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The Real King Kong!
Meditation, Jupiter's Winds,
STEREO Sun! Speeding Star!
Get
Bioweapons By Mail!
Gigantopithecus: The Real King Kong!

Gigantopithecus blackii, the largest primate
that ever lived. (MU)

McMaster University News Release

Hamilton Ontario November 10, 2005 - A gigantic ape, measuring about 10 feet tall and weighing up to 1,200 pounds, co-existed alongside humans, a geochronologist at McMaster University has discovered.

Using a high-precision absolute-dating method (techniques involving electron spin resonance and uranium series), Jack Rink, associate professor of geography and earth sciences at McMaster, has determined that Gigantopithecus blackii, the largest primate that ever lived, roamed southeast Asia for nearly a million years before the species died out 100,000 years ago. This was known as the Pleistocene period, by which time humans had already existed for a million years.

"A missing piece of the puzzle has always focused on pin-pointing when Gigantopithecus existed," explains Rink.

"This is a primate that co-existed with humans at a time when humans were undergoing a major evolutionary change. Guangxi province in southern China, where the Gigantopithecus fossils were found, is the same region where some believe the modern human race originated."

Research into Gigantopithecus blackii began in 1935, when the Dutch paleontologist G.H. von Koenigswald discovered a yellowish molar among the "dragon bones" for sale in a Hong Kong pharmacy. Traditional Chinese medicine maintains that dragon bones, basically fossil bones and teeth, possess curative powers when the fossils are ground into a fine powder, and ingested.

For nearly 80 years, Gigantopithecus blackii has intrigued scientists, who have pieced together a description using nothing more than a handful of teeth and a set of jawbones.


Hollywood Kong and friend Fay (RKO)

"The size of these specimens – the crown of the molar, for instance, measures about an inch across – helped us understand the extraordinary size of the primate," says Rink. Sample studies further revealed that Gigantopithecus was an herbivore, feasting mainly on bamboo. Some believe that the primate's voracious appetite for bamboo ultimately placed him at the losing end of the evolutionary scale against his more nimble human competition.

Rink's research was funded by Canada's Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.

Rink's discovery coincides with an invitation to join the renowned New York-based Explorers Club. Established in 1904, the Club's seven founding members included two polar explorers, the curator of birds and mammals at The American Museum of Natural History, an archaeologist, a war correspondent and author, a professor of physics and an ethnologist. Sir Edmund Hillary is Club's honorary chairman. Membership includes an eclectic range of field scientists and explorers from more than 60 countries. Rink joins McMaster colleagues Hendrik Poinar (associate professor, Anthropology) and Ed Reinhardt (associate professor, Geography and Earth Science) who are also members.

Rink is currently in Thailand exploring an area where it is believed Gigantopithecus also roamed. Rink returns to campus on November 19.

McMaster University, a world-renowned, research-intensive university, fosters a culture of innovation, and a commitment to discovery and learning in teaching, research and scholarship. Based in Hamilton, the University has a student population of more than 23,000, and an alumni population of more than 115,000 in 128 countries.

McMaster University - http://www.mcmaster.ca

Why Bush Needs Samuel Alito!

Photo: Reuters

American Political Science Association (APSA) News Release

Washington DC November 10, 2005 - Judicial review can revive the stalled legislative agendas of the political majority. This finding challenges the widely held assumption that judicial activism generally contradicts the interest of elected officials.

It also provides insight into how, given the appointment of John Roberts and nomination of Samuel Alito, a conservative-leaning Supreme Court could help the Republican leadership achieve its political goals.

