May 30, 2011

CO2 emissions climb to all-time high

In 2010, the worlds’ nations emitted a record 30.6 gigatonnes of carbon-dioxide, according to the latest estimates by the International Energy Agency.

CO2 emissions last year were 5% above the previous record year in 2008, the IEA says. In 2009, emissions had slightly dipped below 29 gigatonnes as a result of the global economic crisis.

“Our latest estimates are another wake-up call,” Fatih Birol, Chief Economist at the IEA said on announcing the figures.

“The world has edged incredibly close to the level of emissions that should not be reached until 2020 if the 2ºC target is to be attained. Given the shrinking room for manœuvre in 2020, unless bold and decisive decisions are made very soon, it will be extremely challenging to succeed in achieving this global goal agreed in Cancun.”

The IEA estimates that 40% of global emissions came from OECD countries in 2010, but these (developed) countries only accounted for 25% of emissions growth compared to 2009. Non-OECD countries – in particular China and India – accounted for the bulk of last year’s emission growth.

In Europe, meanwhile, energy analysts fear that the German government’s decision, announced today, to phase out the use of nuclear power by 2022, may lead to additional emissions from coal and gas-produced energy.

Governments are set to resume faltering negotiations over a global climate deal at a United Nations meeting starting next week in Bonn, Germany.

by qshiermeier in The Great Beyond on May 30, 2011 02:30 PM

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The IIT debate

India's controversy-courting environment minister Jairam Ramesh rubbed many the wrong way when he trashed the faculty of the country's leading technology schools -- the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) -- for being sub-standard. His remark of last week has since been amended several times over, as is wont in a political circus, but the issue has led to some serious thinking on where the IITs are going -- both quality wise and quantity wise.

A recent feature in Nature addressed similar issues facing science and technology education in India. According to statistics it quotes, India has around 90 million college-going youngsters. This number is expected to rise to an estimated 150 million by 2025. The country has 500 universities and 26,000 colleges, which can take in around two per cent of its eligible youth. The population is growing by 1.34% a year, more than twice the rate of growth in China -- stark statistics.

Most of India's science and technology graduates look for high-paying jobs in industry. Those who seek a PhD form a minority -- about one per cent.

These are just a few grim realities of science education in India that the feature addresses.

It was followed by a correspondence from a couple of Indian researchers at Boston University, USA, who pointed out the state of education inequality among socially disadvantaged groups. They analysed data from the country's top medical school, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), and found that performance was poor among students admitted under a government scheme for socially disadvantaged groups.

I find it interesting that British science writer Angela Saini's book Geek Nation, which attempts some serious analysis of the IIT system and India's scientific temper, preceded this debate.

The problem of science education in India has been written widely, analysed vastly and solutions recommended generously. The implementation, sadly, is not as promising or visible.

by spriyadarshini in Indigenus on May 30, 2011 11:26 AM

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May 29, 2011

Global warming will open Arctic sea routes but sever the region’s ice roads

ice road.jpgPosted on behalf of Sid Perkins.

When it comes to Arctic transportation in the coming decades, melting ice will giveth, and melting ice will taketh away.

By the middle of this century, several routes across and around the Arctic Ocean now at least partially blocked by sea ice will become fully open to some ships during summer months, a new analysis suggests. At the same time, warmer temperatures will render broad swaths of Arctic terrain now reachable in winter via ice roads inaccessible by land. Scientists have long suspected such changes would come to pass as warming progressed, but the new study — led by Scott Stephenson, a physical geographer at the University of California, Los Angeles and published online today in Nature Climate Change — is the first to quantify the effects.

If sea ice is more than 1.2 metres thick, ships with limited ice-breaking ability, or so-called “Type A” ships, can’t proceed. And even when ice is thinner than 1.2 m, the ships often aren’t allowed to travel full speed ahead. But by mid-century, almost 4.2 million square kilometres of Arctic Ocean now clogged with sea ice — including more than 1.8 million square kilometres that lie in international waters — will be essentially ice-free from July through September, enabling rapid transit along several potentially lucrative Arctic passages.

by bowens in The Great Beyond on May 29, 2011 06:00 PM

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May 27, 2011

Bug and weed killers kick Parkinson’s disease in gear

4518790585_7c71144f5b_m.jpgSince the early-1990s, scientists have known that farmers and other field workers are more likely to succumb to Parkinson’s disease because of their exposure to pesticides and other agricultural chemicals. But these studies fell short on showing a causal relationship between pesticides and the debilitating neurodegenerative disorder.

