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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

April 6, 2012

Air Date: April 6, 2012



Genetic and Environmental Links to Autism

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The number of children born with autism is skyrocketing. Now new evidence links the role of genetics to autism. Mark Daly, director of Harvard’s Program in Medical and Population Genetics, has found a genetic mutation that significantly contributes to the disorder. And Irva Hertz-Picciotto, the principal investigator at the center for Childhood Autism Risks from Genetics and the Environment at UC Davis, surveys possible environmental factors. Daly and Hertz-Picciotto speak with host Bruce Gellerman. (07:25)

Honey Bee Colony Collapse Disorder

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New research verifies the link between pesticides and the demise of honey bee hives, also known as bee colony collapse disorder. (03:20)

Note on Emerging Science – Singing Mice / Mary Bates

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It’s springtime and the birds – make that the mice – are singing. As Living on Earth’s Mary Bates reports, researchers have found that male house mice sing complex ultrasonic songs when courting females. (01:50)

Antibiotic Use on the Farm / Jessica Ilyse Kurn

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Eighty percent of antibiotics used in the U.S. are used on livestock to help prevent disease and make them grow large quickly. But some say this low dose, non-medical use of antibiotics in agriculture is causing bacteria to evolve to become resistant and putting human health at risk. As Living on Earth’s Jessica Ilyse Kurn reports, it’s now up to the courts to decide whether to limit the non-therapeutic use of drugs on animals. (07:50)

Tracking Pandemics by Computer / Prachi Patel

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Health officials try to stay a step ahead of viruses and bacteria in order to prevent their spread and the possibility of a pandemic. Scientists at Virginia Tech are now taking things further. They’ve created a computer model that realistically simulates the spread of disease and may be an impo rtant tool when real pandemics happen. From IEEE Spectrum’s “Responding to Disasters: From Prediction to Recovery” special, Prachi Patel has our report. (04:30)

The Poetic Power of Memory / Janice Harrington

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Poet Janice Harrington writes of how we see what’s around us, and the immediacy and intensity of family, in her poem “What There Was.” (03:25)

The Amazon's Last Uncontacted Tribes

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There are as many as 60 uncontacted tribes living in the Amazon rainforest. National Geographic writer Scott Wallace spent three months in the Amazon, looking for signs of native people living there. He talks about his new book “The Unconquered” and tells host Bruce Gellerman about his trek through the forest. (09:45)

Google Street View for the Amazon

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A team from Google recently went to the Amazon to make a "street view" of the forest and river for Google Maps. Karin Tuxen-Bettman is a geo data strategist at Google. She talks with host Bruce Gellerman about taking street view photos in a place with no streets. (05:15)

BirdNote® The Rainwater Basin of Nebraska

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Spring rains bring out the green and help water crops. And in south-central Nebraska, they provide watering grounds for migrating birds. BirdNote®’s Michael Stein has more. (02:05)

Earth Ear

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The desert winds blow through the old rusted hangar in Utah where the Enola Gay, the airplane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, was once housed. (01:20)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Bruce Gellerman
GUESTS: Mark Daly, Irva Hertz-Picciotto, Alex Lu, Scott Wallace, Karin Tuxen-Bettman
REPORTERS: Jessica Ilyse Kurn, Prachi Patel, Janice Harrington, Michael Stein


GELLERMAN: From Public Radio International - it's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Nature and nurture - decoding the genetic and environmental origins of autism.

DALY: Compared to folks in the general population kids with autism had twice as many very severe gene debilitating mutations and these errors could disable that copy of the gene.

HERTZ-PICCIOTTO: I think that most cases of autism have some genetic susceptibility factors but only in combination with environmental factors do you actually get autism.

GELLERMAN: Also: breeding a potential disaster.

MORRIS: The best way to develop a resistant strain is to treat bacteria with low doses of antibiotics. And unfortunately that’s exactly what we’re doing with sub-therapeutic use in farm animals.

GELLERMAN: We'll have those stories and a lot more this week on Living on Earth -
Stick around!


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ANNOUNCER ONE: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.

Genetic and Environmental Links to Autism

Quinn, a boy with autism, and the line of toys he made before falling asleep. (Photo: Wikipedia/ Andwhatsnext)

GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville Massachusetts, it’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. According to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the United States, one child in 88 has autism. The incidence has been rising steadily and rapidly - up 80% in just a decade - baffling researchers who have long believed that genetics play an important role in autism.

But they lacked hard evidence, until now. Three independent studies in the latest edition of Nature for the first time, link genetic mutations to autism. Professor Mark Daly is lead author of one of the studies. He’s Chief of Analytic and Translational Genetics at Massachusetts General Hospital.

DALY: The types of studies now are things that weren't even possible two to three years ago. So they’ve been made possible by remarkable advances in our ability to sequence the human genome. So in this particular case, we sequenced the genomes of kids with autism and their parents, and we were targeting a very specific type of mutation- that is, those that arise spontaneously, and we were able to detect in each of those kids with autism whether or not they had specific mutations.

GELLERMAN: A mutation, basically, a misspelling in the DNA.

DALY: Exactly, exactly. So this basically is all of your three billion letters of DNA are inherited from your parents - occasionally there is a spelling error. And these errors - if they occur in an important protein causing gene - could disable that copy of the gene.

Autism awareness has grown over the past decade. (Photo: FlickrCC/ Lester Public Library)

GELLERMAN: So what did you find specifically?

DALY: So we found that, compared to folks in the general population, kids with autism had about twice as many very severe gene debilitating events. And these are still very rare events - the vast majority of individuals and the majority of kids with autism don’t have these specific mutations, but the fact that there were more of them in the kids with autism allowed us to pinpoint very confidently a small number of genes as genuine risk factors for autism.

