Make your own free website on Tripod.com

NEWSFILE: WEIRD SCIENCE

- - - - - -

The Times. Sept 24 1998 BRITAIN

Why do they pig out on a mouthful of stones?

AN ANIMAL behaviour expert has been given £5,000 to find out why pigs chew stones after eating.

Ian Horrell, an animal psychologist from Hull University, will spend the next few months studying the behaviour of Britain's eight million pigs in seven different locations around the country.

His research subjects will include wild boars in Cornwall, farm-bred animals in the Scottish Highlands and the million pasture-reared pigs of East Yorkshire - Britain's biggest centre of production. The British pig industry was worth £1. 1 billion last year.

Dr Horrell, 57, has already carried out research on the effects of preventing pigs from rooting by putting rings through their noses. He said: ‘One theory is that they do it out of boredom. They spend a great deal of their time eating and this could be an alternative. ‘Usually the pigs spit the stones out after a while but sometimes they swallow them.

Dr Horrell said pigs reared outdoors spent up to a quarter of their time chewing small stones, more frequently after their daily feeds. ‘The origins and functions of stone-chewing are unknown, ’ he said.

- - - - - -

Texan pays lab $5 million to clone pet dog . August 24, 1998

BBC: LONDON - A Texas millionaire is paying a cloning laboratory $5 million to produce a living replica of his pet dog Missy, according to a BBC program.

The laboratory has already received some cells from the dog, which is part collie, part Alsatian, Newsnight said Monday. The cloning laboratory of Texas A & M University at College Station had been given two years to produce a clone.

Laboratory Director Mark Westhusin said he thought other millionaires would be keen to follow suit. ‘I'm sure there are lots of them out there that would if they knew the potential existed to do it, ’ Westhusin said.

Newsnight said other laboratories and companies were hoping to move into commercial cloning of pets and racehorses.

- - - - - -

USA today - 12:31 AM 09/14/98 Ancient penguin guano offers clue to `flu history WELLINGTON, Sept 14 (Reuters) - Scientists are delving into dung dropped by Adelie penguins perhaps 8,000 years ago in the Antarctic to trace the history of influenza. The New Zealand government has committed NZ$456 ,000($236 ,000) over three years to a research programme to track the evolution of the disease. Penguin dung was selected because the cold of Antarctica meant some fragments of the virus' RNA - ribonucleic acid, or the active form of DNA - was likely to be preserved in a metre thick layer of frozen guano under colonies on Ross Island, said Auckland University structural biologist Peter Metcalf. ‘These penguins are just sitting there in this same little patch of land where they've been doing it for thousands of years, ’ he told Reuters on Monday. ‘We know that penguins do get flu but nobody has ever isolated a flu virus from them. ‘ The connection between bird influenza and the human condition was illustrated last year when Hong Kong's chicken population was mass slaughtered because of fears that they carried a virus that could cross over to humans. ‘There are a lot of bird flus out there and some of them seem to get through to humans and cause these big epidemics which we get every year, ’ said Metcalf. Bird influenza is spread through the faeces, and the penguin dung would give scientists the chance to track the development of the fast-evolving influenza virus, he said. ^REUTERS@

- - - - - -

Low sex drive and nearly extinct. Can cloning save the panda from itself?

Chinese scientists are hoping to clone the giant panda, in the latest effort to save the much-loved species from extinction. An ambitious project will attempt to produce a cub by planting the nucleus of a panda cell into an egg from another species. The embryo would then be implanted into the female of the second species, which could in theory give birth to a panda cub.

Chen Dayuan, the project leader at the Chinese Academy of Science’s laboratory of fertilisation biology in Peking, explained why he was attempting the more difficult ‘trans-species’ cloning rather than the ’intra-species’ method used successfully to clone Dolly the sheep. With only 1,000 pandas left in the world, it is not feasible to use panda eggs, which cannot easily be harvested from living females. The latter are also very infertile, with oestrus occurring only once a year, and only 10 per cent of females actually coming into season.

