The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has halted infectious diseases research at Texas A&M University over safety concerns. This is the first ban on bioweapons work across an entire institution, reports Nature. The indefinite suspension follows two reports from the Sunshine Project, a watchdog group from Austin, alleging that Texas A&M failed to report researchers' exposure to infectious agents. The first exposure occurred in February 2006 when a student contracted Brucella, a bacterium carried by dairy animals. The student was treated with antibiotics. The second occurred in April 2006 when three workers showed signs of exposure to Coxiella burnetii, a bacterium in livestock that causes Q fever in humans. None fell ill. Although Coxiella and Brucella are considered bioweapons, and all exposures require immediate reporting, neither incident was reported to the CDC until April 2007. Texas A&M faces fines of up to $750,000, and a long-term ban on funding for similar research. JULIA WHITTY
A new study determines that U.S. taxpayers are subsidizing the Gulf of Mexico dead zone. This is an area of coastal waters -- visited in MoJo's The Fate Of The Ocean -- where dissolved-oxygen concentrations fall to less than 2 parts per million every summer. According to a paper published at Environmental Science & Technology Online, these findings bode poorly for the Gulf, as more and more acres of land are planted with corn to meet the growing U.S. demand for alternative fuels.
Scientists studying nutrient inputs that feed the Gulf's hypoxic zone have known that certain intensively farmed areas in the upper Midwest leak more nitrogen derived from fertilizers than others. Now, there's a new twist. Farmers in areas with the highest rates of fertilizer runoff tend to receive the biggest payouts in federal crop subsidies, says Mary Booth, lead author of the paper. What's more, they have fewer acres enrolled in conservation programs compared with other parts of the Mississippi River basin. Booth maintains that agricultural nitrate loading could be reduced substantially if farmers took just 3% of the most intensively farmed land out of production. Accomplishing this target, she adds, wouldn't require a large increase in overall federal funding, but monies would have to be shifted from commodity to conservation programs under the Farm Bill set to expire in September.
The World Wildlife Fund announced its opposition to a plan by the for-profit Planktos, Inc. to dump up to 100 tons of iron dust in the open ocean west of the Galapagos Islands. The experiment is designed to produce phytoplankton blooms that may absorb carbon dioxide. The American company is speculating on lucrative ways to combat climate change. But WWF spokespersons say there are safer and more proven ways of preventing or lowering carbon dioxide levels, and that the real risks in this experiment could cause a domino effect throughout the food web.
Potential negative impacts of the Planktos experiment include: shifts in the natural species composition of plankton; gases released by the large amount of phytoplankton blooms; bacterial decay following the induced blooms and the resulting anoxia, leading to a potential dead zone in the area; the introduction of large amounts of impure (but cost-effective) iron to the ecosystem, tainted by other trace metals toxic to marine life.
The waters around the Galapagos are rich with 400 species of fish, as well as sea turtles, penguins, marine iguanas, sperm whales, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, crabs, anemones, sponges and corals. Many of these animals are found nowhere else on earth. Planktos, Inc. plans to dump the iron in international waters using vessels neither flagged under the United States nor leaving from the U.S., so federal regulations such as the U.S. Ocean Dumping Act don't apply and details don't need to be disclosed to U.S. entities.
Take note: a new form of piracy is born. Science piracy on the high seas. Isn't Sea Shepherd in the area right about now? Calling the good Pirate, I mean, Captain Paul Watson . . .
BTW, here's a good example of the media getting it all wrong:
A fire in South Lake Tahoe, which began Sunday, has destroyed 2,700 acres of woods and 275 homes. Lake Tahoe's gorgeous blue waters are sprinkled with ashes. The blaze is just 40 percent contained at present, but firefighters expect to have it fully contained by Sunday. The Los Angeles Timescalled the fire "one of the most destructive in memory." And California isn't in the clear yet: Low rainfall combined with the hotter temperatures brought by climate change have intensified the state's already menacing susceptibility to wildfire.
Dozens of crocodiles bred in captivity in eastern India are protecting their endangered counterparts. Newly released into the wild, these giants are scaring away poachers bent on illegal fishing and timber harvesting in mangrove forests in the states of Orissa and West Bengal, reports Reuters. The disappearing mangroves have led to a steep decline in wild croc numbers, from several thousand a century ago to less than 100 in the early 1970s. But the same species has bred well in captivity and is now being used to solve its own problem. "The swelling number of released crocodiles in the wild is working as a deterrent and keeping people away from the mangrove as villagers are more cautious before venturing into the forests," said Rathin Banerjee, a senior wildlife official. "Unlike guard dogs, crocodiles cannot be tamed and are ferocious and can attack anyone in the swamps." . . . Wow. That's innovation. Can we use them against our own bad-boy loggers?--JULIA WHITTY
A US company has developed a machine using 1200 different frequencies in the microwave range to turn waste plastics back into the oil they came from, plus gas. Global Resource Corporation's Hawk-10 machine, looking like a giant concrete mixer, zaps the hydrocarbons in plastic and rubber until they're broken down into diesel oil and combustible gas, reports New Scientist. Whatever doesn't have a hydrocarbon base is left behind, minus any water it contained, which evaporates. For example, a piece of insulated copper is stripped of its insulation, which becomes diesel and gas, leaving the copper to be recycled. . . This seems to be great news on the plastics recycling front, and desperately needed for the health of the world ocean, at the very least. But dubious on the greenhouse front, where the last thing we need is more oil.
Living in an unhealthy environment kills many times more people than die in car accidents, violent conflicts and natural disasters combined. Though these risks rarely make headlines, reports the World Health Organization via Nature. Furthermore, one-fourth of these deaths could be avoided. Polluted water, poor sanitation, and smoke inhalation resulting from indoor wood-burning stoves are the primary risks in low-income countries. Noise, work stress, and outdoor pollution kill in wealthy nations. The research centers on 'disability adjusted life years' (DALY) that are preventable through healthier environments. The DALY is a commonly used unit that includes years lost when someone dies prematurely, and also takes account of years blighted by chronic disease or disability, writes Quirin Schiermeier. . . Hmm. Think there's any connection between noise, work stress, and outdoor pollution and the depression discussed in the previous post?--JULIA WHITTY
Some antidepressants appear to be associated with an increased rate of bone loss in older men and women. These SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), such as Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil, treat depression by inhibiting the protein that transports serotonin, a neurotransmitter involved in sleep and depression, reports the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) via Science Daily. But serotonin may also be associated with an increased rate of bone loss in older men and women, according to two new JAMA articles. And some data suggest that SSRIs may interfere with the function of osteoclasts and osteoblasts, the cells responsible for the regular breaking down and rebuilding of bone in the body. . . So, there's a choice for you. Depression or broken bones or both. How about looking for the root cause of the depression, not just the (dubious) chemistry? --JULIA WHITTY
Pioneering work to reduce the use of animals in scientific research has received a major boost in the UK. The goal is to remove animals from laboratories altogether, reports the University of Nottingham. The FRAME (Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments) laboratory, designed to find effective alternatives to animal testing, has received $480,000 to expand and remodel. Researchers hope to develop cell and tissue cultures, computer modelling, cell and molecular biology, epidemiology and other methods, to supplant animals from medical research, while still maintaining crucial work to defeat diseases that affect millions of people. . . Good scientists. --JULIA WHITTY