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Our World — 9 June 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" ... a promising breakthrough in stem cell research ... wireless power transmission ... and planning for energy needs in a world of climate change.

LUKEFAHR: "The demand for power is doubling over the next 30 years. So we need to make decisions today that are going to affect our carbon footprint far into the future."

Is there a windmill in your future? And the legal standing of nature — can trees go to court? Those stories and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

Scientists this week announced what could be a breakthrough in stem cell research. They were able to convert the skin cells of a mouse into the equivalent of embryonic stem cells.

Embryonic stem cells can grow into any kind of cell in the body and may have enormous potential to cure disease. But in the United States, research on embryonic stem cells has been constrained because of the political controversy surrounding the source of the cells — normally, human embryos that are destroyed in the process of harvesting the cells.

If the new procedure can be adapted to human cells, it could accelerate research in the promising field.

One of the researchers, Rudolf Jaenisch of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says they were able to, in effect, roll back the clock on the skin cell, returning it to the potential it had as an embryonic cell.

JAENISCH: "They are indistinguishable from normal embryonic stem cells. So, the molecular expression, pattern of genes, is identical. And most importantly, these reprogrammed cells can do anything biologically as embryonic stem cells can. They have the same developmental potency."

Jaenisch and his team published their findings in the journal Nature.

The results of this research are promising and exciting. It was front page news in a field that has been touted as holding potential cures for diabetes, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, among other diseases. But laboratory success with mice is a long way from practical treatment in your doctor's office. Rudolf Jaenisch points out, for example, that the mice used in the experiments had been genetically modified. But he is optimistic about the road forward.

JAENISCH: "This poses a number of, I think, challenging technological issues which, I think, will be technical, so they will be solvable, but they have not been solved as yet. And it's difficult to estimate when they will be solved."

Experts in stem cell research who were not involved in these experiments described the work enthusiastically, calling it a breakthrough that came years earlier than they thought possible.

A couple of weeks ago on Our World you may remember our report on extensively drug resistant tuberculosis, or XDR TB. That's been in the news a lot in the U.S. lately, after a man diagnosed with the condition reportedly disregarded medical advice and flew to Europe for his wedding — and returned back home through Canada.

Drug resistance is not the only issue facing TB specialists. The disease is especially dangerous for people with weakened immune systems, such as those with HIV/AIDS. As we hear from health reporter Rose Hoban, doctors are rethinking how to treat those patients.

HOBAN: In the middle of the last century, many medical scientists believed they had conquered tuberculosis. But as HIV emerged in the 1980s, TB made a comeback.

Dr. Payam Nahid, a pulmonologist and TB researcher from the University of California in San Francisco says TB is a major problem for people with HIV. The virus makes them more susceptible to TB, and TB makes those patients' HIV worse. Based on what he saw in his clinic in California, Nahid began to question current treatment guidelines for TB that include a 6-month course of antibiotics for everyone:

NAHID: "To me it seems counterintuitive to conceive that TB could be managed exactly the same way in an HIV-infected patient as in an HIV-uninfected patients."

HOBAN: Nahid reviewed more than a decade of data covering 700 patients, looking at the cure rates for his TB patients, both with and without HIV.

NAHID: "The first notable finding was that HIV-infected patients with active tuberculosis were more likely to have a second episode of tuberculosis after completing treatment and establishing cure as compared to those who were HIV-uninfected."

HOBAN: Nahid says he also found that the length of treatment affected the outcome: the longer HIV patients took antibiotics, the less likely they were to have a recurrence of the TB. He says this calls the treatment guidelines of six months of TB therapy for HIV patients into question. He explains treatment guidelines are developed in response to clinical trials:

NAHID: "In a clinical trial, there's a whole army of people making sure there's good adherence, the therapies are all given in a very controlled fashion. The study that we completed is, essentially, a real life equivalent of that and comes with all the complexities of all the demographics of the patients."

HOBAN: Nahid hopes other researchers will now look back at actual treatment outcomes for tuberculosis patients with HIV … and maybe, he adds, it's time to revise some of those guidelines.