GELLERMAN: Autism is considered a spectrum of disorders.

DALY: Yes.

GELLERMAN: What percentage of autism do you think the genes and the mutations that you’ve found do you think are responsible for autism?

DALY: Probably about one percent from these particular genes. So we’ve identified in these studies, three or four genes that have highly confident statistical evidence behind them - these mutations, while they’re very severe - are found only in about one percent of the kids we’ve studied, and, you know, that leads us to extrapolate in a way that’s consistent with previous studies - that there are actually hundreds of genes that contribute to autism risk.

GELLERMAN: Can you test for this genetic mutation?

DALY: There’s not a clinical test that’s been developed yet. I think with some subsequent follow on studies, these tests can ultimately evolve into additional diagnostics.

GELLERMAN: You’re a geneticist…

DALY: Yes.

GELLERMAN: Nature, nurture - when it comes to autism - what percentage do you think is genetic and what percentage is environmental?

DALY: It’s not an easy question to give a single answer to. I think it’s clear that genes by itself do not cause autism in the way that a single gene causes Huntington’s disease or cystic fibrosis. Now it’s hard at this point of our evolution of genetics, since we’ve only discovered a small fraction of the responsible genes, but that doesn't preclude the potential for very, very important environmental factors from also contributing to a large majority of cases. But ultimately both lines of those lines of research - the genetics will be discovering more and more risk factors, the epidemiology will get more confident observations of risk factors - and these two things will then begin to fit together in a much more sensible whole picture.

GELLERMAN: Professor Daly, thank you so much for coming in.

DALY: Hey, it's been a pleasure to be here, Bruce. Thank you.

GELLERMAN: Mark Daly is Chief of Analytic and Translational Genetics at Massachusetts General Hospital. Well, it’s taken decades and billions of dollars to find these first genetic links to autism, but the research only explains a small number of cases. Dr. Irva Hertz-Picciotto is investigating possible environmental causes. She’s principal investigator at the UC Davis Center for Childhood Autism Risks from Genetics and the Environment, or CHARGE. Dr. Hertz-Picciotto says research into autism and the environment needs more attention.

HERTZ-PICCIOTTO: You know, I think people are starting to wake up, that the genetics is not giving us the answers that were promised, and in fact, the money has been around 20-to-one as far as what’s been going to genetics versus the environment, so I think that the small amount of money that’s been invested into investigating environmental factors is starting to really pay off.

Bar chart of the number (per 1,000 U.S. resident children aged 6–17) of children aged 6–17 who were diagnosed with autism and served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). (Wikipedia)

GELLERMAN: So you’re the principal investigator for the study called, CHARGE: the Child Autism Risks from Genetics and the Environment. Which proportion do you think is genetics, and which proportion do you think is environment?

HERTZ-PICCIOTTO: Well, let me put it this way- I think that it’s mostly both. I think that most cases of autism have some genetic susceptibility factors, but that those susceptibility factors are not enough to cause outright autism by themselves. That only in combination with environmental factors do you actually get autism.

GELLERMAN: Well, let's look at some of those environmental factors that you studied in this ten-year-long study that you’ve got - and it’s on-going.

HERTZ-PICCIOTTO: OK! Well, we have a few studies that I think are quite important - one of them was that women who reported that they took their prenatal vitamin supplements before they actually conceived - those women appeared to be at almost a 40 percent reduced risk of having a child who later developed autism.

GELLERMAN: What’s in the vitamins - do you think - that may be preventative here?

HERTZ-PICCIOTTO: Well, it may be the folic acid, which is…the amount that you get from diet is much less from those prenatal supplements. Not the regular multivitamins - these are the specifically prenatal vitamins that have 800 milligrams, and that dose may be what is needed at that time period in development, or at least for some women.

What we also saw in that study was that the risk was modified by either the mother’s or the child’s genes that pertains to the metabolism of folic acid. So if they had a high risk, or inefficient metabolism of the folic acid, then they were at substantially higher risk.

GELLERMAN: So, mother’s prenatal nutrition - what’s another environmental factor you studied?

HERTZ-PICCIOTTO: We looked at exposure to air pollution, and the way that we approached it was we looked at where the homes were - where the mom resided at the time that she was pregnant - and we linked that to the roadway system in California. Then we said where’s the closest freeway to that woman’s house - and if she lived close to a freeway - within three quarters of a mile - there was a higher risk that her child would develop autism.

GELLERMAN: Well, so far we’ve been talking about moms. What about dads? Do they play a role in this risk - that’s maybe not genetic?

HERTZ-PICCIOTTO: Well, there’s belief that dads could play a role, for sure. We looked at the occupations of actually both moms and dads and we did find that exposure to solvents may be associated with a higher risk for autism. So there are a lot of chemicals that potentially have neuro-toxicity - pesticides I will cite, because pesticides are designed to damage the nervous system in lower species.

You know, it might be rats and gophers, or it might be insects. But there is no systematic testing starting in the prenatal gestational period to look at neuro-development. And that’s the question - we don’t have a specific system to study those chemicals that get introduced.

GELLERMAN: Dr. Irva Hertz-Picciotto studies autism and the environment at UC Davis.

Related links:
- New CDC Report on Autism Prevalence
- The UC Davis Center for Childhood Autism Risks from Genetics and the Environment

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[MUSIC: Sonny Sharrock “The Past Adventures of Zydeco Honeycup” from Seize The Rainbow (Enemy Records 1987)]

Honey Bee Colony Collapse Disorder

(Photo: Flickr CC/ xsannyx)

GELLERMAN: Since 2006 there has been a mass die-off of honeybees in the US.
The same thing was seen in Europe going back to the 1990s. And while the die-off has a name: Colony Collapse Disorder, the cause has puzzled scientists.

