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Friday, 27 June, 2003, 21:33 GMT 22:33 UK

GM fish glows in the bowl

By Dr David Whitehouse BBC News Online science editor

A Taiwanese company has created a genetically modified (GM) ornamental fish that glows in the dark.

The Taikong Corporation took DNA from a jellyfish and inserted it into a zebra fish to make it shine a yellow-green colour.

GM animals are frequently used in labs and flocks of GM sheep make valuable proteins in their milk, but the "Night Pearl" zebra fish is the first gene-altered pet to go on sale to the public.

For some, the animal will be a fascinating novelty; for others, it will raise fears of a trend for bio-engineered "Frankenstein pets".

The Taikong Corporation reports strong interest in its creation from the UK, where the aquatic industry is worth millions.

Safe and sterile

Taikong insists the GM fish, designated TK-1, is safe, sterile and that its additional fluorescent gene is harmless.

The fish was unveiled in 2001, but it took another year and a half to develop a technique to render the animal sterile. It cannot cross-breed with natural fish.

TK-1 was developed using the work of HJ Tsai of the National Taiwan University.

Initially, Taikong plans to sell 30,000 glowing fish at US $17 each and then increase production to more than 100,000 in three months. But not everyone is enthusiastic.

Aquatic industry specialists are worried TK-1 may be the first of many GM pet fish destined for Britain. In particular, some tropical fish are being bio-engineered to tolerate cold and could colonise UK waters if they escaped, disturbing the present ecosystem.

According to Derek Lambert, of Today's Fishkeeper magazine, GM piranhas could survive in our waterways and pose a major problem. He is urging traders to boycott the TK-1.

Keith Davenport, of the Aquatic Ornamental Trade Association (AOTA), commented that interfering with the genome was unnecessary and said people did not want animals to become fashion accessories.

Friday, 27 June, 2003, 01:54 GMT 02:54 UK

Amazon destruction speeds up

New satellite information from Brazil has revealed a sharp increase in the rate of destruction of the Amazonian rainforest.

The information, collated from satellite data, shows the speed of deforestation increased by 40% between 2001 and 2002 to reach its highest rate since 1995.

Figures from the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) show more than 25,000 square kilometres of forest were cleared in a year - mainly for farming.

Environmentalists have expressed alarm at the development which represents a sharp reversal of a trend in which destruction had been slowing.

"The rate of deforestation should be falling, instead the opposite is happening," said Mario Monzoni, a project co-ordinator for Friends of the Earth in Brazil.

AMAZON DEFORESTATION 2002: 9,840 square miles (25,476 sq km) lost 2001: 7,010 square miles (18,166 sq km) lost

Environmental organisations say one major cause is the spread of large-scale soya farming in the southern Amazon.

Soya production is growing rapidly in the area as a crop that offers large profits for farmers and gives a sizable boost to Brazil's trade accounts.

But campaigners also blame the authorities for failing to enforce environmental protection laws.

Task ahead

The country's centre-left government, under the leadership of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is due to announce new proposals next week to tackle deforestation.

The new Environment Minister, Marina da Silva, who has long campaigned to protect the Amazon, has promised to action but she inherits a difficult situation, says the BBC's Sao Paulo correspondent Tom Gibb.

On the one hand, the country has a new multi-million dollar satellite and radar monitoring system providing plenty of accurate data as to where deforestation is occurring.

But budget cuts on the ground mean that environmental protection agents often do not even have enough money to buy petrol for their boats and cars, let alone mount operations to arrest illegal loggers and farmers, our correspondent says.

Likewise, loopholes and corruption in Brazil's chaotic judicial system mean those caught destroying the forest almost always go unpunished.

The Amazon is the largest rainforest in the world and is home to 30% of all animal and plant life on the planet.

In the last 15 years, 243,000 square kilometres have been deforested, the equivalent of 5% of the Brazilian Amazon.

Monday, 30 June, 2003, 13:53 GMT 14:53 UK

Hormone link to lesbianism

By Martin Hutchinson BBC News Online health staff in Madrid

Lesbians are more than twice as likely to suffer from a hormone-related condition, fuelling theories that hormones play a role in developing their sexuality.

Little is known about the origins of polycystic ovarian syndrome - one in ten women has the condition, which is linked to an excess of male sex hormones in the bloodstream.

Symptoms include excess hair, acne, and obesity, as well as a heightened risk of more serious health problems such as diabetes. Patients also often suffer fertility problems.

The latest research, presented at the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology conference in Madrid on Monday, came from a clinic which is one of only two in the UK to offer fertility treatment to lesbian women.

" We do not view lesbianism as a disease that is in need of a cure " Dr Rina Agrawal, Hallam Clinic, London

Doctors there noticed a "staggering" number of lesbian women, who, on investigation, were found to be suffering either from polycystic ovary syndrome, or a less serious but related condition in which their ovaries showed many of the same features, but without the external symptoms.

The researchers found that prevalence of this symptomless condition was 80% in the lesbian women they saw, compared with just 32% of their heterosexual patients.

Full-blown polycystic ovarian syndrome was present in 38% of lesbians, and 14% of the heterosexual women.

No proof

Lead researcher Dr Rina Agrawal said that the results suggested "significantly greater" rates of hormone imbalance in the lesbian women.

She said that while there was no evidence that polycystic ovaries could be implicated as a cause of lesbianism, it was possible that this hormone imbalance could be linked to both the medical condition and sexuality.

She said: "We do hypothesize that hyperandrogenism, which is associated with polycystic ovary syndrome, may be one of the factors contributing to the sexual orientation of women.".

Previous studies have linked hormone imbalances with sexual orientation - and the possibility has been raised that exposure to higher levels of certain hormones early in life, perhaps even pre-natally, may be influential.

However, Dr Agrawal said there was no possibility that treatments for the ovary condition might be able to influence sexuality.

"We do not view lesbianism as a disease that is in need of a cure."

Illness threat

Dr Adam Baylin, a gynaecologist from Leeds, said that the study did not prove that polycystic ovaries "caused" lesbianism - or vice versa.

