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Our World Transcript — 20 May 2006


This transcript is provided as a service; there may be some variation between it and the program as broadcast.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

Straight ahead on "Our World" ... A genetic clue to human evolution ... hepatitis among Asian immigrants ... And high-speed Internet service for small towns and farms ...

HORRIGAN: "having a high speed Internet connection really transforms people's Internet experience. If you have the high speed connection, you tend to log on more frequently, you tend to do more things on the Internet"

Those stories, a completely legal Website of the Week, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

We begin this week with some intriguing research about chimpanzees ... and humans.

Somewhere back up the evolutionary family tree, humans and chimps split off from a common ancestor, and it looks like it was not as long ago as we thought.

According to anew genetic study by scientists at Harvard and MIT, the two species parted ways probably less than 5.4 million years ago. That's about a million years more recently than previously believed.

That would be interesting enough, but there's more.

It's all in a new study, published in the science journal Nature, comparing human and chimp DNA. Analyzing the similarities and differences provides evidence of the evolutionary history. In a Nature podcast, senior author David Reich observes that when you examine just the human female sex chromosome -- known as "X" -- it is obviously much younger than the rest of the genome.

REICH: "One way that we thought we could explain this is by a model of population history where human and chimpanzee ancestors initially separated, then were separated for quite a long time, then they became differentiated and possibly began evolving some different traits and then remixed back together. If that happened, in a kind of hybridization event, human and chimpanzee genetic ancestry would range over a very wide range of times."

In other words, the ancestors of the chimpanzee were mating with the ancestors of humans. Although the two species look quite different today, back then the ancestors probably looked pretty much the same, said one of the other authors...

From a genetic story of the distant past now to one of the near future.

Could genetically engineered organisms provide a way to replace petroleum in everything from plastics to fuel?

Craig Venter thinks, maybe so.

Venter knows a little something about genetics. He founded a company called Celera Genomics that aimed to sequence the human genome for commercial purposes. The company developed technologies to automate the process, and the resulting genome sequence - essentially, a blueprint of human DNA - was published five years ago. It's a huge step to an understanding of how human life functions on a genetic level, which will have implications for the prevention and treatment of disease for years to come.

Since then, Venter has been putting his genetic curiosity to use in other ways. He sent his 23-meter sailboat, Sorcerer II, around the world, picking up a sample of seawater every few hundred kilometers. The oceans, it turns out, harbor vast arrays of previously unknown microorganisms, for example, in a particularly salty area of the Atlantic.

VENTER: "We chose the Sargasso Sea because it was supposed to be a desert. There's very few nutrients there, and the sampling that had been done convinced scientists that there was very little life in the Sargasso Sea. In contrast, we found in a barrel of seawater roughly 40,000 new species that hadn't been characterized before...on the order of a million new genes."

Similar findings of new species and previously unknown genes were repeated throughout the Sorcerer II's journey around the world, and the microbiology was different everywhere they sampled.

VENTER: "About half the data has no overlap with any other data, but I think the finding that stunned us the most was the 85 percent of the data was unique to each site, 200 miles [320 km] apart, and only about three percent of the data assembled across multiple sites.

So what to do with this knowledge? Well, if the mix of micro-organisms in any given part of the ocean is unique and identifiable, there are some security applications. For example, ballast water picked up by a ship might have a unique fingerprint showing where the ship had been.

Some other possibilities were hinted at in a documentary on TV's Discovery Channel:

VIDEO: "These little creatures are less understood than distant galaxies. Yet they form 60 to 90 percent of all life on our own home planet. They are the chemists in control of our planet's vital functions. The source of their power? Their genetic code."

VENTER: "This is a new field at its earliest stages that has a chance for tremendous impact on the world. It's possible that within a decade or two, designed and engineered species can replace the petrochemical industry."

Craig Venter described how micro-organisms might be genetically engineered to convert plant sugar into plastics and fuels. The future could be here sooner than you think. The giant chemical company, DuPont, is expected to open a plant later this year to produce a chemical called propanediol from corn sugar. It will end up in stain-resistant carpet. Venter says the greater our genetic knowledge, the better scientists will be able to put organisms' genetic machinery to work for us.

