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Our World — 14 July 2007


MUSIC: "Our World" theme

Straight ahead on "Our World" ... The uncertain future of a warmer Arctic ... modifying maize to guard against a major crop disease ... and a new journal examines the ethics of nanotechnology.

MAYNARD: "Really, we shouldn't be talking about the risks, we should be talking about uncertainty, because at the end of the day, we're just not quite sure whether these things are going to cause harm or not."

Those stories, mysterious seabird deaths, our Website of the Week, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

NASA this week introduced the astronauts who will be flying on the next Shuttle mission, set to launch just over three weeks from now.

The seven-member crew will travel on the Endeavour orbiter to do more construction work on the International Space Station.

The star of this shuttle mission is destined to be schoolteacher-turned-astronaut Barbara Morgan. She was the backup to the first teacher NASA selected to go into in space, Christa McAuliffe, who was killed when the space shuttle Challenger exploded just after launch in 1986. Morgan told reporters that part of her job will be to inspire a new generation of scientists and explorers.

MORGAN: "So we'll be taking up about 10 million basil seeds. We plan on distributing those to classrooms and other education venues like science centers and scout groups, etc., when we return. And that's to really physically hand a gift to these kids that says, please go out and do what we get to do: go explore, go experiment, go discover."

NASA technicians rolled the shuttle out to its Florida launch pad on Wednesday, and Endeavour is set to blast off on August 7th.

NASA is also getting ready to launch an unmanned mission to Mars to look for water in the Martian arctic. We'll have more on that in a couple of weeks, but for now let's consider what's happening to our own arctic: it's getting warmer.

So experts from the scientific community and the U.S. Navy came together in Washington this week for three days of talk about the long-range impact of declining Arctic ice.

The far north is still cold and covered with ice in the winter. But more and more ice is melting during the summer. Compare the extent of the icecap in September, at the end of the northern summer. Fifty years ago, ice covered about eight and a half million square kilometers. Last year, it was about five and a half million. That's a decline of about one-third in just half a century.

And Dr. Richard Spinrad, a senior official at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, says the ice is disappearing faster than projected.

SPINRAD: "What we are seeing is a dramatic increase in the rate of loss of sea ice. It's decreasing faster than some of the earlier predictions. And so some of the consequences are now clearly impacting a wide range of commerce issues, a wide range of transportation and resource availability issues."

New freighter routes through the Arctic could cut shipping distances between Europe and Asia in half. And Coast Guard Rear Admiral Brian Salerno pointed out that a warmer Arctic may also mean greater access to energy resources.

SALERNO: "There's an estimate by U.S. Geologic Survey that about 25 percent of the world's oil and gas reserves reside in the Arctic region. And so you can anticipate a desire by many nations, many of the Arctic nations in particular, to gain access to those energy reserves."

The military folks are keeping an eye on these developments since there are likely to be a whole new set of security issues, say experts, as nations compete for energy resources and may assert territorial rights in newly ice-free areas.

Meanwhile, scientists continue to study the changes. Satellites and aircraft provide much of the data used to monitor the extent of arctic sea ice. But there's also no substitute for data gathered on — and below — the surface. At the National Science Foundation, for example, Dr. Martin Jeffries says his organization is working with Russia to set up instruments moored on either side of the Bering Strait.

JEFFRIES: "So we have moorings in Russian waters as well as in American waters, giving us for the first time, really, a more comprehensive picture of the flow of water from the North Pacific into the Arctic basin, which is of great interest because it's a significant source of heat, flowing into the Arctic basin, and therefore affecting the sea ice."

Studying changes in the Arctic, as well as in Antarctica, is a focus of the International Polar Year program. Despite its name, it's actually a two-year effort involving thousands of scientists from 60 countries working together to learn more about the Earth's polar regions.

Researchers in North Carolina have found a promising new way to help short-cicuit the process by which bacteria develop resistance to antibiotic medicines. Health reporter Rose Hoban explains.

HOBAN: Since the discovery of penicillin, the first antibiotic, bacteria have been evolving to resist being killed by these drugs. Matt Redinbo, a biochemistry professor at the University of North Carolina, says bacteria have developed many different strategies to protect themselves from the drugs humans use to control them.

