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Use Biotech to Help Poor, Not Rich, Scientists Say
TORONTO (Reuters) - Using biotechnology to produce simple nutritional and hygienic improvements and cheap vaccines would do more to improve global health than the development of high-tech treatments, a survey of 28 leading scientists from around the world concludes.
A report on the survey done by two University of Toronto researchers, released on Friday, said the scientists surveyed produced a list of top 10 biotechnologies to improve health. They include development of cheap vaccines, ways to cleanse drinking water, and methods to genetically modify foods to enhance nutritional value.
The list mentions no high-tech treatments such as artificial hearts or organ transplants.
The report shows a consensus among scientists from countries as diverse as Canada, India, the United States, South Korea and Cuba on the need for improved health care for the billions of poor people around the world.
"The key message here is that you can use very high-powered science and cutting-edge technology to find solutions for diseases that are killing millions around the world," said Abdallah Daar, the study's co-author, who is director of the Joint Center for Bioethics at the University of Toronto.
The study, published in U.S. journal Nature Genetics on Friday, calls for urgent attention to be paid to the inequality in health care between the developed and developing world, where more than 5 billion people live.
"Ninety percent of the all medical research is targeted at problems affecting only 10 percent of the world's population,' said Peter Singer, the other author of the study, who is also a director of the Joint Center for Bioethics.
"If you say biotech, the average person would think about Silicon Valley, Wall Street, Harvard or Stanford, but the message of this report is that the main benefits of biotechnology may actually be in Delhi and Beijing and Johannesburg and Rio De Janeiro," Singer said.
First on the list is the need to develop technology to diagnose infectious diseases. Second is technology to develop vaccines to fight those diseases.
Some other priorities on the list include: better methods of drug delivery, technologies to clean the environment, vaccines to allow women to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases, genetically modified food such as corn and rice with enhanced nutritional value, and computer-based tools to mine data on human and nonhuman gene sequences for clues to preventing and treating diseases.
"The top 10 list also debunks the myth that biotechnology cannot provide tools for disease prevention and health promotion," Daar said.
"Just as we promote the use of bednets for malaria, we must also develop new malaria drugs based on knowledge of the malaria parasite's genome and genetic modification of the mosquito that carries malaria."
Singer and Daar said the technologies mentioned on the list can realistically be put to use within a decade to help developing countries.
"With most biotechnologies being applied to the health problems of the industrialized nations, the World Health Organization and other health bodies have voiced serious concerns," Singer said.
Daar added: "We hope this report will receive the serious consideration of health and science ministers worldwide and by the international donor community as a guide to research and funding priorities."
posted by West 6:30 PM
Solar-powered surgery may save lives
SEDE BOQER, Israel, Sept. 27 (UPI) -- In the future, when doctors tell patients to catch some sun, they may not mean fresh air but concentrated sunlight beams that burn away tumors.
Physicists and physicians in Israel are developing a new technique called "solar surgery" that may not only save lives but also cost 1,000 times less than similar laser procedures.
"The majority of patients are being deprived of minimal risk, minimally invasive laser fiber-optic surgery simply because of the exorbitant price of surgical laser systems," researcher Jeffrey Gordon, a physicist at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Sede Boqer, told United Press International. "We may be able to produce a potentially inexpensive simple alternative."
In principle, solar surgery is similar to when children use magnifying glasses to focus sunlight and kill bugs. Gordon and co-inventor Daniel Feuermann have finished a prototype where a reflective parabolic dish 8 inches wide collects and focuses sunlight onto a point, funneling it down an optical fiber to come out as a cone of sunshine from the 1-millimeter-wide tip of a surgeon's tool.
Earth receives about 950 watts of sunlight per square yard. "Inside the laboratory, the beam is close to 12,000 times that," Gordon said.
Experimental tests on raw chicken breasts show these sunlight beams pack effectively as much punch as laser surgery for most purposes.
"The price I know my university paid for its medical laser unit is about $120,000," Gordon explained. "Based on discussions I've had with manufacturers, in large volume production, what we have now could be made for about $1,000."
The researchers are working on amplifying the beam's power density to more than 22,000 suns, or 20 watts per square millimeter, by using better surgical tips for the system. While the 12,000-sun beam is strong enough to operate on human livers, the researchers want the flexibility to work on tougher tissues, since "any idiot can figure out how to make the beam weaker," Gordon said.
Solar surgery's most obvious weakness is any potential absence of sunlight. "This is completely useless for Seattle or London or any place as cloudy as that," Gordon said, and nighttime is out of the question.
Still, laser surgery is often a planned procedure, not an emergency one, and in sun-belt areas there should be operating windows of seven to 10 hours a day for 250 days per year or more, Gordon said. "Yes, the method is constrained to clear midday hours in sun-belt climates, but that represents a significant fraction of this planet," he explained. "Areas like India, Pakistan, the south of China, belts across South America, the southwest United States and all of Australia can benefit."