He said: "Polycystic ovary syndrome is an extremely common condition - this study is not suggesting that women with this condition are more likely to be lesbians.".

However, Dr Agrawal said that the high rates of the illness among lesbian women she encountered meant that doctors should be on the lookout for its telltale signs among their lesbian patients - in order to make sure that their wider health was not at risk.

"Our study emphasizes the importance of treating these women in a non-judgemental and non-biased manner so that clinicians may offer them appropriate health advice."

Monday, 23 June, 2003, 18:47 GMT 19:47 UK

US in new global GM push

President George W Bush has called on Europe to end its moratorium on genetically modified crops.

The spread of safe, effective biotechnology should be encouraged, so that the fight against global hunger could be won, Mr Bush told delegates at a biotechnology conference in Washington.

A parallel conference on technology in agriculture organised by the US Government is taking place in Sacramento, California.

It brings scientists and the biotechnology industry together with ministers from around 75 countries, mainly from the developing world.

Protests have already begun involving groups who believe the gathering aims to persuade developing nations to accept GM food and boost the profits of biotech companies - some of which have links to the Bush administration.

The administration insists that technologies like genetic engineering are key to providing food for the billion or so people who currently live below acceptable levels of nutrition.

'Artificial obstacles

"Acting on unfounded, unscientific fears, many European governments have blocked the import of all new biotech crops," Mr Bush said.

"Because of these artificial obstacles, many African nations avoid investing in biotechnology, worried that their products will be shut out of important European markets."

"For the sake of a continent threatened by famine, I urge the European governments to end their opposition to biotechnology. We should encourage the spread of safe, effective biotechnology to win the fight against global hunger."

He added that the US biotechnology industry was the strongest in the world, and the US needed to keep it that way.

Enough to go round

US Under-Secretary of State for Agriculture, JB Penn, says the Sacramento conference aims to show developing countries the benefits of many technologies, including GM.

"It's not about trying to convince the developing countries that they should adopt biotech. This is a conference about all agricultural technologies - ways in which developing countries can improve the lives of their people."

The biotech industry is turning out at the conference in force, with major companies like Monsanto among the exhibitors and sponsors.

But protesters on the streets of Sacramento say GM technology is not the solution the developing world needs.

They believe there is enough food but it needs to be distributed fairly.

Friday, 20 June, 2003, 12:22 GMT 13:22 UK

US 'censored' green report

The White House has removed sections of a report by the US Government's own environmental agency to water down references to global warming, say senior Democrats.

The major report on the state of the environment is due for release from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) next week.

Democrat senators have accused the White House of "doctoring" the report so that it does not challenge President George W Bush's view that global warming is of minor environmental importance.

The report will be released as Christine Todd Whitman steps down as EPA chief, with a Republican closer to White House thinking on the environment tipped to replace her.

The draft of the EPA report was submitted to the White House earlier this year.

But the amendments demanded by the president's staff were so extensive that the climate section "no longer accurately represents scientific consensus on climate change", according to an internal EPA memo quoted by the Associated Press news agency.

Eventually, EPA officials decided simply to remove most references to global warming, so that the other sections could be published.

The agency "didn't want to hold up the rest of the report", said spokesman Joe Martyak.

A White House official denied that any information was being suppressed, saying that it was mainly redundant or inaccurate material that had been removed.

"In the last year alone we've produced hundreds of pages on this very subject," said James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

According to EPA officials, details changed or removed include:

Climate change "has global consequences for human health and the environment" changed to "may have potentially profound consequences" Graphic showing sharp rise in global temperatures during the 1990s replaced by a study, partly sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute, disputing that finding Finding that recent warming was unusual and probably due to human activity removed, despite being included in a report commissioned by the White House

Under attack

Christine Todd Whitman, a former Republican state governor, played down the differences, saying "it was important for us to get this out" and that changes had been agreed.

"The first draft, as with many first drafts, contained everything," she told the New York Times, adding that she was "perfectly comfortable" with the final version.

But Democratic Senators Joe Lieberman and Bob Graham, both presidential hopefuls for next year's election, called for action against "those responsible for doctoring this report".

"It brings into question the ability and authority of the EPA... to publish unbiased scientific reports," they said.

Another Republican governor, Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho, is now being tipped to take over the EPA when Mrs Todd Whitman steps down next week.

Mr Kempthorne received a near-zero rating from the League of Conservation Voters when he was in the Senate from 1993-98.

He favours reducing the role of federal agencies like the EPA and dealing with environmental issues at the local level, seeking a "balance between pollution-free air and water and having a job for your family".

But Roger Singer, director of the Idaho chapter of the pressure group the Sierra Club, was unimpressed.

"His record on environmental issues is quite abysmal," he said.

Friday, 20 June, 2003, 09:47 GMT 10:47 UK

Cell evolution puzzle By Dr David Whitehouse BBC News Online science editor

Scientists have found an organelle - an enclosed free-floating specialised structure - inside a primitive cell for the first time.

Prokaryotic cells, such as bacteria, are relatively simple and have no nuclei.

It is believed they evolved first then absorbed other prokaryotes and became eukaryotes - complex cells that have nuclei and structures like the energy-producing mitochondria.

Finding a self-contained organelle inside a prokaryote is a puzzle as it suggests that the evolution of cells - the basic building blocks of higher organisms - may have to be reconsidered.

The organelle in question may also have a role in human diseases, such as malaria and African sleeping sickness.

Two types of cell

Biologists recognise two types of cell in nature that are fundamentally different because of their size and internal construction.

Prokaryotes are relatively small cells that contain regions inside them where genes congregate but no membrane separates them from the rest of the cell. They lack so-called organelles such as chloroplasts and mitochondria.

More complicated are the eukaryotes, the cells that comprise all other living things. They have their genetic material enclosed in a membrane and have other enclosed structures (organelles) within them as well.

Professor Roberto Docampo, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, US, has been studying the unicellular organism Agrobacterium tumefaciens. It is responsible for gall disease in many plants.

It is also a geneticist's favourite as its method of DNA transfer can be used to make GM crops.