Sun Qingyuan, one of the project's researchers, yesterday said the team had identified potential host animal species, but that this information was secret. Asked if panda cloning was really a possibility, Mr Sun said: ‘No one knows. We are trying to do the work of panda cloning, but we don't know when we will have success. ‘

The project started after the Chinese scientists read reports about Dolly the sheep, cloned in 1996 at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh. Mr Sun said the team was following research in the United States on ’trans-species’ cloning. So far, the Chinese project is still at a preliminary stage.

Mr Sun said the team had successfully taken a mouse cell nucleus and transplanted it into a rabbit egg. Experiments had produced ablastocyst (the early stage of an embryo) which had started to divide. But the project had yet successfully to implant an embryo into a rabbit, or produce a baby mouse. ‘After we have finished doing the work with the small animals, we will start work with the panda cells, hopefully in the second half of the year,’ Mr Sun said. ‘We will take cells from a panda and transfer the nucleus into a denucleated egg from another species. We still have not decided which is a good species to use. We have several candidates, but this is secret. The gestation period should be similar, about 80 days. ‘

He said they would definitely use a mammal, and ‘it should be a big animal’. The cub would be a pure panda as all the genetic information would have come from the panda cell nucleus.

The possible cloning of giant pandas is only the latest attempt by China artificially to improve the animal's chances of survival. Last August, scientists at the Laboratory of Genetic and Embryo Engineering on Endangered Wildlife in Sichuan province achieved the world's first test-tube in-vitro fertilisation of a panda egg. Unfortunately, high carbon-dioxide levels in a faulty incubator killed the egg after 10 hours.

The Sichuan laboratory now plans to do further experiments on other large rare animals, such as the black bear, which are more easily available than the giant panda. If these are successful, eggs will betaken from living pandas who have lost the ability to bear cubs. The difficulty will be to find a panda female to incubate the test-tube embryo.

China estimates that there are only about 1,000 giant pandas left, most of whom live in the western provinces of Sichuan and Gansu. Poaching for the skins and, most crucially, the destruction of the animal’s bamboo habitat have taken a huge toll on the population in recent years. Since 1949, one-third of the forest cover in Sichuan has been felled. The lack of bamboo ‘corridors’ also means that pandas have been living in isolated groups containing as few as 10 members, which are then weakened through inbreeding.

China is stepping up efforts to restore the panda's natural habitat, but scientists are increasingly attracted to a more high-tech approach. Some Western scientists have criticised this trend, saying that long-term survival will depend on basic environmental protection, not on laboratory experiments.

Mother Nature also seems to have stacked the odds against panda conception. They have a notoriously low sex-drive, and prefer to spend 14 hours a day munching bamboo. The females are fertile just once a year, for about 72 hours, and the males have a small organ and a low sperm count.

China has already invested enormous effort into artificial breeding programmes in zoos, but with very limited success. More than 90 percent of zoo males have proved unable to mate. Artificial insemination is routinely practised but since 1953 only 24 captive females have given birth.

Pandas are also clumsy mothers, with a habit of squashing the tiny cub in its early days. A new-born cub weighs only around 4. 5oz, and is sounder-developed it is more like a foetus. It has no sight, hearing or speech, and is usually suckled for a full six months. China, well aware of international interest in the protection of the giant panda, has scored some notable successes. A panda who gives birth to twins will normally abandon one of them. At Peking Zoo, after twins were born in 1992 through artificial insemination, keepers for the first time succeeded in hand-rearing a cub without it drinking its mother’s milk. Yong Liang spent his first five months with humans. By the time he could survive on normal food, he had learnt to imitate his human keepers, and was terrified when introduced to another panda.

- - - - - -

July 17, 1998 . Ancient dung yields DNA secrets

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A pile of dung from an ancient sloth has yielded up secrets from the creature that left it 19,000 years ago, in the form of DNA, researchers said Thursday.

It shows the long-dead animal ate plants such as capers, mustard, mint and lilies, the international team of experts from the United States, Germany, Sweden and Britain said. Writing in the journal Science, they said they used a new technique to tease the DNA out of the dung, something no one else had been able to do.

Hendrik Poinar of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Munich and his team found the nearly fossilised faeces at Gypsum Cave, which is 18 miles east of Las Vegas, Nevada.

The cave is full of dried-up animal poop, which researchers have been trying to analyse.

Poinar's team used a technique known as polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which makes trillions of copies of tiny gene fragments, making enough product to look at.

