News this Week

Science  30 Aug 2002:
Vol. 297, Issue 5586, pp. 1456

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    Belgrade Lab Sets New Course After Top-Secret Uranium Grab

    1. Richard Stone

    CAMBRIDGE, U.K.—Last week's cloak-and-dagger operation to remove weapons-grade uranium from a physics institute in Yugoslavia has allowed nuclear nonproliferation experts to breathe a little easier. But it has complicated life for the Vinča Institute of Nuclear Sciences in Belgrade, which is scrambling to find work for its scientists and to lend a hand in the country's revitalization. The surprise raid pulled the rug out from under an international research collaboration aimed at easing the country's reliance on coal. In a separate development, however, the institute also got a boost this week: final approval of a multimillion-dollar project to produce medical isotopes for the country's health care system.

    Vinča was once a bastion of topflight nuclear research (Science, 27 October 2000, p. 690). Although its research reactor has been dormant since 1984, Vinča has maintained a cache of 5000 fuel rods of highly enriched uranium (HEU). That fuel, according to the U.S. State Department, would have provided enough material to make two nuclear bombs. So on 22 August, U.S. and Russian experts, with Belgrade's help, entered the plant, scooped up the 48 kilograms of unused fuel, and flew the material to a processing plant in Russia, where it will be blended down for use in civilian power plants. The operation eliminated what State Department spokesperson Philip Reeker labeled “one of the U.S. government's highest priority nuclear proliferation threats.”

    U.S. fears about the uranium's fate had crested during NATO's bombing of Yugoslav troops in Kosovo in spring 1999, when Slobodan Milosevic was still in power. “I thought, ‘My gosh, we don't know what Milosevic might do with the highly enriched uranium,’” says Matthew Bunn of Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, who at the time was leading a secret study for the Clinton Administration on the security of Russia's nuclear materials. Bunn and others feared that Milosevic might sell the material to a country like Iraq. After the 11 September attacks, concern shifted to a terrorist raid on the lightly guarded storage area.

    Sealing things up.

    Inspectors check seals on HEU fuel containers before they are flown out of Belgrade.


    The precision strike—kept secret from everyone at Vinča except its director—went off smoothly but claimed a civilian nuclear power project as an unintended casualty. Vinča researchers had hoped to use 10 kilograms of the HEU for a tabletop “subcritical assembly” experiment in which the uranium would be irradiated with protons from the institute's cyclotron. The solid state physics experiment would have simulated conditions in a light water nuclear reactor.

    Yugoslavia does not have nuclear power, but experts have been pondering its development in view of the uncertain future of Kosovo and its tremendous coal reserves, says Vinča ‘s Nebojsa Neskovic. His group was going to tap expertise from a team at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York. “I don't know what they're planning to do now,” says Brookhaven team leader Hiroshi Takahashi. In principle, Takahashi says, the experiments could run on low-enriched uranium—fuel containing less than 20% uranium-235. (Vinča ‘s erstwhile HEU is 80% uranium-235.) But Vinča doesn't have any of this nonweapons-grade fuel. “I would hope that the U.S. can help with this,” says Bunn.

    Although the reactor-simulation experiments have been sidetracked, the prospects are looking brighter for many Vinča scientists. The Italian government has agreed to give roughly $2 million to upgrade Vinča ‘s TESLA cyclotron facility so it can produce fluorine-18. The radioisotope, with a half-life of 110 minutes, will be used for positron emission tomography (PET) scanning in local medical clinics. If the Serbian government comes through with promised matching funds, Vinča should be producing fluorine-18 by early 2005. “The idea is to have something concrete for the community as soon as possible,” says Neskovic, director of the TESLA Scientific Center, who notes that the government is planning to purchase the country's first PET-scanning machines by the time the isotopes are available.

    Vinča also hopes to launch a basic research program on nuclear science and biomedicine. Its request for $2.65 million for further TESLA upgrades will be discussed in December at a UNESCO-sponsored meeting in Paris. And next month it expects to ink an R&D agreement with Ion Beam Applications, a particle accelerator company in Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium, for work on next-generation medical radioisotopes such as terbium-149 for treating leukemia.

    “TESLA will be an impressive research facility,” Bunn predicts. The HEU commandos might even have helped, he notes, by removing the long shadow over its research program.


    Critics See a Tilt in a CDC Science Panel

    1. Dan Ferber

    The shakeup of a key science panel at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta has angered environmental health advocates. Critics say that the Bush Administration is tilting the CDC advisory group toward industry, but a spokesperson for the parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), says the housecleaning is routine.

    What's not in dispute is the change in the makeup of the advisory committee to the director of CDC's National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH). Earlier this month, the government put 11 new members on a 16-member committee, according to a roster obtained by Science, apparently without consulting NCEH Director Richard Jackson. Jackson could not be reached for comment, but an HHS official confirms that HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson's staff has assembled a new roster of advisers.

    “I'm offended if anybody thinks I represent any constituency other than the best possible science.”

    —Roger McClellan


    “The last time anything like this [overhaul] happened was under [former President Ronald] Reagan,” says departing committee member Ellen Silbergeld, a toxicologist at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland. Silbergeld, who has worked with environmental groups, maintains that the new lineup is weighted with people who take a jaundiced view of environmental regulations and that similar Reagan-era changes at the Environmental Protection Agency were “demoralizing to the people being advised.”

    But HHS spokesperson William Pierce says it's disingenuous to criticize the Bush Administration for installing like-thinking individuals “when every Administration does that. … That's like saying, ‘Gosh, there's gambling going on in this casino.’”

    NCEH coordinates responses to public-health dangers from anthrax to hurricanes. In doing so, it investigates everything from microbes to radiation. The old committee, according to its chair, Thomas Burke of the Hopkins School of Public Health, was “very activist in support of” NCEH. During his 5-year watch, NCEH launched a major expansion of the Environmental Public Health Tracking program, which tests for human exposure to synthetic chemicals. Its first report, issued in March, detailed widespread low- level exposure to organophosphate insecticides and chemicals called phthalates, used in fragrances and cosmetics. According to Silbergeld, the tracking program offers “a revolutionary opportunity to make health policy based on data.” But the report also rankled some pesticide and chemical manufacturers.

    The new NCEH advisers include a number of prominent industry consultants and critics of federal regulation. Among them are toxicologist Roger McClellan, an Albuquerque, New Mexico-based consultant and former director of the Chemical Industry Institute of Toxicology; Becky Norton Dunlop, a vice president of the conservative Heritage Foundation who battled federal environmental regulators as a Virginia official; and Lois Swirsky Gold, an expert on risk assessments who has minimized reports linking environmental pollutants and cancer. The new panel is expected to hold its first meeting in November.

    Advocates of strong federal regulations seem most upset by the inclusion of Dennis Paustenbach, a California-based toxicologist whose firm conducts paid risk assessments for industry. Paustenbach, for example, was an expert witness for California utility Pacific Gas and Electric in a trial involving allegations that the company had poisoned drinking water with a deadly form of chromium—the theme of the movie Erin Brockovich. But Paustenbach rejects the critics' claim that he echoes industry views. Pierce says that the names of McClellan and Paustenbach were put forward by John Graham of the Office of Management and Budget, who is himself a target of environmentalists (Science, 14 December 2001, p. 2277).

    “The last time anything like this happened was under Reagan.”

    —Ellen Silbergeld


    Barry Bloom, dean of Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, says that it's essential to involve industry in environmental research that affects them. “But everyone should have scientific credentials,” says Bloom, who serves on another CDC advisory committee. Pierce says that the new appointees are qualified and “committed to the mission of the center.” McClellan, a member of the Institute of Medicine, says, “I'm offended if anybody thinks I represent any constituency other than the best possible science.”

    NCEH's Jackson appears not to have played a role in the selection process. Silbergeld says Jackson called her on 9 August to say that “a whole new board … has been selected for me.” She recalled: “We both noted how unusual that was.” Pierce, however, says that Thompson's staff gave the committee no special scrutiny.

    Critics are worried that the new advisory committee will push NCEH toward policies that favor industry, but Pierce and others point out that the center's director is free to ignore the committee's advice. More important, says Burke, is to avoid having the committee and NCEH work at cross purposes: “A supportive committee is essential” to public health.


    NSF Funds South Pole Microwave Telescope

    1. Charles Seife

    Cosmologists will soon look at the sky in a new way. The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) has agreed to fund a $17 million microwave telescope at the South Pole that offers a novel approach to mapping the distribution of matter in the universe.

    On 15 August, the National Science Board, NSF's governing body, approved a proposal to build the as-yet-unnamed telescope to survey the heavens. “It will be a real revolution in cosmology,” says Antony Stark of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, one of the co-investigators of the telescope project.

    The telescope will make use of the Sunyaev-Zel'dovich (SZ) effect, named after Russian physicists Rashid Sunyaev and Yakov Zel'dovich. The SZ effect is a distortion in the energies of photons left over from the early ages of the universe and occurs when those photons bump into hot electrons in galaxy clusters. Submillimeter-wavelength telescopes can detect the telltale distortion of the SZ effect, helping cosmologists find galaxy clusters too distant or dim to be spotted by other means. Those observations, in turn, can help cosmologists figure out how the clusters evolved—and possibly identify the location of dark matter in the universe.

    The new 8-meter telescope will focus light from the sky on an array of sensitive heat-sensors called bolometers, allowing the telescope to map large areas of the sky at one time. “It will do several square degrees per day and hundreds of square degrees per year, depending on the weather,” says Stark. “You will be able to see all significant clusters of galaxies in that area.”

    “We're really delighted” that the telescope has been approved, says John Carlstrom, an astronomer at the University of Chicago and principal investigator of the project. So are other cosmologists. “In 5 years, we'll have a much better understanding about the physics of the evolution of clusters,” says August Evrard, a cosmologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who explains that galaxy clusters, along with supernova data and cosmic microwave background (CMB) measurements, form a “triad” of crucial observations for cosmology. “We're really just opening the door on this kind of investigation.”

    Polar explorer.

    Planned telescope, shown with lab building, will start scanning Antarctic skies about 2006.


    Astronomers chose the pole because its altitude and extraordinarily cold, dry air preserve the very faint signal of the SZ effect that otherwise would be swamped by heat from the ground and atmosphere and scrambled by turbulence. “Being in the central Antarctic plateau is almost like being in the stratosphere,” says Stark. “Antarctic astronomy has been a tremendous success.” The new telescope will join about a dozen other NSF-funded astrophysical instruments installed at the pole in the past decade and operated by a consortium of universities.

    Carlstrom expects that it will take about 4 years to build the telescope and get it into working order and another year before the first scientific data become available. In addition to resolving any technical problems in design and fabrication, scientists must also conquer the forbidding logistics of moving 60 tons of equipment to the pole. However, the SZ survey marks just the beginning of the telescope's life.

    “This really is not a proposal to build a telescope,” says Dennis Peacock, head of Antarctic research for NSF's Office of Polar Programs. “They're proposing to do a certain set of measurements of great importance, and they need the telescope to do those measurements.” After the SZ survey is complete, he says, the telescope can take on new scientific challenges.

    One likely target is the search for polarization in the CMB, one of the hottest areas in cosmology. Cosmologists suspect that the CMB is polarized—that incoming photons have preferred “orientations”—but scientists so far have not been able to see that polarization. The new telescope can easily be modified to search for a particularly faint polarization in the CMB, caused by gravitational waves that resulted from the rapid inflation of the early universe.

    With funding assured, astronomers can now tackle another important item of business: finding a snazzy name for the instrument. “We have to get clever now,” says Carlstrom. “We're open to suggestions.”


    Alliance Launched to Model E. coli

    1. Constance Holden

    All cell biologists have at least “two cells of interest,” wrote biologist Frederick Neidhardt of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in 1996: “the one they are studying and Escherichia coli.” The lowly intestinal bacterium has been an indispensable tool for half a century. Now it is the object of a mammoth international modeling effort that is expected to occupy hundreds of scientists for 10 years at a cost of at least $100 million.

    Scientists around the world are busy computerizing models of parts of interesting cells, such as yeast and the Haemophilus influenzae bacterium. But as yet there is no comprehensive computer model of an entire living cell and all its functions, says Barry Wanner of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. This month, a group of scientists spearheaded by Wanner launched an international alliance to consolidate global E. coli modeling efforts, dubbed the International E. coli Alliance (IECA).

    Wanner says the move to join forces has been growing at the grassroots level for several years. It all came together at the 4 August “Intelligent Systems for Molecular Biology” meeting in Edmonton, Canada. “There was overwhelming agreement that a central organization was needed to coordinate these efforts,” he says.

    IECA's steering committee is made up of leaders of E. coli projects around the world. The cooperative venture will steam ahead on multiple fronts: modeling, bioinformatics, and characterization and description of the functions and interactions of all of E. coli's ingredients.

    The real thing.

    Researchers are collaborating on a computer model of E. coli.


    “This will be a major breakthrough if we can solve a simple cell,” says Wanner, who heads the main U.S. piece of the action, the E. coli Model Cell Consortium, created in March. Other advocates say the project dwarfs the Human Genome Project. “It is 10 times more ambitious and 100 times more important for mankind,” claims Hans Westerhoff of the Free University in Amsterdam, who heads Amsterdam's Silicon Cell Consortium. Westerhoff says the genome project and related work can be compared to having “a complete catalog” of car parts. The E. coli model goes much further, to show “how all the pieces should be fitted together.” If the work proceeds as expected, “all interactions between genes, proteins, and small molecules will be revealed, and the whole cellular network will be reconstructed,” says Igor Goryanin, who heads cell modeling at GlaxoSmithKline in Stevenage, U.K. He says his group is working on an E. coli model, but “we have found a lot of knowledge gaps that could be resolved only by the alliance.”

    George Church, a computational geneticist at Harvard University, says that with a complete computer model, “you can run through changes that might take hundreds of years in the lab.” It will enable scientists working from their desktops to create various mutants and introduce genes from other organisms to see which would be most relevant for work on a new antibiotic, for example.