The organelle he found inside the bacteria is practically identical to an organelle he found inside unicellular eukaryotes. This particular organelle helps the bacteria regulate its acidic content.

Novel find

According to Professor Docampo, the work is important for several reasons. He told BBC News Online that an organelle had never been found in a prokaryote before.

He says it is significant that the same organelle is found in the more complicated eukaryotes implying that it may have a common evolutionary origin for both types of cell.

"It appears that this organelle has been conserved in evolution from prokaryotes to eukaryotes, since it is present in both," he says. "This argues against the belief that all eukaryotic organelles were formed when early eukaryotes swallowed prokaryotes."

Finally, the organelle is known to be present in a number of pathogenic organisms, including those that cause malaria, toxoplasmosis, African sleeping sickness and Chagas disease among others.

This may provide scientists with a technique to tackle these diseases. Because the organelle is not present in animal cells, it may be a useful target for chemotherapy for those diseases.

Masculinity guardian revealed 2003

By Ivan Noble BBC News Online science staff

Scientists in the US have published the results of their detailed scrutiny of the genetic sequence of the human Y chromosome.

This DNA bundle - one of 24 distinct chromosomes found in human cells - holds the crucial information to make the male of our species.

The work is part of the enormous job of following up the data that came out of the international Human Genome Project (HGP).

The results provide important insights into how humans evolved and may explain how some kinds of infertility occur.

Tough going

The HGP revealed the 2.85 billion letters of genetic code that instruct our cells how to build and maintain the human body.

The work of refining this DNA sequence to higher levels of accuracy was declared complete in April.

Any attempt to make sense of the data inevitably involves large-scale computing effort, but, by any standards, annotating the Y chromosome was a huge task.

"It's one thing to generate the sequence and its another to go on to discover which bits are functional and what they can tell us about disease and evolution," explained Mark Ross, head of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute's project to analyse the X chromosome near Cambridge, UK.

The Y chromosome contains a great many repeated sections of DNA and far fewer genes, letter for letter, than other chromosomes.

Sperm production

Francis Collins, director of the US National Human Genome Research Institute, said in Washington DC on Wednesday that the Y was the fifth chromosome of the completed human genome sequence to undergo detailed analysis.

"The Y was the most challenging - the most difficult chromosome," he said.

HANDBOOK OF THE MALE Men have an extra brain gene

The scientists found 78 genes in total on the Y, many but by no means all of them to do with sperm production.

One is the sex determining gene, the "master switch" that makes a baby boy; another is a gene that has some sort of function in the brain and is not found on the female X chromosome.

For every million letters of genetic code they looked through, the researchers found only three genes, far fewer than the 10 per million average throughout the rest of the genome.

The chromosomes in the nuclei of our cells are arranged in pairs (females have two copies of the much larger X, while men have an X and a Y).

Gene fixing

Researchers say the chromosomes draw on their mate to carry out repairs to genes that suffer mutations through disease or replication errors.

THE HUMAN GENOME The double-stranded DNA molecule is held together by chemical components called bases Adenine (A) bonds with thymine (T); cytosine(C) bonds with guanine (G) These letters form the "code of life"; there are about 2.9 billion base pairs in the human genome wound into 24 distinct bundles, or chromosomes Written in the DNA are less than 30,000 genes which human cells use as templates to make proteins; these sophisticated molecules build and maintain our bodies

But the Y cannot do this with the X, and it therefore carries backup copies of important genes within itself. It will use one copy to fix a flaw in another - a process called gene conversion.

Dr David Page, from the Whitehead Institute in Massachusetts, who led the team deciphering the Y chromosome, said: "The sex chromosomes represent a grand experiment of nature.

"In our work, every few years we've caught a glimpse of some unexpected aspect of this experiment. And of all these aspects, this Y-Y gene conversion is one of the wildest."

Dr Page said it was probably when this gene-fixing technique went wrong that some male infertility problems arose.

He said doctors were already using his team's data to understand the genetic origins of male infertility.

He added that genes on the Y might play a role in influencing gender-specific differences in disease susceptibility.

The Y chromosome work is reported in the journal Nature.

Wednesday, 2 July, 2003, 18:03 GMT 19:03 UK

Stem cell hope for spinal injuries

Cells from human embryos have been used to make paralysed rats walk again.

The US researchers who carried out the experiments hope it should be possible to begin similar trials on human subjects in just two years.

Embryonic stem cells (ESCs) have huge potential use for scientists because they have the ability to turn into many different forms of tissue. However, their use remains highly controversial.

Britain has allowed scientists to conduct embryonic stem cell experiments, but they could soon be banned by the European Union, and the US is still considering the issue.

New Scientist magazine reports that the US team harvested cells from human embryos at an early stage of development.

They then manipulated them in the laboratory to turn them into specialised cells that form myelin, the insulating layer than surrounds nerve fibres.

These cells were transplanted into paralysed rats with bruised spines.

After nine weeks, the rats fully regained the ability to walk.

Analysis of the rats' spinal cords showed that the cells had wrapped themselves around nerve cells and formed new myelin sheaths.

They also secreted substances that appeared to have stimulated the formation of new nerves.

Recent injuries

Dr Hans Keirstead and his team from the University of California at Irvine now plan to use the same technique to treat human patients who have sustained recent spinal cord injuries.

However, treating people who have been paralysed for years or suffer from degenerative nerve diseases will be far more difficult.

Scientists have tried using adult stem cells derived from bone marrow and nerve cells repair damaged spines.

But Thomas Okarma, of US biotech company Geron Corporation which funded the new research, believes only ESCs stand a real chance of success.

They are more versatile than adult stem cells, and, unlike them, can be mass-produced.

Mr Okarma said: "At this moment, there is very little hard evidence that a bone marrow stem cell can turn into anything but blood or that a skin stem cell can become anything but skin."

Thursday, 3 July, 2003, 04:45 GMT 05:45 UK

'Merged embryo' cure hope attacked

By Martin Hutchinson BBC News Online health staff in Madrid

An experiment in the United States has created a mixed-sex human embyro.

