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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 38 - July 2003   
 Europe's troubled seas
 Gutsy bacteria 
 The triumphs of a gene hunter
 Utopia on wheels

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Bullet Humanity finds its voice

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Why is language peculiar to humans? This fascinating question is of great interest to scientists. In the early 1970s, the American linguist Philip Lieberman and anatomist Edmund Crelin published the hypothesis that physiological changes (the flexion of the base of the cranium and lowering of the larynx) served to create a kind of 'echo chamber' (the pharyngeal cavity) which amplified and contrasted the sounds emitted by the vocal cords. In monkeys and babies, the larynx is placed too high to make this possible. But when exactly did this change take place? Reconstructions by palaeoanthropologists at the Museum of Man (FR) have shown that the cranium and larynx in Neanderthal man (between 500 000 and 300 000 years ago) were already in similar positions to our own.

In 1999, a new line of inquiry opened up. Researchers from Duke University in the USA studied the hypoglossal canal which encases the nerve controlling tongue movements. They believed that the power of speech depends on the size of this canal and that Neanderthal Man had the necessary volume. Unfortunately, a team from Berkeley University soon discovered that about 15 primates have a canal which is even larger than man's.

More recent hypotheses have focused on the organisation of the brain. A comparative study of humans and the chimpanzee shows that the Broca and Wernicke zones, which are associated with language, are present in both species. But there is more than just the brain involved. The French palaeontologist Yves Coppens believes that articulated speech, which marked the transition from pre-humans to humans, developed between 2.5 and 3 million years ago. The climate is seen as being a defining factor for this, with the Homo genus differentiating itself from the Australopithecus after a long period of severe drought. What is the connection? Climate change apparently caused a change to the respiratory system and it is this which permitted the development of phonatory capacities.

Other scientists place the emergence of speech much later, with the arrival of Homo Sapiens (100 000 years ago). In this theory, humans first learned to speak in Australia as a result of life experiences, namely a difficult sea crossing which required more precise communication skills, forcing them to add speech to gestures. This is one of the working hypotheses of Jean-Marie Hombert (CNRS) who coordinates the international multidisciplinary programme 'the origin of man, language and languages'.   

Researchers at the human genetics centre at the Wellcome Trust (UK) and at the Institute Max Planck’s (DE) Svante Păăbo Centre are, however, working on a gene, known as FOXP2, which is probably linked to the acquisition of articulated speech. They have studied this gene in mice, various monkeys and in humans, in whom a variant of FOXP2 apparently appeared. But the question remains open with the hypotheses placing the emergence of speech anywhere between 50 000 and 200 000 years ago. 

Bionet:  answering your questions

Are you for or against GMOs and why? Can new medicines extend life – and if so for what purpose? Will it one day be possible to choose your children's genes and what will happen to these ‘designer’ babies? In what cases will the cloning of embryos be an option? How does national legislation vary on all these questions of science and ethics? Will stem cells revolutionise the future? These are all questions posed by members of Bionet: eight European science centres(*) and the European Collaborative for Science, Industry and Technology (ECSITE) consortium. Documents and films help provide some of the answers as visitors explore the subjects of their choice.

Arguments for and against are summarised and, for those who want to find out more, there are links and a bibliography. Finally, for those who want to have their say, there is a system of on-line voting. 

(*) At-Bristol (UK), La Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie (FR), Experimentarium (DK), Heureka (FI), Fundació "la Caixa"/Museu de la Ciència (ES), Deutsches Museum (DE), Museu de Ciencia da Universidade de Lisboa (PT), The Science Museum (UK)

Bullet Competition: science photography

For the past two years, the Novartis pharmaceutical company and the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph have held the ‘Visions of Science Photographic Awards’, an original photographic competition open to professionals and amateurs alike. Most of the photographs presented are taken using inexpensive equipment which is accessible to everybody (such as a simple Kodak camera) in what is a homage to the low-tech approach. The prizes are awarded on 23 September in five categories: action (capturing a scientific process or natural event); close-up (a different take on reality); people (the impact of science and technology on daily life); concepts (explanation of a scientific concept); art (the beauty of science). This year, there will also be special prizes for a DNA image (to mark the 50th anniversary of its discovery), a photo of human medicine and of veterinary medicine, plus a young photographer's prize for the under-18s. In addition to the prize money, winners will also have their pictures published in the press and exhibited throughout the United Kingdom. A symposium for scientists and artists will be held at a later date.

TV: 2003 Midas Prize

Science is succeeding in getting its message across to the general public. It can even attract a large European audience by using their favourite media, television. Every year the EuroPAWS project awards the Midas Prize for the best efforts in this field. The aim is to encourage initiatives to present science and technology, either directly or indirectly, through documentaries or fiction. The three criteria applied by the jury are 'persuasion' ('was the programme convincing?'), the presentation of the scientific or technical element, and the effectiveness of the message for the target public. The films may address different audiences and be educational, family entertainment or in-depth documentaries. The projects selected are presented at the Image and Science Festival (Paris, 4-5 October) in the course of the two days devoted to television dramas. Prizes are awarded in London at the end of the year at an event organised by EuroPAWS. 

Bullet Water for all

Turning on a tap and filling a glass of water is not something everybody can do. An educational site, created by a humanitarian organisation (WaterAid) and plastics manufacturers, explains in very simple but thought-provoking facts and figures the problem of access to drinking water and the lack of sanitary installations which affect billions of people all over the world. The material can also provide ideas for teachers – languages, maths, geography, art and history can all be approached through water – and information for young ‘Internauts’ (three categories between ages 11 and 18). This British site is in English but the simplicity of the language used means that it can also be used for language learning. 

Bullet Biology teachers

The European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) are co-organising a series of nine workshops for teachers. They will be held in eight countries during 2003 and 2004 and an international meeting was held in Heidelberg last May. On each occasion, teachers and scientists look into – through interprofessional discussions and exchanges of good practice –the best ways of teaching the life sciences. They debate scientific developments and the ethical issues they can raise. 'We hope that this initiative will help establish a pan-European platform which will raise the level of biology teaching through the exchange of good practices,' explained Andrew Moore, head of the Science & Society programme at the EMBO.