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News Tip


April 17, 2002

For more information on these science news and feature story tips, contact the public information officer listed at (703) 292- 8070. Editor: Josh Chamot

Contents of this News Tip:

Tropical Streams, Rivers 'Exhaling' Millions of Tons More CO2 Than Thought

U.S. and Brazilian researchers say the amount of carbon dioxide rising from streams, rivers and flooded areas of the world's tropical forests is triple that of some currently accepted estimates, meaning such forests are not the carbon sponges some scientists believe.

The new total of 900 million metric tons (about two trillion pounds) of carbon given off globally by tropical-forest waterways is comparable to nearly a fifth of the carbon dioxide generated each year by human activities such as deforestation and burning fossil fuels.

The total matches the amount modelers speculated was missing from tropical forests when they tallied the worldwide movement of carbon, says Jeffrey Richey, a National Science Foundation (NSF)-supported oceanographer at the University of Washington and lead author of the findings published in the April 11 issue of Nature.

The scientists correlated river measurements from 13 NSF and Brazillian government sponsored expeditions to the Amazon in the 1980s and 1990s with radar imagery that NASA recently released.

In global-carbon models, CO2 levels have been lower than researchers expected when they used pre-existing numbers from efforts to directly measure carbon dioxide in the air in, and just above, tropical forests. In contrast, Richey and his colleages found that by adding the contributions from waterways, the amount of carbon dioxide is actually about even; about as much CO2 absorbed as is released by tropical forests.

"The land-water connection appears to be far more important than anyone thought," Richey said. "If you want to know where carbon from today's tropical forests goes, look a thousand kilometers downstream in 20 or 30 years." [Cheryl Dybas]

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"Factory of Life" Discovery May Offer Clues for Treating Genetic Diseases

For nearly half a century, molecular biologists have sought to solve the mystery of protein synthesis and the role of ribosomes -- the small molecules in cells that craft proteins. Now, UCLA molecular biologists James Lake and Anne Simonson, with funding from NSF, believe they may have discovered how the ribosomal "factory of life" works.

In our cells, translation is the process that turns genes into proteins. Scientists have not understood how this critical process works, but have known that it has three phases; initiation, elongation and termination. Elongation is the most critical, although a number of current antibiotics work at the initiation phase.

"Elongation is the heart of protein synthesis," says Lake, "the phase in which the ribosome adds amino acids, sometimes hundreds of them." Lake and Simonson's work sheds light on the molecular details of elongation, including the location and movement of more than 10,000 atoms. With the new findings, it may be possible to modify parts of the translation process to suppress lethal mutations and design new proteins to counteract the defects that cause hundreds of diseases.

Each of our cells has more than 100,000 ribosomes, and uncovering their role -- what Lake calls the "puzzle of life" -- requires a much greater understanding than the broad outlines scientists have traditionally used.

"The ribosome is like a computer-driven protein factory that has been cloaked in secrecy," says Lake. "We knew the shape of the factory, and we could see the trucks going in, but we couldn't peer beyond the factory gate. We knew the names of the employees, but we didn't know what they did."

"Now we have a hypothesis of how the employees move in and out of different rooms to get their work done, and even what they have for lunch." [Cheryl Dybas]

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2001 Presidential Awards Presented for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching

President Bush named 194 teachers from around the country to receive the 2001 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST). The White House program, administered by NSF, bestows this nation's highest honor on mathematics and science teachers of kindergarten through grade 12.

The Presidential awardees - who represent every state, the District of Columbia, U.S. territories, and the U.S. Department of Defense schools - were selected from more than 600 nominees. After an initial selection process at the state or territorial level, a national panel of distinguished scientists, mathematicians and educators recommended finalists for the Presidential award - one elementary and one secondary teacher each from both mathematics and science - from each state and jurisdiction.

Every 2001 Presidential awardee receives a $7,500 grant for their school. The recipients claimed their awards in Washington on March 20.

For a complete listing of this year's awardees, or more information on how to apply for a Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, see: [Bill Harms]

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