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MUSIC: Our World theme
Straight ahead on "Our World" ... A global health eye-opener ... a new genetic map that could help fight disease ... and using a research sub to explore deep sea coral.
CADDIGAN: "There's two horizontals, and on the side there's a pair and each thruster is two-directional, so if I want to go up, I flip it up; if I want to go down, I can go down. If I want to spin her — She'll do basically anything but stand on her head."
Those stories, computer history on our Website of the Week, and more... I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."
An international group of scientists has unveiled a kind of genetic roadmap that should speed the discovery of genes that cause disease and assist in the development of new treatments. As we hear from VOA's Jessica Berman, it's being called a milestone in the search for cures for gene-based diseases.
BERMAN: The so-called HapMap project is the outgrowth of the Human Genome Project unveiled in April 2003.
The fruit of the Human Genome Project was a rough draft unlocking the alphabet code of the 20,000 genes in our DNA.
These genetic building blocks, or genetic sequence, as it's known, are attached to two thread-like chromosomes wound tightly inside each cell. They determine all physical characteristics, including whether someone develops a disease.
Francis Collins, head of the U.S. National Institutes of Health's Human Genome Institute, was among those announcing the publication of HapMap, a three year effort by an international consortium of 200 scientists to catalog genetic variation responsible for human illness.
COLLINS: "The [human] genome project gave us the letters of the DNA code that we all share. But variety is the spice of life. HapMap investigates those spelling differences in the human instruction book that predispose some to diabetes, others to heart disease, others to cancer, others to mental illness, others to asthma. It's a long list."
Experts say any two people are 99.9 percent genetically identical. People differ within that point-one percent, a fraction that scientists say helps explain why some people are more likely to develop a disease than others or have a better response to a drug than someone else.
Scientists say HapMap, when completed, could lead to the identification by gene hunters of a single mutation out of three billion letters in the DNA code book that could, potentially, tip the balance in a person's developing a disease. Before HapMap, the search for disease genes could be slow at best.
Researchers from six countries, including China, Nigeria, and the U.S., produced the HapMap from blood samples collected from 269 volunteers around the world.
Investigators plan to continue their work by collecting more samples from a greater global cross-section, and analyze them starting in the middle of next year.
Charles Rotimi of Howard University in Washington, D.C., is a visiting professor from Nigeria's University of Ibadan. Dr. Rotimi will oversee the collection of blood samples.
ROTIMI: "So, our goal, is for HapMap to eventually benefit all human populations in terms of understanding health; and not just the majority population that happen to have the monetary resources. In this regard, we are committed to global inclusion."
In HapMap's second phase, researchers are using improved technology to identify more genetic variations.
Two articles describing the first phase of the HapMap project are published in the October 27 issue of the journal Nature.
Americans tend to take our public health for granted. We're far from perfect here in the United States, but programs such as food inspection, water quality monitoring, and mandatory vaccination of school kids do work, and they have eliminated fear of many diseases.
But recently, experts have been warning of the possibility that avian, or bird flu could mutate into a virulent strain that could be the next great pandemic. And the U.S. public health system, they say, may not be up to the challenge.
From time to time, diseases such as AIDS or SARS tend to help Americans focus on a more global picture of disease. Adding to that focus this week is a six-hour documentary series airing in the coming days on U.S. public television called "Rx for Survival." Some advertisements for the series show a jetliner labeled "disease carrier" — a reminder of how interconnected the world has become.
Nanda Chitre of the "Rx for Survival" campaign says the TV series is an effort to increase Americans' awareness of global public health issues, and how they could be affected.
CHITRE: "In today's global society, the health of every human being can affect each of us. But before many of the natural disasters of this year, global health was a subject that did not appear very often on the media landscape. An earthquake in Asia takes 50,000 lives, while the everyday deaths of 30,000 children is not news."
