Sunday, March 2, 2008

The clones are coming - to a supermarket near you

This week the first cattle born to a cloned cow in Britain will be sold. Opponents say this is a leap into the unknown but scientists claim it holds the key to solving food shortages

The first cattle born to a cloned cow in Britain will this week be sold at public auction. The sale - at a cattle market outside Bristol - marks the opening of a new chapter in food technology in this country, say scientists.

They expect that Dundee Paradise, whose mother was the clone of a prize-winning Holstein cow, and her brother, Dundee Paratrooper, will be bought by breeders in the first step towards the creation of new generations of cattle in Britain.

The move has been hailed by many breeders who believe that cloned cattle offer the only effective prospect of continuing to provide top-quality meat at a time when the world faces shortages in supplies of key foodstuffs. Only the creation and use of genetically manipulated plants and animals can prevent this, it is argued.

'These animals will not be sold for meat,' said Simon Best, chairman of the BioIndustry Association. 'They will cost far too much for that. Instead they will be bought by other breeders to create offspring that will go on to help to improve Britain's livestock.'

Scientists now predict that beef burgers from clone-farmed cattle will soon be approved in the United States and that Europe will eventually give the go-ahead for the sale of cloned meat as well.

This prospect causes alarm among green groups, however, and the sale of Dundee Paradise and Dundee Paratrooper - whose mother was Vandyk-K Integ Paradise 2, a clone created from cells taken from the ear of a Holstein, a milking cow, in the US - may become the focus of protests by groups opposed to the creation of what they call 'Frankenstein' foods. They say the manipulation of animals in the laboratory could trigger unforeseen, potentially harmful changes to beef and other meats. This charge is vigorously rejected by scientists, however, and by bodies such as the Food Standards Agency and the European Food Safety Authority.

More to the point, cloned meat will become increasingly important, say scientists, as Britain strives to make its farms more environmentally friendly by reducing its use of nitrates and other harmful chemicals as well as its output of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. In the case, of Dundee Paradise and Dundee Paratrooper, this has been done by creating a clone of a top milk-producing Holstein. Such animals mean that more milk can be generated on a farm without increasing use of fertilisers and fodder.

'Normally it takes generations to introduce new improved traits into cattle - by carefully cross-breeding different cows and bulls,' added Best. 'However, by creating a clone of an ideal animal, in this case one that is a top milk-producer, you have done it in a single generation. Thus you can make improvements to livestock, and to the nation's beef and milk, far more quickly than by using traditional breeding techniques.'

The only concern for UK scientists is the fact that the technology used to create the cattle was invented in Britain - by the team, led by Ian Wilmut and Keith Campbell, responsible for the cloning of Dolly the Sheep. But now virtually all commercial cloning work of livestock is done in the US, and farmers and breeders in Britain, as with Dundee Paradise and Dundee Paratrooper, have to buy from companies on the other side of the Atlantic.

In addition, news of the sale of the cattle - which are owned by Smiddiehill Holsteins, based at Albrighton, Shropshire - comes as ministers and their advisers are warning that significant food shortages could arise in Britain unless urgent moves are taken to ensure that the country adopts a sensible, balanced food policy. A national debate on the issue is urgently needed, they say.

The problem is that consumers expect cheap and plentiful meat, fruit, vegetables and groceries, yet their production causes harmful greenhouse gases and is unsustainable because of the UK's limited availability of land, oil and water, said Tim Lang, of the government's sustainable development commission (SDC). 'We've had an orgy of choice unparalleled in human history in the past 50 years, but many analysts agree that, unless there is fundamental change, food supply chains could even collapse,' said Lang, who is also professor of food policy at City University, London.

Suggested ways for transforming the attitudes of consumers and the food industry include rationing by putting up prices and encouraging supermarkets to stock a smaller range of identical products. But encouraging the public to behave differently is a complex process, added Lang. More than 30 per cent of people claim to care about companies' environmental and social records, for example, but only 3 per cent reflect these beliefs in their purchases.

'We are missing the point if we put all the onus of choice onto consumers,' said Lang. 'Choice is part of the problem, not the solution. Do you load responsibility on every consumer or do you constrain their choice? We can't ask consumers to spend 24 hours thinking about which of an aisle-full of nearly identical products to buy when so many are inappropriate - too high in carbon, for example.'

Instead, said Lang, policies need to be introduced that shape the choices consumers make. 'We all like to think we choose our diets but choice is already structured by history, price and policy.'

Production, distribution and consumption of food in Britain is responsible for around a fifth of total UK greenhouse gas emissions. The Stern report in 2006 said agriculture alone globally accounts for 31 per cent of emissions.

