Daily Archives: August 19, 2010

Russian seed bank to be demolished by the government

Tamara Yashkina, a researcher at the Vavilov research institute that runs the seed bank outside St. Petersburg, sorts through oat seeds. (Vyacheslav Yevdokimov, For The Times / August 11, 2010)

Russian seed bank loses court hearing

latimes.com | Aug 12, 2010

By Rachel Bernstein

The facility on government-owned land outside St. Petersburg has more than 5,000 rare fruits and plants, but the site has been granted to a housing agency. An appeal has been filed.

A Russian seed bank preserving more than 5,000 rare fruits and ornamental plants, including unique varieties of strawberries, plums, pears, apples and currants, moved one step closer to demolition after losing a court hearing Wednesday, in which rights to the federally-owned land were granted to a government housing development agency.

The Vavilov Research Institute, which manages the bank as well as 11 other crop development and conservation facilities across Russia, immediately filed an appeal. Another hearing will follow in about a month, at which point the land’s future will be finalized.

It is unlikely, however, that the ruling will be changed, said Cary Fowler, director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an international organization based in Rome that has led an effort to save the site. Even Sergey Alexanian, deputy director of foreign relations at the Vavilov Institute, acknowledged that the Russian Housing Development Foundation is legally in the right.

The seed bank’s final hope is to win the support of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev or Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who have the power to overrule the court’s decision. So far, though, neither has responded to letters.

“This is a bad day,” Fowler said.

The seed bank, at the Pavlovsk Experimental Station about 20 miles outside St. Petersburg, is one of about 1,400 such facilities worldwide, each with its own unique collection of plants. The varieties they maintain are used by breeders to develop new strains, and also may be accessed after natural disasters to replenish crops.

The Pavlovsk facility earned a special place in Russian history during the World War II siege of the city, then called Leningrad, when 12 scientists chose to starve to death rather than eat the precious seeds.

Israel discovers 1.5 Billion Barrels of oil

Central Israel Oil Discovery: 1.5 Billion Barrels

Oil samples were found as having high quality.

israelnationalnews.com | Aug 17, 2010

by Tzvi Ben Gedalyahu

Estimates of the amount of oil in the Rosh HaAyin discovery have rises to 1.5 billion barrels, and there is more oil off-shore, but it is not yet known how much of the “black gold” can be extracted for commercial use.

The new estimate, along with the gas and oil finds off the Mediterranean Coast, raise the likelihood that Israel will be self-sufficient for energy for the next three decades and even become an exporter of gas.

The amount of oil at Rosh HaAyin represents a tiny percentage of Israel’s oil consumption, but development is continuing in the area as well as in the Dead Sea.

Economists have noted that the discoveries will have a huge impact on society, creating more jobs and strengthening the shekel against word currencies.

Investors in the project at Rosh HaAyin, located on the edge of Samaria and several miles east of Tel Aviv, have been waiting anxiously for months for news about the amounts oil underground at the Megged 5 oil well. The full engineering report will not be available until mid-September, but the company has decided to adopt the recommendation in the initial report.

Oil samples were found as having high quality with very little sulfur, and the amount of water in the samples was less than 10 percent.

It added, “A reasonable estimate of the amount of oil…is 1.525 billion barrels of oil” but warned that the final estimates may be lower, with a chance that they could even be higher. The report does not include estimate of other sections in the field.

Previous reports estimated that daily production could reach 382 barrels a day. The latest company statement said it is will not be known before next month the new estimated production rate, but it should reach at least 450 barrels a day.

Evidence shows pesticides a prime cause of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, ADHD

More evidence links pesticides to hyperactivity

latimes.com | Aug 19, 2010

by Thomas H. Maugh II

A growing body of evidence is suggesting that exposure to organophosphate pesticides is a prime cause of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, ADHD. The findings are considered plausible to many experts because the pesticides are designed to attack the nervous systems of insects. It is not surprising, then, that they should also impinge on the nervous systems of humans who are exposed to them.

