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January 31, 2009

US Republicans elect first African-American chairman

US Republicans elect first African-American chairman

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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Michael Steele
Image: Steele for Chairman.

The Republican National Committee has elected African-American Michael S. Steele as its chairman.

Steele, 50, a former Lieutenant Governor of Maryland, won after the sixth round of voting against Katon Dawson of South Carolina. Steele’s candidacy was controversial as he was seen as being on the left of his party’s base and had been a member of the Republican Leadership Council, an anti-social-conservatism movement. He had denied being a moderate, telling CNN: “I’m proud to say I’m a conservative, have been, always will be.”

Steele has an agenda of reform for his party. In addition to the election of Barack Obama of the opposing Democrats in the presidential election of 2008, the Democrats gained eight seats in the Senate and 21 seats in the House. He told the media that the Republicans have an image problem, being thought of as a party that is “insensitive, a party that is unconcerned about minorities, a party that is unconcerned about the lives and the expectations and dreams of average Americans.”

According to the BBC, the Republicans are aware of not being able to reach the country’s non-white population, a job made tougher by the Democrats having a very visible mixed-race leader in the White House.

When campaigning for the United States Senate in 2006, Steele had been a vocal critic of then-President George W. Bush. In an off-the-record press lunch, which within 24 hours had his name attached to it, he had loudly criticized Bush’s handling of the Iraq War and the Hurricane Katrina rescue effort. He told reporters that standing as a Republican at that time was like being branded, saying “I’ve got an R here, a scarlet letter.”

The Republican National Committee develops and promotes the Republican Party’s political platform and coordinates fundraising and election strategy. Steele spent more than $200,000 on his Convention election campaign.



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Trial date set for fraud case against Church of Scientology in France

Filed under: Religion,Scientology — admin @ 5:00 am

Trial date set for fraud case against Church of Scientology in France

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Saturday, January 31, 2009

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A trial date has been set in a fraud case against the Church of Scientology in France. The date for the first hearing has been set for May 25, 2009. If the Church is found guilty, then Scientology would be ruled illegal and would be banned from operating in France.

Scientology Celebrity Centre on Franklin Avenue in Los Angeles, California
Image: Minnaert.

Prosecutors claim that the Church is engaged in illicit practices in attempts to sell their alleged self-help material. The Church also faces charges of illegally operating as a pharmacy by illegally treating individuals with prescription medications.

The charges come from an unnamed woman, who in 1998 purchased nearly 140,000₣ (US$30,000) worth of Scientology self-help material which allegedly included prescription drugs. After a few months passed, the woman said she felt like she was being scammed.

Following several complaints from other unnamed individuals and an investigation, judge Jean-Christophe Hullin ordered the Church’s ‘Celebrity Center’, and the seven managers to be put on trial for fraud and “illegally practicing as pharmacists.”

Cquote1.svg The special treatment reserved for the Church of Scientology Celebrity Center raises questions about the equality of the justice system and the presumption of innocence. Cquote2.svg

—Church of Scientology statement

On September 8, 2008 the Church released a statement following the order to stand trial saying that they felt “stigmatized” by the French judicial system.

“The special treatment reserved for the Church of Scientology Celebrity Center raises questions about the equality of the justice system and the presumption of innocence,” the Church said in a statement to the press.

This is not the first time the Church has been accused of fraud in France. They have also been convicted of it several times, including the Church’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard who was convicted of fraud in 1978. In 1997 the Church was convicted of fraud in Lyon and 1999 in Marseille. The 1978 convictions included Hubbard and his wife at the time, Mary Sue, both now deceased, and two other Scientologists.

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The 1978 convictions included Hubbard and four Scientologists after a seven year investigation into the Church by the French authorities. The court ruled that Hubbard and the others were using Scientology by making fraudulent claims that it was curing people from diseases to “increase the financial revenue” of the Church, and the ruling ordered Hubbard and the Scientologists to serve four years in prison.

However, Hubbard, along with the four Scientologists fled France, never to return, and never served a prison term.

