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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Extraordinary satellite images show an ordinary day in Britain - as seen from space

By Daily Mail Reporter

This is Britain - but not as we know it. These extraordinary satellite images reveal what our nation looks like from the skies.

From flight paths and road networks to telephone exchanges across London, the stunning aerial shots paint a striking new perspective on the British Isles.

Everything from London taxi journeys to internet activity across the nation are replicated in the breathtaking images.

Using the latest satellite technology and innovations in aerial photography, the pictures will be shown for the first time on 'Britain from Above', a new BBC series that starts this Sunday.

Enlarge flight

A satellite image over the UK showing aircraft flight paths activity

Presenter Andrew Marr takes to the skies by plane, helicopter, microlight and even parachute to give viewers a bird's eye view of landmarks across the UK.

The programme uses satellite data and the latest computer generated imagery to demonstrate how Britain keeps moving - tracking the planes that enter our airspace, the ships that cross the English Channel and the cars that travel our streets, all in the space of a single day.

Enlarge taxi

London Taxi activity - proving how difficult it is to get a taxi south of the river

Series director Cassian Harrison, said: 'It has been amazing to work with cameras mounted on so many helicopters and planes.

'The one disadvantage is that when we film we're contending so much with the weather.

'It has been a battle with the elements, but a brilliant one, working out how many different ways it is possible to get up in the sky and look down at the nation.

'In a way, though, the biggest privilege is being able to look down on the world you know.

'It's like Google Earth, but for real.'

'Britain From Above' begins on BBC1 on Sunday at 9pm.

Enlarge road

HGV activity at the M4/M5 junction near Bristol in the South West


Enlarge net

Internet activity in the South of England

Enlarge phone Telephone exchange activity over part of the UK

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Pluto should get back planet status, say astronomers

By Richard Gray, Science Correspondent

Pluto should have its status as a planet reinstated, leading astronomers have said.

Senior space scientists, including experts from Nasa, will this week attack a controversial decision by the International Astronomical Union, the body responsible for astronomy nomenclature, to redefine what constitutes a planet.

The new definition adopted by the Union saw Pluto demoted to a new kind of celestial underclass now known as "plutoids".

Pluto:
Too small: Pluto's classification was changed to plutoid by the International Astronomical Union

It had been been known as the furthest planet from the sun since its discovery around 70 years, but saw its status changed because of its small size and remote position in the solar system.

Scientists speaking at a major conference on planets in the Maryland, which starts on Thursday, will call for the icy globe to be reinstated as the ninth planet.

They claim that the revised definitions are confusing and will mean that newly discovered planets in solar systems outside our own can no longer be described as such.

In the current classification, all small and nearly spherical objects orbiting beyond the eighth planet from the sun, Neptune, are now plutoids.

Dr David Morrison, director of the Nasa Lunar Science Institute in California, said: "It has never before been necessary for any organisation to define a word that has been in common every day use so I see no reason why it was necessary on this occasion.

"Astronomers use adjectives such as giant and dwarf to describe different subclasses of objects like planets, stars and galaxies, so why could Pluto not remain as a dwarf planet just as Jupiter is a giant planet.

"Also, around 90 per cent of the planets we know now are outside our solar system, but under the International Astronomical Union’s definition, they cannot be classed as planets."

Scientists speaking at the Great Planet Debate conference will also propose using a simple shape-based mechanism for categorising planets.

Mark Sykes, from the Planetary Science Institute will argue that roundness should be the only category that is applied.

This, he says, will lead to the number of planets in our own solar system increasing to 12.

This has alarmed traditionalists at the International Astronomical Union who fear there will be an ever increasing number of planets in the solar system as more smaller objects are discovered.

Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson, from the American Museum of Natural History, will argue that Pluto does not deserve to be a planet.

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Scientists stop the ageing process


protein

Clean bill of health: Scientists have shown that clearing damaged protein from the liver helps stop age decline in the organ (Source: iStockphoto)

Scientists have stopped the ageing process in an entire organ for the first time, a study released today says.

Published in today's online edition of Nature Medicine, researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University in New York City also say the older organs function as well as they did when the host animal was younger.

The researchers, led by Associate Professor Ana Maria Cuervo, blocked the ageing process in mice livers by stopping the build-up of harmful proteins inside the organ's cells.

As people age their cells become less efficient at getting rid of damaged protein resulting in a build-up of toxic material that is especially pronounced in Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and other neurodegenerative disorders.

The researchers say the findings suggest that therapies for boosting protein clearance might help stave off some of the declines in function that accompanies old age.

In experiments, livers in genetically modified mice 22 to 26 months old, the equivalent of octogenarians in human years, cleaned blood as efficiently as those in animals a quarter their age.

By contrast, the livers of normal mice in a control group began to fail.

The benefits of restoring the cleaning mechanisms found inside all cells could extend far beyond a single organ, says Cuervo.

"Our findings are particularly relevant for neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's," she says.

'Misbehaving proteins'

"Many of these diseases are due to 'misbehaving' or damaged proteins that accumulate in neurons. By preventing this decline in protein clearance, we may be able to keep these people free of symptoms for a longer time."

If the body's ability to dispose of cell debris within the cell were enhanced across a wider range of tissues, she says, it could extend life as well.

In healthy organisms, a surveillance system inside cells called chaperone-mediated autophagy (CMA) locates, digests and destroys damaged proteins.

Specialised molecules, the "chaperones", ferry the harmful material to membrane-bound sacs of enzymes within the cells known as lysosomes.

Once the cargo has been "docked", a receptor molecule transfers the protein into the sac, where it is rapidly digested.

With age, these receptors stop working as well, resulting in a dangerous build-up of faulty proteins that has been linked, in the liver, to insulin resistance as well as the inability to metabolise sugar, fats or alcohol.

The same breakdown of the cell's cleaning machinery can also impair the liver's ability to remove the toxic build-up of drugs at a stage in life when medication is often part of daily diet.

In genetically modified mice, Cuervo compensated for the loss of the receptors in the animals by adding extra copies.

"That was enough to maintain a clean liver and to prove that if you keep your cells clean they work better," she says.

Settles debate

The study goes a long way towards settling a sharp debate in the field of ageing research.

Leading Australian ageing researcher David le Couteur, Professor of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Sydney, says the paper is a major breakthrough.

"She has single-handedly shown that lysosome function is a crucial part of the ageing process," he says.

Cuervo has also shown, he says, the critical role the lysosomal receptor molecules play in keeping the liver clean of damaged proteins.

While her paper does not show increased survival rates among the mice, le Couteur, who has advised her recently on the research, says Cuervo does have data on improved survival rates which she intends to publish.

He also says she is now working with pharmaceutical companies to identify drugs that will turn the receptors on, or make them more active.

Cuervo believes maintaining efficient protein clearance may improve longevity and function in all the body's tissues.

It is also possible that the same kind of "cellular clearance" can be achieved through diet, she says.

Research over the past decade has shown that restricted calorie intake in animals, including mammals, significantly enhances longevity.

"My ideal intervention in the future would be a better diet rather than a pill," she says.