Forty organophosphate pesticides are registered in the United States, with at least 73 million pounds used each year in agricultural and residential settings.

ADHD is thought to affect 3% to 7% of American children, with boys affected more heavily than girls. Many experts believe its incidence has increase sharply in recent decades, but critics attribute the increased incidence to over-diagnosis. Some attribute the increase to the greater use of pesticides.

The newest study, reported Thursday in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, examines the effects of both prenatal and childhood exposure to the pesticides, which are widely used in the United States to control insects on food crops. Epidemiologist Brenda Eskenazi of UC Berkeley and her colleagues have been studying more than 300 Mexican American children living in the heavily agricultural Salinas Valley. Because they live in a farming community, the children are more likely than others to be exposed to the pesticides, but the problems resulting from environmental exposure are often first seen in those with the highest exposure.

Eskenazi and her team tested for levels of pesticide metabolites in urine in the mothers twice during their pregnancies and several times in the children after birth. They then tested the children at ages 3 1/2 years and 5 years for attention disorders and ADHD, using the mothers’ reports, performance on standardized computer tests and behavior ratings from examiners. After correcting the data to account for lead exposure and other confounders, they found that each tenfold increase in pesticide levels in the mothers’ urine was associated with a fivefold increase in attention problems as measured by the assays. The effect was more pronounced in boys than in girls.

The study comes only three months after a Harvard study, looking at much lower levels of malathion in urine, found that a tenfold increase in pesticide levels was associated with a 55% increase in ADHD. The researchers believe that most of the children in the study were exposed to the malathion through food.

“It’s known that food is a significant source of pesticide exposure among the general population,” Eskenazi said in a statement. “I would recommend thoroughly washing fruits and vegetables before eating them, especially if you are pregnant.”

The KGB Rebuilds Itself

FSB Headquarters in Moscow

strategypage.com | Aug 18, 2010

The FSB (the successor to the Cold War era Russian KGB) is being given more and more of its old powers, and personnel, back. Before the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, the KGB was the most powerful organization in the country. It was a law until itself, as long as it stuck to its main task; keeping the Communist Party in charge of the country.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the KGB lost most of its power, but did not disappear. It was split into many separate organizations, with the main ones being the FSB (a counterintelligence organization with police powers) and the SVR (conducted overseas espionage). But since the late 1990s, the FSB has been regaining a lot of its Cold War powers, and personnel. It again controls the border police and several specialist technical organizations. While this pleases the law and order crowd, it disturbs Russians who remember when the KGB was the principal organization keeping the communist dictatorship in power. The new powers give the FSB more authority to do whatever they want, just like in their good old days (when the communists were in charge). The FSB is believed to directly control over 100,000 personnel, and have authority over many more in other government departments (like the national police force).

The KGB acquired most of its power just before World War II, after dictator Joseph Stalin had killed most of the army leadership, to prevent what he believed was the possibility of a military takeover. The KGB was to be a powerful state secret police, a sort of FBI, CIA, and more rolled into one organization. The KGB was everywhere, as it sought to keep its communist masters in power. For example, the KGB had a network of informants in the military.

When Stalin died (of natural causes) in 1953, and Nikita Khrushchev (and some close Communist Party associates) took over, one of the first things they did was execute the head of the KGB, an old Stalin crony, named Beria, who had been responsible for large scale massacres within the KGB during Stalin’s reign. Less bloody-minded KGB officers were promoted to head the organization. Until the very end of the Soviet Union, the KGB remained at the top of the social, political, economic, and legal pecking order. In the late 1980s, reformers like Gorbachev, rose to power via the assistance of senior KGB officials who saw a need for reform. The KGB were aware that their tsarist predecessors survived the 1917 Revolution. They were a relatively small group compared to the military and the Communist party, and they were prepared to survive the next “revolution.” This the KGB did, and now they are being rewarded for their loyalty and effectiveness (in dealing with terrorism, corruption and criminal gangs) by having many of their old powers restored.