REDINBO: "Antibiotic resistant bacteria are microbes that have, either through mutating their own genes or throuh obtaining a resistance gene from a neighbor, have found a way to either not respond to an antibiotic that we've dosed a patient with or to break down the antibiotic and excrete it or to sort of avoid the way that the antibiotic functions."

HOBAN: Some bacteria have been successful at resisting the actions of all the antibiotics in our pharmacological arsenal. These resistant bacteria can cause patients to get sicker for longer periods and sometimes die from the infections. And now, bacterial resistance is becoming a problem worldwide.

In his lab, Redinbo was looking for some compound that might target and kill these antibiotic resistant bacteria. He and his students think they may have found it - in medications currently approved to treat osteoporosis, a disease that causes bone loss in older people.

REDINBO: "And we found that two of the four drugs that we looked at were effective at preventing the transfer of resistance genes and in selectively killing and very potently killing antibiotic resistant bacteria."

HOBAN: Redinbo says the work is still preliminary

REDINBO: "This is work that was done in a test tube and then it was done in growing bacterial cultures in the lab. So what we're currently doing is moving this into animal studies and looking at whether or not we can kill antibiotic resistant bacteria in mice. It certainly would be interesting to see whether or not one of these approved drugs is effective in humans against a resistant infection."

HOBAN: Redinbo and his colleagues have filed a patent and formed a small company to explore the possibilities of this drug interaction. His research is published in a recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. I'm Rose Hoban.

South African researchers this week unveiled a new, genetically engineered corn variety that's resistant to a nasty disease called maize streak virus.

The quick-spreading plant virus can devastate entire crops and is a major problem throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

Dr. Dionne Shepherd and her colleagues took a part of the virus that is involved in reproduction and mutated it so it would stop the reproduction cycle of the disease.

SHEPHERD: "And then we insert this into the plant, and any plant that's producing this non-functional gene is then protected from the virus because the non-functional replication gene actually prevents the virus from replicating. We're not actually modifying the virus. We're just putting a gene from the virus into the plant, which interferes with virus replication."

Shepherd presented her research in Chicago this week at the annual Plant Biology Congress.

Maize is an absolutely critical part of the human diet throughout Africa. It's also a key animal feed, and is a source of export earnings. When maize streak virus it infects a field, it can destroy 100 percent of the crop.

Shepherd says using genetic modification the new corn variety could be designed to have just the traits they wanted. Previous efforts to develop resistance through conventional breeding methods haven't been very successful. A lot of consumers worry about genetically modified foods, but Shepherd says that before it goes on sale, the corn variety developed at the University of Cape Town has to go through extensive testing to ensure that it is substantially equivalent to the natural product.

SHEPHERD: "We have to make sure that the protein, the foreign protein that we've put into it is digestable, that it's not an allergen, that it has no impact on other organisms, no impact on the environment, and so on. So by the time you eat it, it's got to be probably the most safe food that you can eat."

The press release describing the new variety made a point of stressing, right in the headline, that this was the "First all-African produced genetically engineered maize," and so I asked Dionne Shepherd why that's important.

SHEPHERD: "If you think about it, if Africa is to become self-sufficient, it must build its own biotech capacity. And at the moment we're relying on foreign biotech companies and multinationals. And so it's important that way, that it's a completely local product."

And personally, as an African, Dr. Shepherd says she's proud to be involved in the new maize product, which was developed by scientists at the University of Cape Town and at the seed company Pannar Ltd.

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

My favorite bookstores abound with how-to manuals. How to fix your car. How to do home repairs. Endless manuals on computers, parenting — pretty much anything. There's still a good market for how-to books, but a lot of that practical knowledge is migrating to the Internet, and our Website of the Week is part of that trend.

HERRICK: "WikiHow is a collaborative writing project to build the world's largest, highest-quality how-to manual. It's about 21,000 articles written by volunteers all over the world, coming together to make an article as good as possible about how to do something."

Jack Herrick is the founder of WikiHow.com, and he says the range of topics covered has ballooned far beyond his initial expectations.

HERRICK: "When I started WikiHow I really thought it would be your typical how-to stuff — how to fix your car, how to cook food — but then it's become a lot more. You know, we even have things about relationships. How to get along with your wife, how to enjoy a weekend with your child. How to make a paper hat. Things like that. They're 'how-to,' but there's also something kind of interesting and unique about them that brings people back and reading them over and over again."

