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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

July 5, 2002

Air Date: July 5, 2002


(stream/download) as an MP3 file


Amtrak’s Troubles

(stream / mp3)

Host Steve Curwood talks with Hank Dittmar of the Great American Station Foundation about Amtrak's current financial woes and what lies ahead for the passenger railroad. (06:00)

Zebra Mussels / Brian Mann

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Zebra mussels are wreaking havoc in fresh waters all across North America. The non-native species eat the food of fish and plants, and clog intake water pipes to power and water treatment facilities. As North Country Public Radio’s Brian Mann reports, zebra mussels are also damaging historical underwater sea wrecks. (05:00)

Health Note/Vitamin E & Prostate Cancer / Diane Toomey

(stream / mp3)

Living on Earth’s Diane Toomey reports on how vitamin E may play a surprising role in fighting prostate cancer. (01:15)

Almanac/Snail Showers

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This week, we have facts about strange items raining down from the heavens. One hundred sixteen years ago, snails fell from the skies over Redruth England – and the occurrence isn't unique. (01:30)

Antibiotics & Plants

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New research shows that antibiotics inadvertently released into the environment might be toxic to plants. Janet Raloff, senior editor of Science News, discusses the implications with host Steve Curwood. (04:50)

Selous Game Reserve / Tom Verde

(stream / mp3)

The Selous in Southern Tanzania is Africa’s largest game reserve. The park has the largest population of elephant, crocodile, wild dog and buffalo in the continent. And as Tom Verde reports, its remote location makes the Selous an ecologist’s dream. (07:50)

Eau de Deception

(stream / mp3)

Each year, forests in the northeastern United States are plagued with leaf-eating gypsy moths. There have been many efforts to control moth populations with pesticides. But as entomologist Robert Walz tells LOE host Steve Curwood, Indiana has its own way of battling the pests: pheromones. (03:00)

Business Note/ EV L.A. / Jennifer Chu

(stream / mp3)

Living on Earth’s Jennifer Chu reports on the only electric vehicle rental agency in the United States. (01:20)

Generation Next: Designer Babies / Bob Carty

(stream / mp3)

Bob Carty continues his series "Generation Next: Re-making the Human Race," with a look at inheritable genetic manipulation and the possibility of creating designer babies. (14:40)

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Show Credits and Funders

This Week's Music

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve CurwoodREPORTERS: Brian Mann, Tom Verde, Bob CartyGUESTS: Hank Dittmar, Janet Raloff, Robert WalzUPDATES: Diane Toomey, Jennifer Chu


CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, it’s living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Science is getting ready, and the market seems eager, for custom-designed DNA that can be passed on to future generations:

STOCK: There have been some international polls about whether parents would want to enhance their children, either physically or mentally, if they could. And the results have varied from a low of about 25 percent in Japan, to as high as 80 percent of parents who say they would, in Thailand and India.

CURWOOD: But as designer genetics take hold, some see a dark side.

ANNAS: We will inevitably then create two classes of people – the gene rich and the gene poor, and I think one group will kill the other group. And that kind of what I call genetic suicide should be simply unacceptable.

CURWOOD: The debate over designer babies. Also, news that antibiotics in the environment can harm plants. This week on Living on Earth, coming up right after this.


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Amtrak’s Troubles


CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Amtrak’s recent financial woes all boil down to one basic problem: Congress thinks the passenger rail service should be self-sufficient, while Amtrak says it needs federal subsidies. A promised loan guarantee from the federal government averted the latest crisis, but Congress is still pushing the railroad to restructure and cut costs. I’m joined now by Hank Dittmar, a train proponent who heads the Great American Station Foundation. Tell me, Mr. Dittmar, why is it so difficult for Amtrak to be financially self-sufficient?

DITTMAR: Well, it is basically running on the private tracks of the private railroads, and so they have to pay them for the use of those tracks. They have to run a system that is essentially a nineteenth century rail route network, and they have to cobble together the votes every year from Congress to run that route network, which means running some routes that may not otherwise pan out. And they have inherited from the original legislation that created Amtrak a whole lot of obligations. For instance, paying for the railroad retirement system, inheriting union contracts. But further, it’s just basically true that transportation systems can make back, sometimes, the cost of operations, but not the cost of capital. The airlines get the government to pay for their airports and the air traffic control. Our highways are paid for by taxes. And we need to expect that the same kind of framework needs to be set up for passenger rail.

CURWOOD: There’s a big portion in Congress right now towards privatizing the railroad and opening up the passenger rail business to competition. How would that work? How could that work?

DITTMAR: Well, if you open up the present business to competition, but you still continue to subsidize the contracts, I expect that you would get some competitors to run trains. If, however, you asked these private companies to run without subsidy, I expect you would get no bidders. And so it depends on what you think. If you think that private companies can operate more efficiently than government companies, you might make some savings. England has tried this, and they’re actually reconsidering the great experiment and moving a lot more of the decision-making and policy back into the government framework.

CURWOOD: Well surely there are some advantages to privatization. What are they?

DITTMAR: Well, you might be able to privatize certain operations and in privatizing them hire companies that pay lower wages and have operating costs from paying lower wages. And some people think that is a plus. In other cases, it may be that if you franchised out certain parts of the train operation -- for instance essentially do what the airports have done in moving from one sort of low-end vendor that supplies all the food in the airports to bringing recognizable companies in to supply brand names -- and that’s increased overall revenues.

