Random Samples

Science  29 Aug 2003:
Vol. 301, Issue 5637, pp. 1180
  1. Genes Behind the Campus Drinking Scene

    Researchers have been looking long and hard and largely unsuccessfully for genes associated with alcoholism. Now a study from America's prime alcoholism breeding grounds—college campuses—offers new evidence implicating a gene involved in transmission of serotonin, a key brain chemical, in heavy drinking.

    College students tie one on.

    CREDIT: MARK PETERSON/CORBIS SABA

    The gene comes in two versions: the long (l) allele and the short (s) allele. The researchers, from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), took DNA samples from and gave questionnaires to 204 Caucasian college students, asking them how much and how often they drank, and whether they drank to get drunk.

    Reporting in the September issue of Alcohol and Alcoholism, the researchers found that subjects with different combinations of alleles drank with about the same frequency, but those with two s's (23% of the group) were more likely to drink a lot at once and to set out to get drunk. And they were twice as likely as the others to be in the top ranks of the bingers—defined as those who engaged in at least 10 heavy drinking sessions in the prior 2 weeks.

    Other research has shown that people with two s's are more prone to anxiety and depression from adverse experiences (Science, 18 July, p. 291). Co-author Pedro DePetrillo, an NIAAA pharmacologist, speculates that the s homozygotes drink more to counter anxiety. Jeffrey Long, a population geneticist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, says the gene might be more of a marker of novelty-seeking, another trait linked with drugging and drinking.

    Larger samples are needed to get at the answer, he says. And there are samples aplenty: A recent poll showed that 44% of college students don't let more than 2 weeks go by without some binge drinking.

  2. The Big Seed

    A specimen of the world's largest seed began to sprout a root at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) this month. Weighing 16 kilograms, it belongs to the coco de mer, a rare palm that grows only on two formerly connected islands in the Seychelles.

    World's biggest seed sprouts.

    CREDIT: ROYAL BOTANIC GARDEN EDINBURGH

    Coco de mer has evolved to fill a unique eco-niche: It's confined to deep island valleys because unlike the coconut—the world's second-largest seed—its nuts are killed by salt water. The size of the seed allows it to store nutrients between infrequent rains. The deep root, which penetrates the soil 4 meters before branching, anchors the tree against typhoons. Coco de mer is geared for the long haul, living up to 300 years—three times as long as the coconut palm. And its fruits—each containing two or three seeds—take 5 to 7 years to mature.

    The seed is the first of its kind to germinate in the United Kingdom since 1994, says RBGE horticulturist David Mitchell. The tree, expected to reach 30 meters, is to become the centerpiece of the garden's tropical glass house.

  3. A Painful Separation

    The blockbuster arthritis drug Enbrel was the prize when biotech behemoth Amgen plunked down $10 billion to acquire Seattle, Washington-based Immunex. But 1 year later, the two scientists whose work paved the way for the development of the drug have resigned, victims of the merger.

    Raymond Goodwin and Craig Smith, both 52, gained fame in 1990 when they cloned the primary receptor for tumor necrosis factor (TNF), a protein that helps launch the molecular events that produce inflammation. An overabundance of TNF triggers autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, and later studies showed that injecting free copies of the TNF receptor sopped up excess TNF to reduce inflammation. The work eventually led to the development of Enbrel, which is expected to net Amgen $3 billion annually by 2005.

    Goodwin and Smith have since investigated more than a dozen proteins similar to TNF, some of which have shown impressive results in killing cancer cell lines without harming normal cells. They had hoped these results would be fast-tracked to the clinic, but the July 2002 takeover slowed things down. “It felt like we were less involved in the decisions” about which projects should be pursued, Goodwin says. Adds Smith: “At some point you have to ask yourself how long you want to wait.”

    Craig Smith (left) and Raymond Goodwin.

    CREDIT: CRAIG SMITH

    Smith hopes to launch his own biotech company or join a research institute. But Goodwin has retired, saying he no longer has the desire to push another compound all the way to market: “I don't know if I want to work that hard.”

  4. Jobs

    Diplomatic move. A University of Arizona, Tucson, chemist is making the jump from spectroscopy to diplomacy. Next month George Atkinson (below) will succeed Norman Neureiter as the U.S. Department of State's science adviser, a post created 3 years ago after studies concluded that the U.S. didn't have enough science-savvy diplomats (Science, 2 March 2001, p. 1691).

    CREDITS: LORI STILES/UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA

    Neureiter, a retired Texas Instruments executive, helped beef up technical training for the foreign service and established fellowships that brought scientists into the department for short stints. One recruit was Atkinson, a specialist in laser spectroscopy who arrived in 2001 after nearly 3 decades in academe. He takes over 18 September.

