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Pygmy Elephants!
Mammoth DNA! Gay Terrorists?
Artic Thaw, Tobacco & Anthrax?
38 Million Hungry Americans!
Pygmy Elephants!

Pygmy elephant (WWF)

World Wildlife Fund News Release

December 16, 2005 - The same satellite system used by the U.S. military to track vehicle convoys in Iraq is helping World Wildlife Fund shed light on the little-known world of pygmy elephants in Borneo.

This week marks the six-month anniversary of the first pygmy elephant's being captured and outfitted with a collar that can send GPS locations to WWF daily via satellite.

Now, for the first time, the public can track the movements of the elephants online through an interactive web map at www.worldwildlife.org/borneomap

"No one has ever studied pygmy elephants before, so everything we're learning is groundbreaking data," said Dr. Christy Williams, who leads WWF's Asian elephant conservation efforts and worked with experts to use commercial satellite technology to track Asian elephants for the first time. "We will be following these elephants for several years by satellite to identify their home ranges and working with the Malaysian government to conserve the most critical areas."

Five elephants have been collared by WWF and the Sabah, Malaysia, Wildlife Department, with support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Among the preliminary findings from the study:

The elephants' movements are noticeably affected by human activity. Elephants living in areas with the most human disturbance, such as logging and commercial agriculture, spend more time on the move than elephants in more remote areas. One of the collared elephants living near human activity, dubbed Bod Tai, covered a third more ground than did Nancy, who lives in more remote jungle. Most of the elephants spend at least some of their time in palm oil plantations or near human habitation, which leads to conflict with people. In recent years, much of the elephants' habitat has been converted to tree plantations that produce palm oil, the leading export crop for Malaysia.

Each elephant belongs to a herd of 30-50 elephants but often splits off into smaller groups for days or weeks at a time. The home ranges of Nancy and Taliwas, who were collared in nearby forests, overlap, suggesting that the two elephants' groups may be related. Since elephants live in matriarchal societies, WWF collared only adult female elephants so that each elephant collared represents a whole herd's movements.


Pygmy elephants are smaller, chubbier
and more gentle-natured than other
Asian elephants. (PBS)

The elephants' diet consists of at least 162 species of plants (in 49 families), including several dipterocarp tree species. This was determined during field tracking that supplements the satellite tracking.

It was proved that forest quality influences the diversity and distribution of elephant food in the forest, with encroachment into palm oil plantations being higher along the degraded forest-plantation areas.

The Sabah Wildlife Department described the study as very important and the results could be used to assist the department in preparing Sabah's elephant conservation plan.

The pygmy elephants were determined by WWF in 2003 to be a likely new subspecies of Asian elephant but very little is known about them, including how many there are. Pygmy elephants are smaller, chubbier and more gentle-natured than other Asian elephants. They are found only on the northeast tip of Borneo, mainly in the Malaysian state of Sabah.

"We are learning about more than just elephants with this project," said Raymond Alfred, project manager of the elephant tracking project in Sabah.

"Elephants are a 'keystone species' and habitat engineers whose impact shapes the forest in important ways for the many other species with whom they share their habitat."

World Wildlife Fund - http://www.worldwildlife.org

Woolly Mammoth DNA Sequenced!

Woolly Mammoths

Penn State News Release

December 19, 2005 - Experts in ancient DNA from McMaster University (Canada) have teamed up with genome researchers from Penn State University (USA) for the investigation of permafrost bone samples from Siberia.

The project also involved paleontologists from the American Museum of Natural History (USA) and researchers from Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. The researchers' report on the first genomic sequences from a woolly mammoth will be published on 22 December 2005 by the journal Science on the Science Express website.

This majestic mammal roamed grassy plains of the Northern Hemisphere until it became extinct about 10,000 years ago. The scientific breakthrough allows for the first time comparion of this ancient species with today's populations of African and Indian elephants, not just at the level of mitochondrial sequences, but also encompassing information from the nuclear genome.

Analyzing organellar DNA from mitochondria has been the only method of studying ancient DNA in the past, as it is more tractable due to its 1000-fold higher copy number per cell. However, the mitochondrial genome codes for only a tiny fraction of an organism's genetic information -- 0.0006 percent in the case of a mammal.

In contrast, most hereditary information is organized on chromosomes located in the cell's nucleus (nuclear DNA). A mammoth was chosen for study in part because of its close evolutionary relationship to the African elephant, whose nuclear DNA sequence has been made publicly available by the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts (USA). Using comparisons with elephant DNA, the researchers identified 13 million base pairs as being nuclear DNA from the mammoth, which they showed to be 98.5 percent identical to nuclear DNA from an African elephant.


