Herbal Viagra actually contains the real thing



































IF IT looks too good to be true, it probably is. Several "herbal remedies" for erectile dysfunction sold online actually contain the active ingredient from Viagra.












Michael Lamb at Arcadia University in Glenside, Pennsylvania, and colleagues purchased 10 popular "natural" uplifting remedies on the internet and tested them for the presence of sildenafil, the active ingredient in Viagra. They found the compound, or a similar synthetic drug, in seven of the 10 products – cause for concern because it can be dangerous for people with some medical conditions.












Lamb's work was presented last week at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences meeting in Washington DC.












This article appeared in print under the headline "Herbal Viagra gets a synthetic boost"


















































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Efforts under way to confirm Qaeda boss death in Mali






BAMAKO: Algeria was seeking Saturday to confirm the reported killing of Al-Qaeda's top commander in northern Mali, where French and African troops attempted to flush out Islamist fighters from desert and mountain hideouts.

Chad's president announced on Friday that his troops had killed Abou Zeid days earlier, in what would be one of the worst blows to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in the seven-week-old French-led intervention.

Idriss Deby Itno claimed the AQIM commander in Mali was killed during a major battle that also left 26 Chadian soldiers dead on February 22. "Our soldiers killed two jihadist chiefs including Abou Zeid," he said.

Adding to the confusion over the jihadist supremo's fate, Mauritania's private news agency Sahara Medias on Saturday confirmed that Abou Zeid had been killed but had a different story.

It said Abou Zeid was killed "four days ago" in a French air strike during a clash between a jihadist unit he was leading and the group of Chadian soldiers that had suffered the 26 losses days earlier.

Sahara Medias said the strike occurred in the mountainous region of Tigharghar near the border with Algeria and added without naming them that "extremely well informed sources" had confirmed Abou Zeid's death.

However the Islamist organisation itself has not yet confirmed the jihadist leader's death and officials in his native Algeria were carrying out DNA tests in an effort to confirm the demise of one of Africa's most wanted men.

Analysts have suggested Abou Zeid's death could spell AQIM's doom with other jihadist groups now thriving in the region but while Washington described the report as "very credible" France has so far treated it with caution.

Algeria's El Khabar newspaper said Saturday that Algerian security services, who were the first to report Abou Zeid's death, had examined a body believed to be his.

"Algerian officers have examined a body said to be that of Abou Zeid in a military site in northern Mali and identified his personal weapon... but were unable to formally identify" the body as his, it said.

"Confirmation of Abou Zeid's death remains linked to the results of DNA tests done on Thursday by Algeria on two members of his family," said El Khabar.

Mauritanian expert Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Aboulmaali pointed out that Algeria had announced his death several times in the past and that Chad needed morale boosting news after suffering such heavy losses.

Matthieu Guidere, a French university professor and Al-Qaeda specialist, also voiced caution in the absence of any confirmation of Abou Zeid's death on jihadist forums.

"Experience shows that jihadists never try to hide their dead and immediately broadcast their martyrdom," he said.

Guidere explained that announcing the death of a wanted jihadist was a tactic that had been used in the past to force the operative to deny his death and reveal his location.

Abou Zeid, 46, whose real name is Mohamed Ghedir, was often seen in the cities of Timbuktu and Gao after the Islamists took control of northern Mali last year and sparked fears the region could become a haven for extremists.

An Algerian born near the border with Libya, Abou Zeid was a former smuggler who embraced radical Islam in the 1990s and became one of AQIM's key leaders.

He was suspected of being behind a series of kidnappings in the Sahel region, including of British national Edwin Dyer, who was abducted in Niger and killed in 2009, and of 78-year-old French aid worker Michel Germaneau, who was killed in 2010.

Abou Zeid was believed to be holding a number of Western hostages, including four French citizens kidnapped in Niger in 2010.

Guidere said Abou Zeid had adopted such a hard line since reaching the top of AQIM's operational command that many of his lieutenants left the group to join other organisations or launch their own.

One of the main splinters is the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which first emerged last year and was battling African forces near the main northern city of Gao as recently as Friday.

"We waged a tough battle against Malian troops and their French accomplices around 60 kilometres east of Gao on Friday," MUJAO spokesman Abou Walid Sahraoui told AFP.

