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News Briefs

Flaw Is Found in Plan To Bury Nuclear Waste


The Energy Department’s design for burying nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, near Las Vegas, would cause corrosion that would perforate the waste containers and allow leaks, an expert panel is preparing to advise the department.

Nuclear waste gives off heat as well as radiation, and the Energy Department is considering taking advantage of that by spacing the waste containers closely. That would heat the tunnels to nearly 300 degrees Fahrenheit in the first few decades, thus keeping the metal dry and preventing corrosion, the department has said.

But the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, a panel created by Congress to advise the department, believes otherwise, according to a letter the members have drafted. Members said changes to the letter were possible before it is submitted to the department, but the draft, circulated on Monday, said new tests “cast doubt on the extent to which the waste package will be an effective barrier under the repository conditions that have been presented to the board.”

One board member, Thure E. Cerling, a professor of biology and of geology and geophysics at the University of Utah, said “most reactions take place faster at higher temperatures” and this included rust.

Any available water would mix with salt, present in the tunnels’ dust, the experts said, and the salty water could lead to pitting and perforation of the containers.

A New Kind of Genomics With an Eye on Ecosystems


Determining the complete DNA sequence of a single species has become almost commonplace. It has been done for humans, mice, rice plants and a host of microbes, among others. Now some scientists are moving to a more audacious challenge, sequencing “metagenomes,” the DNA of entire ecosystems.

The new efforts seek to read all the DNA in the bacterial communities found in a patch of soil or seawater or even the lining of the human gut. Deciphering the genetic blueprint of all of the microbial species may help tell scientists which species are present and how they work together. Thousands of previously unknown micro-organisms may be unearthed, as well as new drugs, chemicals and ways of harnessing bacteria to fight pollution.

“We think this is a window on biology that is really unprecedented in its implications,” said Dr. Jo Handelsman, a professor of plant pathology at the University of Wisconsin, who coined the term metagenomics to refer to the new field. Others call it community genomics, environmental genomics, or microbial population genomics.

By whatever name, the task will not be easy. There can be thousands of different microbial species in a spoonful of soil. “A milliliter of seawater, in a genetic sense, has more complexity than the human genome,” said Dr. Edward F. DeLong, a senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California.

Students Find the Textbooks They Need Are Cheaper Overseas


Richard Sarkis and David Kinsley were juniors at Williams College, surfing the net for a cheap source for their economics textbook, when they discovered a little known economic fact: The very same college textbooks used in the United States sell for half price or less -- in England.

Just like prescription drugs, textbooks cost far less overseas than they do in the United States. The publishing industry defends its pricing policies, saying that foreign sales would be impossible if book prices were not pegged to local market conditions.

But many Americans do not see it that way.

The National Association of College Stores, for example, has written to all the leading publishers asking them to end a practice they see as unfair to American students.

“We think it’s frightening, and it’s wrong, that the same American textbooks our stores buy here for $100 can be shipped in from some other country for $50,” said Laura Nakoneczny, a spokeswoman for the association. “It represents price-gouging of the American public generally and college students in particular.”

Thanks to the Internet, however, more and more individual students and college bookstores are starting to order textbooks from abroad -- and a few entrepreneurs, Sarkis and his friends among them, have begun what are essentially arbitrage businesses to exploit the price differentials.

Snails, Desired for Beauty and Venom, May Be Threatened


For centuries, cone snails have been objects of desire, their intricately patterned shells valued by collectors. More recently, the carnivorous snails have become prized for something else: their potent mix of toxins, which biomedical researchers say hold promise in drug discovery and medical treatment.

But researchers are now warning that the world is in danger of loving cone snails to death. In a letter to the journal Science, three scientists say that collection practices for ornamental trade and medical research, coupled with habitat destruction through pollution and global climate change, pose an extinction threat to these animals. Without monitoring and controls on trade, they warn, many of the roughly 500 cone snail species could be lost before their value to humans is known.

“We’re alarmed that we may be losing the genus that has more potential medicines than any other in nature,” said Dr. Eric Chivian, an author of the letter and director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School.