'The UK situation is being stressed not just by water and oil shortages but also land availability, labour skills and affordability,' said Lang, who is calling for a national debate about future policies to engage the public and how to transform consumption. 'We have to involve the public in this process of change.

'So far, expert debate is about the existence of problems and not enough is about involving the public,' said Lang, who will discuss the issue in early March in a speech at City University titled Food Security: Are we sleep-walking into a crisis?

'There are those who believe we can use hi-tech solutions to get out of the problem and others just believe markets will resolve it. But the key will be public acceptance. The paradox is that Britain was never better fed than during the Second World War, when rationing was in place. This was because the public saw its purpose; it didn't like it, but it accepted necessity. In a future crisis, rationing will be designed for sustainability, not just health and equity.'

Lang's call is supported by the Sustainable Consumption Roundtable - a joint initiative between the SDC and the National Consumer Council (NCC), which explores ways that the government can help create a shift to more sustainable lifestyles and is funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform .

'There is not enough evidence to suggest that consumers on their own are able to change mainstream product markets,' said Ed Mayo, chair of the Roundtable and chief executive of the NCC.

"'Choice editing" for quality and sustainability by regulators, retailers and manufacturers has been the critical driver towards more sustainable consumption. Early announcement of legislation to set minimum standards can also drive a virtuous cycle of rapid innovation and further choice editing,' he added.

Original here

Suicidal Anorexics: Determined to Die?

Deciding not to eat sounds to most people the very definition of suicide. It is perhaps no surprise then that a new study concludes that when anorexics choose to take their own lives, they tend to employ some of the most lethal methods available. Yet, in many ways, the new research conducted at the University of Vermont represents a landmark shift in how doctors understand suicidal tendencies in patients suffering from anorexia nervosa.

Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. But psychologists previously believed that those high rates of death were due to patients' already deteriorated physical state. The hypothesis was that these are people already on the verge of death — they were so malnourished and underweight that even the slightest suicide attempt could easily lead to death.

The new study's authors have shown this assumption is wrong in most cases. Extrapolating from nine case studies of anorexics in Germany and Boston, they concluded that such suicides are not simply a call for help gone wrong, but that anorexics are genuinely determined to die when they attempt to kill themselves. Some of the disturbing means the nine patients profiled used included jumping in front of moving trains, ingesting dangerous household cleaners and setting oneself on fire. These patients also tended to isolate themselves before their suicide attempt, most likely in order to reduce the possibility they would receive life-saving help. "We established that these patients' death had little to do with their low body weight," says lead author Jill Holm-Denoma, a professor of clinical psychology at Vermont and an expert on treating eating disorders. "The methods that they chose could have killed anyone."

Holm-Denoma's work reaffirms, among many others, a 2003 Harvard University study that concluded anorexic women are, by nature of their illness, self-destructive, leading them to have a likelier propensity toward suicide as well as alcohol abuse. That study of about 250 women suffering eating disorders showed the risk of death by suicide among by anorexic women to be as much as 57 times the expected rate of a healthy woman. Research on suicide in 2006 by psychologist Thomas Joiner at Florida State University took those conclusions one step further and suggested anorexics habituate to pain, making them fearless of death, and thus more likely choose a more lethal means to end their lives. Holm-Denoma's research, however, is one of the first studies of the specific methods that suicidal anoxerics use. The gruesome methods they chose as well as how they isolated themselves from rescue, Holm-Denoma says, leaves little doubt that they wished to die.

The new findings, to be published this spring in the Journal of Affective Disorders, come during this year's National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. As many as 10 million women and one million men in the United States suffer from an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia, according to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA). Females between the ages of 15 and 24 are 12 times more likely to die from anorexia than all other causes of death, the NEDA reports. And suicide is the primary cause of death for anorexics, greater even than starvation. Holm-Denoma stresses her research highlights how seriously treatment providers must take suicide risks amongst those suffering from eating disorders. "The likelihood of whether a patient wants to lethally hurt herself must be assessed right away," Holm-Denoma says, adding, "Addressing psychiatric needs must be paramount."

For the families of anorexics, Holm-Denoma's research only affirms their worst fears. One of the biggest frustrations these families face when their loved one is diagnosed with anorexia is how they can obtain affordable psychiatric help. Insurers rarely pick up the bill. Most health plans argue that eating disorders require mental health treatment not covered by most policies and therefore refuse to pay for long-term care. In the direst cases, health plans will often cover a brief hospitalization to stabilize a patient's weight. But once she begins to gain weight again, she will be sent home. "The biological crisis may have passed," says Barbara Anthony, a Boston-based lawyer and executive director of Health Law Advocates, an organization that aids families. "But hospitals and health plans have done little to provide these patients with the mental health care they desperately need."

