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NSF in the News

November 1997


The ocean's algae has an important role to play in global climate control. Researchers have long known that it influences cloud formation in the atmosphere, but recently they have discovered how the algae form the chemical that allows them to perform.

The research, performed by an NSF-funded scientist at the University of Florida in Gainesville, could help explain global climate changes and make it possible to develop agricultural crops that resist freeze, drought and salt-water damage.

Andrew Hanson, a plant biochemist and molecular biologist, describes his research in the journal Nature. He identifies the four steps by which marine algae make DMSP (dimethylsulfoniopropionate). Scientists have long known that DMSP is converted to DMS (dimethylsulfide), a sulfur gas that helps clouds form. But now, scientists understand algae's precise mechanism for making DMSP.

"This work furthers our understanding of the biological origin of atmospheric dimethylsulfide, which is a significant factor in the global sulfur cycle and may play an important role in climate regulation," says Porter Ridley, Program Director of NSF's Metabolic Biochemistry Program.

"We have established the biochemistry of how algae convert the common compound methionine, which is found in all algae, into DMSP," says Hanson. Algae produce DMSP to protect themselves from the negative effects of high salinity and freezing, explains Hanson. DMSP is also formed in some higher plants that are tolerant of these stresses as well as drought, he adds.

"If we can use genetic engineering to transfer the capacity to make this compound from simple marine organisms into commercial agricultural crops, we should be able to confer a useful degree of drought, freeze and salt tolerance to these plants," he says. "Citrus, for example, would be a particularly good target, because it is quite sensitive to freezing and has no DMSP or related compounds itself."

Hanson's research has also provided a clearer view of how marine algae help control world climate. "Since DMS gas from algae is linked to cloud formation, its role in global heating and cooling could be critical," he says. "We don't know how future trends in world climate will affect marine algae, but we do know there is a feedback effect operating."


The country has a new way of measuring the well-being of its children.

Using a set of 25 key indicators on critical aspects of children's lives, the Federal Agency Forum on Child and Family Statistics released a report last summer that offers a composite picture of critical aspects of children's lives, including their behavior and social environment, economic security, education, and health.

America's Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, was published with the assistance of eight contributing federal agencies, including NSF.

"This highly informative report on our nation's children represents an important new use of statistical information available from many sources in the federal government," says Bennett Bertenthal, a cognitive development psychologist and Head of NSF's Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences.

"By combining information on numerous topics, this report enables us to gain a better perspective on the whole of our children's lives, and to understand how each facet is related to the others," says Bertenthal.

Among other findings, the report shows a positive trend in the overall health and education of the nation's children. Fewer children are uncertain about where their next meal will come from and more are being read to by their parents.

However, some areas of children's lives are not improving, including the use of illicit drugs and cigarette smoking among adolescents.

For a complete copy of this report, visit the National Center for Health Statistics web site: http://www.cdc.gov.nchswww/nchshome.htm

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