Human-Primate Hybrids

There are no inherent scientific or ethical reasons why researchers should not create monkeys or apes that have some human brain cells mixed in with their own, but there should be some limits, concludes a team of scientists, philosophers and others from 16 universities.

Culminating more than a year of deliberations, their report rejects the notion that such experiments should be banned because hybrids would be "unnatural." Rather it concurs with a report recently released by the National Academy of Sciences that found no support for the notion that boundaries between species are absolute or fixed in nature.

But such experiments do raise concerns about the "moral status" of the animals involved. Some religious traditions consider humans "morally special," the report notes. Some philosophical traditions also consider that humans' capacity for rational thought and self-awareness endows them with higher moral standing.

The group says the prime consideration should be whether an experiment might confer upon a hybrid creature a measure of mental capacity that would raise its moral standing. Because it is unlikely that such an animal would be granted the freedom and respect it would then deserve -- and because an enhanced mental status could also bring a measure of mental suffering -- scientists should minimize the odds of creating animals with such capacities, according to the report, published in the July 15 issue of the journal Science.

The group says proposals to create human-primate hybrids should be given an extra level of review.

-- Rick Weiss

Old Tales and Earthquakes

Traditional stories of epic battles and two-headed monsters told by Native Americans of the Northwest may have their roots in historic earthquakes, a University of Washington researcher suggests.

"When you look at native stories, you find that they are very figurative," says Ruth Ludwin, a research scientist at the Department of Earth and Space Sciences, "but they raise a lot of questions, and sometimes those questions provide insight into geological events" -- in much the same way that ancient calamities such as eruptions and celestial supernovas have been linked to legends in a number of cultures.

In a paper in the July/August issue of Seismological Research Letters, Ludwin cites more than a dozen tales that could refer to earthquakes that took place in A.D. 900 and to landslides in the Seattle and Lake Washington areas. Using sophisticated geological tools, she has found evidence of the landslides. If confirmed, these ancient landslides will be a new addition to the geological map.

The native stories usually refer to a giant serpent called "a'yahos," which resided close to the beach. The a'yahos would suddenly rise from the earth and the water at the same time and cause a lot of shaking and exploding rocks. Ludwin believes a'yahos is a metaphor for the earthquakes and landslides.

In earlier research in the Vancouver Island area, she found stories about battles between Thunderbirds and Whales that could be references to a 1700 earthquake and tsunami.

Although Ludwin's findings are still speculations, she says, "here are the stories that could be about something geologic, and here are some geologic facts" that could have led to those stories.

-- Naseem Sowti

Unknown Health Risk in Sand?

The swimming waters of many beaches are regularly monitored for bacterial contamination from pollution, but contaminated sand may be an unrecognized health threat, an advocacy group said Friday on the basis of three independent scientific studies.

The studies found potentially significant levels of indicator bacteria in the sand, said the report by the nonprofit Clean Beaches Council, an advocacy group.

Swimming water is regularly tested for E. coli bacteria, which itself is not harmful but can indicate that enough fecal matter is present to pose a disease risk. The council's document, "2005 State of the Beach Report: Bacteria and Sand," was described as the first comprehensive look at the level of indicator bacteria in sand.

Two studies showed higher bacteria concentrations in sand than in the nearby water. One was conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey at a freshwater Chicago beach in 2003, while the second focused on two beaches in St. Clair County, Mich., between 2001 and 2002.

Richard Whitman, station chief of the Geological Survey's Lake Michigan Ecological Research Station in Porter, Ind., said the findings merit further investigation.

There is no concrete evidence linking intestinal illness to sand contamination, but children spend more time than adults do playing and digging in wet sand, making them more vulnerable to intestinal illness. "We simply don't know how polluted sand affects human health," Whitman said. "And while we . . . realize that sand may have a higher number of indicator bacteria, we do not know the medical implications of its presence."

-- Juliet Eilperin

Legends about two-headed monsters may be linked to geologic events such as earthquakes, landslides, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions.