California's San Diego Zoo and Diversa Corp. will collect samples of microbial communities from the zoo's endangered species. Researchers will compare micro-organisms living in and near zoo animals to those in the wild, using robotics-based DNA screening in computers that detect light emitted from cells. Scientists hope the study will improve animal health and increase knowledge about microhabitats.

The Delaware Safety Council now provides an online defensive driving course to state drivers. The state Insurance Commissioners Office approved the course for the same auto insurance discount as the regular classroom course, plus a three-point credit added to the participant's motor vehicle record upon successful completion. The CD-ROM-based course costs $25.

Georgia Institute of Technology scientists created a handheld electronic "dog-on-a-chip" that sniffs out cocaine and other narcotics in real time, reducing time between drug seizure and lab analysis. It senses cocaine at a few trillionths of a gram through surface acoustic wave electronics -- which measures the disturbance chemicals cause in sound waves across a tiny quartz crystal. It also differentiates a certain chemical from a group of many similar ones (e.g., cocaine from coffee grounds).

Gary Truitt -- an Indiana farm news broadcaster -- started a Web site for farmers to sell crops, meat and other products online, and said more than 30 producers are using it. Truitt launched the Web site with a grant from the USDA. He said the site links farmers to customers who might never have heard about locally grown products. -- USA Today

Nevada's first time selling unclaimed property on eBay surpassed expectations in November, making $16,000 on 25 items. The state received $15,000 in 2002 from selling thousands of items via traditional auctions. The treasurer can sell items from old bank safety deposit boxes abandoned for several years. Heirs to property owners may collect the sales prices later. -- Las Vegas Review-Journal

Parents of Paterson, N.J., elementary school students received cellular phones as part of a pilot to discourage truancy and prevent abductions. The phones will be used to alert parents or guardians if their child doesn't show up at school. A nonprofit foundation donated the equipment. -- USA Today

A New Mexico scientist created an inflatable living environment to potentially shield astronauts against radiation inside Mars caves.

An Oregon technologist invented an airtight system to sustain people inside the structure, using edible plants to recycle carbon dioxide into oxygen. The system passed a test using air similar to that on Mars. -- The Albuquerque Tribune

Oklahoma Rep. Gus Blackwell plans to introduce legislation allowing lawmakers to use videoconferencing to participate in meetings at the Capitol. He said the move would reduce travel costs. The state's Department of Health now uses teleconference technology so directors don't need to drive to Oklahoma City for meetings.

To stabilize energy grids, the Tennessee Valley Authority and American Superconductor created the SuperVAR dynamic synchronous condenser. SuperVAR runs alongside power systems, generating or absorbing reactive power if the system's voltage changes. The machine is expected to use 50 percent less energy than conventional condensers.

Miriam Jones  |  Chief Copy Editor