Meanwhile, costs related to in-patient treatment for an eating disorder can range from $25,000 to $30,000 a month. Many families are forced to take out second mortgages or deplete savings. Such situations are tragic, Holm-Denoma says. "Anorexia is one of the most serious psychiatric diseases our society faces," she says. "Our work shows even further that more needs to be done to prevent it."

Original here

Black Fungus Found in Chernobyl Eats Harmful Radiation

Fungi could eat dangerous radiation to survive, an unexpected finding that could one day help feed astronauts in space — at least those willing to eat a crawling fungus.

The research began with the discovery of black fungus growing on the walls of the damaged, highly radioactive Chernobyl nuclear reactor and collected by robots.

The fungus was rich with melanin, the same pigment that gives human skin its color, protecting the skin from solar and ultraviolet radiation. Melanin is found in many, if not most, fungal species.

• Click here to visit's Natural Science Center.

"The fungal kingdom comprises more species than any other plant or animal kingdom," said researcher Arturo Casadevall, an immunologist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

Nuclear and other high-energy reactions give off ionizing radiation — dangerous rays and particles that can damage genes and thus cause mutations, and eventually cancer.

"Just as the pigment chlorophyll converts sunlight into chemical energy that allows green plants to live and grow," so might melanin help fungi make use of ionizing radiation, said nuclear medicine specialist Ekaterina Dadachova at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

The scientists experimented on three species of fungi. They consistently found that ionizing radiation significantly boosted the growth of fungi that contained melanin.

"In general we think of radiation as something bad or harmful. Here we have a situation where these fungi appear to benefit, which is unexpected," Casadevall told LiveScience.

For example, the researchers exposed two kinds of fungi — one that naturally contained melanin (Wangiella dermatitidis) and another that scientists induced to make the pigment (Crytococcus neoformans) — to levels of ionizing radiation about 500 times higher than normal, the doses one might see at high altitudes where atmospheric shielding from cosmic rays is lessened.

Both species grew significantly faster, as detailed in the May 23 issue of the journal PLoS ONE.

The researchers stressed these findings do not mean fungi can eat radioactive matter and somehow cleanse it. Rather, the fungi can simply harness the energy that radioactive materials give off.

The ability of fungi to live off ionizing radiation could prove useful to people.

"Since ionizing radiation is prevalent in outer space, astronauts might be able to rely on fungi as an inexhaustible food source on long missions or for colonizing other planets," Dadachova said.

Casadevall also noted that the melanin in fungi is no different chemically from the melanin in human skin.

"It's pure speculation — but not outside the realm of possibility — that melanin could be providing energy to skin cells," he said. "While it wouldn't be enough energy to fuel a run on the beach, maybe it could help you to open an eyelid."

Original here

New Material Could Drop Cost of Carbon Capture

Smokestack Georgia Tech scientists have developed a new material that, combined with the right process, could become the cheapest way to separate the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, out of coal plants' smokestacks.

"It's pretty easy and cheap to make and it's got a high capacity for CO2 under realistic conditions," said Chris Jones, a chemical engineer at Georgia Tech.

Those conditions require a material that can trap CO2 out of a mixture of water vapor, nitrogen, and oxygen (among other things), and then release that carbon dioxide on-demand. Being able to do that cheaply remains a dream, and one that some say will always remain "vaporware."

But scientists are pushing on with the effort to develop the right systems to make coal plants outfitted with carbon capture and sequestration cost-competitive with other future power solutions like solar concentrating plants.

Jones' research appears online in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. (Update: Link Fixed. Thanks JMB.)

Two types of materials are seen to have special potential for carbon dioxide separation--zeolites, like Omar Yaghi's ZIFs, and amines. Jones' material is the new top-dog in the latter category because it captures CO2 better than other types of amines and can be used more times (like a longer-lasting sponge). And under real conditions, Jones believes his material could outperform zeolites.

The key challenge is that the material heats up as it traps CO2, then requires heat to release it. In order to be cost effective, he said the heat must be captured and then reused.

"Engineering a process that allows you to capture that heat is the key issue in making this process as cheap as possible," he said. To create a process, he's enlisted fellow Georgia Tech researcher, Bill Koros, to design a new type of so-called filtering bed, which they hope will solve the heat transfer problem.