Related news

  • “Church of Scientology in France accused of fraud; ordered to stand trial” — Wikinews, September 8, 2008

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Swiss canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden fights back after invasion of German naked hikers

Swiss canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden fights back after invasion of German naked hikers

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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Nude hiking in Gard, summer 2008 with 39 persons

A local Swiss government has shown some bare cheek and has taken action, after hordes of German naked hikers rambling across the Swiss alps au naturel, caused indignation amongst locals.

Authorities in Swiss canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden have warned that starting from February 9, the government will impose hefty fines of 200 Swiss Francs (£122, €135) on naturists found walking or hiking in the nude without clothes in the picturesque mountains because of a recent influx of visiting German nudists.

The new ordinance is expected to be passed this spring. If it is approved by the local parliament on February 9 it should be effective on April 26. The Swiss canton aims to stop spread of ‘indecent practice’ by minimally-clad German climbers.

The problem started with a group of “boot-only hikers” who were stopped by the police in the Alpine region last autumn. They had wandered there regularly, proudly marching through nature with bare bums, and had also advertised what they thought was a naked paradise on the internet. But it was all too much for the Swiss.

A nude rambler dressed in nothing more than a rucksack and walking boots in the eastern Appenzell region was arrested and detained in the canton, but authorities were unable to file lawsuit because the act was not punished by law or ordinance at the time.

“We were forced to introduce the legislation against this indecent practice before the warm weather starts,” Melchior Looser, the canton’s justice and police minister, said. “Ultimately, in the summer lots of kids stay in our mountains,” he added.

Canton, Appenzell Innerrhoden in Switzerland.

In the guidelines imposed, arrested offenders who cannot pay the fine, will face legal action. The new enabling ordinance has, however, been met with protests by nude hikers. “We simply try to tune into nature. It’s the most harmless pursuit possible,” said Dietmar, age 58, a German lawyer.

German tabloid Bild Zeitung has editorially attacked Swiss intolerance and even suggested nudist alternatives worldwide, after hinting a Swiss tourism boycott. Local authorities of Harz mountain range in central Germany have also announced the openness to any visitor of an “official naked walking route” in nature’s outdoors.

Freikörperkultur (“FKK”), or “free body culture”, is a popular pastime in Germany. It is a German movement which endorses a naturistic approach to sports and community living. Behind that is the joy of the experience of nature or also on being nude itself, without direct relationship to sexuality. The followers of this culture are called traditional naturists, FKK’ler, or nudists.

The naked ramblers have hoped it doesn’t lead to another naturist-clothed ‘war’, like the one at a beach between German and Polish holidaymakers in 2008. Naturism has roots traced from the start of the 20th century. “Abandoning unpractical clothes enables a direct contact with the wind, sun and temperature”, naked hiker website nacktwandern.de stated.

But Markus Dörig, a spokesman for Appenzell Innerrhoden canton has defended the law, explaining that the “public nuisance” was a foreign import. “We have been receiving many complaints. The local people are upset and we in the government share their concern. How would one feel if one was to go walking in nature and suddenly came across a group of naked people? They are definitely not people from the area, and I think many of them come from Germany,” he noted.

“We are a small and orderly community and such things are simply out of place here. Perhaps in vast mountain areas naked people would not be much of a problem but here they simply stick out,” Dörig added. “I can understand that we all have to live in this world together,” said Barbara Foley, International Naturist Foundation member of the central committee. “But I would certainly enjoy doing the hike in the nude and I wouldn’t want to be deprived of it. It’s nice to feel the sun on your skin. Maybe they should designate a couple of trails and people would know they might come across naturists there,” she added.

Altmann, a mountain in the Appenzell Alps in Switzerland.

Appenzell Innerrhoden (Appenzell Inner Rhodes) is the smallest canton of Switzerland by population and the second smallest by area, Basel-City having less area. The population of the canton was 15,471 as of 2007, of which 1,510 (or 9.76%) were foreigners. The canton in the north east of Switzerland has an area is 173 km². It was divided in 1597 for religious reasons from the former canton Appenzell, with Appenzell Ausserrhoden being the other half.

