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Keeping Tomatoes From Killing Themselves


Tomatoes are not an easy crop. They are vulnerable to a disease spread by aphids called cucumber mosaic virus (CMV), which can cause the plants to turn brown and die. Tomatoes are also sensitive to cold. Whole crops can be wiped out on a single frosty night.

Scientists at the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, an agricultural research institute in Ardmore, Okla., may have discovered a way to protect tomatoes from both CMV and low temperatures. A parasite associated with one form of CMV touches off apoptosis, or programmed cell death -- a natural process that prompts cells to commit suicide for various reasons. The researchers showed that they could grow tomatoes resistant to the parasite by inserting a specific gene from either humans or worms into the plants. The inserted gene makes proteins that counter premature apoptosis, render-ing the CMV virus harmless. The gene-treated tomatoes also seem to tolerate cold better than their naturally grown counterparts.

Controlling machines with the mind sounds like something out of an Isaac Asimov story, but a team of European scientists is getting closer to making this science-fiction scenario a reality. Project MAIA, based in Martigny, Switzerland, has unveiled technology that allows people to guide a tiny robot wheelchair by thought alone, through a cap studded with electrodes that read brainwaves.

Unlike earlier electrode-based systems, this one doesn't require surgery -- or even a haircut. Human thoughts create impulses in specific areas of the brain. Simply thinking about moving left, for example, creates such an impulse. Project MAIA's device utilizes electroencephalograms to quickly convert these signals into a corresponding action in the wheelchair.

This is the first noninvasive system that can control a robot, says Jos? del R. Mill?n, senior researcher at IDIAP Research Institute in Switzerland and lead scientist on the project. Two people tested in early trials achieved a success rate of 70% to 75%, the researchers report. The project is set to run until 2007.

Two of the best-selling biotech drugs are Amgen's (AMGN) Epogen and Johnson & Johnson's (JNJ) Procrit, treatments for anemia associated with kidney failure and chemotherapy. Approved in 1989, these two injectable drugs bring in combined sales of about $5 billion a year in the U.S. Now a privately held biotech firm in South San Francisco, FibroGen, is challenging the two giants with a pill version that is attracting notice in both scientific and investment circles.

Epogen and Procrit are synthetic versions of erythropoietin (EPO), a human protein that prompts the production of red blood cells. The drugs are typically injected twice a week. FibroGen's oral drug, FG-2216, stimulates the body's own EPO production. In a Phase I study involving 68 healthy men that was presented Nov. 1 at the American Society of Nephrology's annual meeting, FibroGen said its drug increased production of both EPO and red blood cells, with no serious side effects.

-- "Forget your troubles, c'mon get happy." These truly are words to live by. Dutch scientists questioned 941 men and women aged 65 to 85 in generally good health about their attitudes toward life, then tracked them for a period of nine years. Patients who described themselves as highly optimistic had a 55% lower risk of death from all causes and a 23% lower risk of death from heart disease than those who were highly pessimistic, the scientists report in the November issue of Archives of General Psychiatry. "A predisposition toward optimism seemed to provide a survival benefit," the authors noted.

-- On the other hand, eating your vegetables will do only so much good, despite widespread assumptions to the contrary. Harvard University researchers analyzed data on more than 100,000 participants in two large, multiyear health surveys. They report in the Nov. 3 issue of Journal of the National Cancer Institute that patients who ate five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day had a lower risk of heart disease, but their healthy diets did nothing to lower their risk of cancer.


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