The team involved insists that the creation of an hermaphrodite human embryo was designed to cure illness, but critics say moral and ethical standards have been breached.

The process would create a "chimaera" - a blend of two embryos, each of which would have a distinct genetic identities.

Any attempt to produce such a baby would provoke a worldwide ethical storm.

In experiments using donated embryos, scientists from the Centers for Human Reproduction in New York and Chicago have taken the first step - and found that, in some cases, the introduced cells do proliferate and spread throughout the chimaeric embryo.

Their hope is that having even a small proportion of cells from a healthy embryo might prevent certain genetic diseases from arising.

" It is not ready for clinical application in humans - I don't want to suggest that.

"But further exploration in animals is warranted " Dr Norbert Gliecher, Centers for Human Reproduction

However, other experts have dismissed the idea as "deeply flawed" - and say research into the issue, even in animals, should not continue.

Any use of chimaeric technology in human reproduction in the UK is illegal.

Dr Norbert Gliecher, who led the research, told the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology annual meeting in Madrid: "It is not ready for clinical application in humans - I don't want to suggest that.

"But further exploration in animals is warranted - and who knows where this will take us?"

Joined up

The potential for cells from two different embryos to fuse and become one "combination" individual is well known in nature - there have been examples where this has happened in early pregnancy in humans, with no apparent ill-effects on the resulting baby.

The theory behind Gliecher's work is that some studies have suggested that in certain diseases caused by a single genetic defect, having even as few as 15% of the body's cells free from the defect might be enough to stop the development of the disease.

He said his experiment showed that just a couple of cells injected into the embryo produced an embryo with, in many cases, an even distribution of cells carrying these new genes.

He deliberately injected a male cell into a female embryo - which created an "intersex" embryo, but allowed him to use chemical tests to check the process of the chromosome unique to male cells.

Gleicher said that a couple having embryos screened for a single-gene disease such as Severe Combined Immunodeficiency Disorder (SCID) might end up with two embryos, one of which had the disease and one which did not.

In this instance, he said, it might be possible to take cells from the "good" embryo and put them into the defective one, producing two viable embryos, whereas previously, the defective one would have to be discarded.

However, his experiment was roundly attacked by senior scientists at the conference.

'No logic'

Professor Alan Trouson, a pioneer of IVF in Australia, told BBC News Online: "I really can't see the logic of what he is trying to do - it seems completely flawed to me."

He said that it would be impossible to test whether the correct versions of the genes had been incorporated widely into the embryo before a decision had to be made whether to transfer it back into the woman.

He said that the health risks of producing a chimaeric individual were still uncertain.

"Unless you can be certain you are doing some good, you should not be doing something that could cause harm."

He said that the US team should not even attempt to continue their experiments in animals.

Professor Lyn Fraser, a past president of the society, told the BBC that she shared the disquiet over the technique.

She said: "I don't see how it can be used to treat single gene disorders. It's hard to accept what they have done at all."

Monday, 30 June, 2003, 20:32 GMT 21:32 UK

Aborted foetus could provide eggs

By Martin Hutchinson BBC News Online health staff in Madrid

An aborted foetus could one day become the mother of a new baby by "donating" her eggs to an infertile woman, say researchers.

The highly controversial idea has been suggested as one solution to a worldwide shortage of women prepared to donate their eggs to help other women become pregnant.

It moved a little closer to reality on Monday with the unveiling of research from Israel and the Netherlands which found that the ovarian tissues taken from second and third trimester foetuses could be kept alive in the laboratory for weeks.

The ovarian follicles from the foetus - which would eventually mature to release eggs in a fully-grown woman - even developed slightly from their "primordial" state when placed in special culture chemicals.

" I'm fully aware of the controversy about this - but probably, in some place, it will be ethically acceptable " Dr Tal Biron-Shenton, Meir Hospital

However, many scientific advances have to be made before it becomes technically possible to produce a viable egg which could be used in IVF.

The lead researcher, Dr Tal Biron-Shental, from Meir Hospital in Kfar Saba, Israel, conceded that the concept of taking egg follicles from an aborted baby was controversial.

Presenting the work to the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology conference in Madrid, she said: "I'm fully aware of the controversy about this - but probably, in some place, it will be ethically acceptable.

"There is a shortage of donated oocytes (eggs) for IVF - oocytes from aborted foetuses might provide a new source for these.

"There are a huge amount of follicles in the foetal ovary."

Her study, carried out in collaboration with Utrecht University in the Netherlands, involved seven foetuses which had been aborted later than usual in pregnancy because abnormalities were discovered.

" Who would want to know that their mother was an aborted baby? " Nuala Scarisbrick, Life

Ovarian tissue samples, containing large numbers of follicles, were taken, and placed in a culture of growth-promoting chemicals in the laboratory.

After four weeks, chemical tests suggested that not only were many of the follicles still alive, but that some had begun developing into a more mature state - raising the possibility that one day, one could be persuaded to produce an egg that would be suitable for IVF.

Dr Biron-Shental said that while the follicles were "healthy and viable" at this stage, improvements would be needed in the chemicals used to culture them to progress much further.

Outrage

Nuala Scarisbrick, from the charity Life, said she found the idea of harvesting follicles from aborted foetuses as "utterly grotesque".

"Just because there may be a demand for this from desperate people doesn't make it right.

"I imagine that most normal people would be revulsed by the idea of this - but nothing is impossible these days, and, at the speed that science moves, I imagine this will be possible soon.

"Who would want to know that their mother was an aborted baby?"

Research boost

Professor Roger Gosden, director of the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine in the US, told BBC News Online that there were a number of question marks, ethical and practical, over the use of foetal follicles to help people become pregnant.

" We do not consider the use of tissue from this source to be acceptable for fertility treatment. " Spokesman, HFEA

However, he said that the research itself was worthwhile, because it might help doctors learn more about the process, even if it never led to foetal eggs being used in IVF.

He said: "Surely it's better to do some good with tissue than no good?"

Professor Gosden said eggs retrieved from ovarian tissue itself might prove a better alternative to foetal eggs in the long run.