This method has failed so far on ancient faeces - known as coprolites - so the group added a chemical agent called PTB(N-phenacylthiazolium bromide), which released enough DNA to make the PCR work.

They were first able to identify the animal as a member of the sloth family, ’presumably Nothrotheritops shastensis, whose bones were found in the cave, ’ they wrote in the journal Science. This giant sloth has been extinct for 11,000 years. But there was DNA in its stool from plants.

They identified genetic material from several known species. ‘These are, in order of frequency. . . : Capers and mustards, lilies and allies, grasses, borages and mints, and saltbushes, ’ they wrote. There was also something that seems to be related to a wild grape.

The team hopes to use its technique to analyse other animal excreta.

THERE are races of African elephants and of salamanders but not of people, according to a genetic analysis of human populations.

Prof Alan Templeton of Washington University used the same DNA techniques to identify race in people that evolutionary and population biologists use to identify animal sub-species.

He analysed millions of genetic sequences found in three distinct types of human DNA and concludes that , in the scientific sense, the world is colour blind.

‘Race is a real cultural, political and economic concept in society, but it is not a biological concept, and that unfortunately is what many people wrongfully consider to be the essence of race in humans - genetic differences, ’ said Prof Templeton, who published his work in the journal American Anthropologist.

He found more genetic similarity between Europeans and sub-Saharan Africans and between Europeans and Melanesians, inhabitants of islands northeast of Australia, than there were between Africans and Melanesians.

- - - - - -

Tuesday 8 Sept 1998

Scientists Extract DNA From Extinct Giant Tortoises

CARDIFF (Reuters) - Scientists said Tuesday they had for the first time extracted DNA from an extinct group of animals - giant land tortoises that lived hundreds of years ago on islands in the Indian Ocean.

The genetic material came from bones which are all that remain of four species of tortoise that lived on the Mascarene Islands, Dr Jeremy Austin of Britain's Natural History Museum told a news conference.

‘We've been using DNA to understand evolution, ’ he told the annual British Association science festival.

Austin told the conference that the DNA was taken from bones found in caves in Reunion, Mauritius and Rodrigues. The tortoises, which have an unusual lightweight shell, became extinct after humans who colonised the islands in the 16 th century hunted them. ‘The Mascarene Island tortoises were unique. Their shell is very, very thin. The reason we think is that there weren't any predators (before humans came), ’ Austin said.

Austin said the research conducted by himself and his colleagues indicates that the species are closely related. ‘The results suggest the tortoises have a single common ancestor, ’ he said.

Austin and a colleague recently returned from an expedition to the islands to collect further bones for the research.

The scientists suspect the tortoises, which they believed were capable of living to a very old age, were fast-moving tortoises because of their thin shells.

So far, eight bones have been analyzed. They were ground to a fine powder and the DNA was extracted and analyzed.

‘The research will continue to add more specimens and more species to get a better picture of the fine scale evolution of this group. Additional samples from species in the Seychelles and Madagascar will also be included, many of which are also extinct, ’ the museum said in a statement.

Up to 350 scientists are presenting research during the week-long conference.

- - - - - -

SAN FRANCISCO - Could rabies be behind the legend of the vampire?

A Spanish neurologist, proposing a novel genesis for one of the most feared ghouls in Western culture, says the tale of the blood-sucking predator may have originated with a major rabies epidemic in Europe in the 1700s.

‘Sometimes things that are apparently bizarre and senseless can have a logical explanation, ’ said Dr. Juan Gomez-Alonso of Xeral Hospital in Vigo, Spain. His rabid vampire thesis appears in the issue of the journal Neurology released Monday.

Gomez-Alonso said he had always assumed vampires were fictional creatures from Europe's superstitious past.

‘Then one day I saw a classic Dracula film, ’ he said. ‘I watched the film more as a doctor than as a spectator, and I became so impressed by some obvious similarities between vampires and what happens in rabies, such as aggressiveness and hypersexuality. ‘

Gomez-Alonso said he began his research by looking into statistics on rabies symptoms, and found that 25 percent of rabid men ‘have a tendency to bite others. ‘

He then went to the history books and found that early tales of vampirism frequently coincided with reports of rabies outbreaks in and around the Balkans, stretching back to a particularly devastating epidemic of rabies in dogs, wolves and other animals in Hungary from 1721-28. Ticking down the characteristics most frequently associated with vampires, Gomez-Alonso said he believed he could explain almost all of them as symptoms of rabies.

