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Sniff Tests, Fuller Didn't Do Geodesic Dome, Dingoes Hail from Asia?

by K. M. REESE
September 13, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 37

Sniff tests

Amy E. Brown writes from College Park, Md., that a note about sniff tests for unknown chemicals in teaching labs (C&EN, Aug. 16, page 48) reminded her of a class she took as a graduate student in the late 1970s. "It was an introductory horticulture class on fertilizers," she writes, "and the labs often featured unknowns. We were required to taste each fertilizer and describe the smell, flavor, and texture in our lab notebooks. The only exception, thank goodness, was a fertilizer that we were told contained cyanide."

Brown says she "never understood" why tasting fertilizers was necessary to her education. Still, she didn't want to sacrifice any grade points, "so I tasted right along with the others in the class."

In more than 20 years as the coordinator for pesticide safety education programs in Maryland, Brown reports, "I have never encountered any farmers who routinely choose fertilizers based on taste. Unlike humans choosing medications or dietary supplements, crops don't have much of a say in what flavors they'd prefer to absorb."

Brown further recalls taking part in a faculty experiment involving a sniff test to determine which beans smelled least noxious. The beans had been treated with various fumigants, she says, "and were presented to us in little plastic baggies. The proper preharvest interval had been observed, but it still wasn't an experience I'd care to repeat."

The remarks about sniff tests also attracted Gerald L. Carlson. When he was in graduate school in the early 1970s, Carlson took part in a blind test of some 25 samples that arrived by mail. The volunteers were invited to classify them by functional groups; chemical class; and, if possible, chemical identity. If memory serves, Carlson says, the volunteers were far more accurate than chance alone. Usually they got the classification right and sometimes the exact compound.

In his opinion, Carlson says, "we've lost some of the wonder and fun that made chemistry attractive by going to microscale labs where a single smell will consume all of the available sample and color can't be appreciated because the sample can't be seen. Part of the experience of being a chemist is knowing what to sniff--and when!"

Fuller didn't do geodesic dome

Howard Wilk writes from Philadelphia to point out that R. Buckminster Fuller did not invent the geodesic dome (C&EN, July 26, page 56), although Fuller named it such. Wilk says the dome was invented by Walter Bauersfeld and colleagues of Carl Zeiss Optical Co. Wilk cites Tony Rothman's 1989 book "Science à la Mode: Physical Fashions and Fictions" (Princeton University Press). On page 60, Wilk says, is a picture of the pertinent German patent, dated 1925.


Dingoes hail from Asia?

The wild dogs called dingoes live in Australia today, but biologists have long wondered how they got there. Now, a recent genetic study by senior researcher Peter Savolainen at the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, and his colleagues supports the idea that the dingoes originated in Southeast Asia, according to the Aug. 28 issue of Science News [166, 141 (2004)]. The work is scheduled to appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

The investigators analyzed sections of DNA from 211 dingoes and from domestic dogs and ancient bones found at archaeological sites in Polynesia. They also consulted data from an earlier study of DNA in more than 600 dogs and several dozen wolves.

The DNA sequences from about half of the dingoes were identical, and the rest varied only slightly from that norm. The most common form of DNA among the dingoes matched one in domestic dogs from East Asia and Arctic North America.

The researchers conclude that today's Australian dingoes probably descended from a few Asian domestic dogs, "perhaps even one pregnant protodingo female." The dingoes didn't get Down Under on their own, the scientists assert. To reach Australia, even when sea levels were low, says Science News, "would have required a journey of at least 50 km over open water. The researchers propose that about 5,000 years ago, dingo Eve hitchhiked there with a wave of human pioneers fanning out from Asia."



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