News this Week

Science  12 Sep 2003:
Vol. 301, Issue 5639, pp. 1450

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    U.S. Biodefense Boom: Eight New Study Centers

    1. David Malakoff

    The biodefense bandwagon is rolling. The U.S. government last week awarded eight lead institutions grants totaling $350 million over the next 5 years to establish collaborative research centers that will focus on everything from understanding potential bioterror agents to developing new vaccines. But even some teams that lost out hope to snag the next big prize: one of several new highly secure biocontainment laboratories.

    “These grants are a big step; they will help build the research community we need to develop [biodefenses] … and respond to infectious diseases,” says Gail Cassel, vice president for scientific affairs at Eli Lilly & Co. in Indianapolis, Indiana, and head of the American Society for Microbiology's public affairs board.

    The awards, announced on 4 September by Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, are among the government's biggest research-related responses so far to the 2001 anthrax letter attacks. After the attacks, the White House requested billions of dollars to shore up bioterror preparedness, and blue-ribbon advisory panels recommended that the government set up 10 regional centers of excellence to speed the development of therapies, vaccines, and diagnostics. Last year, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) opened a fast-track competition to host the first centers, and universities scrambled to assemble consortia to compete for the funds (Science, 6 September 2002, p. 1630).

    Filling the gaps.

    Biodefense planners eventually hope to have research centers in every region.

    The eight winning teams (see map) bring diverse talents to the task, from basic research prowess to vast experience validating vaccines, says NIAID Director Anthony Fauci. Each will focus its $35 million to $50 million, 5-year budget on a few priorities. For instance, the six-school southeastern consortium, led by immunologist Barton Haynes of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, will concentrate on anthrax, plague, and orthopoxviruses such as smallpox and monkeypox. The midwestern center, led by microbiologist Olaf Schneewind of the University of Chicago, has botulism, tularemia, and hemorrhagic fever viruses on the to-do list for its 14 members. That agenda “fits well into our continuing efforts to encourage innovative research that crosses boundaries … [including] institutional boundaries,” says James Madara, the University of Chicago's biomedical dean.

    At the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston, pathology department chair David Walker will lead a 16-partner group working on everything from a Rift Valley fever vaccine to better Q fever diagnostics. “This award represents an extraordinary coming together of scientists … many of them traditional competitors,” UTMB president John Stobo said in a statement.

    Other researchers, meanwhile, are hoping for better luck next time. Teams led by the universities of Iowa and Minnesota, for instance, got consolation prizes in the form of $1 million planning grants. They will have to wait until next year to see if Congress gives NIAID enough funds for a second centers competition. “I'm optimistic that they will be worthy of funding,” says Cassel, who served on several of the advisory groups that backed the initiative.

    Major consortia centered in Colorado and California, meanwhile, came away empty-handed. They fear that result could doom related bids to win funds for one of the new high-containment biosafety level 4 laboratories designed to serve the regional centers. Fauci, however, says that even losers in the centers competition are still in the running for funding for one of the two laboratories that his institute is expected to award later this month. “We're not ruling anyone out,” he says.

  2. 2004 BUDGET

    Senate Bill Boosts NSF Funds for Underserved Groups

    1. Jeffrey Mervis

    The scientific underprivileged moved to the head of the line last week as a Senate panel took its first crack at a 2004 budget for the National Science Foundation (NSF). The Appropriations Committee approved a 5.2% increase, to $5.59 billion—less than the 6.2% granted by the House (Science, 25 July, p. 444) and far below the 15% sought by NSF supporters. But it's better than the 3.2% increase proposed by President George W. Bush in February. NSF's education directorate would grow twice as fast as its larger research account.

    Programs to serve minority students and institutions received especially favorable treatment in the Senate bill. For example, $30 million is earmarked to help colleges and universities with large numbers of minorities purchase computer equipment and train faculty members and students to use wireless and other communications technologies, a hot topic in Congress (Science, 18 July, p. 286). Those funds would take up almost the entire increase in NSF's account for major research instrumentation, which would grow from $83 million to $115 million. The bill also adds $5.7 million to increase the number of minorities earning graduate degrees and $15 million for two programs to aid historically black colleges and universities.