With a name like WikiHow, you might think about the user-written online encyclopedia Wikipedia. Actually, the two sites aren't connected, except that they work in the same way — users write and edit the articles. No big editorial staff, just volunteers. And like Wikipedia, WikiHow is multilingual. Today, most of the site is in English, but there are growing numbers of how-to articles in five other languages, so far.

HERRICK: "But we really want to be in every single language in the world. And we are opening right now in Japanese and Chinese. We're trying to get a version in Urdu. We're trying to get one in Arabic, Hindi, Bengali — all the major languages are are something we would like to have a presence in soon."

There are categories for computers and pets and health and finances and lots more. Although Jack Herrick explained how wikis are self-correcting mechanisms, you might want to double check before you follow the anonymous advice on a WikiHow page. Anyway, you're smart enough to figure that out, right?

How to do most anything at WikiHow.com, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: Dinah Washington — "I Know How To Do It"

You've figured out how to listen to VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

3Nanotechnology is the promising new science of really, really small stuff. Nano as in nanometers — billionths of a meter. It may give us cures for disease or just cooler toys. But nanotechnology is also raising ethical questions about its safety and its proper regulation. Those concerns have inspired a new scientific journal called Nanoethics. My colleague Adriana Salerno has our report.

SALERNO: Nanoethics' editor-in chief, John Weckert, a Fellow at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics in Melbourne, Australia, offers a working definition of nanotechnology:

WECKERT: "Generally, the definition given is that nanotechnology covers anything that scientists and technologists are doing that's working at the nano scale, and that's normally defined as anything between 1 and 100 nanometers, which obviously is very small."

SALERNO: How small is a nanometer? Strictly speaking, it's a billionth of a meter. To put things in perspective, comparing a nanometer to a meter is about the same as comparing the size of a marble to the size of the earth.

Weckert says the reason ethical issues arise, and the reason his journal, Nanoethics, is being published, is that scientists and the general public are struggling to understand both the benefits and the risks of nanotechnology:

WECKERT: "I think it's a mistake, but it's a common mistake, for people to think that if we do the ethics of something we're only looking at the downsides or the problems with whatever it is, that technology. And that's certainly a big part of it, but it's also the work of people working on the ethics of some area to emphasize what's good and try and help the benefits to be spread more broadly."

SALERNO: But even understanding the benefits of nanotechnology can be a challenge, because its potential products are so varied.

Andrew Maynard, Chief Science Advisor for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, points out different applications of nanotechnology need to be considered separately:

MAYNARD: "And to give you an example: nanotechnology is going to be in your iPod, but it's also in your sunscreen, and to treat iPods as you would treat sunscreen is clearly nonsensical."

SALERNO: Researchers in the area of nanotechnology hope to solve many problems with this new set of tools. They believe, among other things, that they might be able to construct stronger, lighter building materials, find better ways to purify water resources, and develop cancer medications that target cancer cells only.

These very small materials behave in ways that are not yet completely understood, and just the fact that they are unimaginably small creates a lot of the controversy. People fear that smaller nanotech particles in the environment might be accidentally absorbed by the human body, invisible surveillance devices could watch our every move, and new weapons could be created to threaten our security in unforeseen ways.

Maynard says that so little is known of the technology itself, risk might not even be the right word to use:

MAYNARD: "Really, we shouldn't be talking about the risks, we should be talking about uncertainty, because at the end of the day, we're just not quite sure whether these things are going to cause harm or not. And in a lot of cases I don't think that there's anything to be scared about or worried about."

SALERNO: Researcher Mauro Ferrari, with the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, has been studying the medical applications of nanotechnology. He believes that the risks are very small, and the benefits are huge in comparison. He believes that nanotech-enhanced screening could cut the number of cancer related deaths significantly. And Ferrari says government policy makers and scientists have an ethical responsibility to spread such benefits to as many people as possible:

FERRARI: "Nanotechnology gives us a way to turn around the problem of unfair distribution of healthcare and allows us to start afresh if you will, and focus, as a society, on developing tools that will specifically address the healthcare disparity as opposed to having to remedy the unfair distributions of things once they are developed."

SALERNO: And who decides which of these technologies should be developed?

FERRARI: "I am a very strong advocate of the fact that the community must lead, the community must drive, the community must set the priorities, set the concerns, give the conditions on the playing field, give the mission statements, and then the scientists need to go out and implement. That is not a job for the faint of heart."

