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Our World Transcript — August 6-7, 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" ... Snuppy, the first dog clone ... Fixing the space shuttle in orbit ... and a mental health survey of Cambodian Refugees.

MARSHALL: "Ninety-nine percent of our sample reported having been near death due to starvation, 90 percent reported having a family member or a friend murdered. So there were just really horrific things going on.”

Khmer Rouge survivors, the ultimate on-line medical reference, and more... I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World.

Scientists in South Korea announced this week that they have cloned a dog. It's an Afghan hound named Snuppy, as in Seoul National University puppy. Several species have been cloned in the past. But as VOA's Barbara Klein reports, duplicating a dog was a much more difficult feat.

Scientists in South Korea announced this week that they have cloned a dog. It's an Afghan hound named Snuppy, as in Seoul National University puppy. Several species have been cloned in the past. But as VOA's Barbara Klein reports, duplicating a dog was a much more difficult feat.

KLEIN: Snuppy comes from skin cells of an Afghan hound. The scientists took the DNA from the nucleus of those skin cells and put it into an egg, and used chemicals to jump-start cell division. The egg, now an embryo, was then implanted in the uterus of a Labrador Retriever. Cloning is always a complicated process, but in dogs, it is especially so. Dr. George Seidel is professor of Reproductive Physiology and Endocrinology at Colorado State University. He has cloned cattle, but says dogs are far more difficult to clone because they don't have regular reproductive cycles.

SEIBEL: Dogs have a reproductive cycle, and then they go into a period of anestrus for about half the year and then they have another one and nobody is entirely sure how this regulated. In most other species we work with, either they have very regular reproductive cycles that are on the short side or they're longer, but we can manipulate them so we can start a cycle almost at will. And it's quite important that the embryo and the reproductive tract it goes into be at the same stage. In other words, one needs to synchronize those things. In the dog, that is very difficult. Information from other species accumulated so that these things could be done successfully in the dogs and even with that accumulated information, it was still a heroic task to accomplish this.

KLEIN: We've been told scientists pursue cloning because, in the end, they're looking for research that tells them something about stem cells and how we can ultimately cure some diseases that hurt humans. How does the dog fit in to this process of developing cloning for the purposes of stem cell research?

SEIBEL: You are correct that one of the ultimate applications of cloning is in fact regenerative medicine. Things like producing a pancreas for people with diabetes, or a liver for people with cirrhosis, or even neurons for people with spinal cord injuries. Those applications will come along. The dog does frankly not contribute a lot new to that, other than demonstrating that yes, even in difficult situations, with persistence, you can make the system work.

KLEIN: Scientists have already cloned sheep, mice, rats, cats, cattle — you yourself have done cows — rabbits, a horse and a mule. Have we learned anything from those clonings already?

SEIBEL: Yes, these experiments are providing certain kinds of fundamental information on cancer, on aging, on birth defects, loss of pregnancies. Now, having said all that, these experiments, like good experiments, have raised more questions than answers, but we weren't even smart enough to know we had a problem in some cases. To know even what the questions were. So biology has advanced tremendously because of these things.

KLEIN: How are the cattle that you've cloned doing?

SEIBEL: There are problems with a lot of the pregnancies of cloned cattle. The abortion rates are higher than normal, by a lot. When the calves are born, they are not quite right. Now it turns out that the problems we see with clones, one sees in everyday reproduction as well, but just in a lower incidence. And so they actually provide models to study certain kinds of problems, and in fact these problems occur in human pregnancies as well. And while we might say it's one or two percent, that ends up being an awful lot of babies in the world. So in that sense these abnormalities are, in fact, giving us insights to those problems.

KLEIN: Dr. Seibel says the South Korean success in cloning a dog might also contribute to reproductive medicine. A dog's ovulated egg is much less mature than other species that have been cloned, and Dr. Seibel says the knowledge gained by the Korean team may have broader applications, including adding to the understanding of human reproduction. I'm Barbara Klein.

The space shuttle Discovery is nearing the end of its "return to flight" mission, which came after a gap of two and a half years. During that time, NASA made safety improvements following the destruction of shuttle Columbia as it re-entered the atmosphere in February 2003.

