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CHIMES: Straight ahead on "Our World" … Repairing the space telescope ... surprising centers of biotechnology ... and archaeologists take vintage wine to a whole new level
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"It is the original liquid because when you take the lid off, you can actually smell this aromatic quality to it. I could not believe you could get a liquid lasting for 3,000 years!"
We toast a discovery in China, plus a new weapon in the fight against tuberculosis. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."
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CHIMES: The Hubble Space Telescope, widely acclaimed as the most productive astronomical instrument in history, is 14 years old and showing its age. Hubble was designed to be serviced by astronauts on the space shuttle. But after shuttle Columbia broke up on its return to earth in February 2003, shuttle flights were suspended, and in the future will only be used to complete construction of the International Space Station. In particular, a planned shuttle flight to Hubble was called off, and NASA instead wants to try an untested robotic repair mission.
On Wednesday, a committee convened by the prestigious National Academy of Sciences recommended against NASA's plan. The committee was headed Louis Lanzerotti, who pointed out that sending astronauts to fix Hubble would not be much more dangerous than sending them to the space station.
"The difference between the risk faced by the crew of a single shuttle mission to the ISS, the International Space Station, and the risk faced by the crew of a shuttle mission to the Hubble is very small. Given the intrinsic value of a serviced Hubble mission, and the high likelihood of success for a shuttle servicing mission, the committee concludes that such a mission is worth the risk."
Professor Lanzerotti said an attempt to fix Hubble with robotic equipment would be "highly unlikely" to extend the telescope's life, while astronauts would be "highly likely" to succeed.
NASA says it is studying the committee's recommendations.
A report published this week highlights the surprising growth of the biotechnology sector in developing countries.
The 15-member research team, including Peter Singer of the University of Toronto Joint Centre on Bioethics, stressed the expansion of biotech from its traditional base in the industrialized world.
"Our main finding was that a new day is dawning in health biotechnology innovation in developing countries. Bottom line: when you hear biotechnology, think not only about Stanford, MIT and the NASDAQ, but think about Shanghai, and Hyderabad and Cape Town."
The researchers studied biotech innovation in seven countries -- Brazil, China, Cuba. Egypt, India, South Africa and South Korea. They identified common patterns, including strong and sustained government support and a focus on local health needs. In Egypt, for example, those local needs prompted development of an industry that has had medical, and even political benefits.
"Egypt has a pretty high population of diabetics. And it was importing all its insulin. That means, from time to time, it would have shortages of insulin and actually political unrest related to that. So increasingly, Egypt develops its own ability to use biotechnology so its less reliant on insulin imported from outside the country, and the result is less shortages and less unrest."
In another country they studied, Peter Singer says a biotech solution to a local health problem turned into a moneymaker.
"Example: Cuba had a domestic outbreak of meningitis, killing its children, had a biotech industry, used that to develop a vaccine against meningitis, which actually dealt with the outbreak and is also turning into an export product for Cuba."
Cuba is an example, says Peter Singer, of a country where external political factors prompted the development of a home-grown biotechnology sector.
"When you look at the historical roots of biotech in Cuba -- and also, to a lesser extent but similarly [in] South Africa, related to the apartheid era -- in a sense, these industries grew up in a type of self-reliant way because they had to be self-reliant. So the isolation of some of these countries almost is another stimulus for them to develop their own industries."
In an article published in the journal Nature Biotechnology, Peter Singer of the University of Toronto says development of homegrown biotech capacity in developing countries is essential because major drug makers focus on more lucrative markets in wealthy industrialized countries. Less than two percent of drugs brought to market in the last quarter of the 20th century, he found, were aimed at diseases that mainly affect people in developing countries.
One of those diseases is tuberculosis, and it's been 40 years since a new TB-specific medicine was introduced.
Now, studies using laboratory animals suggest a new antibiotic drug has the potential for treating tuberculosis more quickly and for being effective against strains of TB that are resistant to other drugs.