    Church adds that the E. coli effort is likely to turn out to be more “democratic” than the genome project. For the latter, he points out, a lab had to invest in expensive sequencing machines to get in the game. But “for computational biology, all you need is a PC and some gray matter.” Further plans will be developed at a November meeting of the alliance in London.


    Researchers Thrilled With Seminal Discovery

    1. Greg Miller

    There are a lot of things scientists don't understand about sex. Insights into the vagaries of arousal and the how's and why's of orgasms, for example, aren't easy to nail down in a laboratory setting.

    Now two researchers have found an intriguing piece of the puzzle: a long-sought bit of circuitry called the ejaculation generator. And no, they didn't find it at a sex shop or on some sleazy Web site; they found it in the spinal cord. On page 1566, neuroscientist Lique Coolen and postdoc William Truitt of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine in Ohio describe a population of cells in male rats that they believe is critical for triggering ejaculation.

    “I think it's fabulous,” says Kevin McKenna, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Ejaculation is a reflex, he explains, but it's no simple knee jerk. What triggers ejaculation is poorly understood—sometimes it takes a lot of sexual activity, other times just a little—and it invokes a complicated pattern of muscle contractions. Knowing where this activity is coordinated, he says, is an important step toward understanding male sexual function.

    From animal experiments and clinical studies of men with spinal cord injuries, researchers knew that the ejaculation generator must reside in roughly the lower quarter of the spinal cord. The new study narrows this down to a population of cells, called lumbar spinothalamic (LSt) neurons, scattered throughout two segments of the lumbar region. These neurons, distinguishable by the combination of neurotransmitters they use to exchange signals, are part of an information highway called the spinothalamic tract that relays sensory information from the body to the brain.

    Coolen and Truitt initially hypothesized that the LSt cells might help inform the brain's pleasure centers about any hot action down below. But last year the pair began to suspect that they play a more active role. LSt cells are activated after ejaculation in male rats, they found, but not after other types of sexual behavior such as mounting or penetration.


    LSt neurons (top) allow male rats to fully consummate a relationship.


    To investigate further, the researchers killed LSt cells in male rats by injecting a toxin into the spinal cords. Ten days later, they tested the rats' sexual behavior by putting them, one at a time, into a cage with a ready and willing female. A group of untreated rats was tested too. Truitt, who didn't know which rats were which, kept a play-by-play of the romance—noting instances of mounting, penetration, and ejaculation.

    Shortly after this last hurrah, Coolen and Truitt killed the rats and tallied the LSt cells remaining in their spinal cords. Not one of the rats with less than one-third the normal number of LSt cells had been able to ejaculate, despite mounting and penetrating at the same rates as their untreated counterparts.

    The findings don't necessarily mean that the LSt cells are all there is to the ejaculation generator, Coolen says, but they indicate that these cells are at least a critical component. Several anatomical studies in Coolen's lab—some published, some still in progress— bolster her contention by establishing that LSt cells are well wired for mediating ejaculation; for instance, they receive inputs from nerves in the penis and connect to spinal neurons that regulate muscles and glands involved in ejaculation.

    The research could lead to better understanding and treatment of ejaculation disorders, says neuropsychiatrist Marcel Waldinger of Leyenburg Hospital in The Hague, the Netherlands. This includes not just men complaining about bad timing but also those with spinal cord injuries who want to have children. Triggering ejaculation by stimulating LSt cells might be a better option than some of today's more invasive methods. Clinical developments are still a long way off, however, cautions Nancy Brackett, a neuroscientist who works with men with spinal cord injuries at the University of Miami School of Medicine in Florida.

    All the same, the study is certain to stimulate more research from scientists curious about sex. One intriguing line of investigation: What do LSt cells do in females? “It's a great question,” Coolen says. “That's a study we're planning to do.”


    Ethicists Fault Review of Children's Study

    1. Jocelyn Kaiser

    The ethics panels that assess proposed experiments on human subjects by U.S. researchers traditionally operate behind closed doors. A recently dusted-off federal rule governing certain children's studies is opening that process to the light of public review, however, and some bioethicists don't like what they see.

    The specific rule involves studies in which healthy children would be exposed to greater than minimal risks. Under a 19-year-old standard, a university's Institutional Review Board (IRB) must pass such a research hot potato to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which then seeks advice from an expert panel. Last year HHS's expert panel, acting on the first of what appears to be a new wave of such proposals, opted to allow a group of healthy Japanese-American and Caucasian children to be exposed to above-minimal-risk procedures, such as the use of a catheter for glucose tests. The children would be studied because Asian Americans are believed to be at elevated risk for developing type II diabetes around puberty.

    On 7 August the responsible HHS agency, the Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP), put out a request for public comments on its proposal to proceed, but some bioethicists believe that the agency isn't giving the public enough time or information. “The way this has been handled is atrocious,” says Robert Nelson, who oversees ethics reviews at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

    HHS had previously been sent only two studies under the rule, 45 CFR 46.407. But the cancellation of a National Institutes of Health study on obesity in children nearly 2 years ago (Science, 17 November 2000, p. 1281) led OHRP to clarify the rule, and seven such studies are now in the pipeline, according to OHRP spokesperson Pat El-Hinnawy. A 1998 law requiring companies to test drugs on children might be a contributing factor, along with added caution by IRBs.

    Shining more light on the IRB process is good, says medical ethicist Loretta Kopelman of East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, especially given recent shutdowns of trials at several institutions (including the University of Washington, which proposed the diabetes study). Kopelman says that openly discussing the study could help explore questions such as what risks to children are acceptable, and when the overall benefits to society from research on healthy children outweigh the risks to individuals. Such issues are not aired often, because IRB reviews normally remain confidential.

    Kopelman and others are sharply critical of how OHRP is seeking comments, however. The notice says the expert panel's summary report is available upon request but doesn't offer anything else—such as individual panelists' reports or the protocol. Of 10 comments received by OHRP, three viewed by Science called for more time and more sharing of information. “What gives moral credibility to [rule] 407 is the public nature of the discussion,” and “a 2-week comment period falls far short,” says Nelson, who was a member of the panel that reviewed the University of Washington study.

    The protocol is available under the Freedom of Information Act, but some have suggested that OHRP should post it on the Web. IRBs consider protocols confidential, notes Mary Faith Marshall of the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, because they usually haven't received federal funding, and they contain information that could be used by a competitor.

    The OHRP spokesperson declined to say how the agency plans to proceed once it has finished reviewing the comments. The rule sets no time period for a final decision.


    Light Touch Identifies Wisps of Rogue DNA

    1. Charles Seife

    When anthrax-laden letters contaminated a U.S. Senate building and a Washington, D.C., postal facility last fall, it often took days to get the results back from the lab. Federal officials longed for a quick and accurate detector, but “current techniques don't fit the bill,” says Chad Mirkin, a chemist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Now Mirkin and his colleagues have developed a sensitive biological assay that they hope will make other methods obsolete.

    On page 1536, Mirkin's team of chemists describes an assay that, unlike more conventional methods of detecting genetic material, doesn't rely on the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to boost its sensitivity. PCR limits a test's speed and often increases its false-positive rate. The new technique currently can detect DNA or RNA at a concentration of about 20 femtomolar: about one part in 3 trillion for an aqueous solution. That's hundreds of times better than most other methods, says Mirkin, who has plans to improve its sensitivity by another order of magnitude or two.

    “It's a very exciting technique,” says chemist Mark Wightman of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “It's a really neat and simple way to ID specific DNA and RNA fragments—and it doesn't seem to be pie in the sky.”

    The technique starts by making an open-face chemical sandwich out of two components, each primed to recognize a target strand of DNA or RNA. On one side is a chip covered with DNA strands, each designed to snag a fragment of the genetic material of the biological agent it needs to recognize, such as anthrax or HIV. On the other side is a set of gold nanoparticles, each also covered with DNA that will attach to a target's genetic material.

    Metal detector.

    In new DNA test, gold nanoparticles bind to target strands and get silver-plated. Then radiation scattered from a laser beam picks out the targets.


    The researchers pour a solution contaminated with target substances over the chip. When the target strands bind to the complementary DNA strands on the chip, a bit of each target strand remains jutting above the forest of DNA for the treated gold nanoparticles to latch onto. Then the team soaks it in a solution of gold nanoparticles, whose attached DNA snags onto the loose ends of the target strands. By anchoring gold particles to the chip, the target strands flag their presence (see figure, below).

    Ordinarily, it would be tough to detect these gold nanoparticles, especially in small concentrations. To make them easier to spot, the team tags each of them with a Raman dye, a chemical that scatters light in a distinctive way as photons make the molecule vibrate. Then the researchers expose the chip-gold sandwich to a solution of silver ions that coat the gold nanoparticles with silver, strengthening the dye's scattering properties.

    When the team zaps the chip with a laser, each spot that has been exposed to the target material—the regions that are covered with silver-covered nanoparticles—scatters light. Different dyes scatter different colors. As a result, the researchers can test for several targets at a time, by color-coding the targets to make anthrax, say, blue and HIV yellow.

    Other assays, such as those that use fluorescent dyes, can also assign different colors to different targets. But the Raman technique is more versatile, Mirkin says, offering a wider choice of dyes and scattering light over a relatively narrow part of the spectrum. That makes it easier to cram several different dye labels into the same frequency range. “We can put in 10 different dyes, giving you 10 distinct signatures” over a certain region of the spectrum, says Mirkin. “You can't do it with fluorescence. You can't even come close.”

    The Raman technique will have to win over biologists wedded to other methods, with cost an important consideration. But according to Wightman, the technique is ripe for the marketplace. Potential applications include use as a bioweapons sensor or diagnostic test that can be performed at a clinic rather than being sent to a lab. Mirkin has helped found Nanosphere, a company based in Northbrook, Illinois, to exploit the commercial feasibility of these nanoparticle-based techniques.


    Sight, Sound Converge in Owl's Mental Map

    1. Marcia Barinaga

    The barn owl is a deadly hunter. Using hearing to pinpoint the scurrying of a mouse or other small animal, it swoops out of the night sky and dispatches its prey. To guide its lethal accuracy, the owl uses a mental map tuned to the location of sounds.

    But this map cannot maintain itself on sound alone; it requires visual information to continually update its accuracy. But despite years of searching, only now have researchers been able to find out how those visual cues reach the map. On page 1556, Eric Knudsen and his colleagues at Stanford University School of Medicine report that they have discovered a “gate” in the brain that, when opened, allows the auditory map to receive the visual information it needs.

    “The novel thing about this study is not that there is visual input into an auditory area; there are many demonstrations of that,” says neuroscientist Andrew King of the University of Oxford, U.K. There have also been previous examples of gating, in which some kinds of neural input are allowed into a brain area only under certain conditions. But what makes this work “really important,” says Alexander Grunewald of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who has studied gating of sensory information in monkeys, is that this picture is more complete than others because the researchers know just how the gated information is used.

    Knudsen's group showed in the early 1980s that the owl brain contains a map of auditory space in an area called the external nucleus of the inferior colliculus (ICX). Each ICX neuron responds to sounds from a certain location. The brain computes the location using differences in the timing or intensity with which the sound reaches the two ears. Knudsen's team showed in 1993 that this auditory map is modified by visual information. This is key to the map's function, says Yoram Gutfreund, a postdoc with Knudsen and lead author on the current paper, because any changes in the hearing in one or both ears—caused by changes in head size as the animal grows or hearing loss as it ages—will alter the information the brain receives. Without adjustment, the map would become misaligned, and the owl would miss its prey.

    Hear that?

    Visual signals update the barn owl's auditory map.


    In January Knudsen's team identified a brain area called the optic tectum (OT) as the source of the visual signals that tweak the map: When the team members destroyed the connections between the OT and ICX, the map ceased adjusting. But despite the overwhelming evidence that visual signals help maintain the map, they still could not register a response in ICX neurons to visual stimuli.

    Gutfreund wondered if the flow of information was somehow blocked in the anesthetized owls on which the experiments were done. He tried treating the OT with a chemical that can open up neural pathways that have been blocked by the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA. After treatment, electrodes in the ICX began to pick up neural responses to flashes of light. The responses were specific: Just as each ICX neuron registers sounds from a particular location, each also selectively responded to visual cues from the same location. In mapping terms, that meant that the visual and auditory maps in the ICX are aligned.

    Gutfreund next tricked the owls' brains to make the maps seem misaligned. Through headphones, he delivered sounds to the owls' ears that sounded as though they came from a place that was slightly offset from the location of the light. The ICX neurons responded much more strongly to the light than they had when the maps were aligned. That, says Gutfreund, is what one would expect for an instructive signal: It points out an error to be corrected.

    “There are two different findings here,” says Gutfreund. “The first is that visual responses can appear in the ICX, an auditory structure, but they are normally inhibited. The second is that the signals [have the right characteristics] to be the instructive signal.”

    With those findings, a “circle is closed,” says neuroscientist Masakazu (Mark) Konishi of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena: The researchers know where the visual information comes from and how it alters the map.

    Now they are poised to answer the next round of questions. They will need to experiment on alert owls, says Catherine Carr, a neuroscientist at the University of Maryland, College Park, to learn what conditions normally open the gate for the visual signal. Grunewald offers a hint of what those conditions might be: He found in monkeys that the gating of sensory information seems to be governed by “the significance that the stimulus has in the context of the specific task,” and he suspects that something similar occurs in the owl's brain.

    Researchers can now also address in detail how the visual signal alters auditory neurons to bring about changes in the map. “It is becoming extremely clear that instructive error signals are going to be a major way you learn,” Carr says, adding that the barn-owl example is one of the best characterized ones to date. And so the next round of experiments on the owl's auditory map is likely to have a wide audience.


    Researcher Acquitted of Lab Theft Charge

    1. Andrew Lawler

    A jury last week found a scientist at the University of California (UC), Davis, not guilty of stealing vials of a protein gel used in ophthalmological research. More serious allegations of economic espionage had already been dropped by prosecutors, who originally had accused Bin Han, a Chinese-born researcher, of planning to take the materials to China to profit from them. The case has generated widespread attention and outrage among some Asian Americans, who maintain that they are being unfairly targeted at U.S. laboratories.

