May 20, 2005 | 9:40 p.m. ET
Stem-cell semantics: Are people being killed in the search for future cures?

On one hand, you've got President Bush vowing to veto a bill to allow more federally funded stem-cell research because he's against "science which destroys life in order to save a life." On the other hand, you have researcher Woo Suk Hwang saying that the new embryonic stem-cell lines he and his collaborators isolated didn't really come from human embryos , but from "nuclear transfer constructs."

There are plenty of loaded words in the stem-cell debate: Are researchers "cloning humans" or engaged in "nuclear transfer"? There's no question that embryonic stem cells are taken from a speck of living tissue, but is that speck a collection of processed human cells or a self-contained individual?

The answers to such questions will lay the groundwork for either going forward or holding back on the embryonic stem-cell frontier, at least in the United States. And it's essential that researchers, policy-makers and the public arrive at clear answers, said Francis Collins, the director of yet another effort on the biomedical frontier, the National Human Genome Research Institute.

Collins declined to address the stem-cell debate directly during a news briefing at a Seattle genetics forum today, saying it wasn't his department. But he did say "we have really fouled up in terms of the terminology that's associated with these discussions."

He noted that the stem cells in Hwang's research, published by the journal Science this week, were developed by transferring nuclear material from skin cells to egg cells. That's "a very different circumstance" from the more common scenario, in which skin cells are extracted from leftover frozen embryos, he said.

"And yet, in our terminology, we use 'embryo' freely to describe all these circumstances, and I think it confuses our own scientific discussion, and I'm sure it confuses the public," Collins said. "I think you could make the case, from a moral and theological perspective, that there's a rather different context here in terms of those two entities, one of which came from the skin cell of an adult person, and one which was a sperm-and-egg fusion."

If you take that perspective, you might regard the technique used by Hwang and his colleagues as more acceptable than using leftover in-vitro fertilization embryos. You might also contend that the "nuclear transfer constructs" should not be considered new human individuals.

But couldn't the "constructs" become humans if they were implanted in wombs? In their study, Hwang and his colleagues argue that they could not: They say the conditions under which the cells are processed may predispose them "for cell culture proliferation, with negligible potentials for implantation and none for normal development."

The study does not "provide any encouragement for dangerous human reproductive cloning attempts," the researchers say.

That argument is not going to sway the critics of embryonic stem-cell research. In fact, to many of those critics, the technique used by Hwang's group is more horrid than using leftover frozen embryos, because they see it as creating new human life with the intention of destroying it.

You can expect stem-cell semantics to evolve as the debate widens: If the scientists have their way, the term "therapeutic cloning" will be replaced by "somatic-cell nuclear transfer." And I'm betting that someone will find a substitute for the word "embryonic" in the term "embryonic stem cells." (In the Science paper, Hwang and his colleagues refer to NT-blastocysts and NT-embryos, with "NT" standing for nuclear transfer.)

Questions about terminology figured prominently in this week's feedback on the stem-cell issue. Here's a sampling of the e-mail:

Roman Urbanczyk, M.D.: "As a physician, I just don't understand America anymore. I don't understand how we can actually be ignoring the possible financial gain of this type of research. Even if we ignore the medical benefit, I thought the business of America was business. Where have we gone wrong in discussing the arguments? It can't be that the administration is happier carrying on warfare than making the next big medical breakthrough. What happened?"

John: "Your first paragraph states that the stem cells used came from sick or injured people. How by definition can they be classified as embryonic? While berating conservatives about the use of 'embryonic' cells, the more promising research has come from adult donor cells, and there is no restrictions on government cash for that type of research. Is this a misprint?"

James Butler: "It seems to me there is a huge ethical gap between what the South Korean scientists are doing and what the American embryonic stem-cell crybabies (oops, did I say babies?) insist on pursuing. Fertilization. That is the crux of the matter, is it not? This seems to me to be very big news. The abortion-loving left needs the fertilized embryonic stem-cell research to further justify abortions. ..."

Cathy Titchenal: "It is absolutely unbelievable to me that modern medical research scientists and their investors are willing to take these risks to our genetic lines.  No matter what the potential benefits are for individuals, the risks to our species are far greater.  Pandora's box has been opened, and it's like we can't wait for the fallout to land on us.  We're headed for extinction by our own hands, and no one seems to be taking notice.  I feel like Chicken Little, only I'm sure the sky really is falling with human embryonic stem-cell manipulation, cloning and the uncertainty of introducing select genetic strains into our population in the name of medical science and treatment.

