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News Briefs

Microbes Might Survive in Space


Microbiologist Rocco Mancinelli was at work in tidal flats along the coast of Baja California Sur one day about seven years ago when his research team noticed some interesting hummocks of dried-out, crusted salt. Mancinelli used a hammer to break one open and found inside a green stripe that turned out to be a thriving colony of microorganisms.

Salt is so hostile to most life forms that people have used it for centuries as a preservative. The thought occurred to Mancinelli that the little green salt-lovers, as well as some red ones discovered in a nearby salt company pond gone “bad,” would make ideal candidates for exposure to an even more hostile environment -- space.

On Sept. 23, 80 samples of the red and green Mexican microbes (species from the archaea genus Haloarcula and the bacteria genus Synechococcus) returned from the third in a series of flights into space as part of the European Space Agency’s Biopan experiment. Evidence from the flights, launched on Russian Foton rockets, as well as extensive ground experiments, indicate that, indeed, the microbes are in a minuscule minority of known life forms capable of surviving prolonged exposure to the vacuum of space.

The study of organisms is of more than frivolous interest: it bears on theories about the cosmic pathways that life might follow, such as the possibility that it arose elsewhere and traveled to Earth in chunks of rubble. The topic has taken on added urgency for those who work in the exotic field of planetary protection -- that is, preventing biological contamination of Earth by other planets and vice versa.

National Mental Illness Screening Project Offers Resources to Masses


All across the country Thursday, anyone who feels that they or a loved one may be depressed or has suicidal thoughts can get help -- anonymously, confidentially and free of charge.

The ninth annual National Depression Screening Day will take place that day throughout the nation. The event is coordinated by the National Mental Illness Screening Project, a nonprofit organization based in Wellesley, Mass. Other sponsors of the effort include the National Institute of Mental Health, the American Psychiatric Association and the National Mental Health Association.

Last year, over 90,000 Americans participated in the screenings.

Every year, between 17 million and 20 million Americans spiral into depression -- a feeling of sadness and hopelessness that they can’t seem to shake off. It is estimated that one in five U.S. adults experiences an episode of depression in their lifetime. Symptoms such as sleep disturbances, fatigue or restlessness, difficulty concentrating and changes in appetite often accompany depression, which can be caused by imbalances in key brain chemicals, stressful life events and as a side effect of certain drugs or illnesses.

You can find a screening site near your home by calling (800) 573-4433 or by checking the project’s Web site at There are 3,000 screening sites -- at clinics, hospitals and more -- across the nation. At the screening sites, you can fill out a questionnaire to help determine if you suffer or ever have suffered from depression. You can also learn more about the signs of suicidal feelings, get information about depression and suicide and talk with a mental health professional.