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News Bytes of the Week—Send away for your personal genome

U.N wants U.S. and China to be "more constructive" on environment, babies finger a perp and more…

U.S. and China called out on global warming
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the U.S. and China to play ''a more constructive role'' in combating climate change, punctuating release of this year's fourth and final report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The latest report blends key points of the group's earlier reviews of climate trends, the possibility of adapting to a warmer climate and strategies for cutting carbon emissions. The grim bottom line (for those emerging from recently melted ice caves): Bring carbon dioxide emissions under control within the next few years or face serious consequences, including rising sea levels, reduced agricultural productivity and a global economic downturn. The political subtext: China, the U.S. and other nations are set to meet in two weeks to hash out the global climate treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which is due to expire in 2012. (New York Times)

The $1,000 genome—brought to you by CliffsNotes
Heads up, Christmas shoppers: Icelandic company deCODE Genetics has launched a new service that, for a mere $985, will take your FedExed cheek swab and scan the enclosed DNA for a sprinkling of genetic variations linked with 20 or so diseases, as well as ancestry and physical traits such as eye color (in case you don't have a mirror handy). Not quite ushering in the eagerly awaited era of the $1,000 personal genome, the new service, called deCODEme, will cover less than 0.1 percent of the three billion units of the full genome, which remains a bit too pricey for most people to have sequenced—unless they are geneticist-entrepreneur J. Craig Venter. (See News Bytes of the Week—Popcorn lung leaves the factory.) An era it is, though. Hot on deCODE's heels came the Google-backed 23andMe, which offers a similar service for $999 that would cover 35 percent less of the genome, and a third company, Navigenics, is expected to launch a disease-focused scan. Do we hear $975 and free gift wrapping? (press release, The Economist)

Want to lose baby fat? Sleep on it
New moms beware: If you want to shed those extra pounds you packed on while pregnant, you better get your sleep. A new study shows that women are more likely to lose baby fat if they get over five hours of shut-eye a night. "We've known for some time that sleep deprivation is associated with weight gain and obesity in the general population, but this study shows that getting enough sleep—even just two hours more—may be as important as a healthy diet and exercise for new mothers to return to their prepregnancy weight,'' says Erica Gunderson, an investigator at Kaiser Permanente Divison of Research in Oakland, Calif., and lead author of the study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology. Gunderson and Harvard Medical School researchers found that new moms who snoozed five or fewer hours a night when their infants were six months old were more likely than those who slumbered for seven hours to retain 11 or more pounds a year after giving birth. "With the results of this study, new mothers must be wondering: 'How can I get more sleep for both me and my baby?' '' says Matthew Gillman of Harvard Medical School and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care. "Our team is working on new studies to answer this important question.'' (press release, Houston Chronicle)

Hold the salt
'Tis the season to be jolly … and pig out. But while you're gobbling that turkey feast, you might want to go light on the salt (not to mention, the fat and sugar). The American Medical Association (AMA) and public health advocates are urging the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to require food makers to cut the amount of sodium in their products. Salt intake has been been linked to high blood pressure, which is the the leading cause of heart attacks, stroke and kidney failure. According to the AMA, if the amount of salt dumped in processed and restaurant grub was halved, it could save 155,000 lives annually. "This is truly urgent,'' AMA's Stephen Havas told the Associated Press. "We need to act.'' Government guidelines call for consumers to limit their daily sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams, max. Yet, the average American reportedly consumes between 3,300 and 4,000 milligrams of salt a day. "Reducing the amount of salt in processed foods and restaurant foods is perhaps the single most important thing we could do to reduce blood pressure and the incidence of heart attacks and strokes in this country and around the world,'' Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), said after a recent confab of food industry and health reps designed to help consumers limit their salt intake. "It's something that the food industry and government regulators are taking increasingly seriously.'' The FDA is set to hold a hearing on the issue next week in response to a CSPI petition that asked that it use its authority to keep a lid on sodium levels in the food supply. (BusinessWeek, FOX News)