"We'll see later about the death toll," he said.

A Malian soldier who claimed he took part in the fighting said the operation had left a MUJAO base destroyed and "many dead" among the Islamists.

- AFP/jc



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Trutanich struggling in bid to keep his city attorney post









With large numbers of Los Angeles voters yet to make up their minds, a new poll shows that first-term City Atty. Carmen Trutanich is struggling to stay afloat as Tuesday's primary election approaches.


Trutanich is in a statistical dead heat for second place with private attorney Greg Smith. Former lawmaker Mike Feuer enjoys a slight edge over both as the three candidates battle to advance to an expected May runoff.


Feuer, who served on the City Council and then in the state Assembly representing the city's Westside, was the choice of 23.8% of those surveyed for the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy/L.A. Times Los Angeles City Primary Poll, while 16.4% favored Trutanich, who won the office in a 2009 upset. Smith, a first-time candidate who has pumped more than $800,000 of his personal wealth into the race, was preferred by 15.2%.





But the poll has a margin of sampling error of 4.4 percentage points in either direction. Furthermore, 40% of those surveyed said they hadn't decided on a candidate.


"Feuer maintains a small advantage," said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. But, he added, Smith's television and radio advertising and incumbent Trutanich's name ID "could change that," particularly with so many undecided voters.


Just 4.7% of respondents favor a fourth candidate on the ballot, private attorney Noel Weiss. Weiss, who also ran for the post in 2009, has not had the money to mount a viable campaign.


The bipartisan telephone survey canvassed 500 likely voters in the city from Feb. 24 through 27. It was conducted jointly by the Benenson Strategy Group, a Democratic firm, and M4 Strategies, a Republican company.


Earlier independent surveys by other organizations showed that Trutanich had started the race with a lead. But he got into the contest late — after failing to make the runoff in his bid for county district attorney last year — and has not been able to match the campaign treasuries of Feuer and Smith, both earlier entrants in the contest. The blunt-spoken Trutanich, who has tangled publicly with the mayor and City Council, has also alienated some of his past supporters with his style and his decision to run for D.A. despite his 2009 campaign promise to serve two full terms at City Hall before seeking another post.


"To the extent that voters know about the candidates, this race is a referendum on Carmen Trutanich," Schnur said.


In the survey, Trutanich did somewhat better than Feuer and Smith among Latinos: 22.8% of voters in that group said they would vote for the incumbent, compared with 17.8% for Feuer and 12.7% for Smith. Feuer fared best among whites — 26.1% favored him, while Trutanich and Smith were backed by 16.7% and 16.4%, respectively.


Feuer also fared better with female voters (25%) than either Trutanich (13%) or Smith (14%). A Democrat, Feuer also did best among voters who identified with that party — 32% preferred him to Smith, another Democrat, who was chosen by 11%; while 15% favored Trutanich, a former Republican who is currently unaffiliated with a party. Among Republicans, who make up about one-fifth of the city's voters, Trutanich and Smith tied with 23% apiece, while 8% preferred Feuer.


jean.merl@latimes.com





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We Didn’t Domesticate Dogs. They Domesticated Us.


In the story of how the dog came in from the cold and onto our sofas, we tend to give ourselves a little too much credit. The most common assumption is that some hunter-gatherer with a soft spot for cuteness found some wolf puppies and adopted them. Over time, these tamed wolves would have shown their prowess at hunting, so humans kept them around the campfire until they evolved into dogs. (See "How to Build a Dog.")

But when we look back at our relationship with wolves throughout history, this doesn't really make sense. For one thing, the wolf was domesticated at a time when modern humans were not very tolerant of carnivorous competitors. In fact, after modern humans arrived in Europe around 43,000 years ago, they pretty much wiped out every large carnivore that existed, including saber-toothed cats and giant hyenas. The fossil record doesn't reveal whether these large carnivores starved to death because modern humans took most of the meat or whether humans picked them off on purpose. Either way, most of the Ice Age bestiary went extinct.

The hunting hypothesis, that humans used wolves to hunt, doesn't hold up either. Humans were already successful hunters without wolves, more successful than every other large carnivore. Wolves eat a lot of meat, as much as one deer per ten wolves every day-a lot for humans to feed or compete against. And anyone who has seen wolves in a feeding frenzy knows that wolves don't like to share.