But there have been clues that one of the world’s most commonly used pesticides plays a role in the destruction of up to 90% of honeybee hives. Alex Lu, a professor of environmental exposure biology at Harvard University conducted a series of field experiments using the popular pesticide Imidacloprid.

Like commercial beekeepers, who feed their colonies with high fructose corn syrup, Professor Lu dosed his experimental hives with corn syrup laced with minute amounts of the pesticide. He says it’s the Imidacloprid ---given over time -- that’s causing Colony Collapse Disorder.

LU: We found that this pesticide called Imidacloprid is capable of collapsing honey bee colonies in a sub-lethal dose manner.

GELLERMAN: So it’s basically the smoking gun?

LU: It is, because the study design we created eliminated other possible risk factors. We found 15 of the 16 pesticide treated hives collapsed while none of the control hives except for one.

GELLERMAN: 94 percent of the experimental colonies fed high fructose corn syrup laced with sub-lethal doses of Imidacloprid over time died. Professor Lu says the onset of Colony Collapse Disorder coincides with the introduction of the pesticide in the US and Europe. He says it’s the chemical residue, found in corn syrup produced using genetically modified plants, that’s killing bees.

Besides corn, Imidacloprid is sprayed on 140 food crops---including potatoes and rice - and it's commonly found in pet flea collars. The US EPA has an ongoing study.
Professor Lu’s results are published in the latest edition of the Bulletin of Insectology.

Related links:
- Lu Final Proof
- Harvard News Release

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[MUSIC: Thievery Corporation “Hong Kong Triad” from Mirror Conspiracy (ESL Music 2000)]

GELLERMAN: Just ahead: here’s a switch: turning to computers to keep us safe from viruses and diseases – keep listening to Living on Earth!

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Herbie Hancock: “I Have A Dream” from the Prisoner (Blue Note Records 1969)]

GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Coming up – too much of a good thing down on the farm can make you sick at home - but first this Note on Emerging Science from Mary Bates.

Note on Emerging Science – Singing Mice

A male and female house mouse greet each other by sniffing. Male mice sing complex ultrasonic courtship songs to attract females. (Photo: Kerstin Thonhauser)


BATES: Listen. It sounds like a twittering bird. But it’s actually a mouse.


BATES: Researchers at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna analyzed the sounds made by male house mice. They found that the males sing complex ultrasonic songs to send messages to females.

The scientists recorded and lowered the pitch of the songs to make them audible to human ears. They then analyzed parameters like duration and frequency. They discovered male house mice courtship songs contain “signatures” that set the singer apart from other males. The songs of siblings were more similar than the songs of unrelated males, so a female mouse can tell if an interested male is related to her, which could help avoid inbreeding.

House mice calls are very different from those of inbred laboratory mice. Male house mice sing songs with more syllables and in higher frequency ranges than their laboratory cousins. This suggests a genetic component to mouse song, just as there is in bird song.

Mouse song might share other characteristics of bird song. In some bird species, the males with the most complex songs attract the most mates. Next, researchers want to test female mice to see what musical flourishes they prefer.
Mice appeared to be simple, squeaky animals, until scientists figured out how to listen to them. It turns out, mice live in a world alive with the sound of music. That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science, I’m Mary Bates.


Related links:
- Sound samples from Holy and Guo (2005), PLoS Biology
- Physiology and Behavior journal abstract
- Journal of Ethology abstract

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Antibiotic Use on the Farm

In industrial agriculture thousands of animals are housed together, and illness spreads easily. That’s why antibiotics are often given prophylactically. (Photo: Wikimedia Creative Commons)

GELLERMAN: Penicillin has saved more lives than any other single drug. The world’s first antibiotic was discovered in 1928, but it wasn’t until the 1940’s, on the battlefields of World War II, that penicillin was first used widely to treat infections.


ANNOUNCER: Gangrene from which millions have perished in past wars has been conquered by the miracle of penicillin. Scientists are manufacturing this wonder drug in enormous quantities to meet the demands of the allied armies on every front.

GELLERMAN: Over the years scientists have created many different antibiotics but it’s been an on-going war between the powerful drugs and bacteria that can evolve and become resistant. And one of the main battlefields today - farms where antibiotics are routinely fed to animals.Living on Earth’s Jessica Ilyse Kurn reports.

KURN: In 1951 the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of antibiotics for use in animals after seeing how effective the drugs were in treating human infections. But by the 1970s, the agency started to worry about bacteria resistance and decided to halt the drugs’ non-medical use.

Penicillin was a wonder drug in the 1940s. (Photo: Wikimedia Creative Commons)

KAR: The more you use antibiotics the more antibiotic resistance is likely to occur. And almost 80% of antibiotics used in U.S. are used on livestock.

KURN: That’s Avinash Kar, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council. In March, Kar won a case in Federal court against the FDA. He charged the agency with failing to enforce their 1977 ban on the non-therapeutic use of penicillin and tetracycline in farm animals.

KAR: We believe that they caved into pressure from industry. And they should have been acting long ago. They say they recognize that this is a risk to human health but we haven’t seen them step forward and put the health of American citizens first.

KURN: Antibiotics are given to farm animals to treat illnesses, much like in humans. But it’s the non-medical uses that the NRDC says are the problem, when farmers put antibiotics in feed and water to keep diseases at bay, and to make the animals grow larger, faster.

KAR: They’re designed to save lives and not fatten pigs and chickens, and yet we’re using more antibiotics on healthy farm animals than on sick people. You’re not treating a disease but basically trying to compensate for crowded and unsanitary conditions.

