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MUSIC: "Our World" theme
Straight ahead on "Our World" ... The shuttle is back in space ... the possibilities of biofuels ... and the human role in bird extinctions...
RAVEN: "There's no group better protected by our efforts than birds, which we cherish, understand and love so much that we really are willing to turn handsprings to save them."
Those stories, cylinder recordings on our Website of the Week, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."
AUDIO: SHUTTLE COUNTDOWN
Almost a year after the last space shuttle flight, and after two weather delays and last-minute concerns about a small crack found in the insulating foam around its external fuel tank, the space shuttle Discovery roared into space Tuesday afternoon
SHUTTLE: "Main engine start ... two, one ... booster ignition and liftoff of the Space Shuttle Discovery, returning to the space station, paving the way for future missions beyond"
Chunks of foam breaking off the fuel tank hit the shuttle Columbia during launch in 2003, damaging the orbiter's protective heat shield. As Columbia re-entered the atmosphere at the end of its mission, the spacecraft burned up and broke apart, killing all seven astronauts on board.
Since then, NASA developed modifications to the foam insulation. One of the first things the astronauts did after docking at the space station on Thursday was to use a camera attached to the shuttle's robotic arm to carefully inspect the heat shield on the underside of the shuttle.
Although NASA has been focused on returning the shuttle to regular service to support completion of the international space station, there was still room on this flight for science experiments.
One of them aims to see how extended space missions will affect astronauts' immune systems. University of Central Florida researcher Lawrence von Kalm says fruit flies on the shuttle experiment will be exposed to fungus, and their response will be compared with fruit flies that stay on the ground.
VON KALM: "The question we're going to ask is, are the flies that traveled in space more susceptible to infection? In other words, do they die more rapidly after infection with the fungus than flies that have stayed on the ground? So the ground controls will be infected [with the fungus] as well. And one variable that we will check, and this is why the fungus traveled into space as well is that the fungus itself could become more virulent in space and we would be able to determine that from the experiments as well."
University of Central Florida biology professor Lawrence von Kalm, whose fruit flies are on board the Space Shuttle Discovery.
Scientists have identified three genetically-distinct varieties of the deadly H5N1 avian flu strain in Nigeria. The virus could have arrived in trade or by migrating birds. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, Nigeria is particularly vulnerable.
SKIRBLE: The deadly H5N1 avian flu virus has entered Nigeria multiple times since it was first reported in February, according to a study published this week in the journal Nature. Lead author Claude Muller, with Luxembourg's National Public Health Laboratory Institute of Immunology, says H5N1 samples taken from two poultry farms were different from each other, and from the first strain that appeared in the country.
MULLER: "This means that these viruses were not directly related to each other, but probably introduced — the three of them — by independent routes."
SKIRBLE: The genetic differences suggest that the virus did not spread from farm to farm, but arrived separately, from either unprotected trade from Russia or Europe, or from migrating birds. Muller says with documented cases of the deadly virus in 14 of Nigeria's 31 states, bird flu remains both a public health and an economic threat.
MULLER: "It is important for the nutrition of the people. Chicken in principle could be an inexpensive source of high quality protein. It provides lots of secure jobs to a population which is in desperate need of such jobs."
SKIRBLE: The risks to poultry farming — Nigeria's second most important industry, after oil production — are greatest where farms are clustered, especially in the southwest poultry hub of the country. Veterinary officials say that measures taken to control the virus — such as quarantine and culling — seem to be working better today than they did earlier this year, when the virus was first detected and spread rapidly.
MULLER: "I think the good news is that this does not seem to be a failure of the bio-security for the viruses that we have investigated, I have to insist. But the bad news is that if there has been independent introduction, then of course there can be more independent introduction. And if this is a source that cannot be controlled, then this is really bad news."
SKIRBLE: Nigeria has not reported any human case of the deadly virus. The virus must mutate in humans in order to spread from person to person. Such a mutation could unleash a global flu pandemic.