Humans have a long history of eradicating wolves, rather than trying to adopt them. Over the last few centuries, almost every culture has hunted wolves to extinction. The first written record of the wolf's persecution was in the sixth century B.C. when Solon of Athens offered a bounty for every wolf killed. The last wolf was killed in England in the 16th century under the order of Henry VII. In Scotland, the forested landscape made wolves more difficult to kill. In response, the Scots burned the forests. North American wolves were not much better off. By 1930, there was not a wolf left in the 48 contiguous states of America.  (See "Wolf Wars.")

If this is a snapshot of our behavior toward wolves over the centuries, it presents one of the most perplexing problems: How was this misunderstood creature tolerated by humans long enough to evolve into the domestic dog?

The short version is that we often think of evolution as being the survival of the fittest, where the strong and the dominant survive and the soft and weak perish. But essentially, far from the survival of the leanest and meanest, the success of dogs comes down to survival of the friendliest.

Most likely, it was wolves that approached us, not the other way around, probably while they were scavenging around garbage dumps on the edge of human settlements. The wolves that were bold but aggressive would have been killed by humans, and so only the ones that were bold and friendly would have been tolerated.

Friendliness caused strange things to happen in the wolves. They started to look different. Domestication gave them splotchy coats, floppy ears, wagging tails. In only several generations, these friendly wolves would have become very distinctive from their more aggressive relatives. But the changes did not just affect their looks. Changes also happened to their psychology. These protodogs evolved the ability to read human gestures.

As dog owners, we take for granted that we can point to a ball or toy and our dog will bound off to get it. But the ability of dogs to read human gestures is remarkable. Even our closest relatives-chimpanzees and bonobos-can't read our gestures as readily as dogs can. Dogs are remarkably similar to human infants in the way they pay attention to us. This ability accounts for the extraordinary communication we have with our dogs. Some dogs are so attuned to their owners that they can read a gesture as subtle as a change in eye direction.

With this new ability, these protodogs were worth knowing. People who had dogs during a hunt would likely have had an advantage over those who didn't. Even today, tribes in Nicaragua depend on dogs to detect prey. Moose hunters in alpine regions bring home 56 percent more prey when they are accompanied by dogs. In the Congo, hunters believe they would starve without their dogs.

Dogs would also have served as a warning system, barking at hostile strangers from neighboring tribes. They could have defended their humans from predators.

And finally, though this is not a pleasant thought, when times were tough, dogs could have served as an emergency food supply. Thousands of years before refrigeration and with no crops to store, hunter-gatherers had no food reserves until the domestication of dogs. In tough times, dogs that were the least efficient hunters might have been sacrificed to save the group or the best hunting dogs. Once humans realized the usefulness of keeping dogs as an emergency food supply, it was not a huge jump to realize plants could be used in a similar way.

So, far from a benign human adopting a wolf puppy, it is more likely that a population of wolves adopted us. As the advantages of dog ownership became clear, we were as strongly affected by our relationship with them as they have been by their relationship with us. Dogs may even have been the catalyst for our civilization.

Dr. Brian Hare is the director of the Duke Canine Cognition Center and Vanessa Woods is a research scientist at Duke University. This essay is adapted from their new book, The Genius of Dogs, published by Dutton. To play science-based games to find the genius in your dog, visit www.dognition.com.


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Mars trip to use astronaut poo as radiation shield








































The man and woman aboard the Inspiration Mars mission set to fly-by the Red Planet in 2018Movie Camera will face cramped conditions, muscle atrophy and potential boredom. But their greatest health risk comes from exposure to the radiation from cosmic rays. The solution? Line the spacecraft's walls with water, food and their own faeces.













"It's a little queasy sounding, but there's no place for that material to go, and it makes great radiation shielding," says Taber MacCallum, a member of the team funded by multimillionaire Dennis Tito, who announced the audacious plan earlier this week.












McCallum told New Scientist that solid and liquid human waste products would get put into bags and used as a radiation shield – as well as being dehydrated so that any water can be recycled for drinking. "Dehydrate them as much as possible, because we need to get the water back," he said. "Those solid waste products get put into a bag, put right back against the wall."