"I do have a problem if the research is extended to using foetal ovarian tissue for treatment of patients."

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which regulates IVF in the UK, said that it would never be allowed to happen here.

A spokesman said: "The use of foetal ovarian tissue raises difficult social, medical scientific and legal questions.

"After a public consultation, we decided that it would be difficult for any child to come to terms with being created using aborted foetal material because of prevailing social attitudes.

"We do not consider the use of tissue from this source to be acceptable for fertility treatment."

Wednesday, 11 June, 2003, 11:05 GMT 12:05 UK

India 'to approve GM potato'

By Pallab Ghosh BBC science correspondent in Delhi

The commercial growing of a genetically modified potato which contains nutrients lacking in the diets of many of the poorest is expected to be approved in India within six months.

The influential head of the Indian Government's Department of Biotechnology, Dr Manju Sharma, said the potato would be given free to millions of poor children at government schools to try to reduce the problem of malnutrition in the country.

" We see this as a technology for the future " Dr Balvinder Singh Khalsi

The potato contains a third more protein than normal, including essential high-quality nutrients, and has been created by adding a gene from the protein-rich amaranth plant.

But critics describe the plan as risky, naive and a propaganda tool to promote the merits of GM food in India.

'Technology for the future'

The "protato", as it has become known, is in its final stages of regulatory approval which Dr Sharma said she was very confident of getting.

" What this country needs...is pulses. The pulses contain 20-26% proteins... this potato has 2.5% protein. Please tell me which one is better " Dr Devinder Sharma

She plans to incorporate it into the government's free midday meal programme in schools.

"There has been a serious concern that malnutrition is one of the reasons for the blindness, the vitamin A deficiency, the protein deficiency," Dr Sharma told the BBC.

"So it is really a very important global concern, particularly in the developing world," she added.

One of India's leading industrialists in biotechnology, Dr Balvinder Singh Khalsi, chief executive of Dupont, said the project had enormous potential for the country.

"We see this as a technology for the future, because the real need for India is to feed its growing population. This technology is really going to the benefit of improving the yields, better quality food, larger quantity," Dr Khalsi said.

He pointed to last year's controversial introduction of GM cotton, known as Bt cotton, saying that "the Bt craze has caught up" with Indian farmers very quickly.

"Once [GM technology] is introduced into other crops, and the people start seeing the values of it, we believe the technology will be accepted by the farmers and the growing population," Dr Khalsi said.

'No sense'

But critics such as Dr Devinder Sharma dismiss the potato project as a mere propaganda campaign to promote GM food in India.

"What this country needs and which it has in abundance is pulses. Now the pulses contain 20-26% proteins. This potato they talk about has 2.5% protein. Please tell me which one is better," he says.

Some environmental campaigners also say biotechnology companies may have overstated the case for GM crops.

"The potential for the technology has to be assessed in terms of what is being offered and are there alternatives?" environmental campaigner Vandana Shiva says.

"If it's the only way to get to a certain place, then sure. But if I can control weeds by doing mixed farming... it makes no sense to permanently introduce genes, to introduce toxins into my biodiversity, allow contamination of related crops," Mrs Shiva says.

The team that created the "protato" says it now plans to use genetic engineering to develop cereals, fruits and other vegetables rich in protein.

It hopes this new generation of crops will sell the benefits of GM to a wary public.

Monday, 16 June, 2003, 19:09 GMT 20:09 UK

Greater protection for whales agreed

By Alex Kirby BBC News Online environment correspondent in Berlin

At the end of a rancorous first day, the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) here has declared itself squarely for conservation.

The anti-whaling nations proclaimed a resounding victory, hailing a move away from the commission's traditional role of managing whaling.

They believe it will make all the world's whales safer.

But one whaling nation, Japan, said it might well leave the commission.

The decision came with a vote, agreed by 25 votes to 20, with one abstention, in favour of the so-called Berlin Initiative.

In practical terms, that will mean setting up an IWC conservation committee to tackle the many threats to cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises).

" This is ridiculous, it's out of order. I'm resentful and I'm angry " Masayuki Komatsu, Japan's team leader

These include climate change, pollution, entanglement in fishing nets, collisions with ships, humane killing methods, and habitat loss.

Crucially, the committee will address the problems of all cetaceans: until now the IWC, set up in 1946, has limited itself to the commercially valuable great whale species.

'Closing the door'

It has always had a dual role, conserving whales and managing whaling (which still continues, although the commercial hunt has been suspended since 1986).

Many countries have for years opposed any resumption of the killing, and have wanted the commission simply to help the whales to recover from the centuries of savage industrial whaling.

But the few remaining whaling countries have agreed the whales should be conserved only so that the hunt can one day resume.

They see the vote to accept the Berlin Initiative as a way of changing the commission's remit and closing the door to any future hunt.

"In this very sterile debate we've been having for years, the vote lays to rest the idea that the IWC is only about the resumption of commercial whaling," Andres Rozental, the commissioner from Mexico and one of the initiative's chief architects, told BBC News Online.

"It's a great day for those who want to save the whales, on a par with the day we agreed the whaling moratorium.

"It's a splendid afternoon, and I'm very pleased the world's whales can swim in peace for a little bit longer. I think today will go down to the glory of the IWC."

Ben Bradshaw, the UK Fisheries Minister, called the vote "very significant progress".

The International Fund for Animal Welfare said: "What was once a whalers' club has become a force for conservation."

'Nail in IWC's coffin'

But the leader of the Japanese delegation, Masayuki Komatsu, told BBC News Online: "This is ridiculous, it's out of order. I'm resentful and I'm angry."

"The whaling convention was created for the sustainable use of abundant resources. We know there are millions of whales out there, minkes, sei and sperm whales," Mr Komatsu said.

"This will prohibit access to resources one after the other. When this meeting ends Japan will seriously and deeply consider whether to leave the commission," he added.

Rune Frovik works for a Norwegian group that supports whaling, the High North Alliance.

He said: "This is one more nail in the IWC's coffin. It is simply drifting further and further away from its original objectives. We'll be encouraging the whaling nations - Norway, Japan and Iceland - to organise whaling outside the commission."

