Random Samples

Science  23 May 2003:
Vol. 300, Issue 5623, pp. 1231

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  1. Cro Magnons Are Us

    A team of scientists in Italy and Spain says it has succeeded for the first time in retrieving genetic material from the bones of Cro Magnons—25,000-year-old European ancestors of humans living today. A group led by David Caramelli of the University of Florence, Italy, analyzed segments of mitochondrial DNA from rib and leg bones of two individuals from Paglicci cave, a paleolithic site in southern Italy. The sequences fall “well within” the range of variation of modern humans and “differ sharply” from findings on three Neandertals that have been published so far. Although Neandertals, who died out about 30,000 years ago, were almost their contemporaries, the results suggest that there is little or no Neandertal blood in the human heritage, the authors reported online last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    The findings are “another nail in the coffin” of the so-called multiregional hypothesis, which holds that Neandertals were not much different from modern humans and probably bred with them, says Stanford University anthropologist Richard Klein. The prevailing “out of Africa” hypothesis holds that modern humans emerged from Africa several hundred thousand years ago and replaced other hominids, including Neandertals.

    But Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, the first scientist to extract Neandertal DNA, says there's no way to be sure scientists weren't really looking at modern DNA. “We can retrieve human DNA from almost any fossil if we just try hard enough,” he says. Co-author Giorgio Bertorelle of the University of Ferrara, Italy, says the team did everything possible to rule out contamination, including extracting the DNA in a lab exclusively dedicated to the work, duplicating analyses in Spain and Italy, and looking—unsuccessfully—for human DNA in a Paglicci horse bone.

  2. For Men Only

    Healthy man: 86-year-old Jack La Lanne.


    At long last, a health initiative for guys? This month two bills were introduced in Congress—by Michael Crapo (R-ID) in the Senate and Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-CA) in the House—that call for setting up a federal Office on Men's Health parallel to the National Institutes of Health Office on Women's Health, created in 1991.

    It may be an idea whose time has come. Last year Baltimore, Maryland, with support from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, opened what is said to be the country's first full-time men's health center. And this month the American Journal of Public Health put out a special edition on the “silent health crisis” affecting males.

    According to the Men's Health Network, the life span discrepancy between the sexes in the United States has grown from 1 to 6 years since 1920. Men outrank women in deaths from all major causes except Alzheimer's disease. On top of that, they don't take care of themselves, says Crapo: Men have to be pushed by wives or girlfriends into the cholesterol-screening booths at health fairs.

  3. Politics and Art


    A photographic exhibit on Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) became the center of a scuffle this month when politicians accused the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History of relegating it to an obscure hallway to placate the Bush Administration.

    Subhankar Banerjee claims his photos of wildlife and plants are the first to document for the public ANWR's varied ecosystem—described by Interior Secretary Gale Norton as a “flat, white nothingness”—at a time when Congress is hotly debating proposals to open the area to oil and gas drilling. Among the photographs is a portrait of a polar bear (above), which Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) waved on the Senate floor during a March speech deploring drilling plans.

    Banerjee says the museum not only moved the exhibit, which opened 9 May, out of its rotunda but also stripped the captions of their scientific content. Several senators have demanded an explanation. Museum spokesperson Randall Kremer says its moves were not political but curatorial. “The whole idea with his pictures was that they would be presented as fine arts,” he says. The rotunda now holds an exhibit about Korean Americans, which Kremer says is more fitting for the museum's anthropological mission.

  4. Waterbabies

    Pinhole pupils.


    Swedish scientists have found that a group of Southeast Asian seafarers have underwater vision twice as acute as that of Europeans.

    Most people can't see well while submerged because the ability of the cornea to focus light is drastically reduced by water. But the Moken, divers who live by harvesting creatures such as clams and sea cucumbers off the coast of Thailand and Burma, apparently can push their vision to its physiological limit. Researchers from Lund University and the Institute of Clinical Neuroscience in Molndal report the secret in the 13 May Current Biology: Tests of Moken children showed that under water they are able to focus light by constricting their pupils to less than 2 millimeters, which triggers a reflexive change in the lens curvature.

  5. Shuttle Probe Panelists in NASA's Fold

    Widnall and Osheroff say they can't be bought.


