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Our World — 20 January 2007


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," avian flu and the 1918 pandemic ... fuel from pond scum ... and a landmark in aviation history ...

VAN DER LINDEN: "The one big technological improvement on the aircraft were the engines. Much more powerful than the smaller jet engines. So it really paved the way for true mass travel by air."

The Boeing 747, raising the profile of a deadly disease, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

The World Health Organization says two Egyptians who died last month after contracting avian, or bird flu, had a mutated version of the virus that was resistant to the antiviral drug oseltamivir. The drug, also known as Tamiflu, is seen as the main weapon against the flu's H5N1 strain. In a statement issued Thursday, the WHO said there is no indication that this resistant mutation of the virus is widespread in Egypt or elsewhere.

Experts fear that a different kind of mutation in the virus could allow infection to spread from person-to-person, which might trigger a pandemic.

Pandemic influenza could be a worldwide health disaster. It has been in the past. The worst recorded pandemic began in 1918, and tens of millions of people — or more — died all around the world.

That may or may not happen with the H5N1 strain of avian flu. But many scientists believe another pandemic will come along one of these days. And researchers are using the 1918 flu virus to help them prepare to do battle with the next flu threat. VOA's Jessica Berman reports.

BERMAN: Researchers wanting to get a better idea why the dreaded H5N1 pandemic might be so deadly studied the 1918 Spanish flu, which killed 50 million people, many of whom were healthy, young adults.

Researchers altered the early 20th century virus at a biosafety lab in Winnipeg, Canada, to make it genetically similar the H5N1 virus. Then scientists infected seven macaque monkeys with the altered virus.

The experiment was supposed to last three weeks. But after eight days, the monkeys become too sick to live.

KAWAOKA: "Monkeys were affected severely enough that required euthanization."

BERMAN: Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a virologist at the University of Wisconsin, led the study which was published in Nature.

Unlike other avian flu viruses which are eventually controlled by the immune system, Kawaoka and colleagues found that their 1918 flu model stimulated an uncontrolled immune response.

KAWAOKA: "The severe illness found in patients in 1918 and animals in infected with 1918 virus was due to continued replication of the virus which triggered unusual immune response."

BERMAN: The investigators say that may help explain why so many young people died of influenza in 1918. Their healthy immune systems may have fueled the virus.

Co-author Michael Katze of the University of Washington says despite such research, no one can predict what would happen in the next flu pandemic.

KATZE: "I think it's extremely critical to develop animal models with these highly pathogenic viruses so that should there be another epidemic or pandemic, we will have the models in place, we will have the drugs tested, we will have the vaccines tested, so that we will be better prepared. I think that's what this is all about."

BERMAN: Virologist Michael Katze of the University of Washington. Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington

U.S. health officials Thursday launched a campaign to boost awareness of a disease you may have never heard of, even though it's one of the world's leading causes of death.

COPD is short for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. Also known as emphysema or chronic bronchitis or smoker's cough, it's a disease of the lungs and air passages, which become inflamed and interfere with breathing.

Grace Anne Dorney Koppel is, like many with COPD, a former smoker.

DORNEY KOPPEL: "It creeps up on us, until eventually we wheeze, cough, gasp for air. We are breathless with the slightest exertion. We try to sleep sitting up and often lie awake listening to the sounds of our own airways."

Dorney Koppel joined physicians and researchers in Washington Thursday to launch a COPD public awareness campaign called "Learn More, Breathe Better," including magazine ads and radio public service announcements.

COPD PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: "(wheezing and coughing) Sound like you? Shortness of breath isn't normal at any age. So talk with your doctor about COPD. Once you know about COPD, you can take steps to treat it and live a more active life. Learn more. Breathe better."

One aim of the campaign is to identify more people with the disease through proper diagnosis.

Diagnosis is done with the help of a simple breathing test called spirometry. You blow into an device that measures the amount of air and how forcefully you expel it. It's cheaper than many other kinds of medical screening, and you don't even have to take your clothes off. Once it's identified, COPD can be treated with oxygen, medicine, or exercise therapy.

