Sunday, February 21, 2010

Italian Scientists Turn Back Time, Revive Ancient Cattle Breed

By: Eric Sandy

Edited by: Yacong Yuan

Italian scientists are working on breeding a particular extinct species back into reality. The
aurochs” cattle breed, Bos primigenius, was a physically dominant form of bovine that thrived throughout the Middle Ages. It is now the prime target for a new “back-breeding” experiment. The potential consequences are numerous and the social context runs deep in European history.

Back-breeding is a modern technique of geneticists to purposefully attempt to recreate past species, in a way. Because a complete duplicate of the ancient species is out of science’s reach, however, geneticists are using selective breeding to come as close as possible to the original beast. In that sense, what scientists often try to do in similar experiments is recreate an animal’s phenotype (their physical makeup). Now, with modern technologies, the work can concentrate on animals’ genotypes, or their genetic makeup. The goal will be to create a population of aurochs cattle and integrate them into present-day environments.

Put into historical context, the aurochs species first grazed on the grasslands of Europe thousands of years ago. Their existence harkens back to the time of the ancient Romans and their Caesar rulers. Fossils depicting the geographic history of the animals have been found all over the European and Asian continents. The last legitimate record of any aurochs is from Poland in 1627.

Aurochs are depicted in ochre and charcoal in paintings found on the walls of cave galleries, photo from: Animalpicturesarchive

During their time on this planet, the aurochs populations represented a significant challenge to human civilization, particularly its militant hunting tendencies. Killing an aurochs demonstrated bravery and honor. The typical aurochs could reach very large proportions – with some coming to “a little below the elephant in size,” according to Julius Caesar.

The nomenclature of the species is another interesting clue as to its size. The name aurochs (pl: aurochs) comes from German roots and can be translated loosely as “primeval ox.” The extinguished populations demonstrated the strength of modern draft oxen, as well as the agricultural benefits of cows and bulls.

Those boastful characteristics have long been sought after by modern civilizations. In fact, Adolph Hitler and the leaders of his experimental eugenics pseudo-science were intent on bringing back these ideal specimens of brute strength and potential labor. Due to the ties to national socialist ideology, these experiments were highly controversial and polarizing.
The Heck cattle breed was the result when that took place in the early 20th century. That phenomenon of back-breeding extinct animals has remained in the eye of forward- (and backward-) thinking scientists for quite some time.

Heinz and Lutz Heck, from Munich and Berlin respectively, worked their studies and experiments into the Nazi-backed plan of Hermann Goering – namely, the Aryan Nation – a concept built around ideal biological forms. Compounding generations of crossbreeding have led to a formidable species of cattle that is very similar to the aurochs of past ages. Presently, there are around 2,000 Heck cattle roaming the European continent.

Aurox-male (Heck cattle), born 08.03.1994 in Steinberg, Germany, height 1,60 m on shoulder, horn-circumference 44 cm, horn-outside-messure 89 cm, horn-span 103 cm. Photo from: Foto Walter Frisch

The whole notion of breeding presently extinct animals back into existence is a highly controversial issue in modern society. If one considers Darwinist ideas to be in effect, it should be safe to assume that extinct species simply didn’t have the necessary survival skills to sustain themselves. If that’s the case, why would a world that differs significantly from the 1600s desire a giant-sized breed of cattle? Orneriness and potential dangers aside, there’s a simple matter of agricultural logistics.

However, one of the goals of this experimental project is to offer better approaches to more efficient ways of life.

“Today, our focus is sustainability and bigger animals will help with that,” Donato Matassino said. Matassino is the head of the Consortium for Experimental Biotechnology, located in Benevento, a city in southern Italy. The organization is presently overseeing and working on the back-breeding efforts.

The bigger cattle will offer firm competition to modern cows in the form of higher milk and meat production. Inherent in this look to the past is the idea that with modern technologies, the science community can pick and choose which elements of time and life are most suitable for human needs. In this way, Darwinism may become a bit of an obsolete notion.

