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Saturday, October 13, 2007

Satellite reveals universe's

Satellite reveals universe's

Satellite reveals universe's first trillionth second

Scientists peering back to the oldest light in the universe have new evidence for what happened within its first trillionth of a second, when the universe suddenly grew from submicroscopic to astronomical size in far less than a wink of the eye.

Timeline of the universe: The expansion of the universe over most of it's history has been relatively gradual. The notion that a rapid period "inflation" preceded the Big Bang expansion was first put forth 25 years ago. The new WMAP observations favor specific inflation scenarios over other long held ideas. Credit: NASA

Using new data from a NASA satellite, scientists have the best evidence yet to support this scenario, known as "inflation." The evidence, from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) satellite, was gathered during three years of continuous observations of remnant afterglow light -- cosmic background radiation that lingers, much cooled, from the universe's energetic beginnings 13.7 billion years ago.

In 2003, NASA announced that the WMAP satellite had produced a detailed picture of the infant universe by measuring fluctuations in temperature of the afterglow -- answering many longstanding questions about the universe's age, composition and development. The WMAP team has built upon those results with a new measurement of the faint glare from the afterglow to obtain clues about the universe's first moments, when the seeds were sown for the formation of the first stars 400 million years later.

"It amazes me that we can say anything about what transpired within the first trillionth of a second of the universe, but we can," said Charles L. Bennett, WMAP principal investigator and a professor in the Henry A. Rowland Department of Physics and Astronomy at The Johns Hopkins University. "We have never before been able to understand the infant universe with such precision. It appears that the infant universe had the kind of growth spurt that would alarm any mom or dad."

The newly detected pattern, or polarization signal, in the glare of the afterglow is the weakest cosmological signal ever detected -- less than a hundredth of the strength of the temperature signal reported three years ago.

"This is brand new territory," said Princeton University physicist Lyman Page, a WMAP team member. "We are quantifying the cosmos in a different way to open up a new window for understanding the universe in its earliest times."

Comparing the brightness of broad features to compact features in the afterglow light (like comparing the heights of short-distance ripples versus long-distance waves on a lake) helps tell the story of the infant universe. One long-held prediction was that the brightness would be the same for features of all sizes. In contrast, the simplest versions of inflation predict that the relative brightness decreases as the features get smaller. WMAP data are new evidence for the inflation prediction.

The new WMAP data, combined with other cosmology data, also support established theories on what has happened to matter and energy over the past 13.7 billion years since its inflation, according to the WMAP researchers. The result is a tightly constrained and consistent picture of how our universe grew from microscopic quantum fluctuations to enable the formation of stars, planets and life.

According to this picture, researchers say, only 4 percent of the universe is ordinary familiar atoms; another 22 percent is an as-yet unidentified dark matter, and 74 percent is a mysterious dark energy. That dark energy is now causing another growth spurt for the universe, fortunately, they say, more gentle than the one 13.7 billion years ago.

WMAP was launched on June 30, 2001, and is now a million miles from Earth in the direction opposite the sun. It is able to track temperature fluctuations at levels finer than a millionth of a degree.

The WMAP team includes researchers at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.; The Johns Hopkins University; Princeton University; the Canadian Institute of Theoretical Astrophysics in Toronto; the University of Texas at Austin; Cornell University; the University of Chicago; Brown University; the University of British Columbia; the University of Pennsylvania; and the University of California, Los Angeles.

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NASA Shuttle Launch Aims - Oct. 23

CAPE CANAVERAL - In an engineering showdown next week, shuttle managers will recommend launching Discovery on Oct. 23 despite concerns raised by an independent safety group about tiny cracks in critical wing panels.

NASA shuttle chief Wayne Hale will tell agency leaders that the defects are too small to allow hot gases to burn through the composite carbon covers and destroy the spaceship during atmospheric re-entry.

And he'll note that new testing techniques developed after the 2003 Columbia accident show the cracks have not grown despite repeated exposure to re-entry temperatures as high as 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

"As it stands right now, based on the discussions and the detail that Wayne Hale heard yesterday, he said the risk as laid out is acceptable to proceed with the launch," Kyle Herring, a spokesman for NASA's Johnson Space Center, said Thursday.

However, experts from the NASA Engineering and Safety Center, an independent advisory organization established after the Columbia accident, on Wednesday recommended that NASA replace the panels as a precaution.

"They felt that the prudent thing to do would be to stand down and just swap out the panels to be sure," Herring said.

Doing so would force NASA to roll the shuttle back to its assembly building, disconnect Discovery from an external tank with attached solid rocket boosters, and return the orbiter to its processing hangar.

Launch of the U.S. Harmony module and the time-critical construction of the International Space Station would be delayed at least two months.

NASA would be hard-pressed to launch 13 outpost assembly flights and a Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission before September 2010, a presidential deadline for station completion and shuttle fleet retirement.

NASA Administrator Mike Griffin and top agency executives will make a call during a Flight Readiness Review on Tuesday at Kennedy Space Center.

Shuttle orbiter wings each are outfitted with 22 composite carbon panels that protect them from extreme temperatures during atmospheric re-entry.

The U-shaped panels are coated with silicon carbide to prevent oxidation, which reduces their structural integrity.

The manufacturing process exposes the panels to temperatures up to 3,000 degrees, and as the silicon carbide cools, small defects called "craze cracks" form.

The cracks - similar to scratches in the clear coat of an automobile finish - are filled with sealant.

Inspections after NASA's first post-Columbia test flight in July 2005 - a mission flown on Discovery - showed that the sealed cracks in some cases could open and expand during flight.

A new technique that employs a heat source to detect small defects was used to perform the tests.

Underlying composite carbon on one of Discovery's wing panels sustained enough damage to prompt NASA to replace it.

Two other tiny cracks on the orbiter's right wing and one on its left were discovered.

The panels nonetheless were deemed safe to fly and NASA formed an internal team to try to pinpoint the cause of the problem.

In the meantime, engineers continued post-landing inspections to see whether the small cracks expanded during flight.

Discovery flew twice in 2006 and the cracks have not changed.

Still stumped on the root cause, shuttle managers asked the NASA Engineering and Safety Center to study the matter.

The request came prior to a shuttle mission in June.

Discovery rolled out to launch pad 39A on Sept. 30.

The independent experts circulated a draft report Oct. 5.

A formal presentation was made during a shuttle program review Wednesday.

The root cause still is unknown, so the group contends NASA cannot adequately estimate the risk posed by the small cracks.

They said the prudent course is to replace the three panels.

The experts on the internal shuttle team recommended flying "as-is."

