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Sold to the highest bidder New Scientist 16 Dec 2000

FOCUS If the world's plant genetic resources fall into private hands, people in the poor South could face famine and starvation

IN THE well-fed surroundings of a Swiss lakeside resort late last month, Mammon reared its ugly head@d the result could be millions more starving in the Third World. With the world's media fixated on the hot air coming from The Hague, events passed unnoticed. But what happened in Switzerland may lead to one of the world's most precious public possessions being sold off piecemeal to the highest bidder. Half a million crop varieties, the genetic foundation of world food production, could be asset-stripped from their guardians-the publicly owned international seed banks that brought the world the Green Revolution and saved billions from starvation. At Neuchitel, near Bern, international talks intended to keep the world's plant resources in common ownership collapsed. Unless they can be revived within the next few months, both the seeds and the scientists who tend them look likely to fall into private hands-the latest victims of the globalisation of property rights unleashed by the World Trade Organization (WTO), egged on by the US and its allies. The debacle could sow the seed of famines to come, says one long-time observer of the negotiations, Patrick Mulvaney of the Intermediate Technology Development Group, a British-based development charity. "This is a real disaster. The bedrock of world food security is now in jeopardy," he says. The meeting was intended to be the culmination of six years of negotiations to produce an lntemational Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. It promised a historic compron-dse between the plant breeders of the industrialised world and farmers from developing countries who have nurtured their traditional strains of crop plants over the generations. It is these crop varieties that contain most of the genetic raw materials from which breeders work. The deal would have guaranteed scientists free access to the seed varieties, while ensuring that a levy on any resulting conunercial breeds gave the farmers some financial return. Supporters of the deal hoped it would also slow the catastrophic disappearance of plant varieties, now estimated to be running at around 2 per cent a year, probably twice the rate at which rainforest species are disappearing. But four nations vetoed the agreement: the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. If this group looks familiar, it's because these same countries last month led the opposition at The Hague to Europe's plans for curtailing greenhouse emissions. Food producfion survives as one of the few major industries not based on a rigid system of patents. Innovation has traditionally taken place on farms and in public research centres rather than private labs. A system of open access to the world's plant resources has persisted, thanks to a global network of 16 international agricultural research centres, ftmded by the World Bank, governments and charities, which have stored and bred seeds for the common good. Today, the centres hold more flian half a million plant varieties. Their collections provided the genetic feedstock for the highyield varieties of staple foods such as rice, wheat and maize that have kept the world fed while its populafion has doubled in the past 35 years. They hold out the promise of new varieties to cope with global warming and the unremitting threats from evolving pests and diseases. The open-access system has relied on a voluntary agreement among nafional govemments-excluding, predictably, the US and a few others. Now this consensus is breaking down. The failure of the Neuchatel talks to create a permanent, legally binding system involving all countries threatens to be the final blow. Soon, cooperation could be replaced by a system of rigid proZ' prietary control of the world's food crops as countries seek to claim ownership of their native seed varieties. Private companies are also scenting big bucks. The research centres, starved of fimds, would have to sell off the "common heritage". Ah-eady some cash-strapped research centres are scaring down plant collections to save money, says Theo van Hintum of the Dutch government's Centre for Genetic Resources in Wageningen, the Netherlands, which recently cut its collection of cabbage varieties from 273 to 54 (New Scientist, 24 June, p 18). Keeping hundreds of varieties alive usually means continuously farming them, and is a costly business. The first assault on the open-access system came from some plant-breeding companies who felt that their right to patent key resources should be paramount. That desire is redoubled now that biotechnology offers the prospect of fuming the genes of humble plants in seed banks across the world into billion-dollar magic bullets. A second assault has come from some developing countries, who see their genetic resources being plundered by Western corporations. These countries, notably the rainforest nations of Brazil, Colombia and Malaysia, "have come to see vast fortunes locked up in biodiversity", says Chve Stannard, assistant secretary of the UN's Conunission for Genetic Resources in Food and Agriculture. They want to claim sovereign rights and to sell their biological resources to the highest bidder. Ironically, a conservation law has encouraged this view. The 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity holds that countries with rich biological resources wifl conserve them better if they can make money out of them. Almost as soon as it was agreed, governments from the Andes to the Hom of Africa began dosing their borders, halting national and international seed exdianges", says Silvio Ribeiro of the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), the only non-goveniment body allowed into last month's talks. Since then, he says, "the bottom has fallen out of scientific exchange of the very stuff that keeps food on the table'. Back in 1993, as the biodiversity convention became law, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization decided to begin talks on replacing the existing voluntary agreement with a legally binding framework on open access to plant varieties. Its aim was to ensure that ownership of major intemational food crops such as wheat, rice and potatoes, plus key crops from poor countries, such as cassava and yams, remained in the public sector. At talks in Tehran in August, a deal appeared to take shape. Biotechnology companies and plant breeders, who had previously stonewalled the process, joined with negotiators from the industrialised countries to back the plam They agreed that in return for continued access to seeds they would help to flmd seed conservation by stumping up a small percentage of royalties from products created using publicly owned seeds. Governments agreed to contribute to the annual $350 milhon seeds conservationfund by channelling money through bodies such as the World Bank The developing countries made concessions too, by agreeing to concede sovereignty over their food plants. As the leader of the African group at the negotiations, Tewolde Debre Egziabher ftom Ethiopia, put it: 'The understanding is crucial for us because it will ensure that nobody can register intellectual property rights on our fanners'crop varieties. It will facilitate continued access to crop varieties the world over.' It seemed hke a great day for pragmatic cooperation. But once the meeting was over, trade officials started saying that the planned levy on products might conflict with the WTO's rules on free trade. In Neuchatel, negotiators desperate for a deal brought in WTO lawyers in the hope that they would explain the rules. But the lawyers merely said that there are no rules until a disputed case is heard before the WT'O courts. T'he US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, rather than the WTO, were seen as responsible for the backtracking on the Tehran deal and the collapse of the talks. According to Mulvaney, "I think govemments such as the US are hiding behind the WTO. Most legal advice is that the Undertaking would not infringe the trade rules." An exasperated European delegate is reported to have muttered: "Those people think a plant is some kind of industrial manufacturing facility. They haven't any idea about the impact they are having on food security." A week later the chairman of the negotiations, Venezuelan ambassador Fernando Gerbasi, pleaded at the FAO in Rome for political leaders to overrule trade officials and broker a deal. Talks are set to resume in February. But already the atmosphere among the seed research centres is profoundly depressed. "It's anybody's guess what will happen," says Ruth Raymond of the Rome-based International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, one of the hubs of the research network. "We might be asked to send all the seeds back to their country of origin. But for most of them there is no single country of origin. The task would be impossible." Jan Barring, a Norwegian negotiator, foresees seed wars between the providers of genetic resources and industries using these resources to create new products. The research centres would end their days locked in endless legal disputes, rather than doing science. The network of public research centres "will gradually shut down", forecasts Ribeiro. "Consumers in the North will notice food prices going up. People in the South wdl face malnutrition." One further result, says Mulvaney, is likely to be a dramatic reduction in the biodiversity of vital crops as research centres close and private companies ratio@ their assets. One straw in the wind came earlier this year, when the world's largest vegetable seed company, Seminis, removed some 2000 seed varieties from its catalogue, a quarter of the total, as part of a 'global restructuring and optimisation plan". "The upshot of failure in the talks would be enormous," says Stannard. "World food security would be seriously damaged.' And, with world grain harvests falling for the past two years, the wolves are ah-eady at the door. Fred Pearce