Nevertheless, solar surgery will not replace laser surgery for all applications. A few surgical techniques rely on the pure colored light that lasers can provide. Also, while laser beams are columns, solar beams are cones that get much weaker over distance. This makes them useless for retinal surgery, where for safety's sake the tip of the surgeon's tool must remain remote.
A medical team at Ben-Gurion University hopes to test the system on liver tumors in live rats in 2003. Mechanical engineer Agami Reddy at Drexel University in Philadelphia says while solar surgery has a lot of potential, at first he predicts it will be "a cheap and convenient way of removing tumors and performing surgery with animals -- cows, or something like that."
Reddy added the solar collector the researchers use could help improve solar power farms, which typically use huge dishes 15 to 50 feet wide to focus sunlight onto small, expensive photovoltaic cells.
"Those have very massive structural frames that require a lot of maintenance," he said. "Instead of one large dish, you could have many small dishes. You could stamp them out like headlights, and they would become very cheap."
The scientists describe their findings in the Sept. 30 issue of Applied Physics Letters.
posted by West 6:26 PM
FDA to look into carcinogen in food supply
WASHINGTON, Sept. 27 (UPI) -- Five months after the discovery of a known cancer-causing substance in certain food products sparked global concern, the Food and Drug Administration is ready to outline the steps it will take to determine the health threat in the United States, sources told United Press International Friday.
Swedish scientists were the first to discover in April that acrylamide, a substance known to cause breast, uterine and testicular cancer in animals, is present in high levels in starch-based foods cooked at high temperatures. The chemical has been found in chips, french fries, bread, cereals and other processed foods.
The findings have been confirmed in the United Kingdom, Norway and Switzerland.
The FDA began testing food products this summer and preliminary results indicate acrylamide is present in high levels in the United States as well. The agency's response includes identifying methods to lower the amount of the chemical in food and determining the potential of the agent to cause cancer in humans when present in food, an FDA source told UPI.
The source said a meeting scheduled for Monday is the first of several to be held on the issue and the FDA plans to have a panel of experts look at the data in December.
"We're in the early exploratory stages of looking at various foods and just testing them to find out the best approach," the source said.
A panel of experts convened by the World Health Organization in June said acrylamide was a serious concern and should be investigated. It also recommended food companies and scientists do everything they can to lower the amount of the chemical in food.
The panel concluded that although acrylamide causes cancer and nerve damage in animals, no studies assessing cancer risk in humans have been done, so it is difficult to determine the risk posed to people eating foods that contain the chemical.
Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C., is scheduled to speak at the meeting and he told UPI that "acrylamide is almost certainly causing thousands of cancers per year in the U.S."
He said he will point out at the meeting that although he is pleased with the steps FDA is taking, they are not adequately addressing some of the key points.
"While the agency acknowledges that acrylamide is a problem," Jacobson said, "they say specifically in their Sept. 12 notice about the meeting that they are not recommending that consumers change their diet." "(FDA) should be encouraging Americans to eat less of the most contaminated, least nutritious foods, which are french fries and snack chips.
"Even before acrylamide they should've been encouraging that. Why not just be straight with the public?" he asked.
The FDA also should make available to the public the results of the tests it conducts on specific food products, Jacobson said. This would enable consumers to choose products with lower acrylamide levels and "stimulate
industry to figure out how to process foods so as to minimize acrylamide levels," he said.
Gene Grabowski, spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of American, a Washington-based trade group that represents all of the major brand-name food companies, told UPI the food industry considers this a serious issue and "is still trying to gather more scientific evidence in response to the alarming reports out of Sweden."
He maintained there is "no evidence yet that acrylamide is a threat to consumers." Studies showing acrylamide were done in animals and with liquid formulations of the chemical not with food products, he said.
Grabowski said food industry scientists already are scheduled to meet with FDA officials in a series of meetings following Monday's conference to determine the next steps that should be taken to ensure the safety of the food supply.
The FDA has asked food companies to furnish any data they have on acrylamide research and Grabowski said the limited amount of research available "would indicate the levels of acrylamide are not enough to warrant any danger at all."
He noted, however, that research was done in years past and the industry "will take a fresh look at that and generate some new research."
posted by West 6:25 PM
Microbes Could be in Venus Atmosphere
LONDON (Reuters) - Venus, the nearest planet to Earth, is too hot to support life but American scientists believe microbes could be living in its atmosphere.
posted by West 4:25 PM
Humans and chimps 'not so close'
bbc.co.uk -- Chimpanzees may be the closest relation to humans among animals, but we may not share as much DNA as previously thought.
Most studies suggest that 98.5% of our genetic code can also be found in the chimp.
However, a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says the true difference may be much larger.
In fact, say the researchers, only 95% of our DNA may be the same as the chimpanzee's.
Professor Roy Britten, of the California Institute of Technology, US, said that most studies did not take into account large sections of DNA which are not found on the genome of both man and chimp.
