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    Nature / 13 September 2007, V.449, P.122-123
    Russian scientists see red over clampdown
    Microbiologist taking samples to France is accused of smuggling bioweapons
    • Quirin Schiermeier
    Российский биолог Олег Медянников подозревается ФСБ в контрабанде биологического оружия во Францию. 12 декабря 2006 года перед вылетом в Марсель из Шереметьева таможенники конфисковали у Медянникова несколько пробирок с непатогенными штаммами вакцины против тифа, допущенной Минздравом к вывозу во Францию.
    Медянников занимается изучением Rickettsia prowazekii - микроорганизма, который вызывает сыпной тиф. Лаборатория, в которой он работает, много лет сотрудничает с коллегами из Средиземноморского университета в Марселе. Французские эпидемиологи собирались сравнить два штамма R. prowazekii, произведенные больше 20 лет назад и хранящиеся в НИИ эпидемиологии и микробиологии имени Н.Ф.Гамалеи. Оба штамма не считаются вирулентными и используются в производстве вакцин.
    В июле было возбуждено уголовное дело по статье о контрабанде материалов и оборудования, которые могут быть использованы при создании оружия массового поражения. Дело возбудили, несмотря на разрешение Минздрава на вывоз штаммов и письма от научных руководителей в России и Франции с подтверждениями безопасности образцов.

A young Russian biologist who was taking samples to a collaborative institute in France has been accused of attempting to smuggle bioweapons by Russia's federal security service, the FSB. He has been interrogated repeatedly by FSB agents and prevented from leaving the country. His job also now looks uncertain. But experts say that the accusations are absurd.
Oleg Mediannikov's Kafkaesque nightmare began on 12 December 2006 at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport, as he was about to board a plane to Marseilles. Customs officials confiscated 20 phials containing non-pathogenic strains of a typhus vaccine approved by the Russian health ministry for export to France, along with Mediannikov's computer and USB memory sticks. Mediannikov initially thought there was a minor problem with the paperwork. But more than eight months on, the interrogations continue.
Mediannikov, who works at the Gamaleya Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow, studies Rickettsia prowazekii, the bacterium spread by lice that causes epidemic typhus. The institute's laboratory of rickettsial ecology, headed by Irina Tarasevich, has a long-established collaboration with the Rickettsial Unit of the University of the Mediterranean in Marseilles, led by Didier Raoult. The two institutes are World Health Organization Collaborating Centres for Rickettsial Reference and Research.
Raoult planned to compare the protein spectrum of two strains of R. prowazekii - Madrid E and EVir - produced more than 20 years ago in chicken embryos in Russia and since held at the Gamaleya Institute, with similar strains produced more recently in France from mammalian cell cultures. Both strains are not considered to be virulent and are used in vaccinations against typhus. The work is part of a larger research project on the pathogenesis of R. prowazekii, led by Raoult and funded by France's basic-research agency, the CNRS.
Mediannikov was allowed to continue his trip to Marseilles without the samples. On his return to Moscow in January, he was told that the confiscated material had been sent to a secret laboratory - code-named the 47th military research institute - for an 'expert assessment'. Three weeks later he was told that an additional assessment - the first allegedly concluded the materials were benign - was necessary before the materials could be returned. This second assessment is still pending.
But the situation is causing other problems for Mediannikov. On 13 February, he intended to go on a tourist trip to Cameroon, only to learn at Moscow's Domodedovo airport that there was an official order preventing him from leaving the country. When he demanded an explanation, a customs official said the order "must not be discussed". His passport was confiscated and returned two months later by regular post.
All his efforts to clarify the situation have proved fruitless. In early June, customs informed him that the FSB - successor to the Soviet KGB - insisted on initiating criminal proceedings. To avert prosecution, he gave them the valid export permission signed by the deputy health minister. In addition, he presented letters from Tarasevich and Raoult attesting to the harmlessness of the strains and their sole use for scientific purposes.
