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Forests turn to dust New Scientist 6 May 2000

LOGGERS and gold miners have done their worst, but the Amazon rainforest may be facing an even more formidable adver- sary-global warming. A new global model developed in Britain shows that if warming continues apace, whole swathes of the Ama- zon will die off by the end of the century Richard Betts, a biosphere modeller at the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research, and his colleagues devel- oped a model which takes into account how different types of vegetation respond and contribute to climate change. They then used it to track the changes in global climate from 1860 to 2099 in response to so-called "business as usual" increases in greenhouse gas emissions. Betts was not surprised to see the Amazon getting hotter and drier-that effect has shown up in earlier climate simulations. But he was shocked to see that the Amazon would dry radically and warm by more than 6 'C, changes that would decimate parts of the rainforest. "We saw quite an extreme die-back in the north-eastern Amazon. It surprised many people," he says. While all of the Amazon will be affected to some degree, the extremely hot, dry conditions could turn a third of the rainforest to grassland or bare soil by the end of the century. "This region is tending toward desert," Betts says. The researchers can't, however, pin the changes on a single cause. All their mod- els show the band of rainfall that normally hugs the equator moving farther north as global warming increases. But in their veg- etation model, broadleaf trees become less competitive and begin to die back. As the trees pump less water from the soil into the atmosphere, rainfall in the Amazon decreases even more. "But we're stin not completely clear why the rainfall decreases so much," Betts says. The researchers are quick to point out the limitations of their simulation. "No- body would treat this result as an actual prediction," says Betts. "It's more of a possibility, the kind of thing that could happen." But Andrew Friend at NASA!s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in Greenbelt, Maryland, is impressed by the study. "It's extremely important for climate models to include vegetation," he says. If climate change speeds up later this century as predicted, feedback from soils and veg- etation may dwarf the direct effect of bum- ing fossil fuels. He says Betts's study "should really highlight how sensitive these processes are."

Forever young New Scientist 6 May 2000

Dolly may grow old before her time, but a new breed of clones are taking youth to extremes

CLONING doesn't necessarily make cells grow old, and can even act as a fountain of youth, say researchers who have been investigating a group of cloned calves. The news comes a year after a study on Dolly the cloned sheep showed that her cells appeared prematurely old. That finding raised fears that cloned animals or future medical treatments based on cloned cells would tum out to be short-lived. Concems over cellular ageing in clones centres around telomeres, regions of DNA at the ends of chromosomes which shorten every time a cell divides. Telomeres appear to shrink throughout our lives, and many researchers believe that the symptoms of old age are caused in part by these short- ened telomeres. Dolly appears normal and healthy, but in last year's study her telom- eres were found to be unusually short. It's possible that this will cause her to age prematurely. Dolly's predicament isn't shared by six calves cloned by Advanced Cell Technol- ogy (ACT) of Worcester, Massachusetts: their telomeres are significantly longer than those in normal cows of the same age. "I thought it might be possible that there would be some maintenance of telomeres, but that we see extension is unexpected," says Peter Lansdorp of the British Colum- bia Cancer Research Agency in Vancouver, who collaborated with ACT. Not only do cells from the clones have long telomeres, says Lansdorp, but when grown in the lab they are able to divide more times than non-cloned cells. In fact, non-cloned cells that were too old to con- tinue dividing in the lab were still able to produce healthy, "young" clones. Appar- ently, cloning can be a rejuvenating process. "What is really surprising," says Robert Lanza, a vice president of ACT, "is not only were we able to clone healthy calves from cells at the end of their lifespan, but the [cloned] animals had cells that appear to be younger than their chronological age." The researchers don't know why their calves appear so different from Dolly. They say it probably isn't due to species differ- ences. According to Lanza, researchers who cloned cows using the same technique employed on Dolly also ended up with animals that had shorter telomeres. "Clearly it has to do with the cloning tech- nique and the donor cell used," says Lanza. Cells used to clone Dolly were starved of nutrients to stop them at a particular stage in the cell cycle, while ACT's technique doesn't starve donor cells. The calf zesults will be a relief for med- ical researchers. They hope one day to be able to grow cells in the lab that can replace damaged or dysfunctional human tissue, or perhaps even whole organs. If these cells could be cloned from the patient, they wouldn't be rejected by the immune system. But if cloned cells inevitably aged prematurely, they might deteriorate more quickly than desired. Jerry Yang, head of the University of Connecticut's Transgenic Animal Facility, believes the new study will change per- ceptions of cloning. He says that medical ethicists often argue that cloning is dan- gerous and causes a variety of problems. "One example they give is shortened telomeres," says Yang. "N6w the story will be changed." Chris Tonove, Vancouver

