Science  18 Aug 2000:
Vol. 289, Issue 5482, pp. 1121

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  1. Horseshoe Haven

    Scientists are uncertain if horseshoe crabs are being overharvested (see p. 1122), but the federal government is moving to set up a refuge for the animals anyway. Commerce Department officials last week proposed a 6164-square-kilometer sanctuary off Delaware Bay, believed to host the largest horseshoe crab population on the Atlantic seaboard.

    Harvesters collected an estimated 3 million crabs in 1998 for use as bait—up significantly from past years. Despite a lack of rock-solid evidence for population declines, however, Commerce officials want to end harvesting in the new refuge by 30 October. “The last thing any of us wants is to see these creatures wind up on the fished-out stocks list,” Commerce Secretary Norman Mineta said at an 8 August press conference. “We look at it as a risk-averse approach,” adds biologist Paul Perra of the National Marine Fisheries Service. And conservationist Glenn Gauvry, director of the Ecological Research & Development Group in Milton, Delaware, says that “protecting spawners off the Delaware Bay is very sensible. It's the heart of the population.”

    A formal notice of the proposal, and a request for public comment, is expected later this summer.

  2. Pig Tales

    Scotland's Roslin Institute, a pioneer in cloning sheep, made headlines again this week when reporters learned that it was halting its efforts to engineer pigs that could grow spare organs for transplant into humans. According to numerous press reports, Geron, the California-based company that financed the xenotransplant research, was pulling the plug over concerns that the pig organs might transfer dangerous viruses to people.

    It just isn't so, company and institute officials said on 14 August. Disease concerns “were not the basis for the decision to refocus the funding” to other cell biology and genetic engineering projects, Roslin chief Grahame Bulfield said in a statement. “Our decision to allocate funding reflects current strategic priorities,” which include harnessing Roslin's cloning expertise to Geron's work with stem cells, added Geron's David Greenwood.

    The decision makes sense, industry watchers say, as other companies appear to be in a better position to profit from any xenotransplant breakthroughs. Says one: “Geron is playing to its strengths.”

  3. Defining Distress

    Plans by the U.S. government to change the way researchers characterize pain and distress in lab animals is drawing reaction from biomedical and animal-rights groups. In July, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) asked for comments on the new guidelines, which are supposed to help researchers spot and lessen discomfort in lab animals. Among other things, the plan defines “distress” as stress that has “negative effects on [an animal's] well being.”

    Last week, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) said it would prefer a different definition, adopted by the National Research Council in 1992. It describes stress as “an aversive state in which an animal … shows maladaptive behaviors.” FASEB also wants practical rules that rely on the “professional judgement” of researchers and veterinarians.

    The Humane Society of the United States and other groups, however, want USDA to adopt a Canadian-style scheme that ranks pain and distress into several categories, based on common lab procedures. “We need a scale with very clear-cut markers,” says John McArdle, director of the Alternatives Research & Development Foundation of Eden Prairie, Minnesota. Other ideas may still surface, as USDA will receive comments until at least 8 September.

  4. Orange Alliance

    At the urging of Senator Tom Daschle (D-SD), the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) is trying to team up with Vietnamese scientists to conduct studies of the health and environmental effects of dioxin. The chemical, implicated as a cause of cancer and other disorders, was present in the defoliant Agent Orange, which U.S. forces sprayed widely during the Vietnam war. Today, some Vietnamese carry tissue concentrations of dioxin that are up to 20 times higher than those found in people living in the United States.

    This week, NIEHS gathered a group of epidemiologists and toxicologists in Monterey, California, to discuss research strategy and the resources needed to perform epidemiological studies in Vietnam. Later this year, NIEHS scientists plan to meet with their Vietnamese counterparts, with joint studies set to begin in 2002. “That is, assuming the Vietnamese are interested,” says NIEHS's Chris Portier.