CURWOOD: The federal government would like to see the states get more involved in the passenger train business. What’s the plan there?

DITTMAR: Well, I think the idea is that, if you want enhanced service in a particular state, states can invest to improve service. And that model has worked for Amtrak successfully on the West Coast. California has put millions and millions of dollars into upgrading stations and buying trains, and so have Oregon and Washington. But that model presumes that you have a national system which runs a national route structure and operates to national standards, and provides a basic level of service. The Mineta proposal, the Bush administration proposal, actually seeks to get federal government out of supporting rail with any operating funding all together and asks the states to take that over. My conversation with state officials has been that they’re totally unwilling to take that deal. They’re willing to have a partnership, but not to be handed the whole ball of wax.

CURWOOD: Hank Dittmar, if you had the final say, what kind of plan would you lay down for the future of Amtrak?

DITTMAR: I’m glad you asked that question, Steve. We need a national network of medium-distance rail routes and we need to interconnect them in the same kind of hub and spoke system that we have for air travel, and we need to link them with our inner city bus system and with our airports. Creating that kind of connection, as we are beginning to do at Milwaukee, at Newark, at Providence, Rhode Island, begins to create a more secure system, and it becomes to secure a more economically viable system. So I would fundamentally redraw the map and, at the same time, I would begin to try to create some structures for financing that encourage the private sector to invest in some of these improvements. And maybe encourage the airlines to think about collaborating to run joint trips that involve both air and rail.

CURWOOD: You outline an ideal view of the future of Amtrak. Looking at what’s going on now on Capital Hill and the financial arrangements that are being made, what do you see down the road these next few months, these next couple of years, for Amtrak?

DITTMAR: In the next few months, I expect that we will continue to see Amtrak lurch along. Next year, with a new Congress and the opportunity to reauthorize the air, rail and highway bills, I think there’s the opportunity to move some legislation forward that provides a stable basis for federal-state partnerships to expand the system. Obviously we need to see, at the same time, a commitment from Amtrak to operating efficiency and transparency. But I’m hopeful if that happens, the logjam in Congress will be overcome, and the opposition of the Office of Management and Budget to Amtrak will be overcome by the clear indication that the public supports it. Seventy-five percent of the people think that we should have high-speed rail in this country, according to a Conference of Mayors poll. So it seems that ought to weigh in with the president, in some way.

CURWOOD: Hank Dittmar is the president and C.E.O. of the Great American Station Foundation, an organization that works to revitalize communities through their railroad stations. Thanks for taking this time with us today.

DITTMAR: Thank you, Steve. It’s great to talk to you.

[MUSIC: John Coltrane, "Blue Train", BLUE TRAIN (Blue Note -1990)]

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Zebra Mussels

CURWOOD: For years biologists have warned that an invasion of non-native zebra mussels threatens fish and plant species throughout the Great Lakes and other inland waters across North America. Now underwater archeologists say zebra mussels are also destroying historic shipwrecks. Brian Mann visited an underwater museum in Lake Champlain and has our story.


MANN: It’s mid-afternoon, and the haze floats over the dark green water as dive master Doug Jones ties his boat to a yellow buoy. Vermont’s green mountains rise in the distance. But my destination this morning lies below the waves: 40 feet down, on the silky bottom, sits the wreck of a ship known as the Burlington Bay Horse Ferry.

JONES: I suggest you do a tour around the wreck. It is possible to duck underneath part of the decking that’s there. Please don’t. It’s very fragile, especially the spokes to the paddle wheels that are sticking out.

MANN: The horse-powered ferry is one of six ships in Lake Champlain’s underwater historic preserve. Sites like this one are sprinkled throughout the country’s big freshwater lakes. From commercial barges to warships, archeologists say these wrecks hold a hidden chapter of our history.

JONES: Good.

MANN: Perched on the dive platform, I go through a final equipment check. I’m sheathed from heat to toe in a wet suit, insulation against the cold water.

JONES: Take a step out.


Divemaster Doug Jones does a last gear check before reporter Brian Mann's descent.

JONES: Now, come on over here and hang onto the buoy.

MANN: Here in Lake Champlain, each wreck has its own buoy and a network of guide ropes to prevent novice divers like myself from bumping against the ship’s fragile timbers.


MANN: After a pause to get my bearings, I slip below the surface. The water is ice-cold and thick with green silt, but soon I reach the bottom, and there it is, the bow of the ship peaking out of the shadows. I glide slowly past the delicate spokes of the paddle wheel and drift above the intricate exposed ribbing of the deck.

SABICK: The horse ferry is the only known example of this type of vessel in North America.

MANN: Back on shore, Chris Sabick is director of conservation at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. He’s built a half-scale model of the ship and its complex gears.


SABICK: There was a vessel type that was fairly widespread during the nineteenth century, but it’s one of those vessel types that has slipped through the cracks of history and just kind of faded away.

MANN: You wouldn’t think that a murky lake bottom would be an ideal place to preserve a wooden treasure, but in fact, Lake Champlain’s chemistry is perfect: the fresh water is cold and calm; the silt actually protects artifacts from bacteria. Some wrecks have rested in lakes for centuries, completely intact. But now that’s changing. Sabick has added a box of tiny brown and white shells to the Maritime Museum’s display. The zebra mussel arrived in the United States in the late 1980s, carried in the ballast tanks of freighters traveling from Europe. Zebra mussels have spread rapidly throughout the Great Lakes, devastating whole ecosystems. They eat by siphoning away the phytoplankton that once supported the food chain. Native fish and plants starve and soon disappear altogether. Zebra mussels also build huge colonies. They’ve clogged intake pipes at power and water treatment plants, and they’ve anchored themselves to the timbers of hundreds of historic wrecks.

