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Our World — 9 May 2009


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This week on Our World: How swine flu is affecting life on the farm ... Anemia in pregnancy and its impact on the baby's brain ... and a final maintenance call for an orbiting piece of science gear ...

GRUNSFELD: "The Hubble Space Telescope is more than remarkable. It's answered just so many of those fundamental questions that people have been asking about the cosmos since people have been able to ask questions."

Those stories, world culture on our Website of the Week, and more.

I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."




Space shuttle ready for Hubble telescope repairs

The space shuttle Atlantis is due to blast into space on Monday, on its way to a rendezvous in orbit with the Hubble Space Telescope.

Once there, the astronauts will maneuver the telescope into the shuttle's cargo bay, where they can install new science instruments, replace batteries and gyroscopes, and generally do what's needed to keep Hubble in good shape until its replacement is launched, five years from now.

The telescope will be getting new science instruments, batteries and gyroscopes, says astronaut Mike Massimino who will be on two of the five space walks.

MASSIMINO: "We're going to put in a new Wide Field Camera, which is going to increase the telescope's ability to see into the universe by a factor of 10, so we can see a lot of cool stuff if we do our job right and this thing works. So we're excited about the Wide Field Camera, and also the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, which is another big scientific instrument we're putting in. So those things are going to increase the science capability of the telescope."

Massimino was on one of the previous Hubble servicing missions. His crewmate, John Grunsfeld, was on three of the four prior Hubble repair flights.

GRUNSFELD: "The Hubble has been in orbit for 18 years. It's a remarkable period of time for any spacecraft to be operating at the level Hubble has, and in an environment that's pretty nasty, and that takes its toll on the telescope."

Grunsfeld's academic background is in physics and astronomy. He says it's important to keep Hubble working as long as possible because of the contributions it has made to science.

GRUNSFELD: "It has produced all of the science that we expected it would - the discovery that black holes really do exist, massive black holes millions of times the mass of our sun. It's measured the age of the universe. It's answered just so many of those fundamental questions that people have been asking about the cosmos since people have been able to ask questions."

After the shuttle program's second fatal accident in 2003, NASA canceled the planned repair mission to Hubble. NASA considered the flight too dangerous. If there were any problem with the shuttle, they said, the astronauts would be stranded, unable to seek the safe-harbor refuge of the space station, which flies in a different orbit..

But astronomers and other supporters of the space telescope urged the decision be reversed. Which it was, but only after NASA added some new safety measures.

If there's a problem - such as damage to the shuttle discovered while they're in orbit - NASA official LeRoy Cain says another space shuttle will be standing by in case a rescue mission is needed.

CAIN: "We have done a great deal of planning and work on the launch-on-need, as you know, and so Endeavour is ready to go on Pad B if we should need it for launch-on-need."

With only a handful of shuttle flights left on the program's manifest, NASA has begun laying off workers. Nearly three decades after the first shuttle flight in 1981, the three remaining orbiters are set to be grounded next year.

Meanwhile, on Thursday, NASA announced that an independent panel will review the future of human space flight. The review is set to be finished by August and could recommend a change in plans for the next generation of rockets set to return astronauts to the moon and provide service to the space station starting in 2015.




Swine flu stigma hurts hog farmers

Students returned to hundreds of American schools this week. They had been sent home in an effort to contain the Influenza A-H1N1 virus, better known as swine flu. In Mexico - the apparent origin of the new influenza variety - schools, restaurants, sports venues, and cinemas reopened after a shutdown aimed at keeping the virus from spreading.

The immediate danger seems to have passed, and life is returning to normal in Mexico, the U.S., and other countries where prevention measures had been implemented. But experts recalling the history of influenza are still worried.

The worst recorded flu pandemic started in early 1918 with a rather mild strain. As Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health told members of Congress this week, it re-emerged later that year in a much more virulent form:

FAUCI: "But it still remains a mystery how and why that happened, which is one of the reasons why we're so vigilant now and we take this seriously and continue to take this seriously. We don't want to get anyone alarmed that this is a 1918 type at all, and I don't think we should even be talking about that. But the fact is, when you're dealing with brand new viruses, influenza viruses, with which the population does not have any experience - no background immunity - you have to have an overabundance of diligence and caution, which is what you're seeing right now in how we're responding here."