Appenzell is the capital of this canton. The constitution was established in 1872. Most of the canton is pastoral, this despite being mountainous. Cattle breeding and dairy farming are the main agricultural activities: Appenzeller cheese is widely available throughout Switzerland. Due to the split of Appenzell along religious lines, the population (as of 2000) is nearly all Roman Catholic (81%), with a small Protestant minority (10%).

The town, however is far from liberalism: the canton granted women the right of suffrage only in 1990 under pressure from the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland and international human rights groups. The Alpine village of Appenzell Innerrhoden, being known for its beautiful landscape, has recently been declared a “naked rambler paradise” by a German mountaineering website, which was created by a lobby group of hikers.



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  • Wikipedia-logo-v2.svg Portal:Nudity
  • Wikipedia-logo-v2.svg Naked hiking
  • Wikipedia-logo-v2.svg Appenzell Innerrhoden

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Jack Herrick, wikiHow founder interviewed by Wikinews

Jack Herrick, wikiHow founder interviewed by Wikinews

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Saturday, January 31, 2009

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wikiHow is a wiki-based site which aims to “build the world’s largest, highest quality how-to manual.” It recently published its 50,000th article, and to discuss what the site has achieved since its creation, Wikinews interviewed the site’s founder, Jack Herrick.

In the interview, Herrick explains what wikiHow is, why he decided to create it, how he grew it in size, and why he chose to use a Creative Commons license for his site. Read below for more of the interview in full.

Interview

Wikinews waves Left.pngWikinewsWikinews waves Right.png For our readers who are unaware of your site, could you briefly explain what wikiHow is?

Jack Herrick: Sure. wikiHow is a collaborative effort to build the world’s largest, highest quality how-to manual. Our long term goal is to produce practical instructions on almost every topic in every language. We’re quite far from our goals currently, but we take comfort in the fact that every month wikiHow gets noticeably better and larger. We currently have just under 50,000 articles [Note: The interview took place just before the 50,000 milestone was met] and over 1,000 featured articles. We hope that in time, we will have millions of articles with many of them having featured status. That said, we are realistic enough to realize that this goal will take decades to achieve. However, in terms of readership, we are probably the most popular single subject wiki after Wikipedia. We get over 14 million unique visitors per month (source:Google Analytics), which makes us the 135th most popular site according to Quantcast.

Like Wikipedia, wikiHow is a wiki that runs on Mediawiki software. Our community is full of volunteers from all over the world. That said, we are quite different from Wikipedia in several respects:

  • We are much smaller. The English wikiHow has only 60 admins, compared to the 1000+ on English Wikipedia. As a result, wikiHow is still at the size that every editor eventually gets to know other editors.
  • We are run as a Hybrid Organization – a for-profit company focused on achieving a social good. This has several advantages and disadvantages when compared to the non-profit structure at the Wikimedia Foundation. We show opt-out advertising to anonymous visitors rather than ask for donations. Our advertising revenue funds community meetups and has even allowed us to donate over $60,000 to charities such as the Wikimedia Foundation and Creative Commons. (http://www.wikihow.com/wikiHow:Contributions-to-Charity). In addition, we’ve used our revenue on things like buying carbon offsets to become carbon neutral. (http://www.wikihow.com/wikiHow:Carbon-Neutral)
  • Our community culture is focused on wikiLove and civility. As a result some folks believe wikiHow is a more humane and enjoyable place to work than other places online.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.png Why did you decide to create wikiHow?’

JH: I think that providing people with a practical education is one of the most empowering things you can offer a person. Imagine having detailed step-by-step instructions on how to do any activity you could imagine. How much more could you accomplish as an individual if you could learn any activity? I think that building a universal how-to manual would be a tremendous gift for the world. Knowledge is power and wikiHow has the potential to make all of us a bit more powerful.

