Scientific News

opinion-pagesIt’s been 50 years since President John F. Kennedy spoke of ending world hunger, yet on the eve of World Food Day, Oct. 16, the situation remains dire. The question “How will we feed the world?” implies that we have no choice but to intensify industrial agriculture, with more high-tech seeds, chemicals and collateral damage. Yet there are other, better options.

Something approaching a billion people are hungry, a number that’s been fairly stable for more than 50 years, although it has declined as a percentage of the total population.

“Feeding the world” might as well be a marketing slogan for Big Ag, a euphemism for “Let’s ramp up sales,” as if producing more cars would guarantee that everyone had one. But if it worked that way, surely the rate of hunger in the United States would not be the highest percentage of any developed nation, a rate closer to that of Indonesia than of Britain.

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SAN FRANCISCO — For 30 years, Michael Wiskerchen has been eager to see microgravity research fulfill its promise. As the former director of NASA’s space physics office and program scientist for the first space shuttle mission to carry the Spacelab orbiting laboratory in its cargo bay, Wiskerchen has long been convinced space-based research would lead to important discoveries.

For decades, however, he watched as researchers were stymied by a lack of frequent, reliable access to orbit and difficulty in obtaining funding and approval to conduct experiments onboard the international space station.

As those impediments begin to fall away, Wiskerchen has come out of retirement to serve as vice president for spaceflight operations at Zero Gravity Solutions Inc. (ZGSI), a biotechnology startup that aims to use microgravity research to identify promising commercial products with applications for plants, animals and people on Earth. “The realization that this company could actually do what I dreamt of is thrilling,” Wiskerchen said.

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JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Scientists say a disease destroying entire crops of cassava has spread out of East Africa into the heart of the continent, is attacking plants as far south as Angola and now threatens to move west into Nigeria, the world's biggest producer of the potato-like root that helps feed 500 million Africans.

"The extremely devastating results are already dramatic today but could be catastrophic tomorrow" if nothing is done to halt the Cassava Brown Streak Disease, or CBSD, scientist Claude Fauquet, co-founder of the Global Cassava Partnership for the 21st Century, told The Associated Press.

Africa, with a burgeoning population and debilitating food shortages, is losing 50 million tons a year of cassava to the disease, he said.

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Biologists find microgravity conditions are optimal for cancer research.

Cancer researchers looking for a breakthrough might want to relocate to the International Space Station. Biologists have found that microgravity research and other space-based experiments provide greater insight into abnormal cell behavior.

In Earth-bound labs, cells grow flat, unable to fully mimic the three-dimensional architecture shaped by proteins and carbohydrates of a working human organ. This gap provides an obstacle for scientists studying changes in cell growth and development.

In space, cells clump together easily, arranging themselves into three-dimensional groupings that better replicate cell activity. They also experience less fluid shear stress, a type of disturbance that affects their behavior outside of the body.

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More than a year after astronauts and cosmonauts completed the International Space Station, the pace of its utilization continues to lag. The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (Casis), a Florida-based non-profit set up to organize and promote use of the U.S. National Laboratory portion of the station, finally appears to be getting its oar in the water after an unconscionable startup delay caused by bureaucratic wrangling. But priceless time has been lost, and probably continues to be, as the U.S. gets up to speed using its 50% of the orbiting laboratory.

The problem is not restricted to U.S. utilization. Johann-Dietrich Woerner, who heads Germany's space program as chairman of the executive board of the German aerospace center (DLR), says he is frustrated with Europe's use of the on-orbit research capability it has acquired through development of the Columbus laboratory module and the Automated Transfer Vehicle.

“We, the whole community—Americans, Russians, Canadians, Germans, Europeans, Japanese—invested a lot of money into the space station,” Woerner says. “And we, at least the Germans, invested to use it not just to have a flying object. [I]t is our deep understanding that we should use it now, for science, development and research in general.”

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The nonprofit has focused its efforts to find projects and outside investment in the technology-rich areas around Cambridge, Mass., Houston and Denver, and plans another drive in Silicon Valley in California soon, Ratliff says. Sticking points with potential partners include uncertainty over how long the station will continue to operate, and concern that the Casis agreement with NASA does not offer sufficient protection of intellectual property. Both issues are being addressed as Congress works on a NASA reauthorization bill.

Meanwhile, the space agency has started producing some meaningful results with the station research it funds through its own scientists and those affiliated with U.S. academic institutions. Among advances reported at the conference here were the discovery at the University of California, San Francisco, via some very sophisticated skeletal measurements of returning astronauts, that a combination of rigorous resistive exercise and doses of alendronate or other bisphosphonates in orbit can virtually eliminate the weakening that occurs when bones lose their gravity loading during extended missions.

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