The World Health Organization says there have been more than 2,000 confirmed cases of swine flu, with 42 deaths as of Friday, almost all of them in Mexico.

This strain of influenza is formally called A-H1N1, though it quickly got the catchy nickname 'swine flu' because the virus does have some genetic components from an influenza strain that infects pigs. Egypt has begun slaughtering its entire pig population of 300,000 animals as a precaution, though the WHO says there is no evidence the animals are transmitting swine flu to humans, and no cases have been reported in Egypt.

Here in the United States, hog farmers and veterinarians are trying to spread the word that pork products are safe to eat, and the strictest biosecurity measures are in place to prevent pigs from contracting the virus in the United States. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

FARABAUGH: As head of the Illinois Pork Producer Association, Brent Scholl is quick to point out that the H1N1 swine flue virus , has little to do with swine.

SCHOLL: "It's really a misnomer, the flu itself is made up of different species, it's not even made up of anything of swine anyway to begin with. It has hurt. Our industry has been struggling in the last eighteen months to make money, and we were just about ready to make money again, and now this here is affecting us greatly."

FARABAUGH: Scholl, who also owns a pig farm, has watched the price of his hogs plummet in the last week.

SCHOLL: "We actually marketed some hogs this morning, and it's lower today than it was yesterday on that, so it definitely affects our bottom line, what we thought we would be making on those pigs."

FARABAUGH: Even though Scholl owns hundreds of pigs housed in several large buildings on his farm, VOA was not allowed access to areas that contained swine.

AMASS: 'That would be a little bit because of me."

FARABAUGH: Dr. Sandra Amass is an associate dean at the School of Veterinary Medicine at Purdue University in Indiana. She specializes in swine production medicine and biosecurity measures that farmers use to protect their animals from infection.

AMASS: "If people that work on the farm are showing signs of a disease like influenza that could potentially be spread to pigs, we don't want them handling pigs directly. We don't like having visitors on the farm that may have had contact with other animals or may have been in other countries where they contacted other animals that might have diseases which are not in the United States."

FARABAUGH: Most hog farmers across the United States already had biosecurity measures in place before the latest outbreak. The measures also help keep other disease and illnesses away from the animals.

Location is also another way farmers like Scholl can be sure the animals are healthy.

SCHOLL: "There isn't another hog farm within probably five or six miles (eight or nine kilometers) from us, so we have limited access that way too."

FARABAUGH: That limited access has so far kept his investment safe and healthy, as well as other pig farms in the United States. Pork producers as well as veterinarians insist that pork products are safe to eat.

But with the first case of H1N1 swine flu now reported on a hog farm in Alberta Canada, farmers could see continuing drops in hog prices as confidence in the safety of pork products continues to decline.

Kane Farabaugh, VOA News, Dixon, Illinois.



Iron deficiency in womb may delay brain maturation

Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutritional problems in the world, and affects many pregnant women. Now new research indicates that anemia during pregnancy can also seriously impare brain development of the baby. Health reporter Rose Hoban has the details.


HOBAN: University of Rochester neonatologist Sanjiv Amin explains that late in pregnancy, a process known as myelination occurs in the brain and nervous system. It's how the brain creates its wiring.

AMIN: "Iron is very important for myelination, so if you don't provide iron during that period then myelination may not occur adequately or optimally, and so once you don't have enough myelination then you are on the wrong track. And myelination is important for future development. So language development, even motor development is dependent on myelination."

HOBAN: In the first study of its kind, Amin compared brain development in 80 premature babies, half born to women with iron deficiency and half whose mothers were not anemic. Using headphones and electrodes attached to the babies' skin, Amin was able to measure how fast auditory impulses passed through the babies' brains. It's a way of measuring how well the brain is myelinated.

AMIN: "It provides us an indirect way of evaluating brain maturation. And we suspect that if iron is required for not only for auditory-neural system maturation but also for brain maturation that what we are seeing with the auditory maturation probably is also reflected in the brain maturation."

HOBAN: What Amin found was that in babies born to mothers with anemia, nerve impulses passed more slowly through their brains.

According to the World Health Organization, upwards of 30 percent of pregnant women in developing countries lack sufficient iron in their blood.

