News in a nutshell

Fukushima update; antidepressants probed; money for nutritionally-enhanced crops

By | April 14, 2011

This week's news includes an update on the situation at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, a new understanding of antidepressant action, more money for genetically-enhanced rice and cassava, bizarre breast cell behavior, and a new benefit of broccoli. Fukushima situation is bad, but not like Chernobyl
Nuclear power plant in Cattenom, France
Image: Wikimedia Commons, Stefan Kuhn
The Japanese Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency announced on Tuesday that it was raising the Fukushima crisis to a rating of 7, the highest level on the International Nuclear Events Scale (INES) and the same rating Chernobyl received 25 years ago. But the high INES rating doesn't necessarily mean the catastrophe is comparable to the Chernobyl disaster, which involved the widespread contamination of the surrounding landscape and atmosphere. The situation in Japan is not yet that severe, linkurl:Wired reports,; as most of the radioactive isotopes have remained in the core reactor -- Fukushima has released only one tenth of the radioactive material into the atmosphere that Chernobyl unleashed. While high levels of radioisotopes have been identified in ocean waters adjacent to the reactor, the materials will be quickly diluted and won't likely pose a risk to the Japanese people. And thus far radioactivity measured in the nearby land, food, and water supply pale in comparison to Chernobyl's astounding numbers. Still, sopping up radiation from the site and surrounding areas may take years or even decades, linkurl:according to Nature,; and that cleanup won't even start until the reactors have been stabilized. How antidepressants work Ever since scientists realized that certain antidepressants work by promoting the generation of new brain cells, they've been seeking to elucidate the mechanism. Now, a team of researchers at King's College London may have found the answer. Drugs such as Zoloft apparently depend upon the glucocorticoid receptor, which helps regulate the stress response, to generate new cells, according to a study linkurl:published Molecular Psychiatry.; "Having identified the glucocorticoid receptor as a key player in making new brain cells, we will now be able to use this novel stem cell system to model psychiatric illnesses in the laboratory, test new compounds and develop much more effective, targeted antidepressant drugs," Christoph Anacker, a doctorate student and study leader at the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London, linkurl:told Reuters.; More money for malnutrition-fighting crops Rice and cassava plants with enhanced nutritional qualities are getting a boost -- two new grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation totaling more than $18 million. A little more than half of that sum goes to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) for the continued development of Golden Rice, which contains beta carotene that the body converts to much-needed vitamin A. The remaining $8.3 million was awarded to the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis for its BioCassava Plus project, which seeks to develop nutritionally-enhanced cassava crops in Africa. "If small farmers choose to grow these new improved crops, we expect to see not only their health improve, but also a ripple effect that means more prosperous lives," Sylvia Mathews Burwell, president of the Global Development Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said in a press release. (For more detail on both of these genetically-augmented crops, see The Scientist's 2009 feature, linkurl:Where's the Super Food?); Breast cells revert to pluripotency? Differentiated breast cells may not keep their identity for life. New research, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that some cells in breast tissue may spontaneously revert to a stem-cell-like state. The findings, never before observed in mammalian cells, may hold implications for the treatment of breast tumors, according to Robert Weinberg, a founding member of MIT's Whitehead Institute. "It may be that if one eliminates the cancer stem cells within a tumor through some targeted agent," he linkurl:said in a statement,; "some of the surviving non-stem tumor cells will generate new cancer stem cells through spontaneous de-differentiation." Broccoli good for the lungs The vegetable hailed for many health benefits, including cancer prevention, can add another benefit to its list -- protecting the lungs. A compound found in broccoli, known as sulforaphane, appears to help eliminate harmful bacteria from the organs of humans and mice, according to a study linkurl:published yesterday in Science Translational Medicine.; Sulforaphane could hold promise as a preventive treatment for lung infections in smokers and lung disease patients, whose lungs are unable to properly rid themselves of debris.
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:Fallout at Fukushima -- Part 3;
[24th March 2011]*linkurl:Surprise breast cancer source;
[2nd September 2010]*linkurl:Where's the Super Food?;
[September 2009]

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