"I would say "God help us," but He's probably watching us self-destruct and shaking His head over the whole thing.  Doesn't anyone remember their childhood stories of Icarus, Adam and Eve, and the fall of Lucifer?  How about just remembering our history, starting with the fall of Rome and marching forward to the Nazis and their planned extermination of the Jews, handicapped and others socially undesired.  When is the human race going to learn that we can't play God and get away with it?  We're pretty smart, but we're not that smart, and apparently, by the time we finally learn that lesson, it will be too late."

Eric Sinsabaugh: "I have been reading and hearing this story from several different sources, and I am concerned about the wording used to describe these stem cells. All the sources I have heard have used embryonic stem cells to describe these newly created cells. Your article is the only one that actually describes how they were created and that the Koreans are denying that they are embryonic stem cells.

"My understanding is that an embryo is the result of an egg fertilized by a sperm. Since this was not the case with these stem cells, I wonder how accurate it is to call them embryonic stem cells.

"The reason this is important to me is that the miracle of human life begins at conception. I don't know of any point in the development of a baby other than conception where you can say that this is really now a living human being. We as civilized people need to value this life and treat it with dignity (even if it appears to us to be a pile of cells). Now the use of word embryonic for something that is not human life and has no way of becoming human just confuses the whole moral issue. It's as if I'm against stem-cell research when I am actually excited about it, especially this story, because these scientists have made progress without the destruction of human life. ..."

Anne, St. Petersburg, Fla.: "... I think that there should be more of Seoul's Woo Suk Hwang's research technique used because his method involves unfertilized eggs intead of fertilized ones.

"His method is referred to as 'somatic-cell nuclear transfer,' and that term, along with the technique used, frees the research from being 'embryonic' in nature.  When our Creator brought embryos into being, it was with the use of female eggs fertilized by male sperm and then united to a physical womb for growth and nurturing and eventual life on Earth.  Somatic-cell nuclear transfer is not meant as a method to replace God's original promise to life.

"We should veer away from the use of fertilized eggs if we can and change our terminology so that this type of research is less repugnant to the public, especially those who feel it is a challenge to their sense of ethics, morals and spiritual values.  The sooner we can drop the word 'embryonic' and any term related to the word embryo, the better ... maybe.

"We have a long way to go, both with the research itself and with getting so many people convinced of the value of this type of cell study.

"I believe writers like you could really influence people by employing the use of other terms when addressing the subject of stem cell research.  Scientists need to come up with a more palatable label for this highly controversial subject.  What is your take on this?"

I do think there has to be more dialogue on the philosophical issues surrounding human life and these new technologies — and deeper thinking as well. Is there a 21st-century Aquinas out there who can bring a new perspective to the definition of personhood, or do you think the problem is merely that some scientists are not heeding the old perspectives? Let me know what you think, and I'll pass along a selection of the feedback.

May 20, 2005 | 9:40 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:

'Nova' on PBS: 'The Most Dangerous Woman in America'
National Geographic: 'Extraterrestrial'
Discovery.com: Indian tribes genetically close to 'Eve'
Christian Sci. Monitor: When 'I Robot' becomes 'We Robot'

May 19, 2005 | 10:40 p.m. ET
Straightening out ‘Star Wars’: Every time I write a story about the science of "Star Wars," I get letters from movie fans either berating me for spoiling the experience for them ("It's just a movie!") or correcting my description of make-believe technologies.

This time around , I tried to go easy on the implausible physics involved in the "Star Wars" saga. After 28 years, even I accept the fact that it's only a movie. Nevertheless, it's wicked fun to discuss where the filmmakers bend the laws of physics, and there's no one more suited for that task than Phil Plait, the proprietor of the Bad Astronomy Web site. If you've seen "Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith," you've got to check out Plait's scientific spoiler review.

I'm also anxiously awaiting the review from the "Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics" Web site, which gave "Episode I" an XP rating (for physics that was obviously from an unknown universe). And if you're looking for perspectives from "Star Wars" nerds, click on over to Slate's summing-up as well as the reviews from MSNBC.com users .

Here's a selection of the e-mail received from the "Star Wars" legions:

Mark Perry: "You are pretty much on track with your research, except on the theory behind lightsabers (Do I sound like a geek yet?)  A lightsaber blade in theory is made of plasma enclosed in a plasma-retaining field. It's the basic theory behind an ion cannon or a Taser cannon, the latter of which has been successfully built and tested. ..."