In the industrialized world, fossil fuels are the predominant form of energy. Nearly all motor vehicles run on petroleum-based gasoline or diesel. Natural gas is a popular fuel for heating and cooking, and for industrial use. Coal is an abundant choice for running electric power plants.
Fossil fuels all polute to one degree or another, and they are not renewable.
There is no shortage of alternatives: wind, solar, hydroelectric, nuclear. But here in the United States, with rich farmland and efficient agriculture, many look at our crops and see energy.
On Capitol Hill the other day, the House of Representatives Agriculture Committee heard from experts on a variety of different approaches to using so-called "biomass" as a renewable energy source.
Undersecretary of Agriculture Thomas Dorr told the committee that renewable energy is an exciting growth field. But he said the new technologies still need government support in the form of tax credits.
DORR: "Biofuels and wind have reached a tipping point, and they are starting to move on their own, assuming the continuation of the production tax credits, and that's great. The economics of solar are a little further out, but there are exciting things on the horizon for that as well. The challenge today is to keep that growth on track."
A federal review last year, known as the billion ton study, concluded that the United States could produce enough biomass to replace about one-third of the country's petroleum consumption.
Much of that petroleum is used in motor vehicles. The most common bio-substitute here is ethanol, made from corn or other sugar-containing plant, and blended with gasoline. Ethanol has achieved considerable success in Brazil, but in the United States it remains a niche product, available at few service stations, and sometimes requiring special engine modifications.
'Til now, most ethanol has been produced in large facilities, but that may be changing. A small company called Easy Automation has developed a prototype ethanol plant small enough to be installed right at the farm.
GAALSWYK: "What it is, is it's a complete self-contained ethanol plant that's about the size of a shipping container that's all pre-wired, all pre-plumbed. All the software and the automation is all part of it. And what the idea is, that these can be dropped into any unused facility across rural America and start making ethanol."
Company president Mark Gaalswyk says his so-called "gas-in-a-box" plant — which is still in development — uses an enzyme process to break down cellulose fibers into ethanol. So instead of using corn or another food plant as the raw material, corn husks or similar waste material goes in one end; ethanol comes out the other, along with a by-product that can be used as animal feed.
Richard Hamilton, who heads the biotech company Ceres, says enzymes are a more efficient and economical way of transforming plant material into ethanol.
HAMILTON: "Using biotechnology we've been able to genetically-engineer organisms that will break down cellulose and hemicellulose efficiently to simple sugars that will then be fermented. So then you're getting a lot more on the output side. So a combination of put-less-stuff-in and get-more-stuff-out changes that net fuel ratio."
Other ethanol production methods can use almost as much energy to produce the biofuel as can be found in the resulting ethanol.
Another advantage to making ethanol from cellulose, of course, is that the plant waste material is usually cheaper than a raw material like corn, and it doesn't divert a food or feed crop from any hungry stomachs.
Liquid fuels aren't the only product from biomass. It can also be processed to produce clean burning pellets for stationary applications, like home heating. Robert Walker, CEO of Minnesota-based Bixby Energy, cited a wide variety of products that can be burned to extract the energy they contain.
WALKER: "Everything from grape waste, rice stocks and olive pits in the West; peanut shells, tobacco waste and cotton gin trash in the South. And talk about fast renewable: most grow in less than six months and some, like grass, grow in as little as a week. Compare that to fossil fuels that take 70 million years to develop, and you begin to appreciate the alternative energy opportunity that exists."
He said burning engineered biomass as the processed waste is called, is 70 percent cheaper than heating by burning petroleum-based fuels.
Biomass fuels are still a small fraction of the market. But advocates stress they burn cleaner, reduce dependency on oil imports, and reduce net emissions of carbon dioxide, a key contributor to global warming, since the CO2 is re-captured by the next generation of crops in the renewable energy cycle.
Time again for our Website of the Week, when we showcase interesting and innovative online destinations.