The research, conducted by political scientist Keith E. Whittington (Princeton University), examines the conditions under which the U.S. Supreme Court "assists powerful officials within the current government in overcoming various structural barriers to realizing their ideological objectives through direct political action." Whittington's article appears in the November issue of the American Political Science Review, a journal of the American Political Science Association (APSA), and is available online at http://www.apsanet.org/imgtest/APSRNov05Whittington.pdf

"Structural characteristics of political systems such as the United States encourage cooperation between judges and political leaders to obtain common objectives," observes the author. Those characteristics include federalism, entrenched interests, and fragmented political coalitions and have encouraged support for judicial review by governing political coalitions throughout U.S. history. Several such instances are examined in the article:

States have been the principal target of the review power of the Supreme Court, making federalism a crucial factor in generating national political support for judicial review. The Court "largely built its power of judicial review...by acting against the states," striking down state and local policies over 1,100 times but federal policies only 150 times.

Entrenched interests across branches and within legislative chambers often obstruct efforts to alter the status quo, preventing political leaders from achieving their goals. Yet political leaders have pushed the Court to enact constitutionally-based reform, as with the Kennedy administration and the 1962 legislative apportionment decision of Baker v. Carr.

Fractious party coalitions undermine party unity, often leading to policy compromises that political leaders may want to see undone through judicial review. The 1895 invalidation of the federal income tax, strategies of the 1950s Democratic Party for dealing with racial civil rights, and the rejection of the 1996 Communications Decency Act reflect this dynamic.

"Judicial review disrupts the policy status quo. The standard assumption within...constitutional theory...assumes that the status quo being disrupted reflects the policy preferences of [current political] leaders," concludes Whittington. However, "over the course of its history the U.S. Supreme Court has won political support by judicial review not by acting against current governing coalitions but by working within those coalitions."

Political support builds public backing and legitimacy for the Court. This article suggests that the Court's authority may be at its peak when it is working with elected leaders who seek to advance contested ideological commitments while managing established but fractious coalitions. Given today's divided Republican majority and the changing orientation of the Supreme Court, this research provides valuable insight into the ability of the Court to "interpose its friendly hand" and assist the GOP leadership in achieving their goals.

The American Political Science Association (est. 1903) is the leading professional organization for the study of political science and has 15,000 members in 80 countries. For more news and information about political science research visit the APSA's media website - www.politicalsciencenews.org

Meditation Really Changes Your Brain!

Massachusetts General Hospital News Release

November 11, 2005 - The regular practice of meditation appears to produce structural changes in areas of the brain associated with attention and sensory processing. An imaging study led by Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researchers showed that particular areas of the cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the brain, were thicker in participants who were experienced practitioners of a type of meditation commonly practiced in the U.S. and other Western countries.

The article appears in the Nov. 15 issue of NeuroReport, and the research also is being presented Nov. 14 at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Washington, DC.

"Our results suggest that meditation can produce experience-based structural alterations in the brain," says Sara Lazar, PhD, of the MGH Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program, the study's lead author. "We also found evidence that mediation may slow down the aging-related atrophy of certain areas of the brain."

Studies have shown that mediation can produce alterations in brain activity, and meditation practitioners have described changes in mental function that last long after actual meditation ceases, implying long-term effects. However, those studies usually examined Buddhist monks who practiced mediation as a central focus of their lives.

To investigate whether meditation as typically practiced in the U.S. could change the brain's structure, the current study enrolled 20 practitioners of Buddhist Insight meditation – which focuses on "mindfulness," a specific, nonjudgmental awareness of sensations, feelings and state of mind. They averaged nine years of mediation experience and practiced about six hours per week. For comparison, 15 people with no experience of meditation or yoga were enrolled as controls.

Using standard MRI to produce detailed images of the structure of participants' brains, the researchers found that regions involved in the mental activities that characterize Insight meditation were thicker in the meditators than in the controls, the first evidence that alterations in brain structure may be associated with meditation.

They also found that, in an area associated with the integration of emotional and cognitive processes, differences in cortical thickness were more pronounced in older participants, suggesting that meditation could reduce the thinning of the cortex that typically occurs with aging.

"The area where we see these differences is involved in both the modulation of functions like heart rate and breathing and also the integration of emotion with thought and reward-based decision making – a central switchboard of the brain," says Lazar. An instructor in Psychology at Harvard Medical School, she also stresses that the results of such a small study need to be validated by larger, longer-term studies.