The three countries said after the vote they were reserving the right not to take part in or fund the initiative.

Wednesday, 18 June, 2003, 21:43 GMT 22:43 UK

Nuclear-armed Iran 'intolerable'

US President George W Bush has said that the world will not accept the development of nuclear weapons by Iran.

"The international community must come together to make it very clear to Iran that we will not tolerate the construction of a nuclear weapons. Iran would be dangerous if it had a nuclear weapon," he said.

Earlier, at a meeting of the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the United States accused Iran of repeated "violations and evasions" of international nuclear safeguards.

Iran denies any wrongdoing, and says its programme only concerns nuclear energy - not weapons.

Mr Bush also voiced support for opponents of Iran's Islamic regime who have been holding protests to demand reform.

"They need to know America stands squarely by their side and I would urge the Iran Government to treat them with the utmost respect," he said.

At a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA), US ambassador Kenneth Brill said Iran had not co-operated with nuclear inspections.

He urged Tehran unconditionally to accept tighter international restrictions on its nuclear facilities.

He accused the country of engaging in "a long-term pattern of safeguards violations and evasions regarding a number of its nuclear...activities".

The IAEA's Director General, Mohamed ElBaradei, has issued a report accusing Iran of failing to declare some aspects of its nuclear programme.

'Report biased'

Iran - a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which aims to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons - has rejected allegations by the IAEA that it has failed to disclose information on its use of nuclear material.

Its ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Salehi, told the meeting that nuclear weapons had "no place" in the country's defensive doctrine.

"Iran considers the acquiring, development and use of nuclear weapons inhuman, immoral, illegal and against its very principles," he said.

Mr Salehi added that the IAEA report had not been compiled in an accurate and impartial manner, and implied that other countries, specifically the US, had influenced its writing.

"[The report reflected] the awkward directives issued from certain influential capitals on the form, the content and the final conclusion and judgement of the report," he said.

The IAEA has called on Iran to sign an additional protocol to the nuclear NPT allowing more intrusive, short-notice inspections of its facilities.

Mr Salehi said earlier that his country was still considering the issue.

Wednesday, 18 June, 2003, 09:36 GMT 10:36 UK

N Korea issues nuclear warning

North Korea has warned it will strengthen its nuclear deterrents in response to growing pressure from the United States.

The statement by the North Korean Foreign Ministry, carried by KCNA news agency, also warned of retaliation in the event of any "hostile act".

State media earlier on Wednesday said the regime would never abandon its nuclear weapons programme without concessions from Washington.

The statements came as the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, urged South East Asian ministers at a regional security forum in Cambodia to exert more pressure on Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons programme.

" For hardliners in the Bush administration, North Korea is the most urgent issue on the international agenda "

"This is not a bilateral matter between the United States and North Korea," Mr Powell told the Asean (Association of South East Asian Nations) Regional Forum, according to the French news agency AFP.

"It affects every nation in the region that would fall under the arc of a North Korean missile.

"Thus it must be solved as a multilateral problem," he said.

During Wednesday's talks, Mr Powell met briefly with North Korea's envoy to the Asean forum, and urged him again to agree to multilateral talks to end the eight-month nuclear impasse.

Analysts say Washington is reluctant to enter into another bilateral agreement with Pyongyang, after the collapse of a 1994 deal last year.

But, although neighbouring Tokyo and Seoul have both hardened their positions on the North, North Korea's main ally, China, is more reluctant to pressurise its fellow Communist state.

"We believe, of course, there should be no nuclear arms on the peninsula, it should be nuclear free," Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing said at the ARF.

"At the same time of course, the DPRK's (North Korea's) security concerns should be appropriately addressed," he said.

Any collapse of the North Korean regime would mean that China's border could be flooded with hundreds of thousands of hungry North Koreans.

" The DPRK will put further spurs to increasing its nuclear deterrent force for self-defence, as a just self-defence measure to cope with the US strategy to isolate and stifle "

The main sticking point, however, is Pyongyang's refusal to enter into multilateral talks.

Pyongyang reiterated on Wednesday in a commentary in the state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun that it only wants to discuss the issue with Washington.

"The US insistence on 'multilateral talks' is aimed to lay an international siege to the DPRK under the signboard of 'dialogue' and stifle the DPRK by force," the paper said.

"It is quite clear that the DPRK (North Korea) can never accept the US demand that it scrap its nuclear weapons programme first," it added.

Pressure building

Later, a statement by an unnamed Foreign Ministry official said: "The DPRK will put further spurs to increasing its nuclear deterrent force for self-defence, as a just self-defence measure to cope with the US strategy to isolate and stifle the DPRK."

Pyongyang has responded angrily to plans by a US-led initiative, announced this week, to step up international checks on North Korean ships.

And last week, officials from the US, South Korea and Japan met in Hawaii to co-ordinate policy on the North's nuclear threat.

It is unlikely that North Korea can address its simmering concerns with the US on Wednesday. Pyongyang only sent its ambassador to the Phnom Penh meeting, rather than its foreign minister.

The crisis on the Korean peninsula erupted in October last year, when the US revealed that Pyongyang had admitted to running a secret nuclear weapons programme based on highly-enriched uranium.

The US withdrew aid shipments under a 1994 deal designed to stop North Korea from developing nuclear arms. North Korea responded in December by withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Last week, Rodong Sinmun said Pyongyang was ready to build a nuclear deterrent.

And US officials at talks in Beijing in April said that the North Koreans told them privately that Pyongyang already has nuclear weapons and plans to build more.

The other issue dominating the one-day Asean Regional Forum was Burma's detention of its opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Addressing the gathering of foreign ministers in Phnom Penh, Mr Powell said Burma's neighbours must step up the pressure against the country's junta to release her.

Asean took the unprecedented step on Tuesday of pressing its member state to free Aung San Suu Kyi from "protective custody", but fell short of taking action against its neighbour.