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Calgary scientists creating ‘Six Million Dollar Man’ neurochip brain implant


A neurochip, melding brain cells onto a computer chip surface.  Moritz Voelker and Peter Fromherz/ Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry

Technology allows researchers to monitor brain-cell activity in powerful detail over several days

Globe and Mail | Aug 9, 2010

by Carolyn Abraham

The science fiction of melding man and machine has played out for decades onscreen, from The Six Million Dollar Man to The Terminator.

But the bionic hybrid age may well be flickering to life – real life – in the Calgary lab where scientists who made history fusing snail brain cells to a computer microchip six years ago are poised to try the same feat with human cells.

Researchers at the University of Calgary’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute are to announce Tuesday that they have made a key advance in connecting brain cells to a newly designed silicon chip, crafted with the National Research Council of Canada, that allows them to “hear” the conversation between living tissue and an electronic device as never before.

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Calgary microchip ‘talks’ to brain cells

“It used to be like seeing two people talking at a distance. … You didn’t know what they were saying or even what language they were speaking. But now it’s like putting a microphone beside them,” said Professor Naweed Syed, head of the university’s department of cell biology and anatomy, who has led the work on the so-called neurochip.

Published online this week in the journal Biomedical Microdevices, the latest Calgary work makes it immediately possible to use a neurochip to screen drugs for patients with brain disorders and determine which ones are likely to work based on what the brain cells “say.”

Dr. Syed said his team plans to run the first drug-screening experiment within the next few months on brain tissue taken from a patient undergoing surgery for epilepsy.

Being able to monitor the dialogue between cell and silicon chip is a crucial step toward one day manipulating it, raising the possibility of neurochip implants that can operate artificial limbs, help restore sight or language after a stroke, or repair neurons that malfunction in a wide range of brain disorders, from Parkinson’s disease to Alzheimer’s.

The work also hints of a future in which living neurons could help drive silicon circuits in a central processing unit, becoming part of what some observers have dubbed “an organic computer.”

Molly Shoichet, a biomedical scientist at the University of Toronto who holds the Canada research chair in tissue engineering, described a “growing momentum” in the bio-engineering field as collaboration increases between engineers, biologists, and surgeon scientists.

In this case, Dr. Shoichet said the Calgary researchers “have made a strong case for what they achieved,” recording the activity of neurons. But she cautioned that the new paper involved only a small sample size of neurochip recordings, and these, she noted, were not based on mammalian brain cells, but mollusc neurons.

“The advance made is in the design of a simpler tool – that is the creation of a microchip [to facilitate] analysis,” she said.

Until now, the Calgary group had conducted most of its research on cells taken from rat and snail brains. Snail neurons, Dr. Syed explained, are four to 10 times the size of human brain cells and easier to manipulate on a chip one millimetre square.

While the size of the chip has not changed, he said the new design will allow researchers to monitor brain-cell activity in powerful detail over several days.

Brain cells talk to each other in a language of electrical and chemical signals that prompt each neuron to either fire up or relax. Chemical signals pass between an array of nerve fibres, known as synaptic connections, that look much like tree branches under a microscope. Electrical signals pass through gateways on the cell surface called ion channels.

The group developed a special recording device that is embedded beneath the surface of the microchip, which in turn connects to a patch clamp that can amplify all the activity taking place between the brain cells on the chip’s surface.

“We can track subtle changes in brain activity at the level of ion channels and synaptic potentials, which are the most suitable target sites for drug development,” Dr. Syed said.

As it stands, most drug screening is a cumbersome process involving cells on a Petri dish that can be measured only one or two cells at a time. The chip method allows researchers to record whole networks of cells at once.

The new neurochips have also been fully automated so that any researcher – without months of training – can marry cells, from the heart, or smooth muscle, to the microchip and easily gauge their reaction to various medications, Dr. Syed said.