Nonetheless, criminal proceedings were initiated on 26 June - and the accusations are severe. The indictment, of which Nature has obtained a copy, cites Article 188/2 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation on smuggling materials that might be used for preparing weapons of mass destruction. People guilty of illicit trafficking of weapons-delivery systems can be sentenced to up to seven years in prison. Raoult says that he is stunned. "Something like this has never happened in 20 years of our centres' collaboration," he says. "Oleg spent two years working in my lab. He is a very good, dynamic and responsible scientist." His work has been instrumental in helping fight typhus in Russia, he adds. Typhus bacteria are not considered potential bioterrorism agents by other governments. "It is a terrible disease, but the agent is so difficult to grow that it doesn't make any sense to use it for bioweapons," says Raoult.
This week, Mediannikov told Nature that the deputy director of his institute had been approached by the FSB and that Mediannikov has now been told to resign or face the sack.
On the up
Mediannikov's case illustrates a worrying resurgence in Russian scientists being accused of wrong-doing. In 2000, for example, thermo-physicist Valentin Danilov of Krasnoyarsk State Technical University was arrested for allegedly passing classified information to China. He was acquitted in 2003, but taken into custody again after the Russian Supreme Court overturned the acquittal in 2004. And in 2004, Igor Sutyagin, a social scientist formerly with the US and Canada Institute in Moscow, was sentenced to 15 years in a labour camp for allegedly passing classified data on nuclear submarines and missile-warning systems to a British company.
The FSB also suspected chemist Oleg Korobeinichev, head of the laboratory of chemical kinetics and combustion in Novosibirsk, of having divulged state secrets to the United States. But the charges were dropped in June 2006, and Korobeinichev received a public apology from local legal authorities. On 27 August, the FSB finally withdrew the charges against physicists Oleg and Igor Minin, who had been accused of revealing state secrets.
"There have been worse times in this country," says a Russian expert on non-proliferation on condition of anonymity. "But Vladimir Putin has untied the hands of the FSB, and we do see a trend here towards strengthening state control over all spheres of life, including science."
In May, the FSB warned in a secret report to President Putin that biological samples taken from Russians could be used abroad to produce "genetic weapons". Consequently, the export of human specimens was temporarily banned. The order was reversed two weeks later after an outcry in the media and the scientific community.
"Publicity does help in such cases," says Konstantin Severinov, a biochemist who has a joint affiliation at the Institute of Molecular Genetics in Moscow and at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Severinov was himself 'interviewed' by an FSB official in June. "I told the guy straight away that the whole genetic-weapon craze is nothing but lunacy and paranoia," he says.
Over the past couple of months, Mediannikov has been summoned six times to the FSB interrogation department in Moscow. Interviews - about his biography, scientific advisers, collaborators, research, and so on - lasted for up to four hours, but took place in a "quite pleasant" atmosphere, he says. Mediannikov is now waiting for the result of the second expert assessment. "If there's anything in it that might back the charge we will insist on a third, independent assessment," he says. "If things get worse, we will also demand that the FSB interrogates the deputy health minister, who approved the export of the material." He points out that scientists from the Gamaleya Institute have previously taken similar samples to France without any problems.
One customs officer, Mediannikov says, hinted to him that customs were "ordered" by the FSB to take action against him. And Severinov says that Mediannikov might have been shopped to the FSB by an over-zealous member of his institute's "first department". These notorious "security" departments are obligatory at Russian research institutes - a relic of Soviet times - and they maintain close connections with the FSB.
Mediannikov's situation is serious, as is always the case when FSB investigators are involved, say legal experts. But if convicted only of "ordinary" smuggling, he may yet get away with a modest penalty fee, they say. A date for the trial has not been set. He is not in custody, but experts doubt that he would be allowed to leave Russia as long as the investigation continues.