Nahid's research appears in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. I'm Rose Hoban.

For more than a century, we've taken for granted that it's possible to send information through the air. Think radio, TV, mobile phones. But maybe you've wondered why the TV has to be plugged in, the phone battery has to be recharged. Why can't power be sent wirelessly, too? Nikola Tesla thought it was possible. In 1914, he got a patent for an electricity transmitter. But it wasn't very practical because it spread the power out equally in all directions. Now, a team of researchers from Greece, Brazil, Croatia and the U.S. have come up with a new approach to wireless power that just might work. Aristeidis Karalis explained how they used a transmitter and receiver precisely tuned to the same resonant frequency, the same way a certain musical note can shatter a glass.

KARALIS: "Because it is on resonance with this particular glass, so much more energy is going to build up into this particular glass that this, for example, could break, while the others that are off-resonant will not even feel all this energy, this acoustic energy is present."

In their experiment, Karalis and his colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT, were able to run a 60-watt light bulb using power wirelessly transmitted over a two-meter distance. It was only 40 percent efficient, which doesn't sound very good. But that compares, for example, with about 70 percent efficiency in charging the battery of a laptop computer.

KARALIS: "For the first experiment, let's say, that to our knowledge has been done for this new scheme of energy transfer, for it to be so close to the existing ways of charging devices, we are pretty confident about this and we feel that it is very promising."

Much like you might use a wireless Wi-Fi Internet connection at a cyber cafe, Aristeidis Karalis says they envisage wireless electricity — wi-tricity, they call it — safely available in public places, or even at home.

Speaking of the Internet, it's time again for our Website of the Week, when we showcase interesting and innovative online destinations.

Once upon a time, space photography was hard to access. Some pictures taken from spacecraft were released to the public, but mostly they remained locked away, generally available only to researchers.

Today, however, thanks to the Web, much more space imagery is available, and our Website of the Week is a great example.

ESPINOZA: "The HiRISE website is for the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment. It is a website that shows pictures that come back from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that we show to the entire world. It's all the information that we get. We process images, and then we release them for the public to see."

Yisrael Espinoza is web designer for the HiRISE website, online at hirise.lpl.arizona.edu.

Not only do you get Mars photos that are visually amazing, but there's also information to help you understand what you're seeing.

ESPINOZA: "What we try to do is offer captions that our science team will write with specific images. They will offer their interpretation of what they're seeing. But we also offer some information about the observation itself. That's the great thing about the website: it offers you the tools to do your own analysis if you're inclined to do so."

One of the most effective sections of the site, I think, is called Science Themes, where pictures are grouped to illustrate different things happening on the Martian surface — asteroid impact craters, evidence of climate change, even possible landing sites for future missions.

There are also resources for teachers and students, and Yisrael Epsinoza says they hope the pictures will stimulate your imagination.

ESPINOZA: "I think the simple act of discovery can almost start with looking at a picture. And I think it would be amazing if a young person somewhere saw an image and decided, I'd like to do this for a living."

Close-ups of Mars online at hirise.lpl.arizona.edu, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: "Lost in Space" theme

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

Back to earth now, where you might think about two approaches to reducing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. You can produce less CO2, such as by driving less. Or you can capture CO2 and store it where it can't affect the climate. Last week on Our World, we had a report on using ocean plankton to capture CO2 and hopefully deposit it at the bottom of the sea. This week, a land-based approach to carbon sequestration from an industry you might not associate with helping solve the global warming problem — farming.

RICE: "Agriculture plays a key role in reducing carbon dioxide. It's technology that's immediately available and has a significant effect on the atmosphere."

Professor Chuck Rice of Kansas State University was among several experts at a recent Congressional briefing on the role of farmers in mitigating climate change.

Agriculture is a significant source of greenhouse gases — whether methane from livestock or carbon dioxide from tractor engines and such. But experts say agriculture can also be part of the solution.

One way is through a technique called no-till farming, which includes leaving residue of the previous crop in the ground and disturbing the land as little as possible when planting seed.