Massachusetts General Hospital - http://www.mgh.harvard.edu

Jupiter's Winds

NASA photo of Jupiter

University of California - Los Angeles News Release

November 10, 2005 - A new computer model indicates Jupiter's massive winds are generated from deep within the giant planet's interior, a UCLA scientist and international colleagues report today in the journal Nature.

Jupiter's powerful winds are very different from those on Earth. They continually circle the planet, and have changed very little in the 300 years that scientists have studied them. Massive east-west winds in Jupiter's equatorial region reach approximately 340 miles per hour -- twice as rapid as winds generated by strong hurricanes on Earth.

At higher latitudes, the wind pattern switches to alternating jets that race around the planet.

No one has been able to explain why the winds are so constant or what generates them -- but that may change.

"Our model suggests convection driven by deep internal heat sources power Jupiter's surface winds," said Jonathan Aurnou, UCLA assistant professor of planetary physics. "The model provides a possible answer to why the winds are so stable for centuries. Jupiter's surface is the tail; the dog is the hot interior of the planet.

"On Earth," Aurnou said, "we get strong changes in wind patterns every season. On Jupiter, there is almost no variation. There are changing cloud structures, but the large-scale winds remain essentially constant."

The researchers identified key ingredients that explain Jupiter's "super winds" and factored those into their model. Aurnou's colleagues are Moritz Heimpel, assistant professor of physics at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, and Johannes Wicht at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany.

Aurnou, Heimpel and Wicht created the first three-dimensional computer model that generates both a large eastward equatorial jet and smaller alternating jets at higher latitudes. In a rapidly rotating shell of fluid, they modeled thermally driven convection, which is what drives motion in a boiling pot.

"Three critical ingredients are the correct geometry, turbulent convection and rapid rotation, and our model contains all three elements," said Aurnou, a faculty member in UCLA's Department of Earth and Space Sciences. "When you include all those, that gives us the right recipe. In the future, we'll refine our model by adding even more ingredients."

Jupiter's radius is more than 11 times the radius of Earth. A tremendous amount of heat comes from the interior.

"The heat from Jupiter's interior is comparable to the heat the planet receives from the sun," Aurnou said. The model suggests three-dimensional convection in Jupiter's deep atmosphere is likely driving the zonal flows.

Jupiter's interior is made primarily of compressed hydrogen and helium, and a giant plasma.

Aurnou will continue to study Jupiter's strong winds, as well as those on Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

University of California - Los Angeles - http://www.newsroom.ucla.edu

50 Million Environmental Refugees By 2010!
United Nations University News Release

November 11, 2005 - Amid predictions that by 2010 the world will need to cope with as many as 50 million people escaping the effects of creeping environmental deterioration, United Nations University experts say the international community urgently needs to define, recognize and extend support to this new category of 'refugee'.

In a statement to mark the International Day for Disaster Reduction (October 12), UNU's Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) in Bonn says such problems as sea level rise, expanding deserts and catastrophic weather-induced flooding have already contributed to large permanent migrations and could eventually displace hundreds of millions.

Unlike victims of political upheaval or violence, however, who have access through governments and international organizations to such assistance as financial grants, food, tools, shelter, schools and clinics, "environmental refugees" are not yet recognized in world conventions.

UNU says the number of people forced to move by environment-related conditions already approximates and may someday dwarf the number of officially-recognized "persons of concern," recently calculated at 19.2 million (footnote 1). Indeed, Red Cross research shows more people are now displaced by environmental disasters than war.

New Orleans residents flee the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina.

"There are well-founded fears that the number of people fleeing untenable environmental conditions may grow exponentially as the world experiences the effects of climate change and other phenomena," says UNU-EHS Director Janos Bogardi. "This new category of 'refugee' needs to find a place in international agreements. We need to better anticipate support requirements, similar to those of people fleeing other unviable situations."

