Roundup of Recent Science Milestones, 2007

From a leopard species discovered to the Airbus A380

by Liz Olson and Beth Rowen

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Leopard Species Discovered

Imagine spending your entire life being confused with an entirely different species. That’s what happened to the clouded leopard of Borneo and Sumatra. The animal, the biggest predator on Borneo, was long assumed to be the same species as the clouded leopard native to mainland Southeast Asia. Talk about an identity crisis!

Forty Differences Between Species

In March 2007, scientists at the U.S. National Cancer Institute announced that genetic testing had determined that there are about 40 differences between the two species. For example, the clouded leopard of Borneo and Sumatra has darker fur and smaller cloud markings than the mainland leopard. The spots inside the “clouds” on the island clouded leopard are more distinct than those on the mainland animal. The differences between the cousins are as marked as those between lions, tigers, and jaguars.

“Who said a leopard can never change its spots? For over a hundred years we have been looking at this animal and never realized it was unique,” said Carter S. Roberts, president and CEO of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Where in the world is Borneo?

According to the WWF, between 5,000 and 11,000 clouded leopards live on Borneo and another 3,000 to 7,000 inhabit Sumatra. Borneo is the third-largest island in the world. About two-thirds of Borneo is part of Indonesia; the rest is shared by Malaysia and Brunei. Sumatra is an Indonesian island.

Most scientists agree that there are about 1 million species of animals on Earth. An estimated 10,000 species of animals are discovered each year. In fact, in 2006 alone 30 unique species of fish, two species of tree frogs, three species of trees, and 16 ginger species were discovered in the Heart of Borneo, a rainforest that’s about as big as Kansas.

Corals

Since scientists discovered that corals reproduce by synchronous spawning in 1981, they have been searching for its catalyst. In October 2007, Australian, Israeli, and American scientists discovered the trigger for the mysterious procreation habits of coral.

Corals reproduce both sexually and asexually, and each individual coral, called a polyp, may reproduce both ways within its lifetime. Coral live in colonies that may consist of one or both sexes.

At least a third of corals in the Great Barrier Reef reproduce by synchronous spawning, a process in which the eggs and sperm are released into the water at the same time. Eventually the sperm and eggs merge together and create embryonic corals that sink to the ocean floor, and, if conditions are right, form new colonies. Synchronous spawning is dependent on the time of year, water temperature, and tidal and lunar cycles. Spawning happens in the spring during the third through six nights following a full moon, layering the sea so completely with eggs that they are visible to the human eye.

Until 1981, corals were thought to be primitive creatures without a brain or eyes and knew nothing of their environment. Graduate students at James Cook University changed that thinking when they discovered a mass spawning in the Great Barrier Reef. Over the last 25 years, the spawning rituals have been observed by scuba divers and scientists, and documented on PBS by photographer Al Giddings.

Mystery Solved

Corals have primitive photoreceptors, idea discovery first introduced by Israeli scientist, Dr. Oren Levy. In October 2007, scientists discovered that these photoreceptors have photosensitive chemicals that respond to moonlight like human lovers to each other. The photoreceptor response to the Moon triggers the largest spawning event on Earth. The Moon functions like a clock for corals, alerting them when to release sperm and eggs. The discovery is a big step forward for coral researchers and also sheds light on evolutionary questions. Corals emerged over 500 million years ago, which means we now know light receptors evolved much earlier in the development of animals than was previously thought.

Stem Cells

In November 2007, scientists reported that they could use human skin cells to create embryonic stem cells. Stem cells have the remarkable ability to grow indefinitely, serving as a sort of repair system for the body. They can potentially divide without limit into any one of the 220 types of cells in the body to replace other cells.

The discovery could mean an unlimited supply of stem cells without embryonic destruction, which would eliminate the ethical controversy and limited funds for research. With ethical problems out of the way, more resources will become available for stem cell research.

Generating stem cells could lead to new disease treatments by taking skin cells from a person with an illness and generating more stem cells that could be observed from the earliest stages of development. By watching a disease as it develops, scientists could potentially design drugs to not only treat it but also prevent it.

With stem cells produced from a patient’s own skin cells, it is possible to create tissue that would not be rejected by their immune system―the same result would require cloning with embryonic stem cells.

Airbus A380

Developed as the most spacious passenger aircraft to date, Airbus A380 took off for the first time in 2007. With 6,460 square feet of floor space, two floors, and a 262-foot wingspan, the 560-ton aircraft is the largest passenger aircraft ever built.

Designers of the A380 set out to make the plane as environmentally sound and efficient as possible. The A380 optimizes energy and water consumption and produces little waste and emissions. The jumbo Airbus A380 burns 17% less fuel per seat than a Boeing 747-400.

The Features

Singapore Airline’s A380 is powered by four Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engines. There are 471 seats and 12 private suites in the front half of the plane’s lower deck. The space, which maximizes privacy, was designed by Jean-Jacques Coste, a French yacht designer. The suites have adjustable leather seats and separate beds that fold out to a full-size mattress with linens designed by Givenchy. There are 60 business-class seats on the upper deck, and 399 economy-class seats throughout the back half of the upper and lower decks of the plane. For entertainment, passengers have LCD video screens that play a selection of 100 movies and 180 television channels. In addition, passengers have access to USB ports and laptop computer accessibility.

The A380 was unveiled in Toulouse, France, on October 15, 2007. Singapore Airlines carried its first paying A380 passengers on Oct. 25, 2007, on a special flight from Singapore to Sydney. It is the first airline to fly the A380 on regular scheduled service. A380 is can take off and land at 60 major airports throughout the world.

Information Please® Database, © 2007 Pearson Education, Inc. All rights reserved.

Did you know?
William O. Douglas served the longest term (36 years and 209 days) on the Supreme Court.

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