I’ve been interested in building a comprehensive how-to manual long before I first envisioned wikiHow. My first attempt at building this resource was a website I used to run called eHow. eHow was and continues to be the largest and how to website in the world. eHow contains copyrighted content run on proprietary software. When I ran eHow, the content was professionally produced and edited. This business model worked for producing content on topics that appeal to advertisers in languages like English that have large advertising markets. However, paying people to write and edit articles ultimately means that you have to make one of two sacrifices. You either 1) sacrifice on breadth and don’t produce the topics that won’t interest advertisers, or 2) you sacrifice on quality and produce content that doesn’t cost much to write. I wasn’t interested in making either of these sacrifices, as I think the world’s how to manual needs to be high quality AND comprehensive. So ultimately I decided that eHow’s model would not build the resource I envisioned. When I discovered Wikipedia, I recognized that the wiki model had the potential to build the how-to resource the world really needs. So I decided to sell eHow and use the proceeds to build wikiHow.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.png Why did you decide to use a Creative Commons license?

JH: We use a Creative Commons license to give our community the right to fork (http://www.wikihow.com/wikiHow:Right-to-Fork). In my opinion, people should be hesitant to contribute to websites where you only have the “right to leave.” If wikiHow volunteers think our site is going in the wrong direction, they can take all the content and all the software and move the project elsewhere. This is possible because we release all of our software under the Open Source GPL license and release our content under a Creative Commons license. This right to fork guarantees that wikiHow, the company, will always serve the goal of the mission and our volunteer community. I believe that offering this right to fork has been a key element of our success thus far. My hope is that over time, internet users will demand this of any site where they invest their time in a way that creates value for others.

That said, when we started out I didn’t know the difference between the GNU Free Document License and my California Driver’s license. As a result, we made some mistakes along the path. In retrospect, I think we probably should have selected the CC BY-SA license instead of CC-BY-SA-NC. At a minimum this would provide a helpful compatibility with other wikis and free culture projects.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.png wikiHow now has millions of visitors per month. How did you grow the site to the size it is today?

JH: In December 2008, wikiHow had over 14 million unique visitors according to Google Analytics (Full data: http://www.wikihow.com/wikiHow:Statistics). Quantcast ranks wikiHow as the 135th most popular site in the US. (http://www.quantcast.com/wikihow.com). wikiHow achieved this popularity for a few reasons. First, people around the world are desperate for high quality how-to information. People want to learn more practical skills, and for the most part the internet doesn’t provide enough quality information yet. Second, we attracted millions of readers via the virtuous circle of wiki editing: We had some articles of mixed quality, and editors joined to improve those articles, which in turn attracted more readers. We continue to depend on this same virtuous cycle: More readers, means more editors, which creates better instructions, leading again to more readers. It is the same virtuous circle that Wikipedia has enjoyed.



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Iraqi provincial elections relatively peaceful

Iraqi provincial elections relatively peaceful

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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki with then-President George W Bush of America in 2006
Image: Kimberlee Hewitt.

Voters in Iraq have gone to the polls today, the first time in four years, to elect provincial councils.

There have been few reports of the violence or intimidation that have marred previous polls, although there has been violence in the run up to the election. A curfew is in place and airports and borders are closed. Security is tight, with the army guarding polling stations. Three mortar shells (or four flash bombs) are reported to have fallen near a polling station in Tikrit, but without causing injuries. A civilian and six policemen were injured by a bomb in Tuz Khurmatu, north of the capital Baghdad.

There are more than 14,000 people standing in 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces, with 440 seats up for election. The three Kurdish-controlled provinces are not voting and the election in Kirkuk province has been postponed. Provincial councils in the country have a large workforce, meaning that changes of control lead to changes in workforce. This gives winning candidates a lot of power in their local area. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency estimated that unemployment rates in the country were between 18% and 30% in 2006.

Analysts have said that voters are likely to turn away from religious parties and focus instead on nationalist and secular issues. In previous elections, the Sunni minority in the country had boycotted the polls. Reports say that they are turning out this time, with high turnouts in Sunni-dominated provinces like Anbar, and voting has been extended by an hour to allow more time.