Large numbers of tusks in the permafrost
museum in Khatanga demonstrate the
abundance mammoth once had in the
Northern hemisphere. (Debi Poinar,
McMaster University)

The project became possible through the discovery of exceptionally well preserved remains of a mammoth skeleton in the permafrost soil of northern Siberia, in combination with a novel high-throughput sequencing technique that could cope with the heavily fragmented DNA retrieved from the organism's mandible, its jaws.

The bone material used in this study is approximately 28,000 years old, as was shown by beta-carbon dating analysis. This was a surprising finding, as it demonstrated that the analyzed material was frozen for more than 10,000 years before the maximum of the last ice age.

The research team used a computational approach to demonstrate that an unprecedented 50 perecent of the bone DNA was indeed mammoth DNA, while the remaining genetic material was shown to belong to microorganisms living the tundra soil.

The study indicates that any organism that has been trapped in frozen ice or a permafrost environment for up to one million years will be an open book to the researchers.

The search is now on for more specimens from plant, animal, and man that can illuminate the route evolution took on its way from the past to the present, and that can perhaps clarify the role environmental changes did play in the extinction of an entire species.

Initial funding for this study was provided by McMaster University, The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and Penn State University. The researchers now are seeking funding for the completion of the mammoth genome sequence and hope to conduct detailed comparative studies that include the genomes of African and Indian elephants.

Science Express - http://www.sciencexpress.org

Penn State - http://www.science.psu.edu

Gay Terrorists?

WASHINGTON DC December 20, 2005 (US Newswire) - According to recent press reports, Pentagon officials have been spying on what they call "suspicious" meetings by civilian groups, including student groups opposed to the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ban on lesbian, gay and bisexual military personnel.

The story, first reported by Lisa Myers and NBC News last week, noted that Pentagon investigators had records pertaining to April protests at the State University of New York at Albany and William Patterson College in New Jersey.

A February protest at NYU was also listed, along with the law school's LGBT advocacy group OUTlaw, which was classified as "possibly violent" by the Pentagon. A UC-Santa Cruz "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" protest, which included a gay kiss-in, was labeled as a "credible threat" of terrorism.

Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) condemned the Pentagon surveillance and monitoring. "The Pentagon is supposed to defend the Constitution, not turn it upside down," said SLDN executive director C. Dixon Osburn.

"Students have a first amendment right to protest and Americans have a right to expect that their government will respect our constitutional right to privacy. To suggest that a gay kiss-in is a 'credible threat' is absurd, homophobic and irrational. To suggest the Constitution does not apply to groups with views differing with Pentagon policy is chilling."

In January, the Department of Defense confirmed a report that Air Force officials proposed developing a chemical weapon in 1994 that would turn enemies gay.

The proposal, part of a plan from Wright Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, was to develop "chemicals that effect (sic) human behavior so that discipline and morale in enemy units is adversely effected (sic). One distasteful but completely non-lethal example would be strong aphrodisiacs, especially if the chemical also caused homosexual behavior."

SLDN also condemned that report, and the Pentagon later said it never intended to develop the program.

"The Pentagon seems to constantly find new and more offensive ways to demean lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people," said Osburn.

"First, we were deemed unfit to serve our country, despite winning wars, medals and the praise of fellow service members. Then, our sexual orientation was suggested as a means to destabilize the enemy. Now, our public displays of affection are equated with al Qaeda terrorist activity. It is time for new Pentagon policy consistent with the views of 21st century America."


Be careful what you wish for, General...

SLDN announced it plans to submit a Freedom of Information Act request to learn if it or other LGBT organizations have also been monitored by the Pentagon. To date, only a small portion of DoD's total database of information has been made public.

Servicemembers Legal Defense Network is a national, non-profit legal services, watchdog and policy organization dedicated to ending discrimination against and harassment of military personnel affected by 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' and related forms of intolerance.

For more information, visit http://www.sldn.org

Celebrity Voice-Overs - The Truth Is Out There

David Duchovny (Reuters)

University of Washington News Release

December 20, 2005 - New research reveals that television commercials featuring celebrity voice-overs are most influential when consumers can't identify which actor it belongs to.

The study, by Mark Forehand of the University of Washington Business School and Andrew Perkins of Rice University, appears in the December issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

The researchers studied consumers' reactions to TV commercials featuring actors Willem Dafoe, David Duchovny, David Hyde Pierce and Donald Sutherland, whose voices were used Qwest, Sprint, Lipton and Volvo, respectively.

