As if Afghanistan didn’t have enough woes, the country has just lost its main agricultural insurance policy: two stores of carefully selected and maintained seeds representing the biodiversity of the nation’s native crops. The seeds were ruined when looters broke into a storage facility where they were kept and made off with the airtight jars that held them. The seeds themselves were tossed on the ground, and have now been so jumbled together that they are virtually worthless. “It’s like having a library of books with no titles on them,” says Geoffrey Hawtin, director general of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute in Rome. “All of the [traits you prize] are there, but you no longer know where to look for them.”
Scientists have pinpointed a mutation that gives sheep big butts — big, hard, glorious butts. A callipyge sheep has a bottom made of muscle, not fat, due to a changed DNA letter. The Duke University geneticist who discovered the mutation, Randy Jirtle, said that some humans might share the trait: “They’d have relatively large rear ends, and absolutely no fat — like sprinters.” Just like Solid Gold, the first sheep with the trait, born two decades ago. His descendants are called “callipyge” from the Greek for “beautiful buttocks.” In another story about mutating bottoms, scientists at Cornell have discovered that disabling a gene can turn a tomato from round to pear-shaped. Without the gene, appropriately named OVATE, a fruit will grow more at the top, leading to a long neck and bulbous base. The missing gene is likely to be the reason that squash, eggplants, and, well, pears are shaped as they are. Most wild fruit are round, and it is suggested that humans bred elongated fruit for aesthetic reasons. You betcha.
It may be Microsoft’s time to feel a little smug. For years Redmond has been the butt of jokes — and curses — for the vulnerability its systems seemed to have to viruses. Now Linux has fallen prey to a nasty bug of its own, one that has created a giant peer-to-peer attack network from thousands of infected Linux Web servers. Only computer systems running both Apache Web server software and the Linux operating system are vulnerable, New Scientist reports. But that’s a heck of a lot of machines. Once installed on a machine, the Linux.Slapper.Worm tries to forward itself on to other computers. “But unlike many other worms, it also tries to establish connections with computers that have already been infected,” the magazine reports. The bug was first identified Friday, and though characterized by computer security firms as slow-moving, has so far infected an estimated 3,500 machines. In a note accompanying the worm, the author says it was designed as a proof-of-concept for “educational” purposes and should not be used for destructive attacks.
Texas researchers have developed a vaccine in mice against the deadly toxin Ricin, which has been used in the past as a biological weapon. Ricin is a protein produced by castor beans, making it one of the simplest and cheapest bioweapons to produce. Ricin can be administered in foods, water and through the air, and a single Ricin molecule inside a cell is enough to shut down protein synthesis and kill it. But researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas say that by removing snippets of the Ricin DNA, they were able to develop two strains of mutated Ricin that stimulate an immune response in mice, but cause no harm. The researchers say they believe one or both of the strains would be safe for use in humans. According to the UT team, Iraq is known to have stockpiles of Ricin as part of its bioweapons program, while at least one group associated with Al Qaeda is thought to have experimented with the toxin.
A new reports says that up to half of all U.S. residents may be ineligible for smallpox vaccination because of the growing incidence of eczema. In a report appearing in the September issue of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, Dr. Renata J.M. Engler from the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC, and colleagues note that in people with eczema, exposure to vaccinia — a relative of smallpox used to inoculate people — or even contact with someone who was recently vaccinated can cause a condition that can lead to scarring, blindness and even death. “A major challenge lies in the ability to protect the population from the disease while minimizing the considerable side effects from the vaccine,” Reuters quotes from their report. The researchers say more studies should be conducted to help identify people who are prone to side vaccinia effects. Others who should avoid smallpox vaccination include people with immune deficiency diseases such as AIDS, and those on immune system-suppressing drugs, such as transplant patients.
Dual use technology usually starts out with a military use that civilians find a way to commercialize. The U.S. Navy is hoping to turn that equation around with a $5 million program to improve breast cancer detection. As it happens, looking for a cancerous cell in a human breast relies on a lot of the same science as identifying targets in spy satellite photos. And since the Navy believes its current pick-’em-out technology has hit a ceiling, it hopes to develop advances in breast cancer screening that can be applied to spotting Osama bin Laden from space. Wired has a terrific story on this, and notes that real-world applications are already emerging.