The safety improvements were not 100 percent effective, however, and new cameras revealed small pieces of foam insulation ripping loose from the huge external fuel tank during launch. NASA has suspended further shuttle flights until the foam issue can be resolved. It was a breakaway piece of foam that damaged Columbia, dooming that mission.

This time, however, the shuttle orbiter was apparently not damaged, but an inspection in orbit revealed that small bits of material wedged in between the heat-resistant tiles on the bottom of the shuttle had become dislodged. Astronaut Steve Robinson put on his space suit and went out to fix the problem -- the first time astronauts have made in-flight repairs on the exterior of the space shuttle orbiter. Afterwards, NASA officials expressed satisfaction with the repair.

HILL: "It demonstrates the capability that we've been working for a couple of years to develop, to send crew members down to the bottom of the vehicle."

BEGLEY: "Also the most important thing that we've done on this entire flight is being able to image the entire bottom of the vehicle so we know what's going on down there, and we can do it early enough in the flight to be prepared to do this sort of thing in time. And I think the whole thing worked out very well."

Cindy Begley, who is in charge of space walks. Before her, flight director Paul Hill. The shuttle is due to return home on Monday.

As refugees flee war or famine, their's is often considered a human rights tragedy. But the refugee experience can have profound health consequences, too, even years after beginning a new life in a peaceful country.

Grant Marshall of the RAND corporation and his colleagues were interested in learning whether Cambodian refugees now living near Los Angeles were experiencing mental health problems after surviving the Khmer Rouge government in the late 1970s.

The researchers conducted extensive, in-depth interviews with some 500 Cambodian refugees. Despite having lived in America for decades, they carry with them the scars of their horrendous experiences during the years that the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia, the years of the "killing fields."

MARSHALL: "About 99 percent of our sample reported having been near death due to starvation, 60 percent of them reported having witnessed killings, 55 percent reported having been tortured, 90 percent reported having a family member or a friend murdered. So there were just really horrific things going on during that period."

After those experiences, the refugee-survivors reported extraordinarily high rates of certain mental disorders.

MARSHALL: "We found that about 70 percent of refugees in this Cambodian community in Long Beach, which is the largest one in the country, were suffering from either post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression, and a smaller group was suffering from alcohol use disorders.

Dr. Marshall explained that post-traumatic stress disorder is characterized by a variety of symptoms.

MARSHALL: "So these people would have recurrent nightmares, or they might have intrusive thoughts during the course of the day about events that happened many years ago that they just can't put out of their mind. They can actually have a full-fledged flashback where, for a moment, they can actually believe they're physically back in the situation that had caused them the distress to begin with."

Perhaps most disturbing of all, Grant Marshall says, there are very few resources to help the Cambodian refugee community he studied. Most of the refugees have below-average income and education, and poor English proficiency. There are inadequate mental health services for the poor in general, he says, and virtually no Khmer-speaking mental health professionals available in the area who could help those who still re-live the nightmare that plagued them and their country almost three decades ago.

Doctors sometimes seem to have an entire medical library in their office, but if they had to choose just one book to have on a desert island, many would opt for the venerable Merck Manual, published since 1899 by the pharmaceutical company of the same name.

With more than 10 million copies sold in 18 languages, it is probably the most widely-used medical book in the world. You can buy a copy for about $40, or you can get it free at our Website of the Week,

Associate Editor Rob Porter says several things make the Merck Manual unique among Internet medical references.

PORTER: "First of all, we're free online. Some of our best competitors, who have really marvelous products, but they're subscription products. Others require registration and show advertising. The Merck Manuals don't have any advertising, and you don't have to sign up."

And Dr. Porter stresses the authoritative way the Merck Manual is compiled.

PORTER: "We have over 300 authors, who are world experts in their field. And then we have an outside editorial board, and they review the topics for accuracy. Then of course in-house, the Merck Manual editors -- among them myself -- go over the language and make sure that it's the clearest and concise explanation possible."