A beef feedlot in the Texas panhandle. (Photo: Wikimedia Creative Commons)

KURN: On industrial farms, animals can live by the hundreds, often thousands. In such crowded conditions if one chicken gets sick, there’s a high chance illness will spread. So low doses of preventative drugs are given to the entire flock. Glenn Morris is a physician, and the director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida. He says it’s these low doses that are the problem.

MORRIS: The best way to develop a resistant strain is to treat bacteria with low doses of antibiotics; low enough that you aren’t immediately killing the bacterium, but you are providing selective pressure for the appearance of resistant strains. So unfortunately that’s exactly what we’re doing with sub-therapeutic use in farm animals.

KURN: Morris says the numbers of antibiotics in the environment are wreaking havoc for humans. The Infectious Diseases Society of America reports that drug resistant infections kill nearly 100,000 Americans each year and estimates that the financial burden to the healthcare system is as high as 34 billion dollars annually. But the National Pork Producers Council chief veterinarian Liz Wagstrom insists that giving antibiotics to farm animals doesn’t endanger humans. She says the Council has examined the risks.

WAGSTROM: The last risk assessment that was done on penicillin said between zero and one person per century might have disease that would be untreatable or difficult to treat because of penicillin resistance due to use of that compound in animal agriculture.

KURN: Industry officials say the problem is with doctors over-prescribing antibiotics to humans. But according to the FDA, 7 million pounds of antibiotics were given to humans in 2009, while 28 million pounds were sold for use on farm animals that same year. Glenn Morris says this means that physicians find themselves in a war with bacteria, trying to constantly stay one step ahead. And as in most wars, a winner starts to emerge.

MORRIS: What we are seeing as I look back over the last several decades is that antibiotic therapies, which worked just fine 10 years ago, even five years ago, now suddenly we’re having to go to further drug combinations, and some of the older antibiotics that we had stopped using because they had significant side effects, now sometimes they’re the only thing that will work. It’s tougher because your options are more limited.

KURN: Resistant bacteria travel from the farm to the general human population in a variety of ways. One route is through farm workers, but the broader path is through our food. A 2011 study in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, found that nearly half of the meat and poultry in U.S. grocery stores is contaminated with Staph infection, and more than half of those bacteria were multi-drug-resistant. When meat is properly cooked, Staph is usually killed, but there’s still a risk of contamination.

A scanning electron micrograph (SEM) shows methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus bacteria, commonly referred to as MRSA. (Photo: Wikimedia Creative Commons)

Morris says it’s possible to reverse this trend. He gives the European Union as an example, where non-medical uses of antibiotics were limited starting in the early 1990’s and then banned in 2006. Since then, he says, there have been clear improvements in antibiotic resistance in Europe.

MORRIS: What Europe has clearly shown is that you can still raise chickens just fine, or pigs, or cattle, without the growth enhancers. There are data suggesting that you do have to be a little more careful in the way you raise animals. Using antibiotics gives you the ability to crowd animals together a little bit more and to have practices in your animal agriculture, which may not be quite as sanitary.

KURN: But others argue when Europe pulled the plug on the non-medical uses of antibiotics on animals, there were unintended consequences. In Denmark, the hogs got sick and the use of medicinal antibiotics increased. Scott Hurd is a professor of veterinary medicine at Iowa State University and the former Deputy Undersecretary of Food Safety at the USDA. He’s looked carefully into what happened in Denmark.

HURD: What was interesting, and I think surprising, was that the amount of product used to treat sick pigs actually doubled after the ban. What that tells me is those preventative uses were indeed important.

KURN: Preventative medicine is important to animals says Hurd—so important their use outweighs potential resistance. And supporters of prophylactic use of drugs, including Liz Wagstrom from the National Pork Producers Council, say without antibiotics it will be harder and more costly to raise animals.

WAGSTROM: What we would end up with is more sick pigs, less efficient growth. We’d likely contribute to a higher cost of food. So I think as the pork industry, without this idea that we’re going to improve public health, it makes having more sick pigs and a higher cost of production a difficult concept to handle.

KURN: The Natural Resources Defense Council won their suit against penicillin and tetracycline, and the FDA is deciding whether to appeal the court’s ruling. But as farmers turn to other antibiotics, the NRDC is not far behind in filing additional suits. In a second brief, the organization has asked the FDA to limit all non-therapeutic drugs on animals. A ruling is expected in the next few weeks. For Living on Earth, I’m Jessica Ilyse Kurn.

Related links:
NRDC legal blogger Avinash Kar on his case against the FDA
- Dr. Glenn Morris, Emerging Pathogens Institute, FSU
- Food Risk Modeling and Policy Lab at Iowa State University
- National Pork Producers Council

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Tracking Pandemics by Computer

(Photo: FlickrCC/ Hitthatswitch)

GELLERMAN: Scientists now have a new weapon in the on-going war between evolving bacteria and antibiotic drugs - it’s virtual reality. In computer games, the simulated environments put you in the midst of imaginary worlds. At Virginia Tech, researchers have created a computer model to help health officials tackle pandemics in the real world.

Reporter Prachi Patel toured the place where virtual reality and real threat meet, and has our story as part of the the IEEE Spectrum program “Responding to Disasters: From Prediction to Recovery”.

PATEL: In 1976, a swine flu virus infected military recruits in Fort Dix, New Jersey. One man died, but the bug never spread beyond the base. It just disappeared on its own. Fast-forward 33 years.

[CLIP FROM RADIO/TV ON SWINE FLU: The World Health Organization has declared a swine flu pandemic as the disease continues to spread around the world.]