Victims of sudden and highly-publicized catastrophes like the 2004 Asian tsunami or the recent US Gulf Coast hurricanes benefit from the mobilization of private and public sector generosity and humanitarian relief. Countless millions of others around the world, however, are uprooted by gradual environmental change, receive comparatively little support to cope and adapt and are not recognized as 'refugees' with the benefits that bestows.

"This is a highly complex issue, with global organizations already overwhelmed by the demands of conventionally-recognized refugees, as originally defined in 1951. We should prepare now, however, to define, accept and accommodate this new breed of 'refugee' within international frameworks," says UN Under Secretary-General Hans van Ginkel, Rector of UNU.

Prof. van Ginkel stresses that environment-related 'refugees' must be carefully defined and distinguished from economic migrants, who depart voluntarily to find a better life but may return home without persecution.

Dr. Bogardi notes that the term "environmental refugee" rankles many experts as simplistic, masking what are often compound motives behind migration and implicitly laying the blame on nature when often the policies and practices of people are the cause of displacement. UNU-EHS is working to establish an internationally-agreed glossary of terms to facilitate cooperation in the broad area of environment and human security.

As well, most such displaced people today migrate within their own country. There is therefore a major need for international agreement about a nation's duty to protect and support internal migrants fleeing catastrophic events or environmental degradation. That duty is implied in the agreement produced by the World Conference on Disaster Reduction in Kobe, Japan (Jan. 2005) and international guidelines on internal displacement have been promoted. However, states' obligations need to be formalized, says Dr. Bogardi.

The statement coincides with the announcement of a new chair on social vulnerability at UNU-EHS, funded by a charitable foundation of the global reinsurance company Munich Re. Among the areas of study will be migrations forced by "slow moving catastrophes," says Dr. Bogardi, including desertification, diminishing safe water supplies and climate change-induced sea level rise.

Environment-related migration has been most acute in Sub-Saharan Africa, but also affects millions of people in Asia and India. Meanwhile, Europe and the United States are witnessing increasing pressure from victims of often mismanaged and deteriorating soil and water conditions in North Africa and Latin America.

And such migrations may grow dramatically in future.

Among many global problem sites, Sana'a, Yemen's capital, has doubled its population on average every six years since 1972 and now stands at 900,000. The aquifer on which the city depends is falling by 6 meters a year, and may be exhausted by 2010, according to the World Bank.

In China, the Gobi desert expands more than 10,000 square kilometers per year, threatening many villages. Oxford-based expert Norman Myers says Morocco, Tunisia and Libya each lose over 1,000 square kilometres of productive land a year to desertification. In Egypt, half of irrigated croplands suffer from salinization while in Turkey 160,000 square kilometres of farmlands is affected by soil erosion.

Florida professor Tony Oliver-Smith is a UNU-EHS Munich Re Foundation chair holder designate for 2007-08, whose work will include study of the recent exodus from New Orleans and other environment-related migrations. He notes that in the U.S. Louisiana now loses to the sea roughly 65 square kilometers per year while in Alaska 213 communities are threatened by tides that creep roughly 3 metres further inland each year.

Internationally, the low-lying Pacific island state of Tuvalu has struck an agreement with New Zealand to accept its 11,600 citizens in the event rising sea levels swamp the country. By one rough estimate, as many as 100 million people worldwide live in areas below sea level and / or are subject to storm surge.

"Around the world vulnerability is on the increase due to the rapid development of megacities in coastal areas," says Dr. Oliver-Smith. "Many cities are overwhelmed, incapable of handling with any degree of effectiveness the demands of a burgeoning number of people, many of whom take up shelter in flimsy shanties.

"Combine this trend with rising sea levels and the growing number and intensity of storms and it is the recipe for a disaster-in-waiting, with enormous potential to create waves of environment-driven migration."

He says it is difficult today to discern "environmental refugees" from economic migrants. In many cases a decision to move is a function of a push to leave one disaster-affected location and the economic pull of another, more promising location. American history offers vivid examples: the 3 million people who fled the Dust Bowl of the 1930's and the 700,000 mostly poor people who departed to northern states following the Mississippi Delta flood of 1927. Their decisions in many instances reflected a combination of pressures.

