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Sunday, January 13, 2008

The head of the One Laptop Per Child effort says Intel could still contribute to the program for developing nations

(24hoursnews)The best innitiative considered for 2007 is The One Laptop Per Child .

The One Laptop Per Child Project would welcome Intel back if the chip maker returned to the group, the head of OLPC said last week.
The statement came just days after Intel quit the group's board of directors over what it said was OLPC's insistence that it abandon a rival low-cost laptop developed by Intel, the Classmate PC. OLPC has said it asked no such thing of Intel, and that it welcomes the Classmate PC because the more low-cost laptops there are available, the more likely they'll get into the hands of children in the developing world.
"It was very unfortunate what happened with Intel and I hope there's a way of rebuilding it in the future because there's no interest in OLPC pushing Intel out. It just is not in our interest. Our goal is to get this to as many children as possible," said Nicholas Negroponte, chairman of OLPC, in an interview.
He called it unfortunate that Intel made statements that OLPC asked the chip maker to stop working on the Classmate PC. "The picture that painted was one of OLPC being anti-competition, which is ridiculous. We'd like to see as many laptops out there as possible and kids have the widest choice possible," he said.
Intel would be willing to talk with OLPC, said Agnes Kwan, an Intel manager. But she added that the organizational break-up came about because of differences that the groups have been so far unable to resolve.
The OLPC Project started as an attempt to build a US$100 laptop aimed at kids in poor nations, but the laptop from the group, the XO, will likely end up costing nearly double that amount, initially. The organizers of the effort, led by academics and researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), hope heavy volume sales of the laptops will drive down costs.
The goal of OLPC is to make sure nobody misses out on the benefits of computing. The fear is that the price of a PC is keeping too many people in developing countries from learning how the software, Internet and communications benefits of computing can improve their economies, job prospects and lives, or that poor countries will fall further and further behind the modern world due to their inability to access computers, a conundrum commonly referred to as the digital divide.

MIT reports new twist in microRNA biology

Computational biology group identifies new mechanism of gene regulation,
MIT scientists have found a new way that DNA can carry out its work that is about as surprising as discovering that a mold used to cast a metal tool can also serve as a tool itself, with two complementary shapes each showing distinct functional roles.

Professor Manolis Kellis and postdoctoral research fellow Alexander Stark report in the Jan. 1 issue of the journal Genes & Development that in certain DNA sequences, both strands of a DNA segment can perform useful functions, each encoding a distinct molecule that helps control cell functions.

DNA works by complementarity: paired DNA strands serve as a template for each other during DNA replication, and ordinarily only a single DNA strand serves as a template to produce RNA strands, which then go on to produce proteins. The process is similar to the way each bump or dent in a mold is paired with a corresponding dent or bump in the resulting molded object.

While many RNAs are eventually translated into proteins with specific functions, some RNA molecules instead act directly, carrying out roles inside the cell. Certain RNA genes, known as microRNAs, have been shown to play important regulatory roles in the cell, often coordinating important events during the development of the embryo. These microRNAs fold into relatively simple hairpin structures, with two stretches of near-perfect complementary sequence folding back onto each other. One of the two "arms" of a hairpin is then processed into a mature microRNA.

The surprising discovery is that for some microRNA genes, both DNA strands, instead of just one, encode RNA, and both resulting microRNAs fold into hairpins that are processed into mature microRNAs. In other words, both the tool and its mold appear to be functional. Kellis and Stark found two such microRNA pairs in the fruit fly, and eight more such pairs in the mouse.

The idea that there could be such dual-function strands, where both DNA strands encode functional RNA products, "had never even been hypothesized," Kellis says. But follow-up work confirmed that they did indeed function in this way. The work suggests that other such unexpected pairings, with both DNA strands encoding important functions, may also exist in a variety of species.

This discovery builds on a similar, earlier surprising finding about microRNA regulation. In December, Stark and Kellis reported that both arms of a single microRNA hairpin can also produce distinct, functional microRNAs, with distinct targets. Together, these two findings suggest that a single gene can encode as many as four different functions--one hairpin from each of the two DNA strands, and then one microRNA from each of the two arms of each hairpin.