The new medicine currently goes by the number R207910. A study published this week in the journal Science indicates it is safe. And researcher Koen Andries says experiments in mice indicate that when given as part of a therapy including other medicines, it works much faster than treatments normally used today.
"We see that our combination achieves the same result after one month as is being obtained after two months of standard-of-care combination therapy."
Although the drug is promising, it is still in the testing phase, and studies have advanced from animals to humans.
Coral reefs are a critical part of the ocean ecosystem. They protect coastlines from erosion, are home to a quarter of all known marine species, and play a key role in providing food and jobs for people living nearby. But the world's coral reefs are in trouble. According to a report released this week, more than two-thirds of them are on the verge of collapse … or already destroyed. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.
The report compiled by 240 scientists from 96 countries is a biannual exercise to assess the status of coral reefs worldwide. It shows an 11 percent loss over the last survey. Clive Wilkinson is coordinator of the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, which produced the report, and its lead author.
AUDIO-1 CLIVE WILKINSON
"We know what the problems are. We know how to fix them. We just have to do it."
SKIRBLE: The problems are everywhere - from the Persian Gulf, where 65 percent of the reefs have been destroyed… to oceans in South and Southeast Asia, which have lost nearly half their reef cover. Mr. Wilkinson says damage in the Caribbean is even worse.
AUDIO-2 CLIVE WILKINSON
"A recent analysis said that there has been an 80 percent drop in coral reef cover in many Caribbean reefs from bleaching disease, hurricanes, chronic overfishing etc., etc. etc."
SKIRBLE: In 1998, a one-in-a-thousand year El Nino-related weather event destroyed 16 percent of all reefs worldwide. The warmer ocean temperatures caused corals to eject vital plant tissues and die, a process called bleaching. The Monitoring Network report says bleaching could occur more frequently in the future, due to rising levels of carbon dioxide and other global warming gases in the atmosphere.
Report author Clive Wilkinson says shorter-term stresses include disease, invasive species, poor land use, agricultural and industrial runoff and coastal development.
AUDIO-3 CLIVE WILKINSON
"People are now wanting to build airports on coral reefs to attract tourists to come and see coral reefs. I scratch my head and say I really don't understand."
SKIRBLE: The report says governments, international agencies, environmental groups and lending institutions must work together to protect coral reefs. Already, France and Sweden have made major commitments.
The United States is also backing protection efforts, as National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration head Conrad C. Lautenbacher explains.
AUDIO-4 CONRAD LAUTENBACHER
"In our coral reef conservation program we have awarded nearly 10 million dollars in grants to support coral reef science and management in the United States and internationally. We have been working on an accelerated process in the last year or two to create a national marine sanctuary which encompasses all of the northwest Hawaiian Islands which would preserve the largest extra-tropical reef system in the world."
SKIRBLE: Protection is a key to reef survival. Report author Clive Wilkinson says Australia has taken the lead by greatly expanding protected areas around the Great Barrier Reef.
AUDIO-5 CLIVE WILKINSON
"They have upped from five percent protection to 33 percent and that has set the benchmark for the rest of the world. That was because they saw a series of declines in turtles. Fishing was increasing. The sediment runoff was increasing. So they basically drew the line in the sand and said, 'We need more protection.'"
SKIRBLE: The Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network supports protected no-take areas, which have been shown to actually increase fishing yields. Other recommendations mentioned in its report include reducing pollution and barring such damaging practices as dynamite fishing.
Clive Wilkinson says reefs can recover, but stresses that it will take a greater hands-on commitment by governments worldwide. He says the report is a guide for decision-makers to help reverse the current trends.
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And you're listening to VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.
At VOA we often hear from listeners who are working on improving their English proficiency. Well, if you're one of them, Our World's Website of the Week may be a useful tool. OneLook.com is a one-stop website that links you to almost 1,000 online dictionaries. You type in a word or phrase, hit the "search" button, and you get a list of links to dictionaries that define your word. The project was the brainchild of a retired engineer near Denver, Colorado.
