Random Samples

Science  24 Jan 2003:
Vol. 299, Issue 5606, pp. 507
1. Tongueless Wonder

The well-studied Xenopus stands out among amphibians because it has no tongue. Most frogs and toads depend on a quick flick of this organ to capture their dinner, a motion that requires a rapid-fire connection—the hypoglossal nerve—between the brain and the tongue's muscles. The tongueless Xenopus depends on its front legs to grab prey, however, and for decades biologists assumed that it didn't have this nerve.

But the textbooks are going to have to be rewritten, says Jamie Wiklund, a senior at Idaho State University in Pocatello. With Idaho State neuroethologist Curtis Anderson, Wiklund has shown that the hypoglossal nerve is alive and well in Xenopus.

Anderson had suspected that the frogs were equipped with the nerve, because it plays a role in breathing and sensory perception. Wiklund tested the idea by adding dye to nerve endings in the back of the mouth, where the base of a tongue would be. Within several hours, the nerves had taken up the dye, enabling her to trace them back to the brain. They connected just where the hypoglossal nerve does in tongued amphibians.

The nerve was very well developed despite having no tongue to operate, says Anderson. He assumes it plays a role in breathing and sensory perception and may also help with swallowing. The discovery shows that researchers have a lot to learn about even well-studied organisms, says Eduardo Rosa-Molinar, an integrative biologist at the University of Puerto Rico, San Juan: “Sometimes scientists are just like the average consumer: Once someone tells you that something shouldn't be there, you don't look.”

2. Ticking Toward Oblivion

There's something about a clock image that can stir that old primordial Woody Allen-ish fear about the end of the universe. Two professors at the University of Washington, Seattle, astrophysicist Donald Brownlee and paleontologist Peter Ward, play on that fear in a book, The Life and Death of Planet Earth, published this month. It features this illustration—each hour counting for a billion years. It's now 4:30 a.m.; in 30 minutes all animals and plants will be extinguished. At noon the sun, expanded to a red giant, will envelop Earth as well as Mercury and Venus. “The last life may look much like the first life—a single-celled bacterium, survivor and descendant of all that came before,” the authors write.

3. Truffle Down Under

Fungal diversity has taken a leap forward with the discovery of a new kind of mushroom in Australia: Amanita truffles. Members of the new genus Amarrendia are part of a family that already includes some of the most colorful (fairy toadstool), poisonous (death cap), and delicious (red amanita) mushrooms.

Mycologist Neal Bougher of CSIRO, the Australian research organisation, uncovered the grape-sized truffles while surveying the soil of an old bauxite mine in western Australia. Upon returning to the lab and seeing their characteristic Amanita structures under the microscope, “I went crazy,” says Bougher, because “scientists have been looking for this ‘round the world for well over a century.” The truffle way of life is common among members of other fungal families, but no Amanita truffle had been found. The fact that it turned up in the dry soils of western Australia does not surprise Bougher, as fruiting underground is one way to deal with arid conditions. The find confirms Australia's “amazing fungal biodiversity,” says James Trappe of Oregon State University in Corvallis, who suspects that Amarrendia may be an important part of the diet of endangered marsupials.

While the mycologists continue studying the new truffles, gastronomists will have to wait. The specimens so far found are too scientifically precious to nibble, although, says Bougher, they will probably prove nontoxic, because truffles rely on their edibility for spore dispersal.

4. Tower Power

The world's tallest structure may soon be looming over the Australian outback. A “green energy” company called EnviroMission plans to erect a 1000-meter tower—twice the height of Toronto's CN Tower—to generate solar power in the Buronga district of New South Wales.

The tower will be surrounded by a 5-kilometer-diameter greenhouse. As hot air flows up the sloped greenhouse roof, it will power 32 giant turbines capable of producing enough energy to serve 200,000 homes. EnviroMission calculates that the equivalent amount of power generated by a coal-fired station would produce 830,000 tons of greenhouse gases a year.

