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Our World — 13 June 2009


MUSIC: "Our World" theme

This week on Our World: The World Health Organization declares a swine flu pandemic ... A potential new weapon in the fight against termites ... and coral reefs under threat ...

PATTERSON: "We've got to work very hard to protect them because it shows us how the ecosystem should look and used to look around the planet before things started to go downhill."

Those stories, horseback riding as therapy, our Website of the Week, and more.

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




WHO declares swine flu pandemic, ups alert level

The World Health Organization on Thursday declared its first pandemic in four decades and bumped the H1N1 swine flu threat level up to phase six, the highest alert level.

WHO official Margaret Chan told reporters in Geneva that public health officials identified this pandemic earlier than any previous outbreak, and that it is - so far at least - not nearly as deadly as prior pandemics.

CHAN: "Globally, we have good reason to believe that this pandemic, at least in its early days, will be of moderate severity. As we know from experience, severity can vary, depending on many factors, from one country to another."

Dr. Chan said WHO continues to recommend against border closures or other travel restrictions.

As of the announcement, more than 28,000 cases of H1N1 influenza in 74 countries have been reported to the WHO, including 144 deaths.

The WHO announcement coincides with the release of a study of the origins of the H1N1 virus. Writing in the journal Nature, an international team of scientists reports that the disease actually moved from pigs to humans several months before it was first recognized, in April.

The researchers say their study indicates the need for better monitoring of developing infectious diseases.




Hibernating microbes may cause tuberculosis

Swine flu might be scary, but year-after-year, tuberculosis is a much bigger public health problem.

Now, Swedish researchers say they may have figured out how tuberculosis can hibernate in humans, becoming active only long after the original infection. The latent form of TB is carried by an estimated one-third of the world's population, and most people never get sick.

As we hear from VOA's Jessica Berman, it appears TB may form inactive spores which suddenly spring to life in some individuals.

BERMAN: Every year, 10 million new cases of tuberculosis are diagnosed around the world and 2 to 3 million people die of the lung disease. Many of them have been infected with a latent form of the tuberculosis bacteria that can become active and cause the illness. But many others are infected without ever getting sick. Scientists have been trying to figure out why.

In new research, scientists at Sweden's Uppsala University found evidence that a relative of the tuberculosis bacteria (called mycobacterium marinum) that causes tuberculosis in fish forms hibernating spores when scientists cultured the microorganism in the laboratory. Another similar bacterium, which causes tuberculosis in cows but can also infect humans, also forms spores.

Lead investigator Leif Kirsebom says scientists don't understand the molecular mechanism that causes the TB mycobacterium to remain silent in human cells - for decades, in some cases - and then spring to life. But the scientists' work suggests the microorganism goes into hiding by forming spores when it is under environmental stress.

Kirsebom says discovery of the spores may open a new chapter in the study of mycobacteria, including an aggressive microbe (mycobacterium ulcerans} that causes disfiguring skin lesions called Buruli ulcer disease.

KIRSEBOM: "It might, it might, I say might, shed light on perhaps spread of disease - for example mycobacterium Buruli ulcerans which causes Buruli ulcer in Africa - and the transmission of those bacteria. Also, it (may) open new avenues of latent infection caused by mycobacteria."

BERMAN: So far, Kirsebom says the spores have not been detected in mycobacterium tuberculosis, which causes most cases of human TB.

Kirsebom says if it turns out the microorganism does not form spores that would also give scientists valuable information about the behavior of latent TB in humans.

Kirsebom says discovery of the spores in marine and cow versions of the bacteria could eventually pave the way for treatments to stop latent tuberculosis from becoming active in humans.

KIRSEBOM: "It opens a new biology to study and understand (mycobacteria). And if you understand there might be new targets, there might be new ways, for example, [to] understand how the mycobacteria grows."

BERMAN: The study by Uppsala researchers is published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington.




How creative are you when you're sleeping?

The story goes that in the 1960s, Paul McCartney went to sleep and dreamed the tune to the Beatles' big hit, "Yesterday." Maybe you've had a similar experience. What is it about dreaming that spurs creativity? Some new research has clues. Rose Hoban reports.