Dr. Nils Dulaire of the Global Health Council says that every three seconds, a child under age five dies —
DAULAIRE: "What are they dying from? They're dying from pneumonia. They're dying from diarrhea. They're dying of neo-natal causes, things that occur in the first days of life. They're dying of malaria. So here we are in this situation of a chronic ongoing set of issues, which nobody's paying attention to."
And experts stress that these and many other leading causes of premature death in developing countries are not only preventable, but preventable in simple, affordable ways.
With a possible threat from avian flu around the corner, Jeffrey Griffith of Tufts Medical School says that even if vaccines and anti-viral medicines aren't available, there are things you can do ... and things those of us in rich countries can learn from people in countries with less developed public health systems.
GRIFFITH: "You know, you wash your hands, and you cut transmission of a bunch of diseases. People in the United States have forogtten how to wash their hands. When I work in the developing world, everybody is incredibly careful about washing their hands, and they're incredibly careful about food safety. And here people are kind of lax about it."
The U.S. on Thursday awarded its second contract to a pharmaceutical company to develop a vaccine for avian flu. The vaccine has been in the works for some time now, but would have to be fine-tuned to protect against the H5N1 virus if it mutates to enable person-to-person transmission. But public health experts have been warning that it may not be possible to produce enough vaccine and antiviral medicines to protect everyone.
Among global health threats, HIV/AIDS has had a huge impact, and the United Nations this week launched a new campaign to combat the disease in children.
Every day 1,400 children die of AIDS-related illness, according to UNICEF, the U.N. Children's Fund. The hardest-hit region is sub-Saharan Africa, where the U.N. says more than 85 percent of the world's HIV-infected children under the age of 15 live.
UNICEF chief Ann Veneman said the goals of the five-year program are ambitious, but achievable —
VENEMAN: "Reducing the percentage of young people living with HIV and AIDS by 25 percent; covering 80 percent of women who need services to prevent mother-to-child transmission; providing pediatric AIDS treatment to 80 percent of children in need; and reaching 80 percent in need of protection and support."
Dr. Peter Piot, head of UNAIDS, suggested several ways to reach these goals, including abolishing school fees that can deter enrollment and empowering young girls.
One empowered young woman was among those who spoke at the kickoff event in New York. Her father had AIDS, and 20-year-old Kerrel McKay from Jamaica considered suicide, but she was lucky and got help from a Jamaica AIDS hotline.
McKAY: "The little support that exists for the 15 million children orphaned by AIDS and the millions more living in the shadow of their parents' illness is not enough."
More than two decades after AIDS was identified, Secretary-General Kofi Annan says less than 10 percent of the children affected by HIV/AIDS are getting the help they need.
ANNAN: "So let us listen to young people everywhere. Let us speak up to support them."
The anti-AIDS campaign has enlisted a number of political and celebrity supporters, including sports and music stars, and Agent 007 himself, actor Roger Moore.
MOORE: "Please help us stop the devastation of our children and young people's lives. Unite for Children. Unite against AIDS."
A new survey indicates that American Internet users have increasing concerns about whether they can trust online material that comes into their computers.
From the obvious — like spam offering dubious medicine or get-rich-quick schemes — to the confusing or non-existent privacy policies of many websites — the Internet has become scary enough to have an impact on Internet use.
The survey was carried out by Princeton Survey Research, headed by Evans Witt.
WITT: "Fear is changing what users are doing online. Users are very worried about the possibility that their personal information that is available online is going to be ripped off and that criminals will take that information and loot their bank accounts, charge things on their credit cards, and generally ruin their fainancial lives. Nearly nine out of ten users — 86 percent — have changed their online behavior because of fear of identity theft."
Almost one-third of those surveyed say they have reduced their overall use of the Internet. One-quarter say they have stopped buying things online.
That's bad news for businesses who see e-commerce as an important part of their business model.
Banks won't be happy to learn that fewer than two-thirds of Internet users surveyed say they trust banking websites. But of those who actually do online banking, more than nine out of 10 trust the website where, for example, they pay bills online.
