# Random Samples

Science  09 May 2003:
Vol. 300, Issue 5621, pp. 897
1. # Tender Lips

Anglers and animal lovers have squabbled for years over whether or not fish feel pain. Now, researchers at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, U.K., claim to have the best evidence yet that they do.

Previous studies seeking to address the question have only looked at primitive fish with cartilaginous skeletons such as sharks, in which scientists have failed to find pain receptors, or nociceptors. Now, as detailed in an upcoming Proceedings of the Royal Society B, scientists led by physiologist Lynne Sneddon have found 58 receptors on the head of a trout that respond to painful mechanical, chemical, or thermal stimuli.

The researchers checked to see whether the response is merely a reflex by testing different substances on 20 lab trout. Dividing the fish into four schools, they injected bee venom, acetic acid, or saline solution into three of the groups. The heart rates of trout injected with painful substances increased up to 30% faster after treatment than those of trout injected with saline and trout that were simply handled and put back in the tank. What's more, the treated trout took more than twice as long to resume feeding and displayed “anomalous” behaviors such as rocking motions or rubbing their lips against the side of the tank, says Sneddon, who is now at the University of Liverpool, U.K.

Behavioral studies have shown that some fish learn to avoid adverse stimuli, says Patrick Bateson, a behavioral biologist at the University of Cambridge, U.K., but he says this study “strengthens the evidence” that fish really can feel pain.

2. # Sequencing the Sargasso

The U.S. Department of Energy last month announced that it is giving J. Craig Venter $9 million over the next 3 years to sequence every organism in the Sargasso Sea. That's on top of$3 million Venter's Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives has invested in his “synthetic genome project,” which aims to create microbes for energy and to curb global warming (Science, 14 February, p. 1006).

The Sargasso Sea, off the southeastern U.S. coast, is often called an ocean desert. Wind currents don't turn over the water, so nutrients sink to the bottom. The result, says Venter, is “a somewhat limited environment” dominated by algae, crabs, and the eponymous sargassum seaweed—more manageable than a complex ecosystem. Venter hopes the Sargasso project, to be completed in a year, will feed into the new microbe project to bring the world closer to his pet dream: hydrogen energy. He says microbes from the Sargasso might provide novel pathways or species for experimentation that will aid in the creation of critters that make hydrogen or sequester carbon.

3. # Worms Survive Space Shuttle Catastrophe

Canisters holding thousands of live nematodes from the doomed shuttle Columbia have been picked up in Texas, NASA announced last week. Pieces of preserved moss also are intact from the disaster.

The pinhead-sized worms, in petri dishes stacked in metal canisters—which in turn were packed in lockers—were part of an experiment testing a synthetic nutrient medium to extend their lives from a maximum of 40 days to up to 100. The experiment was a spectacular success in terms of survival of the worms, which are intended as a staple in space-based research. Several generations had reproduced and there were worms in all stages of the life cycle by the time scientists opened the canisters, says Terri Lomax, director of NASA's fundamental space biology division.

As for the moss, it had been fixed in preservative so scientists could study the effects of microgravity on growth patterns. “We were shocked [to see] what looked like healthy cells in the fragments,” says researcher Fred Sack of Ohio State University in Columbus. He says a gauge showed that high temperatures persisted for only about a half-hour and although heat fused the polycarbonate lining to the wall of the canisters, it failed to melt the petri dishes.

4. # Reborn Wasteland

The Lake Michigan shoreline of southeast Chicago known as Calumet, a hotbed of heavy industry from the 1950s through the '70s, now has the largest breeding population in the upper Midwest of the once-threatened black-crowned night heron. Calumet has long been labeled a wasteland: PCB contamination and water alkalinity reached hazardous levels during the area's industrial heyday. But results of the first broad-scale survey of life in the area, released last month, show that nature is thriving amidst the slag piles and smokestacks. “I was impressed by the area's number and variety of species, considering the years of environmental degradation,” says a survey leader, Doug Stotz, an ecologist at Chicago's Field Museum. More than 2200 species were recorded, including sunfish, threatened banded killifish, many fungi, and herons and egrets.

5. # Family Crisis Becomes Scientific Quest

Although she was a physician, Leslie Gordon didn't know anything about progeria—a rare and fatal syndrome marked by signs of premature aging—until her 21-month-old son, Sam, was diagnosed with it. In the 5 years since, Gordon has learned a great deal about the disease—both as a mother and as a researcher.

In a paper published online in Nature last month, Gordon, a neuroimmunologist at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts, and her fellow researchers reported finding the genetic mutation that causes Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome. The work was partly funded by the Progeria Research Foundation (PRF, progeriaresearch.org), a nonprofit started by Gordon and her husband, pediatric physician Scott Berns.

The foundation was a response to the dearth of information that Gordon found in her initial literature search on the disease, of which only about 100 cases have been reported worldwide. “There were no sources of funding for progeria research, no tissue or blood samples that scientists could work with,” says Gordon. “We realized that these children had been forgotten.”

Gordon's foundation set up a cell and tissue bank, launched a clinical and research database, and gave out seed grants for research. The foundation successfully lobbied for the disease to be included in the Children's Health Act of 2000, getting the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to come up with a plan for progeria research. A 2001 workshop led to the creation of a genetics consortium, whose members went on to discover the gene responsible for the disease. A second workshop will take place in July at NIH.

“It's a privilege to have the background and training to be able to make a difference,” says Gordon. Children with progeria typically live only to age 13, and Gordon's fondest wish is that the consortium will find a treatment in time to help Sam.

6. # Jobs

Madia moves up. R&D giant Battelle has asked Bill Madia, director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, to oversee all its dealings with the Department of Energy (DOE). The nonprofit Battelle, based in Columbus, Ohio, helps manage four of DOE's national laboratories—including Oak Ridge—and also has a number of environmental cleanup and nonproliferation-related contracts. Madia, who has helped make Battelle a major player in DOE science, will now have an influential voice in deciding if the company should make a play for the contract to manage Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Next year, management of the nuclear weapons lab will go out for bid for the first time in 60 years. Madia will stay at Oak Ridge until a search committee selects a replacement later this year.