So, researchers turned to rodent models to prove the link. In the last decade, researchers found that three bug and weed killers promoted neurodegeneration in mice. And now, an independent team has validated those findings in a large epidemiological survey in humans.

The team led by Beate Ritz, an epidemiologist at the University of California–Los Angeles, estimated the average 25-year pesticide exposure for around 700 Californians, about half of whom developed Parkinson’s. Reporting in the European Journal of Epidemiology, the researchers found that people who lived or worked near farmlands treated with two commonly used agricultural fungicides — ziram and maneb — as well as the herbicide paraquat were three times more likely to develop Parkinson’s disease than those Parkinson’s disease than those were not exposed to these agricultural chemicals.

The results follow a previous study of residents from California’s Central Valley showing that people who lived near fields treated by two of these chemicals were 75% more likely to get Parkinson’s.

The findings “suggest that the critical window of exposure of toxicants may have occurred years before the onset of motor symptoms when the diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease is made,” Ritz said in a statement.

Looking ahead, Ritz and her colleagues urge lawmakers to establish monitoring programs to estimate pesticide exposure in rural communities in hopes of limiting people’s exposure to these agricultural chemicals and, ultimately, of getting Parkinson’s disease.

Image: Santiago Nicolau, Flickr Creative Commons

by mpflumm in Spoonful of Medicine on May 27, 2011 10:12 PM

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New Jersey nixes participation in US cap-and-trade system

remote-slide2.jpgNew Jersey Governor Chris Christie yesterday announced his decision to withdraw his state from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the only functioning US carbon cap-and-trade system, by year's end. He argued that the program not only fails to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but creates an unnecessary tax burden on citizens and businesses.

“RGGI does nothing more than tax electricity, tax our citizens, tax our businesses with no measurable impact upon our environment,” said Christie at a 26 May press conference in Trenton, New Jersey.

While Christie said he believes climate change is real, humans are contributing, and that New Jersey is committed to combating it, he said RGGI is ineffective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The cost of allowances remains too low to change behavior, he said, and New Jersey’s emissions are already below the goals for 2020 set out in the state’s Global Warming Response Act.

“The market, not RGGI has created incentives to reduce the use of carbon-based fuels,” he said. “Given that we now have laws that provide significant market incentives for wind, solar and in-state natural gas generation, any benefits that the RGGI tax may have had are miniscule.”

by gzakaib in The Great Beyond on May 27, 2011 09:51 PM

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Study to examine use of chimpanzees in US research

Crossposted from Nature's news blog on behalf of Meredith Wadman.

Schimpanse_zoo-leipig.jpgAn Institute of Medicine (IOM) committee that will recommend whether the US government should continue to support chimpanzee research opened its inaugural meeting yesterday in Washington, D.C. and began wrestling with the thorny questions it has been set.

The Committee on the Use of Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research is charged with determining “if chimpanzees are or will be necessary for research discoveries” to improve public health --- and for determining the safety and effectiveness of new drugs and vaccines. Its task also includes looking at whether the animals, humans’ closest living relatives, are necessary for progress in behavioral research.

Sally Rockey, NIH’s Deputy Director for Extramural Research, told the committee: “We are expecting a highly objective study, one that is going to consider the scientific ramifications of the use of chimpanzees….If they are needed, why are they needed? You need to describe that to us.”

The National Institutes of Health (NIH), the agency that supports chimpanzee research, asked the IOM to undertake the study in January, after three senators wrote this letter to NIH director Francis Collins. They were reacting to a controversial NIH proposal to move 176 government-owned chimpanzees out of semi-retirement and back into active research.

Yesterday, in a public session in a small, crowded room at the National Academies’ Keck Center in downtown Washington, the committee members asked pointed questions of invited guests that included officials from the NIH.

Continue reading on Nature's news blog.

Image via Wikimedia

by edolgin in Spoonful of Medicine on May 27, 2011 06:51 PM

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Transparency in NIH funding

Obtaining research funding, particularly from the NIH, is an increasingly daunting task that requires a lot of background information in addition to presenting a stellar proposal.