Not surprisingly, viewers' prior attitudes toward the celebrities influenced how much they liked or disliked the products, but this influence was greatest when consumers weren't sure which celebrity provided the voice-over.

"We found that the presence of a celebrity voice can influence brand evaluation even when the consumer has no idea that the voice-over was provided by a celebrity," said Forehand, an associate professor of marketing and international business. "When consumers did not recognize the celebrity, their brand evaluations shifted in the direction of their attitude toward that celebrity. For example, subjects who liked David Duchovny responded more favorably to brands paired with his voice than did subjects who disliked him. This effect is called assimilation."

Forehand and Perkins also found the assimilation response was reversed when subjects recognized the celebrity. That is, when consumers did recognize the celebrity, their brand evaluations shifted in the opposite direction of their attitude toward that celebrity. Subjects who liked David Duchovny responded more negatively to brands paired with his voice than did subjects who disliked David Duchovny. This effect is called contrast.

"There are several potential explanations of this contrast effect, but our data suggested that contrast occurred when subjects recognized the celebrity because they did not want to appear irrational. They believed the voice-over should not logically influence their evaluation and therefore tried to remove the influence of the celebrity. However, they tended to overcompensate and thus produced a negative effect."

So what's the bottom line for advertisers?

Forehand said that different criteria should be used when selecting a celebrity for a voice-over than when selecting a celebrity to provide an endorsement – a public statement of support in which the celebrity is identified. For endorsements, it is important that the celebrity be trustworthy and credible in the product category. For voice-overs, credibility has little influence since consumers typically do not recognize the identity behind the voice-over.

He said that voice-overs are more influenced simply by how much the celebrity is liked in the abstract. This general positive reaction to the celebrity influences brand evaluation even when the consumer has no idea the voice-over comes from a celebrity. Ultimately, said Forehand, this is one of many examples of implicit cognition in advertising response – advertising features that influence people independent of their conscious awareness.

University of Washington - http://www.uwnews.org

Arctic Thaw by 2100?

Regions containing permafrost within the top 11
feet of soil could decrease by as much as 90% across
the Arctic over the next century, based on
simulations by the NCAR Community Climate
System Model. Shown are areas with near-surface
permafrost in the CCSM simulations for 1980-1999
(light blue) and 2080-2099 (dark blue). The latter
projection is based on the Intergovernmental Panel
on Climate Change's A1B emissions scenario, often
called the "business as usual" scenario. (David Lawrence.)

National Center for Atmospheric Research News Release

BOULDER December 19, 2005 — Global warming may decimate the top 10 feet (3 meters) or more of perennially frozen soil across the Northern Hemisphere, altering ecosystems as well as damaging buildings and roads across Canada, Alaska, and Russia. New simulations from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) show that over half of the area covered by this topmost layer of permafrost could thaw by 2050 and as much as 90 percent by 2100. Scientists expect the thawing to increase runoff to the Arctic Ocean and release vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

The study, using the NCAR-based Community Climate System Model (CCSM), is the first to examine the state of permafrost in a global model that includes interactions among the atmosphere, ocean, land, and sea ice as well as a soil model that depicts freezing and thawing. Results appear online in the December 17 issue of Geophysical Research Letters.

"People have used models to study permafrost before, but not within a fully interactive climate system model," says NCAR's David Lawrence, the lead author. The coauthor is Andrew Slater of the University of Colorado's National Snow and Ice Data Center.

About a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere's land contains permafrost, defined as soil that remains below 32 degrees F (0 degrees C) for at least two years. Permafrost is typically characterized by an active surface layer, extending anywhere from a few centimeters to several meters deep, which thaws during the summer and refreezes during the winter. The deeper permafrost layer remains frozen. The active layer responds to changes in climate, expanding downward as surface air temperatures rise. Deeper permafrost has not thawed since the last ice age, over 10,000 years ago, and will be largely unaffected by global warming in the coming century, says Lawrence.

Recent warming has degraded large sections of permafrost across central Alaska, with pockets of soil collapsing as the ice within it melts. The results include buckled highways, destabilized houses, and "drunken forests"--trees that lean at wild angles. In Siberia, some industrial facilities have reported significant damage. Further loss of permafrost could threaten migration patterns of animals such as reindeer and caribou.

The CCSM simulations are based on high and low projections of greenhouse-gas emissions for the 21st century, as constructed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In both cases, the CCSM determined which land areas would retain permafrost at each of 10 soil depths extending down to 11.2 feet (3.43 meters).


