Science: Theoretically ...; Smoke ills/ Unseeded Monsanto/ Korea's biotech/ Mir crash/ Reactor woes

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Respiratory tract infections have almost doubled in Malaysia following the smoke caused by fires which have devastated the forests there, according to reports from hospitals in the area. Scientists are now examining the possibility of using Nasa's orbiting Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer (TOMS) satellite, which can reliably detect smoke over land, to monitor forest burning in east Asia, Africa and South America: satellite data shows that half of Brazil was covered by smoke in parts of August and September.

The US seedmaker Pioneer Hi-Bred, whose sales comprise nearly half of American maize seed, has turned down an offer by the biotechnology company Monsanto to incorporate the "Roundup Ready" herbicide-resistant gene into its seeds. Monsanto already sells soya beans resistant to its Roundup herbicide, but the refusal of American farmers to separate these genetically modified crops from standard ones has led to arguments with European governments. Pioneer Hi-Bred said it decided Monsanto's offer would encourage a monopoly and lead to higher costs for customers. Monsanto claims the position is a negotiating stance.

Will it survive the IMF? South Korea plans to double its support for biotechnology projects, with the government there planning to invest US$18bn over the next 14 years in order to "catch up" by 2007, reports Nature. That was the plan at the beginning of this month, but with the recent requirements - forced by an ailing economy - to call for financial help from the International Monetary Fund, that government commitment may shrink. About 80 Korean companies are involved in biotechnology, including the Samsung conglomerate.

Another crash for Mir. At least this time it was only the computer: the replacement system installed over the summer failed, meaning power was lost. But the astronauts, who are used to this sort of thing (it was an almost weekly event recently) replaced that with a new system brought up by a cargo spaceship earlier this autumn, and installed it over the weekend.

Mission control is now so blase about such breakdowns on the 12-year- old spaceship that it didn't even bother to report the failure until yesterday morning. "Now everything is fine - no problem," said spokesman Vera Medvedkova. She did mention, though, that a spacewalk scheduled for 5 December and requested by Nasa, to perform scientific experiments, has been put off until January. The two Russian cosmonauts on board asked for the postponement so they can repair the depressurised outer hatch of the Kvant-2 module, among other tasks.

Sympathy for a reactor? Sort of: in Japan, the Science and Technology Agency, which licenses nuclear power plants, has decided that its prototype advanced thermal nuclear reactor, the only one in the country to operate on heavy water, can keep operating for another five years "out of consideration of its 300 employees and because of its contribution to the local economy", reports Nature. The STA had planned to close the reactor down early after a leak in April of tritium and heavy water went unreported by the plant's operators for more than 30 hours. On investigation, the STA found that there had been 18 undeclared tritium leaks since 1992, which were part of a string of accidents and obfuscations by the Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Corporation, which owns the plant.

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