These are "insertions" - where a whole section of genetic code appears in one species but not another, and deletions, in which a chunk is missing.
Professor Britten suspected that these "indels" could be far more significant than the difference revealed by calculating single "base substitutions".
He took DNA sequences from the chimp and compared them with the corresponding sections from the human genome.
In these samples, while simply calculating base substitutions revealed a difference of 1.4%, "indels" accounted for a further divergence of 3.9%.
The total difference between humans and chimps in these sequences would therefore be approximately 5.4%.
While it is possible that the chosen sequences - one million bases against a total of three billion - are not accurately representative of the genomes as a whole, Professor Britten believes that 95% sharing would be a "better estimate" overall.
The fact that chimps appear resistant to various human diseases such as HIV/Aids and malaria has been used to support calls to work on the complete sequencing of the chimp genome.
This would be a task as demanding as the sequencing of the human genome - which has yet to be completed.
It was claimed that the relatively small difference between human and chimp genomes would offer insights into the gene differences that might render humans more vulnerable to disease.
However, should humans only share 19 out of every 20 genes with chimps, as opposed to almost 99 out of every 100, it would make spotting the key genes far more difficult.
posted by West 4:19 PM
Sci-fi becomes science: Star Trek device' could detect illness
bbc.co.uk -- British scientists have developed a Star Trek style device which measures vital health signs without the need for skin contact.
Researchers at Loughborough University believe their technology could one day be used to measure blood flow, monitor the heart and assess how well wounds and burns are healing.
The technique involves shining a light on a specific part of the body. Potential health problems are identified by measuring how much light is absorbed.
posted by West 8:53 AM
South Pole Telescope finds Big Bang evidence
bbc.co.uk -- Scientists have made a discovery that represents an important confirmation of the Big Bang theory of the origin of the Universe.
Almost 5,500 hours of observations by a radio telescope at the South Pole have shown the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) to be polarised.
The CMB has been called the afterglow of the Big Bang. It is radiation that comes from all directions in space and has its origin when the cosmos was just 400,000 years old.
The polarisation can be used to probe conditions in the early Universe. Cosmologists say although such an effect was expected they are relieved to find it.
The discovery should open a new era of cosmic measurements and understanding.
Prediction 'bang on'
The discovery was made by the Degree Angular Scale Interferometer (Dasi) at the Amundsen-Scott base at the South Pole. It makes observations of the sky in microwaves.
The CMB has transfixed astronomers since it was discovered in 1965 by radio astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson.
Detailed observations of it can reveal clues about the structure and evolution of the cosmos.
The CMB is difficult to study from the ground: many of the better observations of it have been made from satellites.
On Earth, the South Pole is a good place to look at it as the local atmosphere lacks the water vapour that obscures the CMB at other places on the Earth's surface.
Faint detail in the CMB has been seen before but Dr Carlstrom of Chicago University, US, says mapping its polarisation has the potential of obtaining much more information, "like going from a black-and-white to colour".
"It's going to triple the amount of information that we get from the CMB," says researcher John Kovac.
"The prediction is bang on," says Dr Carlstrom. "We think we know the Universe, but if the polarisation was not there at the predicted level we were back to the drawing board."
However, the new observations are pointing to an ever-more puzzling Universe: a Universe whose birth was dominated by mysterious dark matter and dark energy.
"We're stuck with a preposterous Universe," he says.
The observations confirm the inflation theory of the early evolution of the Universe, which describes an explosive spurt of expansion when the Universe was young.
"We can go from checking inflation to actually testing it," Dr Carlstrom adds.
The next step astronomers say is to achieve a tenfold increase in instrumental sensitivity that is required to detect the signature of inflation in the CMB. Only then will they have detected definite proof of cosmic inflation.
posted by West 8:47 AM
Detroit Zoo Shark Credited with 'Virgin Births'
DETROIT (Reuters) - Holy mackerel! A shark held with no male counterpart at Detroit's Belle Isle Aquarium for the past six years has produced three babies in what zoo officials are calling "virgin births." The first two offspring hatched in July and the third was born earlier this week, Doug Sweet, curator of fishes at the aquarium, said in an interview on Friday. The female trio and their two-feet-long mother, a white spotted bamboo shark common to waters in the South Pacific, are all doing well and a fourth offspring is expected in another couple of weeks, Sweet told Reuters. "With fish, amphibians and reptiles it does happen sometimes, it is kind of rare but it can happen," Sweet said of the unusual hatchings. He said they were thought to be the result of a process called parthenogenesis, which is the ability of unfertilized eggs to develop into embryos without sperm. "The other option here is that perhaps there's a chance that the female might be a self-fertilizing hermaphrodite. That is, she might have testicular tissue inside her as well as ovarian tissue, and it's possible she could be fertilizing her own eggs. Either way you look at it it's pretty weird," Sweet said. He said the only other adult bamboo shark in the 680-gallon tank where the mother is held is also a female. "There's no male around and there hasn't been any male around for as long as we've had the sharks, and we've had them for over six years," Sweet said. Though the births in Detroit were thought to be extremely rare, Sweet said a bonnet head shark, also held without any male companion, reproduced in late 2001 at a zoo in Omaha, Nebraska. Unlike the biblical account of Jesus' birth and the Virgin Mary, "in nature, during parthenogenesis, it typically is always a female that is produced," Sweet said.
posted by West 8:38 AM
Signs of Water Found in Atmosphere of Far Planets
LONDON (Reuters) -- Italian astronomers have found signs of water, a necessary ingredient for life, in the atmosphere of planets orbiting distant stars.