In addition to keeping more carbon in the soil, veteran Kansas farmer Merle Holle says the no-till approach is more productive.

HOLLE: "We have less runoff. We have better cover. That means cleaner water. I would say that probably 50 percent less runoff, causing less flooding, causing less problems. It increases yield. We found that our good yields aren't better, but the low-end yields are tremendously better for an average yield which is quite some better."

His real-world experience was echoed by soil scientist Rattan Lal of Ohio State University, who says carbon is an important part of keeping soil healthy.

LAL: "Whether climate change happens or not, improving soil carbon is something that we have to do. We must do. And the reason for that is because it reduces soil erosion; it increases plant-available water; it stores plant nutrients; it de-natures pollutants; it increases biodiversity; it improves crop biomass yields; and, of course, it moderates climate. It makes soil a living ecosystem."

In a paper published in the journal Science a few years ago, Lal calculated that carbon-sensitive farming practices have the potential to offset more than a gigaton — a billon tons — of carbon emissions a year, up to 15 percent of total global emissions.

Even better than recapturing carbon in the soil, you could argue, is not generating it in the first place. Which is why many environmentalists like alternative energy sources like wind and solar. They represent just a small percentage of U.S. energy production, but as VOA's Mike O'Sullivan found at a wind power industry conference in Los Angeles this month, wind could provide Americans with 20 percent of their electricity needs by 2030.

O'SULLIVAN: It is an ambitious goal, because wind power provides less than one percent of U.S. electricity today. But the U.S. Department of Energy says wind power capacity grew 27 percent last year, and wind farms, once concentrated in such states as California and Texas, are spreading.

Towering turbines are sprouting up in many places, including Iowa and Montana. The governors of those states told delegates to the annual conference of the American Wind Energy Association, they have plenty of wind and want to build more wind farms. The association's executive director, Randall Swisher, says that enthusiastic political support is just one reason his industry will continue to grow.

SWISHER: "Environmental, because wind is one of the most promising sources of emissions-free electricity generation. And energy security, because it's an indigenous resource that means that we will not have to be importing liquefied natural gas from the Middle East or other places.

O'SULLIVAN: Wind-power technology has improved since the 1980s, when small, isolated windmills could be seen scattered across farmlands. Today's big wind turbines have rotors up to 90 meters long and are grouped together by the hundreds.

Denmark is a leader in wind-power production, relying on the wind for more than 20 percent of its power. Germany ranks first in total output, and the United States is tied with Spain in second place. Based on current growth rates, industry experts expect the United States to overtake Germany as top producer by the end of the decade.

But the industry faces the challenge of getting its power from windy places, which are usually outside the cities, to the places with high demand for electricity.

Industry leaders say a $60 billion investment in transmission lines is needed to move power more efficiently.

The U.S. Department of Energy says rising equipment costs could slow the growth of wind power. Robert Lukefahr, president of Power Americas of BP Alternative Energy, says the industry also needs more reliable, longer-lasting turbines. But he sees wind as an important part of the world's energy future — one that will reduce the emissions from coal, oil and natural gas that accelerate global warming.

LUKEFAHR: "The demand for power is doubling over the next 30 years. Sixty to 70 percent of the plants that will produce that power haven't been built yet. So we need to make decisions today that are going to affect our carbon footprint far into the future."

O'SULLIVAN: The wind industry has its critics. Some complain wind farms are unsightly. Others say that wind farms can pose a hazard to migrating birds and bats. Justin Tatham, of the National Audubon Society, says his group is working with the wind industry to develop guidelines to minimize the impact on wildlife.

TATHAM: "We also realize that there's a need for a balance when it comes to developing any energy resources, including wind, and when it comes to the potential impacts on wildlife like birds or bats, we just look to finding that balance as we move forward with development."

O'SULLIVAN: Tatham says the environmental group supports wind power, as well as solar and geothermal power, and other clean energy sources.

Industry leaders acknowledge that because the wind is intermittent, wind power will never dominate the energy industry.