Researchers need to decide which of the 25 institutes at the NIH is most likely to fund a particular line of work. A new database, linked to RePORTER, NIH’s research portfolio reporting tool, will make this decision a bit easier.

The editorial in the June issue of Nature Methods highlights the importance of this database and a Correspondence in the same issue describes its functionality.

The developers of this database welcome community feedback and we encourage you to try it out.

by nrusk in Methagora on May 27, 2011 06:00 PM

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Family planning must be top of developing countries’ health agenda

Posted on behalf of Priya Shetty.

Family planning should be catapulted to the top of global health priorities, said scientists and policymakers at a conference on population dynamics in London this week.

The planet’s expanding population means that the fight for resources such as food, water, and energy will become fiercer, and the overall increased consumption could greatly exacerbate global warming. With the world’s population set to hit 7 billion this year, and, potentially, a whopping 10 billion by the end of the century according to the United Nations, there’s little time to lose.

Although countries pledged in the 1994 Cairo declaration on population and development to make women’s reproductive rights the bedrock of population control, these issues received virtually no funding from either developing countries or international aid donors. What funding there has been for contraception in poor countries has largely been for condoms to stem the HIV epidemic.

by bowens in The Great Beyond on May 27, 2011 05:38 PM

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Planet-hunting pioneer calls for probe to Alpha Centauri

GeoffMarcy.jpgThe brief for speakers at today’s exoplanet workshop at MIT is "be provocative", and veteran planet-hunter Geoff Marcy of the University of California, Berkeley, certainly satisfied that with an extraordinary ten minute talk this morning that had one NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory official on his feet trying to respond even before the allotted question time. Marcy's idea of sending a probe to Alpha Centauri came on the back of a series of scathing policy criticisms targeted at NASA and the US National Academy of Sciences.

“I’m going to describe some of my anger,” Marcy said, and started out by slamming the National Academy's Astro2010 decadal survey of astronomy and astrophysics for the low priority it gave to planet-hunting missions, saying the panel was "disingenuous" when it used the phrase “new worlds” in the title of its report “New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics” when its content did not recomend planet-finding missions that would have found such worlds for real. Marcy’s tone then turned to introspection, as he blamed the exoplanet community including himself for failing to make a unified case that would have compelled the panel to recommend funding of what most of those at the workshop hope to see in their lifetimes; the launch of a space-based Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF) mission that would image Earth-like worlds around nearby stars. NASA at one time supported such a mission but postponed it indefinitely in 2007. “I feel like I bear some responsibility for not adequately engaging in discussion,” Marcy said, “very few of us in this room showed leadership to argue for TPF-lite,” a version of TPF that would have been affordable. So what went wrong? Marcy said that different proposals to launch Terrestrial Planet Finder space mission over the next decade undermined each other. “That kind of squabbling lost us 10 years,” he says

by ereich in The Great Beyond on May 27, 2011 05:25 PM

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Study to examine use of chimpanzees in US research -- UPDATED

An Institute of Medicine (IOM) committee that will recommend whether the US government should continue to support chimpanzee research opened its inaugural meeting yesterday in Washington, D.C. and began wrestling with the thorny questions it has been set.

The Committee on the Use of Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research is charged with determining “if chimpanzees are or will be necessary for research discoveries” to improve public health --- and for determining the safety and effectiveness of new drugs and vaccines. Its task also includes looking at whether the animals, humans’ closest living relatives, are necessary for progress in behavioral research.

Sally Rockey, NIH’s Deputy Director for Extramural Research, told the committee: “We are expecting a highly objective study, one that is going to consider the scientific ramifications of the use of chimpanzees….If they are needed, why are they needed? You need to describe that to us.”

The National Institutes of Health (NIH), the agency that supports chimpanzee research, asked the IOM to undertake the study in January, after three senators wrote this letter to NIH director Francis Collins. They were reacting to a controversial NIH proposal to move 176 government-owned chimpanzees out of semi-retirement and back into active research.

Yesterday, in a public session in a small, crowded room at the National Academies’ Keck Center in downtown Washington, the committee members asked pointed questions of invited guests that included officials from the NIH.

by mwadman in The Great Beyond on May 27, 2011 04:52 PM

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Study to examine use of chimpanzees in US research

An Institute of Medicine (IOM) committee that will recommend whether the US government should continue to support chimpanzee research opened its inaugural meeting yesterday in Washington, D.C. and began wrestling with the thorny questions it has been set.

