FYI:SCIENCE-WEEK July 3, 1997 (fwd)

Eugene Leitl (
Thu, 3 Jul 1997 20:20:19 +0200 (MET DST)

Another newsflash. I hope I am not boring you with these? Ping.

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Date: Thu, 3 Jul 1997 10:37:58 -0600
From: Prism Express <>
Subject: SCIENCE-WEEK July 3, 1997

(formerly the Science-News List)

A Free Weekly Digest of the News of Science

July 3, 1997

"Our biology has made us into creatures who are constantly
recreating our psychic and material environments, and whose
individual lives are the outcomes of an extraordinary
multiplicity of intersecting causal pathways. Thus, it is our
biology that makes us free." -- Richard Lewontin


Reported in This Issue:

Scientists Urge Caution in Awarding of Human Gene Patents
Secrecy of Agricultural Genome Databases Criticized
Legislators Angry at Possible NIH-Funded Embryo Research
Lack of Rules Concerning Authorship Listings Criticized
Astronomers Agreeing on Theory of Galaxy Formation and Evolution
Optical Studies of a Gamma-Ray Burst Suggest Fireball Model
Unexpected Shapes Formed by Colloids in Microgravity Conditions
New Data Weakens Linkage Between Climate and Mammalian Evolution
Second Human Antibiotic Isolated from Skin
New Evidence for Potassium Channel Regulation in Neuron Dendrites
First Identification of Mouse Obesity Gene in Humans
Discovery of Gene Implicated in Parkinson's Disease
New Study Refutes Connection Between Magnetic Fields and Cancer
Magnetic Field Studies Called Waste of Public Funds
A Dangerous Shortage of Intravenous Multivitamin Solutions


Continuing the expression of concern about the manner in which
current U.S. intellectual property laws may interfere with
scientific research, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences has
joined the National Institutes of Health and the Human Genome
Organization in protesting an interpretation of current patent
law that would permit the issuing of patents on what are called
"expressed gene sequence tags". Bruce Alberts, president of the
National Academy of Sciences, warns against "patents that allow
an early group of inventors who have disclosed little new
knowledge to constrain the actions of subsequent investigators."
(Nature 26 June)

If there is one area where molecular genetics is of international
political relevance it is agriculture. Every country is
interested in improving its food supply, and to this end there is
much effort devoted to genetics research, particularly research
to map the genomes of plants such as corn and rice. Plant
biologist Christopher Somerville (Carnegie Institution of
Washington in Stanford, CA US) recently criticized the delays by
some countries in releasing plant genome data to the scientific
community. The laboratories slowest to release data already in
their possession are evidently in Europe, Japan, and China.
Apparently, no release from China of acquired data has yet
occurred. In the U.S., projects underway by corporate giants such
as Monsanto and DuPont have also not been eager to supply data.
The consequence is that plant molecular geneticists are deprived
of scientific information important for their own research, the
results of which are by tradition freely reported and available
to everyone. (Science 27 June)

Harold Varmus, director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health
(NIH), evidently had a difficult time before a Congressional
investigating committee on June 19th. The issue was the ban by
the U.S. Congress of NIH-funded embryo research. An established
researcher, Mark Hughes, apparently used NIH facilities while
pursuing his investigations of disease-causing mutations in DNA
extracted from single cells from embryos created by in vitro
fertilization techniques. Evidently Varmus and Hughes cannot
agree whether Hughes knew his research was proscribed, and NIH
has severed its connection with Hughes. Meanwhile, the
Congressional subcommittee has warned Varmus to enforce the rules
concerning embryo research more strictly. (Science 27 June)

