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Unit 52 – To Build A Genome

Difficulty: Medium

Time: 4 minutes 30 seconds

The passage below has been adapted from an article by Clive Cookson and was originally published in the Financial Times, July 2012.


Craig Venter, king of the genome, has been uncharacteristically quiet for a couple of years since his laboratory created the world’s first synthetic life form, a microbe whose genes were made entirely from inanimate chemicals. Some critics downplayed Venter’s achievement in 2010 because he did not make a novel form of life. The project was a technical tour de force, a demonstration that scientists could move on from reading to writing genes, but it reproduced an existing microbe called Mycoplasma mycoides, with just a few “watermarking” additions to distinguish its DNA from the natural bacterium.

Now his teams are well on the way to making synthetic microbes distinctly different to anything in nature. “We have a design contest to come up with a genome designed completely in a computer,” Venter says. “Three different versions of the genome are being constructed now and we hope to know by the end of the summer whether any of these designs will work as a living cell.”

The designs are all attempts to find the “minimal genome”, the least DNA with the fewest genes capable of sustaining a free-living organism. The smallest microbial genome in nature belongs to Mycoplasma genitalium, with 525 genes encoded in 580,000 chemical “letters” of DNA. The question is how much DNA is truly essential for life and how much is unnecessary clutter resulting from undirected Darwinian evolution. More…


Unit 49 – Multilingualism in the EU

Difficulty: Hard

Time: 4 minutes 30 seconds

The passage below has been adapted from an article published on on 4th July 2012.


Jean Quatremer, a renowned French political journalist from the daily Libération, complained about the official press statements accompanying the Commission’s economic recommendations to member states, published on 30 May.
The statements, eagerly awaited by the press because of the euro debt crisis, were initially made available to journalists in English only, with translations in other languages following hours later in the day.
This, Quatremer said, gave the Anglo-Saxon press an “incredible competitive advantage” over others.“Can you govern a eurozone, which numbers 330 million citizens, in a language which is only spoken by less than five million Irish? … Well, that is what the European Commission claims to do,” Quatremer wrote in a strongly-worded blog post.
Commission spokesman Olivier Bailly said he understood the frustration but urged Quatremer to “accept it” since English had become the most widely spoken language in the EU Executive.
The documents, Bailly argued, were translated within a few hours into the other EU working languages (French and German) and within two days for the remaining 20 official languages.
Quatremer is not isolated in his quest for more linguisitc balance within the EU institutions. Jean-Pierre de Launoit, President of the ‘Alliance Française’, a public association promoting the French language and culture worldwide, said he has long sought to promote linguistic diversity within the European institutions. “Our struggle lies in the defence of multilingualism and the use of French whenever possible” in the EU institutions, he said.
Dennis Abbott, Commission spokesman for education, culture and multilingualism, argued that the translation delays on May 30th were due to some last-minute changes to the documents, made during the meeting of the College of Commissioners that took place the same day. In total, 66 documents required translation, representing 10,500 pages or 450 pages per language for the Commission’s translation services. All were translated within the set deadline, Abbott told EurActiv in emailed comments.
Anticipating the Commission’s response, Quatremer wrote that he did not wish for all documents to be translated immediately into French, but at least the report concerning France.
The Commission estimates that translating its more than two million documents yearly costs the European taxpayer 60 cents per person, which is often referred to as “the cost of democracy”.



Unit 47 – Real Life & Celebs

Difficulty: easy

Time: 7 minutes 30 seconds

The passage below is an adaptation of an article by journalist, Julian Norman, published in The Guardian in June 2012.


Seaweed. Marmite. No, egg whites. Or maybe grilled chicken. Actually, hang on, try a handful of unsalted nuts. No bread though. Bread is poison.

The craving ravings of pregnancy? The menu requirements of a capricious Islington four-year-old? No, it’s the food recommendations of the last month from Closer magazine, which urge us to step away from the carbs and into a happy bubble of seaweed-eating. A New You in which it’s possible to leave behind your sad, lonely bread habit and step into a revitalised Beach Body, achieved through the medium of wakame salads and yoga. I discovered this while on a bus one rainy Thursday afternoon. My inclination to get off and walk was minimal and some kind fellow-traveller had left a copy of the magazine behind. I opened it, and began flicking through. I had no idea who the featured celebrities were, so it was rather like reading someone’s banal telephone conversation. Almost all of the stories could be boiled down to 140 characters, so I began to tweet it with the hashtag #Closer. Kerry is a size 10–12 and so she had weight loss surgery. Now she’s “ecstatic with her new body” was a typical tweet. Taken together, they are a fabulous collection of absurdism.