Food too, could be used as a shield, he said. "Food is going to be stored all around the walls of the spacecraft, because food is good radiation shielding," he said. This wouldn't be dangerous as the food would merely be blocking the radiation, it wouldn't become a radioactive source.











Water 1 – Metals 0













The details of Inspiration Mars's plans have yet to be clarified, but the team has said it will be using "state-of-the-art technologies derived from NASA and the International Space Station".











One idea that is already under consideration by the agency's Innovative Advanced Concepts programme, which funds research into futuristic space technology, is a project called Water Walls, which combines life-support and waste-processing systems with radiation shielding.













Water has long been suggested as a shielding material for interplanetary space missions. "Water is better than metals for protection," says Marco Durante of the Technical University of Darmstadt in Germany. That's because nuclei are the things that block cosmic rays, and water molecules, made of three small atoms, contain more nuclei per volume than a metal.












Water shielding also has another benefit – you can drink it. Such dual use is essential aboard a spacecraft, where space is at a premium. Applying this rationale, the Water Walls concept involves polyethylene bags that use osmosis to process clean drinking water from urine and faeces.











Sights and smells













Lining the walls of a spacecraft with layers of these bags creates a 40-centimetre-thick liquid shield. All of the bags would initially be filled with drinking water. The crew would then fill other bags with waste during the trip to Mars and swap them out for the now-empty water bags.












The osmosis-based processing is much simpler than the automated life-support systems aboard the International Space Station, making it less likely to fail during the long ride to Mars.











However, there are problems to be ironed out. The urine-to-water processing bags were tested in orbit on the last ever flight of the space shuttle in 2011 and found to be 50 per cent less efficient in microgravity than in ground-based tests.













Besides testing that the various bags work properly, the Water Walls team points out the more basic worry of dealing with the residual sights and smells. MacCallum made a similar point about the system to be used on Inspiration Mars: "Hopefully they're not clear bags," he said.











Solar danger













Not all bags need be equally unpleasant, though. The Water Walls concept also includes bags that scrub carbon dioxide from air, regulate temperature and grow algae for food – although NASA hasn't yet taken those to space.











Inspiration Mars also plans to have an external water tank and the aluminium skin of the spacecraft itself for extra protection. This kind of shielding should keep astronauts safe from lower energy cosmic rays, says Ruth Bamford of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Didcot, UK, who is working on creating magnetic "deflector shields" for spacecraft.













Organic material or aluminium is no defence against the burst of particles that occasionally spew out from the sun during a solar storm, however. "For this, putting three metres of concrete may not be enough to protect the astronauts," says Bamford. Inspiration Mars say they should be able to keep the upper rocket stage of their launch vehicle attached to the spacecraft for the whole of the trip, and point that towards the sun in the event of a flare.




















































If you would like to reuse any content from New Scientist, either in print or online, please contact the syndication department first for permission. New Scientist does not own rights to photos, but there are a variety of licensing options available for use of articles and graphics we own the copyright to.




































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Tennis: Federer beaten by Berdych again






DUBAI: Roger Federer's defence of the Dubai Open title came to a dramatic end in the semi-finals after he failed to convert three match points against Tomas Berdych, the man who also upset him in the US Open.

The world number six from the Czech Republic thrillingly turned the match around after a neck-and-neck second set tie-break, going on to win 3-6, 7-6 (10-8), 6-4 against the five-time champion and set up a final against Novak Djokovic.

The Serbian world number one extended his unbeaten run to 17 matches and reached the 55th final of his career with a 6-3, 7-6 (7-4) win over Juan Martin Del Potro, the former US Open champion from Argentina.

Federer was on the verge of success at 6-4 and 8-7 in the tie break, with the second of the three points coming on his serve, only for Berdych to somehow get into a rally and win it with some fierce ground strokes.

One break of serve halfway through the final set then proved decisive, as Federer gambled more and more on rushing the net instead of continuing the bruising baseline exchanges which characterised the first two sets.

"It's obviously unfortunate, you know," said Federer, for whom this is a tournament in his second home. "Pity to lose that one, but Tomas did well to hang in there.

"Obviously I leave this match with a lot of regrets I'm feeling: serving for the match, with the serve, having chances in the beginning of the second, you know, when he wasn't quite in the match yet, to go break up, you know, set and a break, you know, a few points where things just didn't happen for me."