These recent papers are the latest example of the power of using computational tools to investigate the genomes of multiple species, known as comparative genomics. The Kellis group has used this approach to discover protein-coding genes, RNAs, microRNAs, regulatory motifs, and targets of individual regulators in diverse organisms ranging from yeast and fruit flies to mice and humans.

"This represents a new phase in genomics-making biological discoveries sitting not at the lab bench, but at the computer terminal," Kellis says.

Kellis is the Karl Van Tassel Career Development Assistant Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and an associate member of the Broad Institute. He grew up in Greece and France, earned his B.S., M.Eng. and Ph.D. from MIT, and was appointed to the faculty in 2004. At 30, he has already earned numerous awards and accolades, including a place on the list of the 35 top innovators under 35 by Technology Review magazine in 2006.

Kellis' work is supported in part by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Alexander Stark is supported by a Human Frontier Science Program fellowship.

MIT finds key to avian flu in humans

Transmission electron micrograph of avian influenza A H5N1 viruses (purple) released from infected human cell (blue).

MIT researchers have uncovered a critical difference between flu viruses that infect birds and humans, a discovery that could help scientists monitor the evolution of avian flu strains and aid in the development of vaccines against a deadly flu pandemic.

The researchers found that a virus's ability to infect humans depends on whether it can bind to one specific shape of receptor on the surface of human respiratory cells.

"Now that we know what to look for, this could help us not only monitor the bird flu virus, but it can aid in the development of potentially improved therapeutic interventions for both avian and seasonal flu," said Ram Sasisekharan, MIT Underwood Prescott Professor of Biological Engineering and Health Sciences and Technology, and the senior author of a paper on the work that appears in the Jan. 6 issue of Nature Biotechnology.

Flu viruses come in many strains, and not all of them can infect humans. Strains known as H1 or H3 have "jumped" from birds to humans and hence are tailored to attack cells of the human upper respiratory tract. H5 strains are usually confined to birds, but when they do infect humans they can have very high fatality rates.

In the past decade, isolated outbreaks of avian flu (H5N1) in humans have raised concerns that a deadly pandemic could arise if the avian flu evolves to a form that can easily infect humans and pass from person to person. Some scientists believe such an outbreak could rival the 1918 "Spanish flu" that killed 50 million to 100 million people worldwide.

Scientists already knew that whether an influenza virus infects humans depends on whether its hemagglutinin, a protein found on the virus surface, can bind to sugar (or glycan) receptors in the respiratory tract. Human respiratory cells have glycan receptors classified as alpha 2-6; avian respiratory cells' glycan receptors are known as alpha 2-3. This classification is based on how the sugars are linked together when they are displayed on cells.

Until now, scientists had believed that a genetic switch that allows the virus to bind to alpha 2-6 receptors instead of alpha 2-3 receptors is responsible for avian viruses' ability to jump to humans.

The MIT study shows that that view does not adequately explain how viruses evolve to infect humans. The new work reveals that, more specifically, it is the ability of a flu virus to bind to a certain shape, or topology, of specific alpha 2-6 glycan receptor that determines whether it will infect humans.

Alpha 2-6 glycan receptors come in two shapes--one that resembles an umbrella, and another that resembles a cone. The MIT team found that to infect humans, flu viruses must bind to the umbrella-shaped alpha 2-6 receptor.

Thus, Sasisekharan and his team have redefined the host receptor for influenza and the criteria for how H5N1 can jump to humans. They did so by showing that the shape of the sugars--and not the type of linkage--is the key determinant for human adaptation of these deadly viruses.

This new interpretation explains inconsistencies that plagued the previous model, according to Sasisekharan. For example, some flu strains that can bind to alpha 2-6 receptors do not infect humans very well. It turns out that those viruses bind to cone-shaped alpha 2-6 receptors, which are present in the human respiratory tract but in much smaller numbers than umbrella-shaped alpha 2-6 receptors.

This new paradigm should help researchers develop a better way to track the evolution of avian flu leading to human adaptation, Sasisekharan said. Now, they know to look for avian viruses that have evolved the ability to bind to umbrella-shaped alpha 2-6 receptors.

That knowledge could help them create vaccines tailored to combat a potential pandemic. Similarly, these findings will help in the development of more effective strategies for seasonal flu, which still is a leading cause of death.

