News briefs from 2011 AAAS meeting

Collected shorts from the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, held February 17-21 in Washington, D.C.

You spin me right round
WASHINGTON —For the first time in a laboratory setting, physicists have linked the motion of an atom in a gas with its spin. Such “spin-orbit coupling” could help researchers build futuristic versions of devices such as transistors. Ian Spielman, of the Joint Quantum Institute in Gaithersburg, Md., cooled rubidium atoms to ultrachilly temperatures until they formed a quantum liquid, then watched as the atoms underwent spin-orbit coupling. Spielman reported the findings on February 18. —Alexandra Witze

First foods become favorites
WASHINGTON — Taste preferences can be set very early in life, new studies reveal. Babies whose mothers fed them salty foods between 2 and 6 months old had a stronger preference for salt at 6 months than did babies who hadn’t eaten salty stuff, Gary Beauchamp of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia reported February 19. He and his colleagues previously found that mothers who drank carrot juice during the last trimester of pregnancy had babies who liked the juice at 6 months old. —Tina Hesman Saey

Extending a cosmic yardstick
WASHINGTON — A longer cosmic yardstick promises to give astronomers a better grasp of how fast the universe is expanding and may offer clues to the nature of dark energy, the mysterious entity that accelerates that growth. New measurements based on intense radio-wave emissions peg the distance to the galaxy NGC 6264 at 450 million light-years with an accuracy of 9 percent, giving a look nearly three times farther into the universe than ever before. Previous measurements used a two-step, indirect method that is more error-prone, notes James Braatz of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Va. He reported the finding. —Ron Cowen

Guts in knots
WASHINGTON — The ancient Romans, who thought the future could be read in the complicated shapes of animal entrails, had it all wrong. These twists and kinks aren’t nearly so complex, according to L. Mahadevan of Harvard University, who can reproduce them with a simple rubber tube stretched and then stitched to a sheet of latex. Unconvinced by a theory that blamed the cramped conditions of the abdominal cavity for these loops, which come in regular repeating intervals, he tested the idea that a digestive tube growing faster than the tissue connecting it to the body could create a twisting force. “When the rubber relaxes, we see a periodic structure of loops that arises spontaneously,” Mahadevan said February 18. —Devin Powell

Lab jets may tackle cosmic blasts
WASHINGTON — Lab experiments that collide two jets of positron-electron pairs may help physicists identify the source of gamma-ray bursts in distant galaxies, Hui Chen of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., proposed February 18. Researchers detect these intense flashes of light about once a day, but no one knows their source. Chen and colleagues reported last year creating and controlling jets of electrons and their antiparticles, positrons, in the lab. Now, she plans to whack them into each other. The collision is expected to create a shockwave that will accelerate particles to high energies and emit radiation. If the signal resembles that seen in space, it may point to a culprit. —Elizabeth Quill

Cleft palates linked to genes, environment
A baby’s risk of being born with a cleft palate may depend on both the baby’s genes and whether mom smoked, drank or took vitamins during pregnancy, a new study shows. Researchers examining genetic risk combined with maternal smoking, drinking and vitamin use found that environmental factors can interact with certain genes to raise or lower risk of the malformation, Johns Hopkins University genetic epidemiologist Terri Beaty reported February 20. Binge drinking and smoking early in pregnancy interact with some genes to raise the risk of clefts. Multivitamins interact with other genes to protect against clefts. —Tina Hesman Saey

Electrodes knock out depression
WASHINGTON — Electrodes implanted deep into the brains of people suffering from severe depression improved symptoms for up to six years, researchers reported February 10. Three to six years after neurosurgeons implanted electrodes in their brains, most patients still showed gains: fewer signs of depression, better physical health and the ability to hold down jobs. No late-developing side effects were evident from the procedure, though two of the subjects committed suicide during depressive episodes, reported neuroscientist Helen Mayberg of Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. The work — the longest-running follow-up of these patients — promises to help people who have depression that has not responded to other treatments. —Laura Sanders

Thinking big
WASHINGTON — Humans may have evolved to supply the brain with the energy-storing substance creatine at the expense of other body parts. Creatine fuels metabolism by storing energy, like a battery, over the short term and releasing it quickly. Molecular evidence from frozen tissue samples suggests that, compared with chimpanzees and rhesus macaques, humans shuttle more creatine to the brain and less to skeletal muscles. Greg Wray of Duke University in Durham, N.C., reported the findings February 20, and they appear in the February Journal of Human Evolution. —Alexandra Witze

Probing quark substructure
WASHINGTON — Like nested Russian dolls, atomic nuclei are made of neutrons and protons, and those particles in turn are made of quarks. But if quarks are made of smaller particles, the constituents are no larger than 60 trillionths of a billionth of a meter in diameter. That new limit, about 60 percent smaller than the previous estimate, is based on experiments at the Large Hadron Collider, near Geneva, Switzerland. Additional collider data already recorded should reveal any quark subunits larger than about half the size of the new limit, Thomas LeCompte of the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois reported February 20.  —Ron Cowen