Random Samples

Science  25 Jul 2003:
Vol. 301, Issue 5632, pp. 460
  1. Portraits From a Petri Dish

    A recent art exhibit in New York City features a brand-new talent: a dish of rat brain cells. Scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta have cultured embryonic rat brain neurons on a plate equipped with a grid of electrodes. The grid picks up electrical impulses and sends them to a robotic arm, which moves colored markers to areas on a piece of paper that correspond with areas in the petri dish.

    Expressing themcells. CREDIT: PAUL D. THACKER

    The arm has been drawing pictures at a robot art show called Arbots. The robot also tries its hand at portraits by comparing a digital image of its scrawlings to a snapshot of a person. Both images are mapped onto grids; corresponding pixels are compared, and directions are sent back to Atlanta to stimulate the appropriate electrodes in the cell culture.

    Douglas Bakkum, a graduate student in the artificial intelligence lab of Steven Potter, says “the overall goal is learning and memory in networks of neurons. … We know how single neurons learn, but there hasn't been much research on the[ir] interaction.”

  2. Transsexuals Up in Arms Over

    The controversy over a new book by a Northwestern University psychologist on male transsexuals has spread to the author's home institution and the scientific body that published the book.

    On 3 July one of the book's sources, a transsexual named Anjelika Kieltyka, complained to university officials that author J. Michael Bailey had not properly informed her of her status as a research subject. A second subject reportedly filed a complaint last week. Joan Roughgarden, a transsexual biologist at Stanford University, has asked the Joseph Henry Press, an imprint of the National Academy of Sciences, to disown the book. And last week a protest was staged at the annual meeting of the International Academy of Sex Research in Indiana.

    The uproar began this spring with the publication of The Man Who Would Be Queen, much of which is based on Bailey's interviews with male-to-female transsexuals in Chicago bars. Although the book has been praised by many, including homosexuals, some transsexuals have called it “hateful” and “junk science.” They object to Bailey's lumping them into two types: homosexuals so effeminate that they want to be women, and “autogynephilic” males who are erotically stimulated by seeing themselves as women. Transsexuals regard this as demeaning and dismissive of their claim that they have women's brains trapped in men's bodies. “This is one of the most unsympathetic portrayals of transsexuality ever written,” says Stanford University neurobiologist Ben Barres, a transsexual.

    Bailey says he has clammed up on the advice of a lawyer. He told the Chronicle of Higher Education last month that he is “very pro-gay,” but “I can't be a slave to sensitivity.” Northwestern officials say the complaints are being handled through normal procedures.

  3. Rx for a Dying Language

    Spending 14 years as a schoolteacher in Alaska introduced Alice Taff to Alaskan native languages and inspired her to become a linguist. Now, the University of Washington, Seattle, researcher hopes to return the favor by keeping some of those languages alive.

    Taff points to Alaska's Aleut language area. CREDIT: SOURCE: ALICE TAFF

    Next month Taff, 57, will move from Seattle to the Pribilof and Aleutian Islands to teach and document Aleut. It's one of 20 Alaskan native languages that are endangered because of the low numbers of people who speak them, and because few children are learning them. Her project, funded by the Endangered Languages Documentation Program at the University of London, follows on a 7-year effort to preserve Deg Xinag— another vanishing Alaskan language—through remote instruction of native people scattered across inland Alaska.

    “The main challenge is to convince adults that they can learn a new language,” Taff says. She plans to spend at least 2 years in Alaska working on the project while continuing to build an audio dictionary of Deg Xinag.

  4. AWARDS

    Out of the background. Russian astrophysicist Rashid Sunyaev picked up $150,000 last week as the winner of this year's Gruber prize for cosmology. Sunyaev, who heads the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching, Germany, was recognized by the International Astronomical Union for his work on cosmic microwave background radiation.

    A pioneer in x-ray astronomy, the 60-year-old Sunyaev is best known for proposing the Sunyaev-Zel'dovich effect, which describes the apparent cooling of radiation as it passes through hot gas. He divides his time between Garching and Moscow, where he serves as chief scientist for the Russian Academy of Sciences' Space Research Institute.