Iraq was a one-party state following a revolution in 1968. Former dictator Saddam Hussein came to power in an internal coup in 1979. He was removed from power in 2003 following the controversial American-led invasion of the country. After the invasion, the economy and civil structure of the country collapsed but now appears to be stabilising, with more areas being returned to local control and plans by new U.S. President Barack Obama for American troops to withdraw.



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Holocaust denial bishop apologizes

Holocaust denial bishop apologizes – Wikinews, the free news source

Holocaust denial bishop apologizes

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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Pope Benedict XVI
Image: Fabio Pozzebom for Agência Brasil.

A bishop who denied the deaths of 6 million Jewish people in the Nazi Holocaust has apologized to the Pope.

Bishop Richard Williamson was excommunicated by Pope John Paul II in 1988 due to his membership of the Society of St. Pius X, which did not accept the Vatican II reforms of the mid-1960s. Pope Benedict XVI allowed Williamson back into the Roman Catholic church last Saturday. A few days before that, Swedish state television, SVT broadcast an interview in which Williamson said, “I believe there were no gas chambers, yes. I don’t think 6 million Jews were gassed”, according to euronews. CNN gives the quote as “I believe that the historical evidence is strongly against — is hugely against — 6 million Jews having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler”.

Williamson has now written to Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos, who handles the reintegration of excommunicated Society of Saint Pius X members, to apologize for the distress and problems he caused with his statement. He wrote: “Amidst this tremendous media storm stirred up by imprudent remarks of mine on Swedish television, I beg of you to accept, only as is properly respectful, my sincere regrets for having caused to yourself and to the Holy Father so much unnecessary distress and problems,” CNN reports.

The apology was followed by further problems when a fellow member of the Society was quoted in an Italian newspaper as saying he did not know if anyone had died in Nazi gas chambers. The Associated Press say that Father Floriano Abrahamowicz confirmed that the remarks, made to La Tribuna di Treviso, were his.

Last Wednesday, the Pope included a reference to Holocaust denial at the end of his weekly audience. Recently returned from a trip to the site of one of the camps, he said remembering the Holocaust “induces humanity to reflect on the unpredictability of evil when it conquers the heart of man. The Shoah be for all a warning against oblivion, against denial or reductionism, because the violence done against one human being is violence done against all.”



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Franco-Belgian bank Dexia to restructure, lose 900 jobs

Franco-Belgian bank Dexia to restructure, lose 900 jobs

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Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Dexia building in Luxembourg
Image: Spone.

The Franco-Belgian bank Dexia has announced it will restructure and cut 3% of its staff after posting a €3 billion full-year loss.

Dexia says it will close operations in Australia, eastern Europe, Mexico and Scandinavia and reduce business in the United Kingdom and the United States. Dexia specialises in finance to local governments but also runs standard retail banking outlets in Belgium and France. It will cease proprietary trading as part of the restructuring.

The bank will sell its U.S. bond insurance arm Financial Security Assurance to Assured Guaranty. Dexia Banka Slovensko in Slovakia will be retained, as will the company’s Italian, Spanish and Portuguese public finance operations. In total, some 900 jobs will be lost.

Dexia will not pay a dividend or management bonuses this year, whilst board members have taken a 50% pay cut. The bank ran into trouble last year as a result of the failure of Lehman Brothers and the subsequent collapse of confidence in the banking system worldwide. The governments of France, Belgium and Luxembourg stepped in to guarantee the bank’s survival, although the bank was not nationalized, and the previous executive management was removed. The bank’s current chairman is Jean-Luc Dehaene, a former prime minister of Belgium.



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Discworld author films his battle with Alzheimer\’s

Discworld author films his battle with Alzheimer’s

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Saturday, January 31, 2009

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Terry Pratchett in 2005
Image: Jutta.

The Discworld author Sir Terry Pratchett is to appear in a BBC documentary covering a year of his struggle with the brain disorder Alzheimer’s disease.