Those modern technologies are the key. Unlike the misguided attempts of the Heck brothers, Matassino’s team has access to a wider genetic map. In 2009, the general classification of cattle became the first livestock animal to have its entire genome mapped. Now the animals are ripe for experimentation – a controversial notion.

Many of the goals in this branch of science reflect a conscious effort toward preservation of genetic information. As human globalization and climate change compound and affect the planet’s natural habitats, genetic diversity is lost in favor of consolidated traits. Back-breeding can lead to a richer array of animals across the globe. Aurochs bulls can mingle with modernity in the pastoral countryside of Italy.

With drastic increases in the quality of technology, scientists are able to get significantly closer to the genetic reality of the aurochs. Selective breeding will ideally lead scientists to a type of animal that bears a striking resemblance to the aurochs.

Modern cattle also carry a strategic advantage in their DNA. Historically, wild aurochs were known to mate with more conventional cows. That mingling of genetic material has left scientists with the monumental starting point they will need to make this experiment a reality. The strongest links between the past and the present lie in the cattle of Italy, according to geneticist Giorgio Bertorelle of the University of Ferrara.

Concurrently, in a similar set of experiments in Poland, scientists are working on cloning the DNA of skeletal structures from the last known aurochs. That parallel experiment will also help advance the work of European geneticists and, ultimately, farmers worldwide.

All of this raises many larger-than-life issues – namely, the relationship between humans and the world around them. The integrity of endangered species and similarly precarious populations may be placed in a less significant light. History can be undone.
One of the main social implications of these scientific forays is that forums for discussion will open. Answers are not yet readily available, and this is mostly due to the fact that questions are not yet being asked. Most people will be caught off guard by the notion of back-breeding. Environmental policies will have cause to shift, therefore affecting political realms.
In this ongoing effort to reroute biological evolution, humans will have to pay attention and ensure the morality and humanism necessary for powerful abilities like back-breeding.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Preventing an HIV/AIDS Epidemic One Peer at a Time

Aisha Mohammed
Edited by Chen Lou
Pakistani eunuchs light candles during a rally to mark World AIDS Day in Karachi, Pakistan on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2009. Photo from: AP.

Several years ago, Tanvir Ahmed’s wife found out she was HIV positive. Later, Ahmed and his three children, ages 4, 5, and 7, were also diagnosed as positive. Ahmed resides in Jalal Pur Jattan, a rural community in Pakistan, where stigma against HIV/AIDS is widespread and exists even among healthcare providers. “When my extended family members found out us, they abandoned us. This is common,” said Ahmed.

Ahmed suspects that his wife contracted the virus when she visited a “quack” doctor and received an injection with a used needle. Although the HIV incidence in Pakistan is low as compared to other Asian countries, Jalal Pur Jattan has an estimated 200 known cases among its population of nearly 100,000 residents. The village is also home to a large migrant worker population and a joint study conducted by UNAIDS and Karachi’s Aga Khan University in 2007 predicted that HIV infections among migrant workers may cause an epidemic in communities like Jalal Pur Jattan.

Mandatory testing for HIV and other infectious diseases is a requirement for obtaining and renewing work visas in the Gulf States. Approximately 150,000 Pakistanis migrate each year and those who test positive are deported with no counseling or treatment.

In 2008, the U.A.E. government deported 1,518 workers infected with HIV, hepatitis B and C, and tuberculosis, according to a U.S. State Department report. Many return home and end up either infecting their spouses, or engaging in high-risk sexual behavior, which contributes to spreading infections in their communities. Host countries do not notify sending countries and only inform workers that they are “unfit” to work. A lifetime ban prevents workers from returning, even though many have invested $700 to $1,800 USD through loans and land sales to finance their trips abroad. An average worker earns approximately $80 USD per month in Pakistan and these debts can take years to pay off.

Under pressure to pay off debts and afraid of stigma, many former workers wait to seek treatment until they can no longer ignore the symptoms. “Workers disguise the fact that they have a disease because of the stigma. They seek treatment after they have spent all their savings and are too weak to work,” said Asher Bhatti, Programme Officer at the New Light AIDS Control Society in Lahore.