SABICK: The enormous weight of hundreds of thousands of these shells on waterlogged wood can obviously cause things to collapse.

MANN: Scientists studying sites like the Burlington Bay Horse Ferry have also found that zebra mussels actually change the water’s protective chemistry.

SABICK: It seems that the micro-environment that exists deep inside the mussel layer or colony attracts a type of bacteria that accelerates the degradation of the iron, and obviously all these shipwrecks are fastened with iron fasteners.

MANN: Over time, Sabick says, these wrecks could literally come apart at the seams.


Back in the water, I draw close to the horse ferry’s bow. Thick layers of zebra mussel shells coat the deck. In places, not an inch of wood is visible. Researchers say they won’t know for several years how much damage has been done here, but, without a way to stop the spread of zebra mussels, scientists fear that underwater museums like this one could be lost forever. For Living on Earth, I’m Brian Mann, in Lake Champlain.


Related link:
Lake Champlain Maritime Museum">

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Health Note/Vitamin E & Prostate Cancer

CURWOOD: Coming up, a surprising risk from antibiotics. First, this environmental health note from Diane Toomey.


TOOMEY: Studies have shown that men who take vitamin E reduce their risk of getting prostate cancer. Now, new research from the University of Rochester may have discovered why. In its early stage prostate cancer must receive androgen hormones, like testosterone, in order to grow. But for that to happen, testosterone has to first latch onto a protein called the androgen receptor. When researchers exposed human prostate cancer cells to vitamin E, they found the supplement blocked the formation of this crucial receptor. They believe that interference is why the PSA levels in these cells plummeted as much as 90 percent. PSA protein levels indicate the degree of cancer growth. Current prostate cancer drugs either stop the production of testosterone or block the hormone from binding to its receptor, so this new research offers the possibility of attacking prostate cancer in another way. The researchers say the study is promising, but, until more work is done with people, they can’t recommend that every man take vitamin E to prevent the disease. The scientists also cautioned that not all types of vitamin E produce the dramatic results. The most effective form of the supplement, they found, is vitamin E succinate, also known as alpha-tocopheryl succinate. That’s this week’s health update. I’m Diane Toomey.

CURWOOD: And you’re listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Pell Mell, "Interloper", STAR CITY (Matador - 1997)]

Related link:
Press Release on the research from the University of Rochester">

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Almanac/Snail Showers

CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. Getting caught unprepared in a summer storm can be inconvenient, but for residents of Redruth, England, back in 1886, forgetting an umbrella may have had painful, and slimy, consequences. One hundred and sixteen years ago this week, a violent thunderstorm darkened the sky above this Cornish town and rained snails down upon the countryside. Impossible, you say? Well, although rare, this sort of occurrence is not unique. Frogs, toads, snakes, fish, and even turtles trapped in ice have fallen from the heavens. All that’s required is the right combination of storm and unlucky projectile. Massive updrafts within tornadoes and thunderstorms can measure over 100 miles per hour, and that’s enough to haul even an adult human being into the vortex. When the storm passes over a pond, a stream – anyplace really – loose objects can be sucked up into the air. These missiles can remain airborne for some time. That was the case seven years ago in Moberly, Missouri. A whirling twister rolled through downtown and lifted cans of soda from the Double Cola bottling plant. The storm eventually dropped the cans, 150 miles north, near Keokuk, Iowa. These types of gales probably pick up many different sorts of items in their path, but scientists suspect that objects weighing about the same, such as soda cans or snails, are dropped at the same time, and that’s what people notice. So the next time someone says it’s raining cats and dogs, duck! And for this week, that’s the Living on Earth Almanac.

[MUSIC: Harold Arlen & Herbert Stothart, "Cyclone", The Wizard of Oz, (TCM-RHINO 1995)]

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Antibiotics & Plants

CURWOOD: Emerging research is now showing that antibiotics are apparently toxic to some plants, including valuable crops. Much if not most of antibiotics given to livestock in feed and as medicine gets excreted. Often this manure is used to fertilize crops. Humans also take antibiotics as drugs and much of that can wind up in sewage sludge. Janet Raloff is senior editor at Science News and she joins me now. Janet, while scientists have looked at the effects of environmental antibiotics on wildlife, the effects on plants have been mostly ignored until recently. Tell us, what are some of the results?

RALOFF: Well, generally, with fairly high concentrations of antibiotics, but not beyond what could occur, you’re getting stunting of plants, and in some cases, they just die.

CURWOOD: Well, what does this all mean, now?

RALOFF: For a farmer, it can mean reduction in yields and therefore income. In addition, there’s always the risk that even if it doesn’t hurt a plant so that you can see the effects, these plants may be pulling out the antibiotics and holding them, so that if it’s something you eat, you may be bringing these antibiotics to the dinner table, and that’s definitely not something you’d want to do.

CURWOOD: What plants are these antibiotics showing up in?