    Han, 40, holds a graduate degree in veterinary studies from Xian University in central China and is a U.S. citizen. He had worked in the university's ophthalmology department for 13 years until he was fired on 13 May. A week later he was arrested, jailed, and charged with theft of trade secrets, possession of stolen property, and embezzlement. Yolo County prosecutors accused him of secreting in his home freezer half of a batch of 40 vials of protein gels used in cornea-transplant research that were owned by the university, with the intent of taking them to China for profit. Investigators also found a one-way plane ticket to China.

    Legal victory.

    Bin Han with court documents asserting his innocence.


    Han maintained that he had picked up the gels from a nearby company and had simply not delivered all of them to his lab when they were discovered in his home, where he lives with his wife and two children. He also said that he was planning to visit his ailing mother in China and that the ticket was open-ended, not one way. The charges eventually were reduced to a single misdemeanor charge of petty theft and embezzlement after his attorneys showed that the gels were readily available in China and that they had been provided without charge to the university, making them worth less than the $400 minimum for a felony charge.

    The case has drawn the ire of many Asian Americans, including California state legislator Judy Chu. “I am distressed by the similarities between Dr. Han's case and that of Dr. Wen Ho Lee,” the Los Alamos National Laboratory physicist who was charged with stealing classified material, Chu wrote in an 18 July letter to UC Davis Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef. “Cases such as those of Dr. Lee and Dr. Han further perpetuate the misconception that Asian Americans cannot be trusted, are not loyal to the United States, and pose flight risks, simply for being of Asian heritage.”

    Han says that he may fight to get his job back. The university told him it was terminating his contract because he did not provide the necessary supervision to a graduate student, Han says, but he claims that the real reason was his refusal to allow a senior researcher to claim credit for work done solely by Han. “I argued with him, and he got very mad,” Han said.

    University officials declined to discuss the reasons for Han's firing, but they said the university is looking into the grievance he has filed. “The university is committed to conducting a thorough review of this grievance and reaching a fair and equitable resolution,” says campus counsel Steven Drown. Drown says that the university might also conduct an in-house “administrative review” of the issues raised in the criminal trial.


    Glasnost for Hominids: Seeking Access to Fossils

    1. Ann Gibbons

    Outside researchers are vying for quicker access to key specimens, but fossil discoverers say they need control over new finds in order to prepare and analyze them carefully

    Glasnost for Hominids: Seeking Access to Fossils

    In February, paleoanthropologists Jeffrey Schwartz and Ian Tattersall traveled to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to attend a meeting and study fossils of one of the most important members of the human family, 4.4-million-year-old Ardipithecus ramidus. Armed with e-mail permission from an Ethiopian official, they planned to photograph and describe 17 A. ramidus fossils in an atlas of early human relatives; these fossils had been named and initially described in Nature in 1994.

    But soon after the meeting ended at Ethiopia's National Museum, Berhane Asfaw, co-director of the Middle Awash Research Team that found A. ramidus, came in to work on the fossils and was surprised to learn that Schwartz and Tattersall had gotten a go-ahead to study them. Like most nations, Ethiopia allows discoverers broad control over specimens—and the Middle Awash team had refused Tattersall and Schwartz permission to study fossils of A. ramidus 2 years ago. The team doesn't allow others to photograph and study fossils until after they are described in detail, which in the case of A. ramidus involves painstakingly preparing and analyzing dozens of fossils, most unpublished and some found as recently as 2000. In the team's view, Tattersall and Schwartz were trying to go behind their backs to publish descriptions of fossils the team was still working on. So Asfaw quickly reminded the museum director of Ethiopian law allowing fossil discoverers to deny access.

    Tattersall, livid, was left sitting in the fossil room outside the locked safe. “What are you trying to hide?” he demanded of Asfaw. Replied Asfaw: “You don't know how we suffered in the field to get these fossils. You have to give us a chance to study them first.”

    Tattersall and Schwartz tried again the next day, but they went home to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and the University of Pittsburgh, respectively, without seeing A. ramidus.

    This incident underscores the rising tensions in paleoanthropology between those who dig up fossils, who are few in number, and those eager to analyze them independently, who are growing in number. Such disputes are as old as the discipline and not limited to human ancestors. But a series of stunning discoveries has set off a new round of debate about who gets to see precious remains—and when. The great age and unexpected features of the first known hominids—the family that includes humans—are changing researchers' views of the dawn of humanity (Science, 15 February, p. 1214). Yet many of these specimens, some found as long as a decade ago, are still off-limits to all but the discoverers and a few scientists they trust. The high stakes have focused new attention on how to speed up access to fossils while protecting the rights of those who found them. “A remarkable amount of important fossils were excavated within the last [few] years,” says physical anthropologist Gerhard Weber of the University of Vienna in Austria. “What has not changed are the old limits for access.”

    In particular, researchers are sparring over what happens during the crucial period between the initial announcement of an exciting discovery (usually in a high-profile journal such as Science or Nature) and a more detailed description or monograph, which might come years or even a decade or more later. “The big awkwardness right now is when someone announces they have found a specimen that overturns everything we know, but almost no one has seen it,” says John Fleagle of the State University of New York, Stony Brook, who collects primate fossils in Ethiopia and edits the journal Evolutionary Anthropology. “If you want to do further research, the initial announcement tells you so little that you can be sitting in limbo for a decade until there's a paper describing the fossils in detail.”

    Working to the bone.

    Berhane Asfaw (top, left) has spent years studying fossils that Jeff Schwartz and Ian Tattersall (bottom) want to see.


    Fossil hunters, who often sink years of effort into their sites, say they are understandably wary of being beaten to publication (see sidebar, p. 1465), especially if they have risked disease, wild animals, or military coups to make their finds. Even where field conditions are tame, it can take years to find and prepare a set of fossils and describe their full scientific value to the satisfaction of increasingly demanding journal editors and peer reviewers.

    “It is frustrating when you have trained to find fossils, you have the skill to find them, you apply for grants, you get the grants, you live away from home for months,” says paleoanthropologist Alan Walker of Pennsylvania State University, University Park, a member of teams that discovered several famous hominids in Kenya. “You do all this and then people immediately want you to share the hominid fossils; no one wants the animal fossils … I've shown people a brand-new hominid that I'd just found, and they have asked me if they could write it up! … Why would you do all this to get robbed?”

    But a growing number of researchers—particularly those who don't run field projects—argue that limited access stifles research in a field where there are fewer crucial hominid specimens than paleoanthropologists to study them, and these researchers are agitating for change. Weber has floated a proposal to set up an electronic archive of virtual three-dimensional copies of fossils, under the banner of “Glasnost for Paleoanthropology.” The National Science Foundation (NSF), the chief funder of U.S. paleoanthropologists, plans to gather researchers next winter to talk about data sharing, and the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA) is considering guidelines.

    Whether they are pushing for quicker access or not, many researchers agree that paleoanthropology's unwritten rules need explicit clarification. “There should be some guidelines laid out by our profession,” says Terry Harrison of New York University (NYU), who does fieldwork in Tanzania and is editor of the Journal of Human Evolution.

    The unwritten rules

    Some guidelines for showing specimens do exist, but unlike patent laws that give a drug developer exclusive patent rights for many years, the “rules” governing access to fossils are mostly voluntary and often ambiguous. National governments usually own fossils and require them to be stored in museums, but discoverers are usually given power to control access until they finish describing them. The International Code of Zoological Nomenclature recommends that the fossil used to describe a new species—the “type specimen”—be made “accessible for study,” but it doesn't say how or when. NSF reminds researchers in grant award letters to make “data available,” but it doesn't specify when, nor how to enforce access. And although many journals, such as Science, require that “data” (presumably in the form of casts or fossils) be made available on a “reasonable basis” after publication, there are no specified time limits and compliance is based on an honor system. “There is no written agreement about when to give access,” complains Weber.

    Share and compare.

    Tim White (left) and Michel Brunet study each other's casts.


    All this can lead to confusion and conflict. For example, in the case of A. ramidus, Schwartz notes that in the 1994 Nature article, the first 17 fossils of the new species were initially described, including one as the type specimen. He argues that under the international code they were “published” and described in enough detail to justify the naming of a new species, and therefore they should be accessible to the scientific community to review the classification. “How do we know the fossil is real if we can't ever see it?” asks Schwartz. “How can science proceed?”

    But paleoanthropologist Tim White of the University of California, Berkeley, co-leader of the Middle Awash team, counters—and most hominid researchers who find fossils agree—that an initial report in Nature does not constitute full publication. “Until a fossil is described in detail, it contains unpublished data,” he says. “Normal practice is to allow limited access until a detailed description and analysis in a specialty journal or monograph is published.” He argues that Schwartz and Tattersall, who wanted not just to see but to photograph and describe specimens, tried to use the Ethiopian bureaucracy to “short-circuit the normal protocols” of access and publish data before his team. He adds that the Middle Awash team does allow researchers to see, but not measure, high-resolution casts of initially published fossils, if they agree not to publish until after the detailed description is out. White says that Schwartz never asked to see casts, although Schwartz says he would have accepted that offer if it had been made.

    Despite this incident and other complaints about access from reviewers of his last two NSF grant applications, White insists that his team's policies are not more restrictive, just more explicit, than others. After taking an informal poll of fieldworkers with significant new fossils, he reports that “not a single project allows photography and detailed description to be published until after the discovery team publishes its own descriptions.”

    In interviews with Science, many leading fossil hunters confirmed that their policies are broadly similar to White's. Discoverers must control access until after publication of a more detailed description, agrees paleoanthropologist William Kimbel of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University in Tempe, who has helped find many specimens of Australopithecus afarensis, which includes the famed skeleton Lucy, at the Hadar site in Ethiopia. “Anyone trained in paleoanthropology knows that fieldworkers need to be granted breathing space,” he says. “If you're rushed, you can't do a good job.”

    Fieldworkers say such an arrangement is necessary to protect the enormous investment they make in the sites and fossils that supply data to the entire discipline. To develop sites in Ethiopia, for example, White says he and Asfaw assemble and manage a team that includes dozens of specialists who find, prepare, and analyze hominid and other fossils, date the sites, and interpret the prehistoric environments. He and other fossil discoverers stress that these team members are not only fossil collectors but accomplished lab workers.

    And the fieldwork itself can be rough. Paleontologist Michel Brunet of the University of Poitiers in France, who discovered the oldest known hominid, Sahelanthropus tchadensis, after a decade of work in Chad, has been arrested in Iraq, been caught in a coup in Kabul, and seen a close colleague die from malaria in Cameroon. He says: “After all this, when you have got the chance to get new scientific data, I think that you have earned the right to study them first, even if some colleagues think we are just field technicians.”

    Fossil finder.

    William Kimbel says analyses of fossils can't be rushed.

    Many fieldworkers tell stories of granting access to fossils only to see others' papers come out first. Walker recalls working with paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey, then of the National Museums of Kenya, in the 1970s when their team found some important fossils. Colin Groves of the Australian National University in Canberra and a colleague described and named the fossils as a new species, Homo ergaster, without Leakey's knowledge. “As far as I was concerned, the fossils had been announced and described—briefly but quite well—in Nature; they were therefore in the public domain,” says Groves. He adds that he later apologized to Leakey for “an unintended ethical breach” and “quickly patched up” the dispute.

    And in 1999, while working on a monograph of A. afarensis, Kimbel learned that an unpublished skull found by his team had been flown to Vienna, where Horst Seidler of the University of Vienna had scanned it using computerized tomography (CT) and shown it to visiting colleagues. Kimbel complained, and Seidler wrote him a letter of apology, promising not to publish until after Kimbel's monograph appears next year.

    The exceptions

    But although fieldworkers might seem territorial, in practice many do show the fossils they have found to the people they trust. For example, Ron Clarke of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, Juan Luis Arsuaga of the University Complutense in Madrid, and David Lordkipanidze of the Republic of Georgia State Museum in Tbilisi all say their policies overall match those of the Middle Awash team. But all these researchers have allowed Tattersall and Schwartz to photograph their fossils (or have given them photos), with the understanding that the discoverers' descriptions will be published first.

    “The critical point is do you close access completely during that long, time-consuming, painstaking process,” says Kimbel, who allows those who agree not to publish to even measure original specimens. “My view is it is better for science to accept the risk to allow controlled access. I find it intellectually stimulating to hear what other researchers have to say.”

    But because discoverers have control over access, a buddy system has long prevailed, with old feuds and alliances influencing who sees what. In many cases, the informal arrangements often boil down to one group saying, in essence, “I'll show you my fossil if you show me yours.” White says the Middle Awash team deliberately adopted its strict written policy in order to avoid such favoritism. But the team makes case-by-case exceptions for colleagues with original fossils who need to compare similar anatomy in order to describe their own finds.

    In fact, the most successful fossil hunters have actually gotten more open about sharing even unpublished fossils—at least with each other. For example, there are now three extremely ancient hominids, older than 4 million years, whose very existence demands new thinking about the origins of our lineage: A. ramidus; S. tchadensis, discovered by Brunet in Chad; and Orrorin tugenensis, discovered by Martin Pickford and Brigitte Senut in Kenya. All three have been published in initial announcements but not in detail, and the discoverers have shared some fossils and casts with each other and with a few other researchers.

    For example, Senut of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris and Pickford of the Collège de France in Paris say they allow “anyone who makes a reasonable request” to see but not study casts of O. tugenensis. Brunet made a much-noted tour of the United States with a cast and photos of his partial skull from Chad, allowing colleagues including White, Senut, and Pickford to study it even before it was initially described. In return, White allowed Brunet to study casts of some unpublished A. ramidus fossils, and Senut and Pickford showed Brunet and a member of White's team some casts of O. tugenensis. And in Ethiopia, Asfaw showed Meave Leakey of the National Museums of Kenya the original 17 specimens of A. ramidus (as well as a few others) so she could sort out the identity of her fossils, which include another crucial new species, the 4-million-year-old Australopithecus anamensis.