The vampire's famous aversion to garlic and to mirrors could be ascribed to hypersensitivity, which comes with rabies infection, according to his theory. ‘Men with rabies . . . react to stimuli such as water, light, odours or mirrors with spasms of the facial and vocal muscles that can cause hoarse sounds, bared teeth and frothing at the mouth of bloody fluid, ’ he said.

In the past, he contended, ’a man was not considered rabid if he was able to stand the sight of his own image in a mirror. ‘

The vampire's voracious sexual appetite and nocturnal habits ‹ depicted in movies and on television as the suave Count Dracula appearing on a moonlit balcony ‹ could be attributed to the effect of rabies on the parts of the brain that help regulate sleep cycles and sexual behaviour. ‘Hypersexuality may be a striking manifestation of rabies, ’ Gomez-Alonso wrote in his article, adding that ‘the literature reports cases of rabid patients who practised intercourse up to 30 times in a day. ‘

The common association of vampires with animals such as wolves and bats could be explained by the fact that those creatures are susceptible to, and often the source of rabies infection, and can exhibit the same snarling, bloody-mouthed visage as an infected human. ‘It would be imaginable that men and beasts with identical ferocious and bizarre behaviour might have been seen as similar malign beings, ’ Gomez-Alonso said.

He said even the vampire's fatal kiss, the bite itself, could be traced to rabies. ‘Man has a tendency to bite, both in fighting and in sexual activities, ’ Gomez-Alonso says. ‘The intensification of such tendency by rabies increases the risk of transmission, as the virus is in saliva and other body secretions. ‘

- - - - - -

Hanford's Radioactive Ants Get Put down

(Richland, Washington)- They came from beneath the earth... they're radioactive ants that poured out of the ground at the Hanford nuclear reservation in Washington State.

Reservation officials say red harvester ants built more than 150 anthills in an area about a quarter the size of a football field. The site is right over a junction box for old radioactive waste pipes that leak.

The ants burrow down to 20 feet deep, enough to come in contact with the radioactivity. So, rather than take chances, officials poisoned the insects.

Otherwise, the ants might spread the radioactivity beyond the sprawling reservation's buffer zones.

- - - - - -

COPIED FROM InfoBeat - Oct 14, 1998

Animal organ patients will be less human

LONDON, Oct 8 (Reuters) - British animal rights groups suggested on Tuesday that people receiving animal organ transplants could become less human. They said cells from the animal organs would spread throughout the recipient's body, effectively making them a human chimera, the mythical creature that combines features from different animal species. ‘The human xenotransplantation patient will become a literal chimera, ’ Dr Gill Langley, told a news conference on Tuesday to launch a new report on animal-to-human organ transplants. ‘It sounds like scare-mongering, but let me reassure you that the word chimera is being used by xenotransplant scientists. ‘ Langley co-authored the report by the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) and Compassion in World Farming (CWF) warning about the dangers of xenotransplation - the use of organs, tissues or cells from a different species. The report said there was little evidence that pig or monkey organs could sustain human life and differences in species would cause serious, even fatal problems. It cautioned that animals could pass on viruses to humans and said the research was causing undue suffering to animals. The report also claimed that there are unknown psychological consequences that patients will have to deal with. ‘We seem to be almost sleepwalking, oblivious to all the dangers, ’ said Mike Baker, the chief executive of BUAV, adding that the technology was neither safe nor effective. He said the report was designed to highlight the problems and to offer alternative ways to deal with the shortage of transplant organs. The report followed new British guidelines onxenotransplantation announced in July which the groups said failed to address the dangers of the technology. Scientists believe that animal organ transplants may be the only way to solve the growing shortage of human transplant organs. Up to 50,000 people in Europe are waiting for human donated organs and demand is growing by 15 percent each year. The discovery that pig viruses - called procine endogenous retroviruses - could be transferred to humans during transplants led to calls for a moratorium on xenotransplantation research. Rejection of the animal organ by the recipient's immune system and concerns about retroviruses are the main problems holdling back xenotransplantation. Recent studies presented to the United Kingdom Xenotransplantation Interim Regulation Authority, a government body, in August showed that people who received cells from pigs for pancreatic disorders and Parkinson's disease did not show any signs of being infected with a pig virus.