Lung repair kit Stem cells can be transformed into patches for diseased lungs New Scientist 16 Dec 2000

PEOPLE whose lungs are damaged by dis eases such as emphysema may one day have their lungs patched up with replace ment tissue. Researchers in London said last week that they had for the first time created lung cells out of mouse embryonic stem cells-a primitive type of cell found in embryos that can become any other cell in the body. Anne Bishop and her colleagues from the Imperial College Centre for Tissue Engi neering in London, took some stem cells from a mouse embryo and left them to grow into clusters known as embryoid bodies. They then continued to grow these clusters in a standard medium which promotes the growth and maintenance of the epithelial cells lining the surface of the lungs. After a few days, the growing cells began to differentiate into specialised types of cells. Some of them looked just like the cells lining the alveoli in the lungs. Bishop told a stem cell meeting at London's Chelsea and Westminster Hospital that studies of the cells' membrane proteins and their gene expression confirmed their resemblance to alveolar cells.

'it might even be possible to grow and replace whole chunks of lung by growing the cells In a three-dimensional matrix'

The team now wants to work out exactly what it was in the growth medium that favoured the development of the alveolar cells. If they can figure out the right conditions, they might be able to persuade all the embryonic stem cells to tum into alveolar cells. Bishop cautions that her results are preliminary. She is preparing a paper for publication. If researchers could grow and develop human stem cells in the same way, they could inject alveolar cells into diseased lungs, where they would replace damaged tissue. Alternatively, doctors might simply inject the relevant growth factors, so that lungs regenerate themselves. Studies in rats suggest that such regeneration is possible. With this kind of approach doctors could treat disorders that affect the alveoli, such as lung fibrosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. In the long term, it might even be possible to grow and replace whole chunks of lung by growing the cells in a three-dimensional matrix. Robin Lovell-Badge, a stem cell researcher at the National Institute for Medical Research in London, says that to his knowledge, lung cells haven't been created from stem cells before, except in whole animals. "It's one case where use.of embryonic stem cells is particularly exciting," he says. Michael Le Page

