SCIENCE IN THE NEWS #2124 - Digest

By StaffThis is Doug Johnson.And this is Sarah Long with SCIENCE IN THE NEWS, a VOA Special English program about recent developments in science. Today, we tell about a gene therapy that restored sight in dogs. We tell about a study of ancient head bones in Brazil. We tell about a new study of climate change. And we tell about people being honored for environmental activism.

American scientists say a new gene therapy has restored sight in dogs that were born blind. Scientists say it is the first time that blindness has been successfully treated in an animal larger than a mouse. They hope that a similar treatment may some day be used to help people.

The dogs had a version of a rare genetic condition called Leber congenital amaurosis. It is an untreatable condition that causes almost total blindness in human babies. It is one of several incurable forms of blindness known as retinitis pigmentosa. It results from damage to the retina in the back of the eye. The retina receives the images produced by the lens in the front of the eye.Children with Leber congenital amaurosis have little or no sight at birth. And what little sight they have may be lost over time. The condition is caused by a defect in any of several genes that help change light into electrical signals in the eye. Parents carrying the defect in one copy of the gene have normal sight. The condition affects children who receive one defective copy of the gene from each parent.Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia led the experiment. They used three blind dogs that were about four months old. The dogs had a defect in one gene. The scientists changed harmless viruses to contain healthy versions of the gene. They injected thousands of these viruses into the eyes of the dogs.

In the left eyes, they injected the viruses away from the retinas. There was no improvement in sight. In the right eyes, they injected the viruses directly behind the retina, close to the cells where the gene does its job. Later, all three dogs were able to see out of their right eyes.

Researchers do not yet know if the dogs' sight has been permanently restored. They say more injections may be needed. And they say the experiment does not prove the method will work in children or adults. They say many questions must be answered before human studies can begin.

((MUSIC BRIDGE))A Brazilian scientist has reported surprising findings about ancient head bones discovered in his country. University of Sao Paulo expert Walter Neves reported the findings. He says the ancient skulls look more like modern Africans and Australian aborigines than Asians or Native Americans. His report disputes a popular belief that Asians were the first to travel to North America about twelve-thousand years ago.

Mr. Neves presented his research to other scientists at a recent meeting in Kansas City, Missouri. The skulls are between eight-thousand and eleven-thousand years old. Mr. Neves directed the efforts to discover and study the fossils.

He says Africans may have been the first humans to arrive in North and South America. The scientist says he believes they may have traveled over the Bering land bridge. This land bridge is now under water.In the middle Nineteen-Nineties, Mr. Neves and other Brazilian scientists uncovered the largest known prehistoric burial area in the Americas. It is called Santana do Riacho Uno. They found the bones of at least forty people. They compared the skulls of six adults with the skulls of modern people.

The modern people were Africans, aboriginal Australians, Asians and Native Americans. Mr. Neves said the Brazilian skulls were not shaped alike. But they looked similar in some ways to the skulls of the Africans and aboriginal Australians.

Other experts agree that the Brazilian skulls look African in some ways. But they say scientists still do not know much about the early movement of human beings into the Americas.

((MUSIC BRIDGE))Scientists say a slow warming of oceans in warmer areas has caused major climate changes in northern parts of the world over the past fifty years. They say the warmer ocean water is likely the result of industrial gases building up in the atmosphere.

Two scientists with leading American research agencies examined recent climate changes in the northern part of the world. They work for the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Science magazine published their findings.

Earlier studies of the effects of increased industrial gases have shown a general warming in the oceans of warmer areas. Scientific observations have confirmed that such a warming began around Nineteen-Fifty.In the new study, James Hurrell and Martin Hoerling examined results of experiments. The scientists found that the warmer waters produce more rain, especially in parts of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. They say this rain heated the atmosphere over those areas.

The scientists say a major influence in this climate change is an event called the North Atlantic Oscillation. This is the movement of atmospheric pressure between Iceland at one end and Spain and Portugal at the other. The scientists say surface temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere have risen to what could be their highest levels in the past one-thousand years. Other effects on climate also have developed. Winters in northern Europe have become wetter. Winters in southern Europe and the Middle East have become drier. Also, European farmers have an earlier and longer growing season.

((MUSIC BRIDGE))Eight people were awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize recently in San Francisco, California. The Goldman Environmental prize is the world's largest award honoring environmental activists.

The Goldman award is given every year to environmental heroes from each of the world's six continents. Prize winners receive one-hundred-twenty-five-thousand dollars. Many of this year's winners faced great risks to protect their environment.

Yosepha Alomang of West Papua, Indonesia was one of the winners. She organized resistance to the world's largest gold mining company. She accused the company of destroying mountains, rivers, rainforests and native cultures. Mizz Alomang continues to peacefully organize native communities seeking protection of traditional lands.Two television reporters in the American state of Florida also won the Goldman prize. Jane Akre and Steve Wilson tried to report on the possible health risks to people caused by a hormone fed to cows. R-G-B-H is banned in most other industrial nations. The television station refused to broadcast the report and dismissed Mizz Akre and Mr. Wilson from their jobs.

Eugene Rutagarama of Rwanda was another winner. He fought to save the country's endangered mountain gorillas during ethnic wars in the nineteen-nineties. Mr. Rutagarama helped rebuild Rwanda's national parks to protect the gorillas' environment. It was threatened by millions of people who were resettled by the government after the wars.Bolivian worker Oscar Olivera also won the Goldman prize. He led a coalition to protest the government's sale of the public water system in one of Bolivia's largest cities to an American company. The protests and negotiations forced the Bolivian government to cancel its sale.

Greek scientists Giorgos Catsadorakis and Myrsini Malakou also received the prize. They led an effort to create community programs to help protect Greece's Prespa wetlands. Their work led Greece, Albania and Macedonia to create a joint protected area.

The final winner was Bruno Van Peteghem of the South Pacific islands. He worked to protect one of the world's largest coral reefs. The reef in New Caledonia was threatened by mining companies. Mr. Van Peteghem is leading a campaign to place the reef on the World Heritage list and guarantee its permanent protection.

This SCIENCE IN THE NEWS program was written by Cynthia Kirk, Jerilyn Watson and George Grow. It was produced by George Grow. This is Doug Johnson.And this is Sarah Long. Join us again next week for more news about science in Special English on the Voice of America.

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