RALOFF: There hasn’t been a real comprehensive survey, but so far they’ve seen them in pinto beans and peas, soybeans and millet, corn barley, some water fern, and at least three weeds.

CURWOOD: How likely is it that farmers are already seeing the impact of antibiotics on their crops?

RALOFF: It’s really too early to tell. It’s certainly possible. But because nobody is measuring the levels of antibiotics in the manure and sewage sludge that’s being applied to fields, nobody knows who’s vulnerable. The kinds of impacts you would expect, at the concentrations typically found where they are observed in manure or sludge, would probably lead to a subtle loss of yield. And in that case, it might be easily missed for the kinds of variation from year to year that you would see from weather or climate change, or even whether pests were hitting you this year.

(Photo: Diana Aga, SUNY-Buffalo)

CURWOOD: Two years ago, I bought some bags of cow manure to put on a flower bed with some pansies and some other annuals I was growing in there. And nothing happened. It was like I hadn’t put any fertilizer in there at all, and I wonder if it’s related to this.

RALOFF: Well, interestingly, there’s a group of agricultural researchers in Western Canada that made a similar observation not too many years ago. At the time they were trying to measure the impact of manure, how much was beneficial. If two pounds per unit was good, was four pounds better? And they actually found out that the more they added the worse the plants grew. They didn’t know what to make of it at the time. When I asked them about antibiotics as a possible factor there, they said they never thought of it back then, but it’s definitely a distinct possibility.

CURWOOD: How big a problem could this be, Janet?

RALOFF: Well, it could be a reduction of, you know, ten to fifteen percent in the yields of a particular farmer’s crops, and that’s money that’s lost income for the year. In addition, there’s always the situation where you may be bringing this stuff to the dinner table, and that’s not exactly what you’d want to be feeding your kids. It can contribute to antibiotic resistance, meaning drugs won’t work so well in people who are eating these things. Overall, at this point, it’s really early stages of the research. Who knows how many plants are affected and at what concentrations, and, actually how much of it is actually being delivered onto fields. Nobody’s making those measurements, yet.

CURWOOD: If someone were to discover that this was a problem, what would be some of the ways to deal with it?

RALOFF: Preliminary research suggests that there’s a couple of strategies farmers might want to take, at least from the manure angle, and that’s that, if you can make sure that the manure gets mixed around with lots of oxygen, it tends to encourage the growth of bacteria that will break down these drugs. In addition, sunlight might do the same thing – there’s some preliminary work that suggests you can cut the drug content in manure by half if you have this manure out in sunlight and turned around a lot. And, there’s also it can be sequestered, the drug just sort of bound to various types of soil, and so you might be able to put some kind of additives with your manure on fields, when you’re putting it in there to basically tie it up and make it not available to plants. From the human end, because we haven’t been talking about that much, but the drugs that you and I take can also end up in the environment the same way. There can be a tailoring of waste treatment processes – basically your sewage treatment plants. You would add a different process that would make sure that it pulls out these drugs. Right now, there’s been no effort to do that.

CURWOOD: Janet Raloff’s story about antibiotics and plants appeared in the June 29th issue of Science News. Thanks Janet for taking this time with us.

RALOFF: You’re welcome, Steve.

[MUSIC: Banco De Gaia, "Drippy", Pi (soundtrack) (Thrive - 1998)]

Related link:
Janet Raloff’s story in Science News">

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Selous Game Reserve

CURWOOD: In the late 1970s, naturalist and author Peter Matthiessen described the Selous game reserve in southern Tanzania as "Africa, the way it used to be." Today, this World Heritage Site is one of the largest strongholds of wild animals left on earth, and it remains mostly untouched and undiscovered. Tom Verde visited the Selous and has this story.

VERDE: The first thing that strikes you as you fly, and fly, and fly over the Selous, is its sheer enormity. At 22,000 square miles, it is by far Africa’s largest game reserve. Denmark could easily fit within its borders. So could Belgium – twice. Lying east of the Great Rift Valley’s frowning rain-soaked mountains, about 90 miles south of the Tanzanian capital of Dar es Salaam, the Selous offers just about everything you could ask for in an African wilderness: rolling savanna, grassy plains, and woodlands, thick with thorny acacia, comically fat boabab trees, and towering borassus palms.

(Photo: Tom Verde)


VERDE: And, of course, wildlife, lots of it – some 36 different species in all, including hippopotamus, impala, wildebeest, Cape buffalo, giraffe, warthog, zebra and lion, not to mention 440 species of birds. A place of extremes, the Selous is also home to some of Tanzania’s last black rhino. While, on the other hand, it sustains Africa’s largest populations of crocodile, wild dog, and elephant. Sooner or later, they all come to drink along the banks of the Ruaha and Rufiji rivers, two pristine waterways that bisect the reserve and empty into the Rufiji delta, one of East Africa’s largest water catchment areas. In short, the place is an ecologist’s dream -- an uninhabited, and largely unexplored, ecosystem. One species you won’t find in abundance here is homo sapiens, and with good reason: one that’s about the size and color of a peppercorn, but with twice as much bite.

(Photo: Tom Verde)

CAREY: The Selous has never been densely populated in its history, because of the tsetse fly. The tsetse fly precludes the possibility of domestic livestock production.

VERDE: Frank Carey is a guide at the Selous safari camp, one of only half a dozen tourist camps operating in the reserve. In addition to the tsetse, which carry bacteria harmful to cattle, goats and other domestic animals, the Selous’ rock hard, black cotton soil, says Carey, is impossible to cultivate – another natural safeguard against human habitation.