Having water does not mean other planets will be teeming with life but if the discovery is confirmed it will fuel speculation that it could be possible.
"This would be a historic discovery -- the first detection of a prebiotic molecule in an extrasolar planet," Cristiano Cosmovici, of the Institute for Cosmic and Planetary Science in Rome, told New Scientist magazine Wednesday.
His team used a 32-yard radio telescope to search for water maser emissions, telltale microwaves which could indicate water in a planet's atmosphere when it is bathed in the infrared light of its star.
Cosmovici said his team found the emissions in three planetary systems.
Hugh Jones, of Liverpool John Moores University, said it could be an exciting first step in the search for signs of life on other planets.
"Water's at the top of the shopping list of ingredients for life," he told the magazine.
posted by West 7:49 AM
Physicists Make Enough Antimatter to Test Theory
LONDON (Reuters) -- European scientists have developed enough antimatter to try to answer one of the great questions of Big Bang theory, research published on Wednesday said.
Scientists believe the Big Bang that created the cosmos about 15 billion years ago produced equal amounts of matter and antimatter. But the antimatter, whose subatomic particles have the opposite electrical charge to matter, disappeared just after the Big Bang.
Now researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva have created large amounts of antihydrogen -- the partner to hydrogen in terms of antimatter -- to test the standard models of physics and help discover where the antimatter went.
Previously, scientists had produced a few molecules of hydrogen antimatter, but not enough to test the theories.
"This is a milestone that has opened up new horizons to enable scientists to study symmetry in nature and explore the fundamental laws of physics which govern the universe," Professor Michael Charlton, of the University of Wales who worked with the CERN team, said on Wednesday.
"We are also asking the related question 'where has all the antimatter gone?'," he said of the research published in the on-line version of the science magazine Nature.
The CERN scientists created large quantities of antihydrogen by slowing down and trapping antiprotons, the antimatter equivalent of the proton, and reducing their energy which is an important step in making antimatter atoms.
The large quantity of antihydrogen should enable scientists to test the "standard model" of physics. According to the model matter and antimatter are like mirror images and should behave the same. But they are also incompatible and annihilate each other when they meet.
If antihydrogen doesn't behave as scientists think it should it will raise questions about the "standard model" of physics.
Charlton said the breakthrough is timely because it coincides with the centenary of the birth of Paul Dirac, the British-born scientist who first predicted in 1930 that every particle has an equivalent antiparticle.
posted by West 7:42 AM
BBC NEWS | New 'moon' found around Earth
(Dr David Whitehouse, BBC News, September 11, 2002)
An amateur astronomer may have found another moon of the Earth. Experts say it may have only just arrived. . . . It was soon realised, however, that far from passing us, it was in fact in a 50-day orbit around the Earth. . . . Its movements had all the hallmarks of being a spent rocket casing or other piece of space junk. . . . But experts are not completely sure what exactly the object is. . . . Observations made in Europe have failed to see any variations in brightness that might be expected from a slowly spinning metallic object. . . . Paul Chodas says the object must have arrived quite recently or else it would have been easily detected by any of several automated sky surveys that astronomers are conducting. . . . If it is determined that J002E3 is natural it will become Earth's third natural satellite. Earth's second one is called Cruithne. It was discovered in 1986.
posted by Lorenzo 1:14 PM
Asian Farmers May Sow 'Super Rice' in Two Years
BEIJING (Reuters) - Farmers in key rice-producing Asian countries are expected to start growing high-yielding "super rice" in two to three years to feed rising populations, a senior scientist from a non-government organization said.
Use of the hybrid rice, now grown on 50,000 hectares of farmland in China and being tested abroad, is expected to expand steadily, Gurdev Khush, consultant at the International Rice Research Institute, told Reuters late Tuesday.
Almost all of the people in Asia, or 60 percent of the world's population, rely on rice as a staple.
Khush, often considered as one of the fathers of the 1960s Green Revolution for his work in developing high-yielding rice strains, sees it making up a fifth of the world's key paddy fields in the next five years.
But commercialization of "golden rice," another type of rice bioengineered to produce more vitamin A to benefit people in poor countries, will take slightly longer in Asia because scientists are still conducting a series of tests, Khush said.
"In two to three years, some countries will start commercializing super rice," said Khush.