    Legislators told NSF to enlist more minority and women volunteers, as well as people from lesser-known institutions, to review grants. The issue is a sore point for NSF officials, who feel that the foundation has already worked hard to broaden the pool. Not hard enough, says Frederick Humphreys, head of a national coalition of black colleges. He told the House Science Committee at a July hearing that NSF needs to be more aware of the needs of minority institutions.

    The Senate panel also wants NSF to review its 2-decade-old effort to help scientists in “have-not” states compete with those from elite universities for NSF funding. Many of the 24 states in the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) feel they are “entitled” to the money, the bill notes, and none has ever graduated. “We give EPSCoR large increases every year, but there doesn't seem to be much progress,” says one aide, adding that this year's bill would nevertheless boost funding by $10 million, to $100 million.

    Unlike the House bill, the Senate version provides no money for the National Ecological Observatory Network or the Rare Symmetry Violating Processes project. A tight budget leaves no room for new starts, the legislators note. But the committee did add $25 million to NSF's existing nanotechnology initiative and $10 million to the agency's plant genome program. A conference with the House later this fall will be needed to resolve differences in the two bills.


    The Missing Item in NASA's New Flight Plan: Money

    1. Andrew Lawler

    While lawmakers were debating NASA's future last week, a Senate funding panel quietly issued a sobering message. It rejected President George W. Bush's request to boost the space agency's budget in 2004 and warned that significant increases “will likely be very difficult to sustain.” A few days later, NASA released a plan to revamp the space shuttle program and fly again by next spring—a plan whose cost, agency managers say privately, will top $200 million through next year.

    The plan's release on 8 September capped a frenetic week in which the Senate Commerce Committee and House Science Committee took a close look at the results of the accident investigation panel led by retired Admiral Harold Gehman (Science, 5 September, p. 1300). Lawmakers expressed concern about finding dollars for human space flight. “We'll have to figure out how to do all of this in an era of dwindling resources,” Senator Ernest Hollings (D-SC) warned at the 3 September hearing. And Science Committee chair Representative Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) said the next day that the agency might have to adjust its ambitions: “I, for one, am not willing to write NASA a blank check for the shuttle.”

    The purse strings are already tightening. The Senate Appropriations Committee agreed to a flat budget for NASA next year: $15.3 billion, or $130 million below the president's request, chopping $200 million from the requested space station budget. “There are other pressing needs,” said a terse committee statement, noting that with a reduced crew and construction schedule, less money is needed. That doesn't fly with agency managers. “There are no big bucks” to be saved, scoffs one. The Senate bill now goes to the floor; when it passes, it must be reconciled with the House version, which approved a $15.54 billion NASA budget, doubling the president's requested increase.

    The Administration has yet to give formal notice, but NASA last week told Congress it would need $40 million in 2003 to cover initial return-to-flight costs. For 2004, early estimates are $170 million, according to one NASA official. In the meantime, not flying saves a mere $16 million per mission out of a $4 billion annual shuttle budget, the official added.

    Mission impossible?

    NASA's Sean O'Keefe (right) and retired Admiral Harold Gehman await tough Senate questioning on human space exploration.


    The Senate panel wasn't encouraging about the long-term implications of the Gehman report. Although the report said a shuttle replacement “must be considered a priority,” it also complained about the agency's “inefficient use of funds.” The Senate panel called for NASA to provide a 10-year budget plan by early next year and warned that major hikes would be tough—but it did approve millions of dollars in earmarks NASA didn't request. For example, the University of Texas, Austin, would get $1 million for nanomedical research; the University of Maryland, $2 million for photonics research; and the University of Alaska, $8 million for weather and ocean research.