"OK, I'm Bob Ware and I was the creator of the OneLook dictionaries website, which is basically an Internet search engine for websites on the Internet that have a dictionary with the word that you're trying to look up."
When Mr. Ware began his project eight years ago, his idea was to make an online dictionary of internet terms. Other dictionaries were also going online, and he began searching them out and linking to them. Today, OneLook.com attracts some 10 million queries a month. The site is almost all-text, so response time is fast even on a dial-up Internet connection.
OneLook.com includes not just the online versions of standard English dictionaries, but also language dictionaries and many specialized ones.
In the sports area, there are dictionaries just for a particular sport. There's technical dictionaries out there; there's dictionaries of terms used in home construction, things like that. There's dictionaries in, you know, the medical fields and the legal fields. Interesting, there tend to be a lot of dictionaries on the Internet dealing with financial terms."
There are also dictionaries on cooking, dentistry, Irish slang, pottery and poker. A world of dictionaries online at OneLook-- all one word -- OneLook.com, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.
We raise a glass now with a toast to the U.S. and Chinese researchers who have found the oldest known physical evidence of alcoholic beverages. They have discovered the chemical residue of a sweet, nine-thousand year old rice wine on bits of ancient jugs dug up in China. VOA science correspondent David McAlary has our report.
McALARY: The fertile valley of the Yellow River in Henan is the cradle of Chinese civilization. It was there the Chinese developed settled agriculture and pictographic writing. A stone-age village in the province [Jiahu] has yielded archeological evidence of the earliest domesticated rice and the earliest playable musical instruments.
This is also site where Chinese researchers have dug up ancient shards of pottery that once held a fermented drink, shards scientifically dated to between 7500 and 9,000 years ago. According to a study in the "Proceedings of the [U.S.] National Academy of Sciences," chemical analysis reveals that the drink in them was an alcoholic mixture of rice, honey, and fruit - most likely hawthorn berries or grapes.
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"It is the first time that there has been chemical confirmation of fermented beverages from China."
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McALARY: This is University of Pennsylvania archeologist Patrick McGovern, a collaborator on the project. In the 1990s, Mr. McGovern found trace evidence of five-thousand year old beer and wine in jugs excavated from villages in Iran and Iraq. He says the Chinese wine discovery is older.
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"It is earlier than anything we have from the Middle East, although the times are very close to each other. The earliest phase of this in both western Asia and eastern Asia could be similar in that they both are experimenting with honey with some kind of fruit and some kind of grain - barley in western Asia and rice in East Asia - but the concept is very similar and it's occurring about the same time."
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McALARY: The fruit and honey were necessary to provide the sugars for the fermentation process. But the researchers also describe archeological evidence they found of a much later, unique fermentation method, still practiced in China, in which mold is used to break down the grain starches into the sugars needed for fermentation. To the researchers' surprise, the 3,000-year-old tombs of Chinese elites yielded tightly sealed bronze jars that, when opened, still contained wine made this way.
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"It did not come in by groundwater. It is the original liquid because when you take the lid off, you can actually smell this aromatic quality to it. I could not believe you could get a liquid lasting for 3,000 years! But the Chinese metal workers made such tight lids that you would get a certain amount of evaporation, and then they would start to rust and seal it off in a hermetic way that you don't get any more evaporation. "
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McALARY: The Pennsylvania archeologist says that by three-thousand-years ago, Chinese winemakers had improved their techniques, specializing in rice and millet wines and flavoring them with various aromatic herbs, flowers, and barks.
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McALARY: In his recent book on the history of winemaking, Mr. McGovern says fermented beverages have played key roles in the development of human culture because of their perceived medical, nutritional, and mind-altering benefits. Mr. McGovern says early Chinese texts also show that fermented beverages and other foods were offered as sacrifices to ancestors or gifts to the newly-deceased to provide sustenance in the afterlife. (
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Two thousand years ago, the Roman poet Ovid wrote that wine "makes men more apt for passion." but it's not just wine that does that. For 30 years, a University of Chicago researcher has been studying how humans send messages involving our most basic evolutionary need -- reproduction -- though bio-chemicals that are smelled sub-consciously. VOA's Adam Phillips spoke about that with Martha McClintock. The research psychologist directs the Institute for Mind and Biology at the University of Chicago, studying how those chemical signals affect us.
