Quake Dangers

Well before a devastating earthquake hit Turkey in August, MIT researchers knew the region was subject to high and mounting risks of such an event. The knowledge came from new monitoring technology that uses GPS–the satellite-based Global Positioning System–to identify ground movements measuring under a tenth of an inch, or about the width of a pencil lead. Though the researchers hadn’t finished installing the system on the North Anatolian fault, northern Turkey’s counterpart to California’s famed San Andreas fault, enough was in place to reveal that strain rates were at dangerous levels along the part of the fissure that ruptured in mid-August. The Turkey-based effort, one of several around the world, involves both MIT and Turkish scientists. Nafi Toksoz, an MIT professor who’s an expert on earthquakes, is in charge of the project.

Ancient Rubber

A recent MIT graduate has shown that long-ago denizens of a region around Mexico’s southern border knew how to fabricate rubber, and made items from balls to figurines out of it as early as 1600 B.C. Michael Tarkanian, a 1999 graduate in materials science and engineering, first did research on the issue. With help from a faculty mentor, Dorothy Hosler of his department, he then got the official go-ahead to sample two ancient balls dredged up from swamps near Veracruz, Mexico, one of the Central American areas where sophisticated civilizations flourished many centuries ago. “It was nerve-wracking,” Tarkanian says of the experience. Analysis showed the balls included latex from native trees and the juice from a morning glory vine. Subsequent experiments revealed it’s possible to make a bouncy polymer by combining the compounds. Tarkanian, among a handful of undergraduates ever to co-author a Science magazine article, worked under the auspices of the Center for Materials Research in Archaeology and Ethnology, an MIT-based consortium of eight universities. His other faculty mentor was Sandra Burkett, also of the materials science and engineering department.

Cancer in the Lab

Since scientists first definitively traced human cancer to flawed genes over two decades ago, the push has been on to transform normal human cells into cancerous ones in the lab–a measure expected to help illuminate how the disease forms and spreads. A group led by MIT’s Robert Weinberg has now reached that goal. If you’re working with mouse cells, you can produce cancerous versions by integrating cancer-linked genes into the cells’ DNA. With human cells, the group found, you need a further step: activate the gene for an enzyme that is present in most human cancers. That enzyme, telomerase, helps allow cells in actual tumors to grow and divide endlessly, and now turns out to do the same thing for cells in petri dishes. The achievement marks yet another key cancer contribution by Weinberg and his co-workers. The scientist, a member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research as well as the MIT faculty, was the first to identify a defective gene specifically associated with a human cancer.

Labeling Asteroids

There have been recent scares about asteroids thought to be on courses that would put them close to Earth, or even cause them to collide with our planet. Though further calculations have so far scotched worries about these threats, scientists say it’s perfectly possible a large asteroid or comet could strike or sideswipe Earth. So, MIT scientist Richard Binzel has designed a scale that lets experts rate the potential danger involved. The Torino Scale–named for the Italian city where it was ratified by an international astronomy group–ranks larger asteroids and comets from zero to 10, according to the risk they pose. So far, all the bodies tagged fall at the safe end of that scale. But the process of finding new asteroids goes on, and if a threatening one turns up the system gives scientists a simple means for labeling it. The idea, says Binzel, is to provide a way “to inform but not confuse or unnecessarily alarm the public.”