If all this sounds like science fiction, listen to what Venter says from a perspective of just a few decades ago.

VENTER: "Actually, when I did my PhD at UC-San Diego in the early '70s, I was told that most of biology was already known, keeping in mind that was following, in 1969, the U.S. Surgeon General announcing that we had won the war against microbial infections, and that had the impact of shutting down microbial departments arond the world and cutting back funding, and we're now falling way behind in that war. So I think science has gone through these various points where we thought we had peaked on our knowledge, and almost always those were followed by huge periods of massive discovery."

Craig Ventner. He spoke in Washington this week at the annual U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Science Forum.

East Asian-born adults living in New York City are more likely than the general population to be infected with Hepatitis B, according to a new study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.

SKIRBLE: A research team from New York University Medical School screened 2,000 Asian-born adults for Hepatitis B, a blood disease that is transmitted at birth from an infected mother or, like AIDS, contracted through sex, needle sharing or exchange of blood.

The infection rate among the Asian-adults was 15 percent — 30 times the rate for the general U.S. population. Study author Henry Pollack says some immigrant groups within the Asian community suffer even higher rates of infection.

POLLACK: "We found that those that were born in China had an infection rate which was 21 percent, which was much higher than normally thought. In China the overall rates are [officially] given at 10 percent."

SKIRBLE: Immigrants bring Hepatitis B to the United States from countries where the disease is endemic. Pollack says rates are low in the U.S. population because, for the past 20 years, Americans have routinely vaccinated their children at birth:

POLLACK: "And it has been very, very effective. And it has also happened in certain countries in East Asia. For instance, Taiwan has instituted this vaccine program for the last twenty years and their rates are much, much, much lower than in mainland China, and it has only been recently that there has been a much greater effort made to impose this neo-natal vaccinations."

SKIRBLE: Hepatitis B can lead to liver damage and liver cancer. But the disease is a silent killer. Persons can carry it for decades without knowing it and only a small percentage survive after a late diagnosis.

According to the CDC study, many Asian-born adults are unaware they might be carriers. Researcher Henry Pollack says early screening is the most effective tool to fight the disease for those not vaccinated as children.

POLLACK: "And I think that any person who is born outside the United States and in an area where there is a high prevalence such as Asia, but also Eastern Europe and Africa, they should be tested for Hepatitis B."

SKIRBLE: Pollack says the health care costs from Hepatitis B can be enormous and suggests more community programs that promote awareness, screening and treatment.

While the CDC study was limited to New York, screening programs in Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco also report disproportionately high rates of Hepatitis B among Asian immigrants. I'm Rosanne Skirble.

Time again for our Website of the Week, the segment where we highlight interesting and useful online destinations. This week's site is the place to go for information about the law, both here in the United States and around the world.

HIBBITTS: "Jurist is a legal news and research website, and what we're trying to do is really provide real-time legal news and documentation for people who are interested in following serious legal developments worldwide."

Bernard Hibbitts is a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania and the editor-in-chief of the Jurist website, at jurist.law.pitt.edu.

Jurist provides a variety of material on key legal issues. Take one that's been in the news lately: immigration. The site's immigration page has news stories and web links --

HIBBITTS: "Plus our commentaries that we've produced in this area, recent documents that are critical to understanding developments here, video - that kind of thing. So you're going to find a lot of background material, a lot of research resources. It's something which, I guess in that context, is also good and useful for students who are trying to understand what's going on, because they're going to get a range of material which really isn't available to them anywhere else."

Much of the site is written and assembled by a group of about 30 law students, but some of the commentaries that Professor Hibbitts mentioned are written by scholars, officials and other experts. And Jurist provides easy access to a selection of original source material, such as court decisions.

Because Jurist comes from an American law school, much of the material relates to U.S. law, but one click on the home page takes you to the international version of the site.

