Stories of modern science... from UPI

By JIM KLING, UPI Science Writer  |  March 15, 2002 at 4:45 AM
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The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has released its plans for a new accelerated research agenda designed to counter bioterrorism. The agency will focus on diseases such as smallpox, anthrax and plague, with short-, intermediate-, and long-term goals and countermeasures designed for each microbe. "Research is a vital element of bioterrorism defense," said Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson. "The NIAID Counter-Bioterrorism Research Agenda describes the highest priorities of an accelerated program to expand research on bioterrorism agents and to quickly develop new diagnostics, drugs and vaccines to protect the public." The increased funds should also help public health officials and researchers stave off non-terror threats. "In recent years, we have witnessed several emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases that have presented us with many of the same challenges as bioterrorism, namely identifying changing threats and preparing for them to appear at any time," said NIAID director Anthony Fauci.


A test program using trees, shrubs and rocks to improve the fertility of soil in sub-Saharan Africa appears to be a success, and the program should be expanded, according to a policy article in this week's edition of the journal Science. Commercial fertilizer costs too much in Africa for most farmers to use, resulting in depleted nutrients in the soils. "Farmers that have implemented these new soil fertility replenishment methods have seen crop yields increase two to four times," said Pedro Sanchez, visiting professor at the Department of Environmental Science, Policy & Management at University of California at Berkeley. "They tell us they are no longer hungry. And the best part of this is that they can utilize the natural resources that are all around them." Ten years ago, Sanchez launched the programs, in which planting seedlings of leguminous trees with a young maize crops causes accumulation of nitrogen, a critical plant nutrient. The trees do not compete with the crop, but at the end of the dry season farmers cut them down, leaving the stems, leaves and roots to decompose and release the accumulated nitrites into the soil. "Legumes are the only family of plants that can take inert nitrogen from the air and convert it into nitrates, a form plants can use," said Sanchez. In East Africa, rocks containing high amounts of phosphates are crushed and worked into the soil, providing another important nutrient.


The most distant known object in the Universe is a galaxy 13.6 billion light years away, according to a New Scientist report. The light from the galaxy was probably emitted when the Universe was just 900 million years old. "This galaxy is forming stars at a time speculated to be in the 'Dark Ages' of the Universe when galaxies began to turn on," said Esther Hu at the University of Hawaii, who led the team. Telescopes have previously recorded quasars (extremely bright objects powered by black holes) at a distance of 13 billion light years. But to see the fainter galaxy, they had to use the gravity of an intervening object as a lens to magnify the light. The researchers hope to use the technique to see some of the galaxies that experienced the first star formation 14 billion years ago.


Asia was the likely center of origin for several groups of mammals, including early primates and modern hooved animals, according to a report in this week's edition of the journal Science. The event occurred around 55 million years ago, and the animals lived in Asia, Europe, and North America, but their place of origin had been uncertain. "These groups probably spread to North America across the Bering land bridge in response to the warming of the climate that occurred at the Paleocene/Eocene boundary," said Gabriel Bowen, a Ph.D. candidate in Earth sciences at the University of California Santa Clara and first author of the paper. The global warming occurred due to a release of methane gas from the ocean bottom. That release left an isotopic signature, allowing the researchers to use techniques including isotope analysis and magnetic markers to compare sequences of fossils in China to similar sequences in fossils from North America and Europe. "This is a rare situation in the fossil record where we can pin down a point in time and look at the distribution of groups of animals on several continents," Bowen said.

(EDITOR: For more information on bioterrorism, call 301-402-1663; about soil fertility, call 510-643-7741; about Asia, call 831-459-4352)

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