COPD is projected to be the third leading cause of death in the United States by 2020. Professor Sonia Buist of the Oregon Health and Sciences University says the global picture is similar.

BUIST: "Worldwide, it is presently the sixth leading cause of death, and by 2020 it is projected to be the third leading cause of death worldwide. So it's not just a problem in the developed countries, it's becoming an increasing problem and a huge problem in the developing countries."

The World Health Organization estimates that 3 million people a year die from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, COPD, about the same number as deaths from HIV/AIDS.

Time again for our Website of the Week, when we showcase interesting and innovative online destinations.

This week we feature a wide ranging source of health information from one of the world's most renown medical institutions.

EDWARDS: "MayoClinic.com is a free website produced by the Mayo Clinic that provides health information with tools and a variety of information for users to maintain healthy life and understand diseases that may affect them."

That's senior medical editor Dr. Brooks Edwards. At MayoClinic.com you can learn about conditions that you, or perhaps a family member, has — diabetes, say, or asthma or depression. There is also a feature you can use if something is wrong, but you don't know what the problem is.

EDWARDS: "The symptom checker is a very popular feature on the site, and it does give the user an opportunity to work through a series of questions to try and hone down what could be the cause."

That could help you decide whether you need to see your doctor. Obviously, neither MayoClinic.com nor any other website is a substitute for a trained physician, but as Dr. Edwards said, an informed patient is a better patient.

Although you may think of a health-related website as the place to go if you're not feeling well, there are also tools on MayoClinic.com to promote wellness.

EDWARDS: "We have a healthy living center that has fitness, food and nutrition, stress and working life centers. And these centers provide everything from tips for fitness and staying healthy to recipes for healthy deserts."

Those features, a Q&A section, and much more online at MayoClinic.com, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld

MUSIC: "Dr. Kildare" – The Skatalites

You're listening to VOA's medically-indicated science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

It's time to dip into the mailbag again and answer a science question from an Our World listener.

This time we've got an email from Ehsan Tara in Iran, who wants to know about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI.

Ehsan says he has been listening to Our World for about a year, and has a bunch of questions about communicating with other intelligent beings out in space.

For the answer we called on Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. The SETI Institute conducts research and educational programs relating to intelligent life in space.

Ehsan Tara's main interest is in our efforts to send out messages to the stars, but Shostak says we've done more listening than talking.

SHOSTAK: "Well, we have done a few demonstration transmissions in the past. There was a very famous one in 1974 in which the big antenna down in Puerto Rico, known as the Arecibo telescope, was used to send a message to a star system. For the rest, however, we don't deliberately broadcast because, to begin with, there isn't enough money to set up such an experiment. But beyond that, you have to be very patient. And if you broadcast, you better be willing to broadcast for a very long period of time. Otherwise it doesn't make very much sense."

Instead, astronomer Seth Shostak, we're trying to detect evidence of other intelligent life in space. It's not practical to send rockets up to distant galaxies - that's too slow and expensive.

SHOSTAK: "So what we do is something else. We try and eavesdrop on their radio broadcasts. We simply try and tune in their radio or television or radar or whatever other signals they may be broadcasting into space. And that's really the nature of our experiment."

Q: So where in space are we listening? Are we listening everywhere in the cosmos, or are we pointing our antennas at certain places?

SHOSTAK: "What we do is we look at stars that are relatively close to us. We look in our own backyard first, because it would, after all, clearly be more interesting to find aliens that were nearby. But beyond that, the signals would be stronger if they were coming from star systems that are nearby. That's the strategy. It's really very simple."

Q: How do we know that, when we're listening to something, it's in fact a signal from an extraterrestrial intelligence, as opposed to just noise.

SHOSTAK: "What we look for is a signal that's at one spot on the dial. That means it was made by a transmitter. That means it's not nature. And then we can just sort-of move the antennas around and make sure that the signal's coming from one spot on the sky, that would tell us that it's not an orbiting communications satellite."