- - - - - -

COPIED FROM InfoBeat - Oct 14, 1998 10/13/98 MIAMI (Reuters)

A Maryland teenager who received an unprecedented number of multi-organ transplants was sent back to a hospital intensive care unit Tuesday, suffering from a respiratory infection, a hospital spokeswoman said. Daniel Canal, 13, of Wheaton, Maryland, made medical history this year when he became the only person ever to receive three sets of four transplanted organs, the first set in May, the second in early June and the third 2-1/2 weeks later. He had left the intensive care ward at the University of Miami’s Jackson Children's Hospital on Sept. 8 after spending more than three months there recovering from his operations. Suffering from a condition in which his small intestine stopped functioning, Canal had waited for five years before suitable organs became available. He body weakened during the long wait, forcing doctors to attempt the risky transplant of his liver, pancreas, small intestine and stomach. The additional transplants became necessary because his body rejected the first and second sets of organs. Canal's ordeal - his family moved to two new states to better his chances at reaching the top of an organ waiting list- placed him at the center of a national debate over the distribution of scarce organs for life-saving transplants. Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala cited Canal’s case earlier this year when she proposed new regulations that would overhaul the way that organs are distributed in the United States. Currently, organs are allocated regionally, so they are offered first to patients who live near where they become available, regardless of whether someone farther away is in greater need. Advocates for changing the allocation system argue that the current system had allowed patients who were less sick than Canal to receive new organs while he grew more ill. Opponents say changing the system could force small, regional transplant centres to close and make transplant recipients travel long distances for operations and care. (Reuters)

- - - - - -

Astrobiologists plan search for extraterrestrial life

(A.P.) MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. (July 20, 1998 ) - For a long time, scientists speculated that life existed beyond the Earth. In recent years, they discovered evidence that it might and developed better tools for the search. Now, they're ready to start looking. Scientists gathered at NASA Ames Research Center on Monday to begin drawing up an astrobiological ‘road map, ’the first step in deciding where and how they should seek Earth-like planets where life may have evolved. A three-day conference will examine the biological basis for distant life, technological challenges in detecting it and possible missions - based on Earth or in space - to find it. Participants hope to reach consensus and draw up a report in the next couple of months. ‘The workshop is being held to identify the exciting opportunities to bring space technology to bear on the fundamental question about the origin, evolution and future of life, ’ said NASA astronomer David Morrison, co-chair of the event. ‘We believe astrobiology asks questions which we are now able to answer - or try to answer, ’ he said. More than 100 scientists are taking part in the workshop. Fueling scientists' desire for the quest are a number of discoveries in recent years. For instance, researchers have found that life on earth can exist under extreme conditions - in blocks of Antarctic ice, in hot springs, inside rocks. If microbes can live there, perhaps they could live on seemingly dead planets. Data from the Galileo spacecraft detected signs of water under the surface of Europa, a moon of Jupiter. Another discovery exciting astrobiologists are possible fossils of bacteria inside a Mars rock, although that finding is in dispute. ‘Together they make an amazing statement - life may not be uncommon, ’ said NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin, who addressed the audience via videotape. ‘We may not be alone. ‘Causing the most excitement, however, is the discovery of planets beyond our own solar system. Scientists believe some, if they meet the right conditions, could foster life. Such planets would have to be in what researchers call the ‘habitable zone, ’ of a certain size orbiting a star like our sun in a near th-like orbit. Without those conditions, liquid water - considered essential for life - could not exist.