Fetuses exposed to arsenic suffer genetic damage
A new study shows that prenatal exposure to arsenic in drinking water may cause genetic changes that could lead to cancer or other diseases later on. The findings, published in PLoS Genetics, stem from tests of 32 mothers and their children in a province of Thailand that experienced heavy arsenic contamination from tin mining; similar levels of arsenic are also found in many other regions, including the southwestern U.S. Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers analyzed umbilical cord blood collected at birth and found a group of about 450 genes that had been switched on or off (become more or less active ) in babies exposed to arsenic in the womb compared with unexposed children. "We were looking to see whether we could have figured out that these babies were exposed in utero'' by screening stored blood samples, says Leona Samson, director of M.I.T.'s Center for Environmental Health Sciences. "The answer was a resounding yes.'' The team found that just 11 of these genes could be used to reliably gauge exposure during pregnancy, which could lead to a test for screening in high-risk areas. Most of the genetic changes were linked to inflammation disorders, which can increase cancer risk. It's not clear how long the gene expression changes may last. This is the first time such a response to prenatal arsenic exposure has been found in humans, although mice offspring of moms exposed to arsenic in drinking water while pregnant were found to be more cancer?prone as adults. Researchers say they will study ways to reverse or prevent damage, perhaps through diet, nutritional supplements or drug treatments designed to block the genetic switches. (press release, U.S. News & World Report)

Walk it off —but bring a pedometer
Overeat over the holidays? Take a walk. But it might be a good idea to clip on a pedometer (also known as a step counter) for good measure. A new analysis shows that using the handy-dandy gadget—which you can pick up for anywhere from $5 to $60—encourages people to go an extra mile—literally. "Our results suggest that the use of these small, relatively inexpensive devices is associated with significant increases in physical activity and improvements in some key health outcomes, at least in the short term,'' internist Dena Bravata of Stanford University and her colleagues report in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The researchers sifted through more than two dozen studies (from the U.S., Canada, Japan, Europe and Australia) that include data on 2,767 subjects observed over an average of 18 weeks. The average age of participants was 49 and 85 percent of them were women. The studies show that pedometer users took an additional 2,491 steps (2,000 steps being about a mile), lowering their body mass index as well as their blood pressure. Keeping a diary of steps taken also helped, as did setting a step goal for themselves. (JAMA, New York Times)

Even babies can spot a villain
Nice guys finish last? Not in the eyes of babies. Yale University researchers report in Nature that 28 tots aged 10 to 12 months showed a preference for kind and helpful characters. "This supports the view that our ability to evaluate people is a biological adaptation—universal and unlearned,'' the study authors write. The kids watched a puppet show put on by researchers involving a climber struggling to ascend a mountain. Sometimes the climber would get an assist from a Good Samaritan, other times he would be blocked from reaching the summit by a meanie. When the two supporting characters were placed in front of the children, they overwhelmingly reached for the helpful puppet. When a neutral character was introduced, the infants showed a preference for the helper over the bystander, but opted for the do-nothing bystander over the evil puppet. The findings indicate that the ability to socially evaluate people by their behavior toward others may be a building block for moral reasoning. (Nature News, BBC News)

Lost your sense of self? You can still have a sense of others
It's probably meager consolation, but patients who have lost their ability to remember info about themselves (think the new TV sitcom Samantha Who?, starring Christina Applegate), can still walk a mile or two in someone else's shoes. Canadian and U.K. researchers found that two patients who had lost their autobiographical memory (not to mention the ability to view themselves in future situations—such as dreaming about their wedding day) were able to pick up emotional cues and figure out the intentions of others. In fact, they performed just as well as 14 other study subjects with normal brain function. The volunteers were tasked with decoding information about other people?s emotional state by looking at their faces, listening to stories and observing scenes. Researchers say the findings, published in Science, indicate that episodic memory is not essential for gleaning insight into others, an ability that may be controlled by semantic memory (the memory of facts about people and places). (press release, CBC News)

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