PATEL: The 2009 H1N1 virus was completely different. It tore around the globe, infecting 61 million people, and killing 12,000. Viruses and bacteria are notoriously hard to predict. So how do you tackle a pandemic? Well, one way to understand how a disease could spread is to computerize the situation, and see what happens with an artificial population. During the 2009 H1N1 outbreak, U.S. health officials used a computer model built by researchers at Virginia Tech. The model is called EpiSimdemics. Think of it as an artificial America, built inside a supercomputer. Christopher Barrett is one of the project’s leaders.

BARRETT: EpiSimdemics provides a way to generate a real-world social network from detailed modeling of individual activities and you can spread a disease over those individuals that are interacting in that network.

PATEL: First, the researchers built a synthetic population. They used census data to mimic the real population of, say, Chicago, or all of America. Next, they assigned daily activities to each artificial person, again, based on actual social surveys. Then they added models of people’s movements.

BARRETT: So if they were going to drive, for example, you might need models of traffic - detailed traffic - with every individual in a vehicle or in a bus or something so that you can figure out where they are, who they’re next to.

PATEL: What they end up with is a very large real-world social network that changes with time. Finally, they incorporated models of various diseases such as the common flu, swine flu and HIV, based on how they spread and how infectious they are. Now, you can introduce a few infected individuals and see how a disease spreads.

MARATHE: The part that is also innovative in these class of models is a representation of behaviors and how individuals react in face of diseases.

PATEL: Computer scientist Madhav Marathe helped create EpiSimdemics. He points out a key innovation: its adaptiveness to human behavior.

MARATHE: The individual behaviors, the disease and the social contact network all change in response to each other. For instance, I decide not to go to work, or I decide to get antivirals, or decide not to send my child to work. This in effect changes how the disease continues to move on the fabric of the social contact network that has just been changed.

PATEL: Of course, the simulation can’t tell exactly what’s going to happen in a pandemic. But public health officials can tweak the model, say, introduce a school closure or make a vaccine available, and see how it affects things. That gives them a good overall understanding of what can happen and what can go wrong. In 2009, for instance, EpiSimdemics helped government agencies plan a counter-attack.

MARATHE: The question that we were posed, along with other groups, was - if you’re given this small quota of vaccines, how do you decide whom to vaccinate? And remember that the decision has to be done under the following different criteria: how many people do you save, how much control you can achieve from the disease, what’s the potential economic impact, how can you save critical workers so the society can keep functioning and so on, and so forth.

PATEL: Different decisions, of course, might have led to different outcomes. In the end, computer models like these might not stop a disease in its tracks, but they can certainly help save lives. For Living on Earth, this is Prachi Patel.

GELLERMAN: Our story is part of the IEEE Spectrum, National Science Foundation program “Responding to Disasters, from Prediction to Recovery.” For more information, go to our website - LOE dot org.

Related links:
- Virginia Tech Network Dynamics and Simulation Science Laboratory
- IEEE Spectrum story on the H1N1 mapping work at Virginia Tech

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[MUSIC: Jenny Scheinman “Ali Farka Touche” from Mischief and Mayhem (Jenny Scheinman Music 2012)]

The Poetic Power of Memory

Janice Harrington (Photo:Rachel Eliza Griffithe)

GELLERMAN: The month of April is many things. Poet T.S. Eliot termed it the cruelest month, and, it is after all tax time, but in April we also celebrate Earth Day - that would be on the 22nd - and Poetry Month. To mark both planet and poetry during April, we have a series of offerings. Here’s our first.

HARRINGTON: I'm Janice Harrington. Something that I heard many years ago, which struck me, was someone who said: we never see a tree. You might see an oak, you might see a willow, but no one has seen a tree. And it made me realize how I go through a day looking at things as classes of objects, rather than as specific entities.

And there’s another marvelous saying from the Luba people of Africa: it’s a grave offense to them if you do not greet them when you see them, because to do so is to say that they are ghost. And so when I go through the world, or in my writing, I’m trying to greet what’s around me - through that specificity, through their name so that they exist. And if they exist, if nature exists, I exist.

What There Was:
Pine, catalpa, pin oak, persimmon,
but not tree.

Hummingbird, hoot owl, martin, crow,
but not bird.

Cannas, honeysuckle, cockscomb, rose,
but not flower.

Wood smoke, corn, dust, outhouse,
but not stench.

A spider spinning in a rain barrel,
the silver dipper by the back porch,
tadpoles shimmying against a concrete bank,
but not silence.

A cotton row, a bucket lowered into a well,
a red dirt road, a winging crow,
but not distance.

A rooster crowing, cows lowing in the evening,
wasps humming beneath the eves, hounds
baying, hot grease, but not music.

My mother running away at fifteen,
my grandmother lifting a truck to save a life,
an uncle at Pearl Harbor, Webster sitting at the back of the bus when he looked as white as they did, but not stories.

The entrails of a slaughtered sow, the child born
with a goat’s face, the cousin laid on a railroad
track, the fire that burned it all - but not death.

This poem, a snuff tin sated with the hair
of all our dead - my mother’s nighttime talks
with her dead father, my great-grandmother’s
clothes passed down, passed down, but not memory.

Related links:
- Janice Harrington's Website
- Even the Hollow My Body Made Is Gone (poetry) . BOA Editions, 2007.

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GELLERMAN: Janice Harrington teaches creative writing at the University of Illinois –her poem: "What there was" is from her book: "Even the Hollow My Body Made Is Gone", by BOA editions.

