Scientific American March 2013
Science Agenda: Ready. Aim. Investigate (p. 10)
We don’t need to ban all guns to reduce gun-related deaths, but to keep ourselves safer, we must study how they are used to kill, write the Editors of Scientific American in this month’s Science Agenda column.
In the wake of the massacre in Newtown, Conn., the U.S. is engaged in a fierce debate over how to reduce deaths from firearms without infringing on the rights of law-abiding gun owners. Federally funded gun safety research effectively ended after lawmakers backed by the National Rifle Association of America prohibited the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from funding research that might be used “to advocate or promote gun control.” As part of his executive orders in January, President Barack Obama instructed the CDC to resume studying the causes and prevention of gun violence. He also asked for $10 million to support gun safety research at the CDC, a request that Congress must pass.
The Editors argue that these measures are not enough. “Doctors, scientists and ordinary citizens will have to keep up the pressure to protect research (and researchers) from political meddling,” they conclude.
Forensics: The Government Wants Your DNA (p. 72)
The collection, storage and use of citizens’ DNA by law enforcement agencies could threaten individuals’ civil liberties, Erin Murphy writes in a feature article published in this month’s Scientific American.
Changes in how law enforcement officials and government agencies in the U.S. collect and utilize DNA over time have led to a huge surge in DNA databases not only from convicted criminals but also from individuals who were arrested but had not yet been charged with an offense. The comparison of DNA from crime scenes with individual database profiles is far from perfect, particularly as smaller and smaller quantities of DNA are tested, and the potential for mistaken matches is greater than one might expect, Murphy writes. One of the few studies of DNA comparisons between a crime-scene sample and a database profile uncovered alarming possibilities for error, with significantly divergent reports from 17 experienced analysts examining the results of DNA tests in an actual case.
There are currently no limits in the U.S. on how long DNA samples can be kept or what tests can be carried out on them. The samples have the potential to reveal personal traits about the subjects that cannot be obtained from, say, a fingerprint. They can also open the door more widely to breaches of privacy. Murphy concludes that DNA sampling of those arrested should be limited and warrants required in order to collect DNA evidence. Before expending more resources on DNA databases, she argues, the government must provide assessments of what has been achieved so far by collecting personal genetic profiles.
Plant Biology: The End of Orange Juice (p. 52)
A deadly plant disease, huanglongbing (HLB), has been spreading throughout the U.S.’s citrus groves from Florida to California over the past decade, costing farmers and others billions of dollars. Some worry it may wipe out the American orange juice industry. Although scientists are trying to slow the spread of this disease, there may not be an easy solution, Anna Kuchment writes in a feature article published in this month’s Scientific American.
HLB is caused by bacteria carried in the salivary glands of the Asian citrus psyllid, a gnat-size, invasive insect. As the psyllid feeds on leaves, the bacteria infiltrate the plant’s circulatory system and lead to blockages that disrupt the flow of nutrients from the leaves to the roots. As a result of this bacterial invasion, first detected in the U.S. in 2005, HLB has cost the state of Florida alone $4.54 billion and more than 8,200 jobs.
Scientists are trying various approaches to slow HLB’s spread, including importing wasps from Asia to prey on the psyllids, which has had some success in Florida and California. Yet many think the best long-term solution will be genetic engineering, and scientists have already inserted HLB-resistant genes from spinach plants into citrus trees. Some are now experimenting with genes that would repel the insects, though any genetic modification would require adequate regulatory approval and public acceptance, Kuchment notes, leading to concerns that a solution may not arrive in time to save the citrus industry in the U.S.
The Science of Health: The New Age of Medical Monitoring (p. 33)
Remote monitoring of patients through mobile phones or small sensors can allow physicians to securely track those patients’ welfare and suggest critical interventions when needed. Such data-monitoring systems are improving health care, Maryn McKenna writes in the Science of Health column in this month’s Scientific American, by merging traditional medical record keeping and public health surveillance with data-mining technologies.
In several U.S. cities, including parts of California and Washington State, asthma patients are using inhalers topped with small sensors that wirelessly broadcast when and where they use their device. The collected data contribute to deep and up-to-date reports about individuals and communities that benefit patients, medical researchers, and public health authorities alike. Other similar data-mining technologies would be able to track patients’ heart rates or the spread of the flu. “The challenge for all the new tools, as was the case for the earlier ones,” McKenna writes, “will be persuading people to use them.” Moreover, she notes, such devices, “will probably also need to show that they can keep people out of the hospital or at least delay their need for expensive treatments.”
Forum: What Is Your Question? (p. 12)
Formal education, which is driven by test taking, is increasingly failing to encourage students to ask the kind of questions that lead to informed decisions, Dennis M. Bartels asserts in this month’s Scientific American.
Research has suggested that the skill that distinguishes young adults from children is not the ability to retain facts or apply prior knowledge but instead is a cultivated ability to ask questions.
Bartels argues that schools rarely value the skill of asking good questions. He notes that when it comes to teaching people to ask questions, informal science education encourages good practice. For example, many science centers and museums are specially designed environments for teaching critical thinking skills, perhaps more effectively than schools because informal learning environments tolerate failure better than schools.
People must acquire this skill because society depends on being able to make critical decisions in relation to science and technology, whether it is about their own experimental medical treatment or what to do about global energy needs and demands. Yet Bartels concludes that critical thinking may best be cultivated outside the classroom.
Emerging Diseases: New Threat from Poxviruses (p. 66)
The eradication of smallpox is one of medicine’s greatest success stories, bringing an end to a disease that caused 300 million deaths in the 20th century alone. This achievement may also have had some adverse effects, however, Sonia Shah explains in a feature article published in this month’s Scientific American: there is concern about new threats from other species of poxviruses.
The smallpox vaccine did more than just protect populations from the “speckled monster”; it also provided immunity to other poxviruses, such as cowpox and monkeypox. Yet since its eradication in 1979, there have been no routine vaccination schemes, and the loss of immunity has allowed cases of these related diseases to climb steadily.
For instance, a strain of the monkeypox virus found in the Congo Basin in Africa kills about 10 percent of the people it infects, and there are fears that natural mutations could cause the virus to become even more contagious. Further, the number of cowpox cases in Europe is increasing, especially in people with compromised immune systems, such as cancer patients receiving chemotherapy and people living with HIV. No one is suggesting the campaign to eradicate smallpox was a mistake. Nevertheless, to address emerging concern about other poxviruses, Shah writes, public health officials need to vigilantly monitor of the spread of poxvirus cases in humans and animal hosts.
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