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Our World Transcript — February 26-27, 2005


This transcript is provided as a service; there may be some variation between it and the program as broadcast.


MUSIC: Our World theme

Straight ahead on "Our World" ... Restoring the Garden of Eden ... new tools to help ocean scientists ... and the threat of emerging diseases ...

GERBERDING (:10) "There are more pigs, people, and poultry in that environment than we have ever seen before. That is the formula for emergence of new flu strains."

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


It's been two months since the Indian Ocean tsunami killed around a quarter-million people, causing billions of dollars in economic damage and disrupting the lives of countless residents of the region.

One consequence that perhaps has not gotten as much attention as it deserves is the effect on fisheries in the region. The tsunami's impact was concentrated on coastal regions, and the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, the FAO, estimates that farming and fishing losses exceed half a billion dollars. That figure includes the cost of restoring harbors and other infrastructure, and the repair or replacement of more than 110,000 fishing vessels.

FAO official Jeremy Turner says restoration of fishing fleets is being done with an eye on protecting the environment.

TURNER (:31) "We're putting emphasis on repairing of boats before we start building new boats because one of our greatest fears is concerns on over-fishing and over-capacity. So we have to make sure that the number of boats, following our and others' interventions, doesn't result in a fleet size which is going to be larger post-tsunami than it was before the tsunami. Because we recall that even prior to the tsunami, there was overfishing, overcapacity in many of the regions which have since been affected by the tsunami."

Jeremy Turner of the FAO. Over-fishing is a problem in many of the world's most popular commercial fishing zones, when consumer demand...and the size or efficiency of the fishing fleet...overwhelms the capacity of the fish to reproduce in sufficient numbers.


For the past year or so we've been hearing about cases of avian flu, sometimes called bird flu, occurring in humans. In the last 14 months, the virus has killed at least 45 people from Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia. To curb the spread of the disease among poultry flocks, health ministries have ordered the destruction of millions of potentially infected birds -- and that has caused billions of dollars in damage to the region's important poultry industry.

This week, international health officials meeting in Vietnam said avian flu poses a grave global threat to public health. The meeting of experts from the United Nations and other health agencies gathered to discuss ways to prevent a flu pandemic, which officials say is possible if the virus mutates into a more infectious form, which could be transmitted more easily from person to person.

Health officials wrapped up their three-day meeting in Vietnam with calls for reducing infection at its source -- targeting free-range chickens and ducks to try to curb the disease before it spreads.

In the United States, meanwhile, officials are working to reduce the threat. Dr. Judy Gerberding heads the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a government agency which monitors infectious diseases.

GERBERDING (:31) "There are more pigs, people, and poultry in that environment than we have ever seen before. That is the formula for emergence of new flu strains. We already know this particular strain of virus can infect people, we already know that it can occasionally move from person to person, and we know how these viruses evolve. So it is a worrisome situation and we are taking many steps to be as prepared as we can and to prevent the transmission of a new virus strain in the global arena."

U.S. officials have ordered two million doses of vaccine to protect against known strains of the bird flu.

The other day in Washington, the American Association for the Advancement of Science considered emerging diseases at its recent annual meeting. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports on lessons learned from SARS, which, like avian flu, jumped from animals to humans.

SKIRBLE: SARS is one of the best studied of any infectious disease. University of Colorado microbiologist Kathryn Holmes says scientists began saving specimens from the onset of SARS in November 2002.

HOLMES: "People have gone back to look at those specimens that were kept at a time when southern China didnt admit that it had any problem. The specimens were there. Sixty-three genomes were sequenced completely and then you could look at what mutations were necessary to accomplish this jump from animals to humans."

SKIRBLE: By March 2003 scientists had isolated the virus that causes SARS. It turned out to be a coronavirus, strains of which are associated with the common cold and not usually deadly. An examination of the genetic structure indicated a new type.

Kathryn Holmes says experiments on animals provide valuable insights into human immune response.

HOLMES: "You can use those models to evaluate the effectiveness of vaccines in preventing re-infection or the ability to clear virus using new drugs that are being developed."

