Random Samples

Science  17 Jan 2003:
Vol. 299, Issue 5605, pp. 341

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  1. Iron Age TB in U.K.

    Britons have long blamed the Roman Empire for bringing tuberculosis to their isle in the first century A.D. But researchers have now found traces of the disease on a skeleton that dates to about 300 years before the Romans' arrival.

    Tuberculosis is primarily a disease of the respiratory system, but it can also cause crippling abscesses in the spine. Researchers had found TB scars on at least 10 skeletons in the United Kingdom that dated back to the Roman period, suggesting that the earliest imperial invaders brought the disease there.

    Mays and Taylor examine bones of oldest British TB victim.


    Now, archaeologist Simon Mays of English Heritage in Portsmouth and molecular biologist G. Michael Taylor of Imperial College in London have found signs of TB on 2300-year-old remains unearthed in the 1970s that lay undated until 2001 in a museum in the sleepy village of Tarrant Hinton near England's southwest coast. The skeleton's deformed vertebrae first alerted Mays to the possibility of TB, and Taylor's DNA analysis found traces of gene sequences from Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the pair reports in a paper in press at the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology. The find suggests that “even in a remote rural settlement, the disease was here centuries before the Roman conquest,” says Mays.

    Signs of TB have been found in 6000-year-old human remains in Italy and Egypt. But paleopathologist Charlotte Roberts of the University of Durham, U.K., says that finding the disease in Iron Age Britain is a “stunning revelation.”

  2. Eggs That Listen

    Embryos of clownfish reveal hearts as small pink spots.


    Humans are not the only species able to learn the sound of a mother's voice while still in the womb. Larvae of some species of coral reef fish can identify the sounds of home and family from inside their eggs, new research suggests.

    Reef researchers have long wondered how larvae as small as 1 or 2 centimeters find a suitable reef to settle on after being tossed out to sea by the tides.

    The answer: The embryos probably imprint on the squeaks, grunts, and whistles of their parent, according to Mark Meekan of the Australian Institute of Marine Science in Darwin and colleagues at the U.K.'s York University and the University of Kentucky, Lexington. The hatchlings use tiny stones in their heads called otoliths to pick up the racket and find home.

    To reveal the fishes' listening skills, the team used a microscope to observe the beating hearts of 4-millimeter embryos of common clownfish. “We found the embryos responded strongly to noise at the frequency of sounds made by their parents, and they got better at it as they developed,” said Meekan.

    The fishy findings, presented last month at a meeting of the American Acoustic Society in Cancun, Mexico, fit neatly with earlier research, says Jeffrey Leis, a marine biologist at Sydney's Australian Museum. Meekan previously showed that hatchlings are drawn to experimental reefs where underwater speakers play reef sounds at over twice the rate as they are to silent reefs. And last year Leis found that the tiny larvae change their swimming behavior when exposed to reef noise.

    “But no one has tried to look at the hearing of embryos,” says Leis, who notes that the key role of hearing in the life cycle of fish has clear implications for coral reef management. As Meekan says, boat noises “make the already noisy oceans even noisier and may be affecting how fish hear the noises they need for survival.”

  3. Ideas for the New Year

    At the end of each year, the Web site Edge asks members of its edgy, avant-garde readership to address themselves to a new question. This year's query: What would you recommend if you were the president's science adviser? Some of the answers:

    Forget the war on terrorism; save more lives with “various simple public-health measures.” —Marvin Minsky, computer scientist

    Fund fellowships for grad students from Islamic countries. —Rodney Brooks, computer scientist

    “Establish secure sanctuaries [to] back up civilization” with storage of records on the moon. —Robert Shapiro, chemist

    Establish licensure for would-be parents. —David Lykken, psychologist

    “Fire or at least ignore any adviser … who in good faith uses the phrase ‘law of averages.’” —Bart Kosko, engineer

    Devote 1% of the federal research budget to projects decided on by the general public. —Rupert Sheldrake, biologist

    Mount a multidisciplinary initiative to study “what are we?” —Donald D. Hoffman, cognitive scientist

  4. Deep and Deeper


    A new image from the Hubble Space Telescope, released at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society last week in Seattle, provides “the deepest view of the universe so far,” reports astronomer Narciso Benitez of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. It's made possible via the strongest known “gravitational lens,” a galaxy cluster known as Abell 1689, that is calculated to be about 1500 times as massive as the Milky Way.