HOBAN: Sleep has different parts. Sleepers can spend time in a deep dreamless sleep and they can also experience something called rapid eye movement, or REM sleep. That's when dreams occur. Sleep researcher Sara Mednick says scientists have long suspected a connection between REM sleep, dreams and the creative process.

MEDNICK: "If dreams are playing a role in creative discovery, we should be able to find it somehow but for some reason that's kind of confounded scientists for awhile."

HOBAN: Mednick and her colleagues at the University of California at San Diego tried to find this connection by studying three groups of people.

MEDNICK: "One is a control group which is a non-sleep group, and that group actually is kind of a special control group in that we haven't just sitting quietly in a dark grove with electrodes on their head, not sleeping … but very, very quiet during the whole 90 minutes that everyone else is taking a nap. The next two groups are either a nap group that has only non-REM sleep … and then the next group is a group that has REM sleep."

HOBAN: All the people in each group were given a mental task to do before their rest period or nap. Mednick asked them to find the associations between groups of words. One example of such a word group - heart, sixteen and cookie.

Then in the afternoon, after resting, Mednick asked them to come back and complete the mental task - finding the word that connects the other three.

MEDNICK: "And what we find is that in the REM group, people are performing better if they have had REM sleep than if they have had non-REM or quiet rest."

HOBAN: Mednick says the mechanism of this creative word association isn't clear, but she and her colleagues think that this kind of creativity is housed in a part of the brain called the neocortex. That's where we bring our experiences and world view together.

Mednick says there are probably ways to use sleep to one's advantage. She would like to work on devising a model where REM sleep could be used consistently to help people solve difficult problems - such as realizing that the link for the words cookie, sixteen and heart is … sweet.

Mednick's research is published in the journal Science.

I'm Rose Hoban.




Researchers seek to exploit termite weakness

Unless you're one of those people who eat them, termites are probably not your friends ... especially if you live in a wooden building.

By one estimate, these voracious insects cause $30 billion a year in damage to structures, plus more spent on pesticides to get rid of them.

Now, American researchers have stumbled on something that may lead to a more affordable and environmentally benign way to kill termites.

Our termite control arsenal now consists mainly of toxic chemicals - pesticides that can have collateral damage, harming other animals, including humans.

BULMER: "So the current techniques are to put some of these chemicals in barriers around households where they can leach into the groundwater."

Mark Bulmer studies termites, and he writes about his latest research this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. He's now at Towson University, but his paper is based on work he did at Northeastern University in Boston, along with colleagues from MIT.

Studying the insects in the lab, Bulmer found termites have natural resistance to a fungus that would otherwise be deadly to the bugs, and that a kind of sugar can undermine that natural protection.

BULMER: "What we basically found is they're producing these enzymes that are able to chew up a component of the fungal cell wall, and a small sugar called Glucono delta-lactone [GDL] could inhibit these enzymes, and that would prevent the enzymes from chewing up the fungal cell wall, and therefore make the termite vulnerable to fungal pathogens."

So instead of poisoning the termites with toxic chemicals, you could feed them this sugar. It's not the same sugar we use to sweeten our coffee or tea, but it is already used as a food additive and it occurs naturally in other foods such as wine and honey, so it shouldn't hurt humans or other organisms.

So far this is just a laboratory finding, but in an interview, Bulmer suggested that the sugar and the fungus could be combined into a tempting food that would attract termites and kill them before they could do damage.

BULMER: "One idea is that you could actually design a bait for termites, a food source that termites would access, and they would be exposed to, say, a fungal pathogen that you put in this bait, and you also include in the bait, this sugar, that basically prevents them from destroying the fungus with their immune system."

Bulmer stressed that so far this is just a laboratory finding, but that his co-authors from MIT will be taking the next step, bringing this discovery out of the laboratory, and trying to find the best way to use this discovery to actually control wood-eating termites and take a bite out of that estimated $30 billion in damage they cost each year.