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Seals find secrets of deep Antarctic

SCIENTISTS are uncovering the deepest secrets of the freezing Antarctic waters by enlisting elephant seals to carry probes to places never before reached by humans.

The seals’ diving ability is being used to collect data from far beneath the ice shelves of the Antarctic coastlines as well as from the open sea.

The creatures can reach depths of 6,500ft, so revealing information about the ocean’s greatest mysteries. Scientists from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and St Andrews University attached miniaturised sensors to about 80 seals, then proceeded to track them.

“The sensors are so good that they can record water temperature, salinity and pressure – even tell us what the animal was doing,” said Iain Staniland, a seal and penguin expert at BAS.

The seals were tagged at the islands of South Georgia, Kerguelen and Macquarie in the Southern Ocean, and at the western coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. Data from the seals were then transmitted back to land via satellite when they surfaced.

“The Southern Ocean is the hardest place in the world to obtain oceanographic data, especially during the winter,” said Mike Meredith, head of the atmosphere and ocean group at BAS. “The seals collected data from deep seas we couldn’t ordinarily access due to remoteness and harsh environments.”

The project’s success has led researchers to tag other marine creatures, such as penguins, fur seals and even albatrosses.

“We are designing very small, light tags to fix to birds so we can gather information on the Antarctic climate,” said Staniland. Such data are vital for understanding the processes that keep Antarctica frozen, and for measuring its responses to phenomena such as climate change. One theory is that the Antarctic stays cold because of a circumpolar current, whose low temperature cools the air above, so effectively insulating the continent.

In recent years, however, some regions, such as the Antarctic Peninsula, have shown signs of warming, and many ice shelves have been breaking up. The data collected by elephant seals could show if warmer currents are disrupting the polar circulation.

The research has also provided intriguing insight to the lives of one of the Antarctic’s most elusive mammals. Elephant seals only come ashore for short periods – once in September-October (to breed), then again in January (to moult). The other nine months are spent entirely at sea – mostly underwater.

Fascinatingly, elephant seals often take catnaps while drifting 1,500ft or more beneath the ice or waves. Scientists believe they have evolved this ability because they have to sleep, yet to do so on the surface puts them at risk of attack by killer whales and sharks. Researchers such as Staniland believe the seals’ most astonishing feature, though, is their ability to recover from a deep dive and head back underwater in just a couple of minutes.

“Diving builds up lactic acid in their muscles and empties their blood of oxgyen, but they reverse that within a few minutes and dive again,” he said. “It is a truly amazing feat.”

However, the diving ability of elephant seals may be rivalled by certain species of whale, in particular Cuvier’s beaked whale. In waters off Italy, this creature was recently found to be capable of reaching a depth of 6,200ft. While this is no deeper than the maximum of the elephant seals, the whale has shown itself able to stay down there for up to 85 minutes.

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Invisibility cloak 'step closer'


An illustration of a person wearing an invisibility cloak
For now, the invisibility cloak remains a thing of science fiction

Scientists in the US say they are a step closer to developing materials that could render people invisible.

Researchers at the University of California in Berkeley have developed a material that can bend light around 3D objects making them "disappear".

The materials do not occur naturally but have been created on a nano scale, measured in billionths of a metre.

The team says the principles could one day be scaled up to make invisibility cloaks large enough to hide people.

Stealth operations

The findings, by scientists led by Xiang Zhang, were published in the journals Nature and Science.

The light-bending effect relies on reversing refraction, the effect that makes a straw placed in water appear bent.

Previous efforts have shown this negative refraction effect using microwaves—a wavelength far longer than humans can see.

In order to have the 'Harry Potter' effect, you just need to find the right materials for the visible wavelengths
Ortwin Hess

The new materials instead work at wavelengths around those used in the telecommunications industry—much nearer to the visible part of the spectrum.

Two different teams led by Zhang made objects made of so-called metamaterials—artificial structures with features smaller than the wavelength of light that give the materials their unusual properties.

One approach used nanometre-scale stacks of silver and magnesium fluoride in a "fishnet" structure, while another made use of nanowires made of silver.

Light is neither absorbed nor reflected by the objects, passing "like water flowing around a rock," according to the researchers. As a result, only the light from behind the objects can be seen.

Cloak and shadow

Close-up of cloaking material, J Valentine et al. Nature
The fine structure of the material gives it light-bending abilities
"This is a huge step forward, a tremendous achievement," says Professor Ortwin Hess of the Advanced Technology Institute at the University of Surrey.

"It's a careful choice of the right materials and the right structuring to get this effect for the first time at these wavelengths."

There could be more immediate applications for the devices in telecommunications, Prof Hess says.

What's more, they could be used to make better microscopes, allowing images of far smaller objects than conventional microscopes can see.

And a genuine cloaking effect isn't far around the corner.

"In order to have the 'Harry Potter' effect, you just need to find the right materials for the visible wavelengths," says Prof Hess, "and it's absolutely thrilling to see we're on the right track."

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Aussies crack cancer secret

AUSTRALIAN scientists are hoping to cure leukaemia, asthma and rheumatoid arthritis after their breakthrough discovery of how to stop killer blood cells growing.

The team has unlocked the secrets behind the protein which controls the way the blood cancer cells spread when it is damaged - and have found a way to stop its deadly process.

Work is now starting to design a drug to prevent the damaged proteins operating, effectively stopping the cancer as well as asthma and inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.

After spending a decade uncovering the structure of the receptor protein, which sits on the surface of white blood cells, lead researcher Professor Michael Parker, of Melbourne's St Vincent's Institute, said scientists could now build a drug to attach itself to the protein and stop it sending messages into the cells telling them to multiply unchecked.

"If we can stop the signal for the proliferation of uncontrolled growth of the cells then we can stop the leukaemia in its tracks," he said.

Working with molecular biologists at Adelaide's Hanson Institute, the Melbourne scientists used X-ray and synchrotron imaging to build an image of the structure of the protein for the first time, hoping to find a way to block its process.

The GM-CSF hormone - which controls the production of blood cells in the body - works by attaching itself to the receptor proteins, which then send a message into white blood cells telling them to multiply.

When damaged, the protein's messages cause an over-production of cells or cells which persist too long, resulting in diseases such as leukaemia as well as some inflammatory conditions.

The major breakthrough came when the researchers realised the proteins linked together to form networks on the surface of white blood cells after being activated by the hormone, and that by stopping the networks forming they could also stop the growth.

Liam Heudebourck, who was diagnosed with asthma four years ago, was yesterday hopeful about the discovery.

The Camden seven-year-old was admitted to hospital in March after suffering a major attack.

"If scientists found a cure or something that could help not to have his puffer every day, that would be great," his mother, Belinda English said.

While the drug development phase has only just begun, Professor Parker said it would be easier to target a protein on the surface of the cell rather than trying to come up with a molecule to break its way into the centre of the cell.

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Charles Darwin investigated whether blondes have more fun

By Richard Gray, Science Correspondent

Charles Darwin and a letter on differential marriage rates among blondes and brunettes from Dr Beddoe
Charles Darwin made notes on the letters he received from Dr John Beddoe but eventually concluded that the evidence was not good enough to prove the theory Photo: by permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library/PA

Letters uncovered as part of a major project to compile Darwin's correspondence have revealed that the great Victorian naturalist devoted part of his time to examining whether hair colour affects a woman's ability to find a mate.

