Category Archives: Features

Unburying the Spanish Civil War

In a waist-high trench alongside Spain’s national Highway 1, a dozen volunteers wearing rubber gloves brush tan clay from crumbling human bones. Their knees rest on foam cushions, and a white tent shades them from the summer sun. It’s July 2011—a full 75 summers after Spain erupted in the Civil War that put the bones of 59 civilians in the ground here.

A few steps away from the trench, volunteers hold microphones up to the murmuring mouths of elders from the town of Gumiel de Izán, in the north-central region of Castilla y León. The elders, who harbor memories of summary executions at the site, may well be the younger siblings, neighbors, and children of those in the grave. But at the moment of exhumation, nobody knows for sure. Instead, the volunteers document and collect the physical remains, coaxing out and recording imperfect memories that were suppressed during four decades of dictatorship.

Such sites are scattered throughout Spain, from the Canary Islands to La Mancha to the Balearic Islands. Recent estimates suggest that some 2,000 mass graves may hold the remains of up to 150,000 victims of hasty wartime executions. Continue reading

Tropical disease: A neglected cause

He didn’t know it at the time, but when chemist Matthew Todd posted a request for help on The Synaptic Leap, a website devoted to open-source biomedical research, he was sowing the seeds for a rivalry between an open initiative and a contract-research organization hired by the World Health Organization to reach the same goal.

The aim of both projects, run in 2010, was to produce a safer, low-cost version of praziquantel, a treatment for the tropical parasitic infection schistosomiasis. Up until that point, the treatment contained two enantiomers (mirror-image versions of the molecule that have slightly different properties) of praziquantel. One enantiomer has no effect on the parasite, but gives the drug a bitter taste. Eliminating this undesirable form could reduce side effects and help more patients to complete their treatment. The pure drug needed to be affordable. Todd, who is at the University of Sydney in Australia, thought that an open project was the best way to achieve this. “Open is very well-suited for neglected diseases,” he says. “The pay-off of secrecy is not very large.” Continue reading

India’s energy subsidy slowdown

The hum of Gurumoorthy Sethuraman’s 10-horsepower (7.46 kW) irrigation pumps joins the murmur of nearby rivers in Arayapuram, India. Sethuraman, an experienced and successful farmer, plants alternating crops of rice and pulses each year in the southeast Indian state of Tamil Nadu. This bounty has enabled his family to send several of his grandchildren to study abroad in the United States and United Kingdom. Yet, by law, he and other commercial agriculture enterprise owners are not required to pay the utility that powers the 60 or so wells that irrigate his 15 hectares of land.
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Will Europe toast GM wheat for gluten sufferers?

Soon, individuals with celiac disease in southern Spain will begin receiving regular allotments of bread. Rather than misguided charity, this will be a clinical trial of a new type of dough made from genetically modified (GM) wheat. The wheat has been altered to be low in gliadins—the portion of gluten proteins that are toxic to people with celiac disease. If successful, the trial could bolster growing research efforts to engineer wheat to be compatible with the immune systems of the ~1% of the global population with celiac disease and the much larger number of people with gluten allergies.

Low-gluten wheat could also open a new front in the battle for GM food acceptability in Europe. If Europeans are ever going to accept a GM food, celiac-safe wheat may be a good candidate. European consumers accounted for over euro1.1 ($1.21) billion of nearly euro1.9 billion worldwide gluten-free food market, according to market research firm Euromonitor International. Global gluten-free bakery sales are expected to grow at >7% annually, the firm predicts. But because this and other efforts to modify wheat involve inserting genetic elements to silence genes, they are subject to a European regulatory process closely tied to anti-GM politics. And even if such legal barriers to marketing are overcome, marketing such a wheat would require not just farmers, but millers, bakers and consumers to be persuaded that it is worthwhile. Continue reading