The Committee on the Use of Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research is charged with determining “if chimpanzees are or will be necessary for research discoveries” to improve public health --- and for determining the safety and effectiveness of new drugs and vaccines. Its task also includes looking at whether the animals, humans’ closest living relatives, are necessary for progress in behavioral research.

Sally Rockey, NIH’s Deputy Director for Extramural Research, told the committee: “We are expecting a highly objective study, one that is going to consider the scientific ramifications of the use of chimpanzees….If they are needed, why are they needed? You need to describe that to us.”

The National Institutes of Health (NIH), the agency that supports chimpanzee research, asked the IOM to undertake the study in January, after three senators wrote this letter to NIH director Francis Collins. They were reacting to a controversial NIH proposal to move 176 government-owned chimpanzees out of semi-retirement and back into active research.

Yesterday, in a public session in a small, crowded room at the National Academies’ Keck Center in downtown Washington, the committee members asked pointed questions of invited guests that included officials from the NIH.

by mwadman in The Great Beyond on May 27, 2011 04:52 PM

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Animal lab reprimanded for poor safety again

Foot_and_mouth_disease_in_mouth.jpg
The laboratory responsible for the foot and mouth disease outbreak in the UK four years ago has been reprimanded again for failing to meet safety standards in its work with the virus (BBC, Farmers Guardian).

The Health and Safety Executive told the Institute for Animal Health at Pirbright in Surrey to improve laboratory practices after an investigation earlier this year revealed the failings. The HSE issued the lab an improvement notice after a small amount of waste liquid leaked within the incinerator room in February. The incident was related to work being carried out with the virus, although the leaked liquid did not contain the virus.

The lab was also issued with an improvement notice to improve procedures after it was discovered that a sample of the disease was being held in a cracked flask. The IAH says the safety cabinet and the surrounding area were thoroughly cleaned, and no virus escaped from the lab and nor was there any no risk that it would do so.

by ngilbert in The Great Beyond on May 27, 2011 03:33 PM

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Updated Instructions for Authors

Molecular Systems Biology has recently completed a major update of its Instructions for Authors. Of particular importance, this new document now fully incorporates information about our policies regarding transparency in scientific publishing. Molecular Systems Biology, along with the other EMBO Publications journals, has made a strong commitment to promoting transparency in the editorial process, and recently began publishing a Review Process File, containing anonymous reviewers' reports, authors' rebuttal letters, and the editor's decisions, with accepted manuscripts. In addition, we have been working to promote greater availability, transparency, and re-usability for scientific data associated with published works. For more details on these efforts please see our editorial, "From bench to website."

Data transparency

For some time now, Molecular Systems Biology has allowed authors to submit source data that directly supports a particular figure panel. Links to these data are then included in the html manuscript version, directly below the associated figures, so that readers can easily discover and reuse data that is of interest to them. This feature can be used both for numeric results (e.g. supporting a graph), or for more structured data types (e.g. SBML model files). Information regarding how source data for figures should be prepared, what types of data can be accommodated, and how to submit these files in our manuscript submission system, is now included in the Instructions for Authors.

Data deposition

Molecular Systems Biology, requires that authors submit data to public repositories according to community standards, and strongly encourages them to do so before manuscript submission. Our Instructions for Authors now provides information regarding our standards for a variety of data types, including functional genomics, proteomics, molecular interactions, and computational models.

Other improvements

These publishing policies and standards have grown out of extensive discussion with members of the scientific community, and we are eager to receive any comments or feedback you may have.

by Andrew in The Seven Stones on May 27, 2011 02:44 PM

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Attention! New study points to power of controlling neurons

Humans and monkeys can learn to fire neurons in particular regions of the brain at will using a feedback mechanism. They can, for example, control the movement of motor neurons even without making any physical movements. But what effect does that firing have on the cognition or behavior of the monkey (or person)?

Robert Schafer and Tirin Moore of the Stanford University School of Medicine, studied that question using neurons at 94 sites in the frontal eye field (FEF), an area of the brain involved in eye movement, in two monkeys. The answer they got was something that might be a lesson for those with attention deficit disorders: controlling those neurons improves visual attention.