In the last 18 months, the number of registered HIV cases has doubled but this could be due to recent outreach efforts and not an increase in new cases, said Dr. Hasan Zaheer, director of the National AIDS Control Programme (NACP). The NACP currently has an estimated 4,000 cases on record, which is a fraction of the 96,000 people that the UN estimates are living with HIV in Pakistan.

To find ways to curb a countrywide epidemic, the NACP organized a meeting in May 2009 at the World Health Assembly in Geneva. Representatives from Pakistan, China, Thailand, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Nepal attended the meeting, along with senior officials from global health and labor organizations. “Due to the sensitivity of the issue, we decided to engage in dialogue with the receiving countries on a one-to-one basis,” said Dr. Zaheer.

AIDS support workers and family members comfort a final stage AIDS patient in 2006 in sialkot, Pakistan. Photo from: Life.

Aside from dialogue, Pakistani government officials and NGOs are also trying to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS among migrant workers before they leave the country. The Pakistani Village Development Programme (PVDP) established a pilot program at the Peshawar airport in 2008 in collaboration with Family Health International. PVDP staff conducted focus groups with migrant workers and seminars with the cabin crew of airlines. They also provided counseling and referral services and informational materials to deportees.

“The problem with printed materials is that most workers are illiterate, and they are usually in a hurry and anxious when they are leaving,” said Dr. Muhammad Saleem, Monitoring and Evaluation Adviser for UNAIDS in Pakistan. A UNAIDS study in 2007 found that the most effective intervention points are not airports, but pre-departure mandatory testing labs in Pakistan, and workers’ hostels and medical testing centers in host countries.

With the exception of Dubai, the Gulf States require mandatory testing before travel and workers usually spend a whole day at laboratories with no awareness of what the tests are for. The labs, operated by Gulf State authorities, are not required to provide any counseling, and the Pakistani government is planning to establish volunteer counseling and treatment at testing sites. Along with the labs, hostels are also a good venue for intervention because of the large concentration of workers in one place, said Saleem. “Ten to fifteen people live in one room and we are planning to do targeted education and condom distribution in hostels,” he said.

Another important component is identifying and training workers for peer-to-peer education. The Pakistan Village Development Programme conducted an informal study in the U.A.E. and found that the majority of migrant workers did not know about safe sex practices or how HIV/AIDS is transmitted. A Pakistani doctor in the U.A.E. also said that he was not allowed to talk about the issue, even though he had deported hundreds of Pakistanis in the last five years.

Migrant workers, however, are stepping up to fill in the information void around HIV/AIDS. Nosheen Malik, the principal investigator of the PVDP study, found that workers were interested in volunteering as peer-to-peer educators. Instead of literature, they wanted public health messages through Pashto language music, movies, and stage shows, which they use to relax after tough days at work.

In Pakistan, the New Light AIDS Control Society already relies on peer-to-peer education services to raise awareness among migrant workers in hard to reach rural communities like Jalal Pur Jattan. Their staff have trained members like Tanvir Ahmed and his wife to become advocates for their community. They spread awareness of HIV in their village, bring people to the center for testing, and teach them how to take their medicines. In building an informed community, they hope to reduce transmission rates and prevent an epidemic.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Romania: Is Carbon the Asset to Trade?

By Yacong Yuan

Edited by: Alexandru Cristea

Carbon trading could turn into a financial resource for Romania in the future.

The Kyoto Protocol set up an international joint effort to limit greenhouse effect by reducing carbon dioxide emissions and a treaty to allow the exchange of carbon emission as a commodity. Poland successfully sold 15 million euros ($22 million) worth of carbon credits to Ireland in November 2009. Hungary signed an agreement with Japan to transfer carbon credits in December, 2007 with permits to sell on government-level emission under Kyoto Protocol. Their neighbor, Romania, may be the best example of how developing countries juggle with economic growth and climate change towards carbon trading.

“Political instability in recent years and the economic crisis have made environmental protection a formal problem,” said Silviu Secrieru, an editor at Romanian National Television Network, TVR in Bucharest.

“Currently, Romania is concerned to secure a piece of bread, not to protect the environment. Lack of funds, civic awareness programs, volunteering makes environmental protection a problem that exists only on paper.”

