Random Samples

Science  18 Jul 2003:
Vol. 301, Issue 5631, pp. 305

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  1. Flash in the Pond

    Worried that time is running through your fingers? Then spare a thought for the African fish Nothobranchius furzeri, the world's least enduring vertebrate. Scientists have discovered that the 5-centimeter-long fish matures, mates, lays its eggs, and dies of old age in just 10 weeks or so.


    The fish's brief appearance on Earth—one-fifth the life span of previous record holders, including related fish and shrews—is a function of its habitat. Living in temporary ponds that materialize for a few months during equatorial Africa's fleeting rainy season, the fish mates and deposits eggs in the muddy bottom to sit out the drier months. That speedy life cycle could make it a new model for aging.

    Writing in the 9 July Biology Letters, neuroscientist Alessandro Cellerino of the Italian National Research Council's Institute of Neuroscience in Pisa and Stefano Valdesalici of the Italian Killifish Association in Canossa explain that they bred three generations of more than 100 fish to confirm anecdotal evidence of their mini-life span. The experiments showed that the fish reach maturity at 4 weeks and start dying off 2 weeks later.

    The finding “will attract some attention … and stimulate further worthwhile research with this species,” predicts aging researcher Joseph Kemnitz, director of the National Primate Research Center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Cellerino says the fish could be used for studies on aging and antiaging compounds. In contrast, the commonly used zebrafish has a 5-year life span.

  2. The Roots of Restless Slumber

    Sleep knits up the ravell'd sleeve of care for many of us. But it offers no such solace for those with obstructive sleep apnea and REM behavior disorder. Now a pair of new studies provides the first clues about the faulty brain chemistry that may underlie these sleep problems.

    People with multiple system atrophy (MSA), a rare and fatal neurological disease, often suffer from both REM behavior disorder, which makes people thrash about while dreaming, and sleep apnea, which can stop a person's breathing hundreds of times a night. Neurologist Sid Gilman of the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor and colleagues conducted two studies on 13 MSA patients. In one, they explored whether REM sleep disruption could be linked to a failure of dopamine-producing neurons in the striatum, a brain area involved in movement that is affected by MSA. Sensors measured the contraction of facial muscles during dreaming, and brain scans surveyed dopamine-producing neurons in the striatum.

    The researchers report in the July issue of Neurology that the MSA patients had just two-thirds as many dopamine-producing neurons as normal controls had. Moreover, the patients with the largest dopamine deficiency flailed the most, suggesting that “dopamine deficiency may lead to REM behavior disorder,” Gilman says.

    Different neurons had gone awry in obstructive sleep apnea, the team reports. In the same subjects, the researchers probed a brain structure called the pons, focusing on neurons that control the airway-sealing muscles of the tongue, palate, and uvula. Those neurons produce a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, and it turned out that patients with fewer such neurons in the pons suffered more apnea.

    Neurophysiologist Bob McCarley of Harvard Medical School in Boston welcomes the results but says it's still not clear whether neurons are failing in the brainstem, which might be at the root of both disorders. Gilman's next project is to look for similar deficits in otherwise healthy patients with sleep disorders.

  3. Smart Scientists

    Although it may reinforce their status as geeks, a group of U.S. academic scientists has trounced other sectors of society on a TV-based IQ test. The scientists flexed their mental muscles last month on Test the Nation, an interactive test-your-IQ program that has been making the rounds in Europe and Australia.


    The 60-question test, which covers language, logic, math skills, and visual perception, was adapted from a test used by the high-IQ society Mensa. The usual format is for a studio audience composed of various groups—a perennial category being “blondes”—to take the test and see which group is smartest. At the same time, viewers take the test in what has turned out to be one of the biggest tests of interactive TV.

    The U.S. show, aired over the Fox network, drew a half-million participants. The producers added “scientists” to the usual categories, rounding up 40 from California universities—many of them graduate students—and dressing them all in white lab coats. They were pitted against groups of teachers, students, body builders, construction workers, blonde women, and celebrities.

    The scientist group scored highest, with an average IQ of 125 (out of a possible 142), followed by teachers and celebrities. Topping the charts at 138 was David Merwine, an assistant professor and expert in retinal information processing at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He says “I'm impressed at how well we did as a group considering many are not native English speakers.” Merwine says his team also had an unfair advantage over one of their opponents, the construction workers: “They put all the blondes in halter tops in the section right next to them,” so they got distracted when the questions got tough.