SALERNO: Most nanotechnologies are still at early stages of development, and Nanoethics' editor in chief John Weckert believes now is the best time to be anticipating problems that might arise:

WECKERT: "So it won't be necessarily a matter of just waiting to see what the problems are and then trying to solve them. Perhaps there can be some input into the way things are being developed and so on while they're being developed."

SALERNO: Leading science publisher Springer describes their new journal as "the watchdog of a new technology." Its editor, John Weckert, hopes the publication can foster a better understanding of the risks and benefits of nanotechnology among scientists, policy makers and the general public.

The sea birds known as Greater Shearwaters live out their lives on the open ocean. These gull-like birds spend most of their time criss-crossing the Atlantic on their annual migration. But this year, as Véronique LaCapra reports, many of them are dying along the way.

LaCAPRA: Greater shearwaters are one of the most abundant seabirds in the world. An estimated 10 million pairs nest on just a few small islands in the middle of the South Atlantic, about half-way between South Africa and Argentina.

RONCONI: "I tell my friends that they look like a small albatross."

LaCAPRA: Rob Ronconi, a Ph.D. candidate in biology at the University of Victoria in Canada, has been studying the birds.

RONCONI: "They weigh about one kilogram, and their wingspan is just over a meter. They're brown on top, mostly white below, but it's a good mix of brown and white over the body, and they have sort of a dark cap."

LaCAPRA: Shearwaters spend three-quarters of the year out at sea, migrating in a giant figure-eight pattern across the Atlantic. Ronconi and his colleagues have used satellite tags to track the birds, from their northern foraging waters near Canada and Maine:

RONCONI: "In early September they start their migration, which takes them across the north Atlantic, and then down the coast of Portugal. From Portugal they reach the coast of West Africa, from there they cross the Atlantic again, and it takes them to the coast of Brazil, and then from Brazil they head south, and they spent the month of October foraging off the coast of Argentina."

LaCAPRA: The shearwaters then head over to their breeding grounds, where they spend about three months, each pair raising a single chick. In April or May, their migration begins again. The birds fly back across the Atlantic, and up along the eastern seaboard of the United States, to Canada.

Only this year, something went wrong.

WATSON: "In the last week of June, there was an e-mail that circulated around about folks starting to find dead seabirds on the east coast of Florida, and these were mostly greater shearwaters."

LaCAPRA: Craig Watson is a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. When the reports started coming in from Florida, he put an alert out to his contacts along the southeastern coast. By his count, just over 2,000 birds have been found. It's impossible to say how many shearwaters have actually died, because winds and currents would push only some fraction of the birds to shore.

The shearwaters have been tested for avian flu, toxic algae and other contaminants, but Watson says that so far, they have come up clean.

WATSON: "All these birds apparently are starving to death. We don't really know exactly why Some feel it's a natural phenomenon, but I think the thing that has caused some of us to question this is that it appears to be occurring more frequently."

LaCAPRA: There was a similar, but smaller die-off in 2005.
According to Rob Ronconi, it's not unusual for seabirds to have bad years. For young shearwaters in particular, getting enough food can be critical. He speculates that since the birds that have died this year were mostly juveniles, they might not have gotten enough to eat.

RONCONI: "They need to gain a lot of weight before their migration. Maybe when they were being raised as chicks, or maybe just after they left the nest, they didn't get enough food. Maybe the timing of the food supply wasn't right Or they could have just missed the feeding locations. So if they started their migration underweight, they wouldn't make it all the way up to Canada."

LaCAPRA: Ronconi says we still have a lot to learn about shearwaters, if we really want to understand the causes, and importance, of this year's die-off.

RONCONI: "Without knowing much about their basic ecology, their basic migration route, or even their basic weights, it's really hard to assess the impacts of these events, where you get mass strandings, which could be relatively normal, or could be unusual."

LaCAPRA: And knowing more about shearwaters, he adds, could tell us something about the health of the ocean, as well:

RONCONI: "Because seabirds, feeding mostly on fish and krill, can be a good indicator for other problems that are happening out in the ocean."

LaCAPRA: Ronconi will be watching the shearwaters, as they spend the next months feeding in the ocean, near Canada. He hopes his research can help biologists better understand what happened this year, along the U.S. coast. For Our World, I'm Véronique LaCapra.

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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.

Rob Sivak 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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