[MUSIC: “The Bloom Is On” from Floratone II (Savoy Jazz 2012)]

GELLERMAN: Coming up – two very different journeys into the Amazon jungle - one filled with poisonous snakes and blood-thirsty ants in order to document a remote tribe; the other – easy breezy - a new virtual voyage through the rainforest. Stay tuned to Living on Earth!

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the Grantham Foundation for the protection of the environment, supporting strategic communication and collaboration in solving the world’s pressing environmental problems. The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and Gillman Ordway for coverage of conservation and environmental change. This is Living on Earth on Public Radio International.

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: “I Have A Dream” from The Big Push (High Note Records 2006)]

The Amazon's Last Uncontacted Tribes

Scott Wallace interviews Sydney Possuelo in the midst of the trek. (Photo: © Scott Wallace)

GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. The Amazon is the world’s largest and biologically richest rainforest. It covers an area nearly the size of the continental United States and spans nine South American countries. The tropical climate is wet and warm, and the land is laced with hundreds of rivers – fast and deep. The combination creates an ecosystem unlike any other. The Amazon region is home to more than two and a half million species of insects, tens of thousands of plants and animals - many found nowhere else. It’s a veritable Noah’s ark - for people too.

Archeologists say people have lived in the Amazon for more than 11 thousand years. After the Portuguese conquered the land in the 16th century, many indigenous people died from Old World diseases or were killed by the invaders, but some tribes, deep in the rainforest, remain undiscovered and unconquered.

Matis indigenous scout Kwini Marubo (Photo: © Scott Wallace)

“Unconquered, In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes” is the title of the new book by journalist, Scott Wallace. It's based on his assignment for the National Geographic Society. And, Scott, welcome to Living on Earth.

WALLACE: Thank you very much, it's a real pleasure to be here.

GELLERMAN: I want to begin 100 years ago back in 1910 - you write about the Indian Protection Service that got started in Brazil, and the first motto of the protection service:

WALLACE: Yes: 'die if you must, but never kill'. The Indian Protection Service in Brazil was founded by Colonel Cândido Rondon - the motto was… kind of encapsulated the spirit of the Protection Service, which was the people that we are in charge of protecting should never die on our watch.

GELLERMAN: But there was a long history of the Portuguese and other explorers coming into the Amazon and essentially exterminating the tribes.

WALLACE: Yes, and Rondon really was a departure from that tradition, he led the policy in a new direction from plunder and exploitation and annihilation to one that really was a humanitarian effort.

GELLERMAN: Let’s fast forward in your book - it started about ten years ago - you get a call, a last minute call, from National Geographic saying: Hey, can you pack up your gear and go to the Amazon?

WALLACE: That’s exactly right. They wanted, actually National Geographic was interested in doing a profile of Sydney Possuelo, who is the main character of my book and the leader of this expedition I joined. And they wanted a profile of Possuelo because he had actually taken Rondon’s policy which was, you know, go to the deep bush to contact the Indians to save them - to saving these last uncontacted tribes without contacting them. And Possuelo was about to embark on an open-ended journey into the deep Amazon to track one such uncontacted tribe in order to protect and bolster protections for its lands and their way of life.

Surrounded by Matis scouts, expedition leader Possuelo checks his GPS (Photo: © Scott Wallace)

GELLERMAN: This guy - Sydney Possuelo - what a character he is! He’s got this jungle hat, he wears a speedo swimsuit, flip flops and then he charges into the jungle - he knows every inch of this place.

WALLACE: He is an amazing explorer, but also a tempestuous, brooding, unpredictable, explosive character. Great for literature, not so great to spend three months with in the middle of nowhere ! But indeed he did know what he was doing, where he was taking us and how he was going to get us out of there alive.

GELLERMAN: So, Scott, what’s Sydney Possuelo’s goal on this trip? I mean, if he doesn’t want to contact these people, why go to where they live?

WALLACE: This is part of the fundamental work that the Department of Isolated Indians does, is to try to ascertain the dimensions of the territory that an uncontacted tribe uses. The only way that you can protect an uncontacted tribe and keep them uncontacted is by conserving, preserving the pristine rainforest where those people roam.

GELLERMAN: Why not just leave them the hell alone?

WALLACE: (Laughs.) There is a good case to be made for that, except that the pressure on these lands, throughout the Amazon, is incredibly intense. Everyone wants to get at these territories for the timber, for the oil and gas underneath the soil, for the gold, for the land to clear it for agriculture, and the most effective way of keeping those kinds of intrusions at bay is to prove beyond a doubt that these lands are occupied by indigenous people who have been there since time immemorial.

GELLERMAN: You had a perfectly miserable trip! The narco-traffickers that were in the area, the lumbermen, the miners, the rubber tappers, let alone the snakes, the caiman.

Expedition members built dugout canoes (Photo: © Scott Wallace)

WALLACE: (Laughs.)

GELLERMAN: You’re laughing, but in the book, it’s a horror show!

WALLACE: There are hazards at every step.

GELLERMAN: I was surprised that of all the things, it was the ants that got to you.

WALLACE: It was. They are everywhere and they are nasty. We ended up camping on a number of occasions in areas overrun by ants - those were the only places we could find. Their nests would be high up in the trees, so wherever we slung our hammocks, we’d soon find our hammocks invaded by ants,very nasty, vicious, biting ants. You’d try to cross a log and your hand would be beset by ants - you’d look down and there was like blood streaming down your hand.

GELLERMAN: Scott, I want you to read a passage from your book - it starts on page 85 - it starts with: “I’d been completely onboard.”