Pratchett, 60, asked the BBC to spend a year documenting any decline in his condition and seeing him experiment with various supposed cures. One alleged cure involved firing infrared light at his brain via a helmet invented by a general practitioner doctor. Pratchett also examines the serious research into dementia and its cure.

The author has donated £500,000 to the Alzheimer’s Research Trust and his campaigning has raised another £200,000. Pratchett has posterior cortical atrophy, a rare form of the disease which affects vision, causes him to forget words and makes dressing confusing. He has written 36 Discworld novels amongst other works and was knighted in the 2009 New Years Honours.

Posterior cortical atrophy is also known as Benson’s syndrome. It is the progressive shrinking of the back of the brain. It is a form of Alzheimer’s disease, and the wider disease affects some 26.6 million people worldwide.

The documentary – Terry Pratchett: Living with Alzheimer’s – will air on BBC Two on February 4 at 21:00.



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Brain chemical Serotonin behind locusts’ swarming instinct

Brain chemical Serotonin behind locusts’ swarming instinct

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Saturday, January 31, 2009

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Desert Locust, (Schistocerca gregaria) Cyrtacanthacridinae, Acrididae
Image: NASA.

The usually inhibited desert locust Schistocerca gregaria, which wiles away the months as a solitary, insignificant grasshopper can shift into horrifying swarms due to a chemical commonly found in people’s brain, a research showed.

The solitary and gregarious phases of locusts are so different that they were considered distinct species until 1921. Scientists have known for several years that touching a solitary desert locust on the hind legs, or allowing it to see or smell other locusts, is enough to transform it into the gregarious phase. This week, Science magazine published strong scientific evidence that the behavioural and physical makeover is effected by serotonin, a carrier of nerve signals in virtually all animals.

Researchers from the University of Sydney, University of Oxford, and University of Cambridge have pinpointed a single neurochemical – serotonin – as the cause of an instinctive behavioural change from the locusts’ solitarious phase to become gregarious and form disastrous swarms of millions.

Serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine, or 5-HT) is a monoamine neurotransmitter synthesized in serotonergic neurons in the central nervous system (CNS) and enterochromaffin cells in the gastrointestinal tract of animals including humans. Serotonin is also found in many mushrooms and plants, including fruits and vegetables.

In the central nervous system, serotonin plays an important role as a neurotransmitter in the modulation of anger, aggression, body temperature, mood, sleep, human sexuality, appetite, metabolism, as well as stimulating vomiting. Keeping serotonin levels high is the aim of many anti-depressant drugs. “Serotonin profoundly influences how we humans behave and interact,” said co-author Dr Swidbert Ott, from Cambridge University. “So to find that the same chemical is what causes a normally shy, antisocial insect to gang up in huge groups is amazing,” he explained.

Prior to swarming, the locusts undergo a series of physical changes – their body colour darkens and their muscles grow stronger. The ‘Phase change’ is at the heart of the locust pest problem, for locusts are one of the world’s most destructive insect pests, affecting the livelihoods of 1 in 10 people on the planet. “To effectively control locust swarms, we must first understand exactly how it is that a single shy locust becomes a highly social animal that swarms,” said University of Sydney Professor Steve Simpson who led the research for almost 20 years.

The ‘phase change’ was caused by stimulation of sensory hairs on the hind leg of locusts. Professor Simpson’s team began to investigate the neurological and neurochemical basis of this effect. Dr Michael L. Anstey, of the University of Oxford, supervised by Professor Simpson, and Dr Stephen M. Rogers, part of Professor Malcolm Burrows’ team at Cambridge, led the research investigating this novel field. “Here we have a solitary and lonely creature, the desert locust. But just give them a little serotonin, and they go and join a gang,” said Malcolm Burrows.

Locust from the 1915 Locust Plague
Image: G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, Library of Congress.

Of 13 neurochemicals in locusts that were gregarious (swarming form) and solitarious (non-swarming), the only neurochemical that showed a relationship with social behaviour was serotonin. “It was clear that as locusts switched from solitarious to gregarious, the amount of serotonin in their central nervous systems also increased,” explained Professor Simpson. “The next step was to determine if this relationship actually meant that serotonin was the cause of gregarious, and thus swarming, behaviour in locusts,” he added.