  4. Sticking With Friends

    Evolutionary biologist Robert Shumaker is leaving the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., in October to help create a primate center in Des Moines, Iowa. And he hopes to win permission to take two of his favorite subjects with him.

    Shumaker wants to take his subjects to an Iowa primate center founded by Townsend.


    The newly created Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary is the brainchild of local businessman Ted Townsend, 55, who was inspired by a visit to Africa. Spread over 81 hectares, the Iowa facility expects to house all types of great apes and, possibly, primates retired from biomedical research. Shumaker is among the first researchers to sign on, joining Sue Savage-Rumbaugh of Georgia State University in Atlanta, whose controversial work involves teaching bonobos to communicate with people through abstract symbols.

    Shumaker, 39, began as a Smithsonian volunteer and has spent the last 8 years working on language development with two adult orangutans, Azy and Indah. “They are extremely sophisticated in terms of the things they can do,” he says proudly about the animals' computer skills, which include using numbers and a 12-word vocabulary.

    But Shumaker's plan requires approval from the zoo and its accreditation board, and “there are no discussions or plans right now for moving them,” says zoo spokesperson Pepper Long. Shumaker hopes to clear all hurdles by next spring, when the Iowa sanctuary will open its first buildings. In the meantime, he plans to stay in touch with Azy and Indah through periodic visits.

  5. Data Points

    Younger blood. Paul Westbury, a 33-year-old British civil engineer who helped build the striking but controversial Millennium Dome in Greenwich, U.K., has become the youngest person to be elected by the Royal Academy of Engineering. Last week's announcement also spotlighted the academy's second youngest member: Colin McInnes, a 35-year-old space systems engineer at the University of Glasgow.


    The academy says the selection of Westbury and McInnes is “a sign of the vitality of British engineering.” That's certainly a more positive note to strike than the continuing gender imbalance at the top of the field. Only two of this year's 50 fellows are women, bringing their membership in the 1236-member academy to 20. Their 1.6% share reflects “a difficulty with the whole engineering profession,” says John Forrest, chair of the membership committee, which hopes to improve matters in future classes.

  6. Jobs

    Flying again. Come fall, former NASA chief Daniel Goldin may be headed back to the East Coast to become president of Boston University (BU). BU's board of trustees offered him the job last week, picking the former West Coast aerospace executive from a pool of 50 candidates.


    If he accepts—he has a month to decide—Goldin will fill a position vacant since Jon Westling was ousted 1 year ago. BU's former president John Silber has been running the university in the interim.

    Goldin led NASA for nearly a decade and is best known for his “faster, better, cheaper” mantra of space exploration. He left in 2001 and is currently a senior fellow at the Neuroscience Institute in San Diego, California.

  7. Snafus

    A tangled web. The Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology in Jakarta, Indonesia, has forged many international collaborations in the course of conducting research and training the next generation of Indonesian biomedical scientists. But the 10-year-old institute may have a harder time spreading the word these days after a credit-card snafu allowed a company peddling sexual aids to purchase the lab's Web address.

    “I guess domain name-sitting is one way to make a living,” says Eijkman's director, Sangkot Marzuki, who has staked out a new electronic home at eijkman-imb.org. “It's a horrible thing to happen to an organization,” agrees Mary Hewitt of ICANN, the U.S.-based organization that oversees Web addresses. The take-home message is clear, she says: “Don't let your registry expire.”

  8. Odd Jobs

    Fresh data. Collecting just-delivered cow dung may not be the most appealing research job, but Svein Tore Hauge isn't complaining. The Norwegian high school student, who helps his parents on their family farm, is earning $10 an hour—money that he hopes will help him buy a car.


    As a summer employee at the Norwegian Crop Research Institute's (NCRI's) experimental facility in Særheim, a rural town on Norway's southwest coast, Hauge's main task is to pick up the droppings of 21 grazing cows and send them in for analysis. “We need to keep track of which cow the samples are from,” explains NCRI grassland scientist Mats Höglind, who studies the dung to correlate the milk production of each animal with its fodder intake. That requires Hauge to keep a watchful eye on each herd member and scoop up samples as soon as they appear.

    Although Hauge says he enjoys the work, he's not planning a career in science. “I want to become a farmer or an electrician,” says the 15-year-old. Whatever path he chooses, we hope he'll watch his step.