Keith Barber: "... While the 'blade' of a lightsaber emits a bright light, the blade is not itself made out of light.  Rather, a lightsaber is a projected (from the handle), intense, two-dimensional force shield.  Because the force shield is effectively only two-dimensional, yet very strong, this makes it exceptionally 'sharp,' allowing it to cut through most anything.  Its limitation in this regard is found when encountering a similarly intense force field (e.g., another light saber).  The lightsaber is as strong as it is sharp, and the force shield generally holds when striking another such force field.  The force field nature of the light saber also explains why it deflects such things as energy bolts from a blaster. The emission of light from a light saber is really nothing more than a side effect caused by normal particles (for example, air) being ionized as they strike the lightsaber's high-energy force field.  This ionization also creates the unique 'buzz' that one hears when a light saber is activated. ..."

H. Peter Wilson: "On the development of antigravity devices: With gravity being the 'weakest' of the four forces, I truly believe that it’s merely a matter of time before this natural phenomenon is scientifically revealed!"

So now what? Even though "Star Wars" creator George Lucas now says he never intended to make Episodes 7-9 in the saga, you can still check out some online script treatments that are attributed to him. Think of it as "Star Wars: The Next Generation." The same ground is also covered in the "New Jedi Order" series of books.

Speaking of books, this month's Cosmic Log Used Book Club selection offers a similar blend of mysticism and science fiction from almost 90 years ago, and the best part is that it's freely available online. Longtime Cosmic Log correspondent Patrick Bishop recommends "The Red One," a novella by Jack London posthumously published in 1918. Bishop refers to the book in the context of an earlier discussion of Philip K. Dick's science fiction:

"Regrettably, many artists' works are not appreciated within their own lifetimes. Van Gogh and H.P. Lovecraft come to mind. Philip K. Dick belongs to the same club. His works were somewhat ahead of his time; the common zeitgeist has only caught up with him lately. As long as that mood is congruent with his own, his books will continue to be adapted to film and added to the curricula of classes teaching 20th-century literature. But for generations brought into the world 50 to 100 years hence, who will see things with their own eyes which you and I can only have dreams (or nightmares) about, the authors which seem to have hit the mark so precisely with us will seem innocent and quaint.

"So, relish Dick's writings now; a hundred years from now you might only be able to find them at Project Gutenberg.

"Add London's 'The Red One' to your book club. Hysterical in some places, eerie in others."

It has been said that "The Red One" might have served as an inspiration for Arthur C. Clarke's science-fiction tale "The Sentinel," which in turn inspired "2001: A Space Odyssey." For his suggestion — and for his years-long participation in Cosmic Log's rebel alliance — Bishop will receive a copy of Albert Einstein's "Relativity," republished last month with a new introduction and commentary.

The CLUB Club highlights books with cosmic themes that have been around long enough to turn up at your local library or secondhand-book shop. Feel free to send in your recommendation, particularly if it goes down a literary road less traveled. (After all, luminaries like Sagan, Asimov and Heinlein are well-known enough.) If your recommendation is used as the next CLUB Club selection, I'll send you a prize worth making the Kessel Run for: a copy of "The Unifying Force," the final book in the "New Jedi Order," complete with a CD-ROM insert.

May 19, 2005 | 10:40 p.m. ET
Must-see science on the World Wide Web:

Space.com: Congress is asked to investigate asteroid
ESA: Women rise to challenge of weightlessness
The Guardian: Scientists learn the taste of words
Scientific American: Natural-born liars

May 18, 2005 | 8:50 p.m. ET
Robots on the volcano: Twenty-five years ago today, 57 people died when Mount St. Helens blew its top — an awe-inspiring tragedy I still remember well . Among the victims was volcanologist David Johnston, who was monitoring the mountain and radioed the alarm with his famous last words: "Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!"

When ash and steam belched from St. Helens' rebuilding dome in March, three monitors were lost — but no one shed a tear. That's because these monitors were the mechanical kind, known as "Spiders."

Volcano monitoring has come a long way since Johnston's day. Nowadays, the mountain is hooked up with sensors and volcano-cams that would have eliminated the need for humans on the scene.

"David Johnston would probably still be alive today if the events of 1980 were happening now," Gardner said last month during a panel discussion on the anniversary.

Losing one of the three-legged Spider isn't even that expensive: They cost only about $3,000 to $5,000 each, according to Cynthia Gardner, geologist and scientist in charge at the observatory. You can see what the things look like in this photo gallery.