    But such arrangements irritate those who do not have major fossils or special expertise to bring to the table. At this point, there is apparently only one person—Brunet—who has seen fossils or casts of all the earliest hominids, and no one has studied them long enough to make a detailed comparison. “How do we know the A. ramidus stuff is not the same thing as Orrorin? That should have been resolved before Orrorin was ever published,” complains Milford Wolpoff, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. “When the only people who can comment are the discoverers or friends of the discoverers, there is no sense of independent observer. We're not practicing science. We're practicing opera.”

    The long wait

    Those who must hold out for detailed publication to evaluate the discoverer's claims or propose their own ideas often have a long wait. The Middle Awash group, for example, doesn't expect to publish more on A. ramidus for another year or so. “It's better to get it right than to rush it,” says White. “We're not talking about the cure for a disease here. We're talking about preventing an epidemic of bad data if science is rushed.”

    And sites vary in complexity and condition of the fossils. In the Middle Awash site, Asfaw describes the tedious process of using a syringe to insert a gluelike substance into each piece of chalklike bone and then excavating the fossil-bearing block and painstakingly extracting the bones in the lab in Addis Ababa. “The skeleton of A. ramidus took 3 years of continuous excavation,” he says. “More quickly would be nice, but you can't do the description until you finish the excavation, because you don't want to report on one piece at a time.”

    Walker and Meave Leakey both say their policy is to try to publish a detailed description of a fossil within a year or two of the initial announcement. But their monograph on A. anamensis, published last December, included additional specimens found in 4 years of fieldwork at two sites—and the first fossils of the species were found 13 years earlier. “That's as fast as you can do it without everyone getting divorces or nervous breakdowns,” says Walker.

    Double take.

    Mrs. Ples, a 2.5-million-year-old australopithecine, in original and electronic form.


    All the same, others say there has to be a limit to how long one group can monopolize fossils: “If you can do a Ph.D. in 5 years, why can't you describe a fossil in 10 years?” asks Harvard University paleoanthropologist Daniel Lieberman, who needs access to other groups' fossils for his research on what traits are useful for sorting out species relationships. “There should be a reasonable limit, particularly for an important specimen that is necessary for other people to test their hypotheses.”

    Several researchers add that when research is publicly funded, taxpayers should get a timely return on their investment. Paleoanthropologist Bernard Wood of George Washington University (GWU) in Washington, D.C., says that teams need to be structured to allow reasonable progress. “Federal agencies should stipulate that if you have found so many fossils that you can't manage to interpret them, you either need to stay out of the field until you're done or recruit more people to interpret them,” he says.

    To some researchers, such as NYU's Harrison, the most important fossils are type specimens that “should be made available immediately after initial description.” Instead, he claims the reverse is true: “It is getting increasingly difficult to get access to see fossils.” Schwartz says that's why he and Tattersall began their atlas in the first place. Many scientists should analyze the fossils, he says: “Diversity of perspective is important.”

    Dreams of glasnost

    Part of the problem lies with the brief initial descriptions themselves, says Fleagle. These announcements let the world know the fossils exist, but he says “the original descriptions almost always are wrong, since the implications are usually only figured out after they have been studied and debated by a larger group of researchers.” The clamor for quicker access might lead fossil discoverers to abandon those announcements and keep their fossils under wraps longer, says White—not a change many would welcome.

    Some think technology could help. “The tools are there,” says Lieberman. “Anyone who has a Web site can put a skull on the Web. You can download your CT scan from anywhere in the world and do your work.” As a result, a new (and growing) generation of researchers is adept at analyzing three-dimensional images of fossils. And a few researchers are putting published data on the Web. This month Lieberman posted images of one of the earliest modern humans from the Skhul cave in Israel, and Weber, Seidler, and colleagues at the University of Vienna began publishing a copyrighted CD-ROM of fossil hominid images, starting with the 600,000-year-old Bodo hominid cranium from Ethiopia, with proceeds going to Ethiopia's National Museum.

    Weber's group is seeking a more organized arrangement, proposing a nonprofit archive for high-resolution CT scans of fossils, particularly type specimens, starting in 1999 with published fossils to build up the database. His concept is modeled after community databases such as GenBank, where geneticists are typically required to deposit sequence data when they publish. “This isn't a replacement for fossils,” says Weber. “But it can contribute to a more transparent way of doing research.”

    But posting CT scans of fossils published decades ago is not the same as posting a hot new hominid. And many paleoanthropologists think there is no substitute for working with original fossils. “Fossils have sources of information that no CT scan will ever capture,” says Kimbel. White adds that quality control can be a problem if images are made from distorted fossils or inaccurate casts.

    The initial response to the e-archive is lukewarm, according to an informal e-mail survey Weber sent this spring to 145 international paleoanthropologists. Only about half of the 50 who responded said that they would share their electronic data—although 94% said they would use other people's electronic data. Others prefer to see museums post their own images rather than give power to a centralized database.

    But a few researchers have welcomed the idea. In South Africa, Francis Thackeray, manager of the Transvaal Museum collection in Pretoria, immediately offered to post photos and scans on the e-archive if it proceeds; already he has jointly published with Weber a CD-ROM of a famous, nearly complete 2.5-million-year-old skull known as Mrs. Ples.

    No matter how fancy the technology, however, access relies on people's willingness to trust each other. “Getting researchers to give their data will be the most difficult part of this,” says Meave Leakey. Even the National Museums of Kenya's request that visiting researchers share standard measurements of fossils has not been honored, she says.

    One solution would be for funding agencies such as NSF to require that access to fossils be provided after a certain period, in the form of either high-quality images on the Web or access to casts. “The time has come for the community to discuss these issues,” says Mark Weiss, physical anthropology program director at NSF, who plans a winter meeting on the topic. AAPA is considering action, too. Anthropologists filled a session on the topic of access at the annual meeting in April, where it was proposed that the association come up with voluntary guidelines. “As long as fossils remain tangible, fragile, and concealable items that are, in some cases, a source of revenue and power, then problems of access will always exist,” Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand wrote in the current AAPA newsletter. “But that doesn't mean the current levels of access cannot be improved upon.”

    However these efforts move forward, momentum is building for faster access to crucial fossils. Yet this is already having a chilling effect on fossil discoverers, who are moving to define and defend their policies. White says, “I'm afraid the consequences of this contrived momentum may ultimately serve nobody's purpose.” He and other discoverers warn that any new guidelines will have to consider their rights, too. Otherwise, “it won't be worth it to go to the field,” says Walker. And, as GWU's Wood notes: “Without their work, the rest of us would be out of a job.”


    Can a Fossil Be Too Accessible?

    1. Ann Gibbons

    In 1997, when the government of Myanmar invited paleoanthropologist Russell Ciochon of the University of Iowa, Iowa City, to study newly discovered fossils of a 37-million-year-old primate, he was so delighted he hopped the first flight he could get to the National Museum of Natural History in Yangon. But delight turned to concern when he learned that two teams from France and Japan would soon be arriving to study the same sites and unpublished fossils, which included a candidate for the first ancestor of apes and monkeys. Concern turned into irritation the next year, when he had to withdraw two manuscripts from journals, including one from Nature, after a reviewer pointed out that the French and Burmese teams had beaten him to publication.

    Although some researchers argue that fossil hunters who restrict access for too long create problems for the field (see main text), the Myanmar incident suggests that unlimited access to fossils is no solution. The Myanmar government funded a 1997 fossil-collecting expedition of Burmese scientists and then opened their specimen drawers to any researchers who wanted to see them. Although this might seem admirably democratic, by early 1998 three teams were at work on the same fossils and sites, creating a whole new set of problems, says paleoanthropologist John Fleagle of the State University of New York, Stony Brook.

    Ciochon and Gregg Gunnell, a paleontologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, describe those difficulties in the September issue of Evolutionary Anthropology. For example, in November 1998, a Japanese team collected a partial jaw of an ancient primate, Bahinia pondaungensis. Two weeks later, a French team visited the site and collected the other part of that same jaw, which it soon published as the type specimen of a new species. At the time, the French researchers were unaware that the Japanese had the rest of the jaw, which is still unpublished.

    The wide-open access has led to a flurry of work in Myanmar, where at last count 24 new fossils from five different primate taxa had been described. “So in a sense, science does advance,” says Ciochon. But he, for one, is not going back. “It's too complicated.” For his next field project, he's heading to Java.


    Online Pioneer Winds Up Lost in Cyberspace

    1. Rebecca Renner*
    1. Rebecca Renner writes from Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

    The American Geophysical Union wants its electronic journals to be the next wave in science publishing. But some fear that it's gone off the deep end

    Mary Scott was stumped. As a geology librarian at Ohio State University in Columbus, she was used to tracking down obscure references. But the request she received this April was unlike anything she had seen before. “A scientist was searching for a Geophysical Research Letters article he'd seen referenced in Science,” she says, but the citation looked like gobbledygook: Geophysical Research Letters 29, 10.1029/2001GL014304 (2002). “I had no way to figure out what issue we needed,” Scott recalls. “All I could do was pull all the current year's issues from the shelf and go through each one.”

    Scott never found it; at that point, the article had appeared only in the electronic version of the journal. Her frustration is a symptom of what's gone wrong since the journal's publisher, the American Geophysical Union (AGU), took a belated leap last year into the world of electronic publishing. In giving its online journals pride of place, the organization abandoned traditional sequential page numbers in its paper journals. Early this month, AGU backtracked by adopting a four-digit “article number” that serves much the same purpose as a page reference. AGU officials hope that it and other changes will help them right a publishing ship that in the past year has been listing wildly. “It's really quite a mess,” says Paul Lucey, a planetologist at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, who edits AGU's Journal of Geophysical Research—Planets. AGU's management “is focusing so much on electronic that they just discarded the print version.”

    AGU's woes stem from a bold come-from-behind strategy, says geophysicist Marcia McNutt, director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, California, and immediate past president of the society. For decades, AGU—which publishes many leading journals in the earth, atmospheric, and oceanographic sciences—required authors to submit their papers practically ready for publication. The policy kept costs low but was hostile to new technologies, McNutt says. “In the 1980s, we considered alternatives but decided that, as a small nonprofit, we couldn't afford to be on the leading edge.”

    When AGU took the e-plunge in 2001, however, it went all out. Online papers, the organization declared, would be treated not as sneak previews of printed versions but as publications of record. The switch also paved the way for extras that scientists want but that hard-copy journals can't match, namely, “multimedia enhancements” such as videos, simulations, and three-dimensional chemical structures.

    First, though, AGU needed a permanent way to tag online papers for citation in the scientific literature. Because page numbers are meaningless in cyberspace, AGU scrapped them and assigned each paper a 20-character string of numbers and letters called a digital object identifier (DOI). “Page numbers are potentially misleading, because they suggest that people should reference the printed version,” says AGU's executive director, Fred Spilhaus.

    The new scheme drew fire from the start. Scientists and librarians complained that AGU's cryptic tags were designed for search engines, not human beings. To use long, unwieldy DOIs “is ridiculous,” says Peter Brueggeman, director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography Library in San Diego, California. “People have enough trouble with shorter, traditional citations now. AGU offers no user-friendly, short, and simple citation scheme to get to the exact location of its articles,” he says.


    Geoscientists complain that AGU's identifier for online papers is next to useless for navigating its print journals.


    Online searches fare little better. Because scientific databases aren't designed to handle DOIs, it has been practically impossible to find an AGU article on most of the common scientific databases. “DOI is a monster change, and secondary databases can't handle it,” says Tim Ingoldsby, director of business development at the American Institute of Physics (AIP) in Melville, New York. AIP's database is one of those that choked on DOIs, and the organization has assisted AGU with its publishing problems.

    AGU acknowledges that its march into cyberspace has covered some rough terrain. Every few weeks its member newspaper, EOS, publishes another letter from management explaining a new problem with electronic publishing. But some geoscientists say the organization has been too complacent about the inconvenience the move has caused. “It's embarrassing,” says Lucey. “The letters are frank and present the facts, but there's no apology.”

    The outcry climaxed at the society's annual spring meeting in late May, when the organization's board of directors vigorously debated a proposal for an unprecedented external review of the entire publishing program. The issue was raised by Jack Gosling, a solar physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and outgoing member of AGU's board, who says he feared that AGU's problems would cost the organization money and members. Gosling and fellow proponents of the review backed down only after AGU's management urged members to be patient. “The challenge for AGU is to be on the cutting edge of electronic publishing … not the bleeding edge,” says outgoing AGU council member Marvin Geller of the State University of New York, Stony Brook. At the same meeting, Geller tabled a successful motion calling for AGU's management to “take all steps” to reassure members that the publishing situation was under control.

    View this table:

    AGU wasn't the first science publisher to do away with page numbers. When the American Physical Society (APS) declared its online journals to be the versions of record in July 1993, it exchanged page numbers for a six-digit “smart identifier.” But APS has had fewer problems than AGU. “We tried to have something that people understand and recognize,” says APS's editor-in-chief, Martin Blume. “With us, if you know the reference, you can construct the identifier and vice versa.” (See box, above.)

    Other science publishers are treading more cautiously into the electronic future. The American Chemical Society publishes papers online “ASAP—as soon as publishable,” says Lorrin Garson, chief technical officer for the society's publishing division. “But when we print the journal, we use page numbers. Librarians and everybody else like page numbers. It's an important issue to please your customers. It's pretty much a no-brainer to retain them.”

    Even companies that specialize in online services still rely on paper. The scientific search database ChemAbstracts, for example, saves a hard copy of everything it cites. “Archiving of electronic material is something that we are unsure of. We need to use a method that we know works,” says Chemical Abstracts Service's director of editorial operations, Matthew Toussant.

    AGU officials say that the organization's citation problems are an inevitable—and temporary—cost of being a front-runner. “We believe that the move to the DOI as a citation standard may put AGU ahead of the curve, but the rest of the world will soon catch up,” publications committee chair George Hornberger wrote in May to the e-mail discussion list of the International Aquatic and Marine Science Libraries and Information Centers.

    But some geoscientists warn that AGU's determination to lead the pack could lead it down a blind alley. “AGU has assumed that the concept of fixed pages will be obsolete in the era of electronic publishing,” says Scripps oceanographer Ralph Keeling. “But the whole browser-display environment is still evolving, and the technology we use for reading electronic media will almost certainly be very different in a decade or two. It's premature to proclaim the death of the page.”

