Week in Review: July 10

Editorial / by TJ Kelleher /

A year of magical thinking on climate change, making headway on the science of medical science policy, a new human genome, probiotics for famine victims, and China’s science budget.

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Korean Genome Sequenced

Nature this week published the world’s fifth complete human genome, this one of a Korean man, by a research team led by Kim Jong-Il of the Genomic Medicine Institute of Seoul National University. Comparisons of the newly sequenced genome to the reference genomes described by the Human Genome Project and Celera Genomics in 2001 uncovered more than 3 million single nucleotide polymorphisms in the DNA, including more than 10,000 non-synonymous ones, meaning that they code for a different amino acid, as well as some 170,000 deletions or insertions. Buried in those differences—in that wealth of new data about human diversity—should be new insights into human development, biological function, and disease, as well as new strands in the history of our evolution and our migrations around the world. Most striking about the research, though, is how few people produced it: just a few dozen, or practically no one at all, relative to the thousands on the Human Genome Project’s first paper. No clearer sign is needed that the age of the personal genome is nearly upon us.

Alternative Famine Response

When it comes to bacteria in the gut, if some is good, then more must be better, right? Not necessarily. A study published Thursday in The Lancet examined whether the addition of probiotics and prebiotics—that is, both bacteria and compounds meant to stimulate their growth in the gut—to foods given to malnourished African children increased their chances of recovering from famine. They did not; recovery rates in groups of hospitalized children, receiving either standard or biotically fortified rations, were not significantly different. However, there was some indication in the study that outpatient children receiving the probiotics faired better than those who did not, but the study was not designed to determine whether the apparent affect was real—another round will be necessary. So far, however, there is no indication that the extra bacteria are what malnourished children need to make a recovery from famine, and the search for a miracle emergency ration goes on.

China Boosts Science Spending, Sort of

China announced a 25 percent increase in science spending this week, bringing its annual R&D spending to $25 billion, or within $12 billion of Japan’s and within some $100 billion of the United States’. The bent of the funding is decidedly applied, and not just in the sense of figuring out how to build more efficient solar cells or developing bacteria to produce novel drugs. In fact, some of the money will be used to develop a native Chinese aircraft industry. That may or may not be a reasonable use of government funds, but it seems unlikely to be a world-beating undertaking, however successful it proves to be. Hu Jintao, if you want to truly own an industry, develop carbon capture at $20 a ton. That’ll be worth a lot more than duking it out with Airbus and Boeing.

Originally published July 10, 2009

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