He set out to investigate a theory that the prevalence of dark hair in the general population was increasing because brunettes were more likely to get married and have dark-haired offspring, while blondes tended to stay single and childless.

To further his research, he asked a doctor at Bristol Royal Infirmary to compile and send him data on the hair colour of married and single female patients at the hospital.

The investigation took place a decade after the publication of The Origin of Species, Darwin's tome of 1859 which led to the theory of evolution.

Dr Alison Pearn, assistant director of the Darwin Correspondence Project at Cambridge University Library, said that Darwin seemed to treat the blonde question quite seriously, and had made extensive notes and calculations on the letters sent to him from the doctor.

She said: "Darwin was fascinated by questions of hair colour and the role it might play in choosing sexual partners. He was keen to test whether English blondes really were more likely to stay single, with a resulting decrease in blonde hair in subsequent generations.

"There are nine sets of calculations in which Darwin and his son George, who was about to take up a fellowship at Cambridge, combined and reanalysed the data."

Darwin received three letters from Dr John Beddoe in 1869 which contained data from the doctor's observations of female patients coming into the hospital. The first set of data revealed that 52 per cent of the married women were dark-haired while just 15 per cent were blonde. On the other hand only 39 per cent of the single women had dark hair and 22 per cent were blonde.

In his first letter to Darwin, on 21 August 1869, Dr Beddoe wrote: "Your apology for troubling me in this matter really made me feel ashamed – I think there can be but few of us humbler cultivators of natural science, who would not feel it an honour to be permitted to contribute his stone towards the building of your great edifice."

Darwin made notes on the letters but eventually concluded that the evidence was not good enough to prove the theory, and that the predominance of dark hair in married women could be due to the natural darkening of hair with age.

He wrote a note in the corner of the last letter from Beddoe: "I must give up the whole case."

Dr Pearn added that Darwin appeared to have been researching the theory as part of his work on sexual selection, the process that causes traits in a species to become more common because they are seen as more attractive by potential mates, before publishing The Descent of Man in 1871.

He said: "Sadly, so far none of Darwin's letters to Beddoe have been found. There are no fewer than nine sets of calculations in which Darwin and his son, George, who was just about to take up a fellowship in Cambridge, combined and reanalysed the data.

"Eventually Darwin came to the conclusion that the experimental basis was not good enough. Both Beddoe and Darwin came to the conclusion that the original results were misleading and didn't make sufficient allowance for the darkening of hair with age."

The researchers behind the Darwin Correspondence Project are attempting to compile 15,000 of the letters that Darwin wrote and received during his lifetime. Many of the letters are owned by charitable trusts and sell for thousands of pounds each.

Others have been found in dusty attics and boxes where they have been stored by families for generations, but thousands more are feared to have been discarded.

The letters provide an unprecedented insight into Darwin's life, his famous journey around the world on the Beagle as a young man and his work on the theory of natural selection. After his five year voyage as the ship's naturalist on the Beagle in 1831, Darwin spent much of his life bound to his desk, relying on others to do field work for him and gathering evidence through his letters.

Many of the letters are undated and all are handwritten in Darwin's spidery script, making them very difficult for the researchers to interpret. Often they have only have the type of paper and ink used to pinpoint the date of a letter.

Professor Jim Secord, director of the Darwin Correspondence Project and an expert on the history of science at Cambridge University, said: "He had hundreds of correspondents from all over the world as well as manuscripts, seed samples, plants and even dung. These letters give us an insight into Darwin the scientist and also Darwin the man and his family life.

"We have had to apply a lot of detective work into these letters as few of them are actually dated, while some of the words he uses do not mean the same as they do now and there are a lot of abbreviations that read a bit like modern text messages."

Keith Moore, chief librarian and a Darwin expert at the Royal Society, said: "This really shows the range of interests that Darwin had. He would dedicate himself to studying tiny obscure things that would seem trivial to us now. He was tremendously interested in how traits were passed on through species."

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Dutch paving stones clean air pollution

Posted by Martin LaMonica

A Dutch University will see if chemically tricked-out paving stones can clean the air.

The University of Twente (UT) has devised a concrete capable of converting the nitrogen oxide from car exhaust--the source of smog and acid rain--into a nitrate, another chemical that will wash away in the rain.

Green chemistry: how green bricks convert nitrogen oxide air pollution into nitrates with the sun.

(Credit: University of Twente)

When fertilizers are applied heavily, high levels of nitrates can enter the soil or water and be toxic to humans or livestock. Jos Brouwers from the University of Twente said that the nitrate production from its paving stones will be "harmless" and well below Dutch water standards.

The researchers came up with the air-purifying paving stones by tapping the properties of titanium dioxide, a chemical that catalyzes chemical reactions when exposed to light.

The top layer of the University of Twente paving stones contains the material mixed with concrete. So when sun shines, smog-producing pollutants will convert into nitrates and then wash away, keeping the stones surface clean in the process.

The university received a sustainability grant to test its invention in the municipality of Hengelo.

By the end of this year, researchers expect to complete construction of a road where one side is built with the specially coated paving stones. The other half will have tradition materials.

The results of how much the stones reduce air pollution should be ready by next year. If successful, the tests could be expanded further, the university said.

It's not the first time that the Dutch have been inventive with road construction. A civil engineering firm has devised a paving technique to absorb heat from asphalt to melt ice and heat neighboring buildings.

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Trial of anti-AIDS vaccine in Chennai lab a success

CHENNAI: India's HIV vaccine programme got a major boost with scientists of the Tuberculosis Research Centre (TRC) here reporting significant progress in the first phase of clinical trials for a vaccine to prevent AIDS.

Preliminary results of phase one trial have successfully proved the vaccine's safety and its ability to stimulate immune response (that might provide protection against infection), the centre's head told TOI.

Confirming the development, TRC director V D Ramanathan said: "The trial was to check the vaccine’s safety and also whether it fulfilled the secondary objective of stimulating immune response. We will announce the results to the world soon after we have the complete analysis of the data."

TRC is affiliated to the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), which, along with National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) and the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI), has spearheaded the vaccine trial in India.

"The Phase I trial of an MVA-based AIDS vaccine candidate (TBC - M4) was conducted at the TRC in Chennai. The preliminary results of the trial showed that the vaccine candidate was generally safe and well tolerated and the frequency of immune responses by volunteers after three injections was good. The phase I trial is over and the final data is under analysis," said Dr Sonali Kochar, Medical Director, IAVI India.

The initial success of the trial with the MVA (Modified Vacinia Anacara)-based vaccine candidate (TBC-M4) comes in the wake of National AIDS Research Institute (NARI) in Pune winding up research with another vaccine candidate AAV (Adena-Associated Virus).

The Pune institute's trials ended in December 2007, after tests in two other countries, Germany and Belgium, with the same vaccine candidate failed.

