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Updated 11:00 AM April 5, 2004



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Research Notes

Researchers turn back time for acid rain-ravaged forest

Heavy trucks and helicopters aren't the kind of equipment one usually associates with scientific experiments, but they played key roles in an ambitious project that is helping researchers assess the effects of acid rain on forests.

The first results of the experiment, a joint project of U-M, Syracuse University and the Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y., appeared in the February/March issue of the journal Biogeochemistry.
Joel Blum mixes wollastonite in a beaker (above). A helicopter prepares to disperse one-ton bags of wollastonite over forests in New Hampshire (below). (Photos courtesy Joel Blum)

"We know that one of the effects of acid rain has been to reduce the amount of calcium that's available to plants in the forest, and a fundamental question is, how does that calcium loss affect the structure and function of forest and aquatic ecosystems?" says U-M geochemist Joel Blum.

One way of finding out is to add back to the ecosystem the amount of calcium lost due to acid rain and watch what happens. That's what Blum and collaborators are doing with a 29-acre wooded watershed at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in northern New Hampshire. The research team had tractor-trailer truckloads of wollastonite—a calcium silicate used in the ceramics industry to make pottery whiter—transported to the area. They applied 55 tons of it to the watershed with the help of a helicopter pilot using a global positioning system.

Though most of the ecological results are still preliminary, they're promising, Blum says. "We're already seeing biological responses—certain species of trees that were previously declining are coming back in large numbers, and we're seeing that different species of trees have differing abilities to access the calcium and take it up into their foliage."

The point of the research is not necessarily to come up with fixes that will reverse the effects of acid rain—though foresters have inquired about the feasibility of dropping loads of wollastonite on other woodlands. The idea, Blum says, is to "improve our understanding of how the system works so that we can make better predictions about what the road to recovery will be like."

Genetic research stirs discussion at two conferences

African-Americans and Latinos are more likely than whites to say they support genetic testing in a wide range of situations, including prenatal screening. But African Americans are less knowledgeable than whites about what such tests can and cannot do, according to recent research at the Institute for Social Research (ISR).

But since African Americans and Latinos have lower average incomes than whites, and are less likely to hold private health insurance, their ability to obtain genetic testing is reduced relative to whites. They also are more concerned than whites about the privacy and possible misuses of information obtained through genetic testing.

These findings—based on a national random-digit-dialed telephone survey of 1,824 respondents conducted in 2000 by ISR research scientists Eleanor Singer, Toni Antonucci and John Van Hoewyk—were presented at a March 20-21 ISR conference on Genetics and Health Disparities, supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The Michigan Center for Health Disparities, directed by U-M researchers James Jackson and David Gordon, provided additional support for the conference, which featured presentations by psychologists, anthropologists, geneticists, pathologists, pharmacologists, bioethicists, sociologists, statisticians and survey methodologists from Michigan and around the nation.

"The discussions represented most of the large spectrum of opinion on this contentious issue," Singer says, "ranging from the view that advances in genetics will make health disparities among race-ethnic groups obsolete to the position that the emphasis on genetics will simply serve to rigidify racial and ethnic differences while absolving society of the need for addressing the social and environmental conditions largely responsible for health disparities."

Antonucci presented findings from the same study on ethnic differences in attitudes about genetic testing April 2 during a symposium called Genetic Threads, sponsored by the U-M Public Health Genetics Program. The symposium, held in Palmer Commons, was designed to bring together educators, researchers, students and staff interested in the wide range of genetics activities occurring on campus.

Transplant centers once exaggerated degree of illness

When an organ becomes available for transplant, patients who are sicker are given top priority. But a study by researchers at the U-M Health System (UMHS) and Penn State found evidence that heart transplant centers in the past often exaggerated the severity of a patient's condition to increase the likelihood of obtaining a transplant organ.

To address this behavior, the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), which governs organ allocation, initiated changes in the system. Since those changes went into effect in 1999, the researchers found, so-called transplant gaming behavior dropped off.

Before the rule change, patients awaiting heart transplants were listed in one of two categories, with the highest priority given to those expected to live less than six months without a transplant. In areas with more than one heart transplant center this left a high possibility that doctors might exaggerate their patients' conditions or even admit patients to an ICU prematurely in order to boost their chances of receiving a transplant.

The more inter-hospital competition that existed within a region called an organ procurement organization, the more likely patients were to be listed in the sickest category, researchers found.

In 1999, UNOS tightened the listing rules to divide patients into three status levels, with the highest priority reserved for patients expected to live only one month. Doctors are required to recertify their patients on this list every seven to 14 days. After this rule change, the researchers found, the more competitive transplants centers did not have higher numbers of patients listed in either of the two highest priority levels.

Dr. Peter Ubel, associate professor of internal medicine at the Medical School and director of UMHS's Program for Improving Health Care Decisions, was senior author.

Businesses can promote peace in global economy

Businesses can foster peace and help reduce violence in this time of increasing globalization, researchers at the Business School say.

"Businesses are engines of economic development, which can be beneficial to social harmony," says Cindy Schipani, professor of business law. "Through globalization, companies consistently reach across borders to create diverse work forces where members of different ethnic groups can work together on common projects.

"Occasionally, firms may be able to mediate conflicts between governments. Conversely, if businesses are viewed as exploitative, culturally undermining, greedy or socially insensitive, they can sow the seeds for potential violence."

In their study, "Ecology and Violence: The Environmental Dimensions of War," Schipani and colleague Timothy Fort—associate professor of business law and ethics—examine how issues of violence manifest themselves in a global economy and discuss the business implications of tensions that arise from poverty, social injustice, corruption and environmental scarcity.

They argue that business people have an important stake in maintaining a stable allocation of natural resources and an environment that is relatively free from violent conflict. These conditions are increasingly difficult to achieve, they say, because violent contests for oil, water, gold, copper, timber and other natural resources still occur throughout the world, triggering spillover effects.

They propose that corporations assume a greater role in mediating the tensions caused by natural resource stresses by adopting a balanced approach of economic development, being open to external evaluation, building community and pursuing track-two diplomacy. "Business people can contribute to sustainable peace and reduce the potential for violence," Fort says. "If they do not do this, then who will?"

Entangling atoms and photons

Researchers have taken a first step toward solving a thorny problem in the development of quantum computers—computers that would store and process information using single atoms or subatomic particles instead of electrical charges and microchips and would be capable of computations that stymie the most powerful conventional computers.

One major challenge has been how to transmit quantum information reliably, in units known as qubits, between remote locations. In conventional computers, bits of information are transmitted with electrical currents, but qubits are too easily perturbed to be moved around that way. An alternative is using units of light, called photons, to carry the information.

In the March 11 issue of Nature, the researchers reported the first direct demonstration of "quantum entanglement" between a single atom and a single photon. Entanglement—the quantum feature Einstein termed "spooky action-at-a-distance"—is the fundamental quantum linking of two entities that is required for quantum communication.

"It is widely recognized that in order to make full use of quantum computers, fixed quantum memories like atoms must be linked to fast quantum information carriers like photons," says physics professor Christopher Monroe. "This experiment is a first step in that direction."

Monroe's collaborators on the work were assistant professor Luming Duan, research fellow Boris Blinov and graduate student David Moehring. The work was conducted within the FOCUS Physics Frontier Center and the Department of Physics.

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