This week, it's the work of an enthusiast who uses today's technology, the Internet, to share with the world his fascination with another technology that was state of the art -- more than 100 years ago!
SAGE: "So at Tinfoil.com I try to preserve the earliest sound recordings — the earliest generations of sound recordings, the wax cylinders. And the recordings on these early wax cylinders are pretty much almost all one-of-a-kind. So what we have here are audio time capsules that need to be preserved."
Glenn Sage is the man behind Tinfoil.com, a website named for the material used in the very earliest sound recordings. His site mainly focuses on a slightly later era, a few years later, when brown wax cylinders were the medium of choice.
Today, we take it for granted that music is available everywhere, and Glenn Sage says it's easy to forget how extraordinary it was, when most people heard their first recordings at the end of the 19th century in commercial listening parlors.
SAGE: "They were initially available to the public primarily through nickelodeons — arcade-like settings where somebody would place a phonograph with a coin-in-the-slot mechanism. You'd come in there and put a coin in the slot, you'd place hearing tubes almost looking like a stethoscope in your ears, and you'd be able to hear a two and a half minute sound recording, which of course just blew most people away. It was quite an amusement."
Sage makes modern digital recordings of the old cylinders and posts a new one each month. His now-substantial archive provides a fascinating glimpse into the range of mostly-forgotten culture of a century ago.
SAGE: "There's a wide variety of sound recordings from experimental recordings, speeches, band recordings. There's just a wide variety. And the cylinder of the month has been going on since 1996, and so there's well over a hundred full-length, two-minute sound recordings that anyone can hear. And there's several historical recordings in there. And there's also just a lot of great entertainment."
The site has plenty of history and information, but the recordings themselves are the real attraction at tinfoil.com, or get the link from our site, VOA News-dot-com/ourworld.
MUSIC: "Liberty Bell March" (ca. 1897), written by John Philip Sousa and performed by the Edison Concert Band.
And you're listening to VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.
Over the past five centuries, about 150 species of birds are known to have vanished, including common and well-known varieties such as the dodo and the passenger pigeon. But a new study says that extinction rate seriously underestimates what really is going on.
Losing 150 bird species in 500 years translates into a rate of 26 extinctions per million species per year -- a standard way of expressing extinction rates. But the real rate, according to study co-author Peter Raven, is actually about four times higher, and that signals an accelerating rate of extinctions among the almost-10,000 bird species known worldwide.
RAVEN: "We found that for various reasons, the estimates have been too low, and so projecting that forward into the 21st century, we find that about a quarter, about 2,500 species of birds are at risk."
Raven is the president of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. He says several factors explain the undercounting of extinctions, including the ongoing discovery of skeletons of species that went extinct in centuries past.
While it is in the nature of things that species die out, Peter Raven says humans have raised the rate of species extinction 100-fold.
RAVEN: "People are responsible, directly or indirectly, for basically all of this extinction, for raising the rate above the level of one species, perhaps, per hundred years over the last 65 million years, to perhaps one species per year over the last 500 years."
Human activies include the colonization of previously uninhabited lands, introduction of new species, destruction of tropical rainforests, and climate change.
Although humans get the blame for bird extinctions, we also get credit for efforts to reverse the trend.
RAVEN: "Conservation efforts are helping to slow the rate of extinction for all kinds of organisms as people set aside land, begin to combat global warming, try to worry about the spread of invasive species, and so forth. But there's no group better protected by our efforts than birds, which we cherish, understand and love so much that we really are willing to turn handsprings to save them."
Peter Raven says birds play an important role in natural ecosystems and are the proverbial canary in the coalmine - the sentinel that signals the health of the places where they live.
RAVEN: "They feed on insects that might otherwise be harmful. They pollinate flowers in many cases, like hummingbirds do, or sunbirds in Africa and Asia. They in general are a very good index of the health of the ecosystems in which they occur."