The vaccine being tested in Chennai has been designed by a Kolkata-based ICMR scientist. To date, there have been at least nine MVA vaccine candidates that have been tested or are still currently in testing in labs around the world.

Controversy clouded the Pune project with reports that the trial conducted on 30 healthy volunteers continued for a year despite scientists learning even within a fortnight that the AAV vaccine had failed in tests in Germany and Belgium.

The Union government and the IAVI had signed an agreement to conduct the HIV vaccine trials both in Chennai's TRC and Pune's NARI. But, with the Pune trials being stopped, the Chennai project is India's only hope for a HIV vaccine.

The phase one trial of the vaccine at TRC, which began in January 2006, was conducted on about 30 healthy, HIV negative volunteers. "The prime objective was to check its safety which we have tested successfully. The secondary objective
of checking its ability to stimulate an immune response has also been tested," said Dr Ramanathan, whose team has been tirelessly working on the vaccine, which could provide a key preventive weapon in India’s war against AIDS.

In phase II of the trial, the vaccine will be tested on a larger number of volunteers, about 300 men and women. The objective of the phase II trial is to double-check the safety of the vaccine, its immune response and the dosage to be administered. It will take about four years for this phase to be completed and another eight years for phase III, during which about 3,000 volunteers, drawn from low and high risk groups, would be tested.

According to Dr Kochar, there are approximately 30 AIDS vaccine candidates in the clinical pipeline in various stages of testing today. One of these candidates is being tested in a phase III trial in Thailand, the third AIDS vaccine candidate to reach efficacy testing to date.

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How Marijuana Works

How Marijuana Works




Rumour has it that marijuana has some pretty interesting effects on the human brain, but how could plant smoke affect our physiology? Well, it's all to do with a case of mistaken identity. Logan Wright goes in search of cells that get duped by dope into having a high old time.


Known variously as marijuana, ganja, cannabis, pot, jays, joints and Mary Jane, the product derived from the cannabis plant is undoubtedly the most popular illicit recreational drug in the world; hence its countless pet names. It can be taken in a variety of creative ways including smoking, eating and drinking, even has incarnations in gum or brownies form.

THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol if you prefer, is a compound within the cannabis plant that, like nicotine or caffeine, may have evolved to ward off herbivores. Its strong psychoactive properties, however, have proven rather seductive to the international drugs scene.

The parts of the brain most affected by marijuana. Click to enlarge.
Once it reaches the bloodstream, THC takes only a few seconds to reach the brain, where it passes itself off as a neurotransmitter - the chemicals which carry messages between neurons in the brain. THC is shaped much like a neurotransmitter called anandamide, which means it can sneak itself into the brain’s anandamide receptor proteins and start to cause mischief. With THC’s spanner in the works, some of the brain’s normal functions really begin to waver.

The receptor proteins are located primarily in three areas of the brain: the hippocampus, responsible for short term memory; the cerebellum, an area controlling coordination; and the basal ganglia, which manages unconscious muscle movement. These are the functions that are altered by THC’s presence, which is why a marijuana user will typically experience impaired coordination, memory lapses, paranoia and altered perception, as well as feeling their heart quicken.


THC's chemical structure. Click to enlarge. Why don't you download the structure, draw a picture and enter it to the THC gallery?
One thing scientists do not thoroughly understand is how THC interacts with dopamine, the chemical that is well known for generating feelings of pleasure and motivation. It’s thought that when THC activates receptor proteins a signal is sent to nearby dopamine terminals in the brain. These then begin to produce inordinate amounts of dopamine, triggering that contented feeling known to so many politicians.

The health effects of marijuana are hotly contested. There is good evidence that it is effective a treating the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and is used by many people as a treatment for a variety of ills and aches.

However, although it’s generally accepted to be safer than heroine or cocaine, marijuana may have several potential long term effects, which are less helpful. The drug has been linked to an increased incidence of schizophrenia and other mental illnesses. It is also referred to as a “gateway drug” because many marijuana users move from it to more dangerous drugs in search of a more powerful experiencer. For those particularly enamored with the drug’s effects, however, there is consolation: some believe that marijuana use may lead to an eventual perma-high.


Cannabis trivia:

  • Archaeologists have reported that marijuana was one of the first plants cultivated by humans. It was being used 10,000 years ago for linen, paper, and garments. In China and India, it was being smoked as early as 2700 BC.
  • The Ancient Greek historian Herodotus mentions that Scythian tribes used to pile cannabis leaves on to bonfires during wild festivals.
  • George Washington, the first US president, grew cannabis, declaring "Make the most you can of the Indian Hemp seed and sow it everywhere."
  • In Vietnam, where cannabis grows wild and free, people rarely smoke it themselves. Instead they feed it to their pigs, who get the serious munchies. The result is that the farmers produce some very fat, and very chilled out, pigs.
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38 dead after being bitten by vampire bats

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- At least 38 Warao Indians have died in remote villages in Venezuela, and medical experts suspect an outbreak of rabies spread by bites from vampire bats.

Warao Indian women grieve over the body of Elbia Rivas, who died from an unidentified illness August 3.

Warao Indian women grieve over the body of Elbia Rivas, who died from an unidentified illness August 3.

Laboratory investigations have yet to confirm the cause, but the symptoms point to rabies, according to two researchers from the University of California at Berkeley and other medical experts.

The two UC Berkeley researchers -- the husband-and-wife team of anthropologist Charles Briggs and public health specialist Dr. Clara Mantini-Briggs -- said the symptoms include fever, body pains, tingling in the feet followed by progressive paralysis, and an extreme fear of water. Victims tend to have convulsions and grow rigid before death.

Dr. Charles Rupprecht, chief of the rabies program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, agreed with their preliminary diagnosis.

"The history and clinical signs are compatible with rabies," Rupprecht told The Associated Press on Friday. "Prevention is straightforward: Prevent bites and vaccinate those at risk of bites."

Venezuelan health officials are investigating the outbreak and plan to distribute mosquito nets to prevent bat bites and send a medical boat to provide treatment in remote villages on the Orinoco River delta, Indigenous Peoples Minister Nicia Maldonado said Thursday, according to the state-run Bolivarian News Agency.

Outbreaks of rabies spread by vampire bats are a problem in various tropical areas of South America, including Brazil and Peru, Rupprecht said.

He said researchers suspect that in some cases environmental degradation -- including mining, logging or dam construction projects -- may also be contributing to rabies outbreaks.

"Vampire bats are very adaptable," Rupprecht said. And when their roosts are disrupted or their normal prey grow scarce, "Homo sapiens is a pretty easy meal."

More study is needed to confirm through blood or other samples from victims that it is the rabies virus in Venezuela, researchers say.

At least 38 Warao Indians have died since June 2007, and at least 16 have died in the past two months, according to a report the Berkeley researchers and indigenous leaders provided to Venezuelan officials this week.

One village, Mukuboina, lost eight of its roughly 80 inhabitants -- all of them children, Briggs said. All victims throughout the area died within two to seven days from the onset of symptoms, he said.

During a study trip Briggs and Mantini-Briggs made through 30 villages in the river delta, relatives said the victims had been bitten by bats. The couple have worked among the Warao in Delta Amacuro state for years and were invited by indigenous leaders to study the outbreak.