"Subtle changes in influenza viruses over time can dramatically influence the likelihood that these viruses will be able to infect human populations, and this is a huge concern," said Jeremy Berg, director of the National Institute for General Medical Sciences, which funded the research. "This work enables researchers to look at flu viruses in an entirely new way. Dr. Sasisekharan's team achieved this through a multifaceted approach that combines laboratory experiments with the 'mining' of NIH-supported databases, leading to new insights into how the flu virus can adapt to a human host."

Other authors of the Nature Biotechnology paper are Terrence Tumpey of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Aarthi Chandrasekaran, graduate student in MIT's Department of Biological Engineering (BE); Aravind Srinivasan and Karthik Viswanathan, postdoctoral associates in BE; Rahul Raman, research scientist in BE; S. Raguram, visiting scientist in BE; and Viswanathan Sasisekharan, visiting scientist in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology.

Program spurs students to pursue scientific careers

Dan Gabriner asks students to solve a quadratic equation in his Weston High School class. A voice of discontent issues a challenge familiar to math teachers everywhere: "What can you do with this stuff anyway?"

That's when Gabriner tells his class what he did over the summer. The students are surprised to learn that their teacher worked beside MIT Lincoln Laboratory scientists to produce an algorithm to control airport runway warning lights, minimizing the chance that two airplanes approach the same runway simultaneously. After hearing Gabriner describe his work, the students begin solving equations with new vigor.

To encourage high-school students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math, Lincoln Laboratory hires local teachers every summer to work alongside seasoned scientists. This public, private and education sector partnership is possible through the Leadership Initiatives for Teaching and Technology Program (LIFT2), is sponsored by the Massachusetts Department of Education and is funded through the No Child Left Behind Act.

LIFT2 teachers immerse themselves in various fields, including biotechnology, nanotechnology, information technology and process manufacturing. Through the five- to eight-week externship, the teachers gain insight to the skill sets needed in a technical profession, thereby enabling them to prepare their students for a career in such a field. Students are more likely to hear exciting real-world uses of science, making a career in science and engineering more desirable and accessible.

Gabriner, mentored by James Kuchar, an aeronautical engineer and assistant head of Lincoln Laboratory's Surveillance Systems group, evaluated data for the Runway Status Lights project. He analyzed the scenario of two planes simultaneously approaching a runway intersection at high speed, and researched the algorithm logic that controls the warning lights.

"My teaching style relies on applying math to real world problems," explains Gabriner. "These stories are more effective when I can say that I used the math myself. The Runway Status Lights project uses multilateration, quadratics, probability and statistics. I can show my students how each type of math was used to create a system that prevents airplanes from crashing into one another while landing."

The long-term goals of LIFT2 are to entice students to pursue a technical career and help teachers apply information technology to science and math classes. Gabriner says, "After I've had a recent engineering experience, I can develop better projects based on real-world situations … plus, the animations of runway incursions are cool!"

Mark Zagaeski, Lexington High School physics teacher, says he'll draw on the experience of his externship to convey the importance of collaboration in science. Zagaeski was mentored by Tom Jeys, a senior staff member in Lincoln Laboratory's Laser Technology and Applications group, while working on bioaerosol detection. With a team of scientists, they built a sensor that can detect harmful particles in the atmosphere. "Students often perform alone, but in real-life research situations, people work in teams," he says. "Each team member brings different specialties--they can solve problems together that might be too difficult for one of them alone."

The time at Lincoln Laboratory "reinvigorated my passion for science," Zagaeski says. The LIFT2 Program hopes that enthusiasm is transferred to the students, drawing them into the technical workforce and easing the national shortage of scientists and engineers.

Such an influx of young talent is sorely needed.

According to the Metro Southwest Regional Employment Board, which runs LIFT2, over the past two decades the number of students receiving technical degrees at U.S. universities "has remained unchanged" while "demand for science and engineering workers has grown at four times the rate of the U.S. workforce." In fact, China now graduates six times more engineering students than the United States. By participating in LIFT2, MIT Lincoln Laboratory hopes to strengthen U.S. engineering by leading youths to become the next generation of inventors, scientists and engineers.