HIBBITTS: "If you go to the international version, you'll get mostly international stories from various locations and you'll be able to really see what's happening in terms of recent legal developments in those places, and when you switch over from one edition to the other, you also get different topics that we're highlighting, different documents — that sort of thing — that an international audience would be most interested in."

Jurist does attract an international audience, as you can see right on the site's homepage, where they have a table listing the location of recent visitors. Legal news and research -- and winner of a People's Voice Webby Award, announced just last week -- check it out at jurist.law.pitt.edu, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.


MUSIC: "I Fought the Law" — Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

It's VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

You may have heard of the digital divide — people with Internet access on one side of the divide, people without it on the other.

But even among those who are online, there is a further divide ... between people who have high-speed access and those with much slower dial-up service.

In the United States, residents of rural areas are less likely than urban or suburban residents to have high-speed Internet access. At a U.S. Senate hearing this week, the head of the government's Rural Utilities Service, Jim Andrew, compared fast internet service with breakthrough technologies of the past.

ANDREW: "Broadband might well be the next railroad or high-speed highway that could connect rural areas with the commerce of the rest of the nation and the world. Without it, some of our rural communities might very well not survive, or at the least not realize the prosperity that can be derived from such connection."

America's farms and small towns have a hard time attracting and keeping residents and businesses, which increasingly need to be connected with the world around them. High speed Internet access could help. But for millions of Americans living in very small towns and in rural areas, high-speed service simply isn't available except via satellite, which is very expensive and slower than other technologies.

A controversial Agriculture Department loan program that Mr. Andrew oversees is supposed to help expand broadband service to sparsely-populated areas. But an internal audit criticized the program for failing to focus on rural areas that otherwise would not have broadband Internet.

The deployment of high speed Internet service to America's rural areas was the subject of a recent report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, an independent research group. I asked Pew's Associate Director, John Horrigan, to outline the report's findings.

HORRIGAN: "There's a substantial disparity in rural broadband penetration relative to other parts of the country. Twenty-four percent of rural Americans have high speed Internet at home, and that contrasts with 39 percent of people in urban and suburban parts of America having high speed Internet access. So this gap is quite substantial.

CHIMES: Is this a matter of technology or economics?

HORRIGAN: It's a little bit of both. Economics explains some of the gaps because rural Americans are, on average, people with lower income, and they're also older than people in other parts of the country, and those are two factors that tend to militate against having broadband Internet access at home. Now technology is also part of the story. It's more expensive to wire rural areas with the infrastructure to provide high-speed Internet access, and we find a sizeable number of rural Americans who don't have broadband access saying they simply can't get it. It's more costly to get it.

CHIMES: How are rural Americans disadvantaged by having less access to high speed Internet services?

HORRIGAN: At the Pew Internet Project we found in a number of studies that having a high speed Internet connection really transmforms people's Internet experience. If you have the high speed connection, you tend to log on more frequently, you tend to do more things on the Internet. That said, we do find in our surveys that given a broadband connection, rural Americans and non-rural Americans are every bit as engaged with the Internet.

CHIMES: I thought it was kind of interesting, looking at your report, that it seems that rural and urban Americans use the Internet in somewhat different ways. Can you talk about that a bit?

HORRIGAN: We find that rural Americans truly do use the Internet as a distance-killing application. And we found in particular that rural Americans are more likely to use the Internet to take a class for credit than people not living in rural America. We also find that rural Americans are more likely to download computer games. And again, to the extent that some of these computer games might be available only at retail outlets, rural Americans are avoiding that long drive to a retail store and just clicking on things and downloading it."

John Horrigan of the Pew Center on Internet Life.

Buying a kitchen appliance often involves a bit of energy mathematics. A more expensive refrigerator may have more insulation and run more efficiently, so it's really cheaper in the long run. Same with many buildings. Usually only pricey houses benefit from energy efficient and environmentally friendly technologies such as solar panels and non-toxic materials, but despite the higher costs, green technology appeals to many non-profit groups that provide affordable housing. Shawn Allee of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium has our report.

