Author: Uponsci

Dangerous Levels of Antibiotics Found in World’s Rivers

The rivers of the world are full of antibiotics. That’s the headline of a new survey that sampled rivers all over the world. VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.

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Satellites Monitoring Air Health

One of the ways astronomers learn about planets beyond Earth is by studying our own. And there are satellites doing just that, monitoring the Earth’s health, and our own. VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.

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Smithsonian Museum Wows With Fossils Going Back Billions of Years

It was a bad day 70 million years ago for a triceratops dinosaur, whose remains are displayed beneath a fossilized Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton — posed as if it were still alive and ready for dinner.  

Huge dinosaurs and other ancient creatures like an elephant-sized ground sloth are part of a remarkable new fossils exhibition that opened June 8 at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington.

Instead of the typical static poses usually seen in museums, the new exhibition has positioned the animals so they look more real and animated — like a Dire Wolf that appears to be chasing prey.

“Did you know that all birds descended from dinosaurs?” said Matthew Carrano, the Curator of Dinosaurs.

”We now know dinosaurs were fast growing, and very lively animals,” Carrano said. “Many of the dinosaurs you see here didn’t necessarily live together.  Each species lasted a million years ago or so and then another species would appear.  So many different dinosaur ecosystems in the world, just like there’s many different ecosystems in the world today.”

Located in the large, newly restored fossil hall, the exhibition called Deep Time is all about ancient life on earth, and how its climate, ecosystems and geology evolved over 3.7 billion years.  It contains over 700 fossils, including plants, insects, reptiles, and mollusks going back billions of years.  

A fossilized palm tree unearthed in the Arctic shows that area used to be tropical. A tiny ancestor of today’s horses lived 52 million years ago. There’s even some fossilized dinosaur feces.

While wandering through the variety of ecosystems, modern interactive exhibits allow visitors to learn more about the earth’s past, and a glass-walled lab where they can see fossils being prepared for scientific study.

But among these remains is an underlying message about the future and the importance of protecting the Earth.

“We explain and let you explore for yourself what the meaning is in something that might have happened 55 million years ago to tell us a lot about the impact we are having now, because it’s not just a past story it’s also our story right now,” explained Sioban Starrs, the exhibition project manager.  

The objects on display illustrate how much the Earth has changed, affected by shifts in the climate. Scientists say 66 million years ago, the impact of a huge asteroid transformed the environment so much the dinosaurs and most other forms of life couldn’t survive. But today the exhibition points out, humans are the culprit that are causing devastating environmental problems.

“It’s a scientific fact and there’s evidence showing that we are having an impact on this planet that’s unprecedented,” Starrs said. “It’s unprecedented in the scale, and in the rate, and it’s unprecedented that it’s one singular species causing all of these changes.”

“There’s lots of specific things you can do to ameliorate the impacts of climate change,” said Kirk Johnson, the head of the museum. “Decrease climate change and help preserve species and habitats. There’s a lot of things that are happening in the world today that don’t have to be happening.”

Starrs hopes the 5 million people visiting the exhibition each year will think about what they can do to help.

“I would really like to see people getting connected to this story of the impact that we’re having on the planet, and to really wake up and start making smart choices,” she said. “Start looking at the things that people are doing around the world to direct our planet toward a hopeful, positive future.”

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Scientists Feel Chill of Crackdown on Fetal Tissue Research

To save babies from brain-damaging birth defects, University of Pittsburgh scientist Carolyn Coyne studies placentas from fetuses that otherwise would be discarded — and she’s worried this kind of research is headed for the chopping block.

The Trump administration is cracking down on fetal tissue research , with new hurdles for government-funded scientists around the country who call the special cells vital for fighting a range of health threats. Already, the administration has shut down one university’s work using fetal tissue to test HIV treatments, and is ending other fetal tissue research at the National Institutes of Health.

“I knew this was something that’s going to trickle down to the rest of us,” said Coyne. She uses the placenta, which people may not think of as fetal tissue but technically is classified as such because the fetus produced it, to study how viruses such as Zika get past that protective barrier early in pregnancy.

“It seems to me what we’re moving toward is a ban,” she added. If so, when it comes to unraveling what happens in pregnancy and fetal development, “we’re going to stay ignorant to a lot of things.”

Different types of tissue left over from elective abortions have been used in scientific research for decades, and the work has been credited with leading to lifesaving vaccines and other advances. Under orders from President Donald Trump, the Health and Human Services Department abruptly announced on Wednesday the new restrictions on taxpayer-funded research, but not privately funded work.