But the chip doesn’t come cheap, he admitted, estimating that for now the cost would run at $30,000 for 750 reusable chips.

The 53-year-old Dr. Syed, who grew up watching The Six Million Dollar Man, said he sees the neurochip as an evolving work that will eventually stand as an implantable device that could direct brain cells to either fire up or say, “Hey, guys, calm down.”

He described watching a recent football game between the Calgary Stampeders and the Saskatchewan Roughriders along with some 30,000 other people when he received a cellphone call. It struck him that it was a unique frequency that had allowed the caller to reach him specifically out of the massive crowd. He envisions, one day, a microchip that can also be “dialled up by a special frequency” and transmit electrical messages to other parts of the brain to block pain, say, or addiction cravings.

“That’s what the dream really is all about … where a man-made device can be integrated into living human tissue and become part of it,” Dr. Syed said.

The humbling part, he said, has been the complex wiring of the human brain.

Several international groups have similar dreams. Since the 2004 breakthrough, a European team has fused mammalian cells to a silicon interface, and perhaps most memorably, U.S. researchers unveiled monkeys that could feed themselves peanuts by operating a robotic arm with mind control.

“A lot of people still think bionics is science fiction,” Dr. Syed said. “It’s not. It’s already here.”

Shocking footage of police ‘torturing’ naked and screaming suspect causes outrage in Philippines


Horrific: He has his genitals bound and a police officer allegedly pulling on the rope as he writhes in agony. The prisoner is believed to be an alleged car thief. His fate is unknown.

Daily Mail | Aug 19, 2010

Philippine police have relieved a number of officers from duty after a television station aired footage allegedly showing police torturing a naked detainee.

The detained man is believed to be a suspected thief caught in Manila’s Tondo slum district, according to ABS-CBN TV, which said it obtained the cell phone footage from an unidentified informer.

The man’s fate and when the video was taken were unclear.

The footage shows him screaming on the floor in a foetal position with his genitals bound and a man pulling the rope and whipping him.

‘Snatching is not allowed here,’ the man beating the detainee can be heard saying, while a uniformed officer stands by and watches.

Metropolitan Manila police chief Leocadio Santiago relieved the 11-member police station Wednesday and ordered its commander, Senior Inspector Joselito Binayug, investigated for criminal acts.

The maximum penalty under an anti-torture law passed last year is 40 years in prison if the victim dies.

‘We are holding Binayug responsible. We will be filing charges for dereliction of duty but we want something heavier,’ Santiago told reporters.

Binayug could not be reached for comment as the precinct does not have a working phone and the chief did not provide his phone number.

It is not clear if the 10 others will also face charges, but that will be part of the investigation, police said.

New officers were assigned to the precinct under investigation.

President Benigno Aquino III said torture is not a government policy. Asked about the incident at a news conference, Aquino said ‘the police also are entitled to their day in court and to due process.’

Coco Quisumbing, an official of the Commission on Human Rights, which said it would separately investigate the torture allegations, said she was aghast after seeing police officers in the video seemingly showing indifference.

Amnesty International researcher Hazel Galang said the incident can serve as a test case for the country’s anti-torture law and the Aquino government’s determination to implement it.

‘Tomorrow is the 50th day of the Aquino presidency and in the first 50 days we’ve already seen torture cases, we’ve seen extra-judicial killings,’ she said. ‘We will keep on watching.’

It was not the first time that video footage allegedly of police torture has surfaced in the country.

Early this year, a police colonel was seen punching a suspect whose face was covered with a plastic bag, and recently, another video showed three handcuffed teenage boys, two of them forced to kiss each other.

The colonel in the video was relieved and placed under investigation while the probe into the other case was incomplete because there were no witnesses and the boys did not file a complaint, police said.