WALLACE: "I’d been completely onboard when it came to Possuelo’s quest. But now, I was left wondering - what exactly were we doing here? Five men surrounded by a boundless forest crisscrossed by drug traffickers and head-bashing tribesmen. Another five even further upriver - only static blasting on the two-way radio. If Possuelo was capable of a lapse of judgment when it came to the expedition, what did it say about his larger quest to save Brazilian’s Indians?

Was he, as some critics alleged, attempting to play god with the indigenes, harboring them in a kind of exotic theme park for his own gratification while denying them the benefits of modern life? It was far to early to formulate any kind of authoritative answers - but one things was certain: there was no way Possuelo would attempt any of it without an exceptionally powerful inner voice, some would say ego, that called him to the quest.

GELLERMAN: And you followed this guy - three months - into the jungle!

WALLACE: Yeah, yeah, insanely, but he was the guy to follow.

GELLERMAN: And he brings you out alive.

WALLACE: That was thing - you know, there were several moments every day for quite a while where I wondered if we were going to get out of there alive.

Expedition boats move upriver (Photo: © Scott Wallace)

GELLERMAN: But you did have a magic letter from the National Geographic Society - and you call it the dazzler.

WALLACE: The dazzler is a letter of assignment from the National Geographic Society - it’s meant to impress. It’s got ribbons on it - tri-color ribbons - and a gold seal - it’s meant to impress. It impresses upon any person who happens to read it, the urgency and the import of the bearer’s mission.

GELLERMAN: So, you and Sydney Possuelo and the men head off into the darkest corners of northwest Amazon.

WALLACE: Fast on the Peru border, this is one of the most remote areas in the Amazon - in the world probably - one of the areas of most difficult access - which is where these uncontacted groups whose lands we’re going to explore - the Arrow People - are hiding. That’s how they’ve managed to remain uncontacted into the 21st century is by withdrawing, retreating into these most inaccessible redoubts of the Amazon.

GELLERMAN: Now, they're called the Arrow People because - it's not that they’ve not had any contact - people know that they have these poisonous arrows and these bows - so they have been contacted, yeah?

The Matis scouts led the expedition through the rainforest. (Photo: © Scott Wallace)

WALLACE: We don’t really know. There’s so little known about them - we don’t know their name, we don't know what they call themselves. The Arrow People is the name that others have pinnned on them because of their disposition to use their arrows to repel intrusions into their territory. To that extent there has been contact - one of flying bullets in one direction and flying arrows in the other. But that’s it - there’s never been any peaceful contact.

So we still don't know what language they speak or what ethnicity they are. We just know that they are implacable warriors who resort to using their arrows to defend their forest from intrusions.

GELLERMAN: Yeah, you write: "No one knows about the violence perpetuated against the Indians because it has no echo here; their screams are smothered by the jungle."

WALLACE: That’s right - there are so many uncontacted groups that have been wiped out before their existence was ever documented.

GELLERMAN: So how many uncontacted tribes do you think are out there?

WALLACE: So, all told, maybe somewhere around 40-60 uncontacted groups in the Amazon. And so part of the quest here is to document their existence, hopefully for the purpose of perpetuating their existence.

GELLERMAN: Scott Wallace’s new book is called “The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes.” Well, Scott, thank you very much. It's a terrific book.

WALLACE: Thank you very much. It's been a real pleasure speaking with you.

Related links:
- Scott Wallace's Website
- Unconquered
- Unconquered at Amazon.com

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Google Street View for the Amazon

A screen shot of the Rio Negro in Google Street View (Google)


GELLERMAN: A few years back I traveled through the Amazon, trekking through the forest and traveling by boat along muddy tributaries. It was amazing.And while I didn’t encounter bloodthirsty ants, deadly snakes, or poisonous arrows - I did nearly get eaten alive by some unseen insects.

But for those you who want to experience the vast Amazon rainforest but prefer your adventures from an armchair perspective - pull up a seat, relax, and click on the latest offering from Google Maps. Karin Tuxen-Bettman is a GeoData Strategist at the internet search company and Project Lead for Google Street View in the Amazon. Karin - welcome to Living on Earth.

TUXEN-BETTMAN: Thanks for having me, Bruce.

GELLERMAN: So, how does this work?

TUXEN-BETTMAN: Well, if you go to Google Maps at maps.google.com, and you scroll to the Amazon basin, zoom in to the state of Amazonas, and you can drag the little Street View peg man onto the map - onto the Rio Negro or onto one of the small communities where we collected street view data or one of the forest trails and once you’re there, you can click forward in the panorama, you can click backwards, you can click up, click down, and move all around and explore the forest, explore the river and walk around the five communities that we collected data from.

GELLERMAN: Well, I’m on the site and I’m clicking and I…oh, that cool! I’m at the trail entrance to Amazon Rainforest… whoa, look at that, you can kind of just feel like you’re walking through the rainforest!

TUXEN-BETTMAN: That’s right - you can just click forward, you can double click to move forward in space and to zoom in on a specific tree. You can look up - in one area you can look up and see a swarm of dragonflies flying overhead. And then you can drag the peg man to a completely different area, maybe along the river, and you can float down the river and you can see submerged trees and flooded forests and even one area you can see a little tree frog climbing onto the camera, so there’s quite a lot to see and it’s just stunning imagery, and it really is just like you’re there.

GELLERMAN: So, I feel like I’m walking through the forest - if I click, it feels like I’m walking on the trail - how did you make this photo?

TUXEN-BETTMAN: Well, when we went down to the Amazon in August, we took two different pieces of equipment. The first one was a street view trike - and we mounted the trike on a boat and we floated around and collected imagery with the street view trike mounted on the roof of the boat. And then we also had a Street View trike that we peddled around the communities.

Trail entrance to the Amazon rainforest. (Google)

GELLERMAN: When you say trike, you mean a tricycle!

