Random Samples

Science  11 Apr 2003:
Vol. 300, Issue 5617, pp. 245

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  1. Redhead's Relief

    Scientists already know that a patient's racial or ethnic background can influence the effect of some drugs due to genetic differences. Now they've got a further subdivision: redheaded women.

    Female redheads treated with one type of painkiller can stand more heat- or pressure-induced pain, a team at McGill University in Montreal has found. “Women with red hair respond better to the drug than anyone else,” including redheaded men, says McGill pain researcher Jeffrey Mogil.

    Previous studies have shownthat some painkillers work better in one sex. Kappa-opioids work better in women. In genetic and behavioral studies in mice, Mogil and colleagues found that differences in the analgesic effect of these drugs could be traced to one gene, Mc1r. Intriguingly, this recessive gene is best known for its role in pigmentation: a variant causes red hair and fair skin in people and yellow hair in mice. Mogil then tested 42 human subjects, 40% female and half of them redheaded. Subjects were tested for endurance to heat and pressure pain from a tightened arm tourniquet and given the kappa-opioid drug, pentazocine. Redheaded women showed a heightened analgesic response, suggesting that Mc1r is involved in the female-specific pain modulation pathway, the scientists report in the 24 March Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    “The study demonstrates an unexpected role for the gene,” says neuroscientist Maryann Ruda of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. The work is a “tour de force,” she adds, in forging a chain all the way from mouse genetics to human behavior.

  2. Tiger's Eye: Looks Are Deceiving

    Tiger's eye lion


    Geologists have thought for more than a century that tiger's eye, the banded gold and brown rock popular for inexpensive jewelry, was a classic example of “pseudomorphism”—meaning that it formed much like petrified wood, with one mineral replacing another while retaining the original structure of the rock.

    But when researchers at Pennsylvania State University, University Park, reexamined the structure of tiger's eye, they found instead that the rock's beautiful reflecting bands are not created by the slow replacement of crocidolite (a blue form of asbestos) with chalcedony (a fibrous form of quartz). They found no chalcedony at all—only quartz crystals interspersed with fibers of blue asbestos.

    That means the stripes instead might track cracks within a quartz rock that contained some blue asbestos, says Peter Heaney, the mineralogist who conducted the microanalysis. Each new crack would provide a growth surface for the two original minerals, which would seed the growth of new fibers. However tiger's eye formed, it is not pseudomorphism, says Heaney, who traced the misconception to experiments by a German mineralogist in 1873.

    “In the past, the explanation seemed so good,” says mineralogist Jeff Post at the Smithsonian Institution, who did some analysis for Heaney. Now he says he's going to have to change the museum label that calls the stone a pseudomorph.

  3. Wanted: Solution for Cave Mold

    Wall treatment at Lascaux.


    Despite concerted attempts to cure the situation, the 15,000-year-old cave paintings of Lascaux in France are still threatened by a stubborn infestation of fungus and bacteria. Summing up the preliminary report of an international committee established last year, the French culture ministry announced last month, “The problem is not completely resolved, and the ecological balance of the cave still has to be restored.” The group called for further study of the climatology, hydrology, chemistry, and biology of the site.

    Once host to 1000 visitors a day, the caves, discovered in 1940, were closed to the public in 1963 after green algae was found on the walls. Formaldehyde seemed to solve the problem, but in June 2001, following work on an air-conditioning system, a fungus—Fusarium solani—was found growing on the floor and walls. Application of fungicide temporarily slowed its growth, but microbiologists soon discovered that a bacterium, Pseudomonas fluorescens, was dining on the fungicide. Adding an antibiotic to the solution briefly solved that problem, but then another fungus-bacterium duo evolved requiring the same mix but with less optimal results. The challenge now is to find a long-term solution. “Every book on the history of art and of mankind begins with Lascaux,” says José Antonio Lasheras Corruchaga, curator of the caves at Altamira, Spain, that were closed last year to avoid similar problems. “Its importance is immeasurable.”

  4. Evolution Battle on Campus

    Bryson (top) and Whitwam face off at Mississippi University for Women.


    A small Mississippi college has become the latest battleground in the war between evolutionary theory and intelligent design.

    The battle was joined in February when chemist Nancy Bryson, head of the sciences division at the Mississippi University for Women (MUW) in Columbus, delivered a lecture, “Critical Thinking on Evolution,” arguing that intelligent design addresses questions about life's origins unanswered by evolutionary theory. The next day, university officials asked her to step down as division head. But they reinstated her after a Christian radio station broadcast her story and urged residents to protest what they labeled a threat to academic freedom. Vice president of academic affairs Vagn K. Hansen says that the school acted “to clear up the perception of academic censorship” even though her short-lived demotion was based on her performance as division head, not her lecture.

    In the meantime, MUW's biology professors have launched a classroom effort to “repair the damage Bryson's lecture has done to students' understanding of evolution,” says biologist Ross Whitwam. “She challenged the biology textbook we use in our classes,” notes biologist Jimena Aracena. This week Whitwam gave a talk on Darwinian theory at the university honors forum. Bryson said she planned to attend Whitwam's lecture but hasn't changed her mind about intelligent design.

  5. Money Matters

    Grants matchmaker. Scientists can now seek sponsors through a Web site launched by a retired New Hampshire physician. George Kurzon's FundAScientist.com allows scientists to post proposals on an online bulletin board, where potential funders verified by Kurzon can read them. Kurzon won a legal battle 2 years ago that forced the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to cough up a list of applicants rejected by a process that Kurzon says is designed to “screen out innovative ideas and paradigm-shifting science.”


    The site went up last month and opened for matchmaking last week. Three scientists have posted their proposals so far, says Kurzon, and a dozen others have shown interest. He expects funding sources to start registering soon. “This will give a second chance to the many fine projects that slip through the cracks at NIH,” says Leland Shapiro, a virologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who last year failed to interest NIH in a proposal to investigate an HIV-blocking protein.

  6. Awards

    Math prize. French mathematician Jean-Pierre Serre is the winner of the first Abel Prize in mathematics from the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. Serre, 77, a professor at the Collège de France in Paris, received the $826,000 award for his contributions in topology, algebraic geometry, and number theory. The annual prize for the Nobel-less field is named for Niels Henrik Abel, an accomplished Norwegian mathematician who died at 26 after battling poverty, hunger, and disease.

  7. Follow Up

    Seeing Crimson. MIT cognitive scientist Steven Pinker (Science, 14 March, p. 1659) is moving in July to Harvard University, which he says is better suited to his expanding interests in human nature and its implications. Pinker, who has been at MIT for 21 years, called it a “hard choice.”

  8. Milestones


    Dutch paleontologist Paul Sondaar, known for his work on evolution of island species, succumbed last month to brain cancer at the age of 68. Based at the Natuurmuseum of Rotterdam, Sondaar turned his lifetime studies of island fossils into a “sweepstakes” theory, which holds that species that colonize an island do so by chance. The theory helps explain why some island creatures, such as the extinct pygmy mammoth, are unusually small while some others grow to be enormous.

  9. They Said It

    “It helps to think of the government as an insurance company with an army.”

    Michael Holland, senior policy analyst, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, speaking 2 April to scientists in town to lobby for increased research funding, on how much of the federal budget goes to health-related and mandatory spending programs or defense and how little is left for everything else, including research.