Program 930,
  February 21 , 2006


A. A Longstanding Debate over Ethanol Production Settled?

Narrator: This is Science Today. There's been a longstanding debate over whether or not corn-based ethanol is a good, energy efficient substitute for gasoline. Now, a new University of California , Berkeley analysis of six separate high-profile studies of ethanol attempts to settle this ongoing debate. Dan Kammen of the Energy and Resources Group, led the study.

Kammen: We took the six most prominent models out there, reproduced what they do and standardized it in ways that were based on what is agreed to be the best available data and then looked at the author's findings.

Narrator: Kammen says all findings were pretty consistent, except when it came to the result that ethanol was not positive on the energy balance. Kammen says that result used a value for energy required to make farm equipment that's more than the order magnitude larger than anybody else's.

Kammen: And that result we tracked back to our literature and it's just not substantiated. So, we believe that this report actually settles a debate and that conclusion is that ethanol made from corn offsets gasoline and it does it significantly.

Narrator: For Science Today, I'm Larissa Branin.

B. New Insight into the Process of Memory Foundation

Narrator: This is Science Today. Memory formation is thought to involve a strengthening of the communication between neurons in the hippocampus, a region of the brain known as the memory center. Now, researchers at the University of California , San Francisco have gained further insight into this process. Pamela England, an assistant professor of pharmaceutical chemistry says their study focused on what are called AMPA receptors.

England : We know that those receptors are critical for forming memories and what's critical about them is their movement outside of the synapse, which is the connection point between neurons, moving from outside of the synapse into the synapse.

Narrator: The prevailing view has been that receptors at the synapse are constantly being replaced by stores inside the cell, but England found this is not the case; that the synaptic receptors are pretty stable – lasting about 16 hours before they are replaced.

England : So, hopefully we've just gotten one step closer to understanding memory. We don't know everything, but we made an important correct step in the right direction towards understanding what it is.

Narrator: For Science Today, I'm Larissa Branin.

C. UC Home to Two Newly Funded Air Pollution Centers

Narrator: This is Science Today. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has awarded a 40 million dollar grant to establish five new national air pollution centers to study how particulate matter affects human health. Two of these centers will be located at University of California campuses; one at UCLA and another at the University of California , Davis . Kent Pinkerton is co-director of the San Joaquin Valley Aerosol Health Effects Center in Davis .

Pinkerton: A lot of the research that we would like to do is to look at actual problems that exist in the environment and work at that level and in trying to understand what are the specific components within the environment that might help us to better understand the consequences of inhaling of those particles.

Narrator: At the same time, Pinkerton says they would like to break down those studies and look at a single, chemical compound.

Pinkerton: So that we might be able to look at how that particular component may contribute to the overall health effects that we see in the environment.

Narrator: For Science Today, I'm Larissa Branin.

D. A Model Study Shows Evolution Can Be a Very Rapid Process

Narrator: This is Science Today. People often think of evolution as a very slow and gradual process. But researchers at the University of California , Riverside treated streams in Trinidad as giant test tubes to study the evolution of guppies in real time. Biologist David Reznick explains that they introduced guppies to environments they had not been exposed to before.

Reznick: We did things like measure mortality rates. We could show that if there's a predator, they died at a higher rate. We were also able to show that when there are predators there, the guppies are genetically predisposed to mature when they're younger and to have more babies, which is something that the theory predicted.

Narrator: Reznick says by manipulating the life span of guppies, they were able to show that these traits evolved rapidly.

Reznick: When I proposed this study originally in 1980, very often people would smile wanly and say it sounds like a great idea, we hope you live long enough to see something happen. It turns out that we were getting significant results in as little as four years and they may have actually changed much more quickly than that. So, it's become a model study for showing that evolution can be a very rapid process.

Narrator: For Science Today, I'm Larissa Branin.

E. Looking at Human Bone at a Nanoscale Level

Narrator: This is Science Today. By looking at the properties of human bone at a nanoscale level, researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara have discovered a sort of ‘glue' that holds together protein fibers of bone. Engineer Georg Fantner says the next step is to find out what molecules this glue actually consists of and to understand if there are differences between the amount and quality of these molecules in younger and older patients.

Fantner: That is very important because once we know that, people can start to think about targeting these molecules in this glue with either therapy or nutrition.

Narrator: Fantner says this is particularly important because bone fracture is an enormous health problem.

Fantner: It gets more important every year with the aging population and there are some astonishing facts out there – for instance, it seems that people have a higher chance of dying one year after a hip fracture than one year after a heart attack. It's really a serious thing. We're really hoping that we'll be able to excite other researchers to start to focus and help us to really understand what's going on and try to apply it to therapy.

Narrator: For Science Today, I'm Larissa Branin.






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