"Five years from now, it might make up about 20 percent of the total rice area in several countries, such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and India," he said on the sidelines of the International Rice Congress in Beijing.
Khush said China's super rice is mainly grown in the southwestern province of Yunnan, while the Guangxi region and Jiangxi and Hunan provinces are now testing the strain before growing it on larger acreages.
China, with 1.3 billion people the world's most populous nation, is the top global rice grower, producing about 180 million tons annually.
Its output makes up about a third of the world's rice production, industry officials at the conference said.
SUPER RICE YIELDS MORE
Rice, a staple for half of the world's population, makes up 28.8 percent of the world's grain output.
The rice institute projects that by 2025, the number of people eating rice will almost double to 4.6 billion from the current 2.5 billion to 2.8 billion.
"The first super rice we developed has short grains like japonica, which is preferred in China, but the tropical countries prefer the long grains," Khush said.
"The other countries, like the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, like long grains, so that's why they are a little behind," he said.
Indonesia is likely to be next in line to sow super rice, which yields 13 tons of rice per hectare, up from the average 6.2 tons per hectare from ordinary strains, Khush said.
"They have started testing and also they don't have so much of a problem with the short grains," he said.
About 22.7 percent of the world's total acreage is rice and the crop is planted in 122 countries globally, most in the developing world. About 95 percent of average world rice output of 550 million tons a year is produced in Asia.
The institute is also studying whether golden rice, which contains genes from daffodils that boosts production of vitamin A, would be widely accepted by consumers.
"We target poor people in Asia who cannot get enough vitamins from vegetables and fruits," Khush said.
"We have to test for biosafety because this is golden rice and people generally eat white rice so we have to find out whether people like this golden rice or not," Khush said.
"Then we have to test if it is digested by the human system. So it will be three to four years before this golden rice is commercialized in Asia," he said.
posted by West 8:04 AM
Findings deepen mystery of black holes
WASHINGTON, Sept. 17 (UPI) -- For the first time, astronomers have found medium-sized black holes among some very old star clusters, a discovery that adds new evidence to help solve an abiding cosmic conundrum: Which came first, galaxies or black holes?
The black holes were discovered in two globular clusters, M15 in the constellation Pegasus within the Milky Way and G1 in the neighboring Andromeda Galaxy, Roeland Van Der Marel, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, said at a NASA news conference on Tuesday.
The findings, made by the Hubble Space Telescope, are especially intriguing, said Karl Gebhardt of the University of Texas at Austin. It turns out the masses of the newly discovered black holes, relative to their host star clusters, correlate exactly with the masses of the largest black holes relative to their host galaxies, he explained.
"When you talk about how tight the correlation is, that's where it gets really amazing," said Gebhardt. "It's essentially perfect. Almost never do we have a situation where nature is perfect."
Black holes are celestial objects packed so densely with matter that not even light can escape their gravitational pull. They are found by measuring the gravitational effects on the motions of nearby stars and objects.
Before Tuesday's announcement, black holes had been found only in two extreme sizes: supermassives that are millions to billions times the mass of our sun and found in the centers of galaxies, and stellar-mass black holes that are the compressed remains of supernova explosions. The latter have been found circling stars as well as free-floating in space.
Other theories suggest there may be microscopic-sized black holes traveling through space, but so far there has been little evidence of their existence.
The black hole in M15, located about 32,000 light-years from Earth, has a mass about 4,000 times larger than the sun's. The G1 cluster, about 2.2 million light-years away, has a black hole estimated to be 20,000 solar masses, said Van Der Marel.
The size of the black holes are about 0.5 percent of the mass of the clusters -- the same ratio between galactic-center supermassive black holes and their host galaxies.
The twin findings are expected to revive debate about how common black holes are and how they relate to galaxy star cluster formation.
Globular clusters are among the oldest entities in the universe and astronomers suspect if M15 and G1 are representative, the clusters most likely had black holes when they formed.
An alternative theory of black hole formation is black holes are created by matter condensing at the centers of galaxies.
"I believe that galaxy formation was triggered by black holes," said Marcia Rieke, with the Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona, Tucson.
If that suspicion is correct, she added, then the correlation between the mass of a black hole and its host galaxy or star cluster may change as even more ancient objects are imaged, a prime science goal of the next-generation space telescope -- recently named the James Webb Space Telescope.
"The intermediate-mass black holes ... may be the building blocks of the supermassive black holes that dwell in the centers of most galaxies," said Gebhardt.
posted by West 7:59 AM
Hubble Telescope Finds New Type of Black Hole
washingtonpost.com -- WASHINGTON –– Astronomers say they have found a new type of black hole and now believe those mysterious celestial objects exist in a variety of sizes, from small to supermassive.
Two teams of astronomers, using the Hubble Space Telescope and other instruments, have found evidence for a type of medium-sized black hole, a class of the objects that has never before been seen.
At a NASA news conference on Tuesday, Roeland Van Der Marel of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore said his group has confirmed the existence of a mid-sized black hole in a cluster of stars called M15, which is in the constellation Pegasus, about 32,000 light years away.
