Random Samples

Science  30 May 2003:
Vol. 300, Issue 5624, pp. 1368

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  1. Historic Island Threatened

    The world's largest river island will disappear within the next few decades thanks to the rapid erosion of its banks by the mighty Brahmaputra River, scientists say. In the first detailed analysis of the problem, scientists at the Regional Research Laboratory in Jorhat say the river has already swallowed more than 50% of the island, called Majuli. With a population of more than 130,000, Majuli is culturally important for eastern India. It has 22 Vaishnavaite monasteries, some of which date back to the 15th century, where traditional Hindu arts, music, and dance forms are kept alive.

    Geologist Probhat Kotoky reported in last month's issue of the Indian journal Current Science that the island lost about 1.9 square kilometers per year between 1920 and 1998, the year of the most recent satellite photos. It is now about 577 km2, down from 1245 in 1920.

    “If the situation remains unattended, the island will soon be engulfed by the Brahmaputra River and will become extinct from the world map,” the authors write. Kotoky says the island could be saved by the construction of well-designed embankments, but all the antierosion measures taken so far have been ineffectual because they fail to take into account the hydrogeology of the region.

  2. Brain Fever in the U.K.

    Researchers obtained the brains of more than 21,000 dead people in the United Kingdom between 1980 and 2000—without the knowledge or consent of families, according to a government report released on 12 May. Some scientists fear the news could lead to new laws that will restrict research involving human tissues.

    Medical authorities launched an investigation into the issue in 1991, after a Manchester widow discovered that her husband's brain had been removed, in violation of her instructions, after his suicide in 1987. The investigation widened to hospitals across the country, revealing that brains have been routinely removed from the dead without notifying family members. The report puts the blame on researchers' practice of making private arrangements with coroners to get brains after postmortems.

    Thousands of the organs were taken from people with mental illnesses, and patient advocacy groups are fuming. The backlash could “decimate” the search for cures for schizophrenia and other devastating disorders, warns Marjorie Wallace, founder of SANE, a London-based mental health charity. “There is already an acute shortage” of brains in the U.K., she says, which has forced many researchers to obtain tissue from other countries. Others “feel so stigmatized that they have ceased investigations,” she says.

    In response to this and an earlier report detailing improper removal of organs from dead children (Science, 6 December 2002, p. 1867), the Department of Health is planning new legislation regarding human tissues. A government spokesperson says no details are yet available.

  3. That Special Glow

    Tsai and his fluorescent fish.


    Until an aquarium company chanced upon them, the fluorescent fish that microbiologist H. J. Tsai had bioengineered in his lab were just an interesting sidelight. But 2 years after the company struck a partnership with the National Taiwan University (NTU) microbiologist to market his creations to hobbyists, developing ornamental fish has become an important part of his research.

    Tsai, 53, routinely inserts a jellyfish gene into the zebrafish genome to track the development and behavior of specific cell types. In 2000, he was testing a gene-delivery promoter that would make the organs of the engineered fish visible without a microscope and found that it made the entire body fluorescent. Tsai dropped a slide of the bright green fish into his presentations, where it caught the eye of a manager from Taikong Corp., a Taipei aquarium company.

    In return for helping Taikong commercialize the transgenic fish, Tsai gets money for his research, including efforts to create new ornamental fish. So far Tsai has developed zebrafish with different patterns of green and red fluorescence by combining genes from jellyfish and marine coral. His next goal is a glowing dragon fish, which many Asians consider to be a good omen.

    Tsai says his work shouldn't adversely affect the environment: “Since these fish are for aquariums only, they don't present the usual concerns associated with genetically modified organisms.” But to be safe, he says more than 90% of Taikong's Night Pearls, its transgenic zebrafish now on sale in Taiwan, have been sterilized. Eric Hallerman, a fisheries scientist at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, says that figure may not be safe enough for certain tropical ecosystems with large zebrafish populations.