  5. Clone Queen Has Two Ph.D.s

    Boisselier announcing Boxing Day clone birth.


    Brigitte Boisselier wasn't always the public voice of a religious sect that claims to have cloned two human babies. The orange-haired 46-year-old Frenchwoman with the navel-baring top holds chemistry Ph.D.s from Dijon and Texas and has worked in both industry and academe.

    She was a “good, conscientious student,” recalls University of Houston analytic chemist Karl M. Kadish, her thesis adviser in the mid-1980s for work on porphyrins. Back in France, she became a research director at Air Liquide, a firm that manufactures bottled gases. By 1993, however, Boisselier had embraced the Raelian sect and its belief that humans were cloned by extraterrestrials.

    After moving to Quebec to be with the Raelians, in 1999 she began commuting to the State University of New York, Plattsburgh, which almost hired her for a permanent post. “She taught chemistry for us and did very well,” says dean Kathleen Lavoie. Boisselier spent the following year at nearby Hamilton College, where her deepening involvement with the Raelians surfaced. Soon she was off to become chief executive of Clonaid, where she oversees what she says is a 10-person cloning team. Boisselier says a technician perfected the cloning technique on 3000 cow eggs before moving on to human cells, including Boisselier's own skin cells. “There are plenty of embryos of me,” she says.

  6. Rising Stars

    Out of Africa. Thebe Medupe may be South Africa's answer to both Carl Sagan and Booker T. Washington. This week he came to Washington, D.C., to help put African astronomy on the map.


    Medupe, who last month became the third black South African to earn a Ph.D. in astronomy, is featured in a new film, Cosmic Africa, that leads viewers through the land- and skyscapes of the Sahara, Namibia, and Mali, exploring indigenous African and modern astronomy. For example, says Medupe, “you cannot discuss the history of positional astronomy without reference to Stonehenge or [Wyoming's] Medicine Wheel.” But viewers will discover another important historical reference: the Nabta stone alignments in southern Egypt that mark the sun's rising and setting points.

    The 29-year-old Medupe hopes to combine research on stars' acoustic waves with efforts to draw more young black South Africans into astronomy. “We know that we are children of stars, we originate in the cores of stars, and we might end up inside our own star, the sun, as it expands,” he says.

  7. Milestones

    The endless wave. Amateurs have always played a big role in astronomy, and last month marked the death at 90 of one of the most enthusiastic of all: Grote Reber, who moved to Tasmania just for the reception.


    An engineer and ham radio operator, Reber invented the first radio astronomy antenna. In 1937, he built a 9.6-meter telescope from sheet metal in his backyard in Wheaton, Illinois, to map radio waves. A lifelong bachelor, he moved to Tasmania in the 1960s so he could study very low frequency signals in a remote setting. Reber's passing is “the end of an ancient hero,” says physicist Philip Morrison of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “He was the first radio astronomer who knew what he was building.”

  8. Data Points

    Science in the Frozen North. David Strangway had a vision: to tell the world about cutting-edge research taking place in Canada. His organization, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, has now published a book of essays by 33 of the country's leading scientists.

    It may be a tough slog for the layperson. Sample prose: “The precision of the UBC measurements was so great, and the comparison between high- and low-Tc materials that they presented was so striking, that physicists around the world were soon convinced that high-Tc superconductivity was d-wave.”

    Porter Books publisher Anna Porter doesn't expect the book (http://www.innovation.ca/) to make the best-seller lists. But Strangway is doing all he can to pump up sales. He's purchased copies for each of the 301 members of Parliament. He figures that even one interested member would justify the foundation's $103,000 investment.

  9. Honors

    Worth the wait. The first winners of the “Nobel of evo-devo”—a prize created in 1910—were belatedly honored in person last week.

    The Alexander O. Kowalevsky Medal for Evolutionary and Comparative Embryology was created by the St. Petersburg Society of Naturalists to commemorate one of the fathers of integrative biology, but history's turmoils prevented the society from making its first awards until 2001. Even then, it couldn't afford to host the eight recipients, so the medals were mailed. Leaders of the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology decided to do things right at their annual meeting in Toronto, scrounging up money to fly the awardees —senior biologists from seven countries—in to present a symposium. As they were pioneers in the field, “it was wonderful to have all those people in the same room,” says Scott Gilbert of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.