Category Archives: Science Archive

Strict Limits on Animal Research Stun Italian Scientists

In a major victory for animal rights activists, the Italian Parliament on Wednesday approved a bill that puts drastic limitations on animal testing. Scientists have warned that the provisions, voted by the Senate earlier this month, will severely hurt biomedical research in their country—but they haven’t given up hope yet that the measures will be canceled. “This Italian bill is brutal and is going to kill basic research,” says Roberto Caminiti, a physiologist at the University of Rome La Sapienza and chair of the Committee on Animals in Research for the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies.


The bill is Italy’s implementation of a European directive adopted in September 2010; the country was one of several E.U. members that have been dragging their feet on the directive’s implementation. The Italian law goes far beyond the restrictions imposed by the directive, already seen by many researchers as quite restrictive. Among other things, the law bans breeding dogs, cats, and nonhuman primates for research purposes, or using them for any other purpose than health research; studies without pain killers or anesthesia, if the animal may experience pain (unless these are themselves the subject of the study); and using animals in studies of addiction, xenotransplantation, and for training purposes (except in higher education for veterinarians and physicians).


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News in Brief: Mummified Incan teen drank, did drugs

In the month before her death as a sacrifice to Incan gods, a teenage girl drank heavily and chewed coca leaves, according to a new analysis of her mummified remains. The discovery suggests that the girl, known as the Maiden, was heavily sedated or perhaps already dead when she was entombed around 500 years ago in a shrine atop the Llullaillaco volcano on the border between Argentina and Chile. Her death was probably part of the sacrifice ritual called capacocha.


T scans of the girl’s body exposed a mass of coca leaves tucked into her left cheek, an international team reports July 29 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Chemical analyses of her hair reveal that her coca use peaked about 6 months before her death, while her drinking spiked in her final weeks. A young boy entombed at the site also appears to have ingested relatively large amounts of alcohol; levels for the third body, a young girl, vary over the months before her death. Unlike other mummified capacocha victims, who show signs of being whacked in the head, the cause of death of the Llullaillaco mummies remains unknown.


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The Social Cost of Carbon: Garbage In, Garbage Out

Economists, regulators, and activists all try to calculate the social cost of carbon—that is, the economic and ecological damage caused each time we add a ton of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. If we know how much harm each additional ton of carbon dioxide causes, the thinking goes, regulators can offset the effects by putting a price on in it, in the form of taxes or regulations. Unfortunately, they calculate that price using dubious computer models. The results are an example of an old programming adage: garbage in, garbage out.


Consider the White House Interagency Working Group, which in May issued a technical document aiming to calculate carbon’s costs. To estimate the monetary value of the damages caused by carbon emissions, the group focused such things as projected changes in net agricultural productivity, human health, flood damage, and ecosystem services due to climate change.


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Hormone-altering effects observed in mice exposed to "safe" levels of BPA

According to a study published July 25, baby mice exposed in the womb to low, not high, doses of bisphenol A (BPA) were fatter and had metabolic changes linked to obesity and diabetes. BPA is a chemical found in polycarbonate plastics, canned food liners and some thermal receipts. It was once widely found in products aimed at young children and infants, but has since been mostly removed, either voluntarily or through government regulation. BPA, which can be found in nearly everyone’s body, was first developed as a synthetic estrogen and has been linked to a range of health issues including obesity and diabetes.


“What’s scary is that we found effects at levels that the government not only says is safe, but that they don’t bother to test,” said Frederick vom Saal, a University of Missouri, Columbia, professor and senior author of the study published in the journal, Reproductive Toxicology. When pregnant mice were fed daily doses of 5,000 micrograms or less of BPA per kilogram of body weight, the level which the Environmental Protection Agency claims produces “no effects,” their offspring experienced “deranged metabolism,” weight gain, increased abdominal fat and eating,impaired glucose tolerance and increased hormones that regulate glucose and appetite.


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Michael Mann Redefines Science

In a post over at Peter Guest’s blog, Michael “Hockey Stick” Mann is quoted making one of the most remarkable statements that I’ve ever heard coming out of a supposed scientist’s mouth: Proof is for mathematical theorems and alcoholic beverages. It’s not for science. He goes on to explain that science is all about “credible theories” and “best explanations” and his gosh-darn critics supposedly don’t offer up any of those.


Now it seems pretty obvious that Mann’s attempt to separate proof from science stems from increasing public awareness that the warming predicted by the high-sensitivity models that Mann and others have championed just hasn’t occurred over the last fifteen years. No matter. You don’t need “proof” when you have “credible theories.” That comes as something of a shock to me. When I was going to school to earn my degree in chemistry, we were taught that science was indeed all about absolute truths and proofs at the end of the day. “Credible theories” is how you got to those truths, not an alternative to them.