Van Der Marel said the black hole has about 4,000 times the mass of the sun, which makes it the smallest galactic black hole ever found.
Another group, led by Michael Rich of the University of California, Los Angeles, looked into a cluster of stars called G1 and found a black hole that has about 20,000 times the mass of the sun. G1 is in the Andromeda galaxy, some 2.2 million light years away.
It's long been known that the centers of most galaxies contain what is called a supermassive black hole, equal in mass to millions of suns. Astronomers also have found stellar black holes which form from the collapse of a star five to 10 times the mass of the sun.
The discovery fills in a black hole blank that has bothered astronomers for years, said Steinn Sigurdsson, who attended the news conference as an independent commentator.
"We have had this big desert in black holes where there was nothing in between one with a few solar masses and the supermassive black holes found at the center of galaxies," said Sigurdsson. "Now we're filling in that void."
Neither G1 nor M15 is a true galaxy. Each contains perhaps only a million stars, far fewer than billions of stars in galaxies such as the Milky Way.
G1 and M15 are known as globular clusters, a type of star swarm often found in orbit of bigger galaxies. Globular clusters are thought to contain some of the oldest stars in the universe. The new black holes are the first to be found within globular clusters.
Using the motion of stars within the clusters, the astronomers could determine the mass of the star groups and of the black holes. They found that the ratio of the mass of the black holes to the mass of the globular clusters was precisely the same as the ratio between supermassive black holes and galaxies.
This suggests a neat, uniform universal truth that applies the same mass ratio to black holes of all sizes everywhere, said Karl Gebhardt of the University of Texas, a member of the G1 observing team.
"Nature is usually messy," he said. "Almost never do we have a situation where nature is perfect, but this may be one."
The new discovery may help astronomers answer a basic question: Which came first, galaxies or black holes? Both theories have been proposed and finding intermediate-sized black holes may help answer that question, said Sigurdsson.
posted by West 7:57 AM
Nanotechnology could ease energy quandary
HOUSTON, Sept. 9 (UPI) -- If the scientific community applies nanotechnology research to the problems of energy efficiency and supply, many of society's challenges might be solved along the way, researchers said Monday.
Nanotechnology, the science of manipulating matter at the atomic or molecular level, offers many opportunities to both increase energy production and reduce its use, said Wade Adams, director of the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology at Rice University. Abundant, easily obtained energy would make it easier to provide food and water worldwide, and even could reduce the possibility of international conflict, Wade told the NanoTech 2002 conference.
"Let's put an extra billion dollars (per year) in the Department of Energy's budget for its Basic Energy Sciences Office, to work on (nanotech) approaches to fundamental barriers to solving the energy problem," Wade said. "We need to get the leadership of this country to stand up and say we're going to mount an exercise that matches the Manhattan Project (to build the first atomic bomb) or the Apollo program (to send astronauts to the moon)."
The energy usage arena could realize the first benefits of this work through applications such as nanostructures that emit light, Wade told United Press International. These devices already produce colored light, but creating inexpensive white-light versions could cut lighting-related electricity use by a factor of 10, he said.
Nanoscience also holds promise in the production arena, for instance with solar cells that transform sunlight into electric current. Nanotech's promise of building structures atom by atom could lead to more efficient, less expensive photo-voltaic cells, bringing solar power into the mainstream in time to help replace the planet's dwindling fossil-fuel reserves, Wade said. Lawmakers should push the suggested research effort to about $10 billion per year by the end of the decade, he said.
Energy applications would be a great focus point for ongoing nanotech study, said James Von Ehr, president of Zyvex, a Richardson, Texas, company exploring methods of assembling devices one molecule at a time. One obstacle to such an effort, he said, is most nanotech companies are run by professors, not business managers who can bring promising products to fruition.
"As long they're managing a 'science project' -- one that doesn't have customers or a real clear schedule, it's real hard to structure an incentive program that makes sense to (experienced businesspeople) and the company," Von Ehr told the conference.
Another challenge to expanding nanoscience's reach is an unclear patent climate, Von Ehr said. Companies attempting to secure rights to broadly defined manufacturing methods and other nanotech applications could set up a "patent minefield" similar to the problems seen during the dot-com explosion, where some companies even tried to claim rights to abstract ideas, he said.
Properly handled, however, nanoscience's study of atomic- and molecular-level properties could speed up biotechnology discoveries that currently rely on time-consuming experimentation, said James Murday, head of the Naval Research Laboratory's Chemical Division and a key member of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, currently being managed by the National Science Foundation.
The key to such advances is gaining control over matter's tendency to self-assemble into given structures, Murday told attendees. Failure to do so would limit nanotech to simple evolutionary changes instead of revolutionary discoveries, he said.