    AGU's recent adoption of article numbers suggests that arguments such as Keeling's might be making headway. AGU will retroactively number all papers published between January and August. Future “hard copy” journals will publish numbered papers and will print a range of article numbers on each issue's spine—just as they used to do with page numbers. “In effect, people can now cite AGU articles without the DOI,” Brueggeman points out.

    Although the pagination crisis was the biggest fallout from AGU's leap into electronic journals, users have also raised other complaints. Late last year, AGU riled librarians at large universities by hiking prices so that online subscriptions cost twice as much as print ones. (By contrast, the American Meteorological Society charges no more than 31% extra for its online subscriptions.) Bottlenecks in production also have ruffled feathers. AGU's once-hefty Journal of Geophysical Research, for example, has shrunk to comic-book size as editors struggle to convert electronic versions of articles into print.

    Will AGU's online teething problems be worth it in the long run? No one knows, Geller says. “Professional societies are facing a very perilous time in the transition to e-publishing,” he says. “AGU chose to take the e-plunge all at once. Only time will tell if this was courageous or foolhardy.”


    Can Money Turn Singapore Into a Biotech Juggernaut?

    1. Dennis Normile

    Singapore hopes a $2 billion initiative will create the talent pool and business climate needed for a world-class biomedical enterprise

    SINGAPORE—Jullie Miller wasn't surprised when her husband, Lance, called from his office at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Bethesda, Maryland, one day in 2000 to say they needed to talk about a job offer he'd received. Miller had achieved some renown for using microarrays to capture genetic profiles of cancerous tissues, but after 3 years at NCI, the 30-year-old molecular biologist had begun to ponder the next step in his career. Because Lance had previously mentioned San Francisco as an attractive place to live, “my wife was thinking maybe the Bay Area or someplace else in California,” Miller recalls. “When I said ‘Singapore,’ it blew her away.”

    It took the Millers nearly a year to make up their minds. They read books about the experiences of expatriates, sought the advice of friends and professional acquaintances, and weighed the likely impact on their two children, now ages 3 and 1, of a move to this tiny Asian city-state. Then they plunged ahead, he into the position of senior group leader for microarray and expression genomics at the fledgling Genome Institute of Singapore, she as trailing spouse and mother.

    “We have a more active social life than we did in the States,” Miller says about his new circle of friends, which includes transplants from Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States as well as Singaporeans. He's equally enthusiastic about the job. “Building something from the ground up—where can you get that kind of opportunity?” he asks.

    Singaporean officials hope that hundreds of scientists from around the world will join Miller in the next few years as the country seeks to make the products of biomedical research a pillar of its economy. Fueled by exports from the electronics industry, Singapore's 3.3 million residents trail only Japan and Hong Kong for the highest per capita income in Asia. But officials have long worried about the economy's narrow base. So in June 2000 Singapore announced its National Biomedical Science Strategy, which would pump an estimated $2 billion over the next 5 years into new institutes, academic research, and training in the life sciences, as well as tax incentives for both multinational pharmaceutical companies and homegrown biotech start-ups.

    It is an audacious bet on the direction of global science and technology. And it's no sure thing. Singapore needs to attract enough rank-and-file life science researchers to achieve a critical mass, and then it needs to keep them long enough to have an impact. A proportion of the Singaporeans sent overseas for education and training might well decide to stay abroad. And Singapore currently lacks the entrepreneurial environment that would nurture biotechnology start-ups.

    Rebel with a cause.

    A*STAR's Philip Yeo hopes that an unorthodox ad campaign will lure students into science careers.


    But the gamble has already started to pay off. “Singapore has grown a biomedical industry within a very short period,” says David Brantley, a technology policy analyst for the U.S. Commerce Department, who described Singapore's plans in a recent white paper ( Direct foreign investment in the biomedical sector grew 6% last year, to $483 million. And the city-state is attracting some topflight scientific talent. Edison Liu, the head of the genome institute (who recruited Miller), also came from NCI, where he was director of the Division of Clinical Sciences. Recent arrivals also include molecular biologist Alan Colman and physicist Gunaretnam Rajagopal from the United Kingdom and cancer researcher Yoshiaki Ito from Japan (see sidebar on p. 1472). They are eager to help make their new country a biotech powerhouse. “Failure is not an option; it's a matter of the degree of success,” says Rajagopal, who moved from the University of Cambridge last year to become director of the new Bioinformatics Institute.

    The obvious answer

    The idea for the biotech initiative came from the country's Economic Development Board (EDB). As the government's lead agency for managing economic growth, EDB has received much of the credit for helping develop Singapore's electronics industry in the 1980s. Exports are the lifeblood of Singapore's economy, and electronics account for a majority of those exports, fueling annual growth rates of 5% to 10% in the early 1990s. But the loss of electronics jobs to cheaper locations in Asia and the global downturn in the industry has triggered the worst recession in 30 years. At over 4%, unemployment is running near historic highs.

    To reverse those trends, EDB decided to look for more knowledge-intensive sectors. Once that course was set, says Philip Yeo, co-chair of the board, the answer was obvious. “Nothing is more knowledge-based than biomedicine,” says Yeo, who also leads the board's Agency for Science, Technology, and Research (A*STAR), which overseas public research institutes. “But we have to go beyond production. We need innovation capabilities, too.”

    Singapore already has a well-developed health care system that attracts wealthy patients from Malaysia and Indonesia. It has supported some clinical research, and a few individuals pursue basic research, including the high-profile efforts on human stem cell lines by reproductive biologist Ariff Bongso of the National University Hospital. Fortunately, a number of global pharmaceutical firms had already set up regional offices and manufacturing facilities in Singapore because of the assumption that a rising standard of living among Asia's 3 billion people will lead to skyrocketing demands for better health care. The biomedical initiative, Yeo explains, is meant to combine these elements into “an integrated, goal-oriented approach to develop human, intellectual, and industrial capital” in the life sciences.

    Biomedicine is only one part of the 5-year, $4 billion Science & Technology 2005 Plan, which includes efforts in information technology, materials science, and chemistry. But although A*STAR is vague about how much each sector will receive, life sciences are clearly a priority. A*STAR set up the Biomedical Research Council to focus just on life science research, leaving everything else to the Science and Engineering Research Council. The government also established a ministerial committee to oversee the biomedical initiative, as well as the star-studded International Advisory Council.

    The advisory council isn't just window-dressing, says one member, Sydney Brenner of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. He points out that the government heeded advice from him and others in the mid-1980s, when it was first considering a plunge into biotechnology. “We told them that before they had a biotechnology sector, they needed an overflow of scientists who had been working at the forefront of the field,” he recalls.




    • Established in 1987, it has recently absorbed several groups from the Institute of Molecular Agrobiology (established in 1995).

    • Search under way for director

    • Total staff (combined): 490


    • Opened July 2001

    • Gunaretnam Rajagopal, director

    • Projected staff: 100


    • Opened 1990

    • Miranda Yap, director

    • Total staff: 100


    • In planning stage

    • Director to be named

    • Staffing levels undecided



    • Opened May 2000

    • Edison Liu, director (above)

    • Projected staff: 150


    The result was the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB), created in 1987 to train young scientists and conduct leading-edge research. IMCB's work, including the recent online publication of the sequence of the Fugu rubripes genome (Science, 23 August, p. 1301), has solidified Singapore's place on the global scientific map. “I used to go to conferences, and people were surprised that Singapore had any research at all,” says IMCB researcher Graeme Guy. “Now everyone knows IMCB.”

    IMCB recently absorbed 12 research groups from the Institute of Molecular Agrobiology and might be renamed the Singapore Institute of Molecular Biology. Two new institutes, the Genome Institute of Singapore and the Bioinformatics Institute, will bridge the gap between basic and applied research. At the applied end of the continuum is the Bioprocessing Technology Centre, set up in 1990, and the new Institute of Bioengineering.

    To encourage synergy, the institutes will be clustered in the new Biopolis, a $286 million seven-building development that will also have space for small companies. In addition to working in state-of-the-art labs, the researchers will share big-ticket equipment and animal-care facilities.

    That cooperation extends to other government agencies, too. For example, the Ministry of Health is setting up the Singapore Tissue Network to accumulate a library of human tissues along with complete medical histories, as well as five national disease registries covering cardiology, oncology, myopia, stroke, and nephrology. Each will be governed by strict informed consent and privacy laws. In addition, the new Biomedical Research Council is offering grants to encourage life science research at Singapore's universities. There are also schemes to support clinical research.

    Whereas Brenner says that putting everything “under one umbrella called biomedical research [is] what everybody who's got a decent medical research organization does these days,” Colman worries that such an approach risks spreading the limited number of people and resources too thinly. Singapore must instead “concentrate its efforts,” says Colman, who is chief scientific officer of ES Cell International, a Singapore company set up to commercialize the human stem cell research done at Singapore's National University Hospital.

    Changing minds

    The lack of human capital might be an even bigger challenge. With few Singaporeans working in or even studying the life sciences, most of its research community is likely to be recruited from abroad. In fact, only two of 35 principal investigators at IMCB are native Singaporeans. At the same time, IMCB deputy director Hong Wanjin says that many of the principal researchers have been there for a decade or longer, and four have decided to become citizens. A*STAR hopes that investing in everything from grade school science fairs to scholarships for graduate students will eventually reduce the country's dependence on foreign scientists.

    The Ministry of Education is also getting into the act by reforming the country's primary and secondary school science curriculums. Singapore's four polytechnics, which provide postsecondary vocational education, have all set up courses for biomedical lab technicians and research assistants. And the National University of Singapore has just revamped its life sciences curriculum and is putting a greater emphasis on research in response to the new grants program.

    Singaporean officials hope all this effort will make biomedicine the fourth pillar of the economy—after electronics, chemicals, and precision engineering. After all, Yeo insists, the goals are jobs and products, not Nobel Prizes. “You only get, what, $1 million, and then it's split three ways,” he says, ignoring the scientific bragging rights that come with the award.

    Three companies have already taken advantage of the new special incentives to set up R&D operations in Singapore. Lilly Systems Biology, a subsidiary of U.S.-based Eli Lilly and Co., expects to have about 50 scientists working on computational tools for drug discovery by next year. Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis hopes by year's end to have the first of 60 researchers at work on treatments for drug-resistant tuberculosis and dengue fever at the new Institute for Tropical Diseases. And a trio of Japanese companies led by Chugai Pharmaceutical earlier this year jointly set up PharmaLogicals Research, with 10 researchers studying diseases prevalent in Asia.

    Paul Herrling, head of pharma research for Novartis, says that Singapore's biomedical initiative enhanced its reputation for offering scientists a stimulating work environment. “Singapore has already attracted some big names,” he says, so “it was quite a nice match.”


    The Biopolis science park will be home to Singapore's biomedical institutes.


    The longest shot among Yeo's bets is the one placed on biotechnology start-up businesses. As Singapore learned in electronics, a multinational company won't hesitate to move manufacturing jobs to a lower cost site. But a homegrown company would be likely to maintain a presence even if its factories are elsewhere. And start-ups create a wider variety of high-level jobs. “If a scientist quits [a research lab] and forms a company,” Yeo says, that person “also hires a president, a general manager, a head of logistics.” To encourage the transformation, researchers at A*STAR institutes can go on leave for up to 3 years to launch a business. EDB will even provide $150,000 in no-strings-attached seed money.

    That model ignores several key factors in the start-up equation, says Alex Thian, a former patent attorney who now heads Research Biolabs, a small Singapore-based company offering biomedical research supplies and services. “You would have to raise more than $1 million to take a basic research idea through proof of effectiveness,” he says, “and you'd need even more money to take it through clinical trials.” He adds that Singapore lacks sources of early-stage venture capital, people who can evaluate start-up business plans, and managers with start-up business experience.

    Then there are the cultural impediments to striking it rich. Gurinder Shahi, a molecular biologist and CEO of BioEnterprise Asia, which tries to help promising biotech businesses, says that Singaporeans prefer a stable job with a big corporation to the uncertainty of a start-up. Singaporeans are a bit uncomfortable with anyone getting too much more successful than their neighbors, he says: “There is an antihero mentality here.” The electronics industry is a good example, he points out: Despite a large number of talented engineers and businesspeople and decades of experience, Singapore has produced just a handful of globally significant companies.

    Shahi says that changing the culture, developing entrepreneurial-minded scientists, and creating a nurturing environment is a slow process. Yeo agrees, acknowledging that it will take until 2005 to get the new institutes up to speed and perhaps a decade for students to emerge from the pipeline. Miller says he's comfortable with that timeline. Although he anticipates someday returning to the States, in the meantime he expects to see a lot of good life science results coming out of Singapore: “That you can count on.”


    The Lure of First-Class Science

    1. Dennis Normile

    “Why Singapore?”

    Hong Kong-born cancer researcher Edison Liu has heard that question a lot in the 18 months since he quit as director of the Division of Clinical Sciences of the U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Bethesda, Maryland, to head the new Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS). The tiny city-state is a long way from the scientific mainstream, its equatorial climate is no picnic, and its reputation as a buttoned-up society with draconian law enforcement turns off some researchers.

    Liu cites the “consonance” between his goals and Singapore's interest in using genomics to address human health issues and the challenge of helping build up a rudimentary biomedical infrastructure. He also wanted to be part of an era, not seen for centuries, in which Asians are achieving at home the kind of peace and prosperity previously available only through emigration. “If I can assist that [trend] and at the same time have fun, that would be great,” he says.

    Singapore's biomedical strategy depends on finding more people like Liu. Two new institutes—GIS and the Bioinformatics Institute—are now recruiting a total of 250 researchers, most of whom will likely come from overseas. The Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB), which recently absorbed 12 research groups from the Institute of Molecular Agrobiology, is looking for a director. The planned Institute of Bioengineering will require more foreign talent, and both universities and new industrial R&D facilities are turning to the international market.