Other questions include determining the permanence of environment-related dislocation – the difference between 'refugees' and evacuees.

"There is then the question of people forced to move involuntarily by dams and other development processes. The World Bank estimates that in the 1990s some 100 million people were displaced by such projects. In some countries, dams are poorly maintained and threaten communities. How should people affected in these ways be characterized?"

"The questions that surround environment-related migration deserve forethought and deliberation now as more difficult circumstances for policy-makers almost certainly lie ahead," says UNU-EHS associate and advisor Ben Wisner. "Much of humanity faces major threats with enormous knock-on effects at the regional, national, and international levels."

Dr. Wisner adds that it's important that initiatives to recognize and relieve the plight of displaced people not let national governments "off the hook for their failure to help prevent land degradation and facilitate land restoration and, in some cases, for their collusion with owners of forest companies, open mines, and large cattle ranches in practices that degrade land."

[Note: UN High Commissioner for Refugees' 2004 "persons of concern" include "refugees" (people who have fled persecution in their own countries to seek safety in neighboring states, 9.2 million), civilians who have returned home but still need help, civilians uprooted by violence but who remain within their own countries, asylum seekers and stateless people.]

United Nations University - http://www.unu.edu

STEREO Sun!

Artist’s concept of the twin STEREO observatories studying
the sun. (NASA)

Johns Hopkins University News Release

November 9, 2005 - The first spacecraft designed to capture 3-D "stereo" views of the sun and solar wind were shipped today from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md., to NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in Greenbelt, Md., for their next round of pre-launch tests.

The nearly identical twin STEREO (Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory) observatories, designed and built by APL, were recently tested in APL's vibration lab where engineers used a large shake table to check the structural integrity of the twin spacecraft. These tests simulate the ride into space the observatories will encounter aboard a Delta II launch vehicle from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., where they're scheduled for launch in spring 2006.

"Delivery of the twin observatories to NASA is a program milestone," says Ed Reynolds, APL STEREO project manager. "Building two nearly identical spacecraft simultaneously was a technical and scheduling challenge, but one our team welcomed and tackled with extreme professionalism and dedication. With the design, construction and now delivery of the observatories to NASA Goddard, we're very excited to help NASA get one step closer to launch and capturing the first-ever 3-D images of the sun."

During the next three months at NASA GSFC, the twin observatories will undergo additional pre-launch checks including a series of spin tests to check the spacecraft's balance and alignment; thermal vacuum tests to duplicate the extreme temperature and airless conditions of space; and acoustic tests that simulate the noise-induced vibrations of launch. The mission team plans to transport the STEREO observatories to Florida in March 2006 for final launch preparations.

Swinging into Orbit


Actual coronal mass ejections on our sun (filtered), captured by NASA

During the two-year STEREO mission, two nearly identical space-based observatories will explore the origin, evolution and interplanetary consequences of coronal mass ejections. These powerful solar eruptions are a major source of the magnetic disruptions on Earth and a key component of space weather, which can greatly affect satellite operations, communications, power systems, and the lives of humans in space.

To obtain unique "stereo" views of the sun, the twin STEREO observatories must be placed into different orbits where they're offset from each other and the Earth. One observatory will be placed ahead of Earth in its orbit around the sun and the other behind. Just as the slight offset between your eyes provides you with depth perception, this placement will allow the STEREO observatories to obtain 3-D images and particle measurements of the sun.

"This is the first time lunar swingbys will be used to place multiple spacecraft into their respective orbits," says APL's Andy Driesman, STEREO system engineer. "Mission designers at APL will use the moon's gravity to redirect the observatories to their appropriate orbits around the sun. This innovative mission design allows the use of a single launch vehicle."

After launch, the observatories will fly in an orbit from a point close to Earth to one that extends just beyond the moon. Approximately two months later, mission operations personnel at APL will synchronize spacecraft orbits, directing one observatory to its position trailing Earth in its orbit. Approximately one month later, the second observatory will be redirected to its position ahead of Earth.

