fast, shallow channels. This combination is ideal for salmon life cycles.

From this, the scientists concluded that the Blakiston’s Fish Owl is a clear indicator of a healthy forest, river and salmon populations in an area.

Why it matters: Policymakers may not feel that conservation is a strong enough reason to reduce deforestation, but the case that increased logging may affect commercially-valuable salmon populations will make them sit up and take notice, hope the scientists.

Computer simulations reveal universal increase in electrical conductivity

What it is: For the first time, scientists have been able to simulate an important scientific phenomenon called the Onsager's Wien effect.

In 1934, Lars Onsager predicted that the electrical conductivity of a material would increase when the applied electric field was made stronger — irrespective of what material it was. He went on to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1968, although not for his prediction, which went on to find applications in semiconductors, solar cells and quantum mechanics.

His prediction was important because it described a simple deviation from the famous Ohm's law, which states that the conductivity of a substance - the each with which it transports electrons - is independent of the applied electric field. This law is obeyed for weak fields. So, they have a definite electrical resistance measurable in ohms.

In strong fields, however, the current-carrying charges within the material are "ripped" free by the applied field, and the conductivity shoots up. In this scenario, the electrical resistance of the substance changes from being fixed to a dropping number.

Why it matters: Being able to simulate such an effect can give researchers profound insights into how the effect works at the atomic scale. Perhaps they can find a way to manipulate the effect to make solar cells more efficient or semiconductors (in computers) more responsive.

ICANN bans dotless domains

What it is: The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the organisation that does the back-end work to keep the Internet running, has formally decided to disallow the use of dotless (example – http://insert-name-here) domains.

A website address (for instance http//:google.com) consists of three components. First, the ‘http’ part, which is usually followed by ‘www', which merely signifies that you’re operating on the standard Internet system.

The second is ‘google’ which is simply the address of the website which you want to go to, also known as the DNS (Domain Name System). The last is ‘.com’, which is known as the domain. What ICANN has done is ban all sites that simply went by ‘htttp://xyz’, that is, without the ‘.com’ or ‘.org’. Many companies like Google wanted dotless domains to avoid the somewhat tedious and expensive task of applying for multiple domains, a move that is necessary in order to ensure maximum online reach.

Why it matters: Dotless domains have the potential to confuse users and erode the stability of the global backbone of the Internet. It is usually a hacker’s delight as when dotless domains are used, they introduce potential security vulnerabilities.

Scientists breed glow-in-the-dark rabbits

What it is: Scientists inserted jellyfish DNA into rabbit embryo resulting in two baby rabbits that glow green in the dark.

Making organisms glow makes genetic engineering look glamorous and ominous to some, but the reason this practice developed is not to grab eyeballs. The glow is simply an easy marker to indicate if the genetic material has successfully incorporated itself into the genome of the organism.

To produce the glowing rabbits, scientists removed embryos from the mother rabbit, inserted a fragment of jellyfish DNA which produces a fluorescent protein, and re-inserted the embryos into the mother’s womb. Among the litter of eight that was born, two of the pups expressed the protein. Scientists expect these mutant rabbits to live as long as their normal counterparts.

Bacteria and lower animals can easily be made to glow, but scientists claim to have proved that whole mammals can too, with greater success rate than has been achieved before.

Why it matters: This glowing indicator can now be used to develop rabbits which produce milk containing medicinal proteins, which can be used to treat diseases like haemophilia (in which patients need a blood clotting enzyme). Extracting these proteins would be dramatically cheaper than depending on big pharma companies that make drugs.

Compiled by Nandita Jayaraj, Vasudevan Mukunth, Anuj Srivas

nandita.j@thehindu.co.in, vasudevan.m@thehindu.co.in, anuj.s@thehindu.co.in


Why It MattersAugust 21, 2013

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