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Our World — 21 July 2007


MUSIC: "Our World" theme

Straight ahead on "Our World" ... Honoring the father of the Green Revolution ... a genetic approach to curbing mosquito-borne disease ... and a new book imagines a world without people

WEISMAN: "Trees are growing out of the rooftops, flowers are in the streets. The buildings are still standing for the most part, but none of them are salvagable anymore."

A glimpse of the future, and the fragile nature of our civilization, saving an endangered river, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

Norman Borlaug, known as the father of the green revolution, was honored in Washington on Tuesday with the prestigious Congressional Gold Medal.

Borlaug, now 93 years old, has traveled the world applying science to agriculture, saving wheat crops in Mexico and improving rice yields in East Asia. The Wall Street Journal credits his work with perhaps rescuing as many as a billion people from starvation.

In ceremonies under the Capitol dome, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was among those who paid tribute.

REID: "The name Norman Borlaug may not be known in many households on Earth, but his life's work has reached almost every kitchen table on Earth. His laboratory research in Mexico in the 1940s created strains of disease-resistant wheat that tripled production and staved off hunger all across the developing world."

After tributes by other lawmakers and by President Bush, Dr. Borlaug recalled the agricultural stagnation and despair in just one of many countries where he worked, in India.

"Ín the '60s, many of the intellects in our best universities said the case in India is hopeless; but look what happened. The wheat production was static in India for the period from 1960-65, when new technology was introduced. Static at 11 million tons. By the turn of the century it was 75 million tons. That's what science and technology was able to do."

Norman Borlaug's many other honors include the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

Each year, millions of people get sick and die from mosquito-borne diseases, including yellow fever and dengue. For years, health experts have understood that mosquito control is a key part of the fight. But now, as we hear from health reporter Rose Hoban, nets and insecticides are giving way to a genetic approach to battling the aedes aegytpi mosquito and the illness it spreads.

HOBAN: For years, scientists have looked for ways to arrest the transmission of these diseases. They've tried developing vaccines, so far without success. So, now some geneticists are taking a different approach — finding ways to breed the mosquitoes so that they don't pass on the diseases. Zach Adelman is a researcher from Virginia Tech University. He's been working on altering the genetic structure of the Aedes aegytpi.

ADELMAN: "When this mosquito feeds on a person who is sick with one of these diseases, it will pick up and then be able to transmit that virus. But it's not like a syringe, the virus actually has to replicate and multiply and escape from this mosquito. And right now those mosquitoes are very permissive — that is, these viruses are able to replicate in the mosquito. The mosquito is kind of a hospitable environment."

HOBAN: Adelman says in the past, he and other researchers have been able to manipulate Aedes to make them resistant to the virus so it cannot replicate. But the problem is how to get the mosquitoes to pass that resistance along to their offspring. He says this can only be done by altering the mosquitoes' germline. Those are the cells that contain hereditary genetic material.

ADELMAN: "What we did was we genetically modified mosquitoes, and we were able to show conclusively that we were able to express artificial genes in the mosquito germline."

HOBAN: Now that he's accessed the germline, Adelman says the next step is to put new genes into a mosquito.

ADELMAN: "What we want to do is pass along a gene that makes them resistant to viruses."

HOBAN: Adelman describes this most recent work as a key to the Aedes aegypti germline. He says with this key, researchers can now start putting genes into the mosquito germline and then send the modified mosquitoes out into the wild to reproduce, and reduce the number of disease transmitting mosquitoes.

Adelman's paper appears in the journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. I'm Rose Hoban.

In the industrialized countries, people tend to think of measles as a rare childhood illness, easily preventable through routine vaccination. But in much of the world, large numbers of children still die from this highly contagious disease. In areas where many infants are born HIV-positive, the risk is even worse. But, as Véronique LaCapra reports, a new study suggests that repeated measles vaccinations may help.

LaCAPRA: Measles killed more than 450,000 people in 2004, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. More than half of those deaths were in sub-Saharan Africa, a region also hard hit by HIV and AIDS.

William Moss is an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He and his colleagues have been studying the effectiveness of measles vaccines given to children in Lusaka, Zambia. In their study, 441 children were vaccinated, including 66 who were infected with HIV.