    Meanwhile, NASA released its first detailed response to the Gehman report's 29 recommendations. The NASA document details plans to improve shuttle performance as well as management training. Agency officials say that they hope to fly again as early as 11 March; that first mission will test out the various repair kits and inspection procedures called for in the Gehman report. Given the work required, it is an ambitious schedule. “The way ahead is very daunting,” admits NASA space flight chief William Readdy. But lawmakers suspect that the agency is more eager to launch than remake itself. “I'm concerned that NASA may already be rushing to meet unrealistic launch dates instead of examining this report closely and moving deliberately,” said Boehlert. NASA will have to prove to a skeptical Congress that it can launch a safer shuttle—but not too quickly or too expensively.


    Microbes Sweet on Making Power

    1. Robert F. Service

    Alternative energy is already a big business. Power plants that turn agricultural waste into electrical power, for example, produce 37 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in the United States each year, enough to supply the entire state of Colorado. Even so, the process used in most “biomass” power plants—burning wastes to produce steam, which drives electricity-generating turbines —converts only 20% to 40% of the energy in plant debris to electricity. Now a pair of Massachusetts-based researchers say that a radically different approach may do better.

    In the September issue of Nature Biotechnology, microbiologist Derek Lovley of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and his postdoc Swades Chaudhuri report that they've created a microbe-based fuel cell that harvests up to 83% of the available electrons in sugar molecules and passes them directly to an electrode. That efficiency is “very noteworthy,” because it's far higher than previously reported in microbe-based fuel cells, says Leonard Tender, an electrochemist and microbial fuel cell specialist at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. What's more, the microbes in the new fuel cells munch happily on a variety of sugars, including glucose, fructose, and xylose, which are the building blocks of most plants. Although sugars are just one ingredient in plants, they make up a sizable fraction of some crops. “That represents a huge accessible biomass” that can be used with the technology, Tender says. Still, Lovley and others caution that the technique is still far from becoming an industrial technology. One hurdle it must clear is speed: Although the bugs efficiently strip sugars of their electrons, they do it slowly.

    Sugar high.

    Rhodoferax bacteria could harvest enough energy from a sugar cube to power a cell phone for 4 days.


    Like all fuel cells, microbe-based cells work by plucking electrons from fuel molecules and passing them to a battery or wire without burning the fuel. That makes the cells clean and efficient. But past microbe-based systems have been either too inefficient or too finicky to have a shot at producing power on a large scale anytime soon. In 2001, for example, a team led by Byung Hong Kim of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Seoul reported that a species of Clostridium bacteria could siphon electricity directly from sugars, but the microbes converted a meager 0.04% of the available electrons in glucose to electricity.

    Lovley and Chaudhuri discovered their latest electron-shuttling bacteria by accident. While probing an aquifer in southeastern Virginia for bugs that might help remove uranium from groundwater below old nuclear weapons labs, researchers in Lovley's lab stumbled on a bacterium called Rhodoferax ferrireducens that passed electrons to iron, a uranium stand-in. The organism's DNA appeared to be considerably different from that of previously known electron-shuttling microbes. So the team members decided to see what types of substrates it would eat and were surprised to find that it happily downed a variety of sugars. “From there, it was an easy decision to see if we could feed it sugars and generate electricity,” Lovley says.

    Lovley and Chaudhuri placed a culture of Rhodoferax in one side of a two-chambered water tank. In each chamber they placed a solid graphite electrode connected by a wire. When fed glucose and other sugars, the Rhodoferax grew and multiplied, completely coating the positively charged anode to which they passed the electrons they liberated from the sugars. Although the Rhodoferax proved remarkably efficient at reaping electrons, “there is plenty of room for improvement,” Lovley says. The team has already shown that simply replacing the solid graphite electrodes with electrodes made from either porous graphite or graphite felt—both of which have far more surface area—can boost power output as much as threefold.

    Lovley hopes to use Rhodoferax to make more-efficient marine batteries for powering remote instruments. But in the long run, Tender says, the real potential is replacing biomass-burning with bugs. Says Tender: “It really simplifies the prospects of using waste streams and biomass as a fuel source.”


    Vaccine-Autism Link Dealt Blow

    1. Erik Stokstad

    Two new studies cast further doubt on the theory that a mercury-based preservative in vaccines causes autism. Called thimerosal, the preservative has already been phased out in many industrialized countries but is still used in the developing world. The new findings “provide additional, extremely reassuring data,” says William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee.

