On the horizon

The Pelican puzzle

In the past two weeks, more than 100 mysteriously ailing California brown pelicans have been brought to SeaWorld San Diego. "They're acting as if they're starving," says Judy St. Leger, SeaWorld's veterinarian.

But lack of food doesn't appear to be the problem. Efforts by California's Department of Fish and Game are thought to have increased once over-harvested populations of Pacific mackerel, Pacific sardine, and northern anchovy - the brown pelican's staple diet.

There was no warning that the endangered pelican population was being threatened, officials say, until the sickly juveniles started arriving. Ten birds have been nursed back to health and released, but more arrive each day.

Experts have ruled out avian botulism - a disease the endangered water birds have been known to pick up from the Salton Sea, a migratory stopover.

Postmortem tissue samples have been sent to state and federal laboratories and the University of California, Davis, veterinary school.

Busy microbe scrubs water clean

A microbe that loves to eat a foul-smelling gasoline additive has put Port Hueneme Naval Base in Ventura County, Calif., on the enviro-cleanup map.

As owners of wells across the country have discovered, methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE, shows up in the water virtually everywhere MTBE-laced gas is sold. It spreads quickly and makes water unpalatable, or even unsafe.

For years, Port Hueneme base has been pumping contaminated water, from a 1980s underground fuel tank leak, through traditional carbon filters to remove the MTBE. Given the snail's pace at which ground water moves - a few inches a year - officials say it could take 240 years to finish the job.

But with a humble protobacteria dubbed PM1, cleanup time could be cut to 40 years and save the Navy as much as $30 million, officials say.

Scientists discovered the microbe growing on a filter at a Los Angeles County treatment plant, where it was removing MTBE from refinery waste.

Four years ago, researchers from UC Davis began testing the microbe's ability to fight MTBE by injecting it into the naval base's tainted aquifer. Within months, MTBE levels had dropped below 5 parts per billion - well below the 13 parts per billion threshold California sets for drinking water - immediately "downstream" of the underground bacterial barrier.

MTBE-eating microbes are getting tryouts at other contaminated sites around California. Researchers have found in some cases that simply getting air into the ground water stimulates growth of organisms already in the soil.

Videos for gravestones

A US scientist has invented a high-tech gravestone featuring messages from the dead on a video screen, reports the website ananova.com.

Robert Barrows of Burlingame, Calif. has filed a patent application for a hollow headstone fitted with a flat LCD touch screen. It houses a computer with a hard disk or microchip memory that allows the deceased to speak through a prerecorded video message, reports New Scientist.

The tombstone would draw its electricity from the cemetery's lighting system. And to avoid a grave's soundtrack clashing with the one next door, people can listen through wireless headphones.

The dead might just relate their life stories, says Mr. Barrows, or worse: They could confess to lurid indiscretions. "It's history from the horse's mouth."

Gary Collison, professor of American studies at Pennsylvania State University in Pittsburgh, thinks video tombstones are a natural progression from outsize monumental stonework.

"Cemeteries are places where people try to outdo each other, display their wealth and power. This would certainly be a new way to do that," he says.

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