AMIN: "So it has a global implication. But in developed countries, a lot of maternal conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, even including smoking during pregnancy can decrease the iron transfer to the babies. So mother may have enough iron in store, but with those conditions the iron is not able to get to the babies."

HOBAN: Amin presented his findings in a paper given at the Pediatric Academic Society meeting in Baltimore. I'm Rose Hoban.




World libraries join to offer cultural treasures online

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

Some of the world's leading libraries - from Tokyo to Washington to Alexandria - have joined with UNESCO to launch the World Digital Library at wdl.org.

The World Digital Library aims to make available to everyone significant cultural milestones from countries around the world.

BILLINGTON: "The focus of the project is on rare and one-of-a-kind cultural items that are locked away in the great libraries of the world -- oracle bones from China, ancient woodblock prints from Japan, scientific manuscripts from the Arab World, Columbus' letter announcing his discoveries in the New World."

James Billington heads the Library of Congress, one of the partner institutions behind the World Digital Library.

Documents in this digital library are in their original language, but the website interface is in seven languages.

The World Digital Library is designed to put its treasures in historical context by including, for example, commentary from knowledgeable curators. Here's an example from Library of Congress expert Christopher Murphy's video on Arabic calligraphy.

MURPHY: "From the humble beginnings of a writing system designed to record commercial data and occasional funerary inscriptions, the Arabic script has developed and blossomed into a world renown vehicle of artistic expression."

Visit the World Digital Library at wdl.org, or get the link to this and some 250 other Websites of the Week from our site, VOAnews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: Rufus Harley - "Bagpipe Blues"

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




Wheat hybrid doesn't need replanting every year

One of the world's most important food crops, wheat, is an annual plant. It dies each year after its grains are harvested, and must be re-planted for the next growing season. The trouble is, repetitive planting can wear out farmland and promote soil erosion. Now, some scientists are trying to coax grain crops into growing for years at a time. Shawn Allee visited researchers who are testing perennial wheat hybrids that could affect the food that countless millions of people eat.

ALLEE: I've headed to a test farm run by Michigan State University. It's not that far from Battle Creek, Michigan, where cereal companies like Kelloggs got started.

Dr. Sieg Snapp shows me grain that might make into our cereal bowls someday.

Q: "What are we looking at on this side?"

SNAPP: "We have six varieties of perennial wheat."

ALLEE: Right now, they kinda look like spindly blades of grass. But in some ways, this is miraculous. You see, regular wheat dies after harvest. These have been harvested, and now they're popping back up.

SNAPP: "We'll harvest these this summer, and then in the fall, they'll re-grow. They build a deep root system, and they're able to come back. So, at first, they start out very similar, but they keep growing longer, and they re-grow after harvest. That's the big difference."

ALLEE: Actually, that's just the start of the difference between annual grains like wheat and perennial varieties.

Dr. Snapp says when farmers plant most annual grain crops, soil gets torn up again and again from planting and replanting. Rain can wash away exposed topsoil.

Perennial crops get planted once every few years, so they might hold the soil, and they might need less fertilizer that runs off into streams and rivers.

SNAPP: "The roots of traditional crops including annual wheat are usually 1-2 feet [30-60 cm.]. These root systems are down 6 feet [1.8 m.]. They can use fertilizers more efficiently, so they can pick it up from deep and then move it up where we want it, into the grain."

Q: "And if the roots are strong enough, you might need less herbicide to kill weeds, right? If that perennial wheat comes up strong enough, it's already out-competing the weeds that are next to it?"

SNAPP: "Right, and each year it should do it better for a couple years anyways, we don't know how long."

ALLEE: Dr. Snapp and her colleagues use the word "maybe" a lot when they talk about perennial grains. It's mostly because testing these crops is slow work. That's one reason they're letting some farmers run their own small tests.

Part-time farmer and teacher John Edgerton says he checked his test batches recently.

EDGERTON: "I didn't know what I was to expect and I went out there and lo and behold, it's just greening up beautifully. As a matter of fact, it may be yet too thick. So, we'll see."

ALLEE: Pretty soon, another perennial wheat researcher joins us in the test field. He's Brook Wilke.

He tells me, all this work on perennial wheat and other grains will work best if the final product, that grain, tastes like what we're used to.

Q: "I hear you baked some chocolate chip cookies with perennial wheat."