High-tech scientific tools are coming onto the scene thanks in part to the work of people such as Marv Couchman, a geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey's Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Wash. As reported in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Couchman built a pizza-sized monitoring device nicknamed the Marv Lander, which can be dropped from a helicopter to monitor subtle movements on the mountain.

The mechanical monitors have not by any means eliminated the human factor in the scientific study of St. Helens. In fact, The Seattle Times reports that the gradual retirement of experienced volcanologists is of growing concern.

Gardner seconded that sentiment, if only half-seriously: "The world got wired, we have all this technology, but our brains still work like they did in 1980 ... or worse."

May 18, 2005 | 8:50 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the World Wide Web:

New Scientist: Smart shoes decide on television time
Nature: X-rays illuminate ancient writings
Discover Magazine: At MIT, nerds inherit the earth
Discovery.com: Debate over earliest European settled

May 17, 2005 | 7:50 p.m. ET
A gene's family tree: Like species themselves, genes evolve over time. Some sections of their DNA coding get duplicated and added to the mix, while others get snipped out. Then there are smaller genetic shifts, in which individual molecular "letters" within the code are changed. If you could analyze all those changes correctly, you could trace back the chronology of all those changes, like tracing back the twigs and branches of an evolutionary tree.

But conducting that kind of "genetic archaeology" is a huge computational task, with thousands of possible scenarios for reconstructing how genes have developed over time.

To make that task easier, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have developed a new software tool, and this week they made it freely available over the Web: The program, called "Notung," sifts through those thousands of potential evolutionary trees and helps biologists select the one that suits the data most cleanly and efficiently.

The program could help scientists see how harmful microbes and weeds adapt their genetic coding to become more resistant to medications or pesticides, said Dannie Durand, a biology and computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon. "The first thing you might do is use our program to figure out what genes might have been recently duplicated," she said.

Other researchers could then target those genes and figure out how to cancel out that resistance — employing the biological equivalent of counterterrorism tactics. Or they could learn from Mother Nature — taking away new strategies for detoxifying "good" organisms and making cash crops more resistant to pests.

Already, Durand is collaborating with a team at the University of Puerto Rico on a project to identify genes that have made malarial parasites more resistant to anti-malarial drugs. Two screenshots from the Notung program provide a "before" and "after" view of the genetic evolutionary tree for the parasites and related species. In the "after" view, more recent genetic shufflings clustered toward the top of the chart — and thus would be the likely targets for further research.

Eventually, the findings could help scientists fine-tune the anti-malarial drugs to make them more effective. It all goes to show that the study of molecular evolution can provide payoffs in fields ranging from medicine to agriculture. "More and more, you see evidence that evolutionary tools can bring a little more information to bear on your work," Durand said.

You might wonder why the software is called Notung, particularly if you're an opera fan: Notung, or "Needful," was the name of magical sword plucked from an ancient ash tree in "Die Walküre," part of Wagner's "Ring" cycle. Durand explained that two of the researchers on her team were indeed "big opera buffs," and that the name is something of an in joke.

"What we do is, we cut up evolutionary trees and glue them back together in ways that are more efficient," she said.

But Notung is by no means magical: If the software analysis doesn't quite match what researchers know about the evolution of genes based on other information, they can shift the branches around to provide a better reflection of reality. "The user is in control of how the tree changes," Durand said.

For further background, check out Monday's news release from Carnegie Mellon as well as Durand's Web site. And if you want to delve into the subject even more deeply, consult Wikipedia's entry on "molecular evolution" and Encarta's discussion of the subject in its "evolution" entry.

May 17, 2005 | 7:50 p.m. ET
Sex and the single spaceship: Should men and women go together to Mars, or would it be wiser to have single-sex crews? We tossed out that question on Monday after discussing the Mars Society's experiments with all-male and all-female crews, and it didn't take long for Cosmic Log readers to respond:

Alan Binkow: "Several married couples would be best.  And my wife (psychiatrist and M.D.) and I (computer specialist) would like to volunteer!!!"

Robert J. Nemmers Sr.: "If we are going to the stars, we'd better give some serious consideration to coed flights, including childbearing along the way.  That way someone may arrive, even if its the next or n-to-the-x generation. I haven't yet subscribed to the durability of sentient life passing though a wormhole."

For more on the topic of married couples on space missions, review this archived Arctic Mars dispatch from the Mars Society's 2003 research season. Meanwhile, Jason Isaacs had this to say about NASA's efforts to free the Opportunity rover from a Martian sand trap:

"It's good to hear that the rover might be on the roll again soon. It makes me feel slightly less guilty for this joke at its expense. This goes back to your request for theme song suggestions [for the rovers]. ... You posted a suggestion I had made for 'I Can't Drive 55.' Anyway, this is a roundabout way of saying that if they're still doing daily theme songs, how about 'Stuck on You'?"