Weighing the Universe New Scientist 16 Dec 2000

At last we know just how much the cosmos weighs. The answer shows that theories of the Universe's origin are spot on, says cosmologist Jeff Peterson. Trouble is, we still haven't a clue what most of the stuff is made from

HOW do you weigh the Universe? Astronomers have been asking this question for decades, and using every trick they can think of to get at the answer. Frustratingly, the results never added up. Different techniques gave different answers. Now a new cosmic weight-scale has been pressed into service to try to resolve the conundrum. It's the faint afterglow of the big-bang fireball in which the Universe was bom. This glow can still be seen in every part of the sky. Map its structure, the idea goes, and you can work out the cosmic mass. It isn't as easy as it sounds. The structure in this afterglow-the cosmic microwave background (CMB)-is very subtle. What's more, from the surface of the Earth the faint features of the CMB are obscured by the dirty window of our damp, cloudy atmosphere. To get round this, researchers have set up shop in some of the most and deserts on the planet: the Atacama plateau in Chile, for instance, and high on the dry, icy plateau at the South Pole, site of the telescope built by my research team. Others have suspended their telescopes from hehum-filled balloons and floated them high into the stratosphere, above most of the water vapour that causes the problems. This year, all these efforts are finally bearing fruit. Thanks to a flurry of results published in the past 18 months or so, we finally know what the Universe weighs. And the answer is great news for theorists. It tallies with their long-held conviction that the Universe began with a dramatic expansion known as inflation. However, there's bad news too. The new results imply that our Universe is dominated by strange forms of matter that we can't see and don't understand. It was back in 1981 that Alan Guth from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology first proposed that.an episode of energy release that he called "inflation" happened in the first minute or so of the Universe's existence. During inflation, the part of the Universe we can see today swelled by a factor of 1010. Then, so the theory goes, 'the Universe's expansion slowed to a more normal rate. Why propose something that sounds so strange? Well, it solves lots of thorny puzzles in cosmology. In particular, it explains why the Universe seems to be flat, rather than curved. It's hard to picture a threedimensional universe being curved, but space in any dimensions can have positive curvature, like a ball, or negative curvature like a saddle. Whether the Universe is flat or curved depends on what it weighs-or more precisely, on its density. If the density is just right, the Universe will be flat. If it's higher than this critical value, the gravitational pull of the matter forces space to have positive curvature. If it's lower than the critical value, space is negatively curved. And here's the problem cosmologists faced before the inflation idea appeared. If you start off with a perfectly flat universe early on, it stays flat forever. If, on the other hand, space starts off slightly curved, it quickly becomes dramatically more curved. It's almost impossible for a universe to hover close to flatness for any length of time unless it has no curvature at all. Even in 1981, the signs seemed to be that the density of the Universe was at least somewhat close to the critical value. So some process early on must have made the Universe flat. Inflation fits the bill perfectly. It automatically creates a flat Universe because it stretches out any wrinkles in the curvature-just as blowing up a balloon flattens out its surface. Inflation fills space with material whose density has precisely the critical value. So theorists assumed that inflation must have happened and that the Universe must be at its critical density. In their view, all that was left to do was confirm this by observation. The trouble is that for decades opfical observations have thrown up results that fall short of the critical density. In their efforts to inventory all the matter in the Universe, astronomers have mapped the rotafional velocities of galaxies to see how much matter was holding them together. They have also looked at clusters of galaxies, and even measured how light is bent by gravity as it passes massive objects on its way to Earth. Over and again, they measured a density that was close to, but still c
rucially shy of, the critical value. There seemed to be only 30 per cent of the expected matter out there. That's where the microwave background comes in. Imprinted upon it are the frozen images of a time when the Universe rang with vibrations. These vibrations are the key to weighing the Universe. A hundred thousand years after the start of the big bang, conditions were similar to those inside the Sun today. An almost uniform plasma of electrons and hydrogen and helium ions filled the entire Universe, all bathed in a brilliant glow of light-the blaze of the big bang itself. At this early stage, the free electrons played a key role. They scattered the photons so that they careened from free electron to free electron like a relativistic pinball machine, rendering the Universe opaque. Meanwhile, throughout the Universe matter was gradually gathering around the areas of slightly higher density that were eventually to become the galaxies and clusters that we see in the Universe today. Pulled by gravity, matter fell towards these slightly denser regions. But, bombarded by the scattering photons, it was forced out again. In and out the plasma bounced, never fully collapsing, but never quite pulling out of these gravitational hot spots. The material of the early Universe quivered like a shaken bowl of jelly. Then, 300,000 years after the big bang, the slowly falling temperature of the Universe reached 4500 kelvin. Electrons no longer had enough energy to resist being captured by nuclei. Atoms formed, and because photons had no more free electrons to scatter off, the Universe became transparent. But the photons did not disappear, they simply continued in whatever direction their last scattering sent them. Some of these photons happened to scatter in our direction and we can still detect them today. They make up the CMB and they have been travelling unimpeded towards us for almost 12 billion years. Imprinted on this afterglow should be an image of the compressed and rarefied regions frozen at age 300,000 years, showing up as bright and dim regions on the sky. Measure that pattem, the idea goes, and you leam the density of the Universe. Here's how it works. Different-sized regions had different periods of oscillation-the smaller the region, the faster it oscillated. For instance the largest patches had not even completed their first "bounce" when the Universe became transparent, and the smallest patches had been through several cycles. It's the regions that were exactly halfway through their irst oscillation cycle when the free electrons disappeared that should show up most strongly in the microwave background. "Halfway through a cycle" describes the point at which the material was at its maximum compression, giving the strongest contrast against the sky. Theorists have worked out exactly how big such regions would have been 300,000 years after the big bang. Knowing how the Universe has expanded, they can also work out how big the same regions should appear on the sky today. Here's where the connection with the Universe's weight comes in. Those regions of compression look bigger to us than they would if the Universe were low-density. That's because matter exerts a gravitational pull on light, curving its trajectory. As the microwave background photons travelled towards us, their paths were bent by the matter in the Universe. The more matter there is in the Universe, the more the light paths are bent and the bigger the regions will appear on the sky. So to weigh the Universe, all you have to do is calculate how big those oscillating regions must have been, see how big they actually look in the microwave background, and work out how much matter is needed to create that distortion in the image (see "Good vibrations"). During the 1990s a series of CMB observations began to show that the sky did indeed contain the signature of those ancient wobbles. But for most of the early microwave telescopes, the images were too smeared-out to resolve the individual bright and dim patches. Then in 1998, my telescope at the South Pole called Viper-and the Mobile Anisotropy Telescope in the Atacama Desert each mapped out a few square degrees of sky with much higher resolution. In both sets of results, the half-cycle regions seemed to be present. But the observations covered very little sky and it was hard to tell if the structure they were finding was truly representative. Then in April and May this year results from two balloon-home telescopes, Boomerang and MAXIMA, were reported.