Aside from the cancellation of an HIV-related project at the University of California, San Francisco, university-led projects that are funded by the NIH — estimated to be fewer than 200 — aren’t affected right away.

But as researchers seek to renew their funding or propose new studies, HHS said it will have to pass an extra layer of review, beyond today’s strict scientific scrutiny. Each project will have a federal ethics board appointed to recommend whether NIH should grant the money.

HHS hasn’t offered details but under the law authorizing the review process, that board must include not just biomedical experts but a theologian, and the nation’s health secretary can overrule its advice.

“I predict over time we will see a slow and steady elimination of federal funding for research that uses fetal tissue, regardless of how necessary it is,” said University of Wisconsin law professor Alta Charo, a nationally recognized bioethics expert.

Necessity is the crux of a fierce debate between abortion foes and scientists about whether there are alternatives to fetal tissue for research.

Zika offers a glimpse at the difficulty. Somehow, the Zika virus can sneak from the mother’s bloodstream across the placenta, which protects and nourishes the fetus, and target the fetus’ brain. It’s something researchers hope to learn to block.

Studying the placentas of small animals or even monkeys isn’t a substitute because they differ from the human organ, said Emory University researcher Mehul Suthar. For example, the specific type of placental cell where Zika can lurk in humans isn’t thought to be present in mouse placentas.

And because the placenta continually changes as the fetus that created it grows, first-trimester tissue may show a very different vulnerability than a placenta that’s expelled during full-term birth, when it’s no longer defined as fetal tissue but as medical waste.

Suthar recently submitted a new grant application to study first- and second-trimester placental tissue, and is worried about its fate under the still uncertain ethics provision.

It “sounds a bit murky as to what the impact could be,” he said. It could be small, “or it could be an outright ban on what we’re doing.”

Anti-abortion groups argue there are alternatives, such as stem cells, growing organ-like clumps of cells in lab dishes, or using tissue taken from newborns as they have heart surgery.

Indeed, NIH is funding a $20 million program to research alternatives to fetal tissue and to prove whether they work as well.

“Taxpayer funding ought to go to promote alternatives that are already being used in the production of treatments, vaccines and medicines, and to expand approaches that do not depend on the destruction of unborn children,” said Mallory Quigley of the Susan B. Anthony List, which works to elect anti-abortion candidates to public office.

But dozens of medical and science organizations have told HHS there is no substitute for fetal tissue in studying certain — not all — health disorders, such as HIV, Zika, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, spinal cord injury, and a variety of eye diseases.

To Pittsburgh’s Coyne, part of the political debate is a “completely unsubstantiated belief that not allowing research and science is going to prevent or stop abortions, which is not the case.”

Medical research using fetal tissue won’t stop but will move to other countries, said Charo, who advised the Obama administration. The United Kingdom, Australia, Singapore and China are among the countries using fetal tissue to seek breakthroughs.

“Other countries work with this in a regulated fashion and they will continue to outstrip us,” she said. “We have allowed patients’ interests to become collateral damage in the abortion wars.”

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NASA: Space Travel for Private Citizens Is Coming

Space travel for private citizens is no longer science fiction.

NASA is opening parts of the International Space Station to more commercial opportunities. NASA announced the plan Friday, and said it will allow companies to use the space station’s facilities in a number of ways, including private astronaut missions.

NASA has balked at commercial ventures in the past, but the cost of operating the space station, which is one of the agency’s greatest expenses, currently runs $3 billion to $4 billion a year – that’s more than $8 million a day.

NASA leadership has made it clear the agency wants to eventually transition control of the space station and its region of space, low Earth orbit, to the private sector. 

“What this is, is an investment in the future for demand for low-Earth platforms” Mike Read, manager of Commercial Space Utilization at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, told VOA News. “What we want to do is leverage the station and try to enable others to turn a business model … while we have the infrastructure of the space station.” 

By handing control of the space station over to commercial ventures, NASA could have more money to pursue more ambitious missions, such as building a new space station around the moon and sending humans back to the lunar surface. 

In late 2018, the agency selected 12 companies to study the potential growth of a low-Earth orbit economy and how to best stimulate demand for human space flight. (Low-Earth orbit means altitudes below 2,000 km or 1,240 miles.)

This group brainstormed ways companies could turn a profit at the space station, and the members decided that allowing corporations to build and market their products using space station resources would help ignite the economy NASA is seeking to build on. 