    For scientists of Chinese and Indian ancestry, Singapore offers a chance to do first-class research in an environment that's familiar and, often, close to home and family. Gunaretnam Rajagopal, an Indian-Malaysian physicist who left the University of Cambridge, U.K., to take the top post at the Bioinformatics Institute, says he came “because I believe in their grand vision [for biomedicine]” and because it's just a short plane ride away from aging parents who still live in Malaysia.

    Biochemist Barry Halliwell doesn't have personal ties to the region. But after spending a sabbatical from King's College London at the National University of Singapore in 1998, he returned in January 2000 to become chair of the biochemistry department. “I saw this was a place where a lot of things were going to happen and where I could make a contribution,” says Halliwell. For molecular biologist Alan Colman, formerly of PPL Therapeutics—the U.K.-based biopharmaceutical company that produced Dolly, the cloned sheep—Singapore provides research opportunities that are no longer available at home. Colman is now chief scientific officer of ES Cell International, a company formed with Singaporean government support to commercialize the stem cell work pioneered at Singapore's National University Hospital.

    Four who flew in.

    (top to bottom) Lance Miller; Yoshiaki Ito and student; Alan Colman, and Gunaretnam Rajagopal all said “yes” to Singapore's research opportunities.


    Japanese cancer researcher Yoshiaki Ito responded to an offer to continue investigating the role of a gene called RUNX3 in stomach cancer after reaching Kyoto University's mandatory retirement age of 63 this spring. Private Japanese universities offered him a slot, but IMCB agreed to employ all 10 of the 14 members of his team willing to move. It took them just 3 months to get the research back up to speed, he says.

    Lance Miller, a microarray specialist who followed Liu from NCI to GIS, says that his family—his wife and two small children—adjusted quickly to the move. “I've become a salesman for Singapore,” he says. The sizable number of expatriates and English as the official language helps, too.

    Still, “Singapore isn't everyone's cup of tea,” warns Colman. The government's low tolerance for criticism puts a damper on the arts, which he says means that “there's not much culture.” And the long-ruling People's Action Party and a compliant judiciary combine to hamstring opposition political parties to an extent that seems excessive to many Westerners. “The Singaporean government does a lot of things differently,” says Miller. “But it also makes possible this environment for science.”

    At the same time, most foreign researchers remain untouched by domestic politics, and many citizens and short-term residents say that the government in reality is far less heavy-handed than its reputation might suggest. “I don't think Singaporeans are walking around in constant fear of getting caned,” says IMCB molecular biologist Uttam Surana with a chuckle.

    If “Why Singapore?” is the first question departing recruits hear from friends and colleagues, the second most common query might be, “When are you coming back?” Most envision returning home at some point, although not soon, they say.

    Workplace longevity isn't a problem for Liu, who says he doesn't even want people to stay until they retire. Instead, he believes that a natural flow of people is a way to keep an institute alive and to seed international collaborations. “This is not a dead end,” he says. “But it could be a way station that will add value” to someone's career.


    Many Asian Nations Grab for Biomedical Brass Ring

    1. Dennis Normile

    SINGAPORE—Late last year, executives of Artus, a German company that offers polymerase chain reaction-based disease diagnostic services and kits, started looking for an Asian site to build a test lab and office. They weighed government incentives, the availability of trained staff, and living conditions for managers dispatched from home. “We considered Singapore but finally picked Malaysia,” says Michael Tillmann, managing director of the Hamburg-based company. The incentive packages were similar, Tillmann says, but Malaysia's reputation for having a more stable workforce, combined with lower wages, gave it an edge—and Artus opened a facility there this month.

    Throughout Asia, countries are vying for biotech companies such as Artus to beef up what's seen as an increasingly important economic sector. “Countries that don't try to develop their biotechnology sectors will be left behind both economically and scientifically,” says Svasti Jisnuson, a biochemist at Thailand's Mahidol University in Bangkok.

    In wooing foreign executives, countries tend to emphasize certain areas that set them apart. Singapore is emphasizing biomedical work, for example, leaving agriculture to China, which has more than a dozen genetically modified crops under production or in field-testing. Hong Kong hopes to identify and commercialize the active compounds in traditional Chinese medicines, and Malaysia is foraging through its tropical forests for agents that could be turned into food supplements and pharmaceuticals. Thailand is aggressively pursuing aquaculture, and Taiwan aims for a share of the global market in high-tech medical devices.

    Some even see this variety as a strength. All of Asia could benefit from the synergy “as each country focuses on different but complementary biotech fields,” says Gurinder Shahi, a molecular biologist and CEO of BioEnterprise Asia, an umbrella company for several biotech start-ups in Singapore.

    But there are limits to diversity. Practically every Asian country has mapped out a strategy for biotechnology, Shahi says, “and in terms of establishing an infrastructure, they are all very similar.” The plans typically include incentives for internal investment, increased governmental spending on life sciences, scholarships for students, schemes to transfer public lab discoveries to the private sector, support for start-up companies, and the creation of new institutes and science parks to house them. Even the names are similar. Singapore is building Biopolis to house its life science institutes. Malaysia plans to build three new life science institutes in BioValley. Korea's Seoul National University is planning BioMAX, a multidisciplinary biotech research institute.

    Although the plans might appear to be offshoots of the same plan, potential recruits often see greener grass when they look beyond their own borders. Kim Sungyoung, a molecular biologist at Seoul National University whose work has given rise to one start-up company, envies Singapore's comprehensive planning. “We can't get that kind of cooperation among the different ministries in Korea,” he says.

    Shahi likewise envies South Korea, which already has more than 300 biotech businesses in operation, compared with only 30 in Singapore. Even if the number of start-ups in proportion to population is roughly equal, he says, the low absolute number in Singapore means there isn't enough business for major venture capital firms to maintain a presence or offer the kind of managerial advice available in South Korea. Getting a bunch of biotech start-ups up and running, he notes, doesn't generate the same headlines as signing up an internationally known researcher (see sidebar on p. 1472). But it could produce a bigger economic payoff in the long run.

  16. A Warmer Arctic Means Change for All

    1. Richard A. Kerr

    The seeming inevitability of shrinking ice on the Arctic Ocean means hard times for polar bears, a threat to an indigenous way of life, and an age-old dream come true for sailors

    When John Franklin set out in 1845 to find a sea route to the Orient over the top of North America, he knew full well that he faced “warfare with ocean and ice, with storms and toils,” as a predecessor put it. He proved to be no match for the elements: The Arctic ice doomed Franklin and his 128 men to a horrific end, foiling yet another search for a Northwest Passage. Despite dozens of rescue missions in the following years, none of Franklin's crew was seen alive again. Yet it was those missions that finally led to the mapping of a water route to the Orient— albeit an ice-clogged one.

    The centuries-long quest for the fabled Northwest Passage proved quixotic for generations of explorers, but what eluded those brave if sometimes foolhardy adventurers will come to pass, probably in this century. By simply staying home and burning billions of tons of fossil fuels, humans will melt an ice-free path through the Arctic seas, at least in summer, that will finally link Europe and eastern North America to the Orient by the shortest possible seaway. Shipping will pass freely, and petroleum and mineral riches of the high Arctic will flow out. For oil exploration alone, the Arctic “is the frontier in the world,” says geologist Thomas Ahlbrandt of the U.S. Geological Survey. And the polar frontier might well set the stage for conflict, as naval powers stake out competing claims in the newly open waters of a new “global commons.”

    But a frustrating barrier to navigators is an essential platform for life. As the summer's ice retreats farther and farther northward, the open water so alluring to commercial interests will confound polar bears looking for solid footing in their hunt for seals. Inuits and other indigenous peoples likewise depend on the ice for access to whales and walruses. And algae at the base of the food pyramid cling to the underside of the ice. A hundred years from now, life around the Arctic Ocean will go on—but it will not be the same.

    Breaking through

    From the surface, the Arctic would appear to have changed little since Martin Frobisher first probed these ice-clogged waters for a route to the Orient in the 1500s. The ice proved impenetrable to him and a parade of adventurers who followed, although great explorers such as Robert McClure in his hunt for Franklin established that there is indeed a water route west of Greenland through a maze of Canadian islands and Alaska's Beaufort Sea and out the Bering Strait. If navigable, that would cut 11,000 kilometers off the Europe-to-Asia route through the Panama Canal and 19,000 kilometers off the trip around Cape Horn for supertankers unable to squeeze through the canal.

    No single ship sailed the Northwest Passage until Roald Amundsen and six companions succeeded in 1906 in a tiny cutter, the Gjöa, taking 3 years to thread their way through islands and ice floes. The first deep-draft ship didn't complete the passage until 1954. And the route remains a commercial nonentity. During the shipping season, limited to a 3- to 5-month window, cargo reaches Arctic communities, grain ships out of Churchill on Hudson Bay, and ecotourists flock in, but pack ice drifting under wind and ocean currents presents a constant threat. And rarely do ships venture northwest of Hudson Bay, through the Canadian archipelago, where assistance from icebreakers is essential. The Northeast Passage or Northern Sea Route up around Scandinavia and along Russian's Arctic coast has seen more traffic, but completing a trip from Europe to Asia along that path requires an icebreaker as well.

    On top of the world.

    A northern sea route is likely to trigger border disputes no matter where it opens up.


    Now the Arctic ice is poised to offer a reprieve from 4 centuries of nautical frustration. The extent of Arctic ice has shrunk 5% in the past 20 years, its thickness is down, and climate models forecast continued shrinkage as global temperatures climb (see facing page). In a report released earlier this year, Gary Brass, director of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission (USARC) in Arlington, Virginia, predicted that within a decade, both the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route could be open to vessels lacking reinforcement against the ice for at least a month in the summer, assuming recent trends in ice coverage continue. A conservative scenario in the report has both routes open every summer by 2050 (wintertime remaining ice-covered indefinitely). The very latest runs of leading climate models have, on average, both routes opening in summer before about 2080.

    However, as soon as passages open up, less tangible but no less imposing obstacles will come to the fore. Both Canada and Russia claim, under international maritime law, that the island-strewn straits along their Arctic coasts are internal waters and in their exclusive control. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, they argue, they can draw boundaries encompassing their island groupings to define internal waters. The United States, which has yet to sign the convention, has argued that Canada and Russia are stretching their lines beyond the legal limit, and, besides, there has already been international traffic through these passages. The United States “is worried about setting precedents elsewhere in the world” where free passage might be restricted, says oceanographer Lawson Brigham of USARC. “It's one of the most intractable issues in the Arctic.”

    Passable straits in either route could become political hot spots. To illustrate the possibilities, the USARC report offers a fictional “vignette” of a naval operation that might be mounted in an ice-free Arctic. In it, three U.S. Navy warships and a nuclear submarine are sent through the Northern Sea Route to show the flag and head off the European Union's imminent concession of transit control to Russia. The vignette does not hazard a guess as to Russia's response. In another scenario, the USARC report assumes the creation of a major fishing industry in the now largely inaccessible Beaufort and Chukchi seas, where fishing wars among Russia, Japan, and the United States could break out.

    Such concerns might not be so farfetched considering that the ice-covered Arctic was the Cold War province of Soviet and allied nuclear attack submarines playing cat-and-mouse games and ballistic missile subs trying to avoid detection. In the coming greenhouse world, “melting of sea ice in the Arctic will turn it into a conventional open-ocean [antisubmarine warfare] environment,” states the USARC report, “with none of the advantages it now affords” to submarines. Everyone will be able to get in the game.

    Naval powers are likely to have more than just patches of water to fight for. Even under current climatic conditions, grains, minerals, and oil are dispatched from the Arctic. According to a recent assessment by the U.S. Geological Survey, the Arctic holds an estimated 130 billion barrels of undiscovered oil, or a quarter of the petroleum resources yet to be discovered in the world.

    After the Exxon Valdez spill off the coast of Alaska in 1989, the prospect of large amounts of oil moving around the Arctic can be disturbing. “The environmental issues are the biggest ones,” says Brigham. “The [Arctic] marine environment is reasonably pristine, and you could have problems.”

    Snags in the web of life

    Less ice alone will spell trouble for some Arctic denizens. Mats of diatoms—microscopic, silica-encased algae—that hang from the bottom of the ice would perforce become less common in seasonally ice-free regions such as the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. Dead diatoms rain down from the ice onto the sea floor, where they feed worms and crustaceans that in turn sustain bottom-feeding whales such as the gray whale. How all this would fall out ecologically under diminished-ice conditions is anyone's guess, says marine biologist Patricia Wheeler of Oregon State University in Corvallis, who notes that such questions are being addressed in the 10-year Western Arctic Shelf-Basin Interactions project now under way. She adds that an ice-free Arctic might even benefit some critters: For example, removal of summer ice cover could boost production of phytoplankton. Working up the food chain, these floating algae are consumed by zooplankton, which are eaten by Arctic cod—dinner for seals and humans alike.

    For one Arctic inhabitant, however, receding ice presents a clear danger. The polar bear, the world's biggest land carnivore, spends most of its life on the ice. From late spring to midsummer, polar bears hunt seals from the ice to store up energy reserves for leaner days. Where receding ice strands bears on land for part of this feasting season, they fast, possibly for months.

    In western Hudson Bay, where warmer temperatures in the 1990s made for earlier ice melting in the spring and later formation in the fall, polar bears suffered. For every week that the ice broke up earlier, bears came ashore 10 kilograms lighter, says zoologist Ian Stirling of the Canadian Wildlife Service in Edmonton. Cub survival depends on well-fed nursing females and, after weaning, a reliable food supply. Thus, as temperatures climb and the ice breaks up earlier, Stirling would expect more of the Arctic's 22,000 polar bears to suffer, especially toward the southern edge of their range.

    Walruses would be in the same boat. They use the ice as a platform to rest between dives to the bottom to feed on clams, worms, and crabs. In 1998 the ice retreated to waters too deep for walruses to reach bottom in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas and forced them to swim long distances to feed, says social scientist Henry Huntington, a consultant in Eagle River, Alaska. Not surprisingly, the walruses ended up leaner than average that year, although it's unclear how that influenced their odds of making it through the winter.

    Ill omens?

