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Our World — 2 August 2008


MUSIC: "Our World" theme

This week on "Our World" ... Previewing the Mexico City AIDS conference ... Scientists confirm water ice on the surface of Mars, but no signs of life so far ... and a sustainable winery that controls pests the natural way.

HONIG: "What we're also doing is we're trying to create habitats for birds that will eat up insects. Also, we're using bats at nighttime. They take over the night shift."

Those stories, the science of soil, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

AIDS epidemic called stable ahead of global conference

The United Nations' HIV/AIDS agency this week called the AIDS epidemic stable, saying fewer people are dying, and more are getting the medicines they need to stay healthy.

The head of UNAIDS, Peter Piot, said the fight against AIDS has accomplished more in the past two years than it did in the 20 years before that. But he said this is not a time for complacency.

PIOT: "We're entering into a new phase in the fight against AIDS, one where sustainability of our efforts is going to be far more important, where we need to make sure we are ready and acting on a long-term effort."

The UNAIDS annual report came out just ahead of Sunday's opening of the 17th International AIDS Conference in Mexico City. It's a six-day gathering with 25,000 expected to attend.

My colleague Rosanne Skirble is part of the VOA team covering the conference. She filed this report before leaving for Mexico.

SKIRBLE: The AIDS 2008 summit brings leading HIV and AIDS researchers, community leaders, policy experts, activists and delegations of young people from around the world to the first International AIDS Conference ever held in Latin America. Craig McClure is executive director of the International AIDS Society, the group that's been planning the biennial event in concert with the United Nations and other global partners. He says the Latin American region is known for its human rights response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

McCLURE: "All of us working in HIV now are realizing that although we talked about human rights for 25 years, very little has really been done to insure that the communities that are most vulnerable to HIV are really able to access the prevention and treatment services that they deserve. So hosting the conference in Latin America for us is exciting because it really puts those human rights issues at the foreground."

SKIRBLE: AIDS 2008 co-chair Pedro Cahn says the conference is taking place at a time of growing support for efforts to ensure universal access to HIV prevention, treatment and care, an initiative advanced by the United Nations in 2006.

CAHN: "We need to debate a little bit more how we can strengthen health systems through the AIDS response. So instead of competing priorities we are looking for interconnected solutions."

SKIRBLE: AIDS 2008 will feature 5,000 sessions, workshops, and poster exhibits on the state of the epidemic and strategies for scaling up treatment, care, and support networks. Cahn says the development of an AIDS vaccine is critical, given the 33 million people living with HIV/AIDS and the 6,500 new HIV infections every day. There is no cure for AIDS and 25 million people have died from the disease since it was identified in the 1980s. Considering the recent failure of a promising human vaccine trial, Cahn says researchers must redirect their efforts.

CAHN: "While recent setbacks in clinical trails regarding microbicides and vaccines have been extremely disappointing, this crisis should be seen as an opportunity to learn from the results of research in order to help advance the field in the future."

SKIRBLE: Three sessions at the conference will focus on the quest for an AIDS vaccine, including a panel discussion with National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci, who stopped testing on an experimental vaccine in mid-July.

Conference co-chair Pedro Cahn says major achievements, such as greater access to anti-retroviral therapy, come about because of this biennial AIDS meeting. He says three million people in low- and middle-income countries, where the problem is most acute, now have access to these drugs. Cahn notes, however, that that is only about one third of those who need them. He says AIDS 2008 is an opportunity to address these persistent inequities. Rosanne Skirble, Washington.

Scientists link genes to schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a terrible, disabling brain disorder, usually characterized by hallucinations and delusions. There are a variety of medical treatments, and often people with schizophrenia can lead relatively normal lives. Now, researchers have identified three genes linked to schizophrenia. They say the findings are one step in a search for clues into the mysterious illness. VOA's Jessica Berman reports.

BERMAN: The illness strikes approximately one in 100 individuals and runs in families between 70 and 90 percent of the time.