WILKE: "Yeah. Well I think, you know, a big component of this work is, 'will people eat the perennial wheat?'

ALLEE: Dr. Snapp tasted Wilke's cookies. She says the wheat tasted kinda nutty, but good.

For the Environment Report, I'm Shawn Allee.



Animals display maternal instincts - plants, too

And finally ... this Sunday is Mother's Day here in America. As we take time to celebrate and honor our own mothers, VOA's Adam Phillips reports that other animals and even plants have also evolved their own diverse ways of mothering, all aimed at ensuring that their offspring survive and thrive.

PHILLIPS: For most of us, Mother's Day is a time to show our human mothers that we appreciate them. But for Columbia University ecologist Shahid Naaem, Mother's Day is a time to celebrate mothering in all species of life.

NAEEM: "Because we recognize mothering and fathering as critical to the survival of our species, and how that is common not just among all the different races of humanity, but among every single species you see, even if it's just an insect on the ground, or plants or mushrooms growing in the forest or the birds that are flying overhead."

PHILLIPS: Like other primates - a group of mammals that includes monkeys and apes - we human beings spend long periods of time gestating, then caring, for our young, usually in groups.

Many other animal mothers do not stay around to raise their young. And there is often variation among different species of the same class of animal. Shahid Naeem says frogs offer one example.

NAEEM: "Frogs lay their eggs and then go away. But in the case of the gastric rooting frog, the tadpoles actually grow up in the stomach of the mother and then eventually emerge as little frogs outside of the mouth of the mother. I've seen pictures of this, and it's very strange because they will open up their mouth and there will be this little frog coming out. There are some tree frogs as well in which the tadpoles will stay very close to the mother and derive both protection and nutrition from the mother. So even among what we think of as primitive vertebrates you will still see some range of parental care."

PHILLIPS: Naeem says that most animal mothers protect their young in some way.

NAEEM: "We've all admired cats picking up their offspring one by one and moving them from a place where they thought is no longer safe. Birds will wander around and pretend like they have a broken wing to try to distract a predator away from the eggs if they see a predator getting close to the eggs. We all know if you encounter a goose that is raising goslings, it's going to be very aggressive to you when it's fairly clear that the goose doesn't stand a chance of winning in that kind of contest. But it'll come up and try to scare you away from its offspring."

PHILLIPS: Human mothers teach their young, often by joining them in observing and interacting with the external world and then discussing it with them. Other animals do not do this. Their young learn on their own, mostly by observation and mimicry. But Columbia zoology professor Marina Cords, who has spent years observing groups of blue monkeys in the forest of Kenya, says there are other clever ways mammalian young manage to learn from their mothers, especially if they are carnivores.

CORDS: "We see young ones sniffing the mouths of their mothers and you wonder if they're learning what the smell of the food is that mother is consuming and they might recognize that when they meet that food at some point in the future."

PHILLIPS: Plants have also developed ingenious maternal strategies for engendering and nurturing the next generation. And how fortunate for us, says Shahid Naeem, that in the process, they nurture us too.

NAEEM: "Most of our food we are eating, whether it's rice or wheat or fruits, these are actually the hard work of the mother which has often provided lots of nutrients, moisture and water for them. And, in many cases, the mother will actually put poisons or toxins into the covering of the outer fruit to prevent it from being eaten. You don't want to eat a green tomato! When the fruit is ready to be eaten, then it becomes edible and we seek them. In that case, the mother is trying to encourage us, or an animal, to eat the fruit so that it will then digest away all the bad material, go away from the mother plant and then deposit the seeds in a nice little pack of manure."

PHILLIPS: However you look at it, almost all life, plant and animal, owes not only its creation but also its survival to mom. And that's all the more reason we should take time out to contemplate and celebrate motherhood - all year long. I'm Adam Phillips reporting from New York.

Happy Mother's Day to my mom and all the other moms everywhere.





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That's our show for this week.

If you'd like to get in touch with us - maybe you've got a science question we can answer on the show - our email address is ourworld@voanews.com. Or use the postal address -

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA

Shawn Allee's report on perennial wheat was produced with support from the Joyce Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. You can hear more stories and subscribe to the daily podcast at environmentreport.org.

Our World is edited by Rob Sivak. Bob Doughty 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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