China’s Communist Party, the largest political organisation on the planet, celebrates 90th year

Chinese communists celebrate 90 years

The National | Aug 18, 2010

by Daniel Bardsley

The Chinese communist guerrilla leader Mao Zedong, the future president of China and chairman of the Communist Party, addressing a meeting in November 1944. Fox Photos / Getty Images

BEIJING // Ninety years ago this month, a small group of leading left-wing thinkers met in Shanghai and founded a communist organisation for the city – the first in China. That inauspicious start gave rise to a party that is now the largest political organisation on the planet and has steered the country to become the world’s second largest economy.

But while it has overseen a period of phenomenal economic growth and modernised large parts of the vast nation, analysts say the party appears no closer to adopting political reforms than it was 20 years ago.

The Communist Party of China, which officially came into existence in July 1921 and now has about 73 million members, has retained a grip on every significant lever of power in China.

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The top echelon has a more consensual structure than during the autocracy of Mao’s era, with the presidency rotated after two terms and executive power shared within a coterie of senior leaders. But there are few signs China’s economic opening up will herald wider political reform such as tentative moves towards democracy.

According to Dr Ding Xueling, a professor of social science at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, there have been a series of false dawns that were set to herald political reform. This, he said, suggested any current predictions that later generations of leadership, who have grown up in China’s more internationally influenced society of the past three decades, will bring about reform will also probably prove to be incorrect.

“People in the past made forecasts 10 years ago, 15 years ago – when China becomes economically advanced, when China’s international status improves, then the leadership will be more self-confident, more enlightened, more open to political reform,” he said.

“Many, many senior scholars would make such forecasts 10 years ago, 15 years ago, but nothing came out. It wasn’t on the central political agenda 20 years ago, it’s not on the agenda today.”

The party, he said, was responsive to some popular demands, but he said only “after huge cost on the part of ordinary citizens”.

“For very small improvements, very many people have to suffer for a long time,” he said.

Yet while the Communist Party of China’s power has not diminished, despite the existence of several political parties without ties to the ruling group, some have questioned the extent to which this matters to the day-to-day lives of citizens in modern China.

While the one-child policy and the large urban-rural divide, for example, still exist as potential sources of discontent, individuals have far more freedom in their personal lives than was the case in previous decades, said Richard McGregor, the author of the recently published The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers.

They can more freely travel overseas, adopt the lifestyle of their choice and enjoy far greater spending power.

“The greater personal freedom they have given to individuals has allowed the party to exist underground,” he said.

“Most people in China have little day-to-day contact with the Communist Party [of China]. It’s like a radio in the background.

“As one young woman said: ‘We don’t care about the party, we only care about parties.’”

He also suggested there was a “so what?” attitude among foreign governments about China’s lack of political reform and the party’s “instinct for secrecy”, given that the Chinese model was unlikely to be replicated overseas, apart from in neighbouring Vietnam, and because many other nations were benefiting from trade with China.

However, domestic concerns remain about corruption within the party, with widespread reports of officials taking bribes, an issue regarded as one that could spark increased social discontent.

Also, corruption and preferential treatment can extend beyond merely the financial, with the Chinese media having recently given extensive coverage to a case in Hubei province in central China where police apologised after beating up a woman who approached the local authorities – but only because she was the wife of a party official. The official People’s Daily newspaper said the episode showed some felt it acceptable to allow “habitual beating under the mindset of maintaining stability by violence”.

The view among many analysts is that political stability can last as long as China’s furious double-digit economic growth continues.

According to Ren Xianfang, a China analyst at IHS Global Insight, the current “focus on economic development” was the party’s way of “help[ing] maintain the legitimacy of the regime”.

“The lesson of the past few decades suggest it’s impossible to maintain stability without solid economic growth,” she said. “They want to keep up growth for as long as possible, but to delay political reform for as long as possible.”

Mr McGregor said he believed the party has also successfully created a perception that “if the party fell apart, the country would [too]”.

“That’s deliberate. ‘You can’t do it, so leave it to us.’”