NanoTech 2002, co-hosted by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the Center for NanoSpace Technologies, will conclude with a workshop where participants will address several application areas, including energy, and try to identify cost-effective nanotech alternatives to current applications.
posted by West 10:09 AM
Obesity is changing the evolution of human shape
BBC -- The abundance of food in affluent societies is presenting the human species with one of its greatest evolutionary challenges.
Professor Andrew Prentice told the British Association's science festival in Leicester that people were now undergoing changes similar to those that occurred two centuries ago when Europeans shot up in height by 30 centimetres or more.
But whereas that shift in shape is generally regarded to have been beneficial, the bulging waistlines now seen in many countries around the world would bring nothing but disease and misery, he said.
"I'm talking about the remarkable change that has occurred in man's evolution in just the twinkling of an eyelid," he told the BBC.
Not only has man adopted a more sedentary lifestyle, he has been given unprecedented ready access to high-energy foods.
"It's now quite a normal biological response for people to become obese and it means a massive increase in obesity in a way we had a big change in height 200 years ago."
posted by West 11:05 AM
Rice code is 'greatest achievement'
BBC -- Unravelling the blueprint of rice may be the most important breakthrough genetic science has achieved.
According to Drs Kevin Livingstone and Loren Rieseberg, of the University of Indiana, US, the recent completion of the genomes of two closely related rice species will allow unprecedented insights into evolution.
It will also provide crucial information that will allow rice to be genetically engineered to improve its protein content and to allow it to tolerate harsh conditions.
Because rice is mankind's most important food crop - the staple diet for half of humanity - the researchers say reading its genome is of more importance than decoding mankind's own genetic code.
"Because of the importance of rice and its status as a model for all grasses, these sequences will provide a basis for future genetic improvement of all cereal grains, our most important food resource," Dr Livingstone told BBC News Online.
posted by West 9:17 AM
Scientists to speed-test gravity
COLUMBIA, Mo., Sept. 7 (UPI) -- On Sunday night, when the giant planet Jupiter passes in front of a deep-space quasar that is flashing a radio signal from an unimaginably large distance away, two scientists hope to answer an old question in Einstein's theory of relativity: What is the speed of gravity?
The experiment is being conducted by Sergei Kopeikin, associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and Ed Fomalont, an astronomer with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, W.V. They will track the quasar's position and compare it to the positions of other quasars unaffected by Jupiter's gravity.
Fomalont told United Press International the attempted measurement will be somewhat like watching and listening to a fast aircraft streaking across the sky.
"As a jet plane goes whipping overhead," he said, "you look at it and then you hear the sound. The sound is not coming from the plane, but from where the plane was a second or two ago. The angle between where you see the plane and where you hear the sound coming from depends on how fast the plane was going, divided by how fast the speed of sound travels," Fomalont said. "Basically what we are doing is the same sort of experiment, except instead of the jet plane, we have ... gravity moving from Jupiter and then affecting the 'light' from these quasars."
Quasars, or quasi-stellar radio sources, are thought to be ancient galaxies with super-massive black holes at their centers. They are the most powerful and among the most mysterious objects in the sky.
Jupiter's disturbance of the quasar's signal will be extremely small, he said, about one-billionth the width of a full moon. But that should be enough for astronomers to measure.
Einstein's theory of general relativity proposed the "speed of gravity" will be the same as the speed of light -- about 186,000 miles (300,000 kilometers) per second. That is an important point because it means gravity does not influence objects instantaneously.
For instance, Fomalont said, light from the sun takes about 8.5 minutes to reach Earth. If someone suddenly moved the sun, the gravitational effects on our plant should not be felt for those same 8.5 minutes -- assuming gravity does move at the same speed as light.
posted by West 9:09 AM
Visions for the future: UCLA RESEARCHERS DEVELOP CHIP TO REPLACE RETINAS, FORM IMAGES FOR BLIND
UCLA DAILY BRUIN -- UCLA researchers have helped to develop a "vision chip" which can help some blind patients see again. The development is good news for one in four Americans over the age of 64, who suffer from a now curable form of blindness according to the Macular Degeneration Research Foundation. In humans, normal vision starts when an image passes through the eyeball and into the retina at the back of the eye. The retina contains photoreceptors which break down the image and creates the corresponding neural stimulus, or signals, to the brain. In many blind patients, the retina degenerates and the photoreceptors no longer function, leading to blindness. The vision chip works by replacing the function of the eye's retina, acting like a photoreceptor which processes images and sends the correct signals to the brain to form an image.
posted by West 11:38 PM
Telescope to be built at South Pole to see why Universe is expanding: Gravity vs. Dark Energy
BBC -- Astronomers believe the $16.6m (£10.6m) project could help explain one of the mysteries of science. The telescope will search the sky for evidence of the dark energy that is thought to drive the accelerating expansion of the Universe. "We are going to look for the tug-of-war between gravity and dark energy," said the University of Chicago's John Carlstrom, who heads the project.