May 17, 2005 | 7:50 p.m. ET
More wonder and whimsy on the World Wide Web:

Nat'l Geographic: 'Antibiotic' beer gave Africans health buzz
Wired.com: Eggheads invent tele-petting
LiveScience: A skeptic's view of the Viaduct Virgin
The Onion: New, delicious species discovered

May 16, 2005 | 11 p.m. ET
Mars rover on the move: Over the weekend, NASA's Opportunity rover moved just an inch or two — but for the scientists and engineers planning the six-wheeled robot's escape from a Martian sand trap, that's excellent news.

"We're looking good, but we still have a ways to go," said Mark Maimone, a rover mobility engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "We probably have several more days of this 'slow and steady wins the race.'"

Opportunity got stuck in a drift of fine sand about three weeks ago , and mission managers have been working on a painstaking exit strategy ever since then, going so far as to simulate the situation with a test rover in JPL's "sandbox." The team issued commands to twist Opportunity's wheels into a more advantageous position on Friday. Then, over the weekend, the wheels were spun twice, for the rotational equivalent of about 6 feet (2 meters) each time.

Amateurs had been watching the daily return of imagery from Opportunity and wondering how much progress was really being made, but the latest word is encouraging — not only from Maimone, but from principal rover scientist Steve Squyres as well.

"The rover moved more than a centimeter in the expected direction during each maneuver, which was just the kind of behavior we were hoping for. (In fact, the motion was actually more than I was personally expecting to see this early in the game.)," Squyres wrote in today's mission update.

Maimone told me the latest spin resulted in movement of 1.8 centimeters (about three-quarters of an inch) in the right direction. "We're moving downhill, and we can see the four outer wheels, and we can tell that we're definitely moving in the terrain," he said.

Today the team commanded Opportunity to turn its wheels twice as much as it did during this weekend's spins. If the Martian maneuvers go the way that the simulation went, the spins should knock the sand out of the rover's wheels and produce more incremental progress, eventually leading to a breakthrough. "Once it does break loose, then progress will be very swift," Maimone said.

The rover team next plans to put Opportunity on a careful course southward toward its next target, Erebus Crater.

Meanwhile, in Gusev Crater on the other side of the planet, "life is good" for Opportunity's twin, the Spirit rover, Squyres said. Spirit is due to drive back toward a spot called Larry's Lookout in the Columbia Hills.

"The plan is to drive to a point that's on safe ground a few meters shy of the east side of the Lookout," Squyres wrote. "There are some rocks there that lie stratigraphically older than anything we have seen yet ... in fact, they may be the oldest rocks that we have yet seen at Gusev. We'll look at them from a safe distance first, and see what we see."

So far, Spirit and Opportunity have lasted 16 months — far longer than their 90-day warranty. Check out our special report, "Return to the Red Planet," to review the rovers' progress.

May 16, 2005 | 11 p.m. ET
Women on Mars: No, we're not talking about a cheesy '60s sci-fi movie, but about the latest crew simulating a space mission at the Mars Desert Research Station in southern Utah. The "Mona Lisa Project" put six women through a two-week tour of duty at the Mars-style habitat to see how they would perform in an exploration situation.

The all-female Crew 40 followed the all-male Crew 39, which went through a similar routine for the "Leonardo Project." The aim wasn't to conduct a "Survivor"-style, boys-against-the-girls competition, but to test theories about group dynamics.

"Crew 39/40's research is based on the notion that people act as both individuals and members of groups, and that they function most cohesively and cooperatively in a group if they identify with that group," the Mars Society explained. Would single-sex crews or coed crews perform better during a 500-day mission to Mars? The findings from this spring's experiment are to be presented in October at the International Astronautical Federation's annual congress, but in the meantime, what's your opinion on the sexual dynamics of long-term spaceflight?

May 16, 2005 | 11 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:

Science News: Learning to listen
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): What's the logic of female orgasm?
Defense Tech: Best of anti-missiles axed
Space Weather: The weekend's auroral wonders

The fine print: Looking for older items? Check the Cosmic Log archive. Share your perspective on cosmic subjects with Alan Boyle. If you link to this page, you can use http://cosmiclog.msnbc.com or http://www.cosmiclog.com as the address. MSNBC is not responsible for the content of Internet links.

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