Q: So, what frequency is the best to listen on?

SHOSTAK: "Well, we don't really know what frequency they're broadcasting on. We have to sort-of second-guess that on the basis of some known physics and astronomy. What we do know is that there are certain parts of the radio dial, the radio spectrum, in which the universe is very quiet and very transparent. In other words, these are the frequencies at which interstellar communication is really easiest. So we know that what's called the microwave part of the spectrum, that those frequencies happen to be in a part of the radio dial where the universe is quiet. So we tend to listen on or near those frequencies. That's been the strategy for many decades. We don't know, of course, whether it's right, but it seems as good as any other strategy we can think of."

Q: Is that what's known as the 'water hole?'

SHOSTAK: "There's a specific part of the microwave spectrum that is known as the water hole. Turns out that there's plenty of hydrogen gas in the cosmos between the stars, and there's also something called hydroxyl [OH] — that's oxygen and hydrogen together - that also produces some natural static. And those two frequencies — turns out they're between 1,400 and 1700 megahertz — that part of the dial is called the water hole because it's between H and OH so, you know, that's like H2O, and maybe ET is water-based, too, probably, and they might know these frequencies and say, hey, you know, that's an obvious marker on our dial. We ought to broadcast in that regime."

Thanks to Ehsan Tara for asking about SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. We'll be sending him a special VOA gift in appreciation for his excellent question. If you've got a science question, please send it in. Our email address is ourworld@voanews.com, or listen for our postal address at the end of the show.

Diesel is one of the world's most widely used fuels. As an alternative to petroleum-based diesel, biodiesel can be created from crops rich in oil, such as canola and soy, and it burns much cleaner than traditional diesel. But large-scale production could challenge world food supplies. That's why researchers are seeking ways to make diesel from a small but familiar plant, usually dismissed as "pond scum." From Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports on the energy potential of algae.

SCHLENDER: Black smoke belches from a diesel-powered truck as the driver throttles the engine.

Diesel fuel powers trucks, boats, trains and other engines. But the foul-smelling fumes are linked to increased rates of cancer and asthma, and they add greenhouses gases to the atmosphere.

Oil-rich plants such as soy offer a cleaner energy alternative, but Jim Sears says these food crops can't meet all our diesel needs. The Colorado-based entrepreneur says, even in America's bountiful croplands, farmers couldn't grow enough oilseed crops to meet demand.

SEARS: "Right now, if we were to use all the normal sources we know about, such as canola oil, soy, things like this to make biodiesel, the industry thinks they could make about one billion gallons [3.7 billion liters] a year, which sounds like a lot, but we currently use 60 billion gallons [227 billion liters] a year of diesel."

Fortunately, Sears says, an unconventional crop could produce 100 times more biodiesel per hectare than either canola or soy. It can thrive in places where other crops can't grow at all, and it only requires the equivalent of 5 centimeters of rain a year. It's algae!

To demonstrate his crop's potential, Sears leads the way inside a former coal-fired electric power plant. That's now the Engines and Energy Conversion laboratory at Colorado State University. CSU and Sears' small company, Solix Biofuels, teamed up for this research.

Sears passes a two-story tall engine that may soon be running on his biodiesel, and he heads to a quieter room where test batches of algae grow in glass beakers. The water ranges from pale yellow to soft Irish green, thanks to millions of microscopic algae. Biologist Nick Rancis lifts a favorite specimen.

RANCIS: "Here we have a species of green algae that grows in fresh water. As you can see, it grows very high density. You can't even see through it when you hold it up to the light."

Rancis says this strain produces enormous amounts of fat — up to 50 percent of its body weight. And while producing oil from soy or canola generally requires a three- to five-month growing season, some algae are so prolific, over half a batch can be harvested for oil production every day.

RANCIS: "They can double or even triple overnight."

For industrial production, the researchers are designing enormous growing troughs, wider than 2 trucks side by side, as long as a football field, and grouped by the thousands around processing plants. In this way, Sears says, algae could supply all U.S. diesel on a fraction of the nation's farmland.