“Our main question was simply, if a human or animal could voluntarily control FEF neurons, without being instructed to do anything else, what would the consequences be for the subject? In other words, what cognitive or motor effects might they experience while controlling the neurons?” says Moore.

by dcyranoski in The Great Beyond on May 27, 2011 01:13 PM

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Reactions - Tomislav Friscic

Tomislav Friscic is in the exciting transition state between a Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge, UK and an Assistant Professor at McGill University, Canada, and works on new ways of conducting chemical reactions.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

The beauty of chemical experiments. I suspect that love towards chemistry was inspired early on by my grandmother, a professor of organic chemistry who produced some very important textbooks and translations when such teaching materials were rare in former Yugoslavia. However, I got really hooked for life when I saw the beautiful violet fumes of iodine during my first chemistry lecture in elementary school!

2. If you weren't a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be - and why?

I suspect I would be quite happy being a programmer - I occasionally fall into the counterproductive mood of trying to write small utility programs on my PC. A cook would definitely be an excellent alternative. It is as close as you can get to synthetic chemistry!

3. What are you working on now, and where do you hope it will lead?

I am very much interested in how chemical transformations work and how they can be improved. We are now working on developing new and clean ways to convert hard materials, similar to those making up the mineral resources in Earth's crust, into useful materials. The principal goal is to do it under mild conditions, using as little energy as possible and the most inexpensive starting materials.

4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with - and why?

It's a tough call, but I believe I would settle on Benjamin Franklin. A dinner with someone of so many talents and interests, ranging from science to politics and diplomacy, would surely turn out to be interesting! In the worst case, we would have a good game of chess. However, a quiet dinner focusing on the discovery of new elements with Marie Curie would also be attractive!

5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab - and what was it?

Last week - I was double-checking a new preparative method we've developed for the synthesis of bismuth salicylate, a known pharmaceutical component.

6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one music album would you take with you?

Probably "Alice in Wonderland", although "Gulliver's Travels" would probably be more appropriate for that particular occasion. The album would probably be "Aqualung" by Jethro Tull. However, I would also try sneaking in with me "Look at yourself" by Uriah Heep.

7. Which chemist would you like to see interviewed on Reactions - and why?

Pance Naumov from Osaka. He is a young solid-state researcher who is producing some quite fascinating work on the mechanisms of solid-state reactions. His recent paper on atom-hopping in realgar was fascinating!

by apichon in The Sceptical Chymist on May 27, 2011 02:39 AM

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May 26, 2011

Shareholders inch towards responsibility for fracking risks

asyousow-logo260.jpg
Posted on behalf of Nicola Jones

A hefty minority of shareholders in a few major oil and gas companies voted yesterday in favour of better disclosing the risks of hydraulic fracturing – a practice that has been accused of releasing toxic chemicals into drinking water.

The San Francisco-based corporate responsibility advocacy group As You Sow co-filed a series of resolutions with Chevron, ExxonMobil, Anadarko Petroleum and Ultra Petroleum asking for each company to “publish a report on the environmental risks of fracking and policy options the company can adopt to mitigate these risks.”

None of the companies passed the resolution, and even if passed, the resolution says nothing about actually changing company practices. But As You Sow is still taking the results as a victory. Anadarko agreed to post some statement about fracking risks on its website before it ever got to a vote. Exxon shareholders voted 28% in favour (compared to 26% when they voted on the same thing last year), and Chevron shareholders 41% in favour. Ultra Petroleum would only say that they voted against it (see Reuters and Petroleumbazaar).

"Breaking 40 percent on a first year resolution has only happened a few times in the last few decades, so it shows how seriously the company's shareholders are taking this issue," said As You Sow representative Michael Passoff. He’s referring to the resolutions that As You Sow have instigated, which have a heavy environmentalist leaning and don’t often garner strong shareholder support in their first year.

by isemeniuk in The Great Beyond on May 26, 2011 10:04 PM

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Fukushima nuclear plant is leaking like a sieve

Fukushima 24 May.jpgAs more details leak out about the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, it's become clear that something else is leaking—radioactive water from the cores of three damaged reactors.

