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:: By Megan Lisagor

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Investigations ::


Head in the sky

image:  Rocks from southwest Greenland could hold the earliest evidence of life on Earth.

image:  Rocks from southwest Greenland could hold the earliest evidence of life on Earth.
Rocks from southwest Greenland
could hold the earliest evidence of
life on Earth.

Courtesy Nicolas Dauphas

It turns out that some traits aren’t just for the birds: humans and chickens share more than half the same genes, with 70 million DNA base pairs in common. That’s according to an analysis of the bird’s newly mapped genome, made available to researchers worldwide last March. An international consortium of 175 scientists, including associate professor of ecology & evolution Manyuan Long and graduate student J. J. Emerson, compared the blueprint with published sequences of humans, mice, rats, and puffer fish. The biologists report in the December 9 Nature that the avian genome offers clues to vertebrate evolution.

Solid as a rock

Nearly 4-billion-year-old rocks could contain the earliest evidence of life on Earth, a team led by Nicolas Dauphas, assistant professor in geophysical sciences and a Field Museum associate, reports in the December 17 Science. The Greenland stones have been mired in controversy, as some scientists argue that they once existed in a molten state, unsuitable for preserving biological activity. Using mass spectrometry, Dauphas, Enrico Fermi Institute senior scientist Andrew Davis, and others analyzed iron isotopes in the rocks to determine what process formed them. The stones were sedimentary, the team found, and thus could sustain life.

Balancing act

Want it all—kids, career, happiness? Sociologists Barbara Schneider and Linda Waite explore strategies for success in Being Together, Working Apart: Dual-Career Families and the Work-Life Balance (Cambridge University Press, 2005). Schneider, codirector of the Alfred P. Sloan Center on Parents, Children, and Work, and Waite, the Lucy Flower professor of sociology, studied 500 American families in which both parents have jobs, investigating how work affects well-being—an area that remains relatively unexamined. They argue for a new balance between personal and professional demands.

Math for chemistry majors

Math teachers around the world, rejoice. Proving that complex calculations have real-life applications, chemistry assistant professor David Mazziotti has created a new formula for computing a molecule’s electronic properties, a key to understanding chemical reactions. Previously, scientists attempted to model the motion of all the molecule’s electrons, which required super-computing power. But now there’s a quicker way, Mazziotti reports in the November 19 Physical Review Letters and the December 8 Journal of Chemical Physics. His method uses only a pair of electrons, reducing the computer time and memory needed. The approach could help solve problems in chemistry as well as combustion, medicine, and other fields.

Heartbreaking news

A promising treatment for heart-attack patients may not work as doctors had hoped, a team led by medicine associate professor Elizabeth McNally reports in the December Journal of Clinical Investigation. Earlier studies suggested that bone-marrow stem cells could generate new tissue. But McNally’s team found that although transplanted cells could infiltrate the heart’s damaged regions and proliferate there, they could not produce sarcoglycan, a protein essential to normal cardiac and skeletal muscle function.