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SCIENCE IN THE NEWS - Pressure Rises on Scientific Publishers to Offer 'Open Access' / 2,400-Year-Old Gold Mask Found in Bulgaria / Gene Team Creates 'Marathon Mice' - 2004-08-30


Broadcast: August 31, 2004

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This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS, in VOA Special English. I'm Sarah Long.

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And I'm Bob Doughty. On our program this week: more pressure on publishers over the costs of scientific literature.

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An expert on Chinese history says Genghis Khan could read and write.

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Bulgarian scientists find an ancient gold mask fit for a king.

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And, science and sports meet with "marathon mice."

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Prices for published research on science, medicine and other subjects have been rising. This has been a problem for many libraries, schools and individuals. In Britain, for example, the average price of an academic journal rose fifty-eight percent between nineteen ninety-eight and two thousand three.

Recently, British and American lawmakers have proposed measures toward what is called open access publishing. Researchers would pay to have their studies published. They would also be permitted to keep the right to reprint their own work. And, if a government pays for a study, the findings would be free for the public to read on the Internet.

In Washington, there are proposals from the House Appropriations Committee. The committee said the National Institutes of Health should provide free access to any research it finances. Such access would normally be provided six months after a study has been published in a journal. However, if a scientist used federal money to pay any publication costs, then the research would go on the Internet immediately.

These proposals now go to the Senate. The Science and Technology Committee in the House of Commons made similar recommendations last month to the British government.

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Critics, however, say such changes would decrease the number of journals. They say scientific publications would not have enough money to stay in business.

Crispin Davis heads the publishing company Reed Elsevier in Britain. Mister Davis notes that many publishing companies already offer free access to some materials. But he says this kind of literature currently makes up only about one percent of what is published. As a result, he says he does not believe the “scholar pays” business model will succeed. Critics also say research could be influenced by whoever pays to publish the work, such as drug companies.

But supporters argue that open access publishing will help researchers in developing countries especially. If the proposals become law, supporters say more experts from around the world will be able to influence scientific discovery.

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This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English. I'm Bob Doughty.

A Chinese history expert says he has found new evidence about Genghis Khan, the thirteenth century ruler of Mongolia. Tengus Bayaryn of Inner Mongolia University says the evidence shows that Genghis Khan could both read and write. Historians have widely believed that he could do neither. Genghis Khan was over forty years old before there was a written Mongolian language.

The new evidence is a group of ancient documents. The professor says these include a letter apparently written by Genghis Khan in the year twelve nineteen. The message praises the writings of a Taoist religious leader. And it says the Mongolian ruler will read the writings personally.

Professor Bayaryn says the letter was written in Mongolian and the use of the word "personally" clearly suggests that Genghis Khan could read.

Genghis Khan unified Mongolian tribes to create a fighting force that controlled China and Central Asia. He became the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire. Later, he was declared Genghis Khan, or universal ruler. His territory reached from Asia to present day Europe. He died in twelve twenty-seven.

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Bulgarian scientists have found a solid gold mask in the burial place of a Thracian king from two thousand four hundred years ago. Thrace was an ancient country on the Balkan Peninsula in southeastern Europe.

The research team found the mask near a village east of the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. Georgi Kitov of the Institute of Archaeology and Museum in Sofia says it is the first Thracian mask of solid gold ever found. Professor Kitov says the mask weighs five hundred grams and shows a human face. He says the face may be that of King Seutus the third.

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The Thracians were a tribal people. They lived in parts of what is now Bulgaria, Romania, Macedonia, Turkey and Greece. They lived at the same time as the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations. The Thracians sometimes clashed with these other cultures. The Thracians disappeared as a people almost two thousand years ago. They had no written language.

The researchers who found the gold mask also found a ring nearby. It shows a man rowing a boat in what appears to be an Olympic competition. Professor Kitov had suggested that the discovery should bring good luck to the Bulgarian rowers at the Athens Olympics. Maybe it did. Rowers Ivo Yanakiev and Rumyana Neykova both finished third in their individual events.

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The Olympics closed Sunday after the men’s marathon in Athens. Those athletes ran fast and far. Now imagine if those runners had the strength to go two times as far before getting tired. Scientists have reported progress toward creating such an athlete. But, this athlete would have trouble entering the Olympics.

Ronald Evans of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, led the research. He says his team of genetic scientists created mice that ran for one thousand eight hundred meters on treadmill machines. A group of normal mice ran only nine hundred meters and they stopped after about an hour. The so-called marathon mice kept going for thirty more minutes.

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The scientists made some genetic changes in the mice that involved a protein. The protein is called PPAR-delta. It helps control the burning of fat in the body; it acts as a switch. The scientists treated normal mice with an experimental drug. As a result, the so-called fat switch was always active in the skeletal muscles.

The scientists found that the activated form increased the rate at which the body burns fat. The mice had a lot more of the muscle cells needed for long periods of exercise than normal mice. And Ronald Evans says the muscles also provided resistance to weight gain, even in mice that did not exercise.

The scientists say the PPAR-delta protein is a possible target for drugs to treat diabetes and disorders that result from too much fat in the blood. They say the discovery could also lead to treatments for people who are obese, severely overweight.

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The Public Library of Science published the report in its free online journal PLoS Biology, at publiclibraryofscience -- one word -- dot o-r-g.

There was also a separate report on a study at the University of California, San Diego. Professor Randall Johnson and his team say they increased energy levels in mice by removing a gene. That gene controls how skeletal muscles burn fat when there are changes in oxygen levels in the muscle tissue.

Muscles in mammals normally burn fat through a process that uses oxygen. This process is called aerobic metabolism. But if oxygen levels get low, the muscles begin to burn fat without the use of oxygen. That is called anaerobic metabolism. It provides bursts of power but not long-term energy.

The scientists say the genetic change prevented the mice from creating energy this way. As a result, the animals could run for a much longer period of time. They were also much better swimmers than normal mice.

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But there was a price to pay. After four days of tests, the genetically engineered mice had far more muscle damage than a group of normal mice. The scientists did not know why that happened. Still, they say their work should interest medical researchers seeking treatments for genetic disorders in people.

But discoveries of ways to create super-athletic mice must surely also add to the worries of Olympic officials. The use of performance drugs that are difficult to test for is already a problem. Genetically engineered athletes may be next.

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SCIENCE IN THE NEWS was written by Jill Moss, Nancy Steinbach and Caty Weaver. Cynthia Kirk was our producer. This is Bob Doughty.

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And this is Sarah Long. To send us e-mail, write to special@voanews.com. And join us again next week for more news about science, in Special English, on the Voice of America.

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