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News in brief

Field trials for GM food get green light in India

India's first genetically modified (GM) food crop is a step closer to reaching the dining table. The government has approved field trials for a strain of brinjal (aubergine) carrying a Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) gene.

Jalna-based Mahyco, the Indian venture of US seed giant Monsanto, claims its insect-resistant variety gives better yields with less pesticide use. To avoid possible cross-contamination with farmers' crops, the trials will be carried out in government farms. But critics already campaigning against Bt cotton — currently the only GM crop grown in India — say the brinjal trials are illegal.

Full biosafety data on the brinjal tests have not yet been generated, says Kavitha Kuruganti of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, based in Hyderabad: “The trials would open doors for entry of GM tomato, okra, mustard, corn, rice and five other food crops in the pipeline.” The government says that a committee of experts reviewed all available biosafety data and concluded they were in order.

Gates Foundation helps Iraqis escape the conflict

Car-bomb wreckage near Baghdad University highlights the perils for some Iraqi academics. Credit: MOHAMMED AMEEN/REUTERS

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is getting into the business of helping persecuted Iraqi academics continue their research abroad. A $5-million grant will help support the Scholar Rescue Fund run by the Institute for International Education (IIE), which aims to raise $15 million for Iraq.

The Gates Foundation is best known for its $33-billion bankroll and for tackling health problems such as malaria and HIV. The new grant is a one-time award, not a shift in focus, says a spokesperson for the foundation.

As Iraqi professors come under increasing threat of violence, many have sought help to temporarily flee the country, says IIE president Allan Goodman. So far, 41 grants have been awarded to Iraqis — 27 to scientists — to pay for relocation, housing and research. “This is about the rescue of science and learning,” says Goodman.

WWF sues over threat to endangered whales

Last month, in the Sea of Okhotsk, Russia, a conglomerate of energy firms lowered a 28,000-tonne platform for drilling for oil on to a base on the sea floor. They did it very carefully — in part to keep down the noise, as the last feeding grounds of the western Pacific population of grey whales (Eschrichtius robustus) lie some 7 kilometres away.

But environmentalists and some scientists say construction of the platform was not quiet enough. So the environmental group WWF and activist group the Corner House have taken legal action against a UK government department. The WWF claims that the department conditionally promised financial support for part of the Sakhalin-II project without approving its environmental impact.

A department spokesperson calls the case “flimsy” and points out that the environmental review was in fact one of the conditions that would have to be met for approval. It is estimated that the Okhotsk region harbours the equivalent of 45 billion barrels of oil.

Anticlotting agent gets gene-specific label change

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is changing the label on a widely used drug to include information about how two genes may affect dosage requirements.

The FDA said on 16 August that the label on warfarin, a popular blood-thinner with the trade name Coumadin, is to be revised. The new version will state that a lower starting dose “should be considered for patients with certain genetic variations”.

Warfarin is widely used in patients with artificial heart valves and those at risk of blood clots. But it can cause massive and sometimes fatal bleeding. The two gene variants flagged by the FDA encode enzymes involved in warfarin's breakdown and its function as an anticlotting agent.

Although the FDA has demanded similar labelling on four other drugs, warfarin is the first major drug to be labelled in this way. “This means that personalized medicine is no longer an abstract concept but has moved into the mainstream,” says Larry Lesko, director of the FDA's Office of Clinical Pharmacology.

India to expand research institutes and universities

The Indian Planning Commission has rolled out a seven-year plan to set up eight more Institutes of Technology — the élite science and technology universities. Also in the US$32-billion plan are 7 new national business schools and 20 Institutes of Information Technology.

The push follows a call by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to put Indian science on the global map by upgrading its research facilities. There are also plans for 30 more 'central universities' — one in each of the 16 states with no such institution at present, and 14 in states that offer free land.

Asthmatics win payment in diesel-fumes lawsuit


Asthma patients in Tokyo last week welcomed a cash settlement from car manufacturers and the Japanese government. The one-time payment resolved a decade-long legal battle in which the asthmatics blamed diesel car fumes for their illness.

The automakers, including Toyota, Honda and Nissan, will provide ¥1.2 billion (US$10.5 million) to the plaintiffs, and a further ¥3.3 billion to support a five-year health plan for the patients. The central government and Tokyo metropolitan government will each contribute ¥6 billion to the medical programme.

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News in brief. Nature 448, 851 (2007).

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