NASA leaders are pondering three options.

  • Launching Discovery as scheduled in 11 days.

  • Rolling the shuttle back to its hangar to replace the suspect panels.

  • Ordering more testing and analyses in a bid to prove Discovery is safe to fly "as-is."

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Nodiamonds effective at delivering chemotherapy drugs to cells without the negative effects

Researchers have shown that nanodiamonds -- much like the carbon structure as that of a sparkling 14 karat diamond but on a much smaller scale -- are very effective at delivering chemotherapy drugs to cells without the negative effects associated with current drug delivery agents.
Their study, published online by the journal Nano Letters, is the first to demonstrate the use of nanodiamonds, a new class of nanomaterials, in biomedicine. In addition to delivering cancer drugs, the model could be used for other applications, such as fighting tuberculosis or viral infections, say the researchers.


Nanodiamonds promise to play a significant role in improving cancer treatment by limiting uncontrolled exposure of toxic drugs to the body. The research team reports that aggregated clusters of nanodiamonds were shown to be ideal for carrying a chemotherapy drug and shielding it from normal cells so as not to kill them, releasing the drug slowly only after it reached its cellular target.

Another advantage of the material, confirmed by a series of genetic studies also reported in the paper, is that nanodiamonds do not cause cell inflammation once the drug has been released and only bare diamonds are left. Materials currently used for drug delivery can cause inflammation, a serious complication that can predispose a patient to cancer, block the activity of cancer drugs and even promote tumor growth.

"There are a lot of materials that can deliver drugs well, but we need to look at what happens after drug delivery," said Dean Ho, assistant professor of biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering at Northwestern's McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, who led the research. "How do cells react to an artificial material left in the body? Nanodiamonds are highly ordered structures, which cells like. If they didn't, cells would become inflamed. From a patient's perspective, this is very important. And that's why clinicians are interested in our work."

"Novel drug delivery systems, such as the one being developed by Dean and his team, hold great promise in cancer therapeutics," said Steven Rosen, M.D., director of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University and Genevieve E. Teuton Professor of Medicine at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine. "We anticipate they will allow for more sophisticated means of targeting cancer cells while sparing healthy cells from a drug's toxicity."

To make the material effective, Ho and his colleagues manipulated single nanodiamonds, each only two nanometers in diameter, to form aggregated clusters of nanodiamonds, ranging from 50 to 100 nanometers in diameter. The drug, loaded onto the surface of the individual diamonds, is not active when the nanodiamonds are aggregated; it only becomes active when the cluster reaches its target, breaks apart and slowly releases the drug. (With a diameter of two to eight nanometers, hundreds of thousands of diamonds could fit onto the head of a pin.)

"The nanodiamond cluster provides a powerful release in a localized place -- an effective but less toxic delivery method," said co-author Eric Pierstorff, a molecular biologist and post-doctoral fellow in Ho's research group. Because of the large amount of available surface area, the clusters can carry a large amount of drug, nearly five times the amount of drug carried by conventional materials.

Liposomes and polymersomes, both spherical nanoparticles, currently are used for drug delivery. While effective, they are essentially hollow spheres loaded with an active drug ready to kill any cells, even healthy cells that are encountered as they travel to their target. Liposomes and polymersomes also are very large, about 100 times the size of nanodiamonds -- SUVs compared to the nimble nanodiamond clusters that can circulate throughout the body and penetrate cell membranes more easily.

Unlike many of the emerging nanoparticles, nanodiamonds are soluble in water, making them clinically important. "Five years ago while working in Japan, I first encountered nanodiamonds and saw it was a very soluble material," said materials scientist Houjin Huang, lead author of the paper and also a post-doctoral fellow in Ho's group. "I thought nanodiamonds might be useful in electronics, but I didn't find any applications. Then I moved to Northwestern to join Dean and his team because they are capable of engineering a broad range of devices and materials that interface well with biological tissue. Here I've focused on using nanodiamonds for biomedical applications, where we've found success.

"Nanodiamonds are very special," said Huang. "They are extremely stable, and you can do a lot of chemistry on the surface, to further functionalize them for targeting purposes. In addition to functionality, they also offer safety -- the first priority to consider for clinical purposes. It's very rare to have a nanomaterial that offers both."

"It's about optimizing the advantages of a material," said Ho, a member of the Lurie Cancer Center. "Our team was the first to forge this area -- applying nanodiamonds to drug delivery. We've talked to a lot of clinicians and described nanodiamonds and what they can do. I ask, 'Is that useful to you?' They reply, 'Yes, by all means.'"

For their study, Ho and his team used living murine macrophage cells, human colorectal carcinoma cells and doxorubicin hydrochloride, a widely used chemotherapy drug. The drug was successfully loaded onto the nanodiamond clusters, which efficiently ferried the drug inside the cells. Once inside, the clusters broke up and slowly released the drug.

In the genetic studies, the researchers exposed cells to the bare nanodiamonds (no drug was present) and analyzed three genes associated with inflammation and one gene for apoptosis, or cell death, to see how the cells reacted to the foreign material. Looking into the circuitry of the cell, they found no toxicity or inflammation long term and a lack of cell death. In fact, the cells grew well in the presence of the nanodiamond material.

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Nobel Prize winner to chair new Institute of Science, Ethics and Innovation

Nobel Laureate John Sulston FRS is to join The University of Manchester's Faculty of Life Sciences and will chair a new research institute focusing on the ethical questions raised by science and technology in the 21st century.

The 2002 Nobel Prize winner and pioneer of genomic research will be joined in the cross-discipline Institute of Science, Ethics and Innovation by Professor John Harris, a world-renowned authority on bioethics in Manchester's School of Law.

The new Institute's overriding aim will be to examine how the social and ethical consequences of science and technology can be managed in a way that protects people and makes their lives better. Among some of the ethical issues to be investigated are:

- Genetic selection of human embryos and the conflicts of interest between parents, the unborn child, social groups and society

- Genetic manipulation of humans and animals and the mixing of human and animal genes and cells to create hybrids

- The funding disparity in healthcare research between diseases of the developed and developing world

- The ethics surrounding different models of healthcare delivery, from a US system that rations by wealth to a UK-type model that aims to provide free access to care at the point of delivery

- Global trade, the free-market economy and 'fair trade' initiatives

- Climate change and the ethics of conflict between bioenegy and food supply in developing countries

"What is new and urgently required is serious work at the interface between science, ethics and innovation," said John Sulston.

"We need to examine the role of science and technology in society, both locally and globally, and consider the adequacy and justification for that role as well as the forms of regulation and control that are appropriate.