Launched from the McMurdo Station on Ross Island, Antarctica, the Boomerang telescope spent 10 days riding the polar stratospheric vortex in a long arc about the South Pole. By the time it retumed, it had mapped a whopping 400 square degreesaround one per cent of the sky-which is plenty enough to see whether the results are representative. In addition, even though the MAXIMA telescope only had a onenight flight from Palestine, Texas, the team succeeded in mapping 100 square degrees. In the data from each of these two experiments the half-cycle regions stand out strongly (see Graph, p 28). Between them, the two projects have enough data to make an accurate determination of the density of the Universe. (Convert this to a weight by considering the volume of the visible Universe and you get 100 trillion trillion trillion trillion tonnes, give or take a few kilograms.) The measured density of the Universe matches the critical value to within about 6 per cent. It looks as though the balloon projects have nailed it: the Universe is flat, and the theorists and their ideas about inflation seem to be right. So is cosmology now all figured out? Far from it. Our cosmological models are full of gaps. For one thing, there is the discrepancy between the results from optical observers and the microwave background telescopes. It's not necessarily a conflictthey may both be right. The optical observations focus on concentrations of matter such as stars and galaxies. In contrast, the cosmic background reveals the average density not just of matter, but of energy too. Energy exerts a gravitational pun on the paths of CMB photons just as matter does. And the latest idea is that the missing component of the Universe's weight comes from some type of dark energy (New Scientist, 11 April 1998). Still, nobody knows for sure what this energy is, or why it has the value it does. Then there's the problem that optical observers can't explain the nature of all the matter they measure. They know that some of it is just ordinary stuff hke stars and planets. But they also require af least five timqs as much exotic "dark" matter as ordinary matter to explain the way that galaxies rotate, and to explain the fast orbits of galaxies within clusters. Could the Universe really have two mysterious ingredients, dark matter and dark energy? There are also many open issues within inflation theory. Even if current observations point to an inflationary episode in the history of the Universe, they don't tell us how inflation occurred or at what temperature. So far, we don't have a hint as to what sent the big bang booming. Some cosmologists are so dissatisfied with all these mysterious ingredients they prefer to question the laws of gravity. Stacy McGaugh of the University of Maryland has recently shown that we can understand our Universe without the need for exotic dark matter if we accept that gravity might be slightly higher at low accelerations than Newton or Einstein predict. However, even with a modified theory of gravity, McGaugh needs some kind of dark energy to explain the cosmic observations. It looks as though it will be some time yet before the Universe gives up all its secrets.