    New SARS manager. Australian virologist John Mackenzie is temporarily relocating to the World Health Organization's (WHO's) Geneva headquarters to coordinate SARS research and set up a new lab network to confront future disease outbreaks. Mackenzie, 62, specializes in mosquito-borne diseases, zoonoses, and influenza at the University of Queensland.

    When SARS erupted last winter, WHO influenza specialist Klaus Stöhr coaxed a dozen highly competitive labs to join hands in nailing the virus. Mackenzie, who has signed on for 5 months, says he plans to expand on that “incredible job” by creating a permanent network that can tackle any new pathogen at a moment's notice. Stöhr is going back to his former WHO job of preparing the world for the next flu pandemic.

  5. New Stem Cell Lines

    The United Kingdom, which has some of the world's most permissive regulations governing the development and use of human embryonic stem (ES) cells, has finally developed a homegrown line. Biologist Stephen Minger and colleagues at King's College London say they have grown a human ES cell line from an embryo that was set to be discarded after preimplantation genetic tests showed that it carried a genetic disease.

    Minger says he hopes cell lines derived from such defective embryos will be less controversial, because “it's inconceivable that the embryos would ever be used” for implantation. He says the new line will be deposited in the Stem Cell Bank that is being set up with government funding just outside London. But the cells will be off-limits to federally funded researchers in the United States, because they were derived long after 9 August 2001, the cutoff date imposed by President George W. Bush.

    The U.K. passed a law in 2001 that allows scientists to derive new human ES cell lines if they get permission from the government's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. Four other groups have obtained clearance.

    The British line is the first new one to be published—on 13 August in Reproductive BioMedicine Online—in the 2 years since the Bush announcement. Scientists in the Czech Republic, Israel, Singapore, Sweden, and the United States have also reported generating new lines, but none has been described in the scientific literature.

  6. GLEEP Put to Sleep

    The first nuclear reactor in Western Europe, built in 1946, is being laid to rest. GLEEP, the Graphite Low Energy Experimental Pile in Oxfordshire, U.K., served as a learning tool on how to produce nuclear power and set international standards for materials testing until 1990, when engineers began the lengthy process of shutting it down. Extra control rods were put in to absorb neutrons until the 11,500 uranium fuel rods were removed in 1994.

    Now, the reactor itself is being taken apart and the 13,500 graphite bricks making up its core will be shredded and probably incinerated as Harwell, the U.K.'s former civilian nuclear research center, is transformed into a business park.

  7. In the Courts

    Lab hoax. A young microbiologist is headed to prison because of his attempt to cover up a sketchy research project.

    Last week a federal judge in Grand Rapids, Michigan, sentenced Scott Doree, 28, to 10 months in prison for lying to the FBI after Doree admitted faking the theft of microbes from a lab at Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing. Doree, an MSU graduate student, staged the break-in to hide his lack of progress on a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)-funded project to develop a pneumonia vaccine for pigs.

    Last September, on his last day at MSU before assuming a postdoctoral position at another university, Doree reported to campus police that a virulent mutant strain of pneumonia-causing bacteria had disappeared. The alleged theft sparked fears that the strain could spread to swine herds or fall into the hands of bioterrorists.

    However, a joint investigation by the FBI, USDA, and MSU police concluded that Doree had staged the break-in and that the missing strain had never existed. A 2000 paper he co-authored in the Journal of Bacteriology was retracted. Robert Huggett, MSU's vice president for research, says the university also is considering whether to rescind Doree's degree.

  8. Data Points

    Early exit. U.K. physicists are scrambling to stop the continuing flight of girls from high school physics. The number of girls taking the pre-university A-level physics exam dropped by 4.2% last year, according to new figures from the Institute of Physics (IOP), London, and 9% fewer girls took the AS level—a precursor to the A level. There was a smaller decline for boys—2.6% and 3.9%, respectively.

    CREDIT: SOURCE: INSTIUTE OF PHYSICS, LONDON

    The accelerating departure of girls is even more troubling given the current 80% male population of A-level physics students. Added to that is a 35% drop since 1985 in the overall number of students taking A-level physics. “This is not just a problem for women but a cause for concern across the science and engineering community,” says Julia King, IOP's chief executive. It's also not unique to Britain: Last week, American College Testing announced that only 26% of graduating U.S. seniors who took its exams were prepared for college-level science, and only 40% were up to snuff in mathematics.

    IOP has launched a survey to find out what makes some schools better than others at attracting girls into physics. And it plans a campaign to help schools tell their students about the varied career options in the field.

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