"Many of the topics that will fall under the remit of the Institute of Science, Ethics and Innovation offer great opportunities for us to produce high quality research in areas of major concern to society in the pursuit of progress towards a better future for humanity."

John Sulston has scholarly interests in common with Professor Joseph Stiglitz, also a Nobel Laureate, who was recruited by the University to chair the Brooks World Poverty Institute, a multidisciplinary centre of global excellence researching poverty, inequality and growth in the developed and developing world.

Professor John Harris, Research Director of the new Institute, said: "The transition process for new scientific and technological developments from discovery, through proof of principle to the clinic or marketplace, raises acute issues of social and global justice.

"These justice issues are also very much the concern of the Brooks World Poverty Institute and the intention is for these twin Manchester institutes, each chaired by a Nobel Laureate, to work closely together to create a centre of excellence in these complementary fields that is second to none in the world."

The University of Manchester aims to become one of the world's top 25 universities by 2015 and views iconic appointments, such as John Sulston's, as key to attracting the best scholars and students from around the globe.

Other recent key appointments have included Professor Robert Putnam, the global expert on social change, and author Martin Amis, who is the new Professor of Creative Writing at Manchester.

The University's President and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Alan Gilbert said: "I'm delighted that John Sulston has agreed to join the University.

"His appointment is the latest in a series of iconic appointments intended to reflect the University's commitment to become one of the top 25 research universities in the world, as set out in the University's ambitious strategic plan, the Manchester 2015 Agenda.

"We already have a reputation for research and policy engagement in the fields of development economics, development studies, sustainability, healthcare governance and ethics, sociology and politics, as well as a strong reputation in science.

"The role of this Institute will be to build on this through world-leading research on science, ethics and innovation."

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Nobel :Necessary for a looming, planet-scale problem to get attention. : The Discovery of Global Warming

saving the world from global warming.

It was only an academic symposium, and none of the scholars - including a Canadian Inuit woman in the running for a "green Nobel" - claimed to have a master plan to eradicate the threat of climate change. Still, there was a whiff of validation, if not victory, in the air.

"The scientific findings are clear: climate is changing, and it is a response to human activities," said Mario Molina, a chemist who won the Nobel Prize in 1995 for being the first to posit that chlorofluorocarbons and similar chemicals could poke a hole in the ozone layer.

Molina was speaking during a week of Nobel announcements that the laureates at this meeting hoped would culminate today with the award of a "green" Peace Prize.

Among those rumoured as candidates are three climate-change evangelists: former U.S. vice president Al Gore; Sheila Watt-Cloutier, a Canadian who has warned about the threat to Arctic wildlife; and Rajendra Pachauri, an Indian scientist who is chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which assesses the risks of greenhouse gases for the United Nations.

Pachauri kicked things off with his panel's latest findings, which he said ought to settle the debate about whether humans are making the planet dangerously warmer.

"People do raise this issue of what's happening with the science, and whether the science is on board," said Pachauri.

"I think that argument really should be over.''

Even if the Nobel committee passes over all the candidates who have worked on issues related to climate change, there was a bracing sense here that public opinion had finally caught up to science on the topic.

No longer is the United States, which refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol and continues to go its own way in climate policy, viewed as an immovable barrier to a global replacement deal.

"If you look what's happened in the last year or so, it's been quite extraordinary," said Nicholas Stern, a British economist who wrote last year on the potential costs of not confronting climate change.

"It wasn't until January this year that President (George W.) Bush was at all clear there was a problem; now he's sounding as if he's a leader in the response to this problem," Stern said, stifling a chuckle.

This year's Nobel Peace Prize is being conferred for two starkly different ways of communicating about human-caused global warming.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change speaks in the measured voice of peer-reviewed science and government-negotiations. In four reports issued since 1990, it has always focused on the most noncontroversial findings. In 2001, for instance, it concluded, "There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities."

The other awardee, former Vice President Al Gore, delivers brimstone-laden warnings of an unfolding "planetary emergency." He has not shied from emphasizing the most emotionally potent, though least certain, consequences of warming, such as its link to hurricane intensity and the likely pace of sea-level rise.

Gary Yohe, an economist at Wesleyan University and a lead author of some of the climate panel's reports in 2001 and this year, said he was thrilled to have climate elevated by the prize. But he said the focus on Mr. Gore as a personality and politician might distract from the strong consensus among researchers on the risks posed by unfettered greenhouse gas emissions.

"If the spectacular nature of his presentations and the personalities involved become the story instead of the science," he said, "then it becomes counterproductive."

But some scientists, historians and policy experts said yesterday that both messages - with all the imperfections attending each - seem necessary for a looming, planet-scale problem to get attention.

The Nobel "is honoring the science and the publicity, and they're necessarily different," said Spencer A. Weart, a science historian at the American Institute of Physics and author of The Discovery of Global Warming, a recent book charting climate research through the last century.

He added that both are essential because the science alone, laden with complexity and some unavoidable uncertainty, would never jog average citizens or most elected officials.

"The I.P.C.C. was set up to be the lowest common denominator, to weed out anything anyone could disagree with," Dr. Weart said. "It was deliberately created, largely under the influence of Reagan administration, because governments didn't want a bunch of self-appointed scientists from academies and so on out there. It's no accident that it's the Intergovernmental panel," he said. "Even the Saudi government has to agree. That means that when the I.P.C.C. says you're in trouble, you're really in trouble."

But if the profile of the climate issue had not been raised with the release of "An Inconvenient Truth," the documentary on Mr. Gore's climate work, the panel's latest reports, released in three parts from February through April, would not have had nearly as much impact, some experts said.

Among those crediting Mr. Gore for elevating the climate issue - if differing from him dramatically on solutions - is the former House speaker Newt Gingrich. Mr. Gingrich is co-author of a new book, "A Contract With the Earth," accepting that human-caused warming poses unacceptable risks and pushing, among other things, for the United States to aggressively develop non-polluting energy technologies.

"In a way, Vice President Gore, by raising the intensity of the issue, by talking about it, raised the challenge for those of us who think there's an alternative to say, O.K., right emotions, wrong answer," Mr. Gingrich said in an interview this week before the Nobel announcement. "But then we have an obligation to provide an answer." He said he prefers incentives to boost energy research over Mr. Gore's preference for a mandatory limit on gases, both nationally and globally.

Some longtime critics were less willing to give Mr. Gore credit. "I am delighted that Al Gore got a Peace Prize - which is NOT to be confused with a Nobel Prize for science," S. Fred Singer, an atmospheric scientist and one of a small, vocal group of longtime skeptics of dangerous human-caused warming, said in an email.

