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Why wine is good for your brain New Sci 9 Jan 99 13

A GLASS and a half of wine a day could help prevent neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. Previous studies have highlighted the antioxidant properties of certain chemicals in wine. Now Alberto Berteill and his colleagues at the Human Anatomy Institute at the University of Milan have found that resveratrol, a chemical produced by vines to fight infection and found in grapes and wine, increases the activity and effectiveness of an important neural enzyme by up to sevenfold. The enzyme, known as Map-kinase, stimulates and regenerates neural cells. The researchers tested resveratrol on human neural cells in laboratory cultures and found that it made them grow small extensions through which they could connect with neighbouring cells. This is a key finding since the contacts between some neural cells are broken in both Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. "By dally reinforcing these contacts, we can prevent neurodegeneration," says Bertelli. The team presented its results at the first International Congress on Health and Wine in Florence last month. Jean-Marc Orgogozo, head of neurology at the University Hospital of Bordeaux, pub lished a paper last year which showed that people who drank moderate amounts of wine daily were less likely to develop neurodegenerative diseases (American Joumal of Epidemiology, vol 148, p 298). Susanna Jacona Salafia, Rome

Cherry aid New Sci 6 Feb 99 8

EATING cherries may relieve pain better than taking an aspirin. People liv- ing in the state of Michigan eat a lot of cherries, their local crop, and some have claimed that eating the fruit improves their gout and arthritis pain. Muraleedharan Nair at Michigan State University in East Lansing suspected that the reddish chemicals called antho- cyanins, found in tart cherries, might be responsible for the effect. His laboratory used standard tests to see whether the compounds inhibited enzymes targeted by painkillers such as aspirin and ibuprofen. He also compared the chemicals' ability to block the dam- aging effects of free radicals, which are by-products of metabolic processes, with those of vitamins. He found that 20 cherries contained between 12 and 25 milligrams of anthocyanins, which were 10 times as potent at blocking inflammatory enzymes as aspirin. Cherry anthocyanins also had antioxidant effects similar to t6ose from vitamins E and C, they report in this month's Joumal of Natural Products. "if a person can consume around twenty cherries, that's enough dosage to act like one or two aspirin a day," says Nair. He hopes to turn the cherry anthocyanins :t into tablet form. Nell Boyce

Breaking the mould New Sci 5 Dec 98 16

Organic farmers can add powerful new tools to their armoury

A BACTERIUM discovered in the roots of Scandinavian crowberry bushes can prevent fungi ruining crops of oats, barley and wheat, according to research unveiled last month in Brighton at the annual meeting of the British Crop Protection Council. Sprayed onto seeds, the bacterium combats many fungal diseases of barley and oats including the two worst maladies, leaf stripe and net blotch, which can cut yields by up to 20 per cent. The bacterial treatment took eight years to develop at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala. It has been approved in Norway, Sweden and Finland, and was used commercially for the first time this year to treat 60 000 hectares of barley in Sweden. Approval for use throughout the European Union is expected next year. "It's the first biological treatment for seeds," says Berndt Gerhardson, head of the team which developed the treatment. Live spores of the bacterium Pseudomonas chlororaphis are grown in a vat, mixed with edible rapeseed oil, and sprayed onto the seeds. "The bacteria are dormant until you plant the seeds," says Gerhardson. "Once in the soil, the bacteria proliferate as the seeds germinate." The bacteria perform as well as chemical fungicides, Gerhardson reports. "There's no difference statistically." Typically, between 98 and 100 per cent of the crops remain healthy. But unlike many chemical fungicides, the bacterial spray and the seeds treated with it are harmless. "You can handle seeds treated with the spray, and even feed it to animals," says Gerhardson, who has since identified the bacteria throughout Europe. "What we're using is already there," Gerhardson says. The spray has even been approved for use by Sweden's organic farmers, he says. Meanwhile, jean-Claude Yvin and his colleagues @t the marine biotechnology company Laboratoires Goemar in St Malo, France, have discovered that a polysaccharide called 0-1,3-glucan, which can be extracted from brown kelp, promises to be effective against a wide range of fungi. Tests by Biotransfer, a company based in Paris, demonstrated that seedlings of wheat, rice, barley and grapes treated with the polysaccharide were resistant to a wide range of fungal diseases. The glucan does not actually attack the fungal pests, according to tests by Bemard Fritig and his colleagues at the French National Institute for Plant Molecular Biology in StrasbourgInstead it primes the natural defences of tobacco, tomato and wheat cells to fight off the fungi. Fritig detected several substances on treated plants that are known to combat fungi, including hydrogen peroxide and protective proteins. This year the glucan made its debut in outdoor trials on wheat fields in the Loire valley. A week after being treated with the glucan spray, researchers deliberately infected the seedlings with Septoria tritici, the fungus that causes speckled leaf blotch. After 45 days, only 10 per cent of the leaf area had been attacked by the fungus. A control crop protected with a commercial fungicide fared no better. "The results were good, and comparable with those of fungicides," says Yvin. Andy Coghlan