© 2007 Nature Publishing Group.
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    The Guardian / Wednesday September 12, 2007
    Russia unveils the "father of all bombs"
    • Luke Harding
    Россия разработала самую мощную вакуумную бомбу в мире - ее разрушительная сила соизмерима с атомной бомбой, при этом ее действие не влечет за собой радиоактивного загрязнения прилегающей территории. Вакуумные бомбы, также называемые объемно-детонирующими, распыляют в воздухе над зоной действия горючее вещество, которое смешивается с кислородом из атмосферы и при детонации сжигает все живое, дополнительный эффект достигается за счет сверхзвуковой взрывной волны и высочайшего давления.

Russia's military yesterday announced that it had successfully tested a lethal new air-delivered bomb, which it described as the world's most powerful non-nuclear weapon.
In what appears to be the Kremlin's latest display of military might, officials said Moscow had developed a new thermobaric bomb to add to its already potent nuclear arsenal.
Russia's state-run Channel One television said the new ordnance - dubbed the Father of all Bombs - is four times more powerful than the US's Mother of all Bombs. "The results of tests of the aviation explosive device that has been created have shown that it is comparable with nuclear weapons in its efficiency and potential," Alexander Rukshin, a deputy chief of the Russian armed forces staff, told the channel.
"You will now see it in action - the bomb which has no match in the world is being tested at a military site," the report said. It showed a Tupolev 160 strategic bomber dropping the bomb over a testing ground. A large explosion followed.
The aviation vacuum bomb, which is also known as a fuel-air bomb, was the mightiest ever created, it added.
Last night's announcement comes at a time of growing tension between Russia and the west, and follows a tumultuous eight months in which Vladimir Putin has denounced US power, torn up a conventional arms agreement with Nato, and grabbed a large, if symbolic, chunk of the Arctic.
Last month Russia carried out a series of war games with China and four other central Asian states, designed to show the country's resurgent military power and the emergence of new regional alliances outside Nato. Russia's strategic nuclear bombers also resumed patrols of the Arctic, Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
The development of this latest device appears to be another response to the Bush administration's plans to site elements of its missile defence system in central Europe. Mr Putin has denounced the plan, arguing that it upsets Europe's strategic balance, and has vowed to respond. The US Massive Ordnance Air Blast, nicknamed the Mother of all Bombs, is a large-yield satellite-guided, air-delivered device, which previously enjoyed the dubious accolade of the most powerful non-nuclear weapon in history.
Thermobaric weapons differ from conventional explosive weapons by using oxygen from the atmosphere, rather than carrying an oxidising agent in their explosives. They produce more energy than normal weapons but are hard to control.
The US used similar fuel-air munitions to clear jungle for helicopter landings during the Vietnam War. The Soviet Union also developed its own fuel-air weapons, deploying them against China and in Afghanistan, and the Russian army used them in its second war in Chechnya.
The new bomb comes at a time when both Russia and the US appear to be reneging on nuclear arms limitation treaties signed during the cold war and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yesterday the head of a Russian foreign policy thinktank warned that Russia and the US were on the brink of a new cold war involving "an unrestricted nuclear and conventional arms race". Relations could sink into a serious crisis in a few years, and "domestic and political factors will aggravate the situation rather than help overcome the differences", Sergei Rogov, director of the Russian Academy of Science's US and Canada Institute, told the academy's presidium.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007.
* * *
    Astrobiology News - Reston, VA, USA / Tuesday, September 11, 2007
    NASA Collaborates With Russia on Foton-M3 Mission
    14 сентября на околоземную орбиту с космодрома Байконур будет отправлена российская космическая лаборатория "Фотон-М3". В ходе 12-дневного полета будет проведено более 40 научных экспериментов, подготовленных учеными России, Европы и США.

MOFFETT FIELD, Calif. - NASA is collaborating with Russia on a new robotic mission to conduct biological studies. The Russian Foton-M3 mission is scheduled for launch Sept. 14, 2007, from Kazakhstan, and NASA scientists will participate in several of the mission's experiments.
NASA scientists hope the data obtained from the Foton-M3 mission will improve research techniques. The experiments will increase fundamental knowledge of the effects of space on genetics, cell proliferation and tissue regeneration, as well as the physiological effects of microgravity. Scientists will conduct pre-and-post-flight studies in Russia on bacteria, newts, geckos and snails, which will be flown on Foton-M3. As part of the collaboration, U.S. and Russian scientists will exchange all scientific data obtained from the experiments.
"A team of U.S. scientists has been invited to participate in the experiments, and our role as co-investigators will be to enhance and expand the science conducted during the mission," explained Michael Skidmore of NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., who serves as the project manager for the Foton-M3 mission. In addition to scientists from NASA Ames, the team also includes scientists from Montana State University, Bozeman, Mont.
Foton-M3 will launch aboard a Russian Soyuz-U rocket. It utilizes a modified Vostok spacecraft, which contains a service module, solid-fuel retro-rocket unit and batteries. The robotic spacecraft will fly in low Earth orbit for 12 days before releasing its reentry module to land in either northern Kazakhstan or southern Russia on Sept. 26, 2007.
"NASA's long-term goal is to use simple, easily maintained species to determine the biological responses to the rigors of spaceflight, including the virtual absence of gravity," said Kenneth Souza, also of NASA Ames, who serves as the project scientist.
For the Foton-M3 mission experiments, NASA Ames scientists developed eight one-inch-deep aluminum boxes called "attics" to house a small, battery-powered video camera for in-flight video recording, a solid-state video recorder, infrared Light Emitting Diodes and a pump to provide water for the newts and geckos. A timer/processor will control the operations of the attic's components during the experiments.
NASA has a long history of cooperative research with the Institute for Biomedical Problems using unpiloted Russian spacecraft starting with the Bion 3 (Cosmos 782) mission in 1975. More recently, NASA participated in the Russian Foton-M2 mission in 2005.
"The Foton-M3 data will help validate the results of NASA's Foton-M2 investigations. Fundamental space biology studies, such as those related to Foton-M2 and Foton-M3, advance human knowledge of the effects gravity has had, and continues to have, on all terrestrial life," Skidmore said.

