Random Samples

Science  13 Jun 2003:
Vol. 300, Issue 5626, pp. 1653

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  1. Leftovers Spur Edible Debate

    New dates on food residue scraped from ancient Japanese pottery have touched off a controversy over how and when rice cultivation spread from China. The dates “could change our understanding of Asian antiquity” by placing the earliest rice cultivation 500 years earlier than had been assumed, says Hideji Harunari, an archaeologist at the National Museum of Japanese History, in Chiba, outside Tokyo.

    Dating of food residue from pottery like this could rewrite Japanese history.


    The technique of growing rice in paddies emerged along the Yangtze River in central China about 10,000 years ago. How and when it spread eastward—overland by migrants or by seafaring traders—is unclear. In Japan, the earliest rice cultivation marks the beginning of the Yayoi Period, which has been pegged to 500 to 400 B.C., mostly through analysis of pottery techniques.

    But “there have really been very few actual measurements” of artifacts, says museum chemist Mineo Imamura. To fill this gap, he and his colleagues sent food residue samples from 11 early Yayoi pottery pieces to an accelerator mass spectrometry lab in Miami. Ten of the samples were dated at 780 to 830 B.C. Because the residue is not from the most primitive Yayoi pottery samples, the scientists, who presented their findings in Tokyo last month at a meeting of the Japanese Archaeological Association, speculate that the actual start of the period should be about 1000 B.C.

    An earlier start for the Yayoi Period would mean reconsidering an important era in Japanese history, because rice-paddy agriculture led to population growth, elaborate settlements, and ultimately to a prototypical nation mentioned in Chinese records of about A.D. 300. But Fujio Oda, an archaeologist at Fukuoka University, says scientists will need a lot more evidence before overturning decades of scholarly dating.

  2. The Meaning of Life

    —Can I patent my genes before the pharmaceutical industry does it?

    —Is freedom to research a human right?

    Moviegoers and newspaper readers in Germany have lately been pelted with film clips and ads posing questions about biotechnology and genetic manipulation such as those above. The inquiry is sponsored by Aktion Mensch, an advocacy group for people with disabilities. The group set out last fall to collect 1000 questions, and its Web site (http://www.1000fragen.de/) has already attracted some 8000, plus 25,000 comments, mostly from young people. Some questions that have stirred the most interest are:

    —What is the meaning of life?

    —To have a wonderful child, does it matter if the child is handicapped?

    —Why am I afraid of being an organ donor?

    —Are you afraid to be immortal?

    —What happens when the rich become not only richer but also cleverer through genetic engineering?

    Aktion Mensch plans to present the questions this September to the German Parliament, the German Research Foundation, and the Association of Biotech Firms. Lawmakers and researchers, says project spokesperson Karin Jacek, “have an obligation to engage in an open discussion” with the public.

  3. Vaccine Unawareness

    A national survey of 3500 people conducted last month by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) has yielded some unsettling results: One-fifth believed that an HIV vaccine exists but is being kept a secret. And among vulnerable groups, the proportions were higher: 48% of African Americans and 28% of Hispanics thought the government was hiding something. Says Matthew Murguia of NIAID's AIDS division, “It tells us we have a lot of work to do in terms of communication.” The poll was conducted for the sixth annual International HIV Vaccine Awareness Day on 18 May.

  4. Avian Antiaging Secret

    Telomeres tip the ends of chromosomes kind of like the tips of shoelaces. They are a big focus of research on aging because they get shorter each time a cell divides, ultimately causing cultured cells to lose the ability to duplicate. Now biologists may have spotted the first known instance of telomeres lengthening with age: in the long-lived Leach's storm petrel.

    A Leach's storm petrel on Kent Island, New Brunswick.


    Birds usually live longer than mammals of comparable body size, despite their faster metabolic rates. To explore why, comparative physiologists Mark Haussmann and Carol Vleck of Iowa State University in Ames collaborated with ornithologists in several states to measure rates of change in telomere lengths in the blood cells of five bird species.

