Short items

UK open access database opens for business 

The UK is to get its own open-access database of biomedical research papers, UK PubMed Central (UKPMC). Contracts to run the database have been awarded: the British Library will handle set up, development and submissions, while the European Bioinformatics Institute will integrate the literature with the databases, which will be hosted by the University of Manchester. Nine UK research-funding bodies have ruled that papers arising from the research they sponsor are available in the database. Papers available on UKPMC will be made available on the US-based PubMed Central, and vice versa.  

Home DNA tests ’misleading’ 

US congressman Gordon Smith has branded home DNA test kits ’modern day snake oil’ at a hearing of congressional investigative body the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Smith said ’consumers are being misled and exploited’ by the kits, which claim to warn users of their risks of developing diseases ranging from cancer to osteoporosis. The manufacturers often then try to sell customers expensive dietary supplements. The GAO took swabs from two people and tested them using 14 different kits. Each test gave a different profile. The GAO report said the tests were not clinically valid and made unproven and ambiguous diagnoses. The Food and Drug Administration agreed that the tests were largely meaningless and is investigating the companies. 

Academia and industry warn of chemistry crisis 

Despite ever increasing success in UK A level exams, the number of students choosing chemistry is falling at an alarming rate. Numbers of students sitting chemistry A level have fallen by over 12 per cent since 1991. A ’Herculean effort’ is needed to reverse the decline and protect the next generation of highly skilled scientists and their teachers, according to the president of the Royal Society, Martin Rees. The UK risks being ’knocked off its perch as a world leader in science,’ warned Richard Lambert, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI). 

Genome of oil-eating bacteria decoded 

The genome of a bacterium that degrades crude oil has been sequenced by European researchers. The Alcanivorax borkumensis  genome encodes a large number of oil-degrading enzymes which the researchers hope could eventually lead to new environmentally-friendly methods for cleaning up oil spills. 

IR telescope data released 

The first data from the UK Infrared Deep Sky Survey (UKIDSS) are challenging current theories on galaxy formation. The survey is being performed by the UK’s Wide Field Camera in Hawaii, US. It is the most sensitive examination of the heavens to date, according to the European Southern Observatory user community. Objects that are too distant or too cool to see at visible wavelengths have been detected. Of particular interest are distant galaxies which are much larger than expected for their age. Light from the galaxies has taken so long to reach Earth that the galaxies are being observed as they had been only a billion years after the big bang. The astronomers also hope to determine how many previously elusive brown dwarfs - ’failed stars’ which give off tiny amounts of radiation - are in our galaxy. 

Victory for Darwin in Kansas elections 

Anti-evolution Republicans have lost control of the State Board of Education in Kansas, US. Voters in state primary elections chose evolution-supporting moderates to run in the general elections in November. This effectively hands the moderates a 6-4 majority on the board. Conservative board-member Connie Morris, who had described evolution as an ’age-old fairy tale’ and ’a nice bedtime story’ lost her seat. Control of the board has switched between pro- and anti-evolution supporters three times since 1998. Previously the board required Darwinism to be taught alongside other theories including intelligent design. 

Pakistan to expand nuclear arsenal 

Pakistan is constructing a powerful heavy-water reactor that could produce enough plutonium for 40 to 50 nuclear bombs a year, according to Washington, US-based think tank the Institute for Science and International Security. The report came two days before the decision of the US House of Representatives to sell nuclear technology to India. Amid concerns of a build-up of nuclear arsenals in South Asia, the report stated the capacity of the new installation as 1000 megawatts or more, based on satellite images. This could allow for a 20-fold increase on Pakistan’s current uranium-based nuclear weapon capacity within a few years. 

UK academies propose model for single health fund 

The newly-proposed single fund for UK health research must improve links between biomedical and clinical research, according to a joint report from the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences. The academies have proposed a model for the management of the fund advocating the establishment of two councils - the existing Medical Research Council (MRC) and a new Health Innovation Council - under a unified board. Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society said the model ’aims to maintain current strengths of the MRC and the NHS R&D programme and protect the independence of the health research agenda from short-term political pressures.’ 

Chinese govt. approves Dow-Wacker plant 

Plans for a new siloxane plant in Zhangjiagang City, China, to be jointly built by US chemicals company Dow Corning Corporation and German company Wacker Chemie AG have been approved by the Chinese government. The facility will be run by Dow Corning, Zhangjiagang, the joint venture between the US and German companies. Land preparation and early construction work are underway. 

’Smart’ cancer drug gets UK licence 

Sutent, a new drug for two kidney and gut cancers, has been licensed in the UK. It works in the same way as Glivec (sold as Gleevec in the US), by inhibiting an enzyme that causes cell replication, but also starves tumours of nutrients. Early trials indicate it may also be effective against breast, lung and pancreatic cancers. A month’s treatment will cost ?2400 per patient. As these results were released, separate research linked Glivec with heart failure. Swiss firm Novartis, which makes the drug, said heart failure was an extremely rare side effect that could be prevented with known drugs. 

Whirling dust devils bust Martian methane 

Snow storms of hydrogen peroxide might sound like an easy way to go platinum blonde, but their existence on Mars could help solve the conundrum about levels of methane gas in the Martian atmosphere. Methane is regarded by some as evidence for microbial life on Mars, but could also come from geothermal activity, and has been found only in certain patches of the planet. Sushil Atreya, of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, US, and colleagues, now suggest that lightning discharges in dust devils - vortices that whip up grains from very dry surfaces - could generate hydrogen peroxide. This could help explain why methane isn’t always evenly spread, and also spells bad news for Martian bugs. ’Any nascent life or even prebiotic molecules would find it hard to get a foothold on the surface of Mars, as the organic material would be scavenged efficiently by the surface oxidants,’ said Atreya. 

Government hits back over Sussex chemistry row 

The near-death experience of the University of Sussex’s chemistry department earlier this year is still causing ripples in UK parliament. The government’s Department for Education and Skills (DfES) has responded to criticism from the Commons select committee on science and technology, whose inquiry into the Sussex affair slammed government funding bodies’ lack of power to intervene in university politics. DfES has now accused the select committee of being blinkered by focusing on Sussex, and adds that universities should be free to decide which departments they open or close. ’It would not be a sensible objective to preserve every chemistry department in the UK HE [higher education] sector, or every department in a STEM [science, technology, engineering and medicine] discipline, and we have never set such an objective,’ it added. RSC chief executive Richard Pike commented that the government was still acting too slowly to correct the imbalance in funding for lab-based subjects, currently set at 1.7 times the standard amount of funding per student. 

Giant step needed for climate change 

The challenge of developing new technologies to meet global energy demand while tackling climate change needs an initiative on the scale of the Apollo project that put a man on the moon, says Martin Rees, president of the UK’s Royal Society. ’...Governments of industrial countries are not facing up to the huge energy challenges that lie ahead. That is disquieting because the IEA (International Energy Agency) is predicting that by 2030, based on current national policies, 80 per cent of the world’s primary energy demand will be met by fossil fuels,’ wrote Rees in the journal Science