Astrobiology Web Copyright © 1999-2007 SpaceRef Interactive Inc. All rights reserved.

* * *

    Le Monde - Paris, France / 12.09.07
    La Russie défend l'amiante, reconnue comme cancérigène en Europe
    Россия является крупнейшим производителем асбеста в мире, однако в Европе это вещество запрещено по причине канцерогенности. На проходившем в Москве Международном форуме по социальной защите западные специалисты настаивали на запрете асбестового производства во всем мире, российские оппоненты утверждали, что риск не так уж и велик.

La Russie, plus grand producteur d'amiante du monde, a défendu mercredi cette substance largement reconnue comme cancérigène et interdite en Europe, alors que des experts occidentaux ont appelé à l'interdire à l'échelle mondiale, lors d'un forum à Moscou.
"Pour l'ensemble de la population, il n'y a aucun risque significatif. Je n'ai vu aucune étude scientifique qui montrerait qu'il doit être interdit", a affirmé Evgueni Kovalevski, représentant de l'Académie russe des sciences médicales, lors du Forum mondial de la sécurité sociale à Moscou. L'interdiction de l'amiante était l'un des sujets évoqués lors d'une session du Forum consacrée aux maladies professionnelles.
"Lorsqu'ils disent que l'amiante peut tuer, c'est juste une campagne publicitaire", a affirmé pour sa part Viktor Ivanov, chef de l'Association Chrysotile (le chrysotile est aussi appelé "amiante blanc", ndlr) basée dans la ville russe d'Asbest, dans l'Oural.
"Il y a beaucoup d'autres substances cancérigènes, mais personne ne les interdit. C'est une affaire politique et économique", a estimé M. Ivanov dont l'association représente les intérêts de plus de 40 producteurs russes d'amiante.
Les producteurs russes contrôlent près de 40% du marché mondial de l'amiante. D'autres grands producteurs sont le Brésil, le Canada, la Chine et le Kazakhstan.

© Le Monde.fr.

* * *

    Innovations report / 14.09.2007
    Underground Water Regulates Earthquakes
    В зависимости от глубины гипоцентра (центральной точки) землетрясения бывают мелкофокусные или "нормальные" (до 70 км), среднефокусные (70-300 км) и глубокофокусные (300-700 км). Ученые из Института морской геологии и геофизики ДВО РАН, Геофизического центра РАН и Института океанологии РАН им П.П.Ширшова выдвинули гипотезу, согласно которой сейсмическая граница - это одновременно и нижняя граница гидросферы. Иначе говоря, характер землетрясения зависит от уровня подземных вод.

Earthquakes happen to be surface (shallow-focus), intermediate and deep ones. Seismologists mark out the boundary between the first two types at the depth of about 70 kilometers, its nature being still unclear. Russian researchers, specialists of the Institute of Maritime Geology and Geophysics (Far-Eastern Branch, Russian Academy of Sciences), Geophysical Center of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the P.P. Shirshov Institute of Oceanology (Russian Academy of Sciences) have put forward a hypothesis that the seismic boundary is simultaneously the lower boundary of hydrosphere. The earthquakes character depends on underground water.
Earthquakes taking place "at different sides of the boundary" differ from each other not only by the depth. Shallow-focus earthquakes - they account for about 85% of all recorded events - often take place under the influence of periodic external effects, for example, rising tides, which disturb the entire lithosphere of the Earth. Periodicity is not inherent to deeper earthquakes, they always occur by chance. The conclusion was made by the researchers who had analyzed the world ISC/NEIC catalogues data that covers the 1964-2005 period and takes into account about 80,000 events.
Seismologists connect existence of the 70-kilometer boundary with water state changes in the interior of the Earth. The deeper the water molecules are located, the more compressed they are. At the depth of about 70 kilometers, the water compression strain index increases up to 1.3. This is the way water molecules are squeezed in the crystal lattice. Above this boundary, water exists mainly in free phase, below the boundary - water embeds into the rock crystallite composition.
The rock containing free water (above the boundary) promptly reacts to periodic tidal effects, even the faintest ones. Pressure changes and respective environment density changes cause formation of a crack system, where free water rushes to. The cracks widen, increase, and rock decay gives birth to a seismic focus. In the rock, where free water is absent (below the boundary), weak tidal effects are not accumulated and deformation does not grow.
So, the seismic boundary at the depth of about 70 kilometers (where, according to the researchers' assumption, the lower hydrosphere boundary runs) separates the events that are able to react to external action and the ones incapable of such reaction. Therefore, this boundary separates different types of earthquakes. However, it is still a hypothesis that requires experimental validation.