Maybe you go to our website, voanews.com, to catch up on the latest news. Traditional news and information websites did well in this survey of trust, with more than two-thirds saying they believe what the see on their favorite news website.
But bloggers won't be too happy with this report. Blogs are personal, online diaries that range from silly to casual to serious journalism. Serious bloggers want to be taken seriously, but blogs seem to face a credibility gap with most web surfers:
WITT: "Only 16 percent say they trust what they read there. Blogs are a popular phenomenon They're an important phenomenon. But at the moment they're not getting the kind of trust that the 'dreaded mainstream media' is getting from users today."
Evans Witt. Many parents are concerned about what their children are seeing online. That's a particular problem with teenagers, whose computer skills are often far beyond their parents'. A big majority of those surveyed are worried about violent online games, the availability of sexually explicit material, and adults lurking in kids chat rooms. Almost nine out of 10 adults in this survey said they would like to see a ratings system to help identify websites that should be off-limits for children.
About 1,500 adult U.S. Internet users were surveyed for the study, which was commissioned by Consumer Reports WebWatch, a unit of the respected watchdog organization, Consumers Union. The full report is online at ConsumerWebWatch.org.
Time again for our Website of the Week, a segment where we highlight some of the worthwhile destinations we've found while surfing the web. The Internet ties together millions of computers. In just a generation, computers have gone from being big, expensive and exclusive to being a part of everyday life and increasingly affordable for people all over. The Computer History Museum, at computerhistory.org, is an effort to document and explain the computer age.
BREWSTER: "The museum is all about exploring the computing revolution and its impact on the human experience. We're here to preserve and present for posterity the posterity and stories of the information age."
Steven Brewster is Communications Director for the Computer History Museum, which he says has the world's largest collection of computer-related objects, with more than 60,000 items in its collection.
If you go to see the museum in Silicon Valley, you can see some of those objects, and tours are led by volunteers who often are themselves veterans of the computer industry with great stories to tell. But there are advantages to an online visit as well. For example, there's a new online exhibit on computer chess —
BREWSTER: "And in it you not only will see the artifacts that are on display [in the museum building], but you'll also see some of the things that aren't on display, some of the support materials that were used in the curatorial overlay of the exhibit. There's also a site where visitors can add their own comments about the exhibit or computer chess or about computer chess, which of course will be seen by everyone visiting the site."
Technology tends to look forward. But Steven Brewster says its important to preserve the hardware and software responsible for the vast and rapid changes wrought by the computer revolution.
BREWSTER: "What the computing revolution is doing and has done this far is probably, when we look back 1,000 years from now, will probably be of greater impact than the Industrial Revolution. I'm sure some folks would argue with that. So we are at this moment in time now where many of these things are passing by and fading away. If we don't document it, no one else will."
Reflect on the rapid progress of computer technology at ComputerHistory.org, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.
MUSIC: "Yellow Submarine" (Ringo Starr and his All-Star Band)
You're listening to VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.
On "Our World," we often report on the results of scientific research. For once, let's take a look at some of the tools scientists use to get those results.
This week, I spent some time aboard the Research Vessel Seward Johnson, where scientists have been studying deep sea coral off the southeastern U.S. coast. The original plan was to visit the ship out at sea, but as Hurricane Wilma barreled up the Atlantic Coast, the captain decided to put in to the historic port of Charleston, South Carolina.
Instead of the crash of storm-driven ocean waves, the waters of the Cooper River gently lap up against the pier, where the Seward Johnson is tied up.
Sitting on her deck is the Johnson Sea-Link, the bubble-domed submersible that takes scientists down as deep as 900 meters to study the life on the ocean floor. And it's been doing it for three decades.
CADDIGAN: "This submersible was built in 1973. So this boat, just in fact yesterday, did its 4,901st dive."
Craig Caddigan pilots the submersible. He works for the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, which owns the research ship and its submarine. This sub moves up and down with ballast tanks, like other submarines, but for fine maneuvering it's equipped with an array of small, enclosed propellors.