    Tsai hopes his creations will spark interest in biotechnology among Taiwanese schoolchildren, who are thronging an exhibit at NTU featuring the glowing fish. As a demonstration of genetic engineering, Tsai says, the fish has “an advantage over a genetically modified pig, which looks no different from a normal one.” And it glows in the dark.

  4. Rising Stars

    Shine on. High school students Anila Madiraju, Elena Glassman, and Lisa Glukhovsky (below, left to right) are winners of this year's Intel Foundation Young Scientist awards. Each takes home $50,000 in scholarship money and a computer.


    Madiraju, a 17-year-old aspiring oncologist from Montreal, Quebec, won for demonstrating RNA's ability to selectively kill cancer cells. Glassman, 16, of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, created an algorithm to read brain waves specific to hand movement and letter recognition. Glukhovsky, 17, of New Milford, Connecticut, showed that distances to nearby asteroids can be accurately measured by amateur astronomers making simultaneous observations at different locations around the globe.

    “Every year I decide to do an insane project, even though I don't realize it at the time,” says Glassman, who is pondering studies in electrical or biomedical engineering. Glukhovsky says her love for astronomy dates back to elementary school.

  5. A Matter of Instinct

    1. Ronald Atlas
    1. president of the American Society for Microbiology, on the difficulty of determining which science is too sensitive to publish, on 19 May at the ASM annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

    “We, the scientific community, should be defining what is essential information. … Like pornography, I know [sensitive information] when I see it. I don't want the government to decide for me.”

  6. Sexual Politics Among the Hyaenidae

    Mating strategies are usually based on getting the fittest possible partner. But female hyenas have an added twist: They favor males who aren't particularly aggressive, a strategy that ensures continued female dominance. Among spotted hyenas, females run the show. They are bigger, and their penislike genitals make it impossible for males to access them without their full cooperation, says Marion East of the Max Planck Institute for Behavioral Physiology in Seewiesen.

    Full cooperation required.


    But “females can't rest on their laurels,” says East. She and her colleagues have now done genetic studies that cast light on how females keep the upper hand. They analyzed DNA from 88 males, 86 females, and 236 offspring in 171 litters born in Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. Females mate with multiple males, and more than one-third of the twin litters had dual paternity. East's team found that dominant males did not monopolize females of any rank, they report in the 14 May online Proceedings of the Royal Society.

    In other species, males gain sexual advantages by harassing females, shadowing them, or fighting off competitors. But among spotted hyenas, says East, “males who try to impose their wishes don't have the success of the males that spend a long time trying to get to know the females.” Marc Bekoff, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, says the study “shows clearly that females are actually having an effect on the range of personalities of males in the population.”

  7. Awards

    Trailblazer. Cell biologist Angelika Amon, 36, has won the 2003 Alan T. Waterman Award, the National Science Foundation's (NSF's) top prize for young scientists. The award provides Amon, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher, with $500,000 in research funding over 3 years.

    Amon, who last week picked up a $5000 research prize from drug giant Eli Lilly in addition to the Waterman, has “reoriented” the cell-cycle field, says Stephen Elledge of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. Amon will put the NSF award into new projects, including an investigation of how the presence of too many or too few chromosomes, a key feature of cancerous cells, influences the cell cycle. The $5000 will go toward her new home.

  8. Honored

    A room of one's own. The Institute of Physics has decided to honor four British women scientists by attaching their names to rooms in the institute's new building in London. A model dressed as Hertha Ayrton, 1854–1923, known for her work on the arc lamp, stands in the reception room. Others being honored are nuclear physicist Daphne Jackson, x-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin, and astronomer Caroline Herschel.

  9. Data Points

    Money spinners. Columbia University supplanted the University of California system as academia's top earner in the U.S. and Canada from licensed inventions, according to a new tally of 2001 numbers from the Association of University Technology Managers. Overall, the 198 institutions surveyed earned $1.07 billion, down 15% from 2000. They disclosed 13,582 inventions (up 4%), filed for 6812 patents (up 7%), and started nearly 500 new companies.