STEREO is the third mission in NASA's Solar Terrestrial Probes Program. STEREO is sponsored by NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C. NASA GSFC's Solar Terrestrial Probes Program Office manages the mission, instruments and science center. APL designed, built and will operate the twin observatories for NASA during the mission.

Johns Hopkins University - http://www.jhu.edu

For more information about STEREO and to download images of the twin observatories, visit http://www.stereo.jhuapl.edu and click on "gallery" for images.

Speeding Star HE 0437-5439

Artist's conception of the star kicked out from
the Large Magellanic Cloud (ESO)

European Southern Observatory (ESO) News Release

November 9, 2005 - Using ESO’s Very Large Telescope, astronomers have recorded a massive star moving at more than 2.6 million kilometres per hour. Stars are not born with such large velocities. Its position in the sky leads to the suggestion that the star was kicked out from the Large Magellanic Cloud, providing indirect evidence for a massive black hole in the Milky Way’s closest neighbour. These results will soon be published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

"At such a speed, the star would go around the Earth in less than a minute!", says Uli Heber, one of the scientists at the Dr. Remeis-Sternwarte (University of Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany) and the Centre for Astrophysics Research (University of Hertfordshire, UK) who conducted the study.

The hot massive star, (named HE 0437-5439), was discovered in the framework of the Hamburg/ESO sky survey far out in the halo of the Milky Way, towards the Doradus Constellation ("the Swordfish").

"This is a rather unusual place for such a star: massive stars are ordinarily found in the disc of the Milky Way", explains Ralf Napiwotzki, another member of the team. "Our data obtained with the UVES instrument on the Very Large Telescope, at Paranal (Chile), confirm the star to be rather young and to have a chemical composition similar to our Sun."

The data also revealed the high speed of the star, solving the riddle of its present location: the star did not form in the Milky Way halo, but happens to be there while on its interstellar – or intergalactic – travel.

"But when we calculated how long it would take for the star to travel from the centre of our Galaxy to its present location, we found this to be more than three times its age", says Heber. "Either the star is older than it appears or it was born and accelerated elsewhere", he adds.

As a matter of fact, HE0457-5439 lies closer to one of the Milky Way satellite galaxies, the Large Magellanic Cloud, located 160,000 light-years away from us. The astronomers find it likely for the star to have reached its present position had it been ejected from the centre of the LMC. This could imply the existence of a massive black hole inside the LMC, in order to have imparted the speeding star the necessary kick.

Another explanation would require the star to be the result of the merging of two stars. In this case, the star could be older that presently thought, giving it time to have travelled all the way from the Milky Way Centre. This scenario, however, requires quite some fine-tuning. The astronomers are now planning new observations to confirm one of the two scenarios.

European Southern Observatory (ESO) - http://www.eso.org

Get Bioweapons By Mail!

"Hey! Did you remember to order the anthrax?"

New Scientist News Release
By Peter Aldhous

November 9, 2005 - You might think it would be difficult for a terrorist to obtain genes from the smallpox virus, or a similarly vicious pathogen. Well, it's not. Armed with a fake email address, a would-be bioterrorist could probably order the building blocks of a deadly biological weapon online, and receive them by post within weeks.

That's the sobering reality uncovered by a New Scientist investigation into the bioterror risks posed by the booming business of gene synthesis.

Dozens of biotech firms now offer to synthesise complete genes from the chemical components of DNA. Yet some are carrying out next to no checks on what they are being asked to make, or by whom. It raises the frightening prospect of terrorists mail-ordering genes for key bioweapon agents such as smallpox, and using them to engineer new and deadly pathogens.

Customers typically submit sequences by email or via a form available on a company's website. The companies then construct the specified genes and mail them back a few weeks later, usually spliced into a bacterium such as Escherichia coli. New Scientist approached 16 such firms, identified by a Google search, to ask whether they screened orders for DNA sequences that might pose a bioterror threat. Of the 12 companies that replied, just five said they screen every sequence received. Four said they screen some sequences, and three admitted not screening sequences at all.