Devoted to finding a cure, the International Schizophrenia Consortium of 11 research institutes worldwide conducted a study in which they compared the entire DNA sequence of 3,300 people with schizophrenia to that of 3,200 healthy individuals.

In three papers published in the journal Nature, investigators report the discovery of deletions and additions of large chunks of two chromosomes in the genetic material of people with schizophrenia.

The scientists also confirm the involvement of a third genetic abnormality in schizophrenia that had previously been identified.

Pamela Sklar is a psychiatrist and geneticist at Massachusetts General Hospital and co-author of the consortium paper.

Sklar says the findings give hope to people with the severe mental disorder and their caregivers.

SKLAR: "We have only explained a tiny fraction of why people might develop schizophrenia. And of course much more work needs to be done to connect the specific changes to the full spectrum of other types of genetic factors that might influence schizophrenia."

BERMAN: Investigators found the rare genetic abnormalities in 13 percent of the schizophrenics they studied. But they also found the DNA glitches in 10 percent of the healthy volunteers.

Investigators say the finding suggests more genetic abnormalities are involved in the development of schizophrenia. The discovery may also mean that the mental illness is several disorders rolled into one. Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington.

Water ice confirmed on the surface of Mars

Scientists working on NASA's Phoenix lander, which has been studying the surface of Mars, have confirmed that there is water ice on the Red Planet.

Water had already been identified from a distance, by the Mars-orbiting Odyssey spacecraft, and Phoenix had photographed what was presumed to be melting ice at the landing site. But on Thursday, Phoenix scientists said they had "touched it and tasted it," describing how one of Phoenix's instruments detected water mixed in with Martian dirt.

Water, of course, is essential to life as we know it, but project scientist Peter Smith said they've found more than just water.

SMITH: "We're also finding nutrients — sodium, potassium, magnesium, fluorides — things that we find in our own bodies and are definitely nutrients that are important for life. However, we have yet to discover organic materials."

So, conditions that might be favorable to life on Mars, but no definitive sign yet of life there.

New insight into formation of universe's earliest stars

In other astronomy news this week, a team of American and Japanese researchers has produced the most detailed description to date of how the first stars formed in the early universe, around 14 billion years ago.

Star formation began around 300 million years after the Big Bang, but scientists acknowledged they weren't very clear on how the process worked.

To try to bridge that knowledge gap, Naoki Yoshida from Nagoya University in Japan and his colleagues put together a computer simulation, or model, of star formation.

It was a pretty complex effort. Creating the computer model took more than seven years. The program ran on a network with the equivalent of 70 personal computers, and even with all that computing power, it took a month to run the simulation program.

They described the star formation process in a paper published Thursday in the journal Science. It focuses on how stars began to form in places where the matter was just a little denser than elsewhere. Co-author Lars Hernquist of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics said matter drifting around those denser regions of the young universe started clumping together, eventually reaching a stage called a protostar, when it begins to take on the density and other characteristics of a star.

HERNQUIST: "This is a stage that all stars, even our sun, have to go through before they can get to the point of being actual stars, where they sustain nuclear reactions in their centers. And so I think in that sense, the simulation that we've done is very different from what's been done before, because no simulation has ever gotten to the point of identifying this important stage in the birth of a star."

These protostars grew up fast. They start with a mass about one-one hundredth that of our sun. But as they developed, they expanded 10,000 times, to a mass 100 times larger than our sun, and it grew that much in just 10,000 years.

HERNQUIST: "Compared to the age of the lifetime of a star, or the age of the universe, that is the blink of an eye, pretty much."

The early universe was very different than today's. There were no galaxies, stars, or planets yet. And only the lightest chemical elements existed — mainly hydrogen and helium. The computer model shows that these 'first generation' stars would have produced heavier elements that were later dispersed across the cosmos as the stars died and went supernova.