Caribbean island finds ways to protect coral

Coral reefs are in trouble. Whether it's climate change or careless humans, scientists say nearly half the coral reefs in the U.S. are in bad shape, and many others around the world are threatened or dying. But as we hear from reporter Ann Dornfeld, the Caribbean island of Bonaire is working to save its coral reefs.

DORNFELD: Jerry Ligon was working as the on-board naturalist on a small Caribbean cruise ship when he first saw Bonaire.

LIGON: "And I saw how clear the water was. And I'd been able to compare, during my stint on the cruise ship, other islands in the Caribbean, and I realized how special Bonaire was. So that was at the end of my contract, so I decided to stay here. And I've been here for 15 years!"

DORNFELD: It wasn't just the clarity of Bonaire's water that made Ligon stick around. It was the remarkably healthy coral reefs that lay beneath the waves.

LIGON: "I can even talk to divers who come to Bonaire and they say, 'What fantastic diving!' and they remember, 'This is how the way it was in Cayman Islands 25 years ago!'"

DORNFELD: Ligon says the Cayman Islands might have even had more impressive reefs than Bonaire's back in the day. But coral throughout the US and Caribbean has been in sharp decline for decades.

So how do Bonaire's reefs remain intact?

Ramón de León is the manager of the Bonaire National Marine Park. He says the island has an advantage in that it has no industries to pollute the water.

The island is mostly undeveloped, which means relatively little farm and lawn fertilizer run-off that can create marine algae blooms. And cool upwellings in the region help balance the rising ocean temperatures. Warm oceans can cause coral bleaching, which often kills the coral animal.

But de León says Bonaire really owes its healthy reefs to its history of conservation laws. They date back to an era when such policies were rare.

DE LEÓN: "Bonaire start to protect sea turtles and turtle nests in 1961, back when everybody was promoting sea turtle soups and nailing shells in the walls."

DORNFELD: By the end of the 1970s, Bonaire had banned spear fishing and made it illegal to damage coral. For years, divers have been required to pay a sizeable fee and take an orientation course before they're allowed to dive on the island. That helps them avoid touching the coral, which can kill it.

For all of Bonaire's success in coral conservation, there are still some problems. De León says its reefs suffer from leaky septic tanks and boat pollution. And there are few of the large predator fish that used to maintain population balance on the reefs.

But the island is a haven for researchers like Mark Patterson. He designs underwater robots at Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences.

Last year he led a NOAA expedition to use robots to map Bonaire's reefs. He says the island's reefs are valuable as a baseline by which other reefs can be judged.

PATTERSON: "If you're an up-and-coming marine scientist and you go to a lot of the coral reefs on the planet now, you might think that all coral reefs have always look like this. And they haven't. So the fact that we've got some pristine reefs left is very important, and we've got to work very hard to protect them because it shows us how the ecosystem should look and used to look around the planet before things started to go downhill."

DORNFELD: For the Environment Report, I'm Ann Dornfeld.

Support for the Environment Report comes from the Joyce Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. You can hear the Report - and subscribe to the daily podcast at EnvironmentReport.org.




Website of the Week features software alternatives

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

This week we feature a site that helps you explore options when you're unhappy with a computer program you're using now, or maybe need new features, or just can't afford the popular, name brand product.

OLAUSSON: "AlternativeTo.net is like a social software website that helps people find alternatives to applications for Mac, Windows, Linux, and also Web applications."

Markus Olausson is the co-creator of AlternativeTo.net. Unlike most software guides, where you can look for programs based on a category, AlternativeTo.net is organized by program name. Look for Firefox and find different web browsers, for example.

The home page features the site's most-viewed software. You might see the industry-standard, but expensive, image editing program, Adobe Photoshop. Click on that and you'll find alternatives including other commercial programs, plus free and open-source alternatives.

The programs are chosen and rated by the users of the site.

OLAUSSON: "The users on our site, they are by far the most important part of the site. The users, they suggest what applications should be on AlternativeTo.net, and they also suggest what applications should be alternatives to those applications."

The site just launched a few months ago, but Markus Olausson already says he plans to soon add alternatives to mobile applications used on smart phones.