Of his best chance, the second match point, Federer said: "That's just disappointing right there, because the match was in my racket.

"You do all the right things for so long, and then at the end you've got to explain why you didn't hit two shots decent, you know. So it's disappointing."

Berdych was pleased that he avoided the perils of tension in the later stages, as he closed the match out.

"Staying calm is definitely the big thing I have been working on," he said. "And I am still working on it, especially with the serve. When I serve well I can do a lot of damage."

Earlier, Djokovic was again in fine fettle for a man who had not played a tournament since the successful defence of the Australian title nearly five weeks ago, and, after three solid wins already, he raised his level once more.

Djokovic was made to.

Del Potro hit fierce first serves and heavy ground strokes mixed in with thunderbolt accelerations with his forehand, advancing to a 3-0 lead in the second set.

Djokovic responded superbly when behind, containing brilliantly, moving superbly, and counter-attacking with excellent timing and accuracy.

However, his break back to 2-3 came amidst controversy. Umpire Magdi Somat imposed a time violation on Del Potro when he took a longer to prepare at a vital moment, at 30-40, break point down.

The Argentine walked up to the umpire to protest, gesticulating as he did so, and accompanied by a spate of boos from spectators. By the time the situation had calmed, the delay was at least twice the permitted 25 seconds.

There followed a forehand-to-forehand exchange ending with a mis-hit under pressure by Del Potro costing him the game. When they sat down at the change of ends there was another exchange between the umpire and Del Potro, with further jeering from spectators.

Djokovic was critical. "I don't know exactly if the chair umpire gave him unofficial verbal warning before that. If he didn't, then I don't agree with that decision," he said.

It muddied the waters and proved to be a turning point. It also landed the Argentine with extra pressure in his next service game and although he diligently saved two break points amidst a sequence of excellent rallies, Djokovic eventually broke serve.

"It was very important point for the game, for the match," Del Potro said of the timing of the umpire's decision. "Maybe he doesn't know about that, you know.

"I mean, in that moment, if you call warning or if you do something different, you can lose the focus and that's what happened with me."

-AFP/ac



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Population growth is threat to other species, poll respondents say









Nearly two-thirds of American voters believe that human population growth is driving other animal species to extinction and that if the situation gets worse, society has a "moral responsibility to address the problem," according to new national public opinion poll.


A slightly lower percentage of those polled — 59% — believes that population growth is an important environmental issue and 54% believe that stabilizing the population will help protect the environment.


The survey was conducted on behalf of the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, which unlike other environmental groups has targeted population growth as part of its campaign to save wildlife species from extinction.





The center has handed out more than half a million condoms at music concerts, farmers markets, churches and college campuses with labels featuring drawings of endangered species and playful, even humorous, messages such as, "Wrap with care, save the polar bear."


The organization hired a polling firm to show other environmental groups that their fears about alienating the public by bringing up population matters are overblown, said Kieran Suckling, the center's executive director. When the center broke the near-silence on population growth with its condom campaign, other environmental leaders "reacted with a mix of worry and horror that we were going to experience a huge backlash and drag them into it," he said.


Instead, Suckling said the campaign has swelled its membership — now about 500,000 — and donations and energized 5,000 volunteers who pass out prophylactics. He said a common response is, "Thank God, someone is talking about this critical issue."


The poll results, he said, show such views are mainstream.


In the survey, the pollsters explained that the world population hit 7 billion last year and is projected to reach 10 billion by the end of the century. Given those facts, 50% of people reached by telephone said they think the world population is growing too fast, while 38% said population growth was on the right pace and 4% thought it was growing too slowly. About 8% were not sure.


Sixty-one percent of respondents expressed concerned about disappearing wildlife. Depending how the question was phrased, 57% to 64% of respondents said population growth was having an adverse effect. If widespread wildlife extinctions were unavoidable without slowing human population growth, 60% agreed that society has a moral responsibility to address the problem.


Respondents didn't make as clear a connection between population and climate change, reflecting the decades-old debate over population growth versus consumption. Although 57% of respondents agreed that population growth is making climate change worse, only 46% said they think having more people will make it harder to solve, and 34% said the number of people will make no difference.