Source: Science (vol 288, p 665)

Breast's behest New Scientist 6 May 2000

WATCH out sisters: the pheromones of breasffeeding mothers may be messing with your menstrual cycle. Two years ago, Martha McClintock of the University of Chicago showed that women who live at close quarters really do tend to synchronise their menstrual cycles, backing the popular perception with hard evidence (New Scientist, 14 March 1998, p 6). Now her team has found that lactating mothers can also influence other women. The researchers asked 26 breasffeed- ing women to wear absorbent pads in their armpits and inside their nursing bras. Then they asked 54 female volun- teers to rub these pads under their noses four times a day for about two months. After the volunteers' first menstrual cycle, half the women got pads collected from the nursing mothers. All the women had regular cycles before the experiment began. But the researchers found that among the women who sampled "eau de breast", short cycles became significantly shorter and long cycles became significantly longer. "Some kind of chemosignal from the breasffeeding environment is disrupting their cycles," says Natasha Spencer, a member of the team. McClintock's team now wants to find out if the timing of pregnancies of groups of women can be synchronised by a chemical signal.

Flat as a pancake New Scientist 6 May 2000

The Earth may be round, but the Universe certainly isn't

LAST week an international team of researchers unveiled the most detailed image yet of the infant Universe, which shows the huge structures that would later coalesce into the galaxies and galaxy clus- ters we see today. The results of the so- called Boomerang project confirm earlier predictions that the overall geometry of the Universe is "flat".

"Cosmologists have eagerly awaited a chance to get a direct view of the early Universe. The Boomerang data give us, indeed, our first glimpse," says co-leader Andrew Lange of the California Institute of Technology. The image is a map of radiation released in the big bang, known as the cosmic micro- wave background. For its first few hundred thousand years, the Universe was a fireball of elementary particles that scattered this light. When the Universe cooled enough for atoms to form, photons could suddenly travel across the Universe unmolested, carrying with them a snapshot of that point in time. Fluctuations in this snapshot, first detected less than a decade ago by NASA!s COBE satellite, record density variations in the early Universe that became galaxies and clusters. To get a more detailed picture of these fluctuations, the Boomerang team sus- pended their improved microwave tele- scope from a balloon that circled high above the Antarctic and measured the tem- perature of incoming microwave radiation to the nearest one hundred millionth of a degree-roughly 35 times more accurately than any previous instrument. The fluctuations appear as blobs on the microwave map of the sky. Theorists pre- dicted that most of the blobs would be of a particular size-roughly 1 degree across. If the blobs seem any larger or smaller, physi- cists believe this would mean that the Uni- verse is curved. A curved Universe bends the path of the microwaves as they travel through space, distorting the apparent size of the blobs in the same way that a lens magnifies or shrinks an image. From their initial analysis of the massive amount of data from the project, the team concludes that the Universe is nearly flat. Flat geometry ties in with the current consensus that the early Universe went through a period of rapid expansion that stretched it flat. This picture is supported by recent observations that the Universe contains enough matter and energy to maintain a flat geometry. "The Boomerang results fit the new cosmology like a glove," says astrophysicist Michael Turner of the University of Chicago in Illinois. Douglas Scott of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, however, is intrigued by subtle departures from the expected picture, particularly that the blobs appear very slightly larger than 1 degree. "There are just these hints that things might be a little different than what you would have put your money on before," says Scott. "That makes it fun." Mark Schrope