"It's a monster illness," said Tirso Gomez, a Warao traditional healer who said the indigenous group of more than 35,000 people has never experienced anything similar.

Mantini-Briggs, a Venezuelan former health official, said she was surprised to find many Warao villages now have cats -- a new development. "The Waraos told us it was because there were too many bats that were biting the children," she said.

Another tropical medicine expert, Dr. Daniel Bausch of Tulane University in New Orleans, agreed the symptoms and accounts suggest rabies transmitted by bats, and if confirmed, "probably a vaccination campaign would be in order."

The researchers have begun taking precautions. Mantini-Briggs said she started to wonder about her own health Friday while talking with biologist Omar Linares, a bat expert at Simon Bolivar University.

She remembered there was blood on her sheet after sleeping in a hammock in a Warao village two weeks ago. Initially she had dismissed it as an unimportant insect bite or something else, but she remembered her finger hurting that morning and that she saw two small red dots there.

Confirming it must have been a bat bite, Linares suggested she get rabies shots immediately.

"I'm sure a bat bit me," she said. "I remembered and said 'I'm going to get vaccinated.' "

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US Kind of a World Leader in Wind Power Generation

AP IMPACT: Bush to relax protected species rules

In this Jan. 30, 2005, file photo, a bald eagle soars over a farm in Sheffield Mills, N.S., Canada.  Parts of the Endangered Species Act may soon be extinct. The Bush administration wants federal agencies to decide for themselves whether construction projects such as highways, dams and mines might harm endangered animals and plants. The new regulations, which don't require the approval of Congress, would reduce the mandatory, independent reviews government scientists have been performing for 35 years, according to a draft obtained by The Associated Press. (AP Photo/Andrew Vaughan, File)By DINA CAPPIELLO

WASHINGTON - Parts of the Endangered Species Act may soon be extinct. The Bush administration wants federal agencies to decide for themselves whether highways, dams, mines and other construction projects might harm endangered animals and plants.

New regulations, which don't require the approval of Congress, would reduce the mandatory, independent reviews government scientists have been performing for 35 years, according to a draft obtained by The Associated Press.

The draft rules also would bar federal agencies from assessing the emissions from projects that contribute to global warming and its effect on species and habitats.

If approved, the changes would represent the biggest overhaul of the Endangered Species Act since 1988. They would accomplish through regulations what conservative Republicans have been unable to achieve in Congress: ending some environmental reviews that developers and other federal agencies blame for delays and cost increases on many projects.

The changes would apply to any project a federal agency would fund, build or authorize. Government wildlife experts currently perform tens of thousands of such reviews each year.

"If adopted, these changes would seriously weaken the safety net of habitat protections that we have relied upon to protect and recover endangered fish, wildlife and plants for the past 35 years," said John Kostyack, executive director of the National Wildlife Federation's Wildlife Conservation and Global Warming initiative.

Under current law, federal agencies must consult with experts at the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service to determine whether a project is likely to jeopardize any endangered species or to damage habitat, even if no harm seems likely. This initial review usually results in accommodations that better protect the 1,353 animals and plants in the U.S. listed as threatened or endangered and determines whether a more formal analysis is warranted.

The Interior Department said such consultations are no longer necessary because federal agencies have developed expertise to review their own construction and development projects, according to the 30-page draft obtained by the AP.

"We believe federal action agencies will err on the side of caution in making these determinations," the proposal said.

The director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, H. Dale Hall, in an interview with the AP Monday, said the changes will help focus expertise on projects that have serious repercussions for species.

"We are trying to be more efficient, which means not do consultations that result in a difference for the species," Hall said.

A National Marine Fisheries Service spokeswoman declined Monday to discuss the draft proposal since it had yet to be published.

The new rules are expected to be proposed formally in coming weeks. They would be subject to a 60-day public comment period before being finalized by the Interior Department, giving the administration enough time to impose them before November's presidential election. A new administration could freeze any pending regulations or reverse them, a process that could take months. Congress could also overturn the rules through legislation, but that could take even longer.

The proposal was drafted largely by attorneys in the general counsel's offices of the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Interior Department, according to an official with the National Marine Fisheries Service, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the plan hadn't yet been circulated publicly. The two agencies' experts were not consulted until last week, the official said.

Between 1998 and 2002, the Fish and Wildlife Service conducted 300,000 consultations. The National Marine Fisheries Service, which evaluates projects affecting marine species, conducts about 1,300 reviews each year.

The reviews have helped safeguard protected species such as bald eagles, Florida panthers and whooping cranes. A federal government handbook from 1998 described the consultations as "some of the most valuable and powerful tools to conserve listed species."

In recent years, however, some federal agencies and private developers have complained that the process results in delays and increased construction costs.

"We have always had concerns with respect to the need for streamlining and making it a more efficient process," said Joe Nelson, a lawyer for the National Endangered Species Act Reform Coalition, a trade group for home builders and the paper and farming industry.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, called the proposed changes illegal.

"This proposed regulation is another in a continuing stream of proposals to repeal our landmark environmental laws through the back door," she said. "If this proposed regulation had been in place, it would have undermined our ability to protect the bald eagle, the grizzly bear and the gray whale."

The Bush administration and Congress have attempted with mixed success to change the law.

In 2003, the administration imposed similar rules that would have allowed agencies to approve new pesticides and projects to reduce wildfire risks without asking the opinion of government scientists about whether threatened or endangered species and habitats might be affected. The pesticide rule was later overturned in court. The Interior Department, along with the Forest Service, is currently being sued over the rule governing wildfire prevention.

In 2005, the House passed a bill that would have made similar changes to the Endangered Species Act, but the bill died in the Senate.

The sponsor of that bill, then-House Resources chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif., told the AP Monday that allowing agencies to judge for themselves the effects of a project will not harm species or habitat.

"There is no way they can rubber stamp everything because they will end up in court for every decision," he said.

But internal reviews by the National Marine Fisheries Service and Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that about half the unilateral evaluations by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management that determined wildfire prevention projects were unlikely to harm protected species were not legally or scientifically valid.

Those had been permitted under the 2003 rule changes.

"This is the fox guarding the hen house. The interests of agencies will outweigh species protection interests," said Eric Glitzenstein, the attorney representing environmental groups in the lawsuit over the wildfire prevention regulations. "What they are talking about doing is eviscerating the Endangered Species Act."

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How to turn gas guzzlers into green machines

How much gasoline could US citizens save by driving around in light-weight hybrid vehicles? Up to half what they currently use, say scientists at MIT.

The US consumes about 140 billion gallons of gasoline each year. A team of researchers led by John Heywood has completed a five-year assessment of what can be done to slash that and save fuel for the nation.

They looked at how gas and diesel engines, as well as hybrid electric cars and plug-in cars, are likely to evolve between now and 2035. They also assessed what can reasonably be expected from new fuels such as hydrogen and biofuels.

"Improvements" in cars in recent years have largely focused on increasing performance, driven by the demand for ever-larger and more powerful cars. As a result, no significant fuel consumption gains have been realised over the past 25 years, says the team.