Those heavier elements were the seeds that grew into the next generation of stars. And as subsequent generations of stars produced more and more of those elements in their nuclear furnaces, they created the building blocks of the universe, including you and me and everything around us.

140,000 NASA pictures on our Website of the Week

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

The U.S. space agency NASA is celebrating it's 50th anniversary, and they've just launched a website that aims to collect a whole universe worth of pictures and other media at one address: NASAimages.org.

RIVERA: "In this first phase of this project, and this is a five year project, we have approximately 140,000 images. That includes still images as well as video."

Debbie Rivera led the NASA team that has just launched this great new site, which is being done jointly with the nonprofit Internet Archive.

NASA has long posted many of its images online, but they've been spread out at the websites of the Kennedy Space Center and many other NASA installations. It could be a challenge to find pictures of Saturn's rings or of man's first steps on the moon.

RIVERA: "The advantage to [putting] it into one spot is really usability and making it easier for the public as well as NASA to be able to find images. You have it all together with one, hopefully, easy way to search for what you're looking for."

NASA plans to eventually include older material from their archives, going back to the earliest days of space flight and space exploration.

Finding your way around is easy thanks to a variety of browsing and search tools. And Debbie Rivera says that once you've found something interesting, you don't have to keep it to yourself.

RIVERA: "You also have an opportunity with this website to share imagery that you like with others, embed it in other types of pages that you might have. So there's a lot of fun tools on the site already."

Astronauts, planets, spacecraft, stars, and more online at NASAimages.org, or get the link to this and more than 200 other Websites of the Week from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: Stefan Scaggiari — "Swinging On A Star"

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


New museum exhibition has the dirt on soil

Scientists say we know less about the soil under our feet than we know about the dark side of the moon. To raise public awareness about the importance of soil, the Smithsonian Institution has just opened an exhibit called "Dig It! The Secrets of Soil." We sent Eric Libby to scoop up some dirt on this earthy topic.

LIBBY: Beneath our feet is a living, breathing, pulsating world. Worms, plants, bacteria and fungi thrive in the dynamic environment of soil. Dig It curator Patrick Megonigal says there are more microorganisms in just a handful of soil than there are human beings on earth, and yet we know about only about one percent of them.

A major goal of the exhibition is to show visitors the importance of soil. While most people know that crops depend on good soil, Megonigal stresses other ways soil affects our lives.

MEGONIGAL: "Consider the importance of water quality and the fact that every drop of freshwater passes through soils on its way to aquifers and reservoirs. Consider climate change and the fact that soils can either add or subtract greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. And because soils hold twice as much carbon as the atmosphere does, they regulate climate. One might say, in fact, that we drink, eat, and breathe soils."

LIBBY: Dig It makes that point with vivid photographs and videos and interactive displays. Take the entrance hall, for example, which shows visitors what's happening under an oak tree. Round screens along the wall show videos of ants and worms busy at work. From here, the visitors step into a large room with samples of soil from each of America's 50 states. The soil colors range from orange to red and brown to black, depending on their mineral ingredients.

A different approach to soil composition is on display above what looks like a kitchen stove, where a video screen shows an animated cooking show. It's based on the real television program Iron Chef, in which chefs compete to make the best meal with a secret ingredient. In this exhibit, the aptly named chefs Pierre LeTerre and Sandy Marsh try to make the best soil.

SOIL CHEF ANNOUNCER: "And now we are ready to reveal today's secret ingredient — sand! Chefs, you have just 6,000 years to create a unique soil from sand. A quick word about this ingredient. It's mostly sand but also has minerals rich in iron that give it that distinctive color...."

LIBBY: Visitors learn that two very different soils can develop from sand, depending on environmental conditions.

The engaging explanations continue in the next room, where visitors can step into the Matters of Life and Death theater to watch the short feature, Soil Science Investigators. In this case, the investigators use their knowledge of soil composition, food decay, and plant growth to discover who murdered Linus IV — a pumpkin.

