China bans the sale of human organs, Ford begins work on a hybrid engine and a renowned geneticist is convicted of a felony.

Evolution Demonstrated Again

Darwin’s famous Galápagos finches have provided scientists with more evidence of evolution, this time by evolving over an observable time-scale. The authors of a study published in the July 14 issue of the journal Science documented microevolution in the finches’ beaks over a period of 22 years. In 1982, a population of large ground finches arrived on an island previously dominated by the medium ground finch. The large finch was more adept at breaking open and eating large seeds than its medium-sized cousin. When food became scarce in 2003 and 2004, selection favored the smaller-beaked medium ground finches, which ate smaller seeds and therefore avoided competition with the large ground finches. The current generation has observably smaller beaks than the finches of 1982.

The Environmental Protection Agency has pinpointed the dry cleaning chemical perchloroethylene as a possible carcinogen and is requiring dry cleaners housed in residential buildings to phase out their use of the chemical, which affects the central nervous system. EPA spokeswoman Jennifer Wood said perchloroethylene could pose a danger to people living in the same building as cleaners that use it. Dry cleaning machines generally last for about 15 years; by the year 2020 no machines in residential buildings will be allowed to use perchloroethylene.

William French Anderson, a world-renowned geneticist and runner-up for Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1995, was convicted of child molestation on Wednesday, July 19. Anderson’s pioneering work in gene therapy, a technique that involves injecting healthy genes into unhealthy patients, won him numerous awards. He has published more than 350 articles and launched the journal Human Gene Therapy. Anderson faces up to 22 years in jail for the molestation of a colleague’s daughter.

NASA Aims for Business As Usual

The American Astronomical Society (AAS) has announced its support for a bill designed to secure emergency appropriations for NASA. The AAS statement notes that the NASA space science program has suffered due to the unexpected expense of the Discovery mission and the costs of the Columbia disaster and Hurricane Katrina. The bill, sponsored by senators Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), would allow NASA to boost its space science projects. “NASA science is fundamental to the Vision for Space Exploration,” said AAS president J. Craig Wheeler, in a statement.

The safe return of the space shuttle Discovery has allowed NASA to focus on the reestablishment of regular shuttle flights that are scheduled to begin next month, said NASA chief Michael Griffin after Discovery landed. The three-shuttle fleet has 16 more launches planned before it is retired. NASA officials expressed hope that these flights will complete the construction of the International Space Station. President Bush praised NASA’s dedication to “implementing our nation’s vision for human and robotic space exploration.”

Corporations Look To Hydrogen, Environmentalists to Oil

Ford has become the first automaker to begin production of a commercially viable and available hydrogen engine, a system that has almost zero emissions of regulated pollutants. The new Ford engine will power a fleet of shuttle buses, which will first be delivered to Florida and then to other points across North America, said Ford spokesman Nick Twork. Ford has chosen to debut the new engine technology in buses because, due to their static routes, they require only a few centralized fueling stations, Twork said, and construction of a nationwide hydrogen fueling station infrastructure for cars is currently too expensive.

The latest generation of US automobiles is the heaviest and most powerful ever, but average fuel efficiency hasn’t changed since 1994, according to an EPA report. Average fuel efficiency has actually dropped from the 22.0 miles per gallon measured by the EPA in 1987-1988 to 21.0 mpg now. The report noted the appearance of fuel-saving technologies such as gas-electric hybrid engines but said larger, less efficient automobile models have far greater market prevalence. Total domestic car sales dropped in June, with fewer consumers purchasing fuel-inefficient SUVs and pickups.

The money to rebuild a hurricane-ravaged Louisiana coastline could come from a source new to the environmentalist scene: oil. Record oil prices have made the oil drilling business more lucrative than ever, and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco said she wants her state to get a larger percentage of oil tax money. Tax revenue from drilling off of Louisiana’s coast would go a long way towards funding the coastline reconstruction, but Sierra Club chapter Chairwoman Leslie March called relying on offshore drilling a “bargain with the devil.”

The oil-rich nation of Greenland could benefit from the recent record oil prices in world markets, according to the country’s Bureau of Minerals and Petroleum. Joern Skov Nielsen, head of the bureau, told Agence France-Presse that as oil prices climb, oil deposits that had previously been economically unfit for tapping—like those in ice-covered Greenland—have become increasingly attractive. Northeastern Greenland is believed to contain up to 110 billion barrels of oil, half of Saudi Arabia’s known reserves. Environmental groups have expressed concern that drilling may harm the area’s wildlife, but the local Greenland government has promised that the environment will be safe.

Countries Struggle to Solve Energy Problems

At their summit in St. Petersburg, the Group of Eight (G8) industrial nations approved a statement acknowledging differences in how the countries handle nuclear energy and global climate issues. The statement recognizes that the nations who are exploring nuclear power believe it will help global energy security while reducing emissions. The statement endorses plans by Russia to create international nuclear fuel production facilities as well as a US plan for a multilateral nuclear fuel bank. At Germany’s request, the statement includes a commitment to reducing the risks associated with nuclear energy.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has suggested bringing five fast-growing countries into the Group of Eight industrialized nations to help secure a new global agreement on climate change. Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said developing countries feel their industrialized counterparts have not done enough to address their own emissions problems and therefore lack credibility. The new nations, China, India, Brazil, Mexico, and South Africa, would not be likely to sign on to such a deal just because they have been brought into “the tent,” said Pachauri.

The US Energy Department plans to complete the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump in Nevada in 2017, 19 years after the originally scheduled opening. Upon completion, Yucca will begin accepting 132,000 tons of nuclear waste currently sitting in 120 temporary storage sites around the country. US utilities have sued the federal government for failure to accept deliveries of the spent nuclear fuel as the government had promised; Energy Department officials estimate the federal government’s liability to be several billion dollars.

Power grid operators are reporting record energy use due to a heat wave in the continental United States. The heat wave compounds an already record season: It was the hottest first-half of a year since record keeping began in 1895. According to the North American Electric Reliability Council, the generators should be able to provide for the record energy demand, but severe weather poses a definite risk, especially to areas like Connecticut and Southern California that haven’t added new power generation recently.

China Takes Ethical Steps

China is cracking down on its black market human organ trade with a new law banning the commercial sale of human body parts. The regulation restricts the types of organizations allowed to receive body donations to “medical institutes, medical schools, medical research institutes and forensic research institutes,” according to the Xinhua news agency. Human rights groups and media reports have accused Chinese hospitals and prisons of pilfering organs from their dead to meet demand from both the 2 million Chinese patients in need of transplants and overseas buyers. The new law will take effect on August 1.

China, home to 20 of the 30 most smog-polluted cities in the world, plans to spend 1.4 trillion yuan ($175 billion) on environmental protection initiatives over the next five years. The nation has been struggling with a laundry list of environmental woes after more than 20 years of annual GDP growth around 10%. The programs will address water purity issues, the presence of dust and sulphur dioxide in major cities, and other environmental concerns.

The Chinese government has issued a ban on all small-scale coal-to-liquid processing plants. These bans should help limit the environmental problems that coal-to-liquid processing plants cause, such as carbon dioxide production and water waste. Water is a particularly grave concern, said a Chinese report, since water resource per-capita in coal-producing regions is one-tenth of the national average.

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Originally published July 23, 2006


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