Instead of the original manual, which is written for doctors, non-professionals may find it easier to use the Home Edition, which is intended to be equally authoritative while written for non-specialists in everyday languages. In fact, lots of everyday languages. Like the original Merck Manual, the Home Edition is available online in Spanish, Chinese and others.

Also online are specialized manuals for aging and the care of older patients, and the Merck Veterinary Manual for animal health care.

One advantage of the World Wide Web is the ability to continuously update information. Dr. Porter says it's something Merck has done only occasionally in the past.

PORTER: "However, we're in the midst of a major project to enable that. Starting beginning of next year, we will be doing continuous updates of our Home Edition and the main Merck Manual."

So for authoritative medical information you can trust, whether you're a lay person, a medical professional ... or even a veterinarian, surf on over to MerckManual -- all one word --, or get the link from our site,

MUSIC: Randy Waldman: "Ben Casey"

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

One-third of all threatened and endangered plants and birds in the United States live only in the Pacific island state of Hawaii. Residents want to preserve the natural treasures they have. But as VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports from Hawaii, invasive species are crowding out the native flora and fauna faster than conservation programs can protect them.

Hawaii is a lush, tropical and isolated paradise. But this jewel in the Pacific is in big trouble from invaders. One of the major culprits is miconia, a plant with broad green and purple leaves that grows into a 10-meter tall tree.

No one dreamed this South American ornamental plant - sold in garden centers in the 1960s - would jump the backyard fence and take over hillsides and native forests.

Christy Martin works with the Coordinating Group on Alien Pest Species, a multi-agency task force dedicated to protecting Hawaii from harmful alien pests.

She leads us to a hillside outside the gates of the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden on the Island of Hawaii. She likens the spread of miconia - which cover 45,000 hectares on the Big Island - to a green cancer.

MARTIN: They grow very quickly. And, each fruiting tree can have three million seeds, two or three times a year. So we are talking each fruiting tree can have nine million seeds. Other plants can't keep up.

SKIRBLE: So that is the way this hillside, for as far as we can see, was forested.

MARTIN: It used to be native plants, not more than thirty or forty years ago. And, at this point it is being taken over by miconia.

SKIRBLE: Making her way into an area carpeted by young miconia, Christy Martin says the idea is to kill the plant before it seeds. Its shallow roots make it easy to pull up by hand.

SKIRBLE: So, let's give a yank here! Is it good enough to pull it and it dies?

MARTIN: No, actually it is not. These can start re-rooting, if you just lay it on the ground. They are amazing plants. They will just start growing upright again. And, we have even seen where some people will pull off the leaves and leave them on the ground. Our crews will go back to the area and the leaf will have spotted roots.

SKIRBLE: The short-term goal is containment. Much like fighting a forest fire, miconia control begins at the outer edges and moves slowly inward to thicker more densely vegetated areas.

This is the same strategy used to stop the coqui frog. In the late 1980s the frog - no bigger than a thumbnail - hitchhiked a ride with nursery plants in a container ship from Puerto Rico. The coqui have reached densities of 55,000-per hectare in Hawaii, which is more than double their native range.

Coqui frogs hide by day and chirp loudly at night. Kim Tavares follows their sound, marking coordinates on a pocket-sized global positioning system. Her coqui maps help community groups contain the infestation. On this evening, dressed in camouflage fatigues and headlamp, she surveys a densely forested subdivision. She stops to discuss the coqui problem with a neighbor.

TAVARES: If we can keep them away from your side of the street at least first because there are less and keep them on this side of the street. Then we can contain them and try to kill them.

NEIGHBOR: It seems as if the frogs are taking over.

TAVARES: How many do you hear?

NEIGHBOR: There are probably about fifty of them.

TAVARES: On your side already?


TAVARES: Because last year there were only like six, but (you) see, that's it. If they breed every two months and if only half of the 24 eggs are males, you can see how fast the numbers going to grow and that's exactly what's happened.

SKIRBLE: Last year Kim Tavares and landowner Darrell Silva drove a pickup truck into this thick rainforest to clear a trail. The plan is to spray the mapped coqui area with a diluted solution of citric acid that will kill the frogs.

TAVARES: This trail that we made is probably about 3 or 4 hundred meters - to the end of the coqui. That is a lot of hose.