Since scientists are usually evaluated in terms of both the
quality and quantity of what they publish, and since most
scientific publications these days are produced by more than one
author (sometimes by as many as twenty authors), there exists
what is called the "authorship problem", which has several
aspects. For example, people who have only a tangential but
influential bureaucratic relationship with a research group may
force the inclusion of their names as "authors" of a scientific
report. Another problem is that some laboratories list the senior
author last, others list the senior author first, and still other
laboratories list all authors alphabetically at the head of the
research report. There are no rules, much confusion, occasional
bitterness, unfair advantages, petty disputes, and so on, and
this week an unsigned editorial in Nature criticizes the
authorship system in general and says any solution to the problem
seems hopeless. Scientists, after all, are members of the human
species. (Nature 26 June)

Among contemporary cosmologists, there are two prevailing models
for the formation of galaxies. One model is hierarchical, in the
sense that small amorphous proto-galaxies are considered to form
first, these evolving into spiral galaxies, and the spiral
galaxies then merging to form elliptical galaxies. The other
model is a completely different picture, considering the various
galaxies to form from the condensation of single massive dust
clouds, with the particular type of galaxy formed dependent on
the nature of the dust cloud collapse. At two recent cosmology
symposia, in view of new red-shift data (shifts to the red end of
the spectrum of light from the galaxies) provided by the Hubble
Space Telescope, cosmologists are apparently forming a consensus
that the first idea, the hierarchical model, is more consistent
with the observed data than the second model. The Hubble Space
Telescope has brought a renaissance to cosmology, and we are only
at the beginning of the new era. (Nature 26 June)

Studies of the mysterious gamma-ray bursts seen in every part of
the sky daily continue to be reported. This week we have the
results of observations of gamma ray burst (GRB) GRB970508, which
occurred on May 8, 1997 (hence the name). Optical studies of the
source of the burst by M. R. Metzger et al (California Institute
of Technology, US; National Radio Astronomy Observatory, US;
Institute of Space Astrophysics, Frascati IT; University of
Ferrara, IT) using data from the recently orbited Italian-Dutch
satellite BeppoSAX indicate the source of the GRB is extra-
galactic at a distance of 5 billion parsecs (about 20 trillion
miles). Taking into account the recorded energy and its loss by
intervening absorption across that distance, we are considering
an initial energy burst with a magnitude equal to the total
radiation from our Sun during the entire age of the universe. The
computed energy figure is 10exp51 ergs of gamma-rays. A consensus
among astrophysicists is forming that these GRBs involve
"relativistic fireballs" produced by colliding neutron stars,
either two neutron stars colliding with each other, or single
neutron stars colliding with black holes. The various radiant
energy data are coming in so rapidly now, there is a feeling the
physical nature of GRBs will soon be completely understood.
(Nature 26 June)

Colloids are extremely small phases (e.g., solid particles) in
the range one nanometer to one micron dispersed in a larger phase
of a different substance, for example in water. They can be
bubbles, globules, microcrystals, etc. In the 1930s, many cell
biologists were excited by the study of colloids because the
interior of the living cell, protoplasm, has many properties of a
colloidal suspension. These days the study of colloids is almost
exclusively the province of the physical chemist. Although
colloidal particles are small, they are much larger than
molecules, large enough to perhaps be affected by gravitational
forces. This week the results of experiments with uniform
colloidal polymer particles carried out in microgravity
conditions aboard the space shuttle Columbia in November 1995
were reported by Jixiang Zhu et al (Princeton University, US;
NASA Lewis Research Center, US; University of Bristol, UK;
Johnson Space Flight Center, US). It was found that the colloidal
crystallization properties of the particles studied are indeed
significantly different under microgravity conditions.
Theoretical models of the behavior of colloidal suspensions
therefore need to take into account the gravitational forces
acting on the particles. (Nature 26 June)

Paleobiologists have traditionally considered drastic climate
changes to be the major provocation in the emergence of new
mammalian species. But at a recent meeting of the American Geo-
physical Union in Baltimore (MD US), John Alroy (Smithsonian
Institution, US) presented the results of an extensive analysis
of the fossil and climatic record and showed that the expected
correlation between the emergence of new mammalian species is
weak rather than strong, and that the data suggest evolutionary
spurts during periods of reduced extant species, for example that
following what is called "the great impact" of 65 million years
ago. Alroy's work apparently impressed the assembled paleo-
biologists. (Science 27 June)