    When Stanford Nobelist Doug Osheroff and aeronautics professor Sheila Widnall of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) agreed to serve on a blue-ribbon panel investigating the loss of the space shuttle Columbia, they didn't expect to become employees of the agency they are investigating. But the two scientists, along with the three other civilians on the 13-member panel, have been put on NASA's payroll so the committee can do much of its work behind closed doors.

    The move means that the panel can't be classified as a government advisory committee, which would have required it to meet in public. NASA argues that private meetings will result in a more comprehensive inquiry, but critics fear that the arrangement could compromise the panel's independence.

    A bonus for Widnall and Osheroff is that they are now getting paid for their services—an hourly rate based on an annual salary of $134,000—in addition to their university salaries. Widnall, who joined the panel in mid-February, and Osheroff, who was drafted in March, say they have been spending 25 to 35 hours a week on the investigation. For Osheroff, who lessened his teaching load this spring, that still means working “80 to 100 hours” a week to keep up with both jobs. A third panelist, physicist and former astronaut Sally Ride, has been on leave from the University of California, San Diego, since last December.

    Being made a NASA employee came as a “big surprise,” says Widnall, who was given special permission by MIT to help with the investigation and, like Osheroff, was ready to work for the panel pro bono. “I regard this as public service,” she says. “I don't care who's paying me.”

  6. Jobs

    Good show. Canadian economist Leonard Good is the new head of the Washington, D.C.-based Global Environment Facility (GEF), the international aid agency that annually steers nearly $1 billion to sustainable development projects. Good, 59, has twice served as Canada's deputy environment minister and spent the last 4 years as head of the country's $2-billion-a-year aid agency. He will take over from Mohamed T. El-Ashry, who has been GEF's leading light since its founding in 1991, in mid-July.

    Some developing nations had hoped the pick would come from within their ranks. But in a 2 April letter to the facility's governing council, GEF leaders explained that most applicants from developing nations “unfortunately did not meet the demanding eligibility criteria.”

    Karolinska choice. The head of the Swedish Medical Research Council has been named to lead the Karolinska Institute (KI). Harriet Wallberg-Henriksson, 47, will be the first woman president of Sweden's largest medical university. She will succeed Hans Wigzell, who is up for retirement on 1 January 2004.


    Undergraduate education will be a priority for Wallberg-Henriksson, who says that she is also interested in improving opportunities for women. “More than 40% of lecturers at KI are women,” she says, “but they make up only 15% of full professors. So something happens there.”

  7. On The War Front

    Below the deck. U.S. defense officials last week announced the capture of British-trained microbiologist Rihab Rashid Taha, who directed Iraq's biological weapons program until 1995. Taha, nicknamed Dr. Germ, does not figure in the Pentagon's deck of 55 most wanted Iraqis, one of whom, biochemist Huda Ammash (Science, 2 May, p. 735), was taken into custody earlier this month.

    Taha got her Ph.D. in 1984 from the University of East Anglia, U.K, where she studied the action of a plant pathogen on tobacco crops. In an interview aired by the BBC in February, Taha, 47, acknowledged that the Iraqi regime had developed bacterial agents in the past but said it had never weaponized them.

  8. Two Cultures

    Gamma ray blues. Astrophysicist Peter Usher had never heard of hip-hop music until last week when the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) announced that it was sending the Pennsylvania State University professor emeritus an album and T-shirt featuring rhythm-and-blues singer Usher Raymond. RIAA says it's mailing the gifts to apologize for having erroneously sent out a copyright infringement notice to Usher's department on 8 May.


    The notice said that the department's FTP server was illegally distributing songs by the Grammy Award-winning artist. The reason for the error was traced to Usher's research papers on the server and a song about the Swift gamma ray satellite, which was in part designed by Penn State. The combination of “Usher” and the “mp3” suffix raised a red flag for RIAA's Web-snooping bots, which routinely trawl the Internet to monitor unlawful trafficking of music files. RIAA withdrew the notice and apologized to Penn State last week.

    Usher, who now lives in Durham, North Carolina, after retiring in 1999, is annoyed by the ruckus but volunteers to “wear the T-shirt on Halloween.”