    Thimerosal first attracted attention in the United States in 1999, when the Food and Drug Administration realized that toddlers, who are typically injected with several vaccines simultaneously, might be receiving higher doses of mercury than allowed by one federal standard. As a precaution, vaccinemakers began to phase out thimerosal that year.

    Not long after, parent advocate groups from Safe Minds proposed that mercury, from the preservative and other sources, might be a factor in the rising incidence of autism, which often appears at about the same time that 2-year-olds get a round of shots. Many scientists were skeptical, given the minute amount of mercury and the different symptoms of mercury poisoning and autism. But in 2001 an Institute of Medicine panel concluded that there wasn't enough evidence to rule out (or accept) the link.

    Now the first big epidemiological studies weigh in. One comes from Denmark, which eliminated thimerosal from childhood vaccines in 1992. A team led by Kreesten Madsen of the Danish Epidemiology Science Centre in Aarhus reasoned that if thimerosal were a major cause of autism, incidence of new cases should drop once it was removed. In the September issue of the journal Pediatrics, they report that, instead of declining, the incidence continued to skyrocket after 1992. Like many epidemiologists, Madsen says the rising incidence could be a result of increased awareness and broader definitions of the disease. In any case, Madsen says, because incidence didn't even slacken, thimerosal is not a major cause of autism.


    New cases of autism continued to rise in Denmark after a vaccine preservative was removed.


    But Mark Blaxill of Safe Minds argues that the study is “distorted and misleading.” He notes that in 1995, the Danish health registry began tracking a new category of patient, called autism outpatients. This and other factors, he says, are artifacts that confound the interpretation. Madsen responds that an unpublished analysis without outpatients showed the same increasing trend. A similar pattern emerges from health statistics from Sweden, where total mercury in childhood vaccines began to decline in the late 1980s, as reported in the August issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

    Epidemiologist Craig Newschaffer of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore says that these ecological studies have inherent limitations, because they look at populations rather than studying individual diagnoses and exposures. But more in-depth studies are expensive, he adds, and with scientific skepticism about a possible link between thimerosal and autism mounting, may be difficult to fund. Although the current studies are unlikely to end the controversy in the United States, where many lawsuits have been filed, the new findings are reassuring to the World Health Organization, which continues to recommend the use of small amounts of thimerosal to keep down the costs of essential vaccines.


    Paper on Toxic Party Drug Is Pulled Over Vial Mix-Up

    1. Constance Holden

    Last year scientists at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine created a stir with a report in Science suggesting that people who use the party drug ecstasy may damage their dopamine neurons, raising their risk of Parkinson's disease. This week on page 1479 they publish a retraction: Owing to a mislabeled bottle, they say, they were using the wrong drug in their experiments. The toxic effects they ascribed to ecstasy (methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA) were caused by a sister drug, methamphetamine, which is known to be toxic to dopamine neurons. Both drugs were delivered to the lab on the same day and in identical bottles, but the labels were switched.

    A spokesperson for the drug supplier, Research Triangle Institute (RTI) in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, says, “We are conducting a thorough review of our procedures, even though we do not have any evidence that an error occurred at RTI.”

    Cognitive neuroscientist Jon Cole of the University of Liverpool, U.K., expressed doubts from the beginning about the study's implications for disease risk (Science, 27 September 2002, p. 2185). “If MDMA and [Parkinson's] were linked, we would be seeing hundreds, if not thousands, more young-onset Parkinson's disease cases,” he says. Now, he says, “I think they should … abandon” the quest to link the two.

    A bad rap.

    Primates with damaged dopamine neurons had received methamphetamine, not ecstasy (above).


    Study author George Ricaurte insists, however, that the retraction is by no means the last word on the issue of MDMA-induced dopamine neurotoxicity in primates, which he says “is [still] an open question.” He also notes that the retraction doesn't affect the well-established find that MDMA is toxic to neurons that communicate by means of the messenger serotonin.