Asked about natural resources, 48% said they think the average American consumes too much. The view split sharply along party lines, with 62% of Democrats saying the average American consumes too much, compared with 29% of Republicans. Independents fell in the middle at 49%.


The survey of 657 registered voters was conducted Feb. 22-24 by Public Policy Polling, a Raleigh, N.C., firm that takes the pulse of voters for Democratic candidates and Democratic-leaning clients. It has a margin of error of 3.9%.


ken.weiss@latimes.com





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Stinkbug Threat Has Farmers Worried


Part of our weekly "In Focus" series—stepping back, looking closer.

Maryland farmer Nathan Milburn recalls his first encounter.

It was before dawn one morning in summer 2010, and he was at a gas station near his farm, fueling up for the day. Glancing at the light above the pump, something caught his eye.

"Thousands of something," Milburn remembers.

Though he'd never actually seen a brown marmorated stinkbug, Milburn knew exactly what he was looking at. He'd heard the stories.

This was a swarm of them—the invasive bugs from Asia that had been devouring local crops.

"My heart sank to my stomach," Milburn says.

Nearly three years later, the Asian stinkbug, commonly called the brown marmorated stinkbug, has become a serious threat to many mid-Atlantic farmers' livelihoods.

The bugs have also become a nuisance to many Americans who simply have warm homes—favored retreats of the bugs during cold months, when they go into a dormant state known as overwintering.

The worst summer for the bugs so far in the U.S. was 2010, but 2013 could be shaping up to be another bad year. Scientists estimate that 60 percent more stinkbugs are hunkered down indoors and in the natural landscape now than they were at this time last year in the mid-Atlantic region.

Once temperatures begin to rise, they'll head outside in search of mates and food. This is what farmers are dreading, as the Asian stinkbug is notorious for gorging on more than a half dozen North American crops, from peaches to peppers.

Intruder Alert

The first stinkbugs probably arrived in the U.S. by hitching a ride with a shipment of imported products from Asia in the late 1990s. Not long after that, they were spotted in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Since then, they've been identified in 39 other states. Effective monitoring tools are being developed to help researchers detect regional patterns.

There are two main reasons to fear this invader, whose popular name comes from the pungent odor it releases when squashed. It can be distinguished from the native stinkbug by white stripes on its antennae and a mottled appearance on its abdomen. (The native stinkbug can also cause damage but its population number is too low for it to have a significant impact.)

For one thing, Asian stinkbugs have an insatiable appetite for fruits and vegetables, latching onto them with a needlelike probe before breaking down their flesh and sucking out juice until all that's left is a mangled mess.

Peaches, apples, peppers, soybeans, tomatoes, and grapes are among their favorite crops, said Tracy Leskey, a research entomologist leading a USDA-funded team dedicated to stinkbug management. She adds that in 2010, the insects caused $37 million in damage just to apple crops in the mid-Atlantic region.

Another fear factor: Although the stinkbug has some natural predators in the U.S., those predators can't keep up with the size of the stinkbug population, giving it the almost completely unchecked freedom to eat, reproduce, and flourish.

Almost completely unchecked. Leskey and her team have found that stinkbugs are attracted to blue, black, and white light, and to certain pheromones. Pheromone lures have been used with some success in stinkbug traps, but the method hasn't yet been evaluated for catching the bugs in large numbers.

So Milburn—who is on the stakeholders' advisory panel of Leskey's USDA-funded team—and other farmers have had to resort to using some chemical agents to protect against stinkbug sabotage.

It's a solution that Milburn isn't happy about. "We have to be careful—this is people's food. My family eats our apples, too," he says. "We have to engage and defeat with an environmentally safe and economically feasible solution."

Damage Control

Research Entomologist Kim Hoelmer agrees but knows that foregoing pesticides in the face of the stinkbug threat is easier said than done.

Hoelmer works on the USDA stinkbug management team's biological control program. For the past eight years, he's been monitoring the spread of the brown marmorated stinkbug with an eye toward containing it.

"We first looked to see if native natural enemies were going to provide sufficient levels of control," he says. "Once we decided that wasn't going to happen, we began to evaluate Asian natural enemies to help out."

Enter Trissolcus, a tiny, parasitic wasp from Asia that thrives on destroying brown marmorated stinkbugs and in its natural habitat has kept them from becoming the extreme pests they are in the U.S.