The risks posed by gene synthesis first hit the headlines in 2002, when a team from the State University of New York at Stony Brook made infectious polioviruses from synthetic DNA. And just last month, researchers with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, said that they had used similar means to recreate the virus that caused the 1918 flu (New Scientist, 8 October, p 16).

In theory, a terrorist group could try to emulate the latter feat, or create a virus such as Variola major, which causes smallpox. However, the Variola genome comprises some 190,000 base pairs of DNA, and while some companies will make sequences 20,000 or more base pairs long, an attempt to order all the genes necessary to launch a smallpox attack would probably arouse suspicion. "That would stand out from a technological point of view," suggests Drew Endy, a bioengineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

A more realistic risk is that terrorists could order genes thatfconfer virulence to dangerous pathogens such as the Ebola virus, and engineer them into another virus or bacterium. They could also order genes for a hazardous bacterial toxin – although many of these are also available by isolating the microorganisms from the environment.

Virulence genes are typically no more than a few thousand base-pairs long. Their sequences are publicly available, so screening gene-synthesis orders for potential bioweapons shouldn't pose a huge challenge. Indeed, a company called Craic Computing,based in Seattle, has written opensource software called Blackwatch that does just that. It is used by one of the leading gene-synthesis companies, Blue Heron Biotechnology of Bothell, Washington.

Robert Jones, president of Craic Computing, says that Blackwatch "casts a wide net", comparing orders against sequences from organisms identified by the US government as "select agents" that raise bioterror concerns. But not all of these sequences are dangerous, and some customers may have the clearance to work with those that are. So even legitimate orders may be flagged up as suspicious, and that means companies must employ biologists to carefully examine any matches that crop up.

The need for expert human checks may be one factor deterring some companies from screening orders. Others like to reassure customers who may be worried about commercial confidentiality that their sequence data will remain secret. But whatever the reasons, some firms freely admit that they run no sequence screens. "That's not our business," says Bob Xue, a director of Genemed Synthesis in South San Francisco.

Even if they don't routinely perform sequence checks, some companies say that they do investigate their customers. But the scope of these checks varies widely. But email addresses are notoriously easy to fake. And even orders from legitimate institutions may not be what they seem. Alfred Lasher, who manages Picoscript in Houston, Texas, says that he turned down one order placed by an individual at a US biotech firm, after Picoscript's enquiries revealed the gene was being ordered on behalf of a friend in another country.

Experts are concerned that the checks currently employed by some companies aren't sufficient to exclude orders placed by terrorists.

"We're taking this very seriously," says Endy.

Together with the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, Endy's research group at MIT has launched a study into the risks and benefits of synthetic genomics, and aims to produce a set of policy recommendations by late 2006. The US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, set up last year to advise the US government on which advances in biology could be exploited by terrorists, is also considering the issue.

Some gene synthesis companies say they would welcome more detailed rules. John Mulligan, president of Blue Heron, says it would be helpful to have a list of "select sequences" that are off-limits for gene synthesis without explicit government permission, rather than having to make difficult judgments based on the list of select agents. "Tell us what we can't make," he implores.


Be sure to stock up for the holidays! (AFP)

But with gene synthesis firms springing up all over the world, and the underlying technology becoming cheaper and more widely available, it is unclear whether regulations enacted in any one country will be enough.

"It's going to be virtually impossible to control," predicts David Magnus, director of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics in Palo Alto, California. Endy argues that what's needed is better self-regulation: if researchers only do business with companies that are diligent in sequence screening and other security checks, then terrorists would soon find themselves unable to place orders for dangerous genes. Otherwise, he fears a crackdown that could close valuable avenues of research.

For instance, gene synthesis can be used to make DNA vaccines, which may eventually provide a means of responding rapidly to emerging diseases – or bioterrorist attacks.

"As soon as people start dying from a bioengineered organism, there will be a huge security response and research will be clamped down," warns Endy.

NEW SCIENTIST - http://www.newscientist.com

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