Wednesday, 11 June, 2003, 18:43 GMT 19:43 UK

Oldest human skulls found

By Jonathan Amos BBC News Online science staff

Three fossilised skulls unearthed in Ethiopia are said by scientists to be among the most important discoveries ever made in the search for the origin of humans.

The crania of two adults and a child, all dated to be around 160,000 years old, were pulled out of sediments near a village called Herto in the Afar region in the east of the country.

They are described as the oldest known fossils of modern humans, or Homo sapiens.

What excites scientists so much is that the specimens fit neatly with the genetic studies that have suggested this time and part of Africa for the emergence of mankind.

"All the genetics have pointed to a geologically recent origin for humans in Africa - and now we have the fossils," said Professor Tim White, one of the co-leaders on the research team that found the skulls.

"These specimens are critical because they bridge the gap between the earlier more archaic forms in Africa and the fully modern humans that we see 100,000 years ago," the University of California at Berkeley, US, paleoanthropologist told BBC News Online.

Out of Africa

The skulls are not an exact match to those of people living today; they are slightly larger, longer and have more pronounced brow ridges.

These minor but important differences have prompted the US/Ethiopian research team to assign the skulls to a new subspecies of humans called Homo sapiens idaltu (idaltu means "elder" in the local Afar language).

The Herto discoveries were hailed on Wednesday by those researchers who have championed the idea that all humans living today come from a population that emerged from Africa within the last 200,000 years.

The proponents of the so-called Out of Africa hypothesis think this late migration of humans supplanted all other human-like species alive around the world at the time - such as the Neanderthals in Europe.

If modern features already existed in Africa 160,000 years ago, they argued, we could not have descended from species like Neanderthals.

"These skulls are fantastic evidence in support of the Out of Africa idea," Professor Chris Stringer, from London's Natural History Museum, told BBC News Online.

"These people were living in the right place and at the right time to be possibly the ancestors of all of us."

Sophisticated behaviour

The skulls were found in fragments, at a fossil-rich site first identified in 1997, in a dry and dusty valley.

Stone tools and the fossil skull of a butchered hippo were the first artefacts to be picked up. Buffalo fossils were later recovered indicating the ancient humans had a meat-rich diet.

The most complete of the adult skulls was seen protruding from the ancient sediment; it had been exposed by heavy rains and partially trampled by herds of cows.

SEARCH FOR HUMAN ORIGINS " The Herto skulls represent a confirmation of the genetic studies "

The skull of the child - probably aged six or seven - had been shattered into more than 200 pieces and had to be painstakingly reconstructed.

All the skulls had cut marks indicating they had been de-fleshed in some kind of mortuary practice. The polishing on the skulls, however, suggests this was not simple cannibalism but more probably some kind of ritualistic behaviour.

This type of practice has been recorded in more modern societies, including some in New Guinea, in which the skulls of ancestors are preserved and worshipped.

The Herto skulls may therefore mark the earliest known example of conceptual thinking - the sophisticated behaviour that sets us apart from all other animals.

"This is very possibly the case," Professor White said.

The Ethiopian discoveries are reported in the journal Nature.

Tuesday, 17 June, 2003, 01:13 GMT 02:13 UK

Church sex investigator resigns

The outspoken head of a panel investigating alleged sexual abuse by US priests has resigned after accusing bishops of blocking his work.

Frank Keating, who heads the national lay review board, compared unnamed bishops to the Mafia last week.

"To act like La Cosa Nostra and hide and suppress, I think, is very unhealthy," he told the Los Angeles Times.

The archbishop of Los Angeles, Roger Mahony, rejected Mr Keating's comment as "irresponsible and uninformed".

Mr Keating, a former governor of the US state of Oklahoma and a practicing Catholic, was charged with heading a lay committee investigating widespread allegations that many priests had abused parishioners - especially children - over decades.

His resignation has been met dismay from some Catholic pressure groups.

Voice of the Faithful's spokeswoman Luise Dittrich said the move, coming on the heels of such a public dispute with Archbishop Mahony, "casts doubt on who's running the show".

""He wasn't afraid to speak the truth in his own way," she told BBC News Online. "His resignation puts pressure on the board" to prove its independence from the Church, she said.

Obstacles

Under Mr Keating's leadership, the board commissioned a survey of bishops across America.

" Governor Keating's remarks, as quoted today in the Los Angeles Times, were both irresponsible and uninformed " Cardinal Roger Mahony

Mr Keating said 61 of the 195 dioceses had not responded, adding that some bishops were behaving more like members of a criminal organisation than a religious one.

Cardinal Mahony criticised the survey, mainly on technical grounds, in a statement on his website.

But Mr Keating repeated the allegation of obfuscation in his letter of resignation, which the Associated Press published on Monday.

"My remarks, which some bishops found offensive, were deadly accurate. I make no apology," he said.

"To resist grand jury subpoenas, to suppress the names of offending clerics, to deny, to obfuscate, to explain away; that is the model of a criminal organisation, not my church," he said.

Mr Keating said in his resignation letter than he had been planning to step down this month anyway, a year after he was appointed.

But the very public manner of his departure puts the issue of sex abuse back in the spotlight - just days before US bishops meet 19-20 June for their twice-a-year conference.

Thousands of people across the United States are suing various dioceses for millions of dollars in damages, alleging that the Church protected priests accused of abusing children.

Sunday, 1 June, 2003, 23:54 GMT 00:54 UK

Gene therapy 'causes leukaemia'

Ania Lichtarowicz BBC health reporter

Scientists in the United States have warned that some forms of gene therapy may cause patients to develop cancer.

Writing on the journal Nature Genetics, the researchers have found that genes inserted into cells to replace faulty copies may be spreading and damagining healthy genes.

The news comes after a number of children developed leukaemia following gene therapy treatment.

High profile gene therapy trials have been stopped in France and but are continuing in the UK despite a number of children developing leukaemia follwing treatment.

Bubble boys

Originally the trials were considered a huge success when a number of patients were successfully treated for the X-linked Severe Combined Immunodeficiency Syndrome (X-Scid) which is more commonly known as the "Boy in the Bubble" syndrome.

Boys suffering from the condition can't make normal white blood cells, which fight off infection.

