Lizards and Lyme Disease

Scientists are hoping experiments
with the western fence lizard might yield a treatment for lyme disease,
a tick-borne illness.

According to an Associated Press
report, it has been known for about a decade that the lizards were immune
to the disease even when infested by ticks. Recent research by Dr. Robert
Lane, published in the Journal of Parasitology, suggests the lizard’s
blood possesses a protein that kills the Lyme disease bacteria.

Lane and other researchers are
now attempting to isolate this protein and find out if there is any possible
application for using it to treat lyme disease in human beings.

New Weapons in the War Against Staph Infection

Earlier in this century, staph infection was a significant health risk and cause of death, especially in hospitals where the bacteria thrives. With the introduction of powerful antibiotics, however, doctors gained a powerful tool in the fight against staph which alleviated the threat for the most part.

Unfortunately, in the last few years, new antibiotic resistant strains of staph bacteria have appeared, threatening to make staph a serious problem once again.

But scientists haven’t been sitting idly by while staph has been evolving and adapting. One of the most promising efforts is a possible staph vaccine announced in the April 17 edition of Science.

Developed by researchers at the University of California-Davis, the vaccine spurs the immune system to produce antibodies to RAP, the toxin secreted by staph bacteria. The major advantage to this approach is that since it neutralizes RAP rather than killing the bacteria, the vaccine should avoid encouraging staph to mutate into yet another resistant form. According to UCSD scientist Naomi Balaban, “The bacterium doesn’t realize it’s being jeopardized. No RAP, no toxins, no disease.”

The staph vaccine is still in preliminary
stages, but early research results are promising. Balaban vaccinated a
group of mice and then exposed them, as well as a control group, to a
strain of staph that causes skin lesions. All of the unvaccinated control
mice developed lesions, while only 28 percent of the vaccinated mice did
so. In addition, in those vaccinated mice who did develop skin lesions,
they were on average 76 percent smaller than those found in the unvaccinated
mice.

Whether or not the vaccine will
have similar success combating more severe, systemic forms of staph remains
to be seen.

Researchers Transplant Genetically Modified Heart Cells from Mice into Pigs

Even when someone survives a heart
attack, significant amounts of muscle tissue die, damaging the heart. The
Associated Press recently reported on a technology which someday may allow
such tissue to be regrown.

The March 17 story described experiments
conducted at the Louisiana State University Medical Center by Dr. William
C. Claycomb. Claycomb sucessfully transferred genetically modified heart
cells from mice into the damaged heart of a pig, where the cells survived
and acted like normal heart muscle, although it is unclear if the mouse
cells actually assisted in the working of the pig heart.

Although any use in humans for
this sort of technology is years, if not decades away, the importance of
this experiment is demonstrating that it is at least possible.

“It is a very important advance,”
said Dr. Kenneth R. Chien, a professor of medicine at the University of
California, San Diego. “The work challenges the dogma that it is
not possible to create a cell line that displays the unique features of
an intact heart.”

Famine persists in Sudan

So world food prices are headed
down; then what is going on in Sudan? An Associated Press report says
over 350,000 Sudanese need immediate food relieve or they run the risk
of starvation. By August 1999 that number is expected to rise to 1.6 million.

Sudan has some of the best land
in the world for agriculture, so what’s the problem? An ongoing civil
war that has persisted in one form or another for almost 40 years. Northern
Sudan, which is primarily Arab and Muslim, is run by an Arab strongman.
Southern Sudan, which is predominantly Christian and animist, has been
fighting to gain its independence. Human rights violations have been common
on both sides.

In October 1996, one of the rebels,
Kerubino Kwanying Bol, switched sides and attacked the southern Bahr el
Ghazal. Kerubino subsequently switched sides again, back to the rebels,
and attacked government-held towns of Wau, Awiel and Gogrial.

The resulting devastation has led
farmers to abandon their crop land en masse as well as cut off supply
routes. As a result, Sudan is on the verge of yet another man-made famine.

Good news on the food front

As you might know from reading past
issues of Population News, agricultural production in the United States
and the world has fallen over the past few years, leading some groups
such as WorldWatch Institute to predict we are finally at the beginning
of the end of cheap, abundant food. Critics like myself, however, contend
that such oscillations are temporary and an inherent part of agricultural
markets which correct themselves.

New forecasts by the United States
Department of Agriculture sheds yet more light on the debate, and the
results aren’t good for the gloom-and-doom crowd.

A few weeks ago the USDA announced
that the U.S. soybean crop would set a record, forecasting 1.525 billion
bushels of soybeans would be produced with record exports of 2.9 billion
pounds of soy oil and near-record levels of 7.9 million short tons of
soy meal exported in the coming year.

Now the USDA reports that American
farmers are planting a record 80.8 million acres of corn — the most since
1985 — but only 67 million acres of wheat, the lowest since 1988. The
USDA expects that overall US wheat and corn exports will decline as worldwide
demand for US agricultural exports decline and consequently prices for
wheat, corn and soybeans should decline by 20 to 90 cents a bushel from
last year’s crop.

What exactly is going on here?
Well, don’t you know, it turns out people do respond to market prices
after all. Following the relatively low levels of world production of
corn and soybean the past few years, farmers around the world have apparently
switched large amounts of land to growing corn and soybean. South American
exports of soybean and corn are expected to be a major source cutting
into US exports.

Contrary to a WorldWatch report
that grain prices were headed inevitably up, in fact the opposite has
happened. The cost of a bushel of wheat on the Chicago Board of Trade
recently fell to $2.9850,a 4-1/2 year low. A bushel of corn was up slightly
to $2.4950. Hardly the agricultural disaster predicted by WorldWatch.

Strip-till farming gains support

In the past I’ve mentioned the benefits of no-till
farming which helps cut down on soil erosion. On the downside, however,
are potentially lower yields. Well, according to an Associated Press
report a University of Illinois researcher is exploring what he calls
strip tilling.

Wayne Pederson, a plant pathologist, says strip-tilling
involves tilling in strips that are only 7 inches wide while leaving the
rest of the field undisturbed. This combines the best of both worlds,
with tilling’s warmer and drier soil and no-till’s soil conservation.

“We’re basically finding strip-till is
a hybrid combination,” Pedersen said. “Within that 7-inch strip
it’s a tiled field. Between the 7-inch strips it’s no-tilled and you get
all the benefits of water conservation and erosion control that you’d
get with no-till.”

The practice has been in use in parts of Illinois
since the early 1990s, in some cases producing yields very close to what
would be expected from conventional tillage practices.