To do this, the researchers either added serotonin or prevented the production of serotonin in locusts. The results show unequivocally that serotonin is responsible for the behavioural transformation of locusts from solitarious to gregarious. Serotonin was also found to be involved in social behaviour of species across the animal kingdom, including crustaceans, rats, and humans.

The team has found that swarm-mode locusts had approximately three times more serotonin in their thoracic ganglia, part of the central nervous system, than their calm, solitary peers. “The question of how locusts transform their behaviour in this way has puzzled scientists for almost 90 years,” said co-author Dr Michael L. Anstey, from Oxford University. “We knew the [physical] stimuli that cause locusts’ amazing Jekyll and Hyde-style transformation. But nobody had been able to identify the changes in the nervous system that turn antisocial locusts into monstrous swarms. Now we finally have the evidence to provide an answer,” he added.

“The fact that serotonin causes the transition from a shy, antisocial animal into a party animal means that pharmacologically, gregarious locusts are on Ecstasy or Prozac,” said Professor Simpson, who also explained that “(whilst a very good idea, in reality) it would be difficult to create a locust control agent that interferes with serotonin.”

Professor Simpson’s team has significantly discovered that “locusts offer an exemplar of the how to span molecules to ecosystems – one of the greatest challenges in modern science.” He also offered an explanation on the problem of using a locust control agent: “Because social behaviour in so many animals depends on serotonin, if we used unspecific serotonin antagonists in the environment, we run the risk of affecting other processes in locusts, as well as severely impacting animals other than locusts. We would need to be sure that locusts have a unique serotonin receptor that causes phase change, which we haven’t identified yet. Any locust control agent would have to be specific for this serotonin receptor in locusts.”

Cquote1.svg We knew the [physical] stimuli that cause locusts’ amazing Jekyll and Hyde-style transformation. But nobody had been able to identify the changes in the nervous system that turn antisocial locusts into monstrous swarms. Now we finally have the evidence to provide an answer. Cquote2.svg

—–Dr Michael L. Anstey, Oxford University

This study, which was sponsored by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council of England, England’s Royal Society, the Australian Research Council Federation, and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. The scientists that the conclusions of the study will provide a hint as to how to solve the problem of locust infestations, which affect China, Africa, and Australia. Dr. Rogers said the landmark discovery has opened a new area of study into ways of blocking specific serotonin receptors, “something that would allow us to break apart these swarms before they develop.”

Charles Valentine Riley, Norman Criddle, and Sir Boris Petrovich Uvarov were also involved in the understanding and destructive control of the locust. Research at Oxford University has earlier identified that swarming behaviour is a response to overcrowding. Increased tactile stimulation of the hind legs causes an increase in levels of serotonin.

This causes the locust to change color, eat much more, and breed much more easily. Green locusts turn bright yellow and gain large muscles. The transformation of the locust to the swarming variety is induced by several contacts per minute over a four-hour period. It is estimated that the largest swarms have covered hundreds of square miles and consisted of many billions of locusts.

Serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine, 5-HT), a neurotransmitter that moderates mood
Image: Ben Mills.

“Locust” is the swarming phase of short-horned grasshoppers of the family Acrididae. The origin and apparent extinction of certain species of locust—some of which reached 6 inches (15 cm) in length—are unclear. These are species that can breed rapidly under suitable conditions and subsequently become gregarious and migratory. They form bands as nymphs and swarms as adults — both of which can travel great distances, rapidly stripping fields and greatly damaging crops. Though there are about 8,000 currently known species of grasshoppers, only 12 form locust swarms.

In the history of the insect Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) is probably the most important because of its wide distribution (North Africa, Middle East, and Indian subcontinent) and its ability to migrate widely. Adult Desert Locusts grow to between 2-2.5 inches in length, can weigh 0.05-0.07 oz, and are excellent fliers. In religious mythology, the eighth Plague of Egypt in the Bible and Torah, a swarm of locusts ate all the crops of Egypt. “The gregarious phase is a strategy born of desperation and driven by hunger, and swarming is a response to find pastures new,” Steve Rogers from Cambridge University emphasises.