SEARS: "We farm about 1 billion acres [400 million hectares] of land in the United States. To cover all our diesel needs, we'd need to convert just 1 percent of that. And actually we wouldn't have to convert any of our arable land. We could use desert land to grow this algae. It doesn't require good soil. Just flat land and carbon dioxide and sunlight."

Carbon dioxide helps algae grow fast and fat, so the team plans to siphon it from fossil fuel power plant exhaust, which will reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

SEARS: "It is about 1,000 times more efficient to produce fuel from algae than it is from an irrigated crop. There's enough water even in the desert from natural rainfall to support this technology."

Because building a vast new production system is an enormous undertaking, Sears predicts that it will be five to ten years before biodiesel from algae becomes commonplace.

However, Eric Jarvis, a senior scientist at the National Renewable Energy Lab, cautions that it may take longer.

JARVIS: "I wouldn't expect it to meet a large demand for diesel in that time frame, but I'm hoping to see some good demonstration projects in the next five to ten years."

He adds that in the last two years, the interest in developing systems for biodiesel from algae has grown tremendously.

JARVIS: "I get phone calls every week from people trying to get into this area."

Whether it takes five years, a decade or a little longer, Jim Sears says he's certain that biodiesel from algae will become commonplace.

SEARS: "This is by far the most scalable and reasonable way to make biofuels in the future in a sustainable, endlessly sustainable method."

The National Renewable Energy Lab plans to step up their development of biodiesel from algae within the year. They estimate that along with Colorado State and Solix Biofuels, roughly a dozen other groups around the world are developing similar projects, increasing the likelihood that someday soon, clean-burning algae biodiesel will be the fuel of choice for trucks, boats, trains and other engines. For Our World, I'm Shelley Schlender in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Thirty-eight years ago next month, the first Boeing 747 jumbo jet took to the skies.

This week, workers at the National Air and Space Museum here in Washington are installing a 747 in the popular museum's aviation gallery.

Actually, the plane is far too big even for this huge space, so only the front 10 meters or so of the airplane will be on display.

As workers and machines go about their job, museum curator Bob van der Linden explains their new exhibit was among the first jumbo jets to roll off the Boeing assembly line after the plane was introduced in 1969.

van der LINDEN: "This 747 is the first 747 delivered to Northwest Airlines. It is the 27th 747 built. It's the first 747 to open service across the Pacific."

Although the plane could carry twice as many passengers as the workhorses of the first decade of jet travel - the Boeing 707 and rival Douglas DC-8 - van der Linden says the 747's impact was more economic and sociological, rather than technological.

van der LINDEN: "Technologically it wasn't radically different from other airplanes, except it was bigger. Much bigger. It was still made out of aluminum, still swept-wing jet, subsonic, and all that. The one big technological improvement on the aircraft were the engines. They were called high-bypass turbofan engines. Much more efficient, much more powerful than the smaller jet engines that were on the [Boeing] 707s and [Douglas] DC-8s. So it really paved the way for true mass travel by air."

The 747 also had a longer range than earlier planes, enabling new non-stop, long-haul routes.

Chances are you can identify a 747 by the distinctive hump at the front of the plane. Although it provides some upper deck space for a lounge or additional seating, and it improves the aerodynamics somewhat, curator Bob van der Linden says the hump follows a design decision made to allow the 747 to be configured to carry freight.

van der LINDEN: "The real purpose was so that Boeing could sell this airplane not just as a passenger airliner but as a cargo plane. So you have the cockpit above the main deck, and it enabled them on some versions to build a nose that would swing up, so you could just load cargo into the front, which they've done."

The Boeing 747 is just part of the revamped aviation gallery at the National Air and Space Museum. The exhibit, called America by Air, traces the development of air travel over nearly a century. The exhibition will open late this year, but you can get a preview at the museum's website, nasm.si.edu.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

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

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

Faith Lapidus edited the program. Eva Nenicka is the 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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