Royal Commission on GM in New Zealand New Scientist 6 May 2000

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REGULATING gene technology is a hot issue on both sides of the Tasman. New Zealand has just launched a Royal Commission into the area, with the government calling for a one-year moratorium on release of genetically modified organisms (GMOS) while it is in progress. And in Australia, the approach proposed by the Federal government has drawn a heated response from at least one state premier. Former chief justice Sir Thomas Eichelbaum heads New Zealand's Royal Commission on Genetic Modification. The other members are an academic biochemist, a Maori health expert and a minister of religion. They have a budget of NZ$5 million and 12 months to inquire into gene technologies and to recommend any changes to current laws, regulations or institutional arrangements to ensure use of the new technologies is in the interests of the community. The Minister for Environment and Biosecurity, Marian Hobbs, has called for a voluntary pause in applications for the release of GMOs during the time of the inquiry. She has threatened to make such a moratorium compulsory if the voluntary approach does not work. Meanwhile in Australia, environment minister Robert Hill has proposed a new regulatory regime for GMOS. The changes would give the environment minister power to hold up applications for the release of GMOS. While the Gene Technology Regulator, a statutory official, would retain the ultimate power to decide on the release of any GMO.

Go Ahead to breed GE sheep NZ Herald 1 Non 2000

Quiet paddocks at Ruakura near Hamilton will soon host a flock of genetically modified sheep with ."double muscles," bred to aid research mto musculular disease and heart attacks. The Environment Risk Mamagement Authority (Erma) has approved Ag Research's application to breed up to 100 sheep in the world-first research which could benefit patients of muscle-wasting diseases such as muscular dystrophy and Aids. The sheep will be missing the gene for myostatin, which regulates muscle growth in most mammals. Scientists hope to transplant myoststin-free embryos into ewes within 6 months.

Dr Ravi Kambadur said the five year research would result in sheep with between 20 and 40 percent more muscle mass than normal. He helped discover myostatin in 1997. It will be knocked out of sheep skinn cells through gene manipulation, in a process similar to the natural mutation seen in Belgian blue cattle, which causes the breed to have larger muscles.

Myostatin had been in high levels in surviving cells of sheep hearts after they had suffered heart attacks- That suggested the gene might offer some protection against attacks. The sheep will be kept in secure paddocks at Ruakyra. The teams has already produced muscle-bound myoststin inactive mice.

But if deliberately mutating the gene was shown to produce farm animals with proportionately more meat and less fat and bone, farmers were likely to call for agricultural work aimed at improved meat yield and quality.

Modified Virus raises Fears in UK NZ Herald 1 Nov 2000
LONDON - A live, genetically modified virus, used to transmit a vaccine to battery hens, is awaiting Government approval for sale in Britain. The virus can be passed from chickens to wild birds and environ- mental groups fear it could have unforeseen effects on country bird populations. MPs have warned Government scientific advisers to "learn the lessons of BSE" and observe extreme caution before licensing the treatment. The novel marketing application, which is expected to be approved by the Government, could lead to a string of approvals for live GE viruses to be used on farms. Experts fear that the viruses, which are not dangerous to humans, could change and lead to unforeseen side effects. MPs say battery hens treated with the vaccine should be labelled before being sold in shops. "Consumers will not want to buy chickens that have been injected with a live genetically modified virus," said Norman Baker, Liberal Democrat Consumer Affairs spokesman. "This rings alarm bells, particularly after what we have leared about BSE. I would have hoped that everybody could learn the lessons of BSE - that we cannot take chances with food. " The virus continues living, possibly until after the chicken is dead. It could be contracted by birds which come into contact with battery hens on farms and spread around the countryside and into cities. Environmentalists are also worried about the possible implications of the virus. "Disease is part of the natural control of wildlife populations and if you are going to vaccinate birds against a naturally occurring disease, even if it is accidental, that could cause unforeseen problems to the bird population," .said Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth. "For example, some species 'could become unnaturally numerous. This could necessitate other forms of control which may raise wider ethical questions. One wonders what analysis has been done to look at the consequences of this for natural birds." The vaccine, which will have to be approved by ministers before being licensed for sale throughout Europe, would be used to inoculate fowl against infectious bursal disease and Marek's disease, both common in battery hens. The application for approval says research into wild and domestic birds showed no adverse effects. But ministerial advisers are so concerned about the virus' implications that they have asked for more research and for Government vets to be consulted before issuing approval for the vaccine to be sold. Leading virologists say that the virus is harmless to humans and birds. Oxford virologist Dr Emest Gould said safety concerns over the virus were paramount. "There is no way this bir-cl virus could infect humans or other species. They will not use a virus that is dangerous to birds. Once they have produced the virus in the lab they will have spent years to ensure it is genetically stable and doesn't change into something else and become a Frankenstein. "Today, safety is one of the biggest industries in this country."