    The indigenous peoples of the Arctic are wary of the changes they have witnessed over the past decade. From generations of experience on the ice, “they know you have to be prepared to hunt early or late, or to hunt geese rather than whales,” depending on what they can divine about conditions in the coming days and weeks, says Huntington. “To the extent things stay within some broad limits,” he says, “that's a good strategy. The question is, what happens when conditions move out of that broad range of expectations? It can make life significantly more dangerous”—even more dangerous than life on the ice already is.

    For instance, Huntington says, after a recent whale hunt, no one was sure the ice was thick enough to bear hauling the catch out for butchering. And, a couple of years ago, two older, experienced natives ventured out in unusual ice conditions and never came back. The presumption, says Huntington, was that the ice got the better of them because they had no experience with such conditions and no traditional knowledge of it.

    The strange environment wrought by changing Arctic ice isn't the only concern for the indigenous communities. The prospect of heightened activity in the region also threatens to encroach on their isolated way of life. And with more ships of every sort passing along the coast, including traffic booming through the Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route, “what happens when something goes wrong?” asks Huntington. When things went wrong for the early explorers, they suffered, while the locals and the environment were unperturbed. That is about to change.

  17. Whither Arctic Ice? Less of It, for Sure

    1. Richard A. Kerr

    Just a few years ago, the Arctic Ocean seemed to be skating on dangerously thin ice. In 1998, scientists working nearly 500 kilometers north of the Alaskan coast found the meters-thick sea ice there to be melting, thinning, and breaking up when it's usually rock solid. The next year, stunning submarine data revealed that Arctic sea ice had thinned by almost half since the 1950s.

    With greenhouse warming declared official by a panel of experts early in 2001, the prospect of an ice-free Arctic looked all too real. But in the last couple of years, nature has hinted that the torrid pace seen in the 1990s will not be sustained. Computer models of the ice's fate under a growing greenhouse now concur that it will continue to shrink markedly, but it won't likely disappear in this century. The shrinkage should, however, be enough to open the Northwest Passage in summer and play havoc with Arctic life (see main text). All the scientific uncertainties aside, notes John Falkingham of the Canadian Ice Service in Ottawa, “the predominant scientific opinion is that there will be much less ice in the Arctic in future than we have seen in the past.”

    Only lately has Arctic ice come under close scrutiny. Never the stuff of deep-keeled, far-ranging icebergs, it mostly lay unwatched within the Arctic Ocean's bounds: the northernmost fringes of Russia, Alaska, the Canadian Archipelago, Greenland, and Scandinavia. Sailors' stories suggest that the far reaches of the North Atlantic were “an icier place in the first half of the 19th century,” says polar researcher John Walsh of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. That was the tail end of the Little Ice Age, from which the world had emerged by the early 20th century. The trend that followed was frustratingly anecdotal and ill defined until a few years ago, when satellite monitoring revealed a 5% decrease in the extent of the ice between 1978 and 1998 (Science, 3 December 1999, p. 1828). That loss hardly represents a threat to the existence of Arctic ice in this century. But the thickness, gauged by nuclear submarine sonar, decreased 43% from the late 1950s to the mid-1990s. At that rate of decline, Walsh observed in 1999, the ice would disappear in a few decades. “It looked like [the ice loss] could be a harbinger of global warming,” says physical oceanographer Humfrey Melling of the Institute of Ocean Sciences (IOS) in Sidney, British Columbia.

    On thin ice.

    Current models suggest that the Arctic Ocean's sea ice could lose more than half of its 1955 volume by midcentury.


    From the vantage point of 2002, the demise of Arctic ice looks less imminent: It has bounced back, or at least much of the way back, since 1998. “Every 10 years or so, for reasons we don't understand, there's a dramatic loss of ocean ice” over the top of North America, says Melling. Deciphering a long-term trend against a background of natural ups and downs in ice volume is tricky, he notes, especially when the reliable record goes back only a few decades. What would help, he and others agree, is a better understanding of what drives the variability of Arctic ice.

    Recent computer models point to changing atmospheric circulation as the culprit in the abrupt ice thinning in the 1990s. “If we take into account everything we know about the Arctic,” says physical oceanographer Gregory Holloway of IOS, “we see the ice readily moves sideways, piles up in some places, and thins in others” under the influence of shifting winds.

    When the wind data of the past 20 years are put in a model that includes Arctic ice, the ice indeed thins over much of the Arctic in the 1990s. Coincidentally, it thins especially where the ice- monitoring submarines happened to have passed and thickens elsewhere or is blown right out of the Arctic Ocean. In light of such results from a number of modeling groups, the 43% decrease in ice thickness is an overestimate, says Holloway: “The real number is in the 10% to 15% range.”

    But if wind shifts were behind most of the thinning, what caused the wind shifts? For that, researchers look to the Arctic Oscillation, or AO (Science, 9 April 1999, p. 241). The AO is an erratic seesaw of atmospheric pressure that alternately raises pressure over the North Pole and then in a ring passing over southern Alaska and central Europe. The pressure shifts drive circulation changes, boosting westerly winds swirling around the pole when the AO kicks into its so-called positive phase. That's just what happened starting in 1989 as the AO pumped up winds in the vortex ringing the pole and swept unusual warmth over high latitudes. The ice responded, culminating in the lean ice year of 1998. Since then, “it looks like things are shifting back again,” says Melling. The AO has backed off from its extreme positive phase, and the ice has been coming back, although both the AO and the ice volume remain far from their long-term averages.

    So the AO could be driving variations in Arctic ice, but what drives the AO? Just about everything, it seems. It's a natural mode of the atmosphere, just as a drum has a natural mode of vibration. Hit a drum almost anywhere with almost anything, and much the same sound comes out; hit the atmosphere—with random jostlings, sunlight-reflecting volcanic ash in the stratosphere, variations in solar brightness, or added greenhouse gases—and it will oscillate with the pattern of the AO. An oscillation's duration can vary depending on what is doing the hitting, however. A random, natural swing in the AO lasting a decade might account for the ice loss of the '90s, and scientists are increasingly suspicious that the slowly building greenhouse is driving the observed decades-long swing toward the positive AO phase on which decadal swings are superimposed.

    Researchers are using their climate models to take the AO, warming, and ocean circulation changes into account and divine the future of Arctic ice in the coming greenhouse. “You can come up with a wide range [of outcomes],” says Walsh, who's chairing a chapter on ice for a report due out next year as part of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment. One model wipes out all Arctic ice in summer by 2050, but three out of the five models only open summertime passages in the second half of the century, retaining some ice year-round in 2100.

    Even in an ice-diminished Arctic, winter will remain frozen solid. But thanks to global warming, summers will likely see more frequent early springtime meltback of the ice from the shore and farther retreat toward the pole, Walsh says. And that will gradually expose new frontiers—and new perils—for those who venture there.

  18. Even in the High Arctic, Nothing Is Permanent

    1. Erica Goldman*
    1. With reporting by Julia Day in Cambridge, U.K.

    Rising temperatures are thawing vast swaths of northern land that had been frozen for millennia, creating headaches—and hazards—for scores of communities perched above unstable ground

    Last spring, residents of a four-story apartment building in Cherskii, a town high above the Arctic Circle in northeastern Siberia, grabbed what few possessions they could carry and ran for their lives. Hours earlier, a huge crack had snaked up the wall of their building after hot water leaking from a pipe began melting the ice-laden ground below. The basement sank abruptly by more than a meter, and within 3 days, whole sections of the building had collapsed. “It seemed like an earthquake had hit,” says geophysicist Vladimir Romanovsky of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, who surveyed the scene last June.

    To inhabitants of Russia's High Arctic, such misfortunes are becoming frighteningly familiar. Over the last 4 decades, rising global temperatures have hammered the region, thawing vast swaths of permanently frozen soil, or permafrost. The uppermost layers in some areas are thawing at rates approaching 20 centimeters per year, says geologist Thomas Osterkamp of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. As a result, life in the harsh subpolar lands is getting harder: Roads are caving in, airport runways are fracturing, and buildings are cracking, tilting, and sometimes falling down. “Thirty years ago,” says civil engineer Branko Ladanyi of the Polytechnic Institute of Montreal, “no one ever talked about [climate-induced] changes in ground temperature.” As the toll from global warming mounts, that subject has become inescapable.

    Early Arctic settlers built their wooden homes directly on permafrost, which covers more than 20% of the world's land surface, including most of Alaska and more than half of Canada and Russia. But the heat radiated by these buildings thawed the ground below, and many sank into dilapidation.

    Slip-sliding away.

    Melting permafrost undercut the foundation of this apartment building in Cherskii, to devastating effect.


    Engineers thought they'd licked this problem in the mid-20th century, when they began perching buildings on pilings driven deep into the permafrost. The meter-or-so gap between a building and the ground helps keep the permafrost cool. For larger structures, pipes channel heat away from the soil. More than 122,000 such pipes prop up a section of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, adding $800 million to construction costs.

    Danger zones.

    This map shows which towns and centers (red) and smaller settlements (pink) are most threatened by thawing permafrost.

    CREDITS: F. E. NELSON ET AL., NATURE 410, 889 (2001)

    Such engineering fixes assumed that the permafrost would remain frozen if heat did not bleed into the ground. But climate change is beginning to wreak havoc, especially in areas with shoddy construction. “Some of the severest problems have occurred in the Russian Arctic because of the poor quality of the infrastructure and the lack of money to maintain it properly,” says Gareth Rees of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, U.K.

    Russia might be worse off for other reasons. Its Arctic territory supports a much larger population than do other permafrost-laden regions. And whereas Arctic architects in North America have tended to favor wood, their Soviet counterparts generally opted for concrete or brick edifices that pushed pilings to the limit, says geologist Peter Williams of Carleton University in Ottawa. So far, thawing permafrost has damaged roughly 300 apartment buildings in the Siberian cities of Norilsk and Yakutsk alone.

    The situation, it appears, will only become direr. Lev Khrustalev, a geocryologist at Moscow State University, analyzed potential failures of five-story apartment buildings in the Russian Arctic as warmer temperatures reduce the ground's ability to bear weight. Assuming that the region continues to warm at the modest rate of 0.075°C per year, Khrustalev estimates that by 2030, all five-story structures built between 1950 and 1990 in Yakutsk, a city of 193,000 people, could come crashing down unless steps are taken to strengthen them and preserve the permafrost. Khrustalev has called repeatedly for modifications of Russian building codes to account for warming, to no avail.

    The highest priority, experts say, is to come to grips with ice-rich permafrost, which is the type most prone to thawing. One strategy being floated is to preempt nature and thaw patches of this permafrost before construction starts. But this approach is unlikely to be adopted by many builders, Osterkamp says, as it could delay projects by up to 5 years. Some Arctic communities are already implementing less radical solutions, such as putting buildings on screw jacks or latticelike foundations that can be adjusted easily to accommodate shifting ground.

    To help planners identify settlements that need urgent action, experts are working up hazard maps based on permafrost type and warming models. “What we see now will only get worse. We need increased vigilance,” says geologist Stephen Robinson of St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. Robinson, Réjean Couture of the Geological Survey of Canada in Ottawa, and colleagues have worked with two Canadian Arctic towns, Norman Wells and Tuktoyaktuk, to tackle current problems and forecast future ones. Other hazard maps developed by Frederick Nelson's group at the University of Delaware, Newark, and Oleg Anisimov of the State Hydrological Institute in St. Petersburg, Russia, warn of trouble for places such as Barrow, Alaska; Inuvik, Northwest Territories; and Yakutsk, Norilsk, and Vorkuta in Russia.

    According to geologist Rostislav Kamensky of the Permafrost Institute in Yakutsk, which will host a conference on permafrost engineering next month, sustainable development in the High Arctic depends on finding ways to adapt to thawing permafrost—not to mention shoring up the existing infrastructure before the next collapse catches people unawares.

  19. Feeling the Pulse of Modern Arctic Life

    1. Richard Stone

    The tale is sadly familiar in the Russian High Arctic. For centuries, the Sámi worked the Kola Peninsula, breeding reindeer, fishing, and hunting on a frigid land hard up against northern Scandinavia. Then the Soviet industrial machine rolled in and pockmarked the peninsula with mines and military bases.

    Ecological abuse.

    This Landsat image of the Imandra watershed reveals a swath of denuded land 60 kilometers long (in pink) and mine-tailings ponds (indicated by circles).


    An innovative project is now attempting to use data on pollution and the environment to create a picture of how the postcommunist upheaval is buffeting the Kola region. Although still in the early stages, “it's an interesting approach,” says Arctic expert Rasmus Ole Rasmussen, a geographer at Roskilde University in Denmark.

    To get a snapshot of regional conditions, the interdisciplinary project, sponsored by the Kola Science Centre of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, publisher of Science), is focusing at first on Lake Imandra and its 1379 tributaries. Like much of Kola, the Imandra watershed in Soviet times absorbed heavy pollution from mine tailings and power plant discharges. These days, people are leaving in droves. Imandra's population has shrunk from 362,000 in 1991 to fewer than 300,000 today. Most of the émigrés are “young and able-bodied,” says Elizabeth Kirk, project leader for AAAS.

    Filling in the details is proving harder than Kirk and others had anticipated. It's not certain, for one, whether a reduction in pollution has occurred in tandem with population decline. For example, although the Severonikel plant near Imandra no longer extracts nickel, it has ramped up its ore processing from other mines. The result, Kirk says, is that the plant might be belching more sulfur dioxide and heavy metals than ever before. Four mines that extract apatite and nephaline are also thriving. But other ecological nightmares have diminished: “The lake is getting a little clearer and fish stocks are on the rise,” says Kirk. With the region on the mend, Kirk says, “there's plenty of reason for optimism.”

    As the 3-year-old project attempts to reconcile conflicting data, it is gearing up next year to address broader questions, such as how global warming might affect Imandra's ecology and economy. And the long-suffering Sámi will at last get their due: The project intends to pull in anthropologists to explore how this culture is coping with change high above the Arctic Circle.