    The study in question found surprisingly strong reactions—including two deaths—and “profound dopamine toxicity” in primates given injections of what the researchers thought was MDMA (Science, 27 September 2002, p. 2260). The doses were no higher than the equivalent of what a human would get in one all-night “rave.” They concluded that even brief exposure to MDMA may cause brain damage and raise a person's risk of developing Parkinson's disease, which is the result of dead dopamine neurons.

    But the team's subsequent attempts to replicate the results with oral doses, from a different batch of MDMA, failed. So did a repeat of the injection approach. The researchers then became suspicious of their original drug supply. Although the bottle labeled MDMA had been discarded, they discovered that their bottle of “methamphetamine” actually contained MDMA. A check of preserved animal brains from the experiment revealed methamphetamine and not a trace of MDMA.

    Ricaurte says he's not planning to abandon this line of inquiry. MDMA is toxic to dopamine neurons in mice, he says. “In what we've done so far, we do not see an effect in monkeys,” but various regimens remain to be tested. From now on, he says, lab members will test selected chemicals to be sure they are what they say they are.


    Pro-Union Vote Ups the Ante for Postdocs

    1. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

    Postdoctoral fellows at the University of Connecticut Health Center (UCHC) in Farmington have voted to join a labor union. Last month's decision to become part of University Health Professionals—a union of 1900 nonfaculty staffers at the health center—marks a new chapter in the struggle by U.S. postdocs to gain respect within the scientific workforce. But it puts the 138 UCHC postdocs at odds with the fledgling National Postdoctoral Association (NPA), which argues that members have more to gain by having collegial discussions with mentors and funding agencies than by squaring off against management at the bargaining table.

    The UCHC vote, won by a narrow 64-61 margin, is believed to be the first such action by a significant collection of postdocs. It followed the university's response last year to yearlong efforts by postdocs to improve salaries, benefits, and career opportunities. The university announced that it would set the minimum postdoc salary at $25,000—$6000 lower than the floor for postdocs supported by the National Institutes of Health in 2002—and promised to close the gap with annual raises of $2000. It also gave faculty mentors control over vacation and sick leave policies for postdocs.

    Collective power.

    UCHC postdocs (from left) Munirathinam Subramani, Pardeep Bhatia, Valerie Brachet, John Wagner, and Ulrike Klueh led a successful union drive.


    “The policy was so insincere that it galvanized us into action,” says John Wagner, a computational biology postdoc and a leader of the union drive. “It showed us how little we could achieve through discussions with the administration.”

    NPA says that unionizing postdoctoral researchers is not a good idea and that career development cannot be negotiated. “I don't know how you can bargain with your mentor for X number of networking opportunities and X amount of time,” says Claudina Stevenson, a cell biology postdoc at the National Cancer Institute and one of NPA's founding members. Negotiating group salaries, she adds, is not practical, because postdocs are funded by a variety of sources and through different mechanisms. “A better way to address these concerns is through discussion with university administrators and funding agencies,” argues Stevenson.

    That approach may be OK at some enlightened institutions, says Munirathinam Subramani, a UCHC postdoc who helped with the union drive. But NPA must be backed up by union muscle if it hopes to have any of its policies adopted, says Subramani, who is also a member of NPA's international committee. Otherwise, he says, unwilling administrations “like the one we have here just won't care.”

    UCHC postdocs hope their next step will be to negotiate a contract. But “the university is considering whether to contest the validity of the election,” says Jim Walter, associate vice president of communications at the health center. Walter warns that “if bargaining drives up costs, the health center may have to eliminate some positions.”


    Panel Tells E.U. It Could Go ITER Way

    1. Daniel Clery,
    2. Xavier Bosch*
    1. Xavier Bosch is a science writer in Barcelona.

    CAMBRIDGE, U.K., AND BARCELONA—As the horse-trading to select a site for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) has been heating up, an eagerly awaited report has weighed in on the merits of the two European sites vying to host the $5 billion facility. Although the panel didn't pick a winner, it told European Union (E.U.) leaders that the choice boils down to possibly saving money or opting for experience.

    Competition is fierce to host ITER, which will aim to show that generating power through nuclear fusion is a practical proposition. ITER partner countries have been studying four candidate sites, in Canada, Japan, France, and Spain.