Some scientists who have participated in the panel's reviews and published climate studies for many years said the award reflected that the global community had, after two decades of cyclical attention - and rising emissions - absorbed that humans are pushing on the planet's thermostat.

But several such experts said they remained concerned by a deep persistent split over what to do about it - between those, like Mr. Gingrich and President Bush, who prefer a focus on technological advances and those, like Mr. Gore, seeking a regulatory approach forcing cuts in emissions.

"It's been a long slog," said Michael Oppenheimer, an atmospheric scientist who has participated in the periodic climate assessments since the early days of the panel. "The award reminds us that expert advice can influence people and policy, that sometimes governments do listen to reason, and that the idea that reason can guide human action is very much alive, if not yet fully realized."

He added that it was now up to governments to act.

"Public attention is now engaged at the highest level it will probably ever be engaged," Dr. Oppenheimer said. "Now it's incumbent on governments to grab the opportunity and work with each other and at the national level to finally craft a solution."

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Something new under the sun

Something new under the sun
Innovation, long the preserve of technocratic elites, is becoming more open. This will be good for the world, argues Vijay Vaitheeswaran (interviewed here)

A CRISIS is a terrible thing to waste," Vinod Khosla laments to Larry Page. The two Silicon Valley luminaries are chatting one evening at the Googleplex, the quirky Californian headquarters of Google. The crisis which Mr Khosla is concerned about is caused by carmakers' addiction to oil and the consequent warming of the planet. "The energy and car industries have not been innovative in many years because they have faced no real crisis, no impetus for change," he insists.

The two are plotting what they hope will be the next great industrial revolution: the convergence of software and smart electronics with the grease and grime of the oil and car industries. Mr Khosla is kicking around his plans for getting "chip guys" together with "engine guys" to develop the clean, software-rich car of the future. Such breakthroughs happen only when conventional wisdom is ignored and cross-fertilisation encouraged; "managed conflict", in his words.

Mr Page, co-founder of Google, had earlier hosted a gathering of leading environmentalists, political thinkers and energy experts to help shape an inducement to get things moving: the Automotive X Prize, to be unveiled in early 2008. The organisers will offer at least $10m to whoever comes up with the best "efficient, clean, affordable and sexy" car able to obtain the equivalent of 100 miles-per-gallon using alternative energy. The charitable arm of Mr Page's firm has already taken hybrid petrol-electric vehicles, like the Toyota Prius, and turned them into even cleaner "plug in" versions which can be topped up from an electric socket.

Mr Khosla believes clean cars, using advanced biofuels or other alternatives, will come about only through radical innovation of the sort that Big Oil and Big Autos avoid. Risk and acceptance of failure are central to innovation, he argues, but the dinosaurs typically avoid both. "Big companies didn't invent the internet or Google, and much of the big change in telecoms also came from outsiders," he adds.

Coming from almost anyone else such talk would sound preposterous. But Mr Khosla and Mr Page are not ordinary businessmen or armchair revolutionaries. Mr Khosla helped to found Sun Microsystems, a path-breaking information-technology firm, and he went on to become a partner at Kleiner Perkins, a venture-capital company that was an early backer of, America Online and many other pillars of the internet economy. Mr Page's Google is one of the internet's biggest success stories. At 34 he is a multi-billionaire.

But these men are from Silicon Valley; and Silicon Valley is not America. It is tempting to dismiss such breathless talk of revolution as just more hype from people who are seeing the world through Google goggles. After all, go beyond the rarefied air of northern California and the rules of gravity are no longer suspended. The well-established industries which they mock still move at their usual but reliably glacial pace, right?

Well no, actually. Rapid and disruptive change is now happening across new and old businesses. Innovation, as this report will show, is becoming both more accessible and more global. This is good news because its democratisation releases the untapped ingenuity of people everywhere and that could help solve some of the world's weightiest problems.

The seditious scene from the Googleplex also captures the challenge this presents to established firms and developed economies. For ages innovation has been a technology-led affair, with most big breakthroughs coming out of giant and secretive research labs, like Xerox PARC and AT&T's Bell Laboratorie.

It was an era when big corporations in developed countries accounted for most R&D spending. .

North America still leads the world in research spending (see chart 1), but the big labs' advantage over their smaller rivals and the developing world is being eroded by two powerful forces. The first is globalisation, especially the rise of China and India as both consumers and, increasingly, suppliers of innovative products and services. The second is the rapid advance of information technologies, which are spreading far beyond the internet and into older industries such as steel, aerospace and carmaking.

What is innovation? Although the term is often used to refer to new technology, many innovations are neither new nor involve new technology. The self-service concept of fast-food popularised by McDonald's, for instance, involved running a restaurant in a different way rather than making a technological breakthrough. However, innovation can involve plenty of clever gadgets and gizmos.

One way to arrive at a useful definition is to rule out what innovation is not. It is not invention. New products might be an important part of the process, but they are not the essence of it. These days much innovation happens in processes and services. Novelty of some sort does matter, although it might involve an existing idea from another industry or country. For example, Edwin Drake was not the first man to drill for a natural resource; the Chinese used that technique for centuries to mine salt. But one inspired morning in 1859, Colonel Drake decided to try drilling for oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania. He struck black gold and from his innovation the modern oil industry was born.

The men in white coats

The OECD, a think-tank for rich countries, says innovation can be defined as "new products, business processes and organic changes that create wealth or social welfare." Richard Lyons, the chief "learning officer" at Goldman Sachs, an investment bank, offers a more condensed version: "fresh thinking that creates value". Both hit the nail on the head, and will serve as the definition in this report.

According to popular notion, innovation is something that men wearing white coats in laboratories do. And that's the way it used to be. Companies set up vertically integrated R&D organisations and governments fussed over innovation policies to help them succeed. This approach had successes and many companies still spend pots of money on corporate research. But firms are growing increasingly disenchanted because the process is slow and insular. A global study across industries by Booz Allen Hamilton, a consultancy, even concluded that "higher R&D spending doesn't ensure better performance in terms of growth, profitability or shareholder returns."

Now the centrally planned approach is giving way to the more democratic, even joyously anarchic, new model of innovation. Clever ideas have always been everywhere, of course, but companies were often too closed to pick them up. The move to an open approach to innovation is far more promising. An insight from a bright spark in a research lab in Bangalore or an avid mountain biker in Colorado now has a decent chance of being turned into a product and brought to market

So why does the generation and handling of ideas matter so much? "We firmly believe that innovation, not love, makes the world go round," insists John Dryden of the OECD. Corny perhaps, but studies do show that a large and rising share of growth-and with it living standards-over recent decades is the result of innovation (see chart 2). Innovative firms also tend to outperform their peers. "We're not discovering new continents or encountering vast deposits of new minerals," Mr Dryden adds. Indeed, the OECD's experts believe that most innovation has been caused by globalisation and new technologies.