AUDIO 1: MCCLINTOCK (:12)
“I’m interested in things outside the body -- in how our social interactions somehow get inside ‘under the skin’ and change fundamental biological processes.”
PHILLIPS: In her pioneering work of the early 1970s, Dr. McClintock, who now heads the Institute for Mind and Biology at the University of Chicago, proved that women living together in a university dormitory tended to synchronize the timing of their menstrual cycles, and that this was due to a biological chemical called a “pheromone.”
AUDIO 2: MCCLINTOCK (:54)
“... which is a chemical that operates between two individuals or, in animals, between two members of the same species. So it’s a social chemical. And we showed that women who are developing an egg have one type of pheromone or chemo-signal that makes other women’s ovulation occur sooner. Whereas when they are ovulating, they produce a different signal that makes other women ovulate later. And so, we showed that [ OK to leave in if it doesn’t cut smoothly ] it was a chemical compound shared between women but that it wasn’t necessarily perceived as an odor... that ‘below the radar,’ there are effects of our social interactions without our conscious awareness.”
PHILLIPS: In recent scientific papers, Dr. McClintock and her colleagues present experimental data that show that breastfeeding women produce chemical compounds that can change the timing time of ovulation in other women. Ovulation is the moment when the egg is discharged by the ovary for possible fertilization.
Dr. McClintock says it is not known whether these chemical compounds are also pheromones. Still, the process appears to have a clear evolutionary purpose.it seems clear what the survival value of the overall process might be.
AUDIO 3: MCCLINTOCK (:30)
“In many animals species, females have evolved ways to pay attention to social and physical signals so that they only become pregnant when there is enough food, when there is not a lot of disease, when there is a supportive social environment. And so what better predictor that there is a hospitable environment than another woman who is already been successfully pregnant and is nursing her baby?”
PHILLIPS: Eventually, this Dr. McClintock’s research may produce a gentle way to help induce ovulation in women who have difficulty producing an egg, but who do not want to ingest [ take instead of ingest? ] large amounts of the synthetic hormones commonly used in some kinds of fertility therapy today.
Those chemical compounds also enhance sexual desire in other women – presumably as the prelude to coupling behavior that could produce a child. Some have hoped these compounds might be commercially produced as a sort of ultimate scientific aphrodisiac.But while it might stimulate desire Dr. McClintock firmly rejects that notion the notion that it would force a change in the way people act.
AUDIO 4: MCCLINTOCK (:40)
“There isn’t anything that compels humans to behave. Their behavior is controlled by so many things – situations, beliefs, hopes, wishes [and] desires. As a psychologist, you have to think about what would be a reasonable behavior to have effected. To claim that it [they are] is going to draw somebody across a crowded room is not reasonable at all [laughs].
It turned out that there was no change in what they [the women in the study] did sexually. But there was an effect on their motivation as experienced by their level of desire and by the number of fantasies that they had.”
PHILLIPS: There are practical benefits to this research, however. Dr. McClintock reports that over 40 percent of women complain of low sexual desire at some point in their reproductive lives. If chemical compounds that enhance desire could be identified and reproduced, some of those women might be helped.
Meanwhile, Dr. McClintock is pursuing other research – such as an inter-disciplinary project that examines the role of environmental stress as a cause of breast cancer in African American and Nigerian women.
In a wider sense, however, all of Dr. McClintock’s work reminds us that elements of nature and the environment that seem hidden from sight, can still have profound effects on how we think and feel and what we do. For Our World, this is Adam Phillips reporting.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Ourworld is all one word. Or write us at -
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Our World is edited this week by Faith Lapidus. Our technical director is Eva Nenicka. 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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