Millions of New Genes Are Found in Ocean Water

Download MP3   (Right-click or option-click the link.)

This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS, in VOA Special English. I'm Faith Lapidus.  And I'm Bob Doughty. This week, scientists report finding millions of genes and thousands of protein families in seawater. We will also tell about chimpanzees using tools to hunt other animals. And, we will tell about a combination medicine to fight the disease malaria.

A group of scientists recently announced the discovery of new genes and proteins in the world's oceans. American Craig Venter is leading the study. He and other scientists have been using a boat called Sorcerer Two to collect the genetic information.

The findings are the first published results of a two-year project. They were reported in the Public Library of Science Biology, a web site that publishes research papers.

The crew of Sorcerer Two began collecting seawater in the Sargasso Sea near Bermuda in two thousand three. Since then, the boat has sailed more than nine thousand six hundred kilometers. The new study is based on testing of ocean water from eastern Canada to the islands of Polynesia in the Pacific Ocean.

To capture the genes, crewmembers collected two hundred liters of ocean water every three hundred twenty kilometers. They put the water through equipment that separates viruses and other kinds of cells by their size.

A supercomputer designed by the California Institute for Telecommunications and Technology found genetic evidence of microbes in the water. Microbes are life forms that cannot be seen by the human eye. They make up most of the living things on Earth. Scientists say microbes also are responsible for helping to create Earth's atmosphere. They say that understanding these small organisms will guarantee the survival of the planet and human life.

The computer study found millions of new genes and thousands of new proteins in the ocean microbes. The report discusses only the viruses and the smallest cells. The tests showed the genes of more than six million new proteins. That increases by two times the number of proteins already known.

Craig Venter says these findings show that human beings have not yet even begun to understand our planet and its environment. He says we do not know ninety-nine percent of what is living in the world. And he says this work is just the start of many new discoveries, including the development of new antibiotics and ways to fight climate change.

Research scientists say they have seen chimpanzees making and using weapons to hunt other animals. The researchers say they saw more than twenty cases of chimpanzees in Senegal hunting with sharp tools. Their observations were made between March of two thousand five and last July.

A report on the chimpanzee study was published in Current Biology magazine.

Jill Pruetz of Iowa State University led the researchers. She says it is not uncommon for chimpanzees to use simple tools. Chimps often use such tools to open nuts or to find small insects within trees. However, until now, no one has ever reported seeing the animals using tools for hunting.

Ms. Pruetz says the chimps made the tools from tree branches. She says they removed leaves from the sticks and sharpened the ends with their teeth. Then the chimps used their tools in a stabbing motion like a person would.

The researchers say they saw chimps stabbing the sharp tools into open holes in tree trunks. In one case, they saw a West African chimp kill a tree creature called a bush baby. Chimpanzees eat fruit more often than meat. But they also eat insects, monkeys and other small mammals for protein.

During their time in Africa, the researchers saw at least ten chimps making sharp tools for hunting. They witnessed the activity mostly among young female chimps, ages ten to thirteen years old.

Adult male chimps are considered hunters. But only one adult male was observed in the tool-assisted hunting. Ms. Pruetz notes that the adult males are stronger and larger than the females. As a result, she says, they are able to kill smaller animals easily without the use of weapon-like tools. She says the young females must compete with the stronger males for food.

Chimpanzees are genetically the closest living relatives to human beings. Because of these ties, the researchers suggest the study may also provide clues into early humans and their use of tools for hunting.

Malaria infects as many as five hundred million people worldwide each year and kills more than one million of them. The ones who die are mostly children in southern Africa.

Malaria drugs have been available for many years. Until now, however, they have been costly for the poor and not very easy to give to children.

This month, a big drug company and an international campaign announced a new anti-malarial that is low cost and easy to take. The drug maker Sanofi-Aventis of France is working in partnership with the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative.

The new product is called ASAQ [said as A-S-A-Q]. It combines what experts say are two of the best drugs for malaria: artesunate and amodiaquine. Officials say ASAQ will soon be available throughout Africa south of the Sahara.

Combinations of drugs are used to treat diseases like malaria, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. This is because it is easier for organisms to develop resistance to a single drug.

Current malaria treatments require adults to take as many as eight pills a day. And they often have to divide pills to give a smaller amount to children.

ASAQ combines the medicines into one daily pill for children and two pills for adults. The medicine is taken for three days. Doctors say the simpler the treatment, the more likely people are to take their medicine.

Sanofi-Aventis has promised to sell ASAQ on a "no profit-no loss" basis to the poorest patients. The full treatment cost for older children and adults will be less than a dollar. The cost for a child under the age of five will be less than half a dollar.

Sanofi-Aventis has also decided against seeking patent protections for ASAQ. That means other companies are free to make their own versions to sell at even lower prices.

Five groups including Doctors Without Borders established the international campaign four years ago. The aim is to work with major drug companies to create low-cost drugs for diseases that are common in poor countries. ASAQ is the first product to be launched.

Workers who lose their jobs often feel tense and worried. As a result, they may develop mental health problems. A recent report says those who remain at work after job cuts may be at risk of suffering similar problems.

The report was published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

Mika Kivimaki works for University College in London. He and Finnish researchers examined the effect of job cuts on those dismissed and workers who kept their jobs. They studied information on the use of drugs to treat depression and other mental sicknesses.

The study involved almost twenty-seven thousand city government employees in Finland. More than seventeen thousand employees worked in offices where the size of the work force never changed.

Almost four thousand three hundred other employees lost their jobs. And, about four thousand eight hundred others worked in offices affected by job cuts. Yet they continued to work.

The study found that men who had lost their jobs were most at risk of mental health problems. They were sixty-four percent more likely to be given a prescription drug for such a problem. Prescription medicines can only be bought with a doctor's order. Men who kept working in offices affected by job cuts were fifty percent more likely to take a prescription medicine. The study found that women were twelve percent more likely to use such a medicine after reductions in the work force.

Professor Kivimaki says the report shows that mental health in the work place is a serious issue. He said policy-makers, office supervisors and health experts should recognize that job losses can seriously affect the mental health of all workers.

This SCIENCE IN THE NEWS was written by Brianna Blake, Lawan Davis, Nancy Steinbach and Caty Weaver. Brianna Blake was our producer. I'm Faith Lapidus.

And, I'm Bob Doughty.  Listen again next week at this time for more news about science in Special English on the Voice of America.

Voice of America Special English

Source: Millions of New Genes Are Found in Ocean Water
TEXT = http://www.voanews.com/specialenglish/archive/2007-03/2007-03-26-voa1.cfm?renderforprint=1
MP3 = http://www.voanews.com/mediaassets/specialenglish/2007_03/Audio/mp3/se-ocean-genes-26mar07.mp3