    To boost its odds, the E.U. decided to put forward only one candidate—either Cadarache in France or Vandellòs in Spain—and asked David King, chief scientific adviser to the U.K. government, to head a committee to assess the sites. In a report sent to the E.U. last week, the panel concluded that either site would be “a very strong contender.” The officials who make the final selection, King told Science, must decide whether they want a virgin site likely to have lower costs or a site with established nuclear research expertise on hand if it's needed.

    In Cadarache's favor, the research center, run by France's Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), is home to an experimental fusion reactor called Tore Supra. “No one has ever questioned the quality of the expertise at Cadarache which would help to guarantee against increasing costs,” says Paul Vandenplas of Belgium's Royal Military Academy, acting chair of the consultative committee of the E.U.'s Euratom fusion program. But a potential drawback, King says, is that France's research budget is stagnant and the government has promised no new money for ITER. Putting it in France, therefore, could kill Tore Supra. “This could put pressure on the fusion research community,” says King.

    Fusion hot spots.

    Artist conceptions of ITER facilities at Cadarache (top) and Vandellòs.


    Vandellòs, meanwhile, is home to a commercial nuclear power station but has no research facilities or fusion experience. Its main advantage is an attractive price tag: Although much of ITER's hardware will be provided by member states, King says that current large construction projects cost two-thirds as much in Spain as in France, and the difference is unlikely to change much in the next few years. Jean Jacquinot, head of France's CEA-Euratom fusion program, rejects this conclusion. “I don't believe for a second there will be a big difference in cost,” he says.

    Another selling point for Vandellòs, however, is that Spain's research budget was recently hiked by 7.9% annually, and the government has pledged to find new money for ITER and maintain a national program based around stellarators, fusion reactors that use an alternative method of magnetic confinement. Carlos Alejaldre, director of Madrid's National Laboratory for Fusion by Magnetic Confinement, says the Spanish fusion community relishes its new-kid-on-the-block status: “In a way, we are challenging the ‘natural order’ in Europe.”

    French and Spanish fusion researchers won't have to wait long to hear if their bids have been successful. E.U. ministers will meet later this month to select a single candidate. By the end of December, that site or one in Canada or Japan will be declared the future home to the world's biggest fusion reactor.


    DOE Says Fewer Workers Will Face the Machine

    1. David Malakoff

    Bowing to mounting criticism, the Department of Energy (DOE) will curtail its use of polygraph tests among nuclear weapons scientists and security officials. Last week DOE Undersecretary Kyle McSlarrow told a Senate panel that the agency will shrink the potential pool of employees required to take lie detector tests from about 20,000 to 4600. But critics say the government is still putting too much faith in a device that has little scientific credibility.

    DOE “cannot continue to hinge the careers of scientists on voodoo science, no matter how few or great the number,” says Representative Ellen Tauscher (R-CA), whose district includes Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

    Polygraph machines monitor subjects' blood pressure, pulse, respiration, and skin conductivity as they answer questions. Advocates say the machine can tell if someone is lying. The U.S. government has long required polygraph tests for scientists, soldiers, and spies who handle sensitive information, even though most courts bar the results from trials because of doubts about reliability. Spy scandals at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico in the late 1990s led DOE to expand its polygraph program, despite widespread opposition from researchers.

    DOE is now having second thoughts about policies it adopted earlier this year, McSlarrow told the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on 4 September. One factor is a recent report from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) that found polygraphs were bound to produce faulty results and could give counterintelligence officials a false sense of security (Science, 25 April, p. 577). “I found many of the NAS's concerns about the ‘validity’ of polygraph testing to be well taken,” McSlarrow said in outlining the revised plan, which will cover an estimated 4600 employees with access to the most sensitive weapons and intelligence information. “This category will not include everyone with a ‘Q’ or a Top Secret clearance, nor will it include all weapons scientists,” he noted. In addition, the agency will conduct random tests among about 6000 other employees. McSlarrow also emphasized that failing a single test wouldn't be grounds for dismissal, although it would trigger a broader investigation. “This is a smart decision by DOE,” says Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM), a polygraph critic.