CAREY: Look at that big croc.

VERDE: But neither bad roads nor pesky flies kept big game hunters in search of crocodile and other trophies out of the Selous during the early years of the last century, including one Frederick Courtney Selous, an English writer, hunter and naturalist for whom the place is named.

CAREY: In his books he started to regret if he’d shot too much of something. But one must remember in those days that to this type of exploring Englishmen, this was like candy in a store. It seemed inexhaustible.

VERDE: Established as a hunting reserve in 1922, the Selous still attracts hunters, now under stricter government control. Yet their continued presence, ironically, makes it a safer place for wildlife. Half of each substantial hunting fee, as much as $30,000 for a two-week safari, goes right back into the management and conservation of the reserve. Without this money, says Carey, the Selous might well disappear.

CAREY: Tanzania, like a lot of African countries, are poor, they’ve got very small budgets for the administration of national parks and game reserves. There would be very little reason for anyone to want to look after that kind of country, so it becomes a vacuum, which then could be poached out. It would be a no go in no man’s land, where there’d be no administration at all.

VERDE: Hunting takes place in the southern part of the reserve, while here, in the north, along the Hippo-choked banks of the Rufiji, is where you’ll find the Selous’ handful of safari camps.


VERDE: There are far fewer game drives and tourists here compared to northern Tanzania’s more popular destinations like the Serengeti. Access, or, rather, lack of it is one reason. Over the last half century, while northern Tanzanian tourism developed as an adjunct to neighboring Kenya’s popularity, fueled by the likes of Ernest Hemingway, the Selous remained the providence of only the most determined. Before the days of regularly scheduled flights, a fairly recent development by the way, getting to the Selous from Dar es Salaam meant traveling across open country in a four-wheel drive for hours, sometimes days, over roads and bridges that, half the time, were washed out and impassible. All the more reason to take advantage of the preferred method of viewing wildlife in the Selous, a walking safari, in the company of an armed guide.

CAREY: Walking, you’re on the ground, and it puts you in a far richer experience. We can stop, we can pick up dung, we can smell it, we can hear everything. It’s a wonderful feeling.

(Photo: Tom Verde)

VERDE: Getting down and dirty with the ecology of the Selous needn’t always involve close scrutiny of animal dung. The extraordinary complexity of the African bush, Carey demonstrated, is just as evidence in the simple branch of an acacia tree.

CAREY: Now, as you see me manipulating it, ants are coming out.

VERDE: Lots of ‘em, swarming from a cancerous looking growth on the branch, which the tree itself created, as a home for the ants. It also generates sweet tasting sap, as food. The insects do pay for their room and board, by protecting the tree from leaf-hungry herbivores like giraffes. Just how do some of the world’s smallest creatures square off against the tallest?

CAREY: They can sting. Now, if you’ve got them on your hand, it’s not a problem at all. But if you imagine them on the lining of your mouth, they don’t taste nice, and they do sting. So you’ll see a giraffe eating a tree like this, and he’ll take maybe up to five mouthfuls from different branches, and then he’ll move onto the next one, and the ants are running around, and he’s eaten. But he hasn’t eaten a tree to a standstill, so in actual fact there’s been a compromise reached.

VERDE: In 1981, author Peter Matthiessen published Sand Rivers, an account of an extended walking safari through the Selous. He concluded that, for this unique habitat to survive, it must be self-sustaining. With the income from controlled hunting, not to mention the ingenuity of those ants, this unspoiled mass of African wilderness appears safe, at least for the time being. For Living on Earth, I’m Tom Verde, in Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve.

Related link:
United Nations Environment Programme page on the Reserve
Tanzania Tourist Board">

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Eau de Deception

CURWOOD: And you’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth. The gypsy moth has plagued the forests of the northeastern United States by eating the leaves of deciduous trees such as oak and aspen. The descendents of a single pair of gypsy moths can denude millions of square feet of leaves in just two short generations. Authorities usually try to cope with gypsy moths by spraying pesticides. But Indiana is trying insect perfume. Dr. Robert Walz is an entomologist for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. He’s here to explain how they’re using tiny flakes of synthetic moth pheromones. Welcome to Living on Earth.

WALZ: It’s good to be here. Thank you.

CURWOOD: Can you tell me about the pheromone flakes? What are they and how they’ll do the trick in controlling moth population?

WALZ: Well, the pheromone is really a marvelous development – it’s the scent of a female moth, and the race or the kind of gypsy moth that we have here in North America, the females do not fly. And so the way that they connect with their mates, or potential mates, is by sending out a chemical signal that draws the males to them. This is called a pheromone. And this pheromone has been synthesized and placed into a little plastic flake probably no more than a 16th of an inch long or so, and this flake will emit, very slowly, the scent of the female moth. And so, by dispersing this scent throughout a forest is what happens, the males cannot locate the females, and they don’t mate, and, as the song goes, they’re looking for love in all the wrong places.

CURWOOD: Now, how do the pheromone flakes get introduced to the male moth?

WALZ: They’re actually flown over the woodland, by an airplane, and actually released just like you would with a spreader, like a crop duster kind of a plane, and they drop the flakes out and then they stick to the leaves and start working. It’s a technology that works only on the leading edge, or what’s called the front, because the populations of gypsy moths need to be rather low for the pheromone to actually work. If their populations are very high, the males can easily see the females, and once they see the female they don’t need to use the scent anymore as their guide.