Science bites back LONDON NZ Herald Aug 2000

European scientists have created the world's first genetically modified malaria mosquito that could one day help to rid the world of the disease that kills around 2.7 million people each year. By inserting a marker gene into the species of mosquito that carries malaria, researchers at Imperial College London and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany have come a step closer to creating a mosquito to stop the spread of the disease. Dr Andrea Crisanti, of Imperial College, said the scientists inserted an extra gene that pro- duces a green fluorescent protein which distinguishes the transgenic insect from other mosquitoes and makes it visible under ultra- violet light. The achievement means scientists may soon be able to substitute other genes that could make the malaria-carrying Anopheles mos- quito produce antibodies to the malaria parasite or a resistance to it. They may also be able to change the mosquito's behaviour so it feeds on animals instead of humans. "We think that within six years a mosquito will be created that is stable, safe and physically unable to transmit the malaria- causing parasite," Crisanti, a molecular entomologist, added. The research has been hailed as a break-through in the battle against malaria which infects up to 500 million people a year. The disease, which causes fever, muscle stiffness and shaking and sweating, is increasing because the parasite has developed a resistance to anti- malarial drugs. REUTERS

Wildlife threatened - Conference NS 29 Apr 2000

THE dispute between African nations over trading in elephant ivory will be resolved by scientists. At last week's meeting in Nairobi, the 150-nation Convention on Trade in Endangered Species unanimously backed two monitoring systems designed to spot any upsurge in elephant poaching or illegal ivory sales. The monitoring bodies will be vital for ruling on future disputes over ivory trade. The breakthrough came when Kenya dropped its calls for a permanent ban on the sate of elephant products, including meat and hides, while Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa temporarily accepted a continued ban on regular ivory sales. The two sides disagree on whether trade can restart without encouraging poaching. In future, the issue will be decided by two new bodies: a $2 million-a-year scheme called Monitoring Illegal Killing of Elephants, which will track elephant populations in 60 locations in Africa and Asia, and the Elephant Trade Information System, which will keep tabs on ivory seizures around the world. Kenya's acceptance of monitoring should cool a heated statistical row. Kenya claimed that a one-off sale of ivory by three southern African countries to Japan last year, which was sanctioned by CITES, had triggered renewed poaching and illegal sales. The claim raised fears of a return to the rampant poaching of the 1980s, before CITES outlawed ivory sales. This angered southern African countries, where elephant populations are soaring and sales of culled ivory could fund wildlife management. But at the Nairobi meeting, Kenya was strongly criticised by elephant specialists who said that official Kenyan data did not support its claim that poaching had increased (New Scientist, 8 April, p 20). It emerged that Kenya's claim to have seized 2 tonnes of ivory last year-a big increase on recent years-is misleading. "In fact some of the seizures took place in 1998, and one in 1997," says one elephant trade expert. The four pro-trade countries still want to sell surplus ivory. "We feel it is unfair if our effective elephant management practices are punished because of law and order failures in other countries," says Tangeni Erkana, environment minister of Namibia, where elephant numbers have doubled to 10 000 in 15 years. "Trade would be of direct benefit to the elephants and people," Erkana says. The southern African nations plan to resume their demands to be allowed to sell ivory at the next CITES meeting in 2002. But in Nairobi, "the atmosphere swayed towards the protectionist direction and against sustainable use," according to Willem Wijnstekers, secretary general of CITES. This applied to other species, too. Japan and Norway failed to win CITES approval for harvesting some fast-growing stocks of minke and grey whales, despite a DNA technique put forward by Japan to allow inspectors to distinguish between different stocks of whales. "People do not want whales to be killed-that is a reality and it played its part here," says Wijnstekers.