- - - - - -

Life may be commonplace beyond Earth, scientists say

A. P. MADISON, Wis. (Oct 14, 1998 ) - Scientists are becoming more optimistic that life exists elsewhere than Earth. ‘There have been key discoveries that suggests life is simple, straightforward and easy if you have the right conditions, ’ Bruce M. Jakosky, a University of Colorado planetary scientist, said at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society. ‘There is a remarkable change among scientists from just 20 years ago. ‘In this solar system alone, there are at least four places besides Earth where life could have evolved. And beyond the sun, untold numbers of stars could be shining on planets teeming with life of some form. ‘There has been a revival in the serious search for life, ’ Stanford University scientist Chris Chyba said. ‘There is a substantial higher optimism for the existence of life beyond the Earth. ‘This optimism is based, in part, on this new knowledge:- At least a dozen planets have been found in orbit of distant stars. All are the size of Jupiter or larger, and none is ‘Earth-like. ‘ But their existence strongly suggests the existence of smaller planets more friendly to life. NASA is now mulling 30 proposals to search specifically for ‘Earth-like’ planets. - Biologists now know life is more robust than once believed. Microscopic organisms have been found to thrive in extreme conditions, from the ice of the Arctic to boiling vents at the bottom of the ocean to solid rock deep within the Earth. Microbes, it is now known, can live without the sun, thriving on chemical energy alone. ‘The biomass deep beneath the Earth is now estimated to equal all the biomass living on the surface, ’ Chyba said. ‘that makes the possibility for life on Mars, for instance, more credible. ‘- Fossil studies show that life developed very quickly on Earth, probably within the first 200 million years after the planet formed. ‘We don't understand yet how, but we see that it happened quickly, ’ said Chris McKay, a planetary scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center. ‘that supports the notion that it could have happened quick somewhere else. ‘In Earth's solar system, experts now believe that life could have evolved on Mars; on Europa, a Jupiter moon thought to have an ocean; on Ganymede, another moon of Jupiter; and on Venus, now a torrid planet but a place that once had more pleasant temperatures. Despite the new optimism, scientists also have found new limits on conditions that make life probable. Not every star or planet can promote life, said David Koch of NASA Ames. Some burn too brightly, overheating planets. Some have a lifetime too short to allow life to evolve. And double star systems - 6 0 percent of all stars - are less likely to have a stable family of planets. ‘Even if there is only one star in a thousand that could harbor life, that 's still a billion stars in this galaxy alone, ’ McKay said. Nevertheless, other factors also come into play. Planets can be battered so often by asteroids that life has no chance to evolve or sustain itself. Except for early in its history, Earth has been protected by Jupiter and Saturn, giants that swept up most of the threatening asteroids around. Life also is most likely on planets within the ‘habitable zone’ about a star. This is an orbit where sunlight keeps temperatures mild enough for water to remain liquid. Yet even with new optimism that life is out there, many scientists believe the evolution of intelligent life remains highly uncertain. For single-cell animals to evolve into modern humans took 4 billion years on Earth and required a process that remains largely a puzzle. Fossil evidence, for instance, shows that 30 million years ago, the dolphin had more brain power than did ancestors of modern humans. What happened to allow humans, and not dolphins, to evolve intellectually is not understood, Chyba said. ‘Despite the new optimism, the prospects for finding intelligent life is unchanged, ’ he said. ‘We don’t understand very well how intelligent life can evolve.

- - - - - -

Electronic Telegraph. Monday 31 August 1998

THERE are five million trillion trillion bacteria on Earth, give or take a handful, according to a census that confirms that they are the planet's dominant life form.

The study has revealed a far greater number than previously thought, ’a five with 30 zeroes after it’, according to Professor William Whitman, a microbiologist at the University of Georgia. His team has made the first direct estimate of the total number of bacteria, from those that cause disease to those that fix nitrogen in the soil.

Professor Whitman said: ‘Because they are so diverse and important, we thought it made sense to get a picture of their magnitude. ‘ The results makes the planet's human population, approaching six billion, look sparse. Prof Whitman said: ‘If each bacterium were a penny, the stack would go on for a trillion light years. ‘

Scientists prefer to call bacteria ‘prokaryotes’ - single-cell organisms without nuclei. Surprisingly, the team found that the total carbon content of bacteria is nearly equal to that of plants, an important finding for scientists studying cycles of carbon on the planet.

- - - - - -

USA TODAY - JULY 22, 1998 South Carolina Columbia - The trumpeter swans at Riverbanks Zoo are Playing guinea Pigs as they test a radio transmitter that researchers hope can be used to track the birds in the wild. The project is part of a program to reintroduce trumpeters to the wild in Wisconsin, where they were wiped out by hunters.