Nobody knows what dark energy is but it is thought to account for the fact that the Universe is expanding ever faster. The early Universe was very dense. Matter was close together and gravitational attraction was strong. But as the Universe expanded, matter got further apart and its density dropped. Computer simulation of the distribution of dark matter in galaxy clusters At some point, the mysterious force of dark energy kicked in. It overwhelmed ordinary gravity, and started to speed up the expansion of the Universe. Dark energy is invisible but the South Pole Telescope should be able to see its influence on clusters of galaxies that formed and evolved within the last few billion years. It will do this with the biggest ever array of heat detectors, known as bolometers, which can measure temperature differences in the sky to 10 millionths of a degree. "With this new telescope we should be able to map large sections of the sky more than a 1,000 times faster than we can do now," said Carlstrom.
The dark energy may be what Albert Einstein called a cosmological constant. The US team says it should be able to confirm or disprove this by the end of the first year of operation of the South Pole Telescope. "That's not an unreasonable goal," Professor George Efstathiou of Cambridge University's Institute of Astronomy, UK, told BBC News Online. "It's a very good way of probing the distant Universe."
posted by West 8:28 AM
Doctors Warn of 'Superinfection' from AIDS Virus
BOSTON (Reuters) - Doctors said Wednesday they have documented a case of "superinfection" with the AIDS virus, in which the person became infected with a second strain of the virus while still fighting an initial infection. The discovery, described in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine, suggested that finding a vaccine against the deadly immunity disease may be more difficult than some have thought. It also means that people with HIV, the AIDS virus, should avoid getting reinfected, otherwise they risk being exposed to a second strain that will make the disease even harder to treat, doctors said. "Superinfection may precipitate more rapid progression of the disease," said Drs. Philip Goulder and Bruce Walker of Massachusetts General Hospital, in an editorial in the Journal. "Infected and noninfected persons should therefore exercise the same degree of vigilance to prevent HIV-1 exposure," they said.
posted by West 8:15 AM
Solar Cookers Impress Summit Crowd
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) - Leaning over for a closer look, Lucas Nsukazi frowned at a black pot in a plastic bag sitting in a reflector made of cardboard and aluminum foil. ``Does it really work?'' he asked. But when he was served a bowl of steaming rice, he broke into a smile. ``For the first time I am eating and enjoying rice that is cooked directly by the sun's rays, which to me is unbelievable,'' the South African rural education activist said. Solar cookers, which come in a variety of designs, have been causing a stir at the World Summit for Sustainable development, which began Monday. About 2 billion people living in developing countries still rely on wood, charcoal and dung for cooking, heat and light, according to U.N. figures. This puts enormous pressure on the environment, contributing to deforestation and desertification in these countries.
Used regularly, a single solar cooker can save a ton of firewood per year and also reduces carbon dioxide emissions, advocates say. At its most basic, solar cooking requires a dark pot to absorb the sun's rays and convert them into heat energy, and a plastic bag sealed with a rubber band to trap the heat inside. A reflector speeds up the process by concentrating more light onto the pot. The cardboard-and-foil model - which costs just $2 to make - produces temperatures up to 275 degrees Fahrenheit, according to Sacramento, Calif.-based Solar Cooking International, a nonprofit group which is displaying the cooker at the summit and a parallel gathering of civil society groups. It cooks a chicken stew in a few hours and can be left unattended.
Across Johannesburg at the Ubuntu, or Unity, Village - which features cultural performances, crafts markets and international exhibitions - visitors can eat an entire meal prepared with solar energy at the Unplugged Kitchen. On the menu are solar-cooked stews, beans, mashed potatoes, sausages, bread and cake. Solar panels illuminate the restaurant, where the walls, tables and chairs are made of recycled cans.
``The bread's really good,'' said Laurie Duker, a lake conservation activist from Silver Spring, Md., who stopped by for dinner. ``It's nice to do something sustainably, especially as an American.''
Mmathabo Mrubata, who works in the kitchen, uses more elaborate solar cookers to produce her more ambitious menu. They include an insulated box with a glass or plastic top, which operates like a greenhouse, and a version that uses a shiny parabolic disk to reflect the sun onto a pot. These models cost between $16 and $150 to make and produce temperature of up to 390 degrees Fahrenheit. ``I cook, bake, everything in these things ... and the food is delicious,'' said Mrubata, a mother of two from South Africa's rural Northern Cape region. ``This is so good because women in rural areas walk up to four hours to get wood, and they do it four times a week.'' Working with the U.N. refugee agency, Solar Cooking International has taught 21,000 refugee families in Kenya and Ethiopia to use the cookers. The group also has programs in dozens of other countries around the world. A separate project sponsored by the German Agency for Technical Cooperation, tested a number of solar cooker models in the Northern Cape. The 66 families and 14 institutions that tried out different models over a year were almost all happy with the results, and carbon dioxide emissions were reduced by about one ton per household per year, the group said. The organization, which is behind the Unplugged Kitchen, is now developing ways to market and finance the cookers in South Africa and around the world.
posted by West 2:24 PM