Analysis done by the McKinsey Global Institute shows that competition and innovation (not information technology alone) led to the extraordinary productivity gains seen in the 1990s. "Those innovations-in technology as well as products and business processes-boosted productivity. As productivity rose, competition intensified, bringing fresh waves of innovation," the institute explains.

That is why innovation matters. With manufacturing now barely a fifth of economic activity in rich countries, the "knowledge economy" is becoming more important. Indeed, rich countries may not be able to compete with rivals offering low-cost products and services if they do not learn to innovate better and faster.

But even if innovation is the key to global competitiveness, it is not necessarily a zero sum game. On the contrary, because the well of human ingenuity is bottomless, innovation strategies that tap into hitherto neglected intellectual capital and connect it better with financial capital can help both rich and poor countries prosper. That is starting to happen in the developing world.

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Space 1st Female Commander

Space 1st Female Commander

An American astronaut climbed aboard the international space station Friday for a stint as its first female commander after a two-day trip from Earth and a textbook docking.

Peggy Whitson, cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and Malaysian physician Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor scooted through hatches linking the station with the Soyuz TMA-11 craft they rode into orbit from Russia's launch facility in Kazakhstan.

The Soyuz docked on schedule at 10:50 a.m. EDT after catching up with the station and firing thrusters to get into position, said Valery Lyndin, chief spokesman for Russian Mission Control outside Moscow.

"Everything is great," Malenchenko told Mission Control shortly after the ship locked onto the station about 220 miles over Central Asia. A commentator with the U.S. space agency NASA called the docking "flawless."

Whitson and her crewmates clambered through the hatches about 90 minutes later and joined the station's current crew, cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin and Oleg Kotov, and astronaut Clayton Anderson. The newcomers traded their bulky gear for more comfortable jumpsuits and spoke to well-wishers at Mission Control via a video link.

"The fun is just about to begin," Yurchikhin said.

Sheikh Muszaphar, a 35-year-old orthopedic surgeon fulfilling his own dream of space travel and his country's, was already having fun.

"I feel very well," he said in Russian, grinning as his body shifted in the zero gravity. In English, he said, "I'm having a very good time here with my friends from Russia and America - and my love to all Malaysians out there."

Sheikh Muszapar will perform experiments involving diseases and the effects of microgravity and space radiation on cells and genes. The $25 million agreement for a Malaysian astronaut to fly to space was negotiated in 2003 along with a $900 million deal for Malaysia to buy 18 Russian fighter jets.

The ninth Muslim in space, he has said his roughly 10-day stay on the station should inspire his homeland and Muslims all over the world.

Whitson, a 47-year-old biochemist from Beaconsfield, Iowa, was selected as an astronaut in 1996 and spent six months on the international space station in 2002. She will formally assume command from Yurchikhin on Oct. 19, Lyndin said.

Showing her space legs, she leaned effortlessly on her elbow despite the zero gravity as she and the others accepted congratulations from Russian and American space officials on Earth.

Whitson and Malenchenko will replace Yurchikhin and Kotov, who are slated to return to Earth along with Sheikh Muszaphar on Oct. 21 in a Soyuz capsule.

Malenchenko, 45, traveled to the international space station on the shuttle Atlantis in 2000 and returned for a six-month stint as its commander in 2003. He spent time on Russia's space station, Mir, more than a decade ago.

He and Whitson are to be joined this month by U.S. astronaut Daniel Tani, who is scheduled to arrive on the shuttle Discovery. Tani will replace Anderson, who has been at the station since June.

Anderson, a fan of the University of Nebraska football team, tossed a football in zero gravity as the crew prepared to open the hatches, NASA footage showed.

After Tani's arrival, the station's crew - known as Expedition 16 - will prepare for the expansion of the station, which is set to add European and Japanese modules in coming months.

Discovery will bring up a connecting mode called Harmony, and the station's crew will perform space walks to put it in place for a December shuttle docking and the arrival of the European Space Agency module, Columbus, NASA's space operations chief Bill Gerstenmaier told reporters at Mission Control after the docking.

"This is Gerst ... it's great to see you guys in orbit," he told the newly arrived crew. "Have some fun and do a lot of great work."

A Russian rocket carrying Malaysia's first astronaut and the woman set to become the first female commander of the International Space Station (ISS) blasted off tonight from Baikonur.

Two-day voyage to ISS
Muszaphar in space for 9 days .

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LHC( Large Hadron Colider) UPDATES

ATLAS big wheel triumph

ATLAS celebrates installing the last of the eight big wheels. These wheels form the end-cap muon spectrometer of the detector.

The team and guests at the celebration stand between two of the eight 25-metre diameter big wheels.

The installation of the last sector of the ATLAS muon big wheels.

The ATLAS end-cap muon detectors, the 'big wheels', have been compared to many things: flowers, orange halves, clock faces and works of art. But, more importantly, each is an incredible feat of engineering. On Friday last week the team celebrated the completion of the last wheel, and moved into the final stages of installation.

"I must admit that at the end of last year I would not have believed that we would manage to install these eight big wheels essentially on schedule," admitted Peter Jenni, ATLAS spokesperson. The first of the wheels took a long time to install, but the last one took just a couple of weeks. "This is really a great achievement."

The big wheels harbour ATLAS's middle layer of muon chambers in the forward region and are one of the last large pieces to be installed. Each is 25m across, weighs between 40 and 50 tonnes and contains around 80 precision chambers or 200 trigger chambers. The support structure itself is just one third of the weight of the total wheel.

Because of their sheer size, each wheel had to be made in 12 pieces for the trigger planes and 16 pieces for the precision-measurement planes, or "petals", of aluminium, the last of which was installed on Friday. Each was assembled at CERN using components from all over the world before being fitted together, piece by piece like a jigsaw.

Because of the need for space for the chambers, designing a suitable structure presented a unique challenge, one that project engineers, Raphaël Vuillermet, Dimitar Mladenov and Giancarlo Spigo were happy to take on.

"The detectors themselves have been on drawings for 15 years; everyone knew where they would go but no one knew about the structure," explains Dimitar. "There were chambers everywhere so our design had to build around them and in the small spaces in between them."

The result after 3 years of calculation, design and sleepless nights was a uniquely thin and light structure that is precise to less than a millimetre.

