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Science Briefing: Gray wolf population holds steady

Also: Shakespearean snacks, regenerative medicine, a 'bird-like' dino, and the Gates charity boosts vaccine aid.

January 30, 2010

Wolf population steady

A new tally of gray wolves in the Northern Rockies shows the population held steady across the region in 2009, ending more than a decade of expansion by the predators but also underscoring their resilience in the face of new hunting seasons in Montana and Idaho.

Biologists said the region's total wolf population will be similar to 2008's minimum of 1,650 wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. If the preliminary figures hold, it could bolster the federal government's assertion that wolves are doing fine since losing protections under the Endangered Species Act last year. (The exception is Wyoming, where federal protections remain.)

The latest population data were released Thursday in court documents filed by Montana wildlife officials in a case brought by environmentalists who are seeking to overturn the loss of protections for wolves in Montana and Idaho.

Much ado about oysters and pies

Elizabethan theatergoers ate an exotic array of foods while enjoying the latest plays, new evidence found at the sites of Shakespearean playhouses in London suggests. Archaeologists say Tudor snacks included oysters, crab, mussels, whelks and periwinkles.

Dried raisins and figs, hazelnuts, cherries and peaches were also consumed in great quantities, said experts who excavated the Rose and the Globe theaters. Baked blackberry and elderberry pies and sturgeon, common in British waters then, were also popular.

New research suggests that the theater diet varied along class lines. Commoners who paid a penny to stand in the yard or pit regularly snacked on oysters, said senior Museum of London archaeologist Julian Bowsher, who excavated the theater sites. The gentrified classes, who paid more to sit on cushions in the galleries, were more likely to have eaten crab and sturgeon, he said.

Neurons made from skin cells

Researchers have transformed ordinary mouse skin cells directly into neurons, bypassing the need for stem cells or even stemlike cells and greatly speeding up the field of regenerative medicine.

The experiment could make it possible to someday take a sample of a patient's skin and turn the cells into tailor-made transplants to treat brain diseases such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's, or heal damaged spinal cords.

The work was conducted and patented at the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at Stanford University and published in the journal Nature.

The researchers hope they can also reprogram ordinary cells into other cell types to help replace damaged livers and treat diabetes and cancer.

The researchers used just three genes to transform ordinary mouse skin cells directly into nerve cells called neurons. One drawback to the new cells is that they do not proliferate well in the lab nor live as long as the more primitive stem cells.

'Bird-like' dinosaur found

China has unearthed the fossil of a two-legged carnivorous dinosaur that lived 160 million years ago and that researchers have identified as the earliest known member of a long lineage that includes birds.

The Haplocheirus sollers had a long, narrow skull, many small teeth and powerful biceps and forelimbs, enabling it to hunt primitive lizards, small mammals and reptiles.

The dinosaur, believed to be a young adult when it died, had a long tail and a body as long as 7 feet, 6 inches, the researchers wrote in a paper published in the journal Science. It was found in orange mudstone beds in the Junggar Basin in China's far western Xinjiang region.

"It shares some features with birds. It moves its hands sideways, like how birds can fold their wings. Its head, vertebral column, hind limbs, hands are all bird-like," said Xu Xing, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and a member of a research team led by Jonah Choiniere at the George Washington University in Washington.

In other ways, Xu added, it was more like a typical carnivorous dinosaur.

Charity ups ante on vaccine aid

Bill and Melinda Gates said on Friday that they would spend $10 billion over the next decade to develop and deliver vaccines, an increased commitment that reflects progress in the pipeline of products for immunizing children in the developing world.

Over the last 10 years, the Microsoft co-founder's charity has committed $4.5 billion to vaccines.

By increasing immunization coverage in developing countries to 90%, it should be possible to prevent the deaths of 7.6 million children under 5 by 2019, Bill Gates told reporters at the World Economic Forum.

Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, described Gates' commitment to vaccines as "unprecedented" and called on governments around the world and the private sector to match it with "unprecedented action."

-- times staff and wire reports

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