Leaks have been a persistent problem at the plant since it was struck by an earthquake and tsunami on 11 March. Three reactors operating at the time of the quake went into meltdown after the tsunami wiped out emergency generators designed to circulate water through the cores. TEPCO recently admitted that all three units probably suffered complete meltdowns before workers could flood them with seawater.

Since then, reactor operators have kept water flowing to the cores and several fuel storage pools above the reactors. That same water appears to be flowing out into the basements of buildings and eventually the Pacific Ocean, where environmentalists and scientists have raised concerns about possible contamination.

The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which runs the plant, hoped to rectify the problem by pumping water into storage tanks until it can be reprocessed, but today Reuters reports that the storage tanks appear to be leaking.

by gbrumfiel in The Great Beyond on May 26, 2011 05:05 PM

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Europe's 'stress tests' of nuclear power plants will exclude terrorism

1775684849_03b24dda85.jpgThe European Commission and the European Nuclear Safety Regulators' Group (ENSREG) – made up of 27 independent national nuclear safety authorities – announced yesterday that they had agreed on the criteria for safety reviews of the 143 nuclear power reactors in the European Union and on how these will be conducted. The reviews, which the EU called for 25 March to draw lessons from the Fukushima disaster, are due to begin on 1 June. The EU wants reactors that fail the stress tests to be upgraded or shutdown permanently.

Agreement had been stalled by opposition from regulators in some countries, including France and the UK, to including terrorist attacks on plants, using explosives or aircraft as missiles. The European Commission conceded by agreeing to leave out discussion of security-related aspects of preparedness and countermeasures for terrorists attacks, but says that the tests should nonetheless study the effect of an accidental aircraft impact or explosion, and so equivalent ground will be covered.

The tests will include three phases, with reactor operators replying to a questionnaire, and submitting supporting documentation to national regulators, who will produce national reports. These will then be peer reviewed by seven-person multinational EU teams, each including one European Commission expert. The teams will also have powers to carry out plant inspections. The commission will present a preliminary report to the EU's heads of state in December, and a final report in June 2012.

by declanbutler in The Great Beyond on May 26, 2011 02:39 PM

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French lawmakers duel over human stem cell and embryo research

The French National Assembly last night voted 73 to 33 to maintain the status quo of tight restrictions on human embryonic stem-cell (ESC) and embryo research. The regulations on such research are part of an ongoing revision of the country's bioethics laws. The bill will now go before the Senate in June, and a final decision is expected by the end of the year.

In an article earlier this year - "France mulls embryo research reform" – I explained the current ambiguities of France's laws concerning ESC and embryo research:

Officially, research on human ESCs and embryos is banned in France. But under a 2004 amendment to the country's bioethics law, scientists can obtain dispensation for research that could lead to "major therapeutic progress" for serious diseases that resist other approaches. Those whose research fits the bill — about 30 research groups and 40 projects so far — can carry out research on whole embryos, or on cell lines derived from embryos left over from in vitro fertilization (IVF). Creating embryos for research purposes is illegal in the country, a position that enjoys a broad consensus among scientists, politicians and the public alike. A broad consensus of researchers and clinicians is now urging the government to overturn the ban, and to explicitly authorize research on ESCs and whole embryos without the need for any special dispensation.

The French government wants to maintain the current system of a ban of both, with dispensations. On a first reading of the bill back in February, the National Assembly had also backed the government, but last month the Senate amended the text to authorize both ESC and embryo research, with individual projects having to be approved and monitored by the national Biomedicine Agency. The text will now go back to the Senate for a second reading.

by declanbutler in The Great Beyond on May 26, 2011 11:01 AM

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May 25, 2011

NASA plans asteroid sample return

osirus.jpgNASA will launch an asteroid sample return mission in 2016, officials announced today.

The mission, called the Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) will be the first by the US to bring back material from an asteroid. In 2003, the Japanese Space Agency launched Hayabusa, which returned material from the asteroid Itakawa 2010. Compared to Hayabusa, which brought back around 1000 grains, OSIRIS-Rex will bring back from 60 grams to 2 kilograms worth of material. OSIRIS-REx may also be more relevant to the question of life’s origins because it will visit a carbonaceous meteorite, 1999 RQ36 , that may harbor organic materials like amino acids that may have seeded the Earth 4.5 billion years ago, argued principal investigator Michael Drake at a press conference today. “The big difference is that we are going to something rich in organics,” he said.