Alternative software applications on AlternativeTo.net, 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"

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




Disabled find freedom on horseback

Animals are used in a variety of therapies to help people with disabilities. Dogs are the most common helpers, but horses, too, have been used for decades to improve the lives of individuals with special needs. VOA's Susan Logue visited a farm in Virginia for a closer look at therapeutic riding:

LOGUE: Thirteen-year old Laura Gregg can't talk or see. She spends most of her life in a wheelchair, but once a week she leaves the chair to sit atop a horse:

GREGG: "It is Laura's opportunity, one day a week, to feel what it is to walk again."

LOGUE: Karen Gregg has been bringing her daughter here since she was six years old. She says she notices a change in Laura after a session.

GREGG: "Her muscles are usually either extremely tight or extremely loose. A child with cerebral palsy, as Laura is, can't control this, but getting this wonderful input from a horse helps to relax muscles that need to relax. It strengthens muscles that need to be strengthened."

LOGUE: Laura is one of 85 students with special needs who come to this farm once a week. The Northern Virginia Therapeutic Riding Program - one of more than 700 such programs in the U.S. - has been offering these classes since 1980. Executive director Breeana Bornhorst has been with the program for eight years:

BORNHORST: "We have some people who have physical disabilities such as cerebral palsy. We have some people who have cognitive or intellectual disabilities, for example, autism, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, Down Syndrome, any number of different challenges."

INSTRUCTOR: "Pick up your reins, resting position. Alright, tell Chet, Walk on."

SELNICK: "Walk on, man."

LOGUE: Sixteen year old Samuel Selnick has Down Syndrome. His mother, Barbara, has been bringing him to these sessions for four years:

BARBARA SELNICK: "Like most people with Down Syndrome, he tends to have low muscle tone. Riding benefits him, because you work on your core muscles. And over time his position (posture) has improved in being straighter."

INSTRUCTOR: "Back straight, hands in resting position."

LOGUE: Volunteers help with the sessions. Some riders require three volunteers: One to lead the horse and one on either side to make sure the rider doesn't fall.

Newer students, like Kira, are usually paired with one of the more experienced horses:

BORNHORST: "She's on Peaches, our pony, who has been with us for 14 years doing therapeutic riding. ... We've paired her with Peaches, because Peaches is very steady, and she knows her job…."

LOGUE: As Kira progresses, she may begin riding one of the other horses. All of them have been given special training for this work.

Bornhorst says there is a need for more research to quantify the benefits of therapeutic riding that she sees every day. Parents and students are already convinced that these sessions make a difference.

LOGUE: Nineteen-year-old Jennifer Hendrick suffered four massive strokes that left her paralyzed on one side. Before taking sessions here, she went through more traditional physical therapy:

HENDRICK: "I was stable enough to get around on my own, but this has doubled the strengthening, doubled the work and doubled the fun."

LOGUE: And it's that sense of fun - not just the physical improvement - that keeps Hendrick and the others returning to the riding ring week after week to work with their four-legged therapists.

HENDRICK: "I love you. That's my baby boy."

LOGUE: For Our World, I'm Susan Logue in Clifton, Virginia.




Heaviest chemical element formally recognized

And finally .... An international chemistry group this week formally recognized a new chemical element, known for now just as element number 112.

It's the heaviest element in the Periodic Table - that chart of all known elements. It's actually about 277 times heavier than hydrogen, which is the lightest.

Element 112 was first produced in 1996 at Germany's GSI Helmholtz Center for Heavy Ion Research, and they've been asked to suggest a name for the new element, but it won't be finalized until around the end of the year.

I'm going to suggest "OurWorldium," but somehow I think that's a long shot.



MUSIC: "Our World" theme

That's our show for this week.

If you'd like to get in touch with us, our email address is ourworld@voanews.com. Or use the postal address -

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA

Our World is edited by Rob Sivak. Bob Doughty is the technical director.

And this is Art Chimes. I'll be off for the next couple of weeks. My colleague Rosanne Skirble will be here, bringing you the latest in science and technology ... in Our World.

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