Science: Update

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The Independent Culture
THE COUNCIL of Europe is to vote today on whether to impose a moratorium on clinical trials of xenotransplantation, in which animal organs are transplanted into humans. The vote, which is expected to halt plans for trials, would be a political rather than a scientific decision, and probably not binding on member countries. But it reflects increasing worries that animals' DNA hides pathogens which could have drastic effects on human organ recipients.

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THE WORLD has a brand-new, superheavy element. Or it did. A team at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research at Dubna, near Moscow, synthesised a new element containing 114 protons and 175 neutrons.

It was achieved by bombarding neutron-enriched plutonium with a calcium isotope. The as-yet unnamed element survived about 30 seconds - much longer than other synthesised elements, which last a few fractions of a second. Theory had predicted that element 114 might lie in an "island of stability" among the heavy elements, which the experiment seems to show.

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RESEARCH FROM Holland suggests that DNA from ingested plants and food has a half-life of about six minutes in the human gut. It also found that genetically modified bacteria can transfer their genes to bacteria in the gut, if the two microbes are sufficiently closely linked (say, both from the Enterococcus family).

However, worries that the work, reported in New Scientist, could lead to new "superbugs" as food with genes for antibiotic resistance is eaten by animals, were discounted by John Beringer, head of the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment. The risk of such events is very, very small, he said - and many people already have gut bacteria resistant to ampicillin, the antibiotic commonly used for resistant modified bacteria.

The Sky at Night column will appear in next week's science page

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