Although endogenous antibiotic peptides exist in both plant and
animal species, it is only recently (1995) that an endogenous
antibiotic has been isolated in humans (hBD-1). Now J. Harder et
al (University of Kiel, DE) report the identification and
isolation of a second human endogenous antibiotic peptide, named
hBD-2, relative molecular mass 4000, of the protein rubric beta-
defensin. This new peptide is an inducible, transcriptionally
regulated antibiotic peptide resembling those in other mammals.
Human skin apparently contains a chemical shield of endogenous
peptide antibiotics induced by contact with microorganisms. The
authors suggest that human peptide antibiotics might be ideal
therapeutic agents to counteract problems of acquired microbial
resistance. (Nature 26 June)

The electrical activity of nerve cells in all species is
essentially controlled by the movements of ions, particularly
sodium, potassium, and calcium ions, across nerve cell membranes.
Some nerve cells, especially those in the mammalian brain, have a
complicated architecture, with extensive branching into dendrites
that receive input from other nerve cells. The broad picture of
ion movements in nerve cell axons (the output extensions of nerve
cells) is rather well-known, but the ion movements in dendrites
are less understood because of experimental difficulties. Now Dax
A. Hoffman et al (Baylor College of Medicine, TX US) have
reported a study of potassium ion regulation in a type of nerve
cell in a part of the brain called the hippocampus. The
experiments involved tissue slices of the rat brain, a standard
technique for studying mammalian brain electrical activity. At
the present time, it is axiomatic that all mammalian neurons
exhibit the same general ion dynamics, which means studies of
neurons of the rat brain can be revelatory for our understanding
of neurons of the human brain. Hoffman and his group found a high
density of transient potassium ion channels in the dendrites of
the neurons they studied. They present an analysis of how these
channels regulate the responsiveness of the studied neurons to
input from other nerve cells. This new data will need to be
considered by all neurobiologists interested in the functioning
of human brain nerve cells. (Nature 26 June)

In 1994 an obesity gene and its protein product (leptin), were
discovered in obese mice. It has been determined that a defect in
the gene causes a severe reduction in the output of functional
leptin by fat cells (adipocytes). Leptin apparently acts as a
messenger to the hypothalamus in the brain, the absence of the
protein causing excessive eating behavior without satiation. Now
a similar gene has been discovered in humans, this gene also
responsible for the production of leptin by human adipocytes.
Carl T. Montague et al (15 authors at various installations, UK)
studied a homozygous genetic defect in two children suffering
from extreme obesity, and have isolated and characterized the
gene, and related it to the previously identified mouse gene
known as ob/ob. As in mice, the result of a defect in the gene is
an order of magnitude reduction in the circulating blood
concentration of the protein leptin. The results do not mean that
all instances of obesity in humans are produced by defects in
this gene, but certainly a new area of research into the
molecular genetics of human obesity has now been defined. In
addition, the authors offer the hope that recombinant human
leptin may be found to correct leptin deficiency in clinical
cases. (Nature 26 June)

Defects in the structure of the protein alpha-synuclein have been
implicated in several human brain pathologies, including
Alzheimer's disease and Creutzfeld-Jacob disease. Now a specific
type of familial, early-onset Parkinson's disease has been added
to the list. Mihael H. Polymeropoulos (20 authors at various
installations, US, IT, GR) have identified a mutation in the
alpha-synuclein gene in three unrelated families of Greek origin
exhibiting inherited early-onset Parkinsonism. A consensus is
growing that defects in the structure of alpha-synuclein may be
responsible for an array of human brain pathologies, with at
least some of the protein structural defects caused by inherited
genetic mutations. Alpha-synuclein has been previously shown to
be a presynaptic nerve terminal protein. The early visible
symptoms of Parkinsonism are produced by destruction of nerve
cells producing the hormone dopamine. In later stages of the
disease, destruction of other types of nerve cells occurs. This
new study does not provide evidence for a genetic basis for all
cases of Parkinsonism, but it serves as a pointer for researchers
studying the molecular biology of the disease. (Science 27 June)