There is a serious point in among the whimsy, though: stories are not actually about the celebrities. They can be categorised into roughly three groups: bodies, food and relationships. In bodies, we learn that the ideal size to be is an 8. Women who fall below that size are said to be “gaunt”, and are usually mourning the end of a relationship. A 10 is acceptable but usually prefaced with the word “curvy”. Women who are over that size will be dieting, and we will get a run-down of their meal plans, or indeed whether they’re eating at all. If they are over a size 12, then their “pals” are quoted, gleefully telling of how the woman in question cries every night over her size, or is disgusted with herself.

Bodies intersect neatly with food. Carbohydrates are generally considered a bad thing, and menu recommendations inevitably focus on grilled fish or chicken with vegetables or salad. Then there will be one food item which creeps in several times per issue, being hyped either by celebrities or by the magazine itself, the magic weight loss food which will attain you that desirable size 8 figure. It was seaweed in the first issue, Marmite in the next.


Unit 44 – The Neurologist’s Concerto

Difficulty: medium/hard

Time: 6 minutes

The passage below has been adapted from an article by Ronan McGreevy, published in The Irish Times, entitled ‘What Makes a Musical Genius?’

Is musical talent down to nature or nurture? Prof Steven Frucht is determined to find out what makes a true musician. What is the ineffable thing that marries the notes in a musician’s head with the ability to translate that into great music flawlessly and in a way that others can only admire?
The relationship between the brain and music has fascinated Steven Frucht, professor of neurology at Mount Sinai Medical Centre in New York and an accomplished violinist himself. Most music lovers are aware that musical talent seems to run in families, but many attribute that to the environment in which a musician is raised and the incentive to practise.
He came to the subject through his work helping musicians with the potentially career-threatening disorder called focal dystonia, also known as musicians’ dystonia. It afflicts musicians who use their hands repetitively in very complicated arrangements and is a neurological condition which can be crippling. He helps them with treatments which include, unusually, botox.
Frucht says great musicians operate at the “outer limits of what human motor control can do with speed and dexterity”. Such musicians have motor controllability which is well beyond the 99 per cent percentile of what most people are capable of doing.


Unit 42 – Researching Treatments for Bone Marrow Oedema

Difficulty: Medium

Time: 4 minutes 30 seconds

The passage below is an extract from ‘Short-term outcome of painful bone marrow oedema of the knee following oral treatment with iloprost or tramadol: results of an exploratory phase II study of 41 patients’, by M.E. Mayerhoefer et al. originally published in Rheumatology (2007) 46 (9).

It was the goal of this study to compare the effect of oral treatment with the vasoactive iloprost to the effect of symptomatic treatment with tramadol, with regard to the outcome of painful isolated BME of the knee. While we were able to exclude all causes for reactive BME, and also a history of trauma suggesting mechanical BME, we were not able to reliably exclude minor to moderate axis deviations compatible with mechanical BME, because only standard antero-posterior and lateral radiographs of the knee joint, but no long radiographs of the entire lower limb, were available. Therefore, the BME observed in our patient population was regarded as either ischaemic or mechanical.
In recent studies, iloprost, which is currently registered for the intravenous therapy of peripheral arterial occlusive disease, thrombangiitis obliterans and Raynaud’s phenomenon, has been presented as an effective novel approach for the management of BME. Iloprost inhibits platelet and leucocyte activation, induces vasodilatation, counteracts vasospasm, protects the endothelium and reduces vessel wall permeability. Because it is believed that the main factors responsible for the development of BME are thrombo-, fat- and air-embolization, obstruction of venous and pre-capillary drainage or elevated venous pressure and decreased arterial perfusion, vessel wall injuries and decreased fibrinolysis, iloprost may represent a truly causative treatment option.