SKIRBLE: Prior to the SARS outbreak no antibodies existed in humans to help fight the disease and consequently it spread rapidly to 30 countries.

Microbiologist Kathryn Holmes calls the response to SARS a triumph in modern medicine. She says while the likelihood of reemergence is low, if SARS did reoccur, it could be more quickly contained.

HOLMES: "Because we have wonderful, very sensitive diagnostic tests, good clinical differentiation now between SARS and other infections. And, there have been a number of labs that have made human monoclonal antibodies that neutral SARS virus and these might be able to be used to treat infected individuals. Or, if that didnt work to protect the health care workers around them."

SKIRBLE: Multiple candidate vaccines for SARS have been developed. Kathryn Holmes says work on SARS coronavirus has also helped identify other new human respiratory diseases.

HOLMES: "One is called Human Coronavirus-NL63, and it causes pneumonia in children and in immunocompromised adults. Another one was just reported this January from Hong Kong, and it is closely related to a mouse virus and again, it causes pneumonia."

SKIRBLE: Kathryn Holmes expects viruses to continue to jump from animals to humans. She says the best defense is to learn as much as possible about all types of viruses in both animals and humans.

MUSIC


A recent study indicates expectant mothers who are exposed to air pollution see damage to the genetic make up of their newborns. And that might increase the babies' risk of contracting cancer later in life. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Lester Graham reports:

GRAHAM: The expectant mothers were asked to carry air monitors in backpacks to see how much they were exposed to air pollutants. The Columbia University researchers chose 60 mothers in low-income neighborhoods. Dr. Frederica Perera is chief author of the study.

PERERA: "All of our mothers in the study were non-smokers. So, the primary source of these pollutants in air would be things like motor vehicles, emissions from residential heating units, burning fossil fuel and also from power plants located even fairly far away."

GRAHAM: It's the fist study to make a connection between air pollutants causing genetic changes in the womb that could increase cancer risk. Earlier studies by the researchers already revealed greater prenatal exposure to air pollution caused lower birth weights and smaller heads in newborns.

CHIMES: The Great Lakes Radio Consortium -- at GLRC.org -- is a production of Michigan
Radio... Support comes from the Joyce Foundation, the George Gund
Foundation, and the U-S Department of Agriculture.


Time again for Our World's Website of the Week, and this time we turn the spotlight on a website that links science education to today's headlines.

DEVITT (:14) "It's the Why Files, the science behind the news, and we're always looking for things that are going on in the world. We try to dig behind the headlines to find our stories."

Terry Devitt is editor of the Why Files, at whyfiles.org, a website that began nine years ago as a pilot project to see whether the World Wide Web, which was then still in its infancy, could be used in science education. The Why Files is now hosted by the University of Wisconsin, and it aims to present science in a refreshing, accessible way.

DEVITT (:14) "I think it's also important to show that science is a human endeavor, that it comes with all of the baggage that human beings carry with them. You know, science has sex, it has politics, it has violence, it has everything that can make for a good story.

At Why Files you'll find informative and entertaining articles on a wide variety of topics, from neutrinos to tsunamis to our sense of smell.

The approach is thorough, with text supplemented by photos, illustrations, even interactive games. And, although it's serious science, it's never stuffy.

DEVITT (:13) "We like humor. If we can find things that are interesting and humorous that relate to science while we're still able to tell a good story and present science in an accurate way, that's a perfect fit for us."

Science publications, whether in print or on-line, have traditionally attracted a predominantly male readership. But Terry Devitt says that at Why Files, they hope to appeal to a broader audience.

DEVITT (:16) "We're very interested in moving off that mark and we've done some subsequent readership surveys that show that we're migrating, and we're starting to reach out to some of the other audiences that we want to hit. We're very interested in reaching women and other groups of people that haven't always had a voice in science."