The 100-member collaboration from Israel, Japan, the US, China, Russia, Europe and Pakistan began assembly of components in 2005 and installation in 2006. "Because the pieces are so delicate we had to be careful throughout the whole process," explains Raphaël. "I was very afraid about something happening to the chambers and also to the people, because you are working 30 metres up. But we didn't have any problems."

The completion of the big wheels is symbolic for ATLAS because, as technical coordinator Marzio Nessi explains, "the big wheels were always seen as something we would do at the end. And now we have done them."

For Dimitar the biggest challenge was the timing. "I feel proud, but not for myself, for everyone. It was the result of hard work. The only thing that we were lucky about was the weather; if there had been a single day of heavy rain we might have been delayed. But Marzio said not to worry and to leave the weather to him, and the weather was great. I don't know how he did it!"

Now just two smaller scale wheels and the end-wall chambers remain to be installed, and the big wheels have already begun to give read-outs as part of test runs using cosmic ray data that ATLAS performs every six weeks.

With their striking symmetry and aesthetic appeal the big wheels are likely to become icons of the experiment. But to Marzio, all pieces of ATLAS are beautiful. "This piece just happens to be 25m high."

A word from the DG: LHC commissionning 
enters the home straight

In an age of blogs there are seemingly no secrets, so by the time Lyn Evans gave his talk on the status of LHC commissioning on 13 September, everyone seemed to know about plug-in modules, beam position monitors and transmitters embedded in ping-pong balls. All the on-line speculation made for interesting reading, and is a clear sign of the growing interest there is in CERN as we approach LHC start-up. We are now entering the final phase of commissioning, and things are going well given the unprecedented complexity of the task in hand.

Following the cool-down, powering and warm-up of Sector 7-8 earlier this year, we have learned a great deal about what it means to commission the LHC. There have inevitably been hitches, including the plug-in modules, or PIMs. When the LHC is cooled down, each sector shrinks by about 10 metres in length, and this has to be absorbed by bellows between components and a system of sliding copper fingers (PIM) that ensure electrical connectivity around the ring. When warming up Sector 7-8, a small number of fingers buckled as the machine expanded and are being repaired. The problem is understood, and concerns only a small percentage of the PIMs. To identify precisely where the problem occurs, an ingenious system involving blowing an object like a ping-pong ball with a 40 MHz transmitter (the frequency of the beam bunches seen by the position monitors) along the beam pipe has been devised.

Lessons learned from Sector 7-8 are being put into practice in other sectors. A second sector has been rapidly cooled to 80 degrees above absolute zero, a third is undergoing pressure tests, and testing of the remaining five sectors will now start at the rate of one every two weeks. In the sectors currently under test, vacuum leaks have been isolated and are also being repaired.

Meanwhile, the repair of the LHC's inner triplet magnets is complete. A team from CERN, Fermilab, KEK and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has successfully completed the repairs. So far, three of the eight triplets have been installed and successfully pressure-tested in the tunnel. The remaining triplets are in the process of installation and pressure testing.

All of this is business as usual when bringing a new particle accelerator on-line. There are inevitably hurdles to be overcome, but so far there have been no show stoppers. We can all look forward to the LHC producing its first physics in 2008.

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Sofia Observatory Enters Aircraft Testing Phase

EDWARDS, Calif. - NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, known as SOFIA, began a series of flight tests Thursday of the highly modified Boeing 747SP aircraft. The tests are the first of several phases required to verify the aircraft is structurally sound for future science flights. This phase is scheduled to be completed by the end of this year.

After finishing flight testing and modifications, NASA plans to begin using the airborne observatory for "first light" infrared observations of the universe in 2009. The first light flights will enable the mission to begin obtaining results several years before the observatory reaches its full capability in 2014. SOFIA will collect science data using a variety of specialized instruments developed by NASA and its German partners.

"SOFIA is making tremendous progress toward the initiation of science observations in 2009, and this flight testing is another milestone along the path," said Jon Morse, director of the Astrophysics Division in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, Washington. "Early observations will have significant science community involvement to initiate broad use of this unique astronomical observatory."

When operational, SOFIA's 2.5-meter infrared telescope will conduct celestial observations while flying at altitudes up to 45,000 feet. This height will place the instrument above almost 99 percent of the Earth's atmospheric water vapor, greatly enhancing its ability to observe the cosmos. The flying observatory is designed to detect the formation of stars in our galaxy, determine the chemical composition of the interstellar medium, and peer through the dust that hides the black hole at the center of the Milky Way.

During mission development, engineers installed a 17-metric-ton telescope in SOFIA's aft fuselage at L-3 Communications Integrated Systems facility in Waco, Texas. They also cut a 16-foot-high telescope door into the fuselage during the telescope installation process.

After arrival at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, Calif., the aircraft was outfitted with test instrumentation critical for these preliminary flight tests. The aircraft also has been equipped with a telescope cavity environmental control system designed to keep the telescope dry when the door is closed and as the aircraft flies to the altitude required for operation of the observatory.

NASA is conducting the first series of flight tests with the cavity door closed. These flights will study the aerodynamics, structural integrity, stability and control, and handling qualities of the modified aircraft. Future flights will concentrate on the in-flight rotational motion and control of the German-built telescope.

After closed-door flight testing is complete, the flying observatory will undergo installation and integration of the remaining elements of the observatory before door-open test flights, which are scheduled to begin in late 2008.

"The largest technical challenges remaining are in 2008, with the remainder of the mission sub-system installation that will give the aircraft the ability to fly with the cavity door open," said SOFIA aircraft project manager John Carter at Dryden.

The program is a partnership of NASA and the German Aerospace Center. Dryden manages SOFIA with science elements of the program managed by NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.

For more information about SOFIA, visit:

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Large Hadron Colider :CERN boss quashes LHC delay rumours

Large Hadron Colider,

it is hoped that the collider will produce the elusive Higgs boson particle - often dubbed the God Particle - the observation of which could confirm the predictions and 'missing links' in the Standard Model of physics, and explain how other elementary particles acquire properties such as mass. The verification of the existence of the Higgs boson would be a significant step in the search for a Grand Unified Theory which seeks to unify the four fundamental forces: Electromagnetism, Strong Force, Weak Force, and Gravity. The higgs boson may help to explain why gravity is comparatively weak when contrasted with the other three fundamental forces.
Robert Aymar, the director general of CERN, has dispelled rumours that a series of buckled electrical connectors at the Large Hadron Collider will delay the accelerator's official start-up date of May 2008. Writing in this week's CERN Bulletin, Aymar says that the problem concerns only a small percentage of the connectors and that it is "business as usual" for bringing the new accelerator online.