The extinction of the Rocky Mountain locust (Melanoplus spretus) in the late 19th century has been a source of puzzlement. Recent research suggests that the breeding grounds of this insect in the valleys of the Rocky Mountains came under sustained agricultural development during the large influx of gold miners, destroying the underground eggs of the locust. That species of locust had some of the largest recorded swarms.

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In the 1915 locust plague, which lasted from March to October 1915, locusts stripped areas in and around Palestine of almost all vegetation. This invasion of awesome proportions seriously compromised the already-depleted food supply of the region and sharpened the misery of all Jerusalemites. The plague resulted in several increases to the price of food. On April 25, 1915, the New York Times described the price increases: “Flour costs $15 a sack. Potatoes are six times the ordinary price. Sugar and petroleum are unprocurable and money has ceased to circulate.”

In the 2004 locust outbreak, the largest infestation of Desert Locust happened in Western and Northern Africa, affected a number of countries in the fertile northern regions of Africa. These infestations covered hundreds of square miles and involve billions of vegetation-munching insects, which repeatedly devastated agriculture, and cost huge amounts of money to control.

In November, a locusts swarm 3.7 miles (6km) long devastated parts of Australia. Along the process of their active phases, these insects can eat their own bodyweight daily, and can fly swiftly, in swarms of billions covering 60 miles in five to eight hours in search of food. Researchers are now considering the development of sprays that convert swarming locusts back into solitary insects.

“We hope that this greater understanding of the mechanisms causing such a big change in behaviour will help in the control of this pest, and more broadly help in understanding the widespread changes in behavioural traits of animals.” Malcolm Burrows said. However, according to Paul Anthony Stevenson of Germany’s University of Leipzig, the discovery will not likely to a short-term pest control solution.

“To be effective, antiserotonin-like chemicals would need to be applied when the animals are solitary locusts and scarce targets in vast expanses of desert — about three locusts per 100 square meters (1,076 sq ft),” Stevenson explained. “Current serotonergic drugs are not designed for passing through the insect cuticle and sheath encasing the nervous system, nor are they insect-selective, hence their use is ecologically unjustifiable,” he added.

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Sources

Wikipedia Learn more about Serotonin and Locust on Wikipedia.
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Discworld author films his battle with Alzheimer’s

Saturday, January 31, 2009

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Terry Pratchett in 2005
Image: Jutta.

The Discworld author Sir Terry Pratchett is to appear in a BBC documentary covering a year of his struggle with the brain disorder Alzheimer’s disease.

Pratchett, 60, asked the BBC to spend a year documenting any decline in his condition and seeing him experiment with various supposed cures. One alleged cure involved firing infrared light at his brain via a helmet invented by a general practitioner doctor. Pratchett also examines the serious research into dementia and its cure.

The author has donated £500,000 to the Alzheimer’s Research Trust and his campaigning has raised another £200,000. Pratchett has posterior cortical atrophy, a rare form of the disease which affects vision, causes him to forget words and makes dressing confusing. He has written 36 Discworld novels amongst other works and was knighted in the 2009 New Years Honours.

Posterior cortical atrophy is also known as Benson’s syndrome. It is the progressive shrinking of the back of the brain. It is a form of Alzheimer’s disease, and the wider disease affects some 26.6 million people worldwide.

The documentary – Terry Pratchett: Living with Alzheimer’s – will air on BBC Two on February 4 at 21:00.


Sources

  • Anita Singh “Sir Terry Pratchett documents Alzheimer’s battle in BBC film”. The Daily Telegraph, January 31, 2009
  • “Sir Terry films Alzheimer’s battle”. The Press Association, January 30, 2009
  • Andrew Billen “Discworld author Terry Pratchett on Alzheimer’s and his best work”. The Times, January 30, 2009


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