Under the Kyoto Protocol, Romania has to reduce gas emissions by 8% based on figures for its 1989 industrial output. This means between 2008 and 2012, Romania has the right to emit 1,279 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent. In 2009, Romania industries emitted 40 percent less CO2 than its Assigned Amount Units (AAUs) of CO2 emission. For every tone of carbon allowances Romania didn’t use, it can be traded for money. Within the European Union, the largest multi-country, multi-sector Greenhouse Gas Emission Trading System world-wide, European Union Greenhouse Gas Emission Trading System (EU ETS) came into operation since January 2005.

There are two channels to trade carbon allowances, one is through companies and the other is through trade between governments.

On the country-to-country carbon trade level, Romania could cash out 1 billion euro each year. The money gained from AAUs must be used for developing green energy to reduce carbon emissions, such as rehabilitating coal based power plants or wind energy projects. If Romania didn’t cash out its surplus carbon credit, these allowances will automatically expire by 2012. However, Romania, a country with a negative 7.9 percent GDP growth in 2009, heavily dependent on funds from IMF and EU is not going to act so fast on this issue.

“Already, the Minister of Economy and Energy, has propelled Videanu brother in the business of green energy rehabilitation projects. This is about more than 100 million, and corruption in Romania is just icing on the cake to the deterioration of environment,” said Secrieru.

The measurement of carbon emission allowances might be wrong.

“A Romanian pollutes an average of 9.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, with two tons more than the European average,” said Secrieru.

“In this respect, Romania aims to meet EU standards, that by 2020 to reduce CO2 emissions and energy consumption by 20 percent.”

The problem is, the carbon allowances EU ETS issued are far more than the amount actually been consumed. This has resulted in low price of carbon credit and easy purchase of carbon credit. Currently, no carbon trade has been done on the government level in Romania, yet some companies already take their step onto the global carbon market.

In December 2009, a Romanian utility company Elcen sold 2.5 million credits, a large share of its EUA (EU Allowance of CO2) allocation in a bid to raise cash. Elcen is a state-owned, joint-stock company, producing almost 60% of Romania’s household electricity.

“We are the public media, as far as I know, no one in our department has worked on this issue”, according to a journalist refused to give his name from Radio Romania International English Department in Bucharest.

However, this doesn’t mean there are no activities under the market. Since the beginning of 2009, Romanian companies have traded 40 million carbon credits, according to a recent report by The Diplomat, a Bucharest-based magazine. One of the leading Romanian brokers in carbon trading, KDF Energy, helped trade around 200 million Euro.

“The reasoning was that poor EU states are not ready to finance other poor states outside of the EU to solve a problem that they themselves are struggling with”, said Cosmin Briciu, an environmental consultant from Green Partners during an interview with The Diplomat this month.

To trade its carbon credit, Romania also has to follow regulations from European Commission under the EU Emission Trading Scheme (EU ETS). Similar to Kyoto Protocol, heavy-polluted industries must reduce their carbon emissions and adopting new technologies for alternative energies. For instance, one of the three largest power plants in Romania, Turceni, a state owned facility, has received 170 million Euros in loans from European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) since July, 2009.

Romania has been part of the EU’s scheme for carbon trading since 2009, where up to 12,000 industrial and energy polluters buy and sell their carbon emissions. Instead of AUUs, these carbon credits take the form of European Union Allowances (EUA)s, which can be sold on international stock exchange market like Climex in Amsterdam or Bluenext in Paris, according to The Diplomat.

Right now, both local stock exchange markets and power operators in Romania are opt to a legalized local carbon trading system. The state-owned power market operator (Opcom) intends to set up a new platform as early as this year, while the Bucharest Stock Exchange (BSE) has also expressed interest in opening a facility for trading CO2 emissions credits, according to a report released by The Diplomat last week.

Photos courtesy of and

IT outsourcing in India

Chen Lou

Edited by Chen Lou

With low expense, skilled workforce and business environment, India is attracting more overseas IT outsourcing companies. In 2009, India continued to be the most preferred destination for companies seeking offshore development in IT industry.