A Los Angeles County woman has tested positive for West Nile virus in what is likely to be the first case of a person contracting the illness west of the Rockies, state health officials said today. Today’s preliminary results are expected to be confirmed by further tests next week. The unidentified woman, who is being treated for meningitis, had not traveled outside the region, which would indicate that the infection, if confirmed, occurred locally. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 43 people have died so far this year from the disease, which is spread by mosquitos (or possibly through organ transplants).
From Barney W. Greinke in Berkeley:
“When people point out the great technological accomplishments of the 20th century, they usually think it’s the big things that are the most important ones. The atom bomb, jet airplanes, the Salk vaccine, electronic computing, DNA, men on the moon.
“How incredibly wrong they are.
THOMPSON SAYS FOOD SUPPLY VULNERABLE TO ATTACK
The number of U.S. food inspectors has risen over the last year, but Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said the nation is still vulnerable to an attack on its food supply. It was clear even before Sept. 11 that the Food and Drug Administration’s inspection system had big holes, the Associated Press reports, with 150 inspectors together examining less than one percent of the nation’s food. After last fall, Congress opened the purse strings enough to hire 750 additional inspectors, and new technology has made some inspections faster. But Thompson said danger remains. “I still believe that is the area we are subject to a terrorist attack in the future and one that could cause problems.” In perhaps the most shocking part of Thompson’s coments, he blamed the previously low number of inspectors on a vindictive Congress that punished the agency for former FDA Commissioner David Kessler’s efforts to regulate the tobacco industry.
DUST-SIZED CHIPS TO COMBAT BIOTERRORISM
Silicon chips the size of dust particles that can quickly detect biological and chemical agents have been developed by University of California, San Diego scientists. As reported by HealthScoutNews, the versatile chips can identify substances that can be dissolved in drinking water or sprayed into the air during a bioterrorist attack. “The idea is that you can have something that’s as small as a piece of dust with some intelligence built into it, so that it could be inconspicuously stuck to paint on a wall or to the side of a truck or dispersed into a cloud of gas,” UCSD researcher Michael Sailor said. Each chip is barcoded, and can be read using a laser detector to see what if any reaction has occurred. “When the dust recognizes what kinds of chemicals or biological agents are present, that information can be read … to tell us if the cloud that’s coming toward us is filled with anthrax bacteria or if the tank of drinking water into which we’ve sprinkled the dust is toxic,” Sailor said.
Chalk up mass-washings as another activity wrecked by the spectre of terrorism. Thirty years ago, a call for volunteers to strip to their skivvies, as the coy Washington Post puts it, would have signaled some post-Summer of Love fun. These days, it refers to a far more sober scrubbing: the debut of a new $350,000 chemical, biological and radiation decontamination facility at the Inova Fairfax Hospital in northern Virginia.
In Britain a central rationale in support of fox hunting has been challenged by a scientific study. Hunting advocates have long claimed that fox hunts keep the fox population from exploding, protecting livestock. But scientists from the University of Bristol said today that banning fox hunting would not cause an increase in the fox population. This announcement adds some concrete support to a debate that has been waging for years between hunting defenders and animal welfare campaigners. The scientists got the opportunity to test assumptions about the effects a ban would have because of foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks in Britain in 2001 that led to a ten-month ban on fox hunting. The British government is currently in a six-month period of consultation in search of a compromise on fox hunting between the House of Commons, who earlier this year voted for a full ban, and the House of Lords, who voted for licensed hunting.
The threat of bioterrorism is growing as more countries try to develop biological weapons, a CIA analyst told members of the Secretary of Health and Human Services’ Council on Public Health Preparedness. “Biological warfare is an attractive option . . . because it’s relatively inexpensive to develop,” said Kimberly Stergulz, an analyst at the CIA’s Weapons, Intelligence, Nonproliferation and Arms Control Center. A result, she said, is that countries such as Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Libya and Syria, and a growing number of non-state groups, are pursuing the capability. As reported by the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the CIA employee told the council that developing a biological weapons program could cost about $10 million, compared with $100 million to develop chemical weapon capability or $2 billion for nuclear capability. Stergulz presented the information at the first meeting of the council, a group of 21 health specialists and scientists who will advise the federal government on different aspects of potential public health emergencies.