MOSS: "The children were given measles vaccine at nine months of age, and then, asked to return either one or three months after vaccination for evaluation and for a blood test, in which we measured protective antibodies, to measles virus."

LaCAPRA: Previous studies had suggested that measles vaccination might not be effective in HIV-infected children. Surprisingly, Moss found that within six months of vaccination, almost as many HIV-infected children developed protective levels of measles antibodies, as did those who were HIV-negative.

MOSS: "As we followed these children over time, the protective [measles] antibody levels in the HIV-infected children declined. Now there was also a very high mortality rate in that group of children, as would be expected in this setting.

LaCAPRA: In fact, over the course of the study, 28 of the HIV-positive children died.

MOSS: "But of those who survived by 27 months after vaccination, only about half of the HIV-infected children had protective antibody levels, compared to about 90 percent for the uninfected children."

LaCAPRA: In 2003, Zambia conducted a highly successful measles prevention campaign, vaccinating an estimated 97 percent of children between 6 months and 14 years of age. For Moss, the campaign provided an additional opportunity.

MOSS: "We were able to study the response to re-vaccination of a small number of HIV-infected children who were being followed in our cohort, and again about 90 percent of those children had protective antibody levels, suggesting that in the short term, re-vaccination was able to protect these children.

LaCAPRA: The World Health Organization recommends that all children be vaccinated twice to protect them from measles infection. Moss's research suggests that repeated vaccinations may be especially critical in countries with high rates of HIV-infection.

Access to HIV medications in Zambia has dramatically increased since Moss and his colleagues began their research. They plan to start a new study in October, to examine the effects of measles vaccination in children who are receiving antiretroviral therapy.

The results of their current study will be published in the August 1 print edition of the Journal of Infectious Diseases. I'm Veronique LaCapra.

American soybean farmers and processors have launched a new charitable program called the World Soy Foundation, to deliver soy protein and nutrition education around the world. Projects sponsored with local NGOs and other charities will include school feeding programs.

So to launch the new foundation, they set up a mock school cafeteria on Capitol Hill, where foundation president Philip Bradshaw, wearing an apron over his suit, presided over the cookies.

BRADSHAW: "What we do in our programs around the world is, we go in and see what the people are eating, how much protein they're getting from other sources. Then we add that amount of protein into their diet so they'll get the protein that they need, like [if] they need 25 grams of protein, we add 25 grams of protein. We can do that through the cookies or we can do that through the food we're serving here."

Standing alongside Bradshaw was board member Peter Golbitz, ladling out a vegetarian stew served over rice.

GOLBITZ: "Well, it's a combination of soy concentrate as the meat alternative, as the protein source, along with peppers, onions, tomatoes, and a secret blend of herbs and spices. You can make it taste like whatever you need it to. It can extend meat in recipes as well as in school lunch programs."

Solely for journalistic purposes, of course, your reporter sampled some of the food. I might have made it a bit spicier, but I have to say it's a lot better than what I remember we got in our school cafeteria when I was a kid.

And for youngsters in developing countries, a nutritrious school lunch can do more than provide a healthy meal. Jo Ann Emerson, a Republican congresswoman from the farm state of Missouri, quoted experts as saying that feeding programs can actually bring youngsters into school, especially girls.

EMERSON: "And so the increase in school participation has been enormous and it has helped begin the development of a professional workforce in countries [that] otherwise would not have had it happen, let alone had women being involved in it."

The new World Soy Foundation also plans to work with NGOs to make soy-based products available for people with HIV/AIDS to help meet their nutritional needs.

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

This time it's a website that uses the Internet to pool the knowledge of locals and travelers so that when you're on the road in a strange place you'll know where to "go," so to speak.

RACIN: "TheBathroomDiaries.com is the world's largest Internet guide to public bathrooms."

Mary Ann Racin says the idea for TheBathroomDiaries.com came during a family trip to Paris, where she says she was surprised to find a restaurant equipped with a squat toilet, something most Americans wouldn't expect.