TUXEN-BETTMAN: That’s right. The Street View trike was created to go places with no roads. But the forest trail we actually used a different equipment - we used a camera on a tripod and the camera had a fisheye lens. And we took photographs in four different directions, and we then stitched those photographs together into a 360 degree panorama.

GELLERMAN: Why did you go in August?

TUXEN-BETTMAN: Why did we go in August - that’s a good question. This entire project was envisioned by our non-profit partner: Amazonas Sustainable Foundation. So they wanted to capture August, which was at kind of a good balance between the wet and dry seasons, and they wanted to be able to go up into the tributaries - the Rio Negro tributaries, so that people could see the flooded forests for themselves.

GELLERMAN: So how could this possibly help the environment and the people in the Amazon?

TUXEN-BETTMAN: The Amazonas Sustainable Foundation sees this project as applying technology to forest conservation and allowing people to see the imagery on Google Maps and Google Earth for themselves so that they can get to know the forest a little bit and understand what they might want to work at conserving.

GELLERMAN: Where does the technology go? How much more can you do?

TUXEN-BETTMAN: Google’s primary goal with Street View is to create a digital mirror of the entire world. And we want to make it so that armchair environmentalists can actually visit these places before and after, and with a mobile phone, possibly during their travels and make getting around easier. Also, understanding different places and the culture and the environment that exists there. And so I think where this technology goes is just further - more places that have invited us to come or more places that might invite us in the future.

GELLERMAN: Well, Karin, thanks so very much.

TUXEN-BETTMAN: Oh, you're so very welcome.

GELLERMAN: Karin Tuxen-Bettman is a Geo Data Strategist at Google. To take their virtual voyage through the Amazon…click on our website L-O-E dot O-R-G.

Related link:
Google Street View of the Amazon

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BirdNote® The Rainwater Basin of Nebraska

Sandhill Cranes (Photo: Nazhiyath Vijayan)


GELLERMAN: Splish, splash, they’re taking a bath. Migrating birds take a quick dip at the watering holes in south-central Nebraska and then they’ll continue to wing it along the Central Flyway. BirdNote®’s Michael Stein has more.


STEIN: For 20,000 years, spring rains and melting snow have filled the playas of the Rainwater Basin of south-central Nebraska. Carved by glacial winds at the end of the last Ice Age, the playas are shallow depressions the warmth of spring fills with abundant life.


STEIN: As winter ends, ten million waterfowl rest and feed here before continuing north.


STEIN: The seasonal wetlands of the Rainwater Basin form a 150-mile-wide funnel for waterbirds migrating from the Gulf Coast and points south to northern breeding grounds. The basin is the narrowest neck of the great migratory route we call the Central Flyway.


STEIN: In recent years, the number of Snow Geese stopping in the region during spring has risen dramatically to more than three million birds. A third of North America’s Northern Pintails rely on the food-rich habitat here.


STEIN: Shorebirds of 27 species use the wetlands. So do half a million Sandhill Cranes.


STEIN: The importance of the region’s wetlands for waterfowl cannot be overstated. Fat reserves acquired during their stay here can mean the difference between success and failure in nesting. No other stopover between wintering and nesting grounds can replace the combination of wetlands and grain fields found in the Rainwater Basin.


STEIN: I’m Michael Stein.

GELLERMAN: And for some photos of the migrating birds in our BirdNote®, hop on over to our website LOE dot org.

Related links:
- Bird sounds provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York.
- BirdNote® The Rainwater Basin of Nebraska was written by Todd Peterson. Check out the BirdNote website.

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[MUSIC: Dapp theory “Bird Calls” from Layers Of Choice (Oblique Sound records 2008)]

Earth Ear

[SOUND OF DESERT WINDS: Scott Smallwood “Rusted Womb Of Bomber” from Desert Winds: Six Windblown Sound Pieces and Other Works (Deep Listening 2002)]

GELLERMAN: We leave you this week in a rusting relic from World War 2.


GELLERMAN: Winds howl through a hangar at Wendover Air Field in Utah’s Great Salt Lake Desert. The windows are smashed, the walls rusted. Once the hangar was home to the Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan. And, by the way, the Enola Gay hangar is now being restored, thanks to a Save America’s Treasures grant from the National Park Service.


GELLERMAN: Scott Smallwood recorded sounds of these fading memories for his CD Desert Winds.

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GELLERMAN: On the next Living on Earth – guar gum - made from a little legume, goes big time:

TROSTLE: You know, every home in the U.S. is going to have guar in some form or fashion, in the pantry, in the refrigerator, up the shelf.

GELLERMAN: And it's also used by the ton in hydraulic fracturing. The guar gum bubble: next time on Living on Earth.

GELLERMAN: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation.Our crew includes Eileen Bolinsky, Ingrid Lobet, Helen Palmer, and Ike Sriskandarajah, with help from Meghan Miner, Gabriela Romanow, and Sammy Sousa. Our interns are Mary Bates and Sophie Golden. Jeff Turton is our technical director. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes.You can find us anytime at LOE dot org, and don’t forget our Facebook page. It’s PRI’s Living on Earth - and you can follow us on Twitter - at living on earth - that’s just one word. Steve Curwood is our executive producer. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Thanks for listening!

ANNOUNCER ONE: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science; and Stonyfield Farm, organic yogurt and smoothies. Stonyfield invites you to just eat organic for a day. Details at justeatorganic dot com. Support also comes from you, our listeners, the Go Forward Fund, and Pax World Mutual and Exchange Traded Funds, integrating environmental, social and governance factors into investment analysis and decision-making. On the web at paxworld dot com. Pax World for Tomorrow.

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