    McSlarrow expects the latest plan to be available for public comment by the end of the year. But the shift may not actually cut DOE's current use of polygraphs, warns Jeffrey Colvin, a physicist at Livermore and a leader of the Society of Professional Scientists and Engineers, a union opposed to testing. The department has never tested all potential candidates, he says, so the switch could simply codify the current program.

    Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C., questions the usefulness of the new random testing program. “It is sort of a homeopathic approach to security policy,” he says, “in which the mere specter of a polygraph test … is believed to have a deterrent effect.”


    Sugary Cloak Protects Platelets From the Cold

    1. Jennifer Couzin

    Tackling a problem that hematologists and blood banks long ago gave up on, a team of scientists has determined how to store platelets in the refrigerator instead of at room temperature, as is done today. If upheld in further experiments, the technique could stabilize platelet supplies and reduce the risk of bacterial infections from transfusions.

    Platelets are disk-shaped cells that help blood clot. Each year millions of units are transfused into people around the world to stem bleeding. Recipients include cancer patients, whose treatment impairs platelet production, as well as people undergoing major surgeries. But because platelets must be stored at warm temperatures, they last only 5 days after donation, and they can foster bacteria that are a leading cause of transfusion-borne infection.

    Harvard scientists Thomas Stossel, Karin Hoffmeister, and their colleagues sought to bring platelet storage more in line with that of other blood components. Red blood cells can be refrigerated for more than a month, and plasma can be frozen for a full year. But when doctors began infusing platelets into leukemia patients in the 1960s, they quickly discovered that chilling them prompted the cells to disappear soon after a patient received them. Efforts to remedy the problem failed, and “people had pretty much given up” trying to refrigerate platelets, says Edward Snyder, director of the blood transfusion service at Yale-New Haven Hospital in Connecticut.

    Stossel's team has spent the better part of a decade exploring why platelets don't tolerate the cold. In January, the researchers found an answer and began working toward a remedy. In the journal Cell, they reported that when platelets are chilled, certain protein receptors on their surfaces clump together. That triggers a reaction from certain liver cells: When the platelets are infused, the liver cells yank them out of the bloodstream.

    Now, as reported on page 1531, the researchers have figured out how to prevent the liver from recognizing these clumped receptors. Experiments in test tubes indicated that when platelets are chilled, a sugar molecule on the receptors' surface becomes more exposed. The scientists reasoned that if they threw a cloak over the sugar—in the form of another kind of sugar molecule that covers up the first—the platelets would circulate freely.


    A minor modification might allow refrigerated platelets to keep clotting once transfused.


    Hoffmeister and colleagues extracted platelets from the blood of mice, mixed them with a solution containing the second sugar, and refrigerated the concoction for 2 hours. They then injected the modified platelets into mice, and the cells seemed none the worse for wear. “After 24 hours, the number of platelets is essentially the same” as the number originally transfused, says Stossel, suggesting that the cells weren't being cleared from the bloodstream. The group also studied human platelets with a similar sugary disguise. After chilling the platelets for up to 12 days and then examining them in a test tube, Stossel's team found that their function seemed intact.

    “It's very exciting to think that we may be able to store platelets in the cold,” which would kill bacteria or prevent them from proliferating, says Rebecca Cardigan, head of components development for the National Blood Service of England. The discovery comes at a time when countries are increasingly concerned about infections in platelet recipients. Last fall, two patients contracted Salmonella from a transfusion; one later died. Both infections were traced to a single donor who had the bacteria on his skin as a result of handling his pet snake. Roughly one in every 1500 units of platelets harbors bacteria, and it's not known how many of these cause harm to patients.

    In an attempt to reduce infections, the American Association of Blood Banks has decreed that by 1 March 2004, blood banks must test every platelet unit for bacteria. Such testing is already performed in Belgium and the Netherlands. But testing takes 2 days. This means centers must either lengthen the time platelets are stored or distribute them within 3 days.