Despite the global slowdown, the exports in Indian’s IT and business process outsourcing services (BPO) is expected to rise 5.5% in the current financial year to $ 49.7 billion – a historic moment as it touches the US $ 50 billion landmark, according to India’s software and services industry body --National Association of Software and Service Companies in New Delhi (NASSCOM) on Feb. 4, 2010.

Offshore development or outsourcing has always been used by companies to achieve greater profits through cost reduction. During this process, one company hands over part of its work to the contractor company, such as making it responsible for designing products under the requirements of the outsourcing company.

Significant cost saving can be achieved by IT outsourcing to India, owing to the wide gap between the workers’ salary and that of the customer companies. IT workers in India are obviously more “cheaper” compared to their counterparts in western countries.

As the second most populous country, India has a big labor pool for its IT labor force. “Out of 10 newly graduates from Indian colleges, 4 to 7 will choose to work in the IT industry,” Anjali Shrivastava said, who graduated from Nagpur University majoring in electronics.
IT outsourcing workers of India in 2009. Photo from: World Records.

Anjali worked in the TATA Consultancy Services Limited Company (TCS) for four years, which is the largest provider of IT and business process outsourcing services in India. There she designed software and websites for clients from both India and abroad.

“I got 36,000 Rs per month as an assistant software engineer in the TCS, which is about $ 600, but workers doing the same job in America will get $4,000 a month.” Anjali said.

A salary like $ 1000 a month (close to Rs 50,000) in U.S., is considered as a very good pay for a qualified IT workers in India, according to Rakesh Gosangi, an Indian research assistant and Ph.D. student majoring in Computer Science at Texas A&M University.

“Availability of cheap, good-quality, and English-speaking workforce in India is the most competing strength of India’s IT industry.” Assistant professor Krishnendu Roy at Valdosta State University said, who graduated from the University of Calcutta, India with a bachelor degree in Information Technology and a Ph. D. in Computer Engineering from Louisiana State University.

“I think this is true for most parts that considerable IT workers in India are still cheap labor producing low-technology products,” Roy said.

But, Anjali thought most of the workers were cheap labors making high-tech products, as most of them have at least a bachelor degree or master degree and make high quality products.

Besides, NASSCOM observed that IT/BPO industry will continue to be a net hirer and the direct employment is expected to grow by 4% and outnumber 2.3 million with over 90,000 new jobs in the current 09-10 financial year. With its galloping outsourcing IT-BPO industry in particular, India remains the second-fastest growing economy in the world in 2009, according to its Interim budget for 2009/2010 by the Indian Consulate.

“With the worst-ever crisis behind, the Indian software industry would come out strong to seize the opportunities.” Infosys Technologies Limited chief executive S. Gopalakrishnan said. Infosys as one of the largest IT companies in India is planning to expand in Brazil, Mexico and China in the next.
Infosys in Bangalore, India. Photo from:Business Week.

On the other hand, Roy warned that as prices of IT-work increase in India, companies including the Indian ones will look towards other untapped countries as outsourcing destinations.

“It might be booming one day and it might just disappear the other – the job market is very feeble.” Rakesh said. “As India is more independent on offshore companies, if they do well, we’ll do better.” Anjali said, “But the risk is not too big, we also have a huge domestic market.”

While in a predictable short term, compared to some developed countries’ IT industry costs, outsourcing in India will continue to be valued with its high cost efficiency.

“The Industry has reinvented itself by increasing its cost efficiencies, utilization rates, diversification into new verticals and markets and new business and pricing models.” Pramod Bhasin, Chairman of NASSCOM and president & CEO of Genpact said.

Besides the lower costs and skilled workforce, rigid quality control has been the key factor for success of Indian IT outsourcing companies. A great number of companies strictly follow the Capability Maturity Model Level for software and the quality awards like ISO.

“A lot of people focus on India for lower costs, what is remarkable in India is the caliber of the computer engineers.” Larry Ellison said, founder and CEO of Oracle in an interview. Microsoft and Oracle have their biggest offshore software departments in India.