MAN: "About 42 inches [one meter], victim is at least a 100 pounder [45 kilos], I'm guessing. Loamy soil, a lot of aeration, and reliable water. Smart grower. Whatcha got, Olivia?"

OLIVIA: "Pulpy liquid. The lab will tell us how long it's been here."

MAN: "Soil, it's the greatest — tells us how things grow and how things die!"

LIBBY: Other rooms show how soil plays a role in filtering drinking water and affecting climate change. Other displays discuss the twelve types of soil found in the world. A giant map uses colors to show the distribution of these soils, explaining why some countries can grow crops that neighboring countries cannot.

When finished exploring the Dig It exhibition, visitors will leave knowing that what they scrape off their shoes is more than just dirt. This is Eric Libby in Washington.

California winemakers embrace sustainable farming

Some of the richest and most productive soils in the United States can be found in California, and that's one reason the state produces some of the world's finest wines. And some California winemakers have begun to embrace environmentally-sustainable farming methods. VOA's Adam Phillips reports on one winery that's leading the way toward "going green."

PHILLIPS: Steve Honig of the Honig Winery enjoys an afternoon breeze on the family porch and surveys the rows of lush green grapes that fill his 40-hectare vineyard. This picturesque piece of California farmland has been in his family since his grandfather bought it back in 1964.

HONIG: "We call this a 'generational business.' In that we want to pass this on to my children and my brother's children and our cousins' children and hopefully their children after that."

PHILLIPS: Soon, we are out the back gate and walk the 30 meters to the vineyard proper, whose grapes are expected to produce 70,000 cases of Cabernet and Sauvignon blanc wine this year. That makes the Honig Winery one of the smaller of Napa Valley's roughly 375 vineyards. But "small is beautiful" according to Honig, who says that every drop of his vineyard's precious wine will be made in a sustainable, eco-friendly way.

He points to the special "cover crops" growing between his rows of grapes.

HONIG: "And as you can see, one of the rows is mustard. That really helps to control nematodes, which are small worms in the soil that try to eat the plants. Then in the other row, we're using a cover crop of nitrogen-rich grasses. It grows during the wintertime and then gets tilled into the soil to promote the growth of the grapes."

PHILLIPS: Healthy grapes, Honig points out, are essential to making quality wine.

HONIG: "The whole idea behind it is to make better grapes. If you make better tasting grapes, then your final product, wine, tastes better. And then your business is more viable because you have very good-tasting wine."

PHILLIPS: Many traditional commercial farmers use toxic chemical pesticides to control the insects that feed on their crops. Honig tries to distract, rather than poison, the pests by planting thick hedgerows of tasty native plants just beyond the perimeter of his vineyard.

HONIG: "We call it the 'all you can eat buffet' for insects. Because insects would prefer to go and eat at this area than to try to bore into or get nutrients out of our vines, which are very hard-cased. What we're also doing is we're trying to create habitats for birds at the vineyard site — one being bluebirds that will eat up insects. Also, we're using bats at nighttime. They take over the night shift."

PHILLIPS: The Honig Winery has invested heavily in solar technology. Solar panels convert sunlight into enough electricity to meet all the farm's electricity needs, from the wine cooling systems and air conditioners to the office equipment and the vineyard irrigation pumps.

Water conservation is an increasingly critical concern throughout the American West. Sustainable vineyards have now mostly replaced the flood irrigation systems of the past with drip irrigation methods, where tubes with small holes drip water directly onto the plant's roots in a controlled way, as needed.

The success and growing sophistication of the sustainable wine industry has Steven Honig optimistic.

HONIG: "The wine industry is very visible; it's very high profile. A lot of people respect the wine industry. A lot of people respect what we do. When you can grow a good product using sustainability and it increases the value of the product and the quality of the product, well then that is a good showpiece for the rest of the world."

PHILLIPS: At the Honig Winery in Napa Valley California, I'm Adam Phillips reporting for Our World.

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

Rob Sivak edited the show. 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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