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is a 27-km ring around which beams of protons are accelerated using hundreds of superconducting magnets, grouped into eight sectors and cooled with liquid helium. To prevent the intensity of the beam dropping, the beam has to induce a "mirror" current with little resistance in the walls, an ability that requires electrical continuity throughout. But because the sectors shrink by about 10 metres in total when cooled down to their 1.9 K operating temperature, the connections between components in the sectors must be provided by collections of sliding copper fingers or "plug in modules" (PIMs).

Inserting transmitterIn the first week of August, however, PIMs in "sector 7-8" of the LHC did not expand properly when the sector was warmed up from the operating temperature - a procedure occasionally necessary in the long-term running of the accelerator. This caused the PIMs to buckle into the space reserved for the beam.

To see the extent of the problem, CERN technicians quickly devised tiny radio transmitters housed in shells that could be sent down the vacuum pipes containing the PIMs. If these transmitters, which were slightly smaller than ping-pong balls, encountered an obstruction, then they would fail to pass a signal to one of the beam position monitors located every 50 m in the pipes.

The rumours - which spread largely on internet blogs - started after LHC project leader Lyn Evans gave a colloquium on 13 September to CERN staff in which he reviewed the PIM problem and proposed the technicians' solution to it. Various blogs claimed that the LHC could be substantially delayed and that the first data runs could be pushed into 2009.

But according to Aymar's statement, which appeared on Monday, the problem is just one of many to be expected in the run up to launch. "So far there have been no show stoppers," Aymar says. "We can all look forward to the LHC producing its first physics in 2008."

Speaking to, Evans says that the obstruction detection technique showed that only six out of 450 PIMs in sector 7-8 were damaged, and they are currently being fixed. "If all the PIMs were affected it would have been a serious problem," he said. "Now that we know it's only a small number, we're all much more relaxed."

Evans also said that another rumour, which suggested the LHC was having problems sourcing enough helium-4 for cooling, was completely unfounded. He explained that the LHC has two contracted parties to supply the helium, but that it also has another two in reserve in case there are any problems.

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Particle Detectives on the Trail of a Time Machine :In 2008 the biggest experiment in the world will start operations

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is a particle accelerator and collider located at CERN, near Geneva, Switzerland (46°14′N, 6°03′E). Currently under construction, the LHC is scheduled to begin operation in May 2008.[1] The LHC is expected to become the world's largest and highest energy particle accelerator. The LHC is being funded and built in collaboration with over two thousand physicists from thirty-four countries, universities and laboratories

In 2008 the biggest experiment in the world will start operations, creating conditions last seen only fractions of a second after the Big Bang. Called the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, this huge machine will act as a time machine allowing scientists to look back at the start of the Universe and answer many questions that remain in physics. To help teachers share the excitement and challenges of a project of this magnitude with their students, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) has produced an on-line educational pack.

Gareth James, Schools Manager of the STFC said "Cutting-edge science offers a great opportunity to explain how science works and share with students the excitement of discovery. The Large Hadron Collider will change our understanding of the early Universe as it confirms some theories, rejects others and no doubt throws up new and unexpected phenomena. Particle Detectives allows students to share in the discovery process and meet the people, not so different from them, that are changing our view of the physical world."

Available at , the materials are aimed at the 14-19 age groups. Resources include ready-made presentations for teachers and students to give, an online simulator of the LHC, a latest news section and study guides for older students. Users can access video clips of students asking, and scientists answering, questions about the LHC project. There is also information on how the materials relate to the curriculum in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The LHC will accelerate protons and collide them at high energies to explore the conditions of the early Universe. Scientists working on the LHC hope to learn about anti-matter, gravity, mass, extra dimensions and even discover new particles. Using the LHC simulator, students can explore the challenges of building of such a massive machine and the even bigger task of analysing the data that comes from it.

Caitriona McKnight, teacher at the Saffron Walden County High School in Essex said "I have tried it and love it. Particle detectives is a really exciting resource with a lot of high-quality materials that both teachers and students can use. The video clips of students asking scientists questions about the LHC 'humanise' this huge scientific endeavour, the curriculum map makes it easy for the busiest teacher to see where the particle detectives resources can be used across their science teaching and the LHC simulator captures the essence of the scientific process and the excitement of discovery".

The Science and Technology Facilities Council produces a range of materials to support science teaching, details of other projects can be found at and clicking on 'Public and Schools'

Science and Technology Facilities Council
The Science and Technology Facilities Council ensures the UK retains its leading place on the world stage by delivering world-class science; accessing and hosting international facilities; developing innovative technologies; and increasing the socio-economic impact of its research through effective knowledge exchange partnerships.

The Council has a broad science portfolio including Astronomy, Particle Physics, Particle Astrophysics, Nuclear Physics, Space Science, Synchrotron Radiation, Neutron Sources and High Power Lasers. In addition the Council manages and operates three internationally renowned laboratories:

-The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Oxfordshire
-The Daresbury Laboratory, Cheshire
-The UK Astronomy Technology Centre, Edinburgh

The Council gives researchers access to world-class facilities and funds the UK membership of international bodies such as the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN), the Institute Laue Langevin (ILL), European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF), the European organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO) and the European Space Agency (ESA). It also contributes money for the UK telescopes overseas on La Palma, Hawaii, Australia and in Chile, and the MERLIN/VLBI National Facility, which includes the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory.

The Council distributes public money from the Government to support scientific research. Between 2007 and 2008 we will invest approximately £678 million.

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MIT links gene to cholesterol :Research could lead to drugs for atherosclerosis, Alzheimer's

Anne Trafton, News Office
October , 2007

MIT researchers have discovered a link between a gene believed to promote long lifespan and a pathway that flushes cholesterol from the body.

The finding could help researchers create drugs that lower the risk of diseases associated with high cholesterol, including atherosclerosis (clogged arteries) and Alzheimer's disease.

The study focused on a gene called SIRT1, which the researchers found prevents cholesterol buildup by activating a cellular pathway that expels cholesterol from the body via HDL (high density lipoprotein or "good cholesterol").

"SIRT1 is an important mediator of cholesterol efflux, and as such it's predicted to play a role in the development of age-associated diseases where cholesterol is a contributing factor," said Leonard Guarente, MIT professor of biology and senior author of a paper on the work to be published in the Oct. 12 issue of Molecular Cell.

Drugs that enhance the effects of SIRT1 could lower the risk of cholesterol-related diseases, Guarente said. Potential drugs could be based on polyphenols, which are found in red wine and have been shown to enhance SIRT1. However, the quantities naturally found in red wine are not large enough to have a significant impact on cholesterol levels.