They call for car manufacturers to focus efforts on improving fuel savings over performance.

Lighten the load

A seemingly simple way of reducing the amount of fuel used by cars without a big change in consumer preferences would be to produce lighter cars. Heywood's team estimate that the average US car 25 years from now could feasibly weigh between 20% and 35% less without compromising on security and convenience. This alone would cut fuel consumption by between 12% and 20%.

Looking to what types of cars could push petroleum cars off the roads in 15 to 30 years, the team see the greatest potential in hybrid electric and plug-in hybrid electric cars – with batteries that can be topped up from the grid.

Whereas current spark-ignition cars use on average 8.9 litres of gasoline to travel 100 kilometres, more efficient equivalents could consume just 5.5 litres by 2035, while hybrids and plug-in hybrids would consume 3.1 and 2.2 litres respectively.

The team calculate what this would mean in terms of carbon dioxide emissions. On average, current "conventional" cars in the US emit 277 grams of CO2 per km travelled. In 2035, their equivalents could chuck out just 178g per km. Hybrids and plug-in hybrids, meanwhile, are projected to emit just 109g.

The price tag

There will be a price to pay though: the hybrids will cost between $2500 and $5900 more than their contemporary petrol-only equivalents. Heywood says the government may have to step in to help with the transition.

Despite the hurdles, he and his team estimate that by improving fuel efficiency over the next 15 years and bringing in "radically different" cars including hybrids and possibly fuel cell cars in the next 30, it should be possible to slash the amount of fuel guzzled by the gas-guzzling nation by 30% to 50% by 2035.

The team points out that the biggest change can come from the drivers themselves. "We have got to get out of the habit of thinking that we only need to focus on improving the technology, that we can invent our way out of this situation," says Heywood.

"Transitioning from our current situation onto a path with declining fuel consumption and emissions, even in the developed world, will take several decades – much longer than we had hoped or realised," he says. "We've got to start now."

Reference: On the road in 2035, 2008

Cars and Motoring - Learn more about the latest technologies in our comprehensive special report.

Energy and Fuels - Learn more about the looming energy crisis in our comprehensive special report.

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Kangaroo Farming Could Reduce Global Warming

Geothermal power tapping its potential

NEW YORK — When a historic seminary in the heart of Manhattan went searching for a way to cut its energy costs in an environmentally friendly way, it didn't turn to the heavens for sun or wind power but sought salvation in an unlikely direction for a religious institution. It looked underground.

Tapping the energy stored in the Earth, the General Theological Seminary, the oldest Episcopal seminary in America, is in the midst of a multiyear effort to construct the largest geothermal project on the East Coast. When completed, 20 wells reaching depths of at least 1,500 feet will supply water to heat and cool the seminary's 275,000 square feet of space.

The institution—built on land donated by Clement Clark Moore, who wrote "The Night Before Christmas"—is hardly alone in seeing the potential for geothermal power. From large power plants in the West that produce electricity to a hospital in the Chicago suburb of Elgin to homeowners looking to save money on their utility bills, geothermal power is experiencing steady but largely unnoticed growth in America.

Seeking alternatives

Say "alternative energy" and the images that spring to mind are probably huge wind turbines spinning above a farm field, or a vast array of solar panels.

But rising energy prices are bringing other unconventional energy sources to the fore, especially geothermal energy, which relies on the relatively straightforward principle that the temperature of the Earth below a certain level stays more or less constant. And the technology does not require high-visibility equipment like wind power or still-evolving methods for storing solar power efficiently.

"Drilling a hole is drilling a hole," said Maureen Burnley, head of finance and operations at the seminary, which was founded in 1817. "The technology is really simple. And the wells and the water and the Earth will be there forever."

Geothermal power is used in all 50 states, according to the Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Heat from the Earth's core radiates toward the surface, warming subterranean rocks and groundwater. Through deep holes, pumps bring hot water to the surface, where it can be used to generate electricity. Or it can be used in a heat pump, which transfers heat from the water to the air inside a building in the winter and reverses that process in the summer, when the air temperature is higher than the water temperature.

The renewable energy laboratory estimates that if all the heat trapped up to 2 miles under the U.S. were tapped, it could generate enough electricity to meet all of the country's power needs for 30,000 years.

"It's ubiquitous," said Karl Gawell, executive director of the Geothermal Energy Association, a Washington-based trade group. "It's a huge resource. But it's a largely untapped resource."

Currently, geothermal power plants account for about half a percent of the total U.S. electricity generation, providing power to an estimated 3 million households.

But that is likely to double in the next few years, with 103 new geothermal plants either under construction or planned in 13 states, predominantly in the western half of the country, where geological conditions are more favorable for large geothermal operations.

Heat pumps supply heating and cooling to about 600,000 U.S. households, according to the geothermal association, with an additional 50,000 households being added annually.

Growing presence

Institutions also are finding that geothermal systems can make sense. The entire Idaho Capitol complex uses geothermal climate control, and the new Sherman Hospital in Elgin will use a geothermal system consisting of about 150 miles of plastic pipe resting on the bottom of a 15-acre lake.

The hang-up that has prevented this seemingly inexhaustible energy source from finding widespread acceptance has been the initial cost of the system, especially deep drilling. A typical geothermal power plant costs three to four times more to build than a plant that burns natural gas, Gawell said.

But after the plant is paid for, it is much cheaper to run because the fuel—warm groundwater—costs virtually nothing.

"It's like deciding between two cars, one that costs $10,000 and one that costs $35,000," he said. "But the $35,000 car comes with a lifetime supply of gas. Now that energy prices are high, people are beginning to think about what they pay for fuel."

When the seminary's geothermal system is completed, the final cost is likely to be more than $20 million, said the seminary's Burnley. But heating oil prices have risen dramatically in the last five years, from 90 cents to $2.80 a gallon, she said.

And the new system will allow buildings that were stiflingly hot in summer to be used for the seminary's expanding summer programs. Plus, the system will reduce the seminary's carbon footprint by an estimated 1,400 tons of emissions annually.

"It's about stewardship of the campus," Burnley said. "And it's about stewardship of the planet."

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Magnificent Waterfall “Discovered” in Peru– Perhaps One of World’s Tallest

A Tall, Cool Drink of ... Sewage?


Before I left New York for California, where I planned to visit a water-recycling plant, I mopped my kitchen floor. Afterward, I emptied the bucket of dirty water into the toilet and watched as the foamy mess swirled away. This was one of life’s more mundane moments, to be sure. But with water infrastructure on my mind, I took an extra moment to contemplate my water’s journey through city pipes to the wastewater-treatment plant, which separates solids and dumps the disinfected liquids into the ocean.

A day after mopping, I gazed balefully at my hotel toilet in Santa Ana, Calif., and contemplated an entirely new cycle. When you flush in Santa Ana, the waste makes its way to the sewage-treatment plant nearby in Fountain Valley, then sluices not to the ocean but to a plant that superfilters the liquid until it is cleaner than rainwater. The “new” water is then pumped 13 miles north and discharged into a small lake, where it percolates into the earth. Local utilities pump water from this aquifer and deliver it to the sinks and showers of 2.3 million customers. It is now drinking water. If you like the idea, you call it indirect potable reuse. If the idea revolts you, you call it toilet to tap.