It could lead to large-scale emissions
of methane or carbon dioxide (NASA)

For the high-emission scenario, the area with permafrost in any of these layers shrinks from 4 million to just over 1 million square miles by the year 2050 and decreases further to about 400,000 square miles (1 million square kilometers) by 2100. In the low-emission scenario, which assumes major advances in conservation and alternative energy, the permafrost area shrinks to about 1.5 million square miles by 2100.

"Thawing permafrost could send considerable amounts of water to the oceans," says Slater, who notes that runoff to the Arctic has increased about 7 percent since the 1930s. In the high-emission simulation, runoff grows by another 28 percent by the year 2100. That increase includes contributions from enhanced rainfall and snowfall as well as the water from ice melting within soil.

The new study highlights concern about emissions of greenhouse gases from thawing soils. Permafrost may hold 30% or more of all the carbon stored in soils worldwide. As the permafrost thaws, it could lead to large-scale emissions of methane or carbon dioxide beyond those produced by fossil fuels.

"There's a lot of carbon stored in the soil," says Lawrence. "If the permafrost does thaw, as our model predicts, it could have a major influence on climate."

To address this and other questions, Lawrence and colleagues are now working to develop a more advanced model with interactive carbon.

This study was funded by the National Science Foundation, which is NCAR'S primary sponsor, and the U.S. Department of Energy. The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) is part of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado.

NSIDC - http://nsidc.org

Chocolate for Smokers
BMJ Specialty Journals News Release

December 19, 2005 - Dark chocolate may stave off artery hardening in smokers, and a few squares every day could potentially cut the risk of serious heart disease, finds a small study in Heart. Researchers compared the effects of dark (74% cocoa solids) and white chocolate on the smoothness of arterial blood flow in 20 male smokers.

In smokers the activity of both endothelial cells, which line the artery walls, and platelets, which are involved in the formation of blood clots, are continuously disrupted, making the arteries susceptible to the narrowing and hardening characteristic of coronary artery disease.

Before eating 40 g of chocolate (about 2 oz), smokers were first asked to abstain from other foods rich in antioxidants, such as onions, apples, cabbage, and cocoa products for 24 hours.

After two hours, ultrasound scans revealed that dark chocolate significantly improved the smoothness of arterial flow, an effect which lasted for eight hours. Blood sample analysis also showed that dark chocolate almost halved platelet activity. Antioxidant levels rose sharply after two hours.

White chocolate had no effect on endothelial cells, platelets, or antioxidant levels.

Dark chocolate has more antioxidants per gram than other foods laden with the substances, such as red wine, green tea, and berry fruits, say the authors, who suggest that the beneficial effects of dark chocolate lie in its antioxidant content.

"…Only a small daily treat of dark chocolate may substantially increase the amount of antioxidant intake and beneficially affect vascular health," conclude the authors.

BMJ Specialty Journals - http://www.bmj.com

Tobacco Anthrax Cure?

Anthrax (DOD)

University of Central Florida News Release

December 19, 2005 - Enough anthrax vaccine to inoculate everyone in the United States could be grown inexpensively and safely with only one acre of tobacco plants, a University of Central Florida molecular biologist has found.

Mice immunized with a vaccine produced in UCF professor Henry Daniell's laboratory through the genetic engineering of tobacco plants survived lethal doses of anthrax administered later by National Institutes of Health researchers. The results of the NIH-funded study are featured in the December issue of the Infection & Immunity journal.

Daniell's research is a breakthrough in efforts to find a safe and effective method of producing large quantities of vaccine for anthrax, one of the top bioterrorism threats facing the United States. The new production method also could help the government and health care providers avoid supply shortages, as one acre of plants can produce 360 million doses in a year.

"Anthrax vaccine is very much in need, primarily because of bioterrorism concerns," Daniell said. "But in the United States, only one company has the capacity to produce the vaccine, and it is made in very small quantities by fermentation. We can provide enough doses of a safe and effective vaccine for all Americans from just one acre of tobacco plants."

Current production of the vaccine involves an expensive fermentation process that can cause harmful side effects such as inflammation, flu-like symptoms and rashes. This has prompted some people to refuse to be vaccinated.

Seeking a safer and more effective alternative, Daniell and his colleagues injected the vaccine gene into the chloroplast genome of tobacco cells, partly because those plants grow much faster than carrots, tomatoes and coffee. They grew the cells for several weeks in Daniell's laboratory. Tests showed the vaccine taken from the plants was just as potent as the one produced through fermentation but lacks the bacterial toxin that can cause harmful side effects.