When a female wasp happens upon a cluster of stinkbug eggs, she will lay her own eggs inside them. As the larval wasp develops, it feeds on its host—the stinkbug egg—until there's nothing left. Most insects have natural enemies that prey upon or parasitize them in this way, said Hoelmer, calling it "part of the balance of nature."

In a quarantine lab in Newark, Delaware, Hoelmer has been evaluating the pros and cons of allowing Trissolcus out into the open in the U.S. It's certainly a cost-effective approach.

"Once introduced, the wasps will spread and reproduce all by themselves without the need to continually reintroduce them," he says.

And these wasps will not hurt humans. "Entomologists already know from extensive research worldwide that Trissolcus wasps only attack and develop in stinkbug eggs," Hoelmer says. "There is no possibility of them biting or stinging animals or humans or feeding on plants or otherwise becoming a pest themselves."

But there is a potential downside: the chance the wasp could go after one or more of North America's native stinkbugs and other insects.

"We do not want to cause harm to nontarget species," Hoelmer says. "That's why the host range of the Asian Trissolcus is being studied in the Newark laboratory before a request is made to release it."

Ultimately, the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service will decide whether or not to introduce the wasp. If it does, the new natural enemy could be let loose as early as next year.

Do you have stinkbugs in your area? Have they invaded your home this winter? Or your garden last summer? How do you combat them? Share your sightings and stories in the comments.


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Mystery ring of radiation briefly encircled Earth









































What were you doing last September? The charged particles that dance around Earth were busy. Unbeknown to most earthlings, a previously unseen ring of radiation encircled our planet for nearly the whole month – before being destroyed by a powerful interplanetary shock wave.












We already knew that two, persistent belts of charged particles, called the Van Allen radiation belts, encircle Earth. The discovery of a third, middle ring by NASA's twin Van Allen probes, launched in August 2012, suggests that these belts, which have puzzled scientists for over 50 years, are even stranger than we thought. Working out what caused the third ring to develop could help protect spacecraft from damaging doses of radiation.












Charged particles get trapped by Earth's magnetic field into two distinct regions, forming the belts. The inner belt, which extends from an altitude of 1600 to 12,900 kilometres, is fairly stable. But the outer belt, spanning altitudes ranging from 19,000 to 40,000 kilometres, can vary wildly. Over the course of minutes or hours, its electrons can be accelerated to close to the speed of light, and it can grow to 100 times its usual size.











Mystery acceleration













No one is sure what causes these "acceleration events", although it seems to have something to do with solar activity interacting with the Earths' magnetic field.












"That's one of the key things the probes are in place to understand," says Dan Baker of the University of Colorado, Boulder. "How does this cosmic accelerator, operating just a few thousand miles above our head, accelerate electrons to such extraordinarily high energies?"












When the Van Allen probes started taking data on 1 September 2012, one of these mysterious events was already under way. "We came in the middle of the movie there," Baker says. But otherwise, he says, "What we expected was what we saw when we first turned on: two distinct belts, separated."












That changed a day later when, to the team's surprise, an extra ring developed between the inner and outer ones. "We watched it develop right before our eyes," Baker says. The new, middle ring was relatively narrow, and its electrons had energies between 4 and 7.5 megaelectronvolts - about the same as in the outer Van Allen belt during an acceleration event.












Although the outer ring displayed its characteristic inconstancy, the new middle ring barely budged for nearly four weeks. Then a shock wave, probably linked to a burst of solar activity, wiped it out in less than an hour on 1 October.











Spacecraft malfunctions













It's not clear where the middle ring came from, Baker says, although it was probably related to the acceleration event. The electrons could have been stripped from the outer Van Allen belt, funnelled back towards the Earth and got trapped in the middle on the way, or they could have been energised from closer to Earth and shot up to higher altitudes.











Figuring out what happened could be important to protecting spacecraft from radiation damage, says Yuri Shprits of the University of California in Los Angeles, who was not involved in the observations but is crafting a theoretical explanation that he hopes to publish soon. "It truly presents us with a very important question, and very important puzzles," he says.













There were no specific spacecraft malfunctions during September that can be directly linked to the new belt, says Shprits. However satellite operators will want to know if such belts are common and if they pose more of a risk.












