Theoretically...

Expect more rows this year between consumer groups and American and European farmers offering genetically modified soya beans and maize. American farmers met last weekend at a joint convention of the National Corn Growers Association and the American Soybean Association, where they were lapping up the new products, eager to raise yields and cut costs by using fewer pesticides. Monsanto, creator of the herbicide-resistant "Roundup Ready" soybean, estimates those beans will be planted in some eight million to 10 million acres this season, or about 15 per cent of total US soybean acreage - up from about a million acres in 1996, the year the biotech product hit the market. But the big question is - will they separate them from non-modified beans? The farmers weren't saying.

This week's gene discovery: weight loss. Called UCP2, it is an "energy thief", according to Craig Warden of the University of California. UCP2 gives rise to a protein that steals some of the energy that cells generate, meaning they have to burn extra calories to make up for the loss. If it can be prodded into making more of this energy-stealing protein, cells would have to burn still more calories - and voila, weight loss. Unlike UCP1, discovered earlier in brown fat cells, UCP2 is at work in every human tissue Warden has checked, especially ordinary white fat and muscle, he said. Its protein appears to be about 20 times more abundant in the body than the protein from UCP1. The work is announced in the March issue of Nature Genetics.

Are Russia's ambitions in space dead? Nyet, to judge by the first launch scheduled for today of a military satellite from its new Svobodny cosmodrome in Siberia. The intention is to reduce Russia's dependence on the main Soviet space centre at Baikonur, which Moscow now rents from independent Kazakhstan. Colonel Sergei Gorbunov, a spokesman for Russia's Military Space Forces, said Svobodny would become the main launch site for commercial satellites which Moscow is banking on to fund its financially troubled space industry. Gorbunov said Svobodny, from which mainly solid-fuel rockets will be launched, posed no environmental dangers. But, mindful of the Mars96 failure, when a rocket went astray after launch, people who live on the nearby taiga have been warned that bits of booster rocket may fall back to earth during the launch.

Meanwhile, hopes of a relaunch of the European Space Agency's Cluster mission, which blew up directly after launch last summer, may depend on getting a cheap rocket from Russia. After Britain, France and Germany said they would not pay for replacement scientific instruments, Arianespace (whose Ariane-5 rocket blew up) offered the chance of two Soyuz launchers instead to keep the cost down to 210 million ecu. The ESA committee will consider the idea over the next month.

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