In earlier studies, Guarente has shown that high levels of SIRT1 can be achieved with extreme calorie restriction, but that is unappealing for most people.

"If you had a drug that could increase expression of SIRT1, that could replicate the effects of calorie restriction," Guarente said. "This is not going to replace the need for a healthy lifestyle, but it's a supplement that could potentially make you healthier."

SIRT1 is the mammalian homologue to SIR2, a gene that has been shown to slow aging in yeast and roundworms. Researchers have been curious to find out whether SIRT1 has similar effects.

In the new MIT study, researchers found that low SIRT1 levels in mice lead to cholesterol buildup in cells such as macrophages, a type of immune cell, due to reduced activity of a protein called LXR (liver X receptor).

LXR is responsible for transporting cholesterol out of macrophage cells. When full of cholesterol, the macrophages can generate plaques that clog arteries. SIRT1 boosts LXR activity, so that cholesterol is expelled from macrophages and out of the body by HDL.

The lead author of the paper is Xiaoling Li. Other authors are Songwen Zhan;, Gil Blander, visiting scientist in MIT's Department of Biology; Jeanette Tse and Monty Krieger, MIT professor of biology.

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health

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Biofuels report warns of strain on water resources :MIT professor is co-author of National Research Council report

Denise Brehm, Civil and Environmental Engineering
October , 2007

Boosting ethanol production by growing more corn in the United States without considering the quality and availability of water by region could put a significant strain on water resources in some parts of the country, a committee of the National Research Council said in a report released this week.

The report's authors, who include Professor Dara Entekhabi of MIT's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, recommend that conversion of U.S. agriculture to biofuel cultivation should only be undertaken in tandem with regional water assessments, the adoption of environmentally sound farming practices, and consideration of the full life cycle of biofuel production.

"Agricultural shifts to growing corn and expanding biofuel crops into regions with little agriculture, especially dry areas, could change current irrigation practices and greatly increase pressure on water resources in many parts of the United States," the committee said in its report, released Oct. 10. "The amount of rainfall and other hydroclimate conditions from region to region causes significant variations in the water requirement for the same crop."

The report also urged big agriculture to adopt new technologies that can increase crop yield while conserving water and reducing negative environmental impacts, such as soil erosion and runoff pollution.

"We must recognize that the current state of the U.S. agroecosystem is not sustainable," said Entekhabi, a hydrologist who studies land-atmosphere processes and is director of MIT's Parsons Laboratory for Environmental Science and Engineering. "The use of energy-intensive and industrially produced fertilizers and pesticides are finding their way into water and food supplies for humans and animals. Soil erosion and loss of soil fertility is continuing unabated. U.S. agriculture needs to shift to more ecologically sound and sustainable conditions."

Corn ethanol production in the U.S. is ramping up, in part due to President George W. Bush's call for a dramatic increase in the production of ethanol over the next decade. The National Research Council convened the committee to look at the effect energy crops would have on the nation's agriculture and water management, as well as the long-term sustainability of meeting the president's demand that by 2017, 15 percent of the nation's liquid fuel be biofuel.

Other recommendations of the committee include looking at the possibility that biofuel crops could be irrigated with wastewater that is biologically and chemically unsuitable for use with food crops; the development of water-efficient genetically modified crops for biofuels production; and the minimization of erosion by producing biofuels from perennial crops such as switchgrass, which hold soil and nutrients in place better than most row crops.

The McKnight Foundation, the Energy Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Research Council Day Fund sponsored the study.

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MIT uncovers key protein in iron metabolism :Discovery could lead to new therapeutics for certain blood diseases

Elizabeth Dougherty, Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology
October 11, 2007

Dr. Jane-Jane Chen and post-doc Sijin Liu of the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology. Their research team has identified a protein that is key in regulating iron recycling in blood, and could lead to therapeutic drugs for certain blood diseases.

MIT scientists have uncovered a protein that plays a key role in the recycling of iron from blood.

Their work, described in the October 11 Journal of Clinical Investigation, could lead to new therapies for certain inherited blood disorders such as beta-thalassemia, a condition that causes chronic anemia. The team is led by Jane-Jane Chen, a principal research scientist in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology (HST).

Two years ago Chen and colleagues showed that a protein, heme-regulated eukaryotic translational initiation factor 2 a-subunit (eIF2-alpha) kinase, or HRI for short, keeps mice with beta-thalassemia alive. This protein minimizes an abnormal and toxic imbalance of globin chains, the protein base for the hemoglobin found in red blood cells. Hemoglobin carries oxygen to our organs and carts away carbon dioxide waste.

In the new work, the team has found that HRI also plays a key role in the body's iron recycling process. Chen observed that this process falters in mice lacking HRI. As a result, less iron was available for use in the creation of new red blood cells.

A closer look revealed that HRI influences two mechanisms in this recycling process. First, a lack of HRI reduces levels of another protein called hepcidin. Hepcidin, recently discovered to be the master regulator of the iron cycle, releases iron from stores in the body and makes it available to be processed into hemoglobin. Without hepcidin, the body retains iron, but never puts it to work.

The team also found that HRI, which is expressed predominantly in the precursors of red blood cells, is expressed in macrophages. Macrophages are cells that literally reach out and grab dying red blood cells and eat them, digesting them and releasing the iron from their hemoglobin back into the system.

A lack of HRI causes these macrophages to lose their appetite, gobbling down fewer red blood cells. Instead of being digested and recycled, the red blood cells die and end up excreted through the kidneys. The result is a net loss of iron from the body.

With this new understanding of HRI's dual role in iron recycling--that it both keeps iron in the body and puts it to work--Chen is conducting a search for small molecules that might modulate the HRI signaling pathway. In turn, these compounds could potentially help diseased precursors of red blood cells survive and boost the iron recycling process.

"Perhaps we will find a compound that could help patients with beta-thelassemia or other diseases where HRI plays a role," said Chen. Such conditions include a genetic disorder called erythropoietic protoporphyria (EPP), which causes photosensitivity and liver disease, as well as a condition called the anemia of inflammation in which the iron recycling process breaks down under the influence of stress, chronic disease, aging, or cancer.

In addition to Chen, the research team includes first author Sijin Liu, an HST postdoctoral fellow; Fudi Wang and Nancy Andrews of Harvard Medical School; Rajasekhar N.V.S. Suragani and Anping Han, both HST postdoctoral fellows, and Wanting Zhao, an HST technical assistant.

The work was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Cooley's Anemia Foundation.

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