CADDIGAN: "There's nine thrusters. There's three verticals, there's two horizontals, and on the side there's a pair that are four for-and-aft and each thruster is two-directional, so if I want to go up, I flip it up; if I want to go down, I can go down. If I want to spin her — She'll do basically anything but stand on her head."
Compared to military submarines, the Johnson Sea-Link is tiny. It's eight meters long and three meters high, and weighs 12,000 kilos. It carries four people and has powerful lights and video cameras to record the scene, plus gear for retrieving samples from the deep. Murray Roberts of the Scottish Association for Marine Science is one of the members of this expedition.
ROBERTS: "The main features of this sub are the large manipulator arm. This has jaws that open and close wide to take samples very precisely. Next to it is a suction tube. Water is sucked through that, rather like a vacuum cleaner, say, and that allows the pilot to suck up small samples, to suck up sediments. They're then transferred via this flexible pipe into a rotating series of buckets, so you can say 'in bucket number one we're placing such-and-such a sample.' More simply, on the front here we have buckets into which you can place rocks or coral samples."
And these buckets on the front, this is a lot of high-tech equipment here, but the buckets on the front look like ordinary paint buckets, and they're sitting in plastic crates from a dairy, I think.
ROBERTS: "Yeah, you're exactly right, and those crates are sitting on what looks like a mat from a swimming pool, a rigid mat. Well, they do the job. They work. You simply need a container that gonna hold the samples. Now you could spend a few thousand dollars on that, or you could take something — a plastic bucket, paint it black so it doesn't reflect in the light, and it'll work just as well."
Although the submersible can hover in one place, because of ocean currents it's better to set it down on the bottom for maximum stability. But the coral they're studying on this trip is very fragile, so I asked Dr. Roberts if that doesn't risk damaging the very objects they're investigating. He said it's actually a lot more gentle than the old way, of dredging the bottom. Chief scientist Steve Ross added that today's submersibles do a much better job for the researchers of collecting specimens.
ROSS: "Most of the deep sea animals collected in the past, if you ever have the opportunity to look in a museum behind the scenes, you'll see mangled bodies in jars that were the only samples we got from the deep sea work. Now we're able to collect specimens in very good condition, even alive. In our cold room here we have five or six animals that we brought up that are alive. That doesn't happen when you trawl the bottom."
And by being down on the ocean floor, with the panoramic view of the environment, says Dr. Ross, it gives the scientists a much better idea of the environment than they could get by using, say, a less-expensive remotely-operated submersible.
[Ross in submersible describes what he sees]
Documentation is a key part of the work. Like scientists in any discipline, Murray Roberts says keeping complete and accurate records is a key part of his work under water.
ROBERTS: "We log everything with dictaphones, voice recorders, so that as the dive's proceeding, everything is logged and recorded. Position fixes can be taken very accurately with differential GPS, so we're going to know where on the sea floor the submersible was surveying. And the samples are logged very carefully on paper records and also on the audio log in the stern compartment, so you have multiple backups as you're going through a dive."
It's actually a bit of a trick, using the Global Positioning System underwater.
ROBERTS: "What happens is that there's an accoustic link between the submersible and the ship, so they're able to fix the sub's position relative to the ship, the ship knows its position to the GPS satellites."
Dr. Roberts is one of a number of scientists studying coral at the edge of the continental shelf, hence the name of their expedition, "Life on the Edge." It's sponsored by NOAA, the U.S. agency that includes our weather service as well as ocean science. We'll have more on deep sea coral in future Our World shows. If you would like to learn more about the scientists and their work, they've got a website at OceanExplorer.noaa.gov, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.
MUSIC: Our World theme
That's our show for this week. We're always delighted to hear from you. Ask us a science question … tell us what you like about the program, or what you don't like. Email us at email@example.com. Or the postal address is –
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Our World is edited by Rob Sivak. 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.