© copyright 2007 by innovations-report.

* * *

    The Sydney Morning Herald / September 19, 2007
    Making a mint from Artic mammoths
    Из-за температурных изменений в самых северных районах Сибири, за Полярным кругом, тает верхний слой вечной мерзлоты. В результате на поверхность выходят кости доисторических животных - мамонтов, шерстистых носорогов, пещерных львов. Частные коллекционеры и научно-исследовательские институты готовы платить огромные суммы за подлинные образцы.

One day, climate change could cost the earth. For now, it is a nice little earner for Russian hunter Alexander Vatagin.
In Siberia's northernmost reaches, high up in the Arctic Circle, the changing temperature is thawing out the permafrost to reveal the bones of prehistoric animals such as mammoths, woolly rhinos and lions that have been buried for thousands of years.
Private collectors and scientific institutes will pay huge sums for the right specimen, and bone-prospectors such as Vatagin have turned this region, eight time zones from Moscow, into a palaeontological goldmine.
"Last year someone was paid 800,000 roubles [$37,000] for a mammoth head with two tusks in great condition," Vatagin said.
A brawny 45-year-old, Vatagin has a network of helpers: the fishermen and reindeer-herders of the tiny Yukagir ethnic group, whose numbers have dwindled to about 800.
"I must have earned the respect of the Yukagir. Their shamans convened a council and decided to name me a Yukagir." He is now Yukagir No. 456.
These tribesmen are his "finders", fanning out across the vast emptiness of the tundra seeking valuable artefacts.
At regular intervals, Vatagin flies by helicopter to the main Yukagir settlement, Andryushkino, about 200 kilometres west of the local centre of Chersky, to view the merchandise.
Prehistoric bones are not very hard to find, he says. The permafrost is thawing and breaking up so rapidly that in certain places in the tundra bones poke out through the soil every few metres. Some just lie on the surface.
Vatagin pays between $10 and $190 for a kilogram of mammoth bones. But it takes a keen eye and local knowledge to find the really valuable stuff.
Tusks, sometimes curled almost into a circle and reaching up to five metres in length, are the most prized finds. A pair of good tusks is a rarity; two tusks and a well-preserved skull can be worth a fortune.
"If he is lucky, a local can earn 200,000 roubles in just one day," said Vatagin, who wears a massive silver ring with a mammoth's head engraved into it.
"To earn this money, he would otherwise have to toil for a year."
But for Vatagin it is not just about money. He himself dives into the ice-cold local rivers to look for relics. The cash he pays the Yukagir tribesmen gives them a living.
Many of the bones retrieved by Vatagin and his adopted tribe end up at the Ice Age Museum in Moscow. The museum makes no secret that scientific discovery goes hand-in-glove with business interests.
Museum official Alexander Svalov has on one of his fingers a ring identical to the one won worn by Vatagin.
The ring is the symbol of the National Alliance, a close-knit business run by entrepreneur Fyodor Shidlovsky. The company runs the museum, and holds government licences allowing it to excavate and export prehistoric relics.
Svalov, who is the chief executive of National Alliance, says a well-preserved tusk can sell to private collectors for up to $24,000, while a reconstructed mammoth skeleton can fetch between $180,000 and $300,000.
The bones make their way into museums in places such as the United States and South Korea. Now promising new markets are opening up in emerging economies such asChina too.
"Developing nations are now displaying huge interest in mammoths," says Svalov. "Their economies are growing, they have cash and are starting to develop their museums."
The permafrost thaw affects those rare outposts where humans have settled.
In Chersky, a town of 3000 people, apartment blocks have cracks running through their walls as the earth beneath them subsides. Many have been demolished as unsafe. 
Sergei Davydov, a 52-year-old scientist, does not sell the bones he collects. He keeps them in his home in Chersky to study the effects of climate change, but also because they fascinate him.
"This tooth has an unusual bump here. The mammoth suffered from a terrible toothache. We can only imagine how he must have roared," says Davydov, tenderly rubbing a black tooth the size of a large shoe.
He displays his other finds: a mammoth's giant thigh bones, the horns of a woolly rhino, the jaws of an ancient horse and a cave lion's skull. Bison skulls crowned with sharp horns decorate the interior of his cosy wooden house.
Davydov acknowledges that rising temperatures in Siberia have been a boon for bone collectors. "As the permafrost thaws, we obtain yet more objects for study," he says.
But then he reflects: "From the point of view of humanity, it would have been better if this had never happened".

Copyright © 2007. The Sydney Morning Herald.

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