The company already has government backing for the $467 million project, on which construction should begin later this year. If all goes well, four more towers will be up by 2010, says CEO Roger Davey. “The idea is conceptually simple … almost a microcosm of how the Earth makes wind from solar energy in nature,” says engineer James F. Manwell of the University of Massachusetts Renewable Energy Research Laboratory in Amherst. But he says the reliability and cost-effectiveness of the system remain to be seen. 5. Have Career Advice, Will Travel Howard Adams has been hired to be a one-man visiting scientist program. The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) hopes he will revive a long-running federally funded program that sends faculty members from big-time research universities to undergraduate schools with large numbers of minority faculty members and students. But with interest in participation waning—last year only two scientists made visits, down from 70 a year in the 1980s—the society has tapped Adams to help nurture the next generation of life scientists. Sidney Golub, FASEB's executive director, says that the Internet has made it easier for faculty members at minority institutions to keep up with their field but that students have a growing hunger for career-related guidance. “I'm filling a need in a way that goes beyond a scientist who presents a seminar on his research, dines with colleagues, and then leaves the next morning,” says Adams, who once ran the National Consortium for Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering and Science Inc. and is now a consultant in Marietta, Georgia. “I see students who don't have a good sense of their career options, and they're not getting much help from the school.” Adams plans to offer host institutions a varied menu that includes all-purpose career planning as well as tips on choosing a mentor and finding the best undergraduate research opportunities. But he can't do it alone, says Golub, who is still interested in hearing from individuals who want to supplement Adams's efforts by becoming visiting scientists. “The biggest obstacle is finding people at the host institution who are willing to plan the day,” he says. But “once schools use one of our programs, they tend to come back for another.” 6. Rising Stars Superteen. A 15-year-old Indian prodigy has begun his doctoral studies in physics at the prestigious Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. Tathagat Avatar Tulsi, who earned a master's degree from Patna University at the unprecedented age of 12, says he owes his academic success to the right “temperament and dedication.” He has been studying on his own for the past 4 years. The precocious teenager “has many holes in his knowledge base,” says his adviser, theoretical physicist H. R. Krishnamurty. But authorities made no allowances for his age in accepting him last fall into one of the country's top physics programs. Tulsi plans to study the theoretical basis for high- temperature superconducting materials. He'll be working in a lab founded by the country's only physics Nobelist, C. V. Raman. 7. Jobs Cultural transplant. The founder of Italy's first liver transplantation center has abandoned his attempt to resettle in his native country, leaving the center's U.S. partner to pick up the pieces. John Fung, who holds an endowed chair at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center named for his mentor, pioneering transplant surgeon Thomas Starzl, has agreed to temporarily head the Palermo-based ISMETT, a joint project between Pittsburgh and the Italian regional government. He succeeds Ignazio Marino, another Starzl protégé, who last month said “abbastanza!” to Italy's political, bureaucratic, and funding hassles and returned to the United States to run the liver transplantation program at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia. Marino, who started up the 14-bed center in 1996, says his efforts were hindered by “a thousand problems,” including outdated rules and poor communications. Fung, who expects to divide his time between Pittsburgh and Palermo, hopes to focus on upgrading teaching, research, and clinical care at the center while avoiding any political land mines. “I don't know anything about Italian politics,” he admits. 8. In the Courts What's the beef? A circuit court judge's decision in a novel settlement by fast-food giant McDonald's has added some sizzle to the work of a nutrition scientist at the University of North Carolina (UNC), Chapel Hill. Last August, McDonald's agreed to pay$10 million after failing to disclose that there is beef fat in its French fries. Some $6 million will go to support vegetarian interests, including$250,000 for UNC's Steven Zeisel to add vegans (who eat neither meat nor dairy) to a study of the effect of choline, a food-derived chemical, on cognitive development.

Vegetarian and animal-rights groups are protesting Judge Richard Siebel's choice of Zeisel, who's been called “anti-vegetarian” for his earlier work with rats and for accepting funding from the Egg Board. But Zeisel insists that he will be impartial in his study. “Vegetarianism has been around for thousands of years. There is no reason to assume it cannot be done healthfully,” he says. A final ruling is expected next week.

9. Data Point

“We need anthropologists. If there are any at Intel, I haven't found them.”

Carlene Ellis, Intel's vice president for diversity, speaking last week at a National Academy of Engineering conference on gender equity.

She said her company has belatedly realized that the IT industry may need to hire social scientists to help reform a corporate culture that repels many women.