CURWOOD: How effective is this pheromone technique? What kind of results do you think you’re getting?

WALZ: Well, as an example that we’ve used in prior years here in the state of Indiana, we had a situation in which we used it over about a 3,000 acre area, and in that particular area we dropped the counts from what were several thousands of moths in that area to a level where we only think we had 6 or 8 moths trapped that following year. So it worked out very well.

CURWOOD: Dr. Robert Walz is an entomologist for Indiana’s Department of Natural Resources in Indianapolis. Thanks for taking this time with me.

WALZ: Well thank you.

[MUSIC: Magnetic Fields, "100,000 Fireflies," WAYWARD BUS/DISTANCT PLASTIC TREES (Merge - 1995)]

Related link:
More information from Indiana’s Department of Natural Resources">

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Business Note/ EV L.A.

CURWOOD: Just ahead, designer genes, as in genetics. First, this environmental business note from Jennifer Chu.


CHU: Los Angeles may be the city of angels, but it’s also a notorious center of air pollution. A good chunk of that comes from the millions of vehicles traveling along the freeways of L.A. every day. But if you’re in town for business or pleasure, there’s an environmentally friendly alternative to putting fossil fuels into the atmosphere. EV Rental is the only electric vehicle rental agency in the country, located at the Los Angeles International Airport. The company started in 1998, and deals exclusively in natural gas, hybrid and electric vehicles. Congress recently gave the agency $2 million to expand its operations. Company officials say the money will be used as down payment to purchase 350 hybrid electric vehicles from Honda and Toyota. That would increase its fleet by more than 100%. EV Rental estimates that since opening it has reduced the amount of vehicle emissions originating from the airport by 25 tons. It has also saved 200,000 gallons of gasoline. So far, L.A. is the company’s major host, but electric vehicle lovers can find branches in Phoenix, Pittsburgh, and Washington, D.C. That’s this week’s business note. I’m Jennifer Chu.

CURWOOD: And you’re listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: The Orange Peels, "Tex", SQUARE (Minty Fresh - 1997)]

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Generation Next: Designer Babies

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Each week, we bring you Living on Earth to help keep you informed. Now it’s your turn to tell us how we can serve you even better. So we’ve set up a survey on our website at www.loe.org where you can give us some feedback and help us plan for the future. Let us know what stories you like, or don’t like, and please tell us what we should more of less of. And what about the internet? How can Living on Earth serve you best over the Web? Just for taking the time to give us this information, we’ll also send you something. Everyone who responds to this survey will automatically get a chance to win a neat little waist pack, generously donated by the outdoor clothing, technical apparel and gear maker Patagonia. And everyone will also receive the Living on Earth list of the top ten household plants that can help keep the air clean in your home and office. So please, go to www.loe.org and tell us what you think about what we do and how we might do it better. That’s www.loe.org. And click on the Living on Earth Poll. Thanks. And now we continue with our series GENERATION NEXT: Re-Making the Human Race. Today, we look at the possibility of creating designer babies. In animal experiments scientists have already developed techniques to change the genetic code in the early stage of an embryo’s life. The resulting offspring has that genetic change in every cell of its body, and its offspring will also have the same changes. It’s called inheritable genetic manipulation. Proponents say that, applied to humans, inheritable genetic manipulation could eliminate the worst genetic diseases and help parents have children with the exact traits they want. But critics say that’s a new form of eugenics that could lead to dangerous attempts to design a master race. Producer Bob Carty reports.

CARTY: Squibnocket Beach is on the southwest corner of Martha’s Vineyard, famous tourist island off the coast of Massachusetts. Today there are some children throwing stones at the waves, a few brave teenagers swimming in the cold water and a retired couple walking on sand dunes. All amidst them, the sounds of the beach. Waves breaking on the shore. Pebbles rattling as the water retreats. Seagulls above, bell buoys out at the point, and everywhere, the wind. Squibnocket Beach would have looked and sounded much like this even 150 years ago, but back then, many of the people on the beach would have heard this: silence. It’s the silence of the deaf. In the middle of the nineteenth century, in the area around Squibnocket Beach, one in every four babies was born deaf. This part of Martha’s Vineyard had the highest national rate of deafness in the country.

NICHOLS: Every family expected to have somebody, whether it be a great aunt or an uncle or a cousin or a sibling, to have a hearing loss.

CARTY: Marci Nichols is a long-term resident of Martha’s Vineyard. Her own daughter was born deaf, possibly because of a peculiar genetic development in the historical settlement of the island. It began 400 years ago, with a group of English immigrants who came from county Kent with a recessive gene for deafness.

NICHOLS: There was one deaf person that came over in the early sixteen hundreds and settled here on the island, and because it was a very isolated, very rural community, they tended to marry cousins. There might be two or three children out of 16 of 17 that would be hearing impaired in a family.

CARTY: For 300 years the deaf people of Martha’s Vineyard had no idea their disability was caused by their genetic code. Today we not only understand that but almost have the tools to change it. Some scientists say that they will soon be able to rid the world of genetic diseases and disabilities. And Gregory Stock believes it should be done. Gregory Stock teaches at U.C.L.A.’s School of Medicine and is the author of a new book called Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future.