The mission will cost $800 million, which comes to around $1 billion including the launch vehicle. OSIRIS-REx beat two competing mission concepts, one a sample return from the dark side of the moon and the other a visit to Venus. Paul Hertz, chief scientist of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said all three missions scored highly on scientific value but that OSIRIS-REx won out on two other criteria: how likely the payload was to work, and how feasible the mission was. “I wish we could’ve done all three,” he said.

Image: NASA / Goddard / University of Arizona

Corrected May 27: the cost of OSIRUS-REx was corrected to $1 billion in total including launch; not $1 billion for launch on top of an $800 million mission cost as stated in an earlier version of this post.

by ereich in The Great Beyond on May 25, 2011 10:15 PM

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Heart disease test goes green

ICG.jpgHeart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, and costs the country upwards of $316 billion in terms of healthcare costs, drugs and lost productivity. Yet the methods currently used to identify those at highest risk of heart attack leave much to be desired. A team of researchers hopes to change that by introducing a new type of catheterization procedure that produces detailed images of the fatty buildup inside blood vessel walls in the heart.

“This may be a new way to identify high risk plaques in coronary arteries— the ones responsible for heart attacks,” says Farouc Jaffer of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, lead author of a paper describing the technology that appears in Science Translational Medicine today.

The approach uses an imaging agent known as near-infrared lipid-binding dye indocyanine green (ICG)—which is already approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—to detect the fatty buildups likely to burst in the heart.

In this proof of principle study, the team fed one group of rabbits cholesterol-heavy foods for eight weeks, while keeping their control counterparts on a healthy diet. They then injected the dye, and 20 minutes later inserted a catheter, which as expected picked up more infrared signals in the rabbits on the cholesterol-rich diet.

In future, the Massachusetts General Hospital team plans to test this procedure in heart disease patients to determine its ability to identify those at highest risk of heart attack.

Image: Aorta after injection of ICG in an atherosclerotic rabbit. Courtesy of Science Translational Medicine/AAAS

by mpflumm in Spoonful of Medicine on May 25, 2011 07:00 PM

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Gamma-ray burst is most distant yet seen

grbmedium.jpgA record has been set for the most distant gamma-ray burst, astronomers announced at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Boston today. The result pushes back the time by which stars and galaxies must have formed to just 500 million years after the Big Bang, 13.7 billion years ago.

“This tells us there was already huge star formation activity going on,” says astronomer Antonio Cucchiara of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, who is first author on a paper about the result that is due to be posted on the arxiv preprint archive later today.

The brightest objects in the universe, gamma ray bursts (GRBs), are thought to caused by massive stars going supernovae and collapsing to form black holes or neutron stars. The GRB discussed today at the meeting, GRB090329B, was first picked up in 2009 by NASA’s Swift satellite, and then imaged by the 8.1 meter Gemini North telescope in Mauna Kea, Hawaii. But due to bad weather in Hawaii, the research team was not able to study the afterglow long enough to obtain a detailed spectrum that would have pinpointed how faraway it was.

by ereich in The Great Beyond on May 25, 2011 05:27 PM

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Italian seismologists to be tried for manslaughter

Posted on behalf of Nicola Nosengo

Six Italian seismologists and one government official will be tried for the manslaughter of those who died in an earthquake that struck the city of L'Aquila on 6 April 2009.

The seven are accused of misinforming the population about seismic risk in the days before the earthquakes, indirectly causing the death of the citizens they had reassured.

The case began in June 2010, when the public prosecutor of L'Aquila pressed manslaughter charges against the participants at a meeting of the Major Risks Committee (an expert group that advises the Italian Civil Protection), held on 31 March 2009.

Those indicted include Bernardo De Bernardinis, then vice-president of Italy's Civil Protection department, who in the meantime has become President of the Institute for Environmental Research and Protection (ISPRA); Enzo Boschi, president of the National Institute for Geophysics and Vulcanology (INGV); Giulio Selvaggi, director of the National Earthquake Center; Franco Barberi, a volcanologist at the University of Rome 'Roma Tre'; Claudio Eva, a professor of Earth Physics at the University of Genoa; Mauro Dolce, head of the seismic risk office of the Italian government's Civil Protection Agency; and Gian Michele Calvi, Director of the European Centre for Training and Research in Earthquake Engineering.

