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Mimicking The March Of The Penguins

Penguins are more than just the cuddly stars of wintertime ads and documentaries. The tuxedoed birds may help unlock the mysteries of two-legged motion and could help robots learn to balance better.

Thanks to an innate ability to adjust for their squat build, penguins can waddle for miles without toppling over. The key is a side-to-side rocking motion that carries them forward efficiently, if inelegantly. Such movements are tricky for humans because our brains do a bad job adjusting for drastic sideways motions.

Now, the University of Houston's Max Kurz hopes to adapt the birds' unique gait to robots. The professor of health and human performance tracks the width and length of the penguins' steps as they traverse a pressure-sensitive mat. The data could improve the march of future bots by replacing cumbersome motion-control equipment with computers that guide more natural forward motion.

A swift, low-cost test for avian flu could help cut the risk of a deadly pandemic. Switzerland's STMicroelectronics (STM) has married biology and chip technology to roll out one of the first "lab-on-chip" flu tests. In under an hour, claims the company, the chip can ID the most lethal variety of avian flu, H5N1, plus over 20 more common influenza strains.

The secret to STMicro's semiconductor is snippets of synthetic DNA that closely mirror the DNA in H5N1 and other flu types. Prepared by Veredus Laboratories in Singapore, the synthetic DNA binds to its natural counterpart when exposed to an infected blood sample. In the case of a match, the chip emits a tiny burst of energy, which an optical sensor detects.

The kit works with both human and avian samples. And at less than $10,000, says Anton Hofmeister, general manager of STMicro's microfluidic division, the kit will cost about a tenth of a comparable laboratory setup. Veredus, which will be distributing the testing kits, aims to get them to market by autumn, just in time for the next flu season.

Long ago, fiber-optic cables carrying light pulses replaced satellites as the main conduit for the tide of data, voice, and video surging around the globe. That's because even though satellite-bound radio signals travel as fast as laser pulses, clever processing can pack more data into light waves.

Now scientists are turning to lasers to make planet-to-planet connections. Last spring, NASA researchers sent a tightly focused light beam some 15 million miles to a six-inch-wide sensor on the Messenger space probe, then just beginning its seven-year meander to Mercury. The craft blinked back via a laser that, at 30 watts, is no more powerful than an oven bulb.

The linkup marked the first use of optical lasers for two-way communication at such distances, says David Smith, a NASA astronomer. The results, published in Science, suggest that interplanetary laser relays could work up to 1,000 times faster than today's radio links. That's plenty fast for video. Next up, Survivor: Mars?

-- Scientists at Xenomics have discovered a way to detect possible genetic diseases in a fetus by screening the mother's urine. In some chromosomal disorders, such as Gaucher's disease and Down syndrome, key pieces of fetal DNA pass through the mom's kidneys. The company is developing tests that can detect disease telltales at seven weeks, six sooner than today's more invasive procedures, and can also reveal the gender.

-- In the British Journal of Ophthalmology, researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham reaffirmed the link between vision problems and erectile dysfunction drugs. They studied men who had histories of heart trouble, and found that those who had taken Viagra or Cialis were 10 times as likely to have optic nerve damage as those who had not.

-- For women, meanwhile, caffeine may offer a natural boost to the libido. Scientists at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Tex., found that female rats were more interested in sex after a dose of caffeine, according to Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior. In the test, females returned for second encounters with males more quickly if they had received a moderate amount of the stimulant. The researchers are planning further studies to assess the effects of repeated exposure to caffeine.

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