Eighteen years ago, two researchers in Denver (CO US) noticed
small clusters of childhood leukemia cases (acute lymphoblastic
leukemia) and published a report in a medical journal relating
these cases to the presence of high-voltage power lines near the
childrens' residences, ascribing the relationship to the effects
of electrically induced magnetic fields on human tissue.
Although such magnetic fields can be shown by physical analysis
to be insignificant, much smaller than the already present steady
magnetic field of the Earth itself, amplification of concern by
the international media resulted in a near panic in many
countries. What is ironic is that in the first study, and in
later studies which claimed positive results, magnetic fields
were never measured, but were "estimated" using varying criteria.
In addition, the number of cases studied was always small, and
adequate controls were often nonexistent. Nevertheless, the
public concern increased, partly due to a three-part series in
the magazine New Yorker that claimed collusion by industry and
government in preventing dissemination of information about the
"true" state of affairs. Both physicists and physicians cognizant
of physics always denied the validity of the claims of a
relationship, and a number of studies with negative results were
carried out. Now the largest and most carefully controlled study
ever undertaken of this alleged relationship, a study involving
638 children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and 620 controls,
with actual physical measurements of magnetic fields by
technicians blinded to the cases and controls, has revealed no
connection at all between measured magnetic fields and diagnosis
of childhood leukemia. Results of the new study were reported
this week by Martha S. Linet et al (various installations in the
US). (New England Journal of Medicine 3 July)

In an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine,
commenting on the results reported above, and the international
near hysteria that has existed for almost two decades over the
possibility that magnetic fields induced by power lines cause
cancer, Edward W. Campion says, "It is sad that hundreds of
millions of dollars have gone into studies that never had much
promise of finding a way to prevent the tragedy of cancer in
children." (New England Journal of Medicine 3 July)

Vitamins are chemical substances not produced by the body, but
which are essential for many physiological processes. Vitamins
must therefore be taken into the body by one route or another.
Some vitamins, such as thiamine (Vitamin B1), are not stored by
the body, and the input, usually through the diet, must occur
almost every day. Reduction of thiamine levels produces insidious
results, the most notorious of which is perhaps the symptoms of
the neurological disease known as beriberi. Ordinarily, the input
of thiamine and other vitamins is a simple matter of an adequate
diet, but patients with digestion problems, adults and neonates,
particularly those with "short bowels" following gastrointestinal
surgery, often need intravenous vitamin administration. In this
week's issue of the New England Journal of Medicine there are
three letters addressing the apparent severe shortage of
intravenous vitamin solution in the U.S. and other countries.
Intravenous vitamin solution is an elementary chemical production
entity, but evidently there are only two suppliers in the U.S.,
production for some reason stopped at the end of 1996, and
intravenous vitamin solution is now almost impossible to obtain
anywhere. The problem is stated in a letter by M. Alloju and M.
Ehrinpreis (Wayne State University, US). In a second letter,
Astra USA, one of the suppliers, says they had design and
engineering problems with new equipment. In a third letter,
Kenneth A. Kudsk et al (American Society for Parenteral and
Enteral Nutrition, MD US) say they have no adequate explanation
for the duration and severity of the shortage. They also state
they know of 22 present cases of thiamine deficiency in patients
receiving long-term total parenteral nutrition, and that in 1988,
at the time of another shortage of intravenous multivitamins,
"several deaths resulted from cardiac failure due to thiamine-
deficient total parenteral nutrition among patients within a few
weeks of not receiving vitamins." (New England Journal of
Medicine 3 July)


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