Peter Raven, of the Missouri Botanical Garden. His paper was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
When you think of endangered species, farm animals might not top the list. But some types of farm animals are in danger of becoming extinct. Certain breeds of common barnyard creatures are no longer considered commercially viable, and are being allowed to die off. But as the Chris Lehman reports from the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, there's an effort to preserve some rare varieties of livestock.
LEHMAN: When you buy a pound of ground beef or a pack of chicken legs, you probably don't think about what kind of cow or chicken the meat came from. And in most stores, you don't have a choice. Beef is beef and chicken is chicken.
Of course, there's many different kinds of cows and chickens, but most farmers stick with just a handful of types. They prefer animals that are specially bred to produce more meat in less time.
That's all well and good if your motive is profit.
But some people think the move towards designer farm animals is risky. Jerome Johnson is executive director of Garfield Farm Museum.
Johnson says breeds like these Narragansett turkeys carry genetic traits that could be desirable in the future. They don't require as much food, for instance. That could be an attractive feature as costs continue to rise:
LEHMAN: "Some of the high-producing, high-yielding animals today, they may require a lot of input. In other words, a lot of feed, more expense since so many things are derived from petroleum, from the diesel fuel that powers the tractors to the production of fertilizer and the like, and chemicals for herbicides and all ... that as the cost of that goes up, it may actually be cheaper to raise a different type of animal, that doesn't require that much."
Johnson also says some common poultry breeds get sick more easily. That's part of the risk farmers take when they choose meatier birds. Normally that might not be a problem, but if Avian flu spreads to the US, some of the older breeds might carry genes that could resist the disease. If those breeds disappear, that genetic information would be lost.
But some farmers choose rare livestock breeds for completely different reasons.
Scott Lehr and his family raise several varieties of pure-bred poultry, sheep, and goats on their northern Illinois farm. These chicks are just a few weeks old....
LEHR: "These are all pure-bred birds. These are birds that have been around a long time. Some of the breeds that are in there, there's Bantam Brown Leghorns, Bantam White Leghorns."
LEHMAN: Some of the poultry breeds are so rare and exotic they're practically collector's items. Lehr's son enters them in competitions. But the animals on their farm aren't just for showing off. Scott says they use the wool from their herd of Border Cheviot sheep for a craft studio they opened in a nearby town.
SCOTT: "There's quite a bit of demand growing for handspun wool and the rising interest in the hand arts, if you will... knitting and spinning and weaving and those kinds of things... are really beginning to come into, I guess, the consciousness of the American public in many ways."
LEHMAN: And the wool of rare breeds like the Border Cheviot sheep is popular among people who want handspun wool.
Back at the Garfield Farm Museum, Jerome Johnson offers a handful of grass to a 700 pound Berkshire hog. This Berkshire is different from the variety of pig with the same name that's relatively common today. Johnson says these old-style Berkshires have a different nose and more white hair than the modern Berkshire. They also tend to be fatter, which used to be a more desirable trait.
The museum's pair of old-style Berkshires are literally a dying breed. Johnson says the boar isn't fertile anymore:
JOHNSON: "They were the last breeding pair that we knew of. These were once quite common but now are quite rare. And we maybe have found a boar that is fertile that is up in Wisconsin that was brought in from England here a couple years ago that we could try crossing with our sow to see if we can preserve some of these genetics."
LEHMAN: Advocates of rare livestock breeds say the animals can be healthier and sometimes tastier than the kinds raised on large commercial farms. And although you won't find many farm animals on the endangered species list, they could have important benefits for future farmers. For the GLRC, I'm Chris Lehman.
The GLRC is a production of Michigan Radio. Support comes from the Joyce Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service. You can subscribe to the GLRC podcast at GLRC.org.
And we've got podcasts, too. Click on our podcast link at voanews.com/ourworld
MUSIC: "Our World" theme
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Rob Sivak edited the show. Eva Nenicka is our technical director. 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.