Opened in January, the Orange County Groundwater Replenishment System is the largest of its type in the world. It cost $480 million to build, will cost $29 million a year to run and took more than a decade to get off the ground. The stumbling block was psychological, not architectural. An aversion to feces is nearly universal, and as critics of the process are keen to point out, getting sewage out of drinking water was one of the most important public health advances of the last 150 years.

Still, Orange County forged ahead. It didn’t appear to have a choice. Saltwater from the Pacific Ocean was entering the county’s water supply, drawn in by overpumping from the groundwater basin, says Ron Wildermuth, who at the time we talked was the water district’s spokesman. Moreover, population growth meant more wastewater, which meant building a second sewage pipe, five miles into the Pacific — a $200 million proposition. Recycling the effluent solved the disposal problem and the saltwater problem in one fell swoop. A portion of the plant’s filtered output is now injected into the ground near the coast, to act as a pressurized barrier against saltwater from the ocean. Factor in Southern California’s near chronic drought, the county’s projected growth (another 300,000 to 500,000 thirsty people by 2020) and the rising cost of importing water from the Colorado River and from Northern California (the county pays $530 per acre-foot of imported water, versus $520 per acre-foot of reclaimed water), and rebranding sewage as a valuable resource became a no-brainer.

With the demand for water growing, some aquifers dropping faster than they’re replenished, snowpacks thinning and climate change predicted to make dry places even drier, water managers around the country, and the world, are contemplating similar schemes. Los Angeles and San Diego, which both rejected potable reuse, have raised the idea once again, as have, for the first time, DeKalb County, Ga., and Miami-Dade County, Fla.

While Orange County planned and secured permits, public-relations experts went into overdrive, distributing slick educational brochures and videos and giving pizza parties. “If there was a group, we talked to them,” says Wildermuth, who recently left Orange County to help sell Los Angelenos on drinking purified waste. “Historical societies, chambers of commerce, flower committees.” The central message was health and safety, but the persuaders didn’t skimp on buzz phrases like “local control” and “independence from imported water.” Last winter, the valve between the sewage plant and the drinking-water plant whooshed open, and a new era in California’s water history began.

When I visited the plant, a sprawl of modern buildings behind a concrete wall, in March, Wildermuth, in a blue sport coat and bright tie, acted as my guide. “Quick!” he shouted at one point, mounting a ledge and clinging to the rail over a microfiltration bay. “Over here!” I clambered up just as its contents finished draining from the scum-crusted tank. The sudsy water, direct from the sewage-treatment plant, was the color of Guinness. “This is the most exciting thing you’ll see here, and I didn’t want you to miss it,” he said.


Wildermuth went on to explain what we were looking at: inside each of 16 concrete bays hangs a rack of vertical tubes stuffed with 15,000 polypropylene fibers the thickness of dental floss. The fibers are stippled with holes 1/300th the size of a human hair. Pumps pull water into the fibers, leaving behind anything larger than 0.2 microns, stuff like bacteria, protozoa and the dread “suspended solids.”

The excitement and the bubbles were backwash: every 21 minutes, air is injected into the microfibers to blast them clean. The schmutz goes back to the sewage-treatment plant, and the cleaner water, now the color of chamomile tea, is pumped toward reverse-osmosis filters in another building. Before we saw that process, Wildermuth led me underground to inspect several enormous pumps and pipes large enough to crawl through. I noted that everything was clearly labeled and scrupulously clean. Then it dawned on me: reassurance was the reason we’d taken the detour.

We followed the pipes up to a sunlit, metal-clad building where the water, now dosed with an antiscalant and sulfuric acid to lower its pH, was forced at high pressure through hundreds of white tubes filled with tightly spiraled sheets of plastic membranes. Reverse osmosis, Wildermuth says, stops cold almost all nonwater molecules (things like salts, viruses and pharmaceuticals). The stuff that’s removed is washed back to a pipe that discharges into the ocean. The filtered water, now known as permeate, moves one building over, where it’s spiked with hydrogen peroxide, a disinfectant, and then circulated past 144 lamps emitting ultraviolet light. “Destruction of compounds through photolysis,” Wildermuth said, nodding. Anything that’s alive in this water can no longer reproduce.

Strolling back through the campus, Wildermuth took me to a three-part demonstration sink with faucets streaming. The basin on the right contained reverse-osmosis backwash: it was molasses black, topped with a rainbow slick of oil. “Don’t touch,” Wildermuth warned as I leaned in for a better look at the ocean-bound rejectamenta. The middle basin contained the chamomile water from microfiltration. And on the left was the stuff Orange County would eventually drink. It was clear and had no smell.

But even this suctioned, sieved and irradiated water wasn’t quite set for sipping; it still needed to be decarbonized and dosed with lime, to raise its pH. Finally it would enter a massive purple pipe, which dives into the ground inside a nearby pump house and reappears 13 miles to the north, in Anaheim. There, the water would pour into Kraemer Basin, a man-made reservoir, where it would mix with the lake water and filter for six months through layers of sand and gravel hundreds of feet deep before utilities throughout the county pumped it into taps.

The reservoir is a prosaic ending for a substance that’s been through the glitziest of technological wringers, transformed from sewage to drinking water only to be humbly redeposited into the earth. This final filtering step isn’t necessary, strictly speaking, but our psyches seem to demand it.

To understand the basics of contemporary water infrastructure is to acknowledge that most American tap water has had some contact with treated sewage. Our wastewater-treatment plants discharge into streams that feed rivers from which other cities suck water for drinking. By the time New Orleans residents drink the Mississippi, the water has been in and out of more than a dozen cities; more than 200 communities, including Las Vegas, discharge treated wastewater into the Colorado River. That’s the good news. After heavy rains, many cities discharge untreated sewage directly into waterways — more than 860 billion gallons of it a year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. However — and this is where we can take solace — the sewage is massively diluted, time and sunlight help to break down its components and drinking-water plants filter and disinfect the water before it reaches our taps. The E.P.A. requires utilities to monitor pathogens, and there hasn’t been a major waterborne-disease outbreak in this country since 1993. (Though there have been 85 smaller outbreaks between 2001 and 2006.)

So confident are engineers of so-called advanced treatment technologies that several communities have been discharging highly treated wastewater directly into reservoirs for years. Singapore mixes 1 percent treated wastewater with 99 percent fresh water in its reservoirs. (In Orange County, the final product will contain 17 percent recycled water.) Residents of Windhoek, Namibia, one of the driest places on earth, drink 100 percent treated wastewater. For 30 years, the Upper Occoquan Sewage Authority, in Virginia, has been mixing recycled wastewater with fresh water in a reservoir and serving it to more than a million people. Still, no system produces as much recycled water as Orange County (currently 70 million gallons a day, going up to 85 million by 2011), and none inserts as many physical and chemical barriers between toilet and tap.