STOCK: I think that the most dramatic form of the manipulation of our genetics will be germ line intervention – the word germ line comes from the germination of a seed, and that’s actually going into the first cell of a human embryo and altering the genes. Now, if you go in and make an alteration in the first cell of an embryo, those alterations would be copied into every cell in the adult organism, so it’s possible to avoid the most obvious simple genetic diseases by doing that sort of intervention. That’s a revolutionary development.

CARTY: Germ line manipulation is distinct from other genetic technologies. Genetic screening is commonly used today to identify, and possibly abort, embryos with diseases like Cystic Fibrosis or Tay-Sachs. But screening doesn’t change any genes. Gene therapy treats somatic, or non-reproductive, cells. But germ line manipulation changes all of our cells, including eggs and sperm, so that the changes are passed on to all future generations. Theoretically, that means we could rid the human gene pool of recurring genetic diseases. And if we could wipe diseases and disabilities, why not use the same technology to give our children new abilities – the traits or enhancements we would want them to have. We could gain, for the first time in human existence, the power to direct our own evolution. Gregory Stock says: Why not?

STOCK: There have been some international polls about whether parents would want to enhance their children, either physically or mentally, if they could. And the results have varied from a low of about 25 percent in Japan to as high as 80 percent of parents who say they would, in Thailand and India.

CARTY: Are you talking about parents sort of deciding that they could, what, enhance their children with a Michael Jordan gene for athletics and a David Letterman gene for comedy and a Mother Theresa gene for compassion?

STOCK: Well, I think that these choices would be to choose a child who is much more likely to have certain kinds of personalities and certain kinds of capabilities – to give their child all the best advantages.

LANZA: What you’re seeing here is one of the microscopes and these are the micromanipulators. You actually will have a plate that will have an egg cell in it. An egg is smaller than the tip of a pin.

CARTY: In a research lab in Worcester, Massachusetts, Robert Lanza shows off the tools of the new biotech revolution. Lanza is vice-president of medical and scientific development at a company called Advanced Cell Technology.

LANZA: And these probes actually allow us to suck out the chromosomes and the DNA out of these egg cells.

CARTY: Robert Lanza is at the forefront of controversial research into cloning human embryos for stem cells. And the tools he uses for that could also be used to make germline changes in the human race. But Robert Lanza says he and his company, much as they like to be seen as scientific pioneers, will not do that. But he understands the temptation.

LANZA: We already know how to use gene knockout, for instance, to create twice the body mass, or the muscle mass, in a mouse. By simply knocking out a gene known as myostatin, a mouse or other animals will create twice the muscle mass. So you could easily understand where a parent might say, Okay, if I knock out this gene in my child, that child will now be the greatest athlete on the planet. But the sad thing is, what if that child grows up and wants to play chess? The parent will have made that decision for the child, and so we don’t believe that it’s correct to tamper with the germline.

CARTY: While promoters of germline manipulation trumpet the choice it gives to parents, scientists like Robert Lanza point out how it takes away choice for the child. But that’s just one of the critiques of germline manipulation. There are also questions as to whether it could ever be done safely. Take the experiments done so far in animals. The so-called Arnold Schwarzenegger gene was given to cattle, to make them produce more meat. Unfortunately, they couldn’t stand up. In mice embryos, one extra gene caused the offspring to develop cancer at 40 times the normal rate. And another genetic change in mice produced infertility. But it was only recognized three generations later. The problem is that genes do not act in isolation. If you change one gene, you don’t know what it will do to others. And humans have at least 30,000 genes. As Robert Lanza points out, genes that we think are bad today could prove to be really valuable tomorrow.

LANZA: For instance, there is something known as sickle cell anemia, which people say, oh, this is a horrible disease. But in certain environmental settings, that has an advantage. It has, for instance, a protective effect against malaria. So again, I wouldn’t think that we should pretend to know enough about human evolution to know that eliminating this disease is going to be desirable in the long-term for the survival of the species.

CARTY: Which raises a fundamental question: Are we right to assume that it’s always good and desirable to get rid of genetic diseases or disabilities?


CARTY: A good place to ponder that question is Squibnocket Beach. A hundred and fifty years ago children would have been playing on this beach, just as they are today, but they would not be talking to each other. They would be communicating with their hands. What happened here was deafness was so common it wasn’t considered a handicap. The community made up its own sign language. Everyone learned it, the deaf and the non-deaf. There was signing in the schoolroom, signing in church services, signing at the town hall meeting. According to Marci Nichols, that meant that a genetic disability, deafness, became normal.

NICHOLS: It was just an accepted way of being. It was just some children had blond hair, some children had brown eyes, some children couldn’t hear well. It was an accepted part of the island. It was an abnormal part that was accepted as normal. And I think my daughter’s perfectly normal. Acceptance is a wonderful way of being.

CARTY: But acceptance of disabilities is threatened by new genetic technologies, according to Andy Imparato. Imparato is the executive director of the American Association for People with Disabilities, in Washington, D.C. He argues that germline engineering is rooted in the flawed idea of fixing people with disabilities instead of fixing society’s attitude towards them.

IMPARATO: All of the various genetic interventions start with the proposition that, of course, disability is an anomaly that, once the science is there, we’ll be able to wipe off the face of the earth. And to me, that’s very scary. Many of us are proud to be people with disabilities, aren’t looking for a cure or a fix – it’s not a high priority for us. What we’re looking for is a higher quality of life, with our conditions, and trying to get the society to adapt so that we can get the supports we need to participate fully.