    CREDIT: R. SUNYAEV
  5. MONEYMATTERS

    No-strings funders. Atmospheric chemist and Nobelist F. Sherwood Rowland called a young colleague one day last year with a hard-to-refuse offer: How would you like $300,000 to further your research into the glacial records of climate change? “It's not a competition,” Rowland told him. “You've already won.” The money was courtesy of Land's End founder and billionaire Gary Comer, who is on a mission to enhance understanding of abrupt climate change.

    The offer was one of 21 made so far by Rowland, of the University of California, Irvine, and geochemical oceanographer Wallace Broecker of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York. The two men were chosen by Comer to dole out funding—$6.9 million and counting—to researchers they think are worthy. No need to apply or undergo peer review. “We're in a position to help people whose work we admire,” says Rowland, adding that no one has turned the offers down.

    And the winners? “They said they didn't know Santa Claus existed, but they're glad he found them.”

  6. Giving and Living

    “Let me not so much seek to be consoled, as to console … to be loved as to love,” says the St. Francis prayer. Now science has come up with confirmation of the spiritual truth that it's better to give than to receive.

    It's been well established that social contact has a positive effect on health. Psychologists at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, now say they've identified the active ingredient: It's the giving. A group led by Stephanie L. Brown reports in this month's issue of Psychological Science on a 5-year study of 423 elderly married couples. Each individual was surveyed at the beginning as to the amount of “instrumental” support (help such as rides, errands, and child care) they gave to and got from friends and relatives. They were also quizzed on the emotional support they gave to and got from their spouses.

    Over the course of the study, 134 participants died. The researchers found that receiving support from others did not have much effect on mortality. But even after controlling for numerous factors, including age, sex, physical and mental health, and socioeconomic status, scientists found a 42% reduction in mortality risk among the instrumental givers and a 30% reduction for the emotional givers.

    University of Michigan psychologist Toni Antonucci says she agrees with the authors that “we have underestimated how important giving is.” Brown suggests that the study could lead caregivers to design interventions that focus more on “what people do to help others.”

  7. JOBS

    Talent grab. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) has snared a leader in the hot field of RNA interference (RNAi). Shiv Grewal, a 37-year-old molecular biologist, has left New York's Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory for Bethesda, Maryland, as part of NCI's effort to strengthen its intramural program.

    Last year Grewal and his colleagues discovered that RNAi helps guide cell division by mediating expression of certain genes. That advance, along with a cluster of others showing RNAi's surprising clout over gene silencing, catapulted RNAi into the limelight.

    “This is a program we're building up,” says Kathryn Zoon, principal deputy director of the Center for Cancer Research at NCI, and Grewal is “the first really big” RNAi researcher the institute has snagged. Grewal is also growing his lab: He brought two postdocs with him from Cold Spring Harbor and has already added three more.

    Expressing themcells. CREDIT: NIH
  8. ON THE EDGE

    For art's sake. A cave with 4000-year-old drawings would be a precious find for any anthropologist, but the Eagles Reach site at Wollemi National Park in New South Wales, Australia, holds a special place for Paul Tacon (at left in photo) of the Australian Museum in Sydney. Tacon and his colleagues spent 8 years trying to reach the site—which was discovered by a bush walker in 1995—battling flooding, drought, and bush fires.

    Tacon and consulting archaeologist Wayne Brennan (at right in photo) began their quest by winning permission from local Aboriginal communities. But flash floods from heavy rains prevented access to the site, 105 kilometers from Sydney and accessible only on foot over mountainous terrain. A drought choked the second attempt. “Next, there was a raging bush fire moving through that part of the Wollemi,” says Tacon. In May the team finally reached its destination and documented 203 images, including charcoal drawings of kangaroos and lizards and depictions of half-human, half-animal creatures.

    The only available drinking water, Tacon says, “was the color of coffee and tasted like sulfur, iron, and rotting vegetation. But the cave drawings made it all worthwhile.”

    CREDIT: PAUL TACON/AUSTRALIAN MUSEUM