  20. Breaking Up Is Far Too Easy

    1. Jocelyn Kaiser

    Spring is in the air on the Antarctic Peninsula, where rising temperatures are eroding ice shelves that have been in place for millennia. Their retreat could augur a far more perilous melting of the mainland ice sheets

    MARGUERITE BAY, ANTARCTICA—As freezing rain pelts the deck of the RRS James Clark Ross, half a dozen men gather around as a winch hauls a 6-meter-tall, spindly steel contraption from the gray-green swells. A few minutes later the mackintosh-clad figures retrieve a cylinder from the clutches of the orange rig, then use a piston to extrude a clear plastic tube filled with grainy sediment. Two postdocs slice the tube into 1-meter sections, score each lengthwise with a saw, and carry the pieces below deck. There, on a steel workbench, they split the top section's soft mass with a wire, as though cutting cheese.

    “This is the last 10,000 years,” Cambridge University glaciologist Julian Dowdeswell says, pointing to a top section of oozing, greenish sludge. Delving further back in time, Dowdeswell presses his fingertips into stiff, dark-gray mud lower in the sediment core. It looks and feels like the kind of stuff one might slather on at a spa, but to scientists, it's vastly more precious: The mud is loaded with grains of sand and other glacial debris deposited by an ice sheet that covered this bay 15,000 years ago. These sediments hold clues to the climatic history of Antarctica—and, perhaps, to its future.

    Collecting mud cores in this part of the world is no pleasure cruise. The James Clark Ross, a British Antarctic Survey (BAS) ship, spent a nauseating 2 days crossing the stormy Drake Passage that separates the peninsula and Cape Horn at the tip of South America. Here in Marguerite Bay, Dowdeswell, BAS marine geologist Carol Pudsey, and their queasy coring crew are pulling 12-hour shifts under bleak skies, cheered on by a few curious petrels and albatrosses. The discomfort is a small price to pay to gather data that could help unravel the profound environmental changes now transforming the Antarctic Peninsula. “This is a scientific problem that's really relevant to climate change,” says Pudsey. “You can only gather the data by going there.”

    Catch of the day.

    Postdocs Colm O'Cofaigh and Jeffrey Evans split a plug of sediment fresh from the sea floor off the Antarctic Peninsula.


    Call it the mystery of the disappearing ice. The past dozen austral summers have witnessed titanic breakups of the peninsula's ice shelves, the massive, floating plates that gird the peninsula's flanks. During the BAS cruise last February, a slab of ice the size of Rhode Island started fissioning into fleets of icebergs. The disintegration of much of the Larsen B ice shelf on the peninsula's east side in a mere 5 weeks was “the largest event of its kind” since satellites began to record the ice shelves breaking up 30 years ago, says glaciologist Ted Scambos of the University of Colorado, Boulder. Warming is clearly the culprit, he and others say. In the peninsula region over the past half-century, the mercury has risen five times faster than the global average.

    The mystery lies in what the breakup portends. Sediment cores have begun to yield provocative insights, some suggesting that the ice shelves are suffering unprecedented losses since the last ice age ended 11,000 years ago. Other cores, however, indicate that parts of this region saw warmer days. What is happening now, therefore, could be part of a natural cycle, perhaps exacerbated by greenhouse warming.

    Whatever the cause, if the warming trend continues, the peninsula itself might soon lose most of its ice shelves, exposing a rocky shoreline to the sea. The rest of the world is unlikely to notice the change: Because the floating shelves displace as much water as they would shed through melting, their melting would not raise global sea levels.

    But the events unfolding on the peninsula could be harbingers of what might happen if the greenhouse effect heats up mainland Antarctica. The peninsula's ice shelves are miniature versions of two giant ice shelves that fringe the massive West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Fresh evidence from the peninsula is reviving concerns that loss of the floating shelves could hasten the demise of the continent's vast ice sheets, with catastrophic effects on global sea levels. Says glaciologist Richard Alley of Pennsylvania State University, University Park: “It makes me nervous about what's happening with those ice sheets.”

    Falling like dominoes.

    The Antarctic Peninsula has lost large chunks of its ice shelves to climate warming in recent years.

    Heat wave

    After the gales died down and the clouds lifted on a 0°C February evening, mountain-rimmed Rothera Station could almost pass for an alpine ski resort. A couple of snowboarders, personnel of this BAS outpost midway along the peninsula's west coast, work their way down the southern tip of the Wormald Ice Piedmont glacier, sometimes skidding and losing their edge on ice below the thin snow. The makeshift ski slope has been ablating more and more every year since at least 1989, according to BAS measurements; most snow cover is gone by late summer. “These days, at the end of the season, it's only for expert skiers,” says BAS meteorologist John King. More important, this end of the Wormald Ice Piedmont is receding, losing about 30 centimeters from its surface each year.

    The thinning glacier is one of many disturbing signs of warming on the western Antarctic Peninsula, a strip of land dominated by a 1280-kilometer-long ice-capped mountain chain, the continuation of the Andes. Records from Rothera and six other weather stations going back to the 1930s clearly show a warming trend of about 2.5°C over the past 50 years. A similar, although smaller, trend can be inferred from oxygen-18 trapped in two ice cores from the top of the peninsula dating back several hundred years. Scientists blame this warming for ecological changes, including lusher, more abundant growth of the continent's two flowering plant species and fluctuations in penguin populations (see Croxall Review on p. 1510).

    Yet the peninsula's fragile ecosystem has proven far more resilient than the ice has. Since 1950, 13,500 square kilometers of ice shelves—more than enough to cover Jamaica —have disintegrated. The retreat didn't attract widespread attention until 1978, when glaciologist John Mercer predicted in Nature that if global warming were to occur in Antarctica, the peninsula's ice shelves would be the first to succumb, melting before any of the continental ice did. By comparing air temperatures above existing and missing shelves, Mercer predicted that mean annual temperatures greater than −5°C would render a shelf vulnerable to collapse. With temperatures continuing to rise, says BAS glaciologist David Vaughan, the rest of the Larsen B ice shelf—another 3400 square kilometers—will probably be lost within a decade.

    Environmentalists have trumpeted the vanishing Larsen shelf as proof that human-induced warming is hammering Antarctica. Some scientists, however, argue that the peninsula's ice shelves might be in the warm phase of a natural cycle of melting and freezing. “If it happened in the past and the world didn't fall apart, maybe the sky's not falling now,” says geologist Robert Gilbert of Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. The frigid muck off the peninsula's coasts should provide some insight into whether such warming trends have, indeed, occurred before.

    A muddied picture

    The history written in the mud cores is reassuring—up to a point. Researchers who gathered at a workshop last April at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, reported that at least some of the peninsula's dramatic warming has a precedent in the recent geological past.*

    Parts of the peninsula, it turns out, experienced warmer periods earlier in the Holocene Epoch, the 11,000 years since the last ice age ended. At the meeting, paleontologists described the prevalence of diatoms—algae that leave behind tiny silica shells—as well as indirect indicators of marine life, such as organic carbon levels, off the peninsula's west coast. Their findings point to periods of more robust ocean productivity and, most likely, less sea ice between 9000 and 2500 years ago. For example, a group led by Amy Leventer of Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, found a diatom species called Eucampia antarctica in 6700- to 9000-year-old mud from Palmer Deep, near the peninsula's tip; currently the critter is usually found only in warmer waters farther north.

    A toastier Antarctic scenario has also emerged from cores taken from the ice-packed Weddell Sea, off the peninsula's east coast. The Larsen Ice Shelf covered most of the peninsula's eastern flank for ages, until the collapse of its northern sections offered access to waters never before navigated.

    One of the first scientific teams to venture into these virgin waters was a BAS crew led by Pudsey. That group sailed into Prince Gustav Channel at the peninsula's northern tip in February 2000, 5 years after a small ice shelf there had disintegrated. Sediment cores indicated that the shelf was absent as recently as 2000 years ago. As Pudsey's team reported in the journal Geology in September 2001, slate and granite pebbles in the sediment were completely different from rock from nearby sandstone and basalt islands. The slate and granite must have been carried there from afar by icebergs, Pudsey says, so “there must have been open water.” In January 2001 in Eos, Hamilton College sedimentologist Eugene Domack drew a similar conclusion—open water 6000 to 2000 years ago during the mid-Holocene—from diatom layers in cores beneath Larsen A, the shelf's northernmost section.

    However, brand-new data from sediments that until recently lay beneath the Larsen B ice shelf tell a different story. Last winter, Domack's team, working on the U.S. National Science Foundation's Nathaniel B. Palmer, collected cores in waters where a section of Larsen B broke off in 1999. They found none of the diatoms unearthed beneath the ice shelves farther north. Based on the age of glacial till under Larsen A, Domack says, the erstwhile Larsen B was at least 11,000 years old, implying that the breakup is now extending farther south than ever before in the Holocene. If dating confirms the result, he says, it will mean that current warming on the peninsula's east side far exceeds any of the previous Holocene hot spells. And that, argues Princeton University atmospheric scientist Michael Oppenheimer, “shifts the balance of evidence in the direction of global warming being important” in the peninsula's climbing temperatures.

    By air or by sea?

    Even if the peninsula's current heat wave has no precedent in the Holocene, many scientists are not prepared to lay the blame solely on global warming. Some combination of three mechanisms might be going on, posits BAS's King: changes in atmospheric circulation, changes in ocean currents, and global warming. “If it were anthropogenic warming, it can't be anthropogenic warming on its own. There has to be something else,” says BAS's Vaughan, whose group reviewed the possibilities last year (Science, 7 September 2001, p. 1777).

    One idea is that there has been a shift toward warmer westerlies, the winds that sweep the peninsula's west coast. This concept gained support recently with a study that seemed to explain, for the first time, how Antarctica could be warming in some places and cooling in others (Science, 3 May, pp. 825 and 895). Those findings attributed the temperature tango to changes in the Antarctic Oscillation, a ring of high pressure that normally wanders but has recently tended to stay put, possibly because of ozone depletion. A similar phenomenon, the Arctic Oscillation, influences climate patterns in the far north (see p. 1491). But the Antarctic Oscillation study claimed only to explain half of the peninsula's warming.

    Another possible factor is changes in ocean circulation that are driving deep, warm water toward the surface near the peninsula's west coast. That could be reducing the extent of winter sea ice, which in turn would warm the air because there would be less ice to reflect the sun's heat. Scientists have lacked a good long-term ocean temperature record that could verify this. However, two recent studies suggest that mid-depth waters in the Southern Ocean have warmed slightly since the 1950s (Science, 15 February, p. 1275; 19 July, p. 386). And new data presented at the Hamilton workshop suggest that in the past century, a diatom called Thallossisia antarctica found off the peninsula has begun assuming a warm-water morphology: The critters' silica shells are larger and now have spiky protrusions. “There is strong evidence for waters warming over the past couple of decades,” Colgate's Leventer says.

    End of an era?

    Chunks of ice drifting from the disintegrating Larsen B ice shelf earlier this year. The shelf, seen here from the deck of the James Clark Ross, may have been intact for 11,000 years.


    Then there's the question of human- induced global warming. King and some fellow BAS scientists think that even a minuscule rise in air temperature could knock sea ice for a loop, ramping up temperatures much higher through a feedback effect. The main strike against this idea is that global climate models don't predict warming on the peninsula; the warming, these models augur, should be hundreds of kilometers to the west in the Bellingshausen Sea. Still, says King, the coarse models may fail to adequately represent the peninsula's knife-edge climate.

    Meltdown preview?

    Although global warming could be a culprit in the peninsula's warming trend, there's no reason to panic over the loss of ice shelves: Because these displace their own weight, they don't raise global ocean levels when they melt. And it's unknown whether the peninsula's warming will propagate to mainland shelves, which lie in a different climate regime.

    But the collapse of Larsen B and other peninsula shelves “could be a precursor to what's going to happen to the other ice shelves,” says NASA glaciologist Eric Rignot. Under a widely accepted greenhouse-warming scenario, the mainland ice shelves would melt as sea temperatures rise. Because there would be less sea ice to block ocean water from evaporating and warmer air holds more moisture, much more snow would fall and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet would actually gain mass for 100 years. Then the rate of melting would begin to outstrip the rate of snow accumulation and the sheet would drain away some centuries later. The peninsula's ice shelves give scientists a chance to test this chain of events. That makes the peninsula “a natural laboratory,” says Penn State's Alley.

    Larsen B's death throes have already provided one eye-opener: They suggest that shelves can break up much faster than anyone thought. Colorado's Scambos is looking into exactly what happened before Larsen B's demise. He thinks that pools of meltwater on its surface spurred the breakup when the water's weight enlarged small cracks and forced them to propagate, leading to rapid shattering.

    Scambos's team is now using Larsen B as “a road map” for modeling how ice shelves collapse. This is well worth doing, says Alley, who notes that although the continent's large shelves are nowhere near Mercer's magical melting number of an annual mean of −5°C, it wouldn't have to get that warm for melt pools to form in summer. “If meltwater is key,” Alley says, “they may not be as far from [collapse] as we believed.”

    The demise of the peninsula's shelves could also sway a debate about the extent to which ice shelves buttress the sheets behind them. A few years ago, Vaughan and Chris Doake of BAS found that glaciers that fed the Wordie Ice Shelf on the peninsula's west side had not moved any faster since the shelf broke up in 1989. But the latest observations of the Larsen's remnants have found the opposite. Satellite observations show that glaciers behind Larsen A are moving up to three times faster now that the ice shelf is gone, a team led by Helmut Rott of the University of Innsbruck, Austria, reports this summer in the Annals of Glaciology, volume 34. “The acceleration is staggering,” says Rignot, adding, “this paper came out of the blue.”

    The bottom line is that the Ross and Ronne ice shelves and their corresponding ice sheets could be more vulnerable than had been presumed. That comes on the heels of other unsettling evidence from Rignot's team that ice shelves are keenly sensitive to warmer ocean temperatures (Science, 14 June, p. 2020). “The most important information is that these glaciers can change tremendously rapidly,” says Rignot, who now doubts the validity of the scenario in which mainland ice sheets gain mass before melting.

    But many questions remain, and there are undoubtedly more lessons to be learned from the experiment in warming under way on the Antarctic Peninsula. That will keep scientists braving wicked weather to unearth the telltale warnings buried in mud and ice.