Haunted By HIV’s Origins

Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona, is a nice guy—not the sort to seek out international controversy. But last week he found himself deluged with angry e-mails, and the Haitian Embassy and Consulates across the country were fielding hundreds of equally irate phone calls about him. Biology papers don't usually stir up so much fury. But Worobey's latest research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, tracks the spread of HIV and suggests that the most common Western strain first hitchhiked its way to America around 1969 in the body of a single person—a person who almost certainly contracted the disease in Haiti.Worobey says "Haitians are blameless for the spread of HIV. They were simply hit earlier." But a lot of Haitians feel offended anyway. Many of HIV's early victims in the West were Haitian immigrants, a link that led to "an adverse immigration policy in the United States and feelings of persecution and denial,"...

The Search For Solutions

A doctor, a banker, an engineer and a scientist are working separately—and together—to bring lifesaving vaccines to children around the world. How inspired individuals can take on and conquer some of the world's biggest problems.

You, Too, Can Have A Bionic Body

Susan Burke’s left knee was humbling her. At 54, she wanted to hike and whitewater raft through the national parks or, at the very least, to stroll around the block with her husband at night, as she’d always done. Instead, she could barely walk from her desk to her office parking lot without popping an Aleve. Her knee wouldn’t leave her alone. Four years earlier, it had started swelling while she was training for an eight-mile trek through Glacier National Park. “I finally decided, ‘All right, I’ll get it checked’,” she says. “The cartilage had worn down to the point of bone on bone.” Burke’s doctor told her she needed a knee replacement, but that wasn’t what she wanted. It was too drastic, and she thought she was too young.Over the next four years, Burke tried to salvage her knee with arthroscopic surgery, pain meds and lowered expectations for hikes that were “shorter than my usual horizons.” But her knee was still crumbling. Finally, she met a fellow adventurer on a plane who had...

Study: Your Friends Can Make You Fat

The list of reasons a person might pack on too many pounds is already plenty long: genes, hormone disorders, a couch-potato lifestyle, love of cheeseburgers. Thanks to a new study in the New England Journal of Medicine, you can add another culprit to the list: friends.Obesity spreads through social networks, according to the study, so if your friends put on weight, you’re more likely to put on the pounds, too. Your family members or spouse can also influence you; as they get heavier, you’re more likely to gain along with them. But, your friends—even if they don’t live anywhere near you—have the most sway. A close friend’s weight gain can even be downright dangerous.“If your close friend becomes obese in a given time interval, there’s triple the risk that you will follow suit,” says Nicholas Christakis, a coauthor of the study, which was published Wednesday and a professor of medical sociology at Harvard Medical School. “Before you know it you have an obesity epidemic, where we're...

Weird Stuff That Could Save the World

God, as the hymn goes, may have made all things bright and beautiful, but for sheer weirdness first prize should go to a man-made creation instead: aerogel. A solid that's up to 99 percent gas, it is rigid to a light touch, soft to a stronger one, and shatters like glass if it's put under too much pressure too quickly; it's one of the most enigmatic of materials, as well as one of the most versatile.It can withstand the heat of a direct flame; engineers use it for insulation on oil rigs and for warmth in the insoles of hiking boots worn in the coldest temperatures on Earth. NASA uses it to trap comet dust blowing through the universe at six kilometers per second. It even works as casual, sporty jewelry—AeroGem sells a key chain with an aerogel bob on the end, and a pendant "hermetically sealed inside silver-over-titanium end caps for added strength and long-lasting, waterproof durability."The most recent headlines about aerogels, however, don't have anything to do with oil rigs or...

Doctors Debate Over Lyme Disease

There's a debate raging over Lyme disease, although you'd never know it unless you've been paying close attention—because on the surface it sounds like the dullest argument imaginable. Last year, the Infectious Diseases Society of America issued new guidelines saying physicians should treat Lyme with antibiotics for no longer than 30 days. Some docs think that's wrong. It's a seemingly straightforward difference of opinion. So why has the debate dissolved into animosity, with one side suggesting that its opponents have no credibility and the other slinging deeply personal insults on the Web? And why has it now spilled out of medical journals and into the office of a state attorney general? Clearly, something other than ticks is bugging a lot of doctors.Lyme disease—the most common insect-borne ailment in America, with roughly 20,000 cases diagnosed each year and more undetected—is transmitted mostly by a well-known pest, the deer tick. But the real culprit is something even nastier,...