    The researchers found that short-lived birds such as zebra finches and tree swallows lost more telomeric sequences with age than did long-lived penguins and terns. The surprise was that telomeres actually appear to lengthen with age in Leach's storm petrels, whose life expectancy is roughly four times as long—up to 36 years—as would be predicted from their body mass, the researchers reported online last month in the Proceedings of the Royal Society.

    If verified, the find would be the first reported example of telomere elongation, says telomere expert Jerry Shay of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. The study complements “a very interesting possibility” that subsets of human populations may have telomeres that vary as much as they do among bird species, says geneticist Richard Cawthon of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. If that's the case, those with telomeres that don't shorten may be a hardy lot, senescing from other causes such as cumulative oxidative damage.

  5. On a Clear Day ...

    The Adelmans face Streisand's ire over this aerial picture of her beachside estate.


    Pop diva Barbra Streisand has taken aim at a project used by researchers to monitor the environmental health of the California coastline.

    Last month the singer sued conservationist-photographer Kenneth Adelman in a state court for distributing pictures of her Malibu estate as part of his California Coastal Records Project (californiacoastline.org), a Web site with over 12,000 aerial photographs. The suit claims that Adelman's picture of her bluff-top property, detailing the back of the house with its swimming pool and sunny patio, violates a state antipaparazzi law and provides “stalkers” with “a road map into her residence.”

    “The project would not be complete if we left out coastal sections where celebrities happen to own property,” says Adelman, who started the project last year with his wife, Gabrielle, after making millions during the Internet boom. Adelman's lawyer, Richard Kendall, says the law applies to people, not properties. Although Adelman expects his legal costs to outstrip those of the project itself, he does sees a silver lining: “The publicity Streisand has generated for the database is priceless.”

  6. Jobs

    MIT firsts. A woman geophysicist and an African-American aeronautical engineer have quietly made history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Next month Maria Zuber and Wesley Harris will become, respectively, the first woman and black to head an MIT department of science or engineering. Both are leaders in their research fields. Harris, 61, is an expert in aerodynamics and computation flow dynamics, and Zuber, 44, has specialized in the structure and dynamics of planets in the inner solar system. “It's pretty amazing,” says MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins, who chaired a 1999 panel that examined the status of women at the university (Science, 12 November 1999, p. 1272). “And it is also remarkable that it's taken so long.”


    Bugging out. He led his lab through one of its greatest challenges: the onslaught of the West Nile virus in the United States. But Duane Gubler, chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's lab for vector-borne infectious diseases in Fort Collins, Colorado, is moving to the University of Hawaii, Manoa, later this year to head up a new center for tropical medicine and infectious diseases.

    Colleagues aren't surprised that Gubler, who took over the Fort Collins lab in 1989, is leaving the government and taking up a new challenge at the age of 64. “He's a total workaholic,” says entomologist Paul Reiter of the Pasteur Institute in Paris. Gubler was in Myanmar last week and unreachable.

  7. Milestones

    Died. Thomas Odhiambo, the Kenyan entomologist who founded the African Academy of Sciences, died last month of liver cancer at the age of 72. Educated at Cambridge, Odhiambo is known for his research on controlling insects without the use of synthetic chemicals. As founder of the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Nairobi in 1967, he lent his vision for Africa's development to scores of African scientists.

    The African Association of Insect Scientists will pay a special tribute to Odhiambo at its annual conference in Nairobi this week.

  8. Misfortunes

    Down in the dumps. How would you feel if someone walked off with 33 years' worth of lab notes—and then threw them in a dumpster? Just ask planetary geochemist Everett Gibson of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. Gibson revealed the sad fate of his journals last week during a trial in Orlando, Florida, of one of the four persons accused in the 15 July 2002 theft of a 266-kilogram safe containing moon rocks and meteorites. The heavenly objects have been recovered, but there's no sign of Gibson's handwritten records of sample analyses from all six Apollo moon missions.


    “It's a major loss,” says Gibson, who continues to work on ALH84001, the martian meteorite that he helped make famous as a possible repository of signs of ancient life on Mars. He's also hoping to get a close-up look at the Red Planet later this year as a member of the team that built a European rover launched this month.