“Besides the cheap labor, the system has worked. Indian employees have been working well over the last decade or so to meet with the requirements of American companies thus creating a trust.” Rakesh said.

When concerning about a certain backlash against IT outsourcing in India from U.S, Roy thinks the controversy in USA about whether outsourcing is having a negative impact or not on US economy is not going to die down any time soon.

“It is very difficult for those here in U.S. to find jobs in IT companies, because many companies are taking the cheaper way out by moving their jobs and some facilities overseas.” Sean A. Williams said, a senior Ph.D. student majoring in Computer Science at Arizona State University who is hunting a job now.

“I still think it is a win-win situation for both India and America.” Roy said.

Elections will not bring significant change in human rights issues

By Alexandru Cristea

Edited by Chen Lou

The Egyptian parliament in 2009, photo from Los Angeles Times.

Parliamentary elections in Egypt will not improve the status of women and religious minorities, despite increased internal and international attention. A 2009 report by Human Rights Watch stated that abuses and general discrimination committed by state and private agents against women and religious minorities have continued. Among religious groups, Copts, native Egyptian Christians which represent around 10% of the population, have been the focus of violent attacks. Local political analysts and human rights activists indicated that lack of political party electoral agendas focused on ending sectarian violence or empowering women means the elections will not bring major changes to these groups.

Political analyst Khalil Al-Anani referred the lack of strong commitment from the ruling Egyptian National Democratic Party to further women’s agenda. “Regarding women and minorities: although the constitution has been changed to guarantee a certain proportion for women in the parliament (64 seats of 518), the political culture in Egypt does not help to empower women. Moreover, this proportion will go automatically to the NDP.”

The success of these constitutional maneuvers eliminated any kind of incentive for the NDP to actively promote women’s issues.

Aida Seif El Dawla of Cairo, human rights activist and co-founder of The New Woman Research Center and the El Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of the Victims of Violence, was skeptical about the possibility of a larger focus on the rights of women. “The quota for women is reserved for women of the ruling party and it does not follow that they will carry women’s agenda,” she said, indicating that the opposition does not provide a viable alternative either. “There is simply no space for this type of negotiation.”

“Women remain on the outside of the political spectrum and this doesn't appear to be changing,” indicated journalist Joseph Mayton, the editor and founder of the Bikya Masr, a website specialized in news reports, analysis and opinion on Egyptian and regional issues, and based in Cairo. “As with the opposition, women leaders are growing old and the people involved in rights issues are not going to change to politics, they believe what they are doing is working and making change,” Mayton said.

Egyptian women wait to register their names in Cairo in June, 2009. Photo from: Reuters.

The political parties that make up the opposition in Egypt do not provide any grounds for hope either. “The opposition has made statements but does not have any agenda with regard to either women or minorities”, Dina Shehata, researcher with the Cairo based Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, has indicated. “As for minorities, there are no intentions from either the government or the opposition to enhance their presence keeping away from dividing the population along the lines of majority and minority,” she added.

Walid Kazziha, professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, pointed out the lack of an agenda focused on minorities. “There is already a political discourse on the Coptic issue. The government is saying that what is happening is criminal. All the acts are criminal but one has to look at the motives and the motives are religious. There is no strategy and it is very depressing.” Kazziha was also skeptical about the intentions of the opposition to address such issues. “They said we don’t need to do what they’re doing outside in the west”, he explained.

The Egyptian government’s unwillingness to approach the issue of sectarian violence is seen as a reason for the lack of action, indicated Samy Saad of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. “They are scared to admit there is sectarian violence because they cannot control it. They make use of it to get Copts scared and get their votes. The church asks them to reelect Mubarak,” he added. Joseph Mayton indicated the “government wants to keep tensions going because it deflects from the real issue: that they are oppressing all Egyptians.” Lack of active engagement in political life prevents Copts from exercising influence over the agenda of mainstream politics, Mayton also suggested. “(As) for Christians, they are not interested in political participation and the churches in Egypt don't push them for participation. I don't think that any change will happen in representation of Copts in the next elections,” analyst Khalil Al Anani said.