At the time of the 31 March 2009 meeting, seismic activity had been going on in the area for more than three months, causing alarm in the population. De Bernardinis summoned the meeting and asked the scientists to assess the risk of a major earthquake and its possible consequences. The meeting was followed by a press conference by De Bernardinis and Barberi, where the two reassured the population that the seismic sequence did not necessarily hint at a major earthquake. De Bernardinis, in particular, appeared on television saying that “the scientific community tells me there is no danger, because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favorable”. A major earthquake did hit on April 6 though, killing 309 people. In the aftermath, many citizens quoted those statements as the reason they did not take precautionary measures, such as fleeing their homes. According to the accusation, many people who would otherwise leave the area decided to stay, and were eventually killed in the collapse of their houses.

After several delays due to procedural reasons, in the last few days the Public Prosecutor of L'Aquila Fabio Picuti and the seven defendants have finally appeared before Giuseppe Gargarella, a Judge at the Court of L'Aquila, who had to decide whether to dismiss the case or to proceed with the trial. After listening to both sides of the story, the judge accepted the prosecutor's request to proceed with the case and decided that the trial will begin on 20 September.

For a longer news story on the case, see Scientists face trial over earthquake deaths

by mpeplow in The Great Beyond on May 25, 2011 04:17 PM

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Atomic agency outs Iran's nuke warhead project

AQFootball.jpgA new report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) suggests that Iran may have a programme to develop nuclear warheads capable of being deployed by missiles. The report is a little short on details, but it closely echoes a previous rumour from 2009 that suggested Iran was looking into how to build a compact weapon.

According to the IAEA, Iran has recently conducted work to develop a device that, when compressed by explosives, generates a large flux of neutrons. Such a neutron generator is the key to building a compact nuclear warhead that can be delivered by a missile instead of an aircraft. The agency says that the country has also been working with conventional high explosives that could be used to trigger a nuclear warhead, along with special systems used in nuclear testing. Taken together, it makes a compelling case that Iran's nuclear intentions are not entirely peaceful.

The chief allegation is that Iran has conducted experiments with uranium deuteride, a material that, when compressed, creates a burst of neutrons. Neutrons are the key to starting a nuclear detonation. For compact bombs of the sort typically mounted on missiles, the neutrons needed to start the bomb have to come from an "initiator". Uranium deuteride is an unconventional choice, but the Pakistani physicist and nuclear smuggler AQ Khan is suspected to have dabbled in it (see "Uran-deuteride" in the photo above). You can read more nuclear weapons nitty-gritty in our previous post.

The IAEA cites other reasons to be suspicious. The Iranians are apparently working with Exploding Bridgewire, a high speed explosive that could be used to compress a spherical nuclear bomb in order to set off its nuclear charge. They're also studying ways to explode the bridgewire simultaneously, another important technique to ensure that a bomb compresses correctly. The Iranians have also acquired high-voltage firing equipment of the type you might use if you wanted to be very very far away from something when you pressed the button—say in a nuclear test. Finally, the Iranians are working on mounting a "spherical nuclear payload" onto their Shahab-3 missile.

The agency bases its report on "information which the Agency has acquired from Many Member States and through its own efforts". It also says that its overall knowledge of Iran's programme "continues to diminish".

by gbrumfiel in The Great Beyond on May 25, 2011 04:14 PM

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Requiem for a Mars Rover

NASA has finally given up on the Mars Rover Spirit. No communications have been received from the rover since March last year, when it was known to be trapped in a sand pit.

This final end is no great surprise. It was always a vanishingly small chance that Spirit would survive the last Martian winter. Without enough energy to stay warm, the cold conditions were likely to do so much damage the long-running mission would never recover when the sun reappeared.

Still, the rover had a good run (or crawl) lasting far longer after its 2004 landing on the Red Planet than the 3 months originally envisioned. (See Nature’s previous report of the last days of Spirit from last year: Mars rover Spirit (2003–10).)

Spirit’s fellow rover Opportunity continues to rove, while NASA’s next Mars mission launches in November – the Curiosity Rover.

by dcressey in The Great Beyond on May 25, 2011 03:12 PM

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