Environmentalists, river advocates and California surfers — the sort of people who harbor few illusions about the purity of our rivers and oceans — generally favor water recycling. It beats importing water on both economic and environmental grounds (about a fifth of California’s energy is used to move water from north to south). “The days are over when we can consider wastewater a liability,” says Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, an environmental research group in Oakland. “It’s an asset. And that means figuring out how best to use it.”

As we deplete the earth’s nonrenewable resources, like oil and metals, the one-way trip from raw material to disposed and forgotten waste makes less and less sense. Already we recycle aluminum to avoid mining, compost organic material to avoid generating methane in landfills and turn plastic into lumber. As it becomes more valuable, water will be no different.

“We have to treat all waste as a resource,” Conner Everts, executive director of the Southern California Watershed Alliance, says. “Our water source, hundreds of miles away, is drying up. If the population is growing, what are our options?”

Water conservation could take us a long way, as would lower water subsidies for farmers. But sooner or later, stressed-out utility managers come back to the same idea: returning wastewater to the tap.

The process isn’t risk-free. Some scientists are concerned that dangerous compounds or undetectable viruses will escape the multiple physical and chemical filters at the plant. And others suggest that the potential for human error or mechanical failure — clogged filters or torn membranes that let pathogens through, for example — is too great to risk something as basic to public health as drinking water.

Recycled water should be used only as nondrinking water, says Philip Singer, the Daniel Okun Distinguished Professor of Environmental Engineering at the University of North Carolina. “It may contain trace amounts of contaminants. Reverse osmosis and UV disinfection are very good, but there are still uncertainties.”

And then there are those whose first, and final, reaction is “yuck.”

“Why the hell do we have to drink our own sewage?” asks Muriel Watson, a retired schoolteacher who sat on a California water-reuse task force and founded the Revolting Grandmas to fight potable reuse. She toured the Orange County plant but came away unsatisfied. “It’s not the sun and the sky and a roaring river crashing into rocks” — nature’s way of purifying water. “It’s just equipment.”

The Santa Ana River forms in the San Bernardino Mountains and flows southwest through Riverside and then Orange counties to the sea, the largest coastal stream in Southern California. But that’s not saying much: in the summer, the Santa Ana’s flow is nearly 100 percent wastewater. The river’s base flow — what enters the channel from runoff, rain and wastewater-treatment plants — is increasing. Not only is more effluent entering the river, a consequence of population growth, but as the county develops and paves more surfaces, rainwater runs off the earth faster, sluicing into the river channel before it can sink into the earth and replenish aquifers.

To capture and clean that water, the Orange County Water District has gone into hyper-beaver mode on the river. Twenty miles upstream from Anaheim, the water district has created the Prado Wetlands. It’s a lovely place, lush with willow and mule fat, busy with butterflies and, over the course of the year, 250 species of birds. Moving through a series of rectangular ponds, river water filters slowly through thickets of cattails and bulrushes meant to extract excess nitrate from upstream dairy farms and sewage-treatment plants. Returned to the main channel, the water wends around T- and L-shaped berms that slow the water and maximize its contact with the river bottom. Gates and sluiceways then shunt the water into nine man-made ponds and pits. The goal is to get more water into the county’s groundwater basin, a 350-square-mile, 1,500-foot-deep bathtub of sand and gravel layers, which act as natural scrubbers. The system upriver — using gravity and gravel — and the system in Fountain Valley — in tanks and tubes — both achieve the same goal. Sort of.

It’s one of the many pardoxes of indirect potable reuse that the water leaving the plant in Fountain Valley is far cleaner than the water that it mingles with. Yes, the water entering the sewage-treatment plant in Fountain Valley is 100 percent wastewater and has a T.D.S. — a measure of water purity, T.D.S. stands for total dissolved solids and refers to the amount of trace elements in the water — of 1,000 parts per million. But after microfiltration and reverse osmosis, the T.D.S. is down to 30. (Poland Spring water has a T.D.S. of between 35 and 46.) By contrast, the “raw” water in the Anaheim basins has a T.D.S. of 600.

If everything in the Fountain Valley plant is in perfect working order, its finished water will contain no detectable levels of bacteria, pharmaceuticals or agricultural and industrial chemicals. The same can be said of very few water sources in this country. But once the Fountain Valley water mingles with the county’s other sources, its purity goes downhill. Filtering it through sand and gravel removes some contaminants, but it also adds bacteria (not necessarily harmful, and local utilities will eventually knock them out them with chlorine) and possibly pharmaceuticals.

In other words, nature messes up the expensively reclaimed water. So why stick it back into the ground? “We do it for psychological reasons,” says Adam Hutchinson, director of recharge operations for the water district. “In the future, people will laugh at us for putting it back in, instead of just drinking it.”

Psychologists and marketers have spent a lot of time trying to figure out what makes a product, or a process, seem natural. Obviously, framing the issue properly is the key to acceptance. “If people connect the history of their water to contamination, you’ll get a disgust response no matter how you treat that water in between,” says Brent Haddad, an associate professor of environmental studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz. “But if you enable people to frame out that history by telling them, for example, that ‘the clean water has been separated from the polluted water,’ they no longer make that connection.” We abridge history all the time, Haddad adds. “Think of the restaurant fork that was in the mouth of someone with a contagious disease, the pillow that was underneath people doing private adult things in a hotel bedroom. If you think of it that way, the intermediate steps, like washing with hot water, don’t matter.”

All water on earth is recycled: the same drops that misted Devonian ferns and dripped from the fur of woolly mammoths are watering us today. From evaporation to condensation and precipitation, the cycle goes on and on. But in the planet’s drier regions, where the population continues to rise, we can expect the time between use and reuse to grow ever shorter, with purification, pipes and pumps standing in for natural processes. Instead of sand and gravel filtering our drinking water, microfibers and membranes will do the job; instead of sunlight knocking out parasites, we’ll plug in the UV lamps.

You could argue that in coming to terms with wastewater as a resource, we’ll take better care of our water. At long last, the “everything is connected” message, the bedrock of the environmental movement, will hit home. In this view, once a community is forced to process and drink its toilet water, those who must drink it will rise up and change their ways. Floor moppers will switch to biodegradable cleaning products. Industry will use nontoxic material. Factory farms will cut their use of antibiotics. Maybe we’ll even stop building homes in the desert.

But these situations are not very likely. No one wants to think too hard about where our water comes from. It’s more likely that the virtuosity of water technology will let polluters off the hook: why bother to reduce noxious discharges if the treatment plant can remove just about anything? The technology, far from making us aware of the consequences of our behavior, may give us license to continue doing what we’ve always done.

The recycled water coming out of the sink at the Fountain Valley plant looked good enough to drink. Wildermuth didn’t press me to taste it, but I was eager for a sample — to satisfy my curiosity, and to be polite. I filled a plastic cup and took a sip. The water tasted fine, if a little dry; I’m used to something with more minerals. It did cross my mind that any potential health issues from drinking so-far undetectable levels of contaminants would be cumulative and take decades to manifest.

Then I reminded myself: no naturally occurring water on earth is absolutely pure. And most everything that’s in Orange County’s reclaimed water is in most cities’ drinking water anyway.

It was hot, my throat was parched, and I asked for a refill.

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