Whether you're part of the traditional science audience or not, we think you'll find it worth your time to take your curiosity over to WhyFiles.org, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC - "Tell Me Why" (Norman Fox & The Rob Roys, 1957)

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

It's the biblical Garden of Eden, many believe. Iraq's once-extensive southern marshlands are slowly refilling with water after their almost complete drainage by Saddam Hussein's government. But the results are uneven, and experts predict that only a fraction of the area can be restored. VOA's David McAlary reports from Washington.

McALARY: By the time U.S.-led forces ousted Saddam Hussein two years ago, 93-percent of southern Iraq's wetlands had turned into a dry, salt-encrusted wasteland. The Iraqi dictator had ordered the water dammed and diverted for almost two decades, in part to punish the indigenous Marsh Arabs who opposed his rule.

Duke University ecologist Curtis Richardson says the desertification not only severely diminished the habitat for a variety of wildlife, but also impoverished a five-thousand year old culture of up to half-a-million people whose lives depended on fishing, raising water buffalo, and living on artificial islands in houses made of native giant reeds.

RICHARDSON: "It's a great tragedy once you go there to see. Some of the things that really shocked me once I got there, first of all, was the abject poverty of the individual people who are there. The actual Marsh Arabs themselves basically are without a home, basically driven into Iran, 75- to-80-thousand of them living in tents for almost a decade."

McALARY: Mr. Richardson led an international group of experts who studied the soils, water, plants, and animals in the region under a U.S. government grant. Their analysis published in the journal "Science" finds that nearly 20-percent of the drained wetlands are filled again since Saddam's overthrow. The inflow has occurred because the Iraqi government and local citizens have rediverted water and because of high rain and snowfall in the Tigris and Euphrates River watersheds that supply the marshes.

As a result, half of the wild animal species have returned, as have thousands of displaced people. Plant life is also coming back, according to Barry Warner of the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, who worked separately under Canadian government funding.

WARNER: "At least so far, provided that they are connected with the main water system and the water is there, the plant communities in the newly rewetted areas resemble the kinds of plant communities that existed in the early 1970s prior to destruction."

McALARY: But marsh restoration is failing in other areas. An excessive buildup of natural salts in some drained locations has prevented marsh plant life from returning after reflooding, especially near the Persian Gulf. The scientists also found abnormal increases of a naturally occurring toxic metal called selenium. However, they say the water flowing in from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers is of higher quality than they had expected because of low amounts of pesticides and other toxic chemicals.

The researchers warn against expecting a complete restoration of Iraq's southern wetlands. They estimate that perhaps only 30-percent can return to its original state. The actual proportion depends on how much water is actually flowing into the system and on further studies that show where high salt content and toxic chemicals will prevent redirection of the water.

The team member representing the U.S. government's Agency for International Development, Peter Reiss, does not want to make a firm prediction.

REISS: "What we're all trying to do, all of these donors -- the U.S., Canadians, Japanese, Italians, UNEP [the U.N. Environment Program] -- are trying to have a comprehensive strategy for the marshes with the government of Iraq government in the lead to be able to come up with a reasonable number to answer that question within about a year."

McALARY: Duke University's Curtis Richardson cautions that neighboring Iran and Turkey could impede Iraq's marsh rebuilding by holding back some or all of the water for their needs.

RICHARDSON: "Turkey and Iran control a tremendous amount of the water. It's a transboundary issue. Turkey could cut off almost all of the flow of the Euphrates, and, by the way, Iran is building a huge dike to cut the water off so that they can then divert the water and sell it to Kuwait. So you could have a situation where they could cut off all the water supply."

McALARY: Barring such complications, Mr. Richardson says the potential for restoring Iraq's marshlands is highly promising.

CHIMES: Exploring the deep ocean has long been a special challenge. The modern era began in 1948, with the two-person bathyscaph FNRS-2, designed by Swiss oceanographer Jacques Picard. Newer submersibles are larger, more sophisticated and can dive deeper. But they are limited in the amount of time they can spend at maximum depth. The 40-year-old U.S. vessel Alvin, for example, can reach 4,500 meters, but can only stay there for about four hours.