MIT economist sees U.S. weathering $100 oil

As the price of oil doubled over the last year, hitting the $100 mark for the first time on Jan. 2, it may have looked like 1973 all over again to some observers. But research by MIT macroeconomist Olivier Blanchard, Class of 1941 Professor of Economics, shows that a return to 1970s-style gas lines and stagflation isn't in the cards.

Blanchard's paper, "The Macroeconomic Effects of Oil Price Shocks: Why are the 2000s so different from the 1970s?" outlines changes in U.S. and global economic policies between the two eras. Cited in The Economist (Nov. 17) as an explainer for the current situation, the paper was co-written by Blanchard's colleague Jordi Gali (Ph.D. 1989) of the Center for International Economic Research in Barcelona.

Blanchard discussed the differences between the oil shocks in the 1970s and in the 2000s during a recent interview with the MIT News Office.

Q: Four price-doubling oil shocks have occurred in 35 years--1973, 1979, 1999 and now. How have economic reactions differed?

A: In the 1970s, there were two sharp recessions and sharply higher inflation. This time around, the economy has remained strong, and inflation has barely bulged.

Q: What's behind the differences? Why was 1973 so different from 2007?

A: In the 1970s, the adverse effects of oil price increases were compounded by other adverse shocks--a sharp slowdown in productivity growth and large increases in the price of raw materials.

In the 2000s, the effects of oil price increases have been partly offset by other shocks, this time favorable--sustained productivity growth and strong Asian growth, for example.

Q: Higher oil prices make dramatic news, yet your research indicates oil actually affects the U.S. economy less than it did 35 years ago. Why is that?

A: Those previous large increases in the price of oil did their job: they led to decreased demand. The share of oil and gas in U.S. production and consumption today is roughly two thirds of what it was in the 1970s. Thus, any given increase in the price of oil has only two-thirds of the impact it had then.

Q: The Economist, citing your research, notes the role of wages has changed, changing the role of oil. What happened?

A: We found that oil doesn't have the impact it did because workers don't have the bargaining power they did. In the 1970s, oil price increases led workers to try to maintain their purchasing power by seeking higher wages, which they often won through union contracts. This increase in wages led in turn to an increase in the price of all goods, which led to a further increase in wages and so on.

In the 1970s, wage increases were also made easier by the fact that, in many countries, wages were indexed to inflation, so they automatically went up. To fight inflation, central banks tightened monetary policy, leading in turn to declines in output.

Things are very different now: Indexation clauses are largely gone. And workers' bargaining position is much weaker than in the 1970s. Thus, for the most part, wages have not gone up with the price of oil, and inflation has remained low. There has been no need--so far--for tighter monetary policy.

Q: What role has monetary policy played in differentiating the 1970s from the 2000s?

A: For the last 25 years, monetary policy has aimed at stabilizing inflation, and people have come to rely on it as a credible policy. Now, when the price of oil increases, workers do not anticipate impending inflation and thus, do not feel they have to ask for large wage increases.

Q: Are there any macroeconomic benefits to higher oil prices?

A: Higher oil prices have many complex implications for the world economy. Let me just take one, which may seem paradoxical: The increase in the price of oil helps finance the U.S. current account deficit. The reason is that oil producers know that oil revenues will not last forever, so they save a good part of those revenues. Not having great investment opportunities at home, they are eager to lend outside their country, and, in particular, to lend to the U.S.

Such willing creditors allow the U.S. to continue to borrow abroad and to run a large current account deficit. Were it not for oil-producing countries, the demand for U.S. assets would be smaller, and the dollar would be even weaker than it is today.

Q: What if oil-producing countries suddenly took their money out?

A: The dollar would plunge. But so would the value of their dollar investment, so they are very unlikely to use this tool/threat.

Q: Will the price of oil keep going up?

A: I truly have no clue--despite talking to many of the people whose job it is to forecast oil prices. Most believe that based on what we know about the elasticity of supply and the elasticity of demand, the current price is surprisingly high. At 90 or 100 dollars a barrel, there is a lot of oil worth extracting, and a lot of alternative energy sources worth exploiting. Futures markets do not predict much change from current levels; this seems a reasonable assumption.

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