As we've noted in the past, well-meaning people disagree on whether supporting any sort of coal burning makes sense, but there are two reasons to support carbon capture and sequestration, or the separation and geological burying of carbon dioxide:

Two, biomass burning + sequestration could be a way to actually pull historical CO2 out of the atmosphere. I do, now, have new reservations about biomass, though. Ausra CEO, Bob Fishman, almost had me convinced that biomass was a bad idea. He maintains that you have to grow all the feedstock for the plant ultralocally (like within 50 miles of the plant) to keep the plant environmentally net positive. (And I'm ducking the general biofuel debate that is now raging.)

Original here

Branson's coconut airways - but jet is on a flight to nowhere, say critics

Environmental groups raise doubts over plane that runs partly on biofuel

Virgin Atlantic's 747 at Heathrow airport ready to take off to Amsterdam for the first biofuel flight by an airline. Photograph: Steve Parsons/PA

A little after 11.30 yesterday morning, a Boeing 747 running on jet fuel and the oil from 150,000 coconuts parted company with the runway at Heathrow and slipped into a hazy blue sky.

Forty minutes later, the first commercial aircraft to be powered partly by biofuel touched down at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, paving the way for what some claim could be a revolution in environmentally responsible aviation.

The experiment was the brainchild of the Virgin Atlantic boss, Sir Richard Branson, who hailed the flight as a "historic occasion" and the first step towards using biofuels on commercial flights. Three of the 747's four tanks were filled with normal jet fuel while its fourth carried a mixture that was 80% jet fuel and 20% coconut and babassu palm oil.

"Today marks a biofuel breakthrough for the whole airline industry," Branson told a press conference held next to the aircraft in a Heathrow hangar. "Virgin Atlantic, and its partners, are proving that you can find an alternative to traditional jet fuel and fly a plane on new technology, such as sustainable biofuel."

Branson has pledged to invest profits from his transport empire in biofuel production, but serious doubts have already been raised. Critics argue that biofuels damage developing countries by driving up food prices and harm the environment by encouraging deforestation.

The Heathrow trial, in partnership with Boeing, engine maker General Electric, and Imperium Renewables, attempted to assuage those concerns by using biofuel made from coconut oil harvested from existing plantations in the Philippines and oil from babassu palms, which grow wild in Brazil.

However, Branson admitted that the biofuel mix that partially powered yesterday's flight would not be used commercially.

Wild ideas

Land given to coconut plantations would have to be vastly expanded to satisfy the demands of aviation, resulting in deforestation, while the babassu palms used in yesterday's experiment are not available in sufficient numbers.

The airline industry, he added, would probably have to turn to algae in its search for viable biofuels. Algae are grown in ponds rather than on land, so they do not require deforestation or take space that could be used for food crops.

Branson said: "This pioneering flight will enable those of us who are serious about reducing our carbon emissions to go on developing the fuels of the future, fuels which will power our aircraft in the years ahead through sustainable next-generation oils, such as algae."

Environmental groups have warned that processing algae may produce more carbon dioxide than is saved by using it as an alternative fuel. There are also concerns that algae will compete for fresh-water sources as the ponds evaporate and have to be topped up.

Tim Jones, a policy officer at the World Development Movement, said the minimal amount of biofuel used in the trial underlined the difficulty of reducing emissions within the aviation industry. "It only reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 20% and there is no technology available that allows us to fly without making emissions."

Kenneth Richter, Friends of the Earth aviation campaigner, said: "Biofuels are a major distraction in the fight against climate change. There is mounting evidence that the carbon savings from biofuels are negligible. If Virgin was really serious about reducing the aviation industry's impact on the environment it would support calls for aircraft emissions to be included in the climate change bill."

Aircraft account for 5.5% of UK carbon dioxide emissions and Virgin Atlantic is not the first aviation group to experiment with alternative fuels. Earlier this month, the jet manufacturer Airbus flew an A380 superjumbo with a mix of gas-to-liquid fuel.

A much-trumpeted biofuels trial at Virgin Trains was abandoned last year after the group lost its CrossCountry franchise. A Virgin Trains spokesman said the company was "considering" whether to launch a new trial on the West Coast route.

Concerns about biofuels have spread to mainstream transport companies including National Express, which abandoned a biofuel trial for its buses amid fears that it was causing more harm than good to the environment.

The government acknowledged those concerns last week when it ordered a review of the environmental and economic impact of biofuels.

The transport secretary, Ruth Kelly, said the government might not support an EU proposal to increase the proportion of biofuel in petrol and diesel to 10% by 2020 if the review raises serious doubts.

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