But Steve Sawyer, secretary general of the Global Wind Energy Council, insists it has great potential.

SAWYER: "And we've only just begun to scratch the surface. And it's an energy technology with a long and very bright and promising future.

O'SULLIVAN: The industry also faces the challenge of maintaining support in Washington and other world capitals. A U.S. production tax credit that has spurred wind-power growth is set to expire next year, and the industry is hoping for a long-term extension. For Our World, I'm Mike O'Sullivan, VOA News, Los Angeles.

If I think my rights have been violated, I can go to court and sue. Some lawyers believe the natural world should be able to do the same. They want to represent trees. They want to defend the rights of birds and lakes — all of nature. The idea is called "earth jurisprudence." Jennifer Szweda Jordan has the story:

JORDAN: A law seminar on defending the rights of nature is probably not what you expect, at least not at first. The start of Roman Catholic Sister Pat Siemen's law seminar on earth jurisprudence is unorthodox and Zen like:

SIEMEN: "We're gonna start with our reflection time. And what I'd like you to do is close your computers."

JORDAN: Siemen taps a handheld chime in a classroom at Barry Law School in Orlando, Florida. She has the law students practice slowing down so they'll notice what's going on around them in nature, and they'll take the time to really think about arguing for the rights of nature in the courtroom.

The legal system doesn't recognize the rights of nature just yet. Courts interpret the Constitution as protecting needs and rights of humans. The rights of bunnies and trees aren't entitled to a voice in courtrooms. Siemen says the emerging field of earth jurisprudence wants to change that.

SIEMEN: "Part of the whole thought of earth jurisprudence is that other beings actually be given their rights — legislatively — to come into court through the understanding that someone as a guardian or trustee stands in their right."

JORDAN: Besides teaching this new area of law, Siemen directs the Center for Earth Jurisprudence. The center's just wrapped up its first academic year. Siemen's early legal work focused on advocating for people who were poor, minorities, or otherwise marginalized.

Siemen moved in a different direction when she was influenced by ecotheologian Thomas Berry. Berry says that if the animals and trees had a voice, they'd vote humans off the planet.

JORDAN: Siemen was also influenced by University of Southern California Law School professor Christopher D. Stone. Stone wrote an article entitled "Should Trees Have Standing?" In 1972, Supreme Court Justice William Douglas agreed that inanimate objects should have rights. But that view hasn't gotten very far in American courtrooms.

The idea that ecosystems should have legal rights is problematic in the view of free-market advocates. Sam Kazman is General Counsel for the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He calls the theory of earth jurisprudence gibberish.

KAZMAN: "It is impossible to lay out what is in the best interest of an ecosystem unless you lay out just what you as someone who owns that ecosystem, or enjoys it, or appreciates it from a distance, what you hold important."

JORDAN: In other words, the owner will decide what's best for the ecosystem. Some legal experts believe giving nature rights would take nothing less than a constitutional amendment.

University of Pittsburgh Law Professor Tom Buchele disagrees. He's an environmental lawyer who's used the standing concept — unsuccessfully — in arguing for a forest. He says that the Supreme Court could, if it chose, interpret the constitution as allowing nature to have legal standing:

BUCHELE: "There's certainly nothing in the constitution that says that a case or controversy has to have a person as the entity. It's just that current case law doesn't do that."

JORDAN: Buchele and Siemen know changes in court decisions are a long way away. But if teaching about earth jurisprudence can make tomorrow's corporate counsels, real estate lawyers, and governmental officials consider the trees and the water in their work, Siemen feels she'll have made some progress.

And getting law students to think about the rights of nature along with the rights of humans might be the start of the legal revolution Siemen wants to see.

For the Environment Report, this is Jennifer Szweda Jordan.

"The Environment Report is a production of Michigan Radio. Support comes from the Joyce Foundation, the George Gund Foundation, and U.S. Department of Agriculture. Have something to say about the Environment Report? Send email to feedback@environmentreport.org."

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

That's our show for this week. We're always interested in your comments or your science questions. 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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