DARRELL SILVA: It doesn't have any natural predators here so it just keep growing and growing and it is not really helping the environment here.

SKIRBLE: Do you think that you can make a difference?

SILVA: Well, we can do a standoff. As far as trying to stop the invasion it is going to take a lot more help and a lot more people and a lot more education on it all.

SKIRBLE: And, why are you doing it?

SILVA: I just don't want it in my backyard and it's not going to stop unless we all do something about it.

SKIRBLE: Volunteers like Darrell Silva are the foot soldiers in the battle against invasive species in Hawaii. Only time will tell whether coordinated efforts by the state and private groups are any match for these tenacious and destructive alien species.

From invasive species, now, to captive ones. A recent spate of animal fatalities at American zoos -- plus documented reports of neglect and abuse -- have alarmed animal welfare advocates and the public at large. VOA's Andrew Baroch reports the problems are being investigated but raise questions about the ethics, operation and even the relevance of zoos in the modern world.

BAROCH: Two gorillas, a camel, three elephants and three rare monkeys have died at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo in the last nine months. The U.S. Agriculture Department and the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, the accrediting organization, are investigating.

The Lincoln Park Zoo isn't the only one with problems. In the last three years, zoos in Washington, San Francisco, and four other cities have been tainted by animal deaths and allegations of neglect and mistreatment. Washington's National Zoo had at least five animal fatalities in 2003 and 2004 - including a zebra, a lion, a bald eagle, and two rare red pandas.

The U.S. Congress authorized Dr. R. Michael Roberts, an expert on animal sciences, to lead an investigation into the deaths at the National Zoo, which houses about 3,000 animals. Dr. Roberts says his committee concluded that the deaths were caused by poor management practices - a problem at other zoos, as well.

ROBERTS: "The major problems were sometimes a failure to carry out routine medical examinations. Some of the animals are examined regularly and others, less regularly. There were problems with the nutrition protocols [wrong feeding]. There had been a slippage, if you like. There were problems with record-keeping. And there were also problems in terms of pest control and so on. So there were a lot of things which could be attended immediately -- needed to be attended immediately."

BAROCH: Dr. Roberts says standards had been declining at Washington's popular zoo for many years.

ROBERTS: "There had been neglect of both facilities and general slippage of standards. What was really needed was a shot in the arm. I think the Smithsonian Institution, which, of course runs the zoo, had begun to realize that a year or two years before we came in. These years of neglect really, I think, had a bad effect."

BAROCH: Officials at the more than 200 accredited zoos and aquariums nationwide say they need more money for proper animal care, as well as basic maintenance, and what may be their most important function: preserving endangered species:

ROBERTS: "The so-called 'Ark Principle,' in which the zoo becomes a depository of animals that would otherwise disappear -- this is certainly the role of the zoo.

BAROCH: And Dr. Roberts says it's a cooperative role.

ROBERTS: "Zoos are interdependent upon each other. Animals are moved between zoos. Animals that are good at breeding species at one zoo will be supplied to others and so on. So there is this mechanism of exchanging and providing the needs of one zoo by another. It goes on widely."

BAROCH: Arizona's Reid Park Zoo participates in those exchange programs, explains administrator Susan Basford.

BASFORD: "There is something called a 'species survival plan' for many of the endangered species we exhibit here and at other zoos. Dr. Roberts is absolutely right. There is essentially a 'computerized dating program' going on so that breeding can take place in an appropriate way."

BAROCH: Nearly a million animals live in zoos and aquariums in the United States. Zoo officials and experts on animal science say their number one goal is to ensure animal safety, which might help reassure the public that their favorite zoo animals are being fed and cared for with love and respect. I'm Andrew Baroch.

MUSIC: Our World theme

That's our show for this week. We're always delighted to hear from you. Tell us what you like about the program, or what you don't like. Email us at Ourworld is all one word. Or the postal address is -

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

Our World is edited this week by Faith Lapidus. Our technical director is Gary Spizler. And this is Art Chimes, inviting you to join us online at or on your radio next Saturday and Sunday as we check out the latest in science and Our World.