As a result, they usually die by the age of two.

This latest research - which was carried out in mice - supports the theory that the cancer in these patients was caused by the new treatment.

Scientists found that after injecting genes into the livers of mice, in some cases, the new genes became incorporated into the cells chromosomes.

On taking a closer look they found that the new genes placed themselves inside normal genes and so could potentially damage their functioning or could even cause cancer.

If this does turn out to be the case, scientists may well have to develop a safer way of delivering new genes into the body, if the enormous promise of gene therapy is ever to become reality.

Monday, 16 June, 2003, 18:39 GMT 19:39 UK

Poll suggests world hostile to US

Nearly two-thirds of respondents to an international poll for the BBC say they have an unfavourable opinion of George W Bush.

The survey of 11 countries - for the television programme What The World Thinks of America, to be aired this week in the UK - revealed that 57% of the sample had a very unfavourable, or fairly unfavourable attitude towards the American President.

The figure rose to 60% when discounting the views of the American respondents.

The survey - conducted for the BBC by ICM and other international pollsters - gauged opinion towards US military, economic, cultural and political influence.

COUNTRIES POLLED Australia Canada Brazil France Indonesia Israel Jordan Russia South Korea United Kingdom United States

Over half the sample felt that the US was wrong to invade Iraq - this included 81% of Russian respondents, and 63% of the French response.

Thirty-seven per cent thought it right to invade - including 54% of the UK response, 74% of the US response and 79% of the Israeli sample.

Asked who is the more dangerous to world peace and stability, the United States was rated higher than al-Qaeda by respondents in both Jordan (71%) and Indonesia (66%).

America was also rated more dangerous than two countries considered as "rogue states" by Washington.

It was rated more dangerous than Iran, by people in Jordan, Indonesia, Russia, South Korea and Brazil, and more dangerous than Syria by respondents all the countries, except for Australia, Israel and the United States.

Unloved?

The survey groups were also asked whether they felt that the American military did enough to avoid civilian casualties during conflicts.

Seventy per cent of the group as a whole thought the US could do more - with the majority in each country bar the United States saying that more could be done, including 73% of respondents in the UK, 74% in France and 57% in Israel.

However 70% of the American respondents said other countries did not appreciate how much America does to avoid civilian casualties.

The sample of over 11,000 respondents also showed negative attitudes about American initiatives, such as the war on terrorism and US efforts in the Middle-East.

Attitudes towards America as a whole, however, were a lot more favourable, with 50% expressing fairly or very favourable views, as opposed to 40% of unfavourable views.

That figure excludes Americans polled.

All interviews were carried out during May and June 2003.

Wednesday, 18 June, 2003, 12:25 GMT 13:25 UK

Peru sterilisation inquiry reopens

A Peruvian parliamentary commission has reopened an investigation into the forced sterilisation of more than 300,000 rural Peruvian women allegedly authorised by former President Alberto Fujimori.

The original investigation against Mr Fujimori, who has been in Japan since November 2000, was set aside earlier this year for lack of evidence.

Peru's Human Rights Commission claims mass sterilisations were carried out negligently between 1995 and 2000 in a bid to reduce poverty in the poorest parts of Peru.

Mr Fujimori currently faces charges of treason, corruption and authorising death squads in Peru, but he cannot be tried until he is extradited from Tokyo, where he is protected by his Japanese citizenship.

According to the commission, more than 320,000 women were subjected to the Voluntary Contraception Surgery in the latter half of Mr Fujimori's presidency.

Psychological impact

The operations were promoted in a "deceitful" publicity campaign of leaflets, posters and radio advertisements promising "happiness and well-being", a government report found last year.

It said there was inadequate evaluation before surgery and little after-care. Procedures were also found to have been negligent, with less than half being carried out with a proper anaesthetist.

Prime Minister Luis Solari, who supports the investigation, says thousands of women lived in fear of the sterilisers, who faced the sack if they did not perform enough sterilisations.

The Human Rights Commission has found that 18 women died from complications and thousands more suffered psychological problems as a direct result of the sterilisations.

Certain parts of Peru have also seen a demographical drop, leaving an older population and the economic disadvantages which result from fewer people able to earn a living.

Wednesday, 2 July, 2003, 12:33 GMT 13:33 UK

Euro vote ends GM food ban

Laws which will end a European Union-wide ban on new genetically modified foods have been passed by the European Parliament.

The laws allow new GM foods to be sold in Europe for the first time in five years, but only if they are clearly labelled.

The EU's long moratorium has angered the United States and other GM crop-growing states, which say they have been deprived of a huge export market in Europe.

They filed a suit with the World Trade Organization last month arguing for the moratorium to be lifted as it was an unfair trade barrier.

" I believe we have got in place legislation... to enable consumers to make the choice for themselves whether to consume GM foods or not " David Byrne Consumer Affairs Commissioner

The new rules have already been approved in principle by EU governments, and could now become law by the autumn.

Anti-GM politicians and activist groups had called for the EU to keep the ban and reject US pressure.

But pro-GM groups said the EU would miss out on economic and scientific benefits if it extended the moratorium any further.

Tougher measures

Europe's Consumer Affairs Commissioner, David Byrne, told the European Parliament: "We have now come to the stage where we must lift the de facto moratorium.

"I believe we have got in place legislation... to enable consumers to make the choice for themselves whether to consume GM foods or not," he said.

Under the new law, all foods with more than 0.9% genetically-modified content will have to be labelled.

There had been some calls for the threshhold to be set lower, at 0.5%, but parliament backed the 0.9% level which had already won the backing of European ministers.

The legislation also includes animal feed - previously exempt from labelling rules.

Firms angry

Labels will have to read: "This product is produced from GMOs."

In a separate part of the package of measures, each EU country can, if it wishes, impose restrictions on the way GM crops are grown to ensure is no cross-contamination with conventional crops.

A stipulation in the new rules that any product derived from GM ingredients but whose presence is undetectable - such as cooking oil - should still be labelled as genetically modified has dismayed biotech firms.

They fear such tough labelling and traceability rules will hit sales in Europe.