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Plant poachers IN MADAGASCAR
On the slopes of Mount Cameroon, locals have been felling P africana at eight times the rate of regrowth, to sell bark to a French company. At this rate the tree will be extinct within a decade, say experts in wildlife trade. So at last week's CITES meeting, P africana, along with 13 other plants, was given new protection by the convention. The move signals increasing concern over trade in medicinal plants. The bark of P africana contains an ingredient that reverses what Africans call "old man's disease"-the swelling of the prostate gland. It is the basis of an ancient African rem , edy that in the 1960s was patented by a Frenchman as pygeum. Nobody has identified the active compound, so chemists can't synthesise it. As a result, $220 million worth of the powdered bark is sold every year to ageing men in Europe and North America. "Men are about to lose this remedy," warns Tony Simons at the Nairobi-based International Centre for Research in Agroforestry. The trees take 15 years to regrow. Eventually Simons hopes to shorten this cycle through "marcofting", a technique that induces roots to grow from a cut branch, and grow the tree as a sustainable crop. P africana is one of thousands of plants whose roots, leaves, bark, latex or fruit are harvested for traditional and herbal medicines. Some remedies have become worldwide brands such as ginseng. International trade in these products is an estimated 500 000 tonnes a year, worth $1-5 billion. Following last week's meeting, 20 plants are now protected by the convention for their medicinal qualities. Asian ginseng is one of the newcomers to the list. But merely listing the plants may not be enough. "Implementation is in many cases non-existent," says Nina Marshall of the wildlife trade investigation organisation TRAFFIC.

Eating our relatives

THE survival of Africa's great apes is being threatened by a growing worldwide demand for bushmeat, researchers at the CITES meeting are claiming. Animals ranging from rodents to elephants and apes are being hunted for their flesh, which is then sold around the world. The British delegation called for tougher action to protect primates, in particular, from being hunted for their meat. The meeting decided to set up a working group to look for solutions to the bushmeat crisis. The conference corridors echoed with reports of primate carcasses being transported by the boatload, and cross-border bicycle convoys carrying smoked elephant meat destined for supermarkets in Kinshasa and Brazzaville. Gruesome images of dismembered great apes on sale in upcountry African markets were on display More than a million tonnes of meat caught in the wild is eaten in equatorial Africa each year, says Ian Redmond of the Ape Alliance, based in Britain. Bushmeat has long been consumed locally in rural areas, but increasingly hunters are killing to supply big cities and foreign countries, or to feed workers in forest logging camps. According to Karl Ammann, a Kenyanbased investigator, forest elephants are now more likely to be killed for their flesh than their ivory, and the meat can sell for $5 a kilogram. Chimpanzee and gorilla meat often fetches more than beef and chicken. And according to Heather Eves of the US-based Bushmeat Crisis Task Force, wildlife populations in tropical forests regenerate much more slowly than animals of the savannah grasslands of east and southern Africa. The sale of wildlife meat is global. Iguanas are served on dinner tables in Nicaragua, snakes from Borneo are shipped to Hong Kong restaurants, and West African snails are sold in London street markets. Under CITES rules much of the trade is already illegal, though hunting for local consumption is allowed. "There is a large difference between commercial trade and that for subsistence," says Eves. But David Brown of the British government's delegation says that is too simple. Bushmeat is "a major component of the economics of much of equatorial Africa", he says. 'It is a primary source of animal protein and the main export commodity for the inhabitants." Brown says the industry should be "managed, not stigmatised and criminalised". As an interim measure, CITES called on logging companies to feed their workers from outside rather than asking them to plunder food from the forests.

Shawls of shame
A soaring trade in fashionable shawls is spelling doom for the Tibetan antelope, despite a 20-year ban on trade. Poachers kill the animals to get their ultra-fine fleece, known as shahtoosh. One animal yields 150 grams of fleece and five animals are needed for a shawl. Karen Steuer of the International Fund for Animal Welfare says shahtoosh poachers shoot 15 000 animals annually. There may be only 50 000 animals left. CITES called on consumer countries to close down the market.

Save our sharks
Reluctance to give protection to a commercial fish led CITES delegates to turn down calls from the US, Britain and Australia to set up controls on trade in the great white, basking and whale sharks. "These three shark species are more like large mammals than fish," says British delegate Vin Fleming. "They are slow-growing and give birth to live young after long gestation. That makes them as vulnerable as elephants and tigers."

Shell shock
Japan had an all-round bad meeting. lt not only suffered defeats on whaling and ivory, but also lost out when the conference defeated a proposal from Cuba to be allowed to sell shells from its sustainable harvest of the endangered Caribbean hawksbill turtle. The shells would have gone to Japan, where the ancient art of bekko working -which turns them into jewellery and trinkets-is itself endangered.

Great Barrier dissolves in Global Warming NZ Herald Oct 2000

Coral bleaching and death in the Great Barrier reef may threaten the reef due to global warming Australian scientists warn