RACIN: "And I thought to myself, you know, I would have wanted to know beforehand what the bathroom was like. We know the menu; the menus are posted outside. Why don't they tell you what the bathroom is like beforehand?"

TheBathroomDiaries.com now features more than 12,000 public restrooms in more than 120 countries described and rated by individual contributors.

There are listings for hotels in Harare and restauraunts in Russia and train stations in Taiwan. Even a couple of places in Antarctica. Although most of the listings are in the United States, Mary Ann Racin is actively trying to expand the site's international listings, with an eye on international events that will draw lots of visitors.

RACIN: "Beijing and Shanghai, with the Olympics coming up and the World Games in Shanghai I'm really trying to do research and hopefully your listeners out there will help me with that. It's the people surfing the Internet who enter the listings and rate the bathrooms."

Also be sure to check out the pictures of the world's best bathrooms — winners of the Golden Plunger award — with artist-designed decor, fresh flowers, gold fixtures, and even a pool table. Your guide to where to go, thebathroomdiaries.com, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: Robert Ealey — "Is Your Bathroom Clean"

News you can use on VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

Many of the world's rivers are threatened, as population and development make more and more demands for fresh water and, at the same time, some industries continue to use rivers as waste dumps. Take the little Ipswich River, which wanders through the suburbs north of Boston on its way to the Atlantic Ocean. One-third of a million people depend on it for their drinking water, and increasing demand is pumping the Ipswich dry. But as VOA's Rosanne Skirble found out, grassroots conservation efforts are beginning to set the river on a healthier course.

SKIRBLE: Kim Honetschlager lives a block from the Ipswich River, in the town of Reading. She canoes there with her family and friends and is among a group of volunteers who monitor the river's month-to-month vital signs.

HONETSCHLAGER: "And it's mostly pretty easy stuff. It's the color of the water, the smell of the water, how clear the water is, if there's stuff floating in it. We [test] the velocity of the water and the depth. We always take the depth at the same spot. And we do the dissolved oxygen, the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water, which is a good indicator of how healthy the water is."

SKIRBLE: The Ipswich is relatively flat, densely wooded and great for hiking, boating and swimming. Its streams and tributaries harbor birds and beavers and many aquatic species. Kerry Mackin is director of the Ipswich River Watershed Association, a regional advocacy group. She says the low flows create sections of the river that are essentially stagnant pools.

MACKIN: "The fish community that exists, less than ten percent are these river fish. The rest are what are called pond fish — pond species that can survive in more stagnant water conditions."

SKIRBLE: Mackin says every other year some sections run dry and turn into what more closely resemble dirt roads. She puts the blame on overuse of ground water by municipalities.

SKIRBLE: A study by United States Geological Survey in 2000 documented what the citizens in the Ipswich watershed already knew: that the spring-fed river would not dry up under normal circumstances.

SKIRBLE: The USGS report also said the river could be saved.

MACKIN: "Once we knew that the problem was solvable, the it was a matter of putting together a restoration plan to solve the problem."

SKIRBLE: That means using less water, everywhere. Reading town manager Peter Hechenbleikner says his community, faced with an expensive upgrade of its water treatment plant, voted to stop pumping from wells altogether and buy into a regional water authority. Its citizens get rebates for low-flow toilets and washing machines and a crew regularly inspects municipal water pipes for leaks. Peter Hechenbleikner says that all costs money.

HECHENBLEIKNER: "We are sort of doing this on our own, and I think what would really help is if either state or federal government financially could assist some in this kind of thing."

SKIRBLE: Reading is not the only player making a difference on the Ipswich. Ironically, most increases in summer water use go toward keeping lawns and athletic fields green. Marty Tilton is grounds foreman of Ipswich River Park. He says a one-time application of a tiny mineral product spread across his sports complex has helped the soil retain nutrients and moisture.

TILTON: "We were told it would take a year or so to see the benefits of it, but we saw immediate benefits of it. We are using probably one-third of the water to irrigate the lawn. And it helps [us] be good neighbors to the Ipswich River here."

SKIRBLE: Kerry Mackin with the Ipswich River Watershed Association says it's grassroots efforts like those at Ipswich River Park and by citizens in the watershed that will ultimately restore the river for future generations.