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Sea Level Rise Surprise

Driving the seemingly endless climate-treaty negotiations, the most widely feared consequence of Global Warming appears to be a catastrophic rise in sea level (SLR).  Environmental advocacy groups are filling the airwaves with lurid images of flooding of Bangladesh and Pacific islands, and raising the specter of hundreds of millions of environmental refugees demanding care and compensation. Even sober scientists, while not endorsing such obvious scare stories, predict an acceleration of the ongoing global rise, which a system of tidal gauges places at about 18 cm (7 inches) during the 20th century.  Economists concerned with trying to estimate a ‘social cost’ of carbon-dioxide emissions predict huge economic losses from future SLR.  Not surprisingly, insurance companies, looking to raise premiums, are cheering them on.


However, more detailed analyses of actual observations suggest an opposite outcome: A climate warming might even slow down SLR — rather than accelerate it.  To understand this counter-intuitive result, one must first get rid of false leads — just as in a detective story.  The misleading argument here is the oft-quoted statement that the climate warmed by 1degF (0.6 C) in the last 100 years and that SL rose by 18 cm.  Both parts of the statement may well be true; but the second part does not necessarily follow from the first.


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Retraction notice for cancer paper gives wide berth to the “p” word

The Journal of Neuro-Oncologyhas retracted a 2009 article on brain tumors for what’s clearly plagiarism — but which is called everything but. The article was titled “Glioma grading: sensitivity, specificity, positive and negative predictive values of diffusion and perfusion imaging,” and it came from a group at the Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute for Medical Sciences and Technology, in Trivandrum, India.


Here’s the — rather laughable — retraction notice, which dances around the matter about as deftly as a freshman with the prom queen: This article published in, Volume 94, Issue 1, pages 87–96, DOI 10.1007/s11060-009-9807-6, has been retracted, as it contains portions of other authors’ writings on the same topic in other publications, without sufficient attribution to these earlier works being given. The principal authors of the paper acknowledged that text from background sources was mistakenly used without proper reference to the original source.


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The Anorexic Brain

In a spacious hotel room not far from the beach in La Jolla, Calif., Kelsey Heenan gripped her fiancé’s hand. Heenan, a 20-year-old anorexic woman, couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Walter Kaye, director of the eating disorders program at the University of California, San Diego, was telling a handful of rapt patients and their family members what the latest brain imaging research suggested about their disorder. It’s not your fault, he told them.


Heenan had always assumed that she was to blame for her illness. Kaye’s data told a different story. He handed out a pile of black-and-white brain scans — some showed the brains of healthy people, others were from people with anorexia nervosa. The scans didn’t look the same. “People were shocked,” Heenan says. But above all, she remembers, the group seemed to sigh in relief, breathing out years of buried guilt about the disorder. “It’s something in the way I was wired — it’s something I didn’t choose to do,” Heenan says. “It was pretty freeing to know that there could be something else going on.”


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The Bad Seed: The Health Risks of Genetically Modified Corn

A short walk down the hall, his colleague Amal Assa’ad, MD, also a professor at the medical school, dismissed anxiety over GMOs’ safety as almost magical thinking. “What’s wrong with chemicals?” she asked. “We’re so afraid of chemicals because they are man-made, right? A lot of chemicals have helped us—a lot of medications are chemicals.” If anything, GMO foods have been a boon to mankind, Assa’ad said. GMO seeds “produce better crops that have increased production, that are resistant to pesticides—crops that can feed the rest of the world.”


She echoed the federal government’s position—given voice through the regulatory policies of the USDA, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency—that there is nothing inherently dangerous about inserting the gene of one species into that of another, since the end product is essentially identical with that grown from regular seeds. This is also, perhaps needless to say, the biotech industry’s stance. “There are several hundred studies that contribute to a huge body of evidence that GM crops…are as safe as their conventional counterparts,” says Monsanto spokesman Thomas Helscher.


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'Space Vikings' Spark NASA Inquiry

For Ved Chirayath, an aeronautics and astronautics graduate student and amateur fashion photographer, a photo project that involved NASA researchers dressed as Vikings was just a creative way to promote space science. “I started this project hoping maybe one day some kid will look at it and say, ‘I want to work for NASA,’ ” says Chirayath, a student at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who also works nearby at NASA’s Ames Research Center (ARC). He never suspected that his fanciful image would put him in the crosshairs of a government waste investigation triggered by a senior U.S. senator.


Earlier this month, Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), the Senate Judiciary Committee’s top Republican, wrote to NASA chief Charles Bolden, asking him to investigate whether Chirayath’s photos involved the possible misuse of ARC funds and staff time. An “interested observer” had brought the photos to Grassley’s attention, Jill Gerber, the senator’s communications manager, tells ScienceInsider. In his 10 July letter, Grassley raised concerns about NASA spending on “non-mission critical activities” and asked Bolden to help him “better understand the participation of NASA employees and resources in this for-profit photography exhibit.”


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