Is this the mother of all brain cells? New Sci 16 Jan 99 6

CELLS in the brain that neurologists thought were mere structural supports could turn out to be the key to future treatments for degenerative brain diseases. Scientists in Sweden have shown that ependymal cells do more than simply separate the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord from neural tissue. They may, in fact, contain the brain's reserve of stem cells. Stem cells go on to develop into mature cells, which in the brain include neurons and various types of supporting cells called glia. lt was long believed that only embryonic brains had stem cells, which would mean that unlike bones or blood, adult brains could not regenerate. But in the past few years, scientists have shown that adult brains can also sprout new neurons, suggesting that neural stem cells do exist, though no one knew which cells they were. For Jonas Frisen and his colleagues at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, ependymal cells were the prime suspects. Earlier studies had shown that a gene called nestin is expressed in these cells following spinal cord injuries, in regions of the brain where cells are regenerating, and in the developing embryo. "It's hardly ever expressed in the adult system," says Frisen.

To test their hunch, the researchers took a number of ependymal cells from rats' brains and cultured each one separately. More than 6 per cent of the cultures developed all other major types of brain cell, the hallmark of stem cells (Cell, vol 96, p 25). Why many of the cells did not mature in this way is unclear. Fris6n says it could mean that not all ependymal cells are stem cells. Or perhaps they are all stem cells but only at certain times. Frisen adds that other stem cells might also exist: "I wouldn't be surprised if there were other populations." Scientists hope that someday it might be possible to use a patient's own stem cells to repair damage caused by diseases such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's or strokes. "We are interested in moving in that direction," says Fris6n. The new finding improves the prospects of being able to activate stem cells within the patient's own brain, rather than transplanting them, says Samuel Weiss, a neuroscientist at the University of Calgary. "I've always believed that if you can identify their precise location, you can develop pharmaceuticals to specifically target those cells," he says. Alison Motiuk

Brain gain New Sci 9 Jan 99 11

TO MAKE a brain, you may need to break a few chromosomes. Cutting and pasting DNA is essential for the development of neurons, a new report suggests, and this might account for some of the brain's unique abilities. Enzymes that snip chromosomes into pieces and then glue them back together play a part in th development of immune cells. This ability to reshuffle genetic information gives these cells the potential to make billions of different antibodies and immune cells to fight off an ever-changing array of pathogens. But nobody suspected that these cut-and-paste tools played a role in the development of any other tissue. Fred Alt of the Harvard University Medical School in Boston and his colleagues were studying two of these tools-the genes XRCC4 and Lig IV, which code for proteins that rejoin the severed ends of immune cell chromosomes. As expected, they found that mice lacking either gene had crippled immune systems. But the animals had another problem: they died before birth. "The big question was what was killing them," says Alt. Closer examination revealed that most of their neurons died just after they formed (Cefl, vol 95, p 891). This may mean that as neurons develop, their chromosomes have to be rejoined, presumably having first been snipped apart. "if that is true, this will open up a new field of brain biology," says biologist David Schatz of Yale University in Connecticut. Alt suggests that cutting and pasting could change gene expression, committing a neuron to a specific fate. Schatz speculates that neurons could even shuffle specific genes to somehow store memories directly in the genetic code. But Alt admits there are more prosaic explanations. The DNA of embryonic neurons might be particularly prone to random breaks, and rely on XRCC4 and Lig IV to heal those breaks. To sort that out, Altos group is trying to determine which DNA regions are cut during normal neuronal development. Philip Cohen

Why Life leans to the Left New Sci 12 Decv 98 16

STARLIGHT may have given some building blocks of life their curious "left-handed" bias, say researchers who have watched a similar chemical process at work in the lab. Amino acids, the subunits of proteins, come in two mirror-image forms or enantiomers. But life on Earth only uses one-the left-handed form. Earlier this year, scientists suggested this may be because the young Earth was bathed in starlight that was circularly polarised, with a constantly rotating electric field direction (This Week, 8 August, p 1 1). This kind of light can destroy one enantiomer of an amino acid while leaving the other unscathed. But light can only create a small imbalance of a few per cent in an equal mixture of enantiomers. So how did the molecules of life become so overwhelmingly left-handed? Kenso Soai of the Science University of Tokyo and his colleagues may have shed some light on this. Soai's team took a mixture of compounds containing a small excess of one enantiomer of the amino acid leucine (Journal of the American Chemical Society, vol 120, p 12 157). In the presence of this imbalance, the components of the solution reacted to form a compound called a pyrimidyl alkanol, also with a small excess of one enantiomer. But this molecule then acted as a catalyst in its own formation, and soon almost all the pyrimidyl alkanol in the solution was of this sort. Pyrimidyl alkanois are not biological molecules. "We do not claim that our reaction did occur historically," says Soai. However, he believes the finding adds support to the idea that circularly polarised light created a small bias towards left-handed amino acids, and that chemical reactions later amplified this excess. James Hough of the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield, one of the team who studied circularly polarised starlight, agrees. "Coupled with our recent discovery of large degrees of circularly polarised light in star-forming regions, there would now appear to be mechanisms for producing both the initial enantiomer imbalance and the amplification needed to obtain the imbalances observed in living organisms." Lila Guterman