Who's the Smart Sibling?

Ten weeks ago, Bo Cleveland and his wife embarked on a highly unscientific experiment—they gave birth to their first child. For now, Cleveland is too exhausted to even consider having another baby, but eventually, he will. In fact, he's already planned an egalitarian strategy for raising the rest of his family. Little Arthur won't get any extra attention just because he's the firstborn, and, says his father, he probably won't be much smarter than his future siblings, either. It's the sort of thing many parents would say, but it's a bit surprising coming from Cleveland, who studies birth order and IQ at Pennsylvania State University. As he knows too well, a study published recently in the journal Science suggests that firstborns do turn out sharper than their brothers and sisters, no matter how parents try to compensate. Is Cleveland wrong? Is Arthur destined to be the smart sibling just because he had the good luck to be born first?For decades, scientists have been squabbling over...

Joycelyn Elders on the Clash of Politics, Science

On Thursday, President Bush's nominee for surgeon general, Dr. James Holsinger, faced blunt questioning at his Senate confirmation hearing about how he would react if he were pressured to put politics before science. "I would resign," Holsinger said.If history is any indication, he's likely to be tested on that promise. Earlier in the week, three former surgeons general—including Dr. Richard Carmona, the most recent occupant of that august office—testified before Congress that he felt intense political pressure. Carmona, who left office in July, said that the Bush administration had delayed his reports and changed his speeches on controversial issues such as smoking and stem cells. "Anything that doesn't fit into the political appointees' ideological, theological or political agenda is ignored, marginalized or simply buried," he testified. That came as no surprise to Joycelyn Elders, who served as surgeon general from 1993 to 1994 under President Bill Clinton; she was asked to step...

Diabetes: A 'Disease of Poverty'?

Diabetes kills as many as AIDS, and is a big problem in poor countries. Dr. Martin Silink, head of the International Diabetes Federation, spoke with Mary Carmichael. ...

New Study Suggests Firstborns are Smarter

For decades, scientists have been squabbling over the importance of  birth order like siblings fighting over a toy. Some of them say being a first-, middle- or lastborn has significant effects on intelligence. Others say that’s nonsense. The spat goes back at least as far as Alfred Adler, a Freud-era psychologist who argued that firstborns had an edge. Other psychologists found his theory easy to believe—middle and youngest kids already had a bad rap, thanks to everything from primogeniture laws to the prodigal son. When they set out to confirm the birth-order effects Adler had predicted, they found some evidence. Dozens of studies over the next several decades showed small differences in IQ, scholastic aptitude tests and other measures of achievement. So did “anecdata” suggesting that firstborns were more likely to win Nobel Prizes. Now a new study, published today in the journal Science suggests that firstborns do indeed turn out sharper than their brothers and sisters, no matter...

Climate: Get Out Your Handkerchiefs

Daily life in the developed world has depended so much, for so long, on clean water that it is sometimes easy to forget how precious a commodity water is. The average American citizen doesn't have to work for his water; he has only to turn on the tap. But in much of the rest of the world, it isn't that simple. More than a billion people worldwide lack clean water, most of them in developing countries. The least fortunate may devote whole days to finding some.When they fail—and they fail more and more often now that rivers in Africa and Asia are slowly drying up after decades of mismanagement and climate change—they may turn to violence, fighting over the small amount that is left. Water has long been called the ultimate renewable resource. But as Fred Pearce writes in his book "When the Rivers Run Dry," if the world doesn't change, that saying may no longer apply.Like the famines of the '80s, the global water crisis is far more than a straightforward issue of scarcity. Accidents of...

Can States Close the Research Funding Gap?

Last week, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick announced a plan to boost the state budget for life sciences by $1.25 billion. The proposal immediately grabbed attention for its vision of a vast stem-cell bank, the world's largest, which would open up new opportunities for embryonic stem-cell research. It's a reaction, of course, to the federal government's refusal to pay for such work. But amid the excitement over stem cells, another part of Patrick's proposal got overlooked. It, too, addresses a crisis of funding at the federal level, albeit one that has gotten far less press: the stagnating budget of the National Institutes of Health, a problem that is hurting not just stem- cell researchers but biologists at large, particularly young researchers at the most vulnerable points in their careers.The NIH was once flush with money. Its budget doubled between 1998 and 2003 on the strength of enthusiastic support in Congress. Universities responded, hiring faculty and starting ambitious...

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