A replacement for Alvin is on the drawing boards and could be launched as early as 2008. Meanwhile, ocean scientists are looking at other ways to develop a long-term presence in the ocean.

One approach is illustrated by Aquarius, an underwater laboratory owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and located off the coast of Florida. Fish ecologist James Lindholm of the Pfleger Institute of Environmental Research explains that Aquarius gives scientists the ability to remain on the ocean floor for 10 days at a time.

LINDHOLM (:21) "There really is no substitute [for] being there. There are not many opportunities for marine biologists to observe the animals of interest in their natural environment for extended periods of time. And Aquarius, by providing 10-day missions, allows us the opportunity to do just that. We actually live with the fish. We see the fish during our work. We see them while we're taking a shower. We see them while we're eating dinner. And you can watch the fish from your bunk."

As a scientist who studies fish, Dr. Lindholm and his colleagues attach tracking devices to fish, to follow their comings-and-goings. Tagging the fish in their underwater laboratory, he says, gives scientists a big advantage.

LINDHOLM (:28) "Acoustic telemetry, unlike most technologies, allow us to follow individual fish for extended periods of time -- months to years. By doing the research at Aquarius, we're able to catch the fish underwater, do the surgery under water, release the animal under water, and importantly observe the fish for probably 10 days following surgery. This gives us incredible confidence in the data we ultimately collect in that these animals did in fact return to normal living behavior and such that the data we ultimately collect are useful."

Another challenge facing ocean scientists is simply the vast size of the world's oceans. Research vessels are expensive and can only be in one place at a time. Scientists, such as James Bellingham of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California, are working toward a future when sensors are deployed throughout the oceans.

BELLINGHAM (:17) "And what this means is, it means potentially we go from being occasional visitors to the ocean as we go to sea on our ships and introduce our instruments to the ocean, to being a permanent presence in the ocean. And hopefully this is going to really, dramatically change how we understand the ocean as a changing, evolving environment"

One way to support a network of undersea sensors is to use obsolete telecommunications cables, which could power the instruments and collect data. Dr. Bellingham stresses the importance of continuous observation, as opposed to much of the current ocean science, which is based on brief, observation snapshots.

Advanced technology is also helping to map the ocean floor. Some advanced, new sonar devices can detect ripples in the sea floor just a few centimeters high. Many larger obstructions remain uncharted. Larry Mayer, of the University of New Hampshire, says it's a critical challenge that has implications in national security, natural disasters and in commerce

MEYER (:24) "Ninety-eight percent by weight of imports that come into the U.S. come in by ship. And of course, if we have a catastrophe there, it's a catastrophe for the ship, for the environment, and for the economy. We map the ocean for resource exploration [and] exploitation, something again that's come of great concern lately, tsunami modeling depends very much on our ability to map the shape of the sea floor in terms of predicting where tsunamis may occur."

Another ocean scientist, Cindy Lee Van Dover of the College of William and Mary in Virginia, says she is thrilled to be working at a time when ocean scientists are finally getting some of the tools they have long wanted.

VANDOVER (:29) "Probably this is the most exciting time to be a deep-sea explorer, deep-sea scientist of any sort, because now we have access, and so that's what this is all about. So I think this issue of access now is being resolved. We have not just the existing Alvin. We have the unmanned vehicles -- the ROVs [Remotely Operated Vehicles], the AUVs [Autonomous Underwater Vehicles]. But we also have coming on line a replacement vehicle for Alvin. And it takes all these tools. There's nothing in my mind better than being on the sea floor and seeing what you're studying."

Cindy Lee Van Dover and the other scientists met with reporters the other day at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science here in Washington.


MUSIC: Our World theme

That's our show for this week. If you've got a question about science, technology, health or the environment, we'd like to answer it. And we've got a VOA gift for you -- if we use your question on the program.Email us at ourworld@voanews.com. Ourworld is all one word. Or write us at -

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

Our World is edited by Rob Sivak. Our technical director is Eva Nenicka. Thanks to Rosanne Skirble for filling in last week 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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