CARTY: The greatest fear for germline manipulation is that it could represent a new kind of eugenics. Eugenics was a notion, born in the late 19th century, that the so-called worst elements of society shouldn’t have children. In the early 20th century it led to laws in the United States that eventually sterilized 60,000 people considered genetically defective. And then there were the frightening eugenic experiments by Nazi Germany, in its quest for a super race. Proponents of germline manipulation say these are exaggerated fears, that there are too many Hollywood plot lines about genetically engineered super warriors. James Watson, the co-discovered of DNA, has said that, if we could make better human beings by knowing how to add genes, why shouldn’t we? And Gregory Stock, of U.C.L.A., argues we should embrace this new technology.

STOCK: The hostility towards these sorts of possibilities is that it’s unnatural, that this is playing God – it’s very much a religious reaction. I would say that, yes, it is like playing God, and we are playing God in all sorts of ways.

CARTY: Is this a new eugenics?

STOCK: This is eugenic, in the sense that is an effort to avoid diseases, to enhance human potentials. But most people are not opposed to that. We already do eugenic things when we abort a child that is going to have Huntington’s disease. It’s when government intervenes and makes larger decisions for people and enforces certain ideas about what is a desirable or undesirable child. And as long as we protect and safeguard our freedoms, then it will not be a problem for us.

ANNAS: To my mind, that misses the point. It’s not that eugenics is public or private, not that it’s state sponsored or corporate sponsored. It’s what it does to humanity.

CARTY: George Annas is a lawyer, and chair of the Department of Health Law, Bioethics and Human Rights at Boston University. George Annas contends that germline engineering will be something only the rich can afford, and that, as wealthy parents in wealthy countries enhance their children, it will create a new class division in society, one with a potential for violence.

ANNAS: We will inevitably then create two classes of people, the gene rich and the gene poor, and I’m pretty certain that’s going to wind up in some kind of genocidal exercise. At some point there’ll be a sufficient number of them to either pose a threat to us or we’ll pose a threat to them, and they will look at us as a sub-species and/or we’ll look at them as a sub-species, different than human and therefore not endowed with human rights, that we can kill, enslave, deport, do all kinds of horrible things with. And I think that one group will kill the other group. And that kind of what I call genetic genocide should be simply unacceptable.

CARTY: Many critics of germline manipulation would like to see the practice banned outright. Among them is Patricia Baird. Baird is a pediatrician and geneticist, and she was the chair of a Canadian royal commission that was recognized internationally as one of the most comprehensive studies on reproductive technologies. Dr. Baird is a woman of science, who, nonetheless, criticizes technologies when they diminish what it means to be human.

BAIRD: I think that is truly frightening, because it could change our species and our societies over the next millennium, in a way that we become products and manufactured, and other people choose our futures for us. If we want to improve children’s lives and how they’ll do, we need to love them, we need to nurture them, we need to have good educational systems, good work place policies. We already know an awful lot about how to do that.

CARTY: Hundreds of years ago, the people of Martha’s Vineyard made a decision about their humanity. They couldn’t do anything about inherited deafness, so they accepted it, and changed the way they communicated with each other. As a result, they made a lot of lives fulfilling, and normal. Today, we may soon have the ability to make other kinds of choices, ones with the promise of repairing and enhancing the human genome, but also with the risk of polluting it. How we make those decisions will, like the decisions made here, also reflect on the character of our humanity. For Living on Earth, I’m Bob Carty, on Martha’s Vineyard.

[MUSIC: LUX, "So La Ra Dsa", WINTER CHILL 2 (Hed Kandi - 2000)]

CURWOOD: And for this week, that’s Living on Earth. Our series continues next month with a look at gene therapy. Scientists believe directing therapy at an individual’s genes can be beneficial, but some worry about the dark side.

WOMAN: I’ve gotten several calls from groups who want to explore the possibility of using genetic engineering to create soldiers who are going to be less affected by toxins like Agent Orange, or using genetic information about people for bio-warfare – in fact, to be able to create an anthrax that hones on to a genetic code, so that you can target certain ethnic groups.

CURWOOD: It’s gene therapy, when our series, Generation Next: Remaking the Human Race continues next month. Before we go, let’s put our ear to the ceiling of a cottage in Norfolk, England. Beetles occupied an exposed oak ceiling beam. Sound recordist Chris Watson set up his microphone in the wee hours of the morning to capture these sounds.

[CHRIS WATSON, "Death Watch Beetle," OUTSIDE THE CIRCLE OF FIRE, (Earth Ear - 2000)]

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Living on Earth is produced by The World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. You can find us at www.loe.org. Our staff includes Cynthia Graber, Maggie Villiger, Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, and Al Avery, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Julie O’Neil, Susan Shepherd and Carly Ferguson. Special thanks to Ernie Silver. Our interns are Jamie McEvoy, Max Morange, and Emma Uwodukunda. Allison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of EarthEar. Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Ingrid Lobet heads our western bureau. Diane Toomey is our science editor. Eileen Bolinsky is our senior editor. And Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

FEMALE ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, for coverage of western issues; the National Science Foundation, supporting environmental education; and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, supporting the Living on Earth Network, Living on Earth’s expanded internet service.

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