Researchers then injected the vaccine into mice to immunize them against anthrax and sent the mice to NIH labs, where they survived doses of anthrax several times stronger than the amounts to which humans have been exposed.

The next step for the anthrax vaccine would involve a company working with NIH to conduct clinical trials. Human subjects would be injected only with the vaccine and not with anthrax itself, and scientists would then check the subjects' immunity levels. The vaccine later could be mass-produced and stockpiled for emergencies.

Daniell conducted his study with part of a $1 million NIH grant and a $2 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant that cover research related to genetic engineering in plants as a way to produce therapies for several diseases. Daniell's work holds promise for treating other diseases, including diabetes and hepatitis, and improving vaccines for plague, cholera and other bioterrorism agents.


Tobacco plants

Daniell is developing a new technology that would enable vaccines to be administered orally and allow effective and less expensive treatments to be more accessible worldwide. He believes fruits and vegetables such as carrots and tomatoes are the keys to figuring out a way for people to take anthrax vaccines orally in capsules of dried plant cells that contain correct doses of the protective antigen.

If that research is successful, the needs for requiring doctors to administer the shots and for shipping vaccines in refrigerated trucks, both of which can be especially difficult in poorer nations, would be eliminated.

The military now administers the vaccine with three shots in the first four weeks, three more in the next 17 months and then annual booster shots, according to the Pentagon (www.anthrax.mil).

Daniell, who is the first UCF Trustee Chair in Life Sciences, began teaching at UCF in 1998. He has formed a biotechnology company called Chlorogen to apply his work in chloroplast genetic engineering. In 2004, he won UCF's Pegasus Professor Award, the top honor given to a faculty member who excels in teaching, research and service. Last year, he also became only the 14th American in the last 222 years to be elected to the Italian National Academy of Sciences.

US Military Anthrax Information site - http://www.anthrax.mil

University of Central Florida - http://www.ucf.edu

38 Million Hungry Americans!
Tufts University News Release

December 129, 2005 - Imagine being one of the 38 million people in the United States whose family can't count on having enough food throughout the year. According to new federal data, the number of families considered "food insecure" is growing.

The Economic Research Service (ERS) of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced in October that household food insecurity increased in 2004.

What's more, says Parke Wilde, PhD, assistant professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts, "this increase represents the largest one-year jump since data collection began in 1995." Wilde, a food economist, tracks household food insecurity, food stamps, and related measures of hunger.

The percentage of US households classified as insecure rose from 11.2 percent in 2003 to 11.9 percent in 2004. While this one-year increase might not seem like a lot, it represents the fifth straight year of worsening food insecurity. Barely 10 percent of US households were food insecure in 1999. Wilde illustrates graphically how household food insecurity declined between 1995 and 1999, but then increased steadily every year from 1999 to 2004.

"The top line [of the graph] shows actual rates of household food insecurity, and the bottom line reproduces the trend line contained in a 2002 USDA report describing intended progress toward national goals."

"The country," Wilde says, "is moving further away from its goals. The official Healthy People 2010 objective is six percent food insecurity by the year 2010. The 'Rome Declaration,' adopted by the US and 185 other countries at the 1996 World Food Summit, pledges a commitment to work toward the goal of a 50 percent reduction in the number of undernourished people by no later than 2015."

Wilde points out that a family's food security status can fluctuate greatly from one year to the next. Commenting in a paper that he presented earlier this year, Wilde notes: "Households do not come in constant 'secure' and 'insecure' varieties. Instead, it appears that unobserved hardships strike from time to time, with large effects on both Food Stamp Program participation and food security.

"Unobserved hardships (occurrences that are not accounted for in the survey) such as a sudden medical emergency would affect food security in households by diverting income normally used for food to pay for medical expenses. People experiencing an unobserved hardship may be more likely to join the Food Stamp Program."

Wilde and his co-author Mark Nord of the ERS, USDA, writing in the Review of Agricultural Economics, quantified these year-to-year fluctuations as part of a study that sought to measure how the US Food Stamp Program influences food security. They used a panel data model that sought to identify confounding factors that may have produced skewed results in previous analyses.

"The study provides, for the first time, a dynamic picture of the rates at which families fall into hunger or rise out of hunger from one year to the next, using nationally representative data."

Previous efforts, according to Wilde, did not survey the same group of people over time. This new analysis of the data compares their food security status in 2001 and 2002.

Wilde advises that, "this topic is sufficiently important to warrant using the best possible research designs to ensure that the Food Stamp program is producing favorable results and meeting its stated goals."

Tufts University - http://www.tufts.edu

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