But getting to space is not cheap. 

Private astronaut missions will be limited to two flights per year, or about 12 astronauts per year, and will come at a significant cost. The cost of travel and accommodations will have to be picked up by the private sector. 

As of now, the only ways to get to the space station are spacecraft developed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Boeing, so “whatever prices Boeing and SpaceX set is on them,” said Jeff DeWit, NASA’s chief financial officer. 

NASA pays about $80 million per seat, a price that it is working to trim to $50 million per seat, to send its astronauts. 

Apart from the cost of getting there, companies hoping to work on the space station will have to pay to stay there: One night’s stay would be about $35,000 for one person, DeWit said. 

“It’s now up to you to use your creativity — your ingenuity — and figure out how you can generate potential revenue,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration. 

‘Learning experience’

“This is the beginning of us actively starting open dialogue with the industry to figure out how we can open up space to commercial activities, where revenue can be generated from private sector companies. … This is going to be a growing and learning experience for both [sides].” 

NASA’s Read points out a key element, though, to this new venture: “We are a government bureaucracy that is trying to enable development of a new economy. That’s pretty different,” he said. 

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Trump Criticizes NASA Moon Mission After Promoting It Earlier 

U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday criticized NASA for aiming to put astronauts back on the moon by 2024 and urged the space agency to focus instead on “much bigger” initiatives like going to Mars, undercutting his previous support for the lunar initiative. 

“For all of the money we are spending, NASA should NOT be talking about going to the Moon – We did that 50 years ago,” the president wrote on Twitter. “They should be focused on the much bigger things we are doing, including Mars (of which the Moon is a part), Defense and Science!” 

Trump’s statement, tweeted from Air Force One as he returned from Europe, appeared at odds with his administration’s recent push to return humans to the lunar surface by 2024 “by any means necessary,” five years sooner than the previous goal of 2028. 

Space outpost

NASA plans to build a space outpost in lunar orbit that can relay astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024, part of a broader initiative to use the moon as a staging ground for eventual missions to Mars. 

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said Trump was only reaffirming NASA’s space plan. 

“As @POTUS said, @NASA is using the Moon to send humans to Mars!” he said on Friday in a tweet referring to the president of the United States. 

The accelerated timetable to land humans on the moon by 2024 ran into early trouble when the Trump administration asked a skeptical Congress in May to increase NASA’s 2020 budget proposal by $1.6 billion as a “down payment” to accommodate the accelerated goal. 

The accelerated timetable for going to the moon was a key recommendation in March of the new National Space Council led by Vice President Mike Pence. 

‘Sustainable human presence’

NASA’s website on Friday said the Artemis program would send “the first woman and the next man to the Moon by 2024 and develop a sustainable human presence on the Moon by 2028.” The program takes its name from the twin sister of Apollo and the goddess of the moon in Greek mythology. 

NASA’s Apollo program landed the first men on the moon 50 years ago on July 20. 

The NASA website also provided details on the space agency’s plans for making the moon a jumping-off point for future missions to Mars and a place to test equipment and technology for other forays out into the solar system. 

Private companies are also joining the race to the moon. Billionaire entrepreneur Jeff Bezos last month unveiled a mock-up of a lunar lander being built by his Blue Origin rocket company and touted his moon goals as part of a strategy aimed at capitalizing on the Trump administration’s push to establish a lunar outpost in just five years. 

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How Communities Can Survive Floods, Major Storms, Wildfires 

The 2019 Atlantic hurricane season is officially underway, yet many people haven’t recovered from some of last year’s storms. Meantime, tornados have torn up swaths of several U.S. states in the past few weeks, and floodwaters have wreaked even more damage.

Across the U.S. and elsewhere, tornados, flooding and fires have destroyed homes, sometimes entire communities. Victim after victim describes the trauma.

Preston Black in Oklahoma says a tornado threw his trailer home several meters into the air. His parents, wife and children were all inside. Then, he saw his wife in the debris.

 “To see her like that. … It was awful,” he said. “The worst thing I could ever see.”

She survived. But they lost everything they had.

Hurricane Michael

Last October, Hurricane Michael destroyed entire towns in Florida. Some people are still living in tents. Janelle Crosby lives in a trailer home full of health hazards.

“Rats. Critters. It’s disgusting. Mold. This they put up to try to contain the mold. It was pink, it’s now black.”