With no other examples of a transient belt caught so far, it's too soon to answer all those questions, Baker says. "We only have one in captivity," he says. "We're still trying to figure out exactly how it works."












Journal reference: Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1233518


















































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Amid US budget battle, another likely missed deadline






WASHINGTON: Leaders of a divided Congress acknowledged their failure to avert across-the-board spending cuts set to begin Friday, with lawmakers and the White House trading blame for the doomsday scenario that may lie ahead.

The only related actions of substance Thursday appeared to be votes on competing Senate bills, one sponsored by Democrats and the other by Republicans, to replace the indiscriminate budget austerity, which both sides wanted to avoid when it was baked into law in 2011, with targeted spending cuts and revenues.

President Barack Obama will make a final plea to bickering congressional leaders at a White House meeting on Friday, the last day before the severe cuts known as the sequester begin to kick in.

But many lawmakers from both sides have already resigned themselves to the realization that a deadline-beating budget deal to head off the damaging package of indiscriminate cuts totaling $85 billion this year is just not happening, and that a solution could arise from March negotiations over funding government operations for fiscal year 2013.

"We've laid our cards on the table," House Speaker John Boehner said in explaining why his chamber, which passed two sequester-replacement bills last year, would take no further action until the Senate passed a bill.

Some Republicans have begun to tone down the histrionics over the effects of the sequester, saying the cuts should be manageable -- even as the International Monetary Fund warned Thursday that the sequester will slow growth in the United States and have "an impact on global growth" as well.

But John Cornyn, the number two Republican in the Senate, said Thursday that Obama and his Democrats have been overstating their "apocalyptic predictions" of hundreds of thousands of job losses, a slash in economic growth, and harsh cuts to social services and national security.

"I would suggest... put down the Beltway Kool-Aid, because they are predicting a disaster that will not occur."

Some Republicans in the House agreed. "It is going to happen. It is 2.4 percent of the budget, and it is not the end of the world," Republican Representative Jim Jordan said in US News & World Report.

"We want the savings. We want to bank those savings, and we want to move on."

Democrats have put forward what they are touting as a "balanced plan" that raises new tax revenue to help replace the $85 billion in cuts.

It also cuts several billion dollars in what Democratic Senate majority leader Harry Reid called "wasteful subsidies to farmers," longstanding and controversial payments that some lawmakers first sought to scrap in the 1980s.

Republicans laid out a competing version that maintains the full financial effect of sequester, without raising new revenue, but gives the president broader "flexibility" to map out where the cuts would hit.

White House spokesman Jay Carney called the Republican proposal "the worst of all worlds."

"It explicitly protects pork-barrel projects and every single tax loophole that benefits the wealthy, but puts on the table cuts to things like Medicare and education, forcing middle-class families to bear the burden while asking nothing from the wealthiest Americans."

And Reid complained that such a plan would force Obama into deciding which programs stay and which get the axe.

But Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said that is precisely the leadership Obama needs to show in a time of crisis.

"It's your job to make the tough decisions," McConnell said of the president.

Democrats are trying to force Republicans into accepting more revenues through closing what Reid calls "wasteful tax loopholes" that favor millionaires.

But conservatives appeared to be standing firm, saying Obama got his $600 billion in tax revenues for the coming decade in the last fiscal negotiations in late December.

"Given those facts, the revenue issue is now closed," Boehner insisted.

Neither plan is likely to receive the necessary votes Thursday to move the legislation forward.

House Democrat leader Nancy Pelosi called the delay "mindless," slamming the "anti-government ideologues" of the far right who were cheering for sequester.

Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer blamed Boehner for running out the clock until sequester hits, and he sounded resigned to the sequester sliding into effect after Friday.

"These votes (in the Senate) will not be the last word on the issue. The debate's only beginning," he said.

"In the coming weeks... we'll consider a budget that will keep these issues front and center."

Republicans in the House had similar intentions. They were coalescing around a plan that would see the sequester absorbed into negotiations on legislation that funds the government.

House Appropriations committee chairman Harold Rogers said there was broad support for the plan, which would pare down the $1.043 trillion discretionary spending budget for 2013 down to $974 billion, the difference being the amount of sequester cuts set to affect such spending.

-AFP/ac



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