MACKIN: "We have a wonderful asset here. We should be treating it as a wonderful asset. This is what will sustain us. If we take care of the river, the river will take care of us.

SKIRBLE: On the Ipswich River in Ipswich, Massachusetts, I'm Rosanne Skirble.

Finally today: have you ever imagined that you were the last person on Earth. It is, they say, a common fantasy. But what if, suddenly, everyone really did vanish? That's what Alan Weisman wondered. He's the author of a new book, called The World Without Us, that's been getting a lot of attention in the media. We begin our conversation with an explanation of how all the people on earth might vanish.

WEISMAN: "Space aliens have taken us away to some zoo across the galaxy or some homo sapien-specific virus has picked us all off, left everything else. How would the world respond without our daily pressures. Do what extent could it possibly erase all our traces. How long would it take. What would the processes be."

Q: Well you mention Chernobyl as one real-world example. There was another one that I found quite captivating on the island of Cyprus. Can you describe what's happened when a little resort community on the shore has just simply been abandoned?

WEISMAN: "Well, we all know a lot about ancient ruins. We know about the ruins of Rome, for example. Cyprus gave me an opportunity to talk about modern ruins. There was a seaside resort that was built in the '70s by Greek Cyrpriots, and then the island, unfortunately, within a couple of years convulsed in civil war. And after the truce that Greek Cypriot seaside resort called Varosha, which looks like any Riviera — you know, hotels lining the beach - that you've ever seen. It remained on the Turkish Cypriot side. The Turkish Cypriots put a barbed wire fence around it thinking, this would be a good bargaining chip because it was a valuable piece of real estate, you know once the island got down to talking about reunification and a truce. Well, that hasn't happened 32 years later, and the barbed wire is still there, and nobody goes in there, but you can't stop nature from invading. And nature has been taking these modern buildings — reinforced concrete, glass, steel, the stuff that we make our cities out of these days — and trees are growing out of the rooftops, fields of flowers are in the streets. The buildings are still standing for the most part, though a lot of them are crumbling, but none of them are salvagable anymore. Things go rather quickly when human beings are not maintaining them, and that's something that I learned throughout my research.

It turns out that the oldest buildings on earth, you know, like St. Paul's Church that I mention in my book that's across from the World Trade Center [in New York], which is the oldest thing in Manhattan. It's made out of the Manhattan schist. Those things are going to last the longest because they're made out of the earth itself."

Q: Well, I was going to ask you a little bit later, but let's talk about that now. What will survive. If you take a look thousands, tens of thousands of years from now, what remnants of our civilization will be around for aliens or whoever comes after us.?

WEISMAN: "Well, even St. Paul's Church is going to go because eventually we will have another ice age again. We may have staved it off awhile with the carbon loading that we've perpetrated on the atmosphere and warmed things up a little bit, but the Earth periodically goes through a chill, and ice sheet will effectively level anything that's in its way including, I would imagine, Manhattan island. Some stuff that will remain is some of the stuff that we've done underground. The Chunnel that connects France and England; it's on the same tectonic plate and it runs through a single geologic bed so there's a good chance that it'll be just buried. I talk about some of the — we oftentimes refer to them as wastes. Plastics. Not even the plastic that's out there blowing around in landfills and finding its way to the sea where a lot of it finds its way to. But the fact is most of the plastic- virtually all the plastic except for a tiny fraction that's been incinerated, it's all still there. Microbes do not exist to biodegrade it yet. We all know that if you leave it out in the sun, some plastics are ultraviolet-sensitive and they will fragment. But all that means is, they're breaking up into little pieces. The plastic is still there, just some of the polymer bonds have broken. So plastics will be around for a long time. Nuclear wastes, they're piling up and the depleted uranium's got a 4.6 billion year half life, so that's going to be around 'til the end of the Earth."

Alan Weisman, author of the new book, The World Without Us.

He says that, even after our nuclear wastes have decayed, evidence of human civilization will continue, if not here on Earth, then in the two Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977 and now far beyond our Solar System, and in the faint echo of a century's worth of our television and radio transmissions — including this one.

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.

Rob Sivak edited the program. Kevin Raiman 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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