Natural disasters affect everyone differently. In California, Gwen Oesch found that the immediate impact of loss can’t always be anticipated.

“I didn’t realize how much my home means to me,” she said, with a sigh.

Solace in numbers

When a community is hit by a disaster, it can be less traumatic than an individual disaster like an accident, according to Dr. John Lauriello, a psychiatrist at the University of Missouri Health Care.

“I think there’s a shared understanding of the trauma, which I think can be very, very helpful because people feel like it wasn’t just them. It occurred to their community and, therefore, the community is going to work together, and the rebuilding will happen together.”

In Missouri, universities are housing people whose homes were destroyed by massive flooding and a tornado. Darrell Bonner says he’s grateful for a place to stay.

“It’s a blessing living here. A lot of financial burden has been let loose a little bit. There’s hope. There are people out there willing to help,” he said.

 

WATCH: Natural Disasters Take Psychological Toll on Survivors

Crosby says in her Florida community, people share whatever they have.

“We just all take care of each other. It’s hard, but like I said earlier, if one of us has generator gas, or if we have propane, we all get to cook that night. If not, we get out here and make fires on the grill and cook.”

For children, routine key

Psychiatrist Laine Young-Walker at the University of Missouri Health Care says the sooner parents can get their children back into a normal routine, the better off they will be.

“They thrive in and survive on structure and routine,” Young-Walker said. “So when a natural disaster like this happens and they get displaced, they’re not in their home anymore, their school is closed, they’re not able to go to the school. They don’t have that structure. They don’t have that routine and that consistency. And it can cause a lot of stress for them.”

If schools are destroyed, Young-Walker suggests finding ways to do class work.

Last year, a teacher turned her California home into a classroom when her students’ school was destroyed by fire. Eight-year-old Eleanor Weddig thought it was better than school.

 “I love it. It’s like more comfortable than our classroom, the chairs are cushy, that’s one thing that I like. And anyway it’s a house so it’s, like, more fancy and stuff and she cooks us great lunches. Like every lunch I love,” Eleanor said.

Californian Gwen Oesch credits community support with helping people who had lost their homes during the wildfires.

“It’s almost like a therapy thing, you know?” she said. “We’re all in the same place, and dealing with the same thing. We’re talking about the people who lost their homes and how sad it is. But, you know what? We’re resilient.”

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Floods, Major Storms, Wildfires Take Psychological Toll on Survivors

The 2019 Atlantic hurricane season is officially underway, yet people haven’t recovered from some of last year’s storms. Meantime, tornados have torn up swaths of several U.S. states in the past few weeks, while flood waters wreaked even more damage. All of this has a psychological toll, as VOA’s Carol Pearson reports.

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Seaweed Could Help Produce Biodegradable Plastic

Efforts to recycle discarded plastic have not reduced piles of single-use products from landfills, and China will no longer import plastic waste for recycling. The United Nations says more than 8 million tons of plastic enters the ocean every year. Plastics are increasingly killing marine life and birds, threatening ecosystems and harming humans. Researchers are working to develop biodegradable materials to replace the durable plastic. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports on one such project in Israel.

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WHO: 1 Million STD Cases Diagnosed Every Day

More than 1 million people across the world are diagnosed with sexually transmitted infections (STI) every day, the World Health Organization said.

In a study released Thursday, the U.N. health agency said 1 in every 25 people globally has at least one of four infections: chlamydia, gonorrhea, trichomoniasis and syphilis. Some people have more than one STI, also called sexually transmitted disease.

“These infections indicate people are taking risks with their health, with their sexuality and with their reproductive health,” said Dr. Melanie Taylor, lead author of the report.

The WHO said there were more than 376 million new cases of STIs among men and women aged 15 to 49 in 2016, the latest year for which data is available. The WHO report broke down the infection rates in 2016 to: 127 million new cases of chlamydia, 87 million of gonorrhea, 6 million of syphilis and 156 million of trichomoniasis.

STI’s are transmitted through unprotected vaginal, anal and oral sex. In some cases, the diseases are passed from mother to child during pregnancy. Syphilis can also be transmitted through contact with infected blood.

If left untreated, STIs can cause infertility, stillbirths, ectopic pregnancy and an increased risk of HIV. Syphilis alone causes more than 200,000 newborn deaths and stillbirths each year.

“This is a wake-up call for a concerted effort to ensure everyone, everywhere can access the services they need to prevent and treat these debilitating diseases,” WHO official Dr. Peter Salama said.

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