Holly Denniston's got a tough job. She's the real-estate director for a non-profit housing agency. Denniston's got not one, but two, bottom lines to watch. On the one hand, she's trying to build affordable housing for thousands of low and moderate-income families in Chicago. On the other hand, it's not enough to develop a cheap house and walk away.

As a nearby commuter train rolls by, Denniston explains she's got to make sure families can afford to stay in these homes.

"We want affordable housing in the long run. When heating costs rise, when electricity costs rise, we don't want our homeowners to have to move out. We want them to live in these houses for thirty years or for as long as they want and be able to raise a family here without spending all of their dollars on housing."

That means the best fit for struggling families are homes that are cheap to buy and cheap to live in.

Denniston leads me up the stairs of a nearly-finished town home she says fits that bill.

Inside, it's not much different from high-priced town homes sprouting up in most cities, but Denniston says I probably missed the most notable feature of the building: a roof made of solar shingles.

"If you would take down the ceiling from the second floor, you would see a spider web of lines coming down, leading down to the back of the house, and then leading to an inverter in the basement."

The shingles and power inverter generate electricity. The system's simple and needs almost no intervention by the occupants, but more importantly, it'll save the family thousands of dollars in power bills in the next few years, and Denniston says this isn't even their most efficient home.

Some of their homes consume less than three hundred dollars worth of energy per year - even with cold Chicago winters, but building homes like this isn't cheap.

The solar shingle system added thousands of dollars in up-front building costs. So, how do groups like Bethel build green while trying to keep their own costs down?

Well, usually, they get help.

"Basically I think we can say that all of the affordable housing projects that are doing this are doing it because they're subsidized by either state or utility programs."

Edward Connelly is with New Ecology Incorporated, a group that studies and promotes green affordable housing.

"The up-front cost is generally not within the budget of an affordable housing developer for photo voltaics, because they tend to be expensive."

Reliance on government or utility company subsidies can cause problems. Connelly says some states make these subsidies available to everyone, not just non-profits.

That means non-profits have to compete with traditional homebuilders for the money to build green, and the subsidy programs sometimes run short of demand.

Affordable, green housing faces other problems, too.

These projects sometimes move at a snail's pace. That's because agencies often have to juggle several funding sources. Each government agency or utility adds its own requirements, and managing all of them consumes a lot of time. That means people who need affordable housing have to wait longer, but when these groups do get the required funds, the long-term benefits for low-to-moderate income families are impressive.

Chicago architect Susan King's developed several green affordable housing projects. She says non-profit projects benefit from energy efficient technology, but their social missions push them even further. They include features that go beyond just saving money.

"It's an easy sell because they really do care for the life of the building, whereas the for-profit developer just cares about that bottom line."

She saw that attitude develop in her latest building.

It's energy efficient and has solar power, but the non-profit also wanted paint that wouldn't pollute indoor air. King says, for now, housing groups build more environmentally friendly homes than market rate homebuilders with similar budgets, but she predicts that gap will narrow. Average homeowners will soon demand more environmental amenities.

"I think the not-for-profits are setting an example that the for-profits are going to follow, but they're not going to follow it because they're shamed into it. I think they're going to follow it because in the end, it's going to make economic sense."

Back at the energy efficient and environmentally friendly town-home, Holly Denniston says some day, most of the features here will be standard in the home industry, but she says non-profits will keep adding additional value to homes even if that means spending more money up front.

"To non-profits, that's alright; we're not looking for the highest return, we're looking at sustainable community."

So, Denniston says a project like this shows affordable housing isn't about cheap housing. It's about building homes where people can afford to live.

For the GLRC, I'm Shawn Allee.

The Great Lakes Radio Consortium is produced by Michigan Radio with help from the Joyce Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Cooperative Extension Service. They're online at GLRC.org.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

That's our show for this week. If you want to get in touch, email us at ourworld@voanews.com. Or use our postal address -

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

Rob Sivak edits the show. Eva Nenicka is our technical director. And this is Art Chimes, inviting you to join us online at voanews.com/ourworld or on your radio next Saturday and Sunday as we check out the latest in science and technology...in Our World.

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