    Several companies are developing techniques to eliminate pathogens from platelets and other blood components. One system for zapping bacteria and viruses, developed by Cerus Corp. in Concord, California, has been approved in Europe. But it can boost the cost of platelets by 50%, says Hans Gulliksson, director of transfusion medicine at Huddinge University Hospital in Stockholm, Sweden.

    Concerns about these new approaches explain the enthusiasm some express for simply putting platelets in the fridge. That “seems to offer real promise” not only for reducing pathogens but also for extending storage time, says Roger Dodd, executive director of biomedical safety for the American Red Cross in Rockville, Maryland. The National Blood Data Resource Center in Bethesda, Maryland, estimates that in 2001, $100 million worth of platelets in the United States were discarded. After more expansive testing, refrigerating modified cells may allow blood banks—and recipients—to start counting their savings.


    Sweden Launches a Desperate Bid to Save Famous Warship

    1. Gretchen Vogel

    Ill-fated from the start, the Vasa, the pride of the Swedish navy, ignominiously keeled over and sank on its first voyage in 1628, drowning a quarter of the 150 sailors on board. The demands that King Gustavus Adolphus had made on the shipbuilders overwhelmed the technology of the day, as a pair of gun decks mounted with 64 cannons destabilized the narrow vessel. Soon after firing its farewell salute, the Vasa heeled, water rushed into the open gun ports, and in minutes it was lost—but not gone forever.

    More than 3 centuries later, a similar lack of technical know-how threatens to finish the job. Sulfuric acid has infused the hull of the wooden ship, one of the largest ever to be salvaged intact, and is dissolving it from the inside out. The acid is produced by oxidation spurred by thousands of metal bolts inserted into the Vasa to hold it together after the 1210-ton vessel was raised from Stockholm harbor in 1961. Next month, scientists will mount a last-ditch attempt to prevent the ship's disintegration.

    In the decades after the Vasa went down, entrepreneurs used diving bells to recover most of the bronze cannons. The ship then faded into obscurity until 1956, when amateur shipwreck-hunter Anders Franzén—using a rowboat and homemade sounding device—located it after a several-year search. The Vasa was in astonishingly good shape, with sails, rigging, and the flamboyant carvings adorning the prow and stern still intact. After the Swedish navy helped raise the ship, conservators spent nearly 2 decades meticulously preserving it. Several hours a day for 17 years, they hosed the hull down with a mix of water and polyethylene glycol to gradually stabilize the structure. The restored Vasa was unveiled in 1990 in a spectacular museum in Stockholm.

    Three years ago, however, museum staff began to notice alarming white deposits on the vessel's surface. An investigation led by chemist Magnus Sandström of the University of Stockholm found that sulfuric acid is accumulating in the ship's beams and attacking the Vasa by eating away the cellulose and forming crystals that expand and may create fissures in the wood.

    Cry for help?

    Vasa sculpture.


    During the 333 years that the Vasa lay at the bottom of the harbor, Sandström and his colleagues hypothesize, hydrogen sulfide produced by anaerobic bacteria in the polluted and oxygen-poor depths permeated the vessel. The hydrogen ions were gradually stripped away, depositing elemental sulfur in the wood. After the Vasa was exposed to air in 1961, oxygen began to react with the sulfur to form sulfuric acid. The restoration effort had unwittingly abetted this process by peppering the ship with an iron catalyst: the steel bolts holding it together.

    In hindsight, the decision to use steel “was a bit unfortunate,” says Sandström. The conservators, he says, had done their best to prevent corrosion, by fashioning the bolts from galvanized steel covered with an epoxy. “They couldn't afford stainless steel,” he says, which would not have catalyzed the reaction. In any event, Sandström says, they could not have anticipated the presence of so much acid in the wood that would quickly dissolve the epoxy and zinc cladding of the bolts.

    Now a new group of experts, selected in June in a competition sponsored by Sweden's National Maritime Museums, is joining forces with Sandström to rescue the Vasa. They must address a few key questions first. For one, it's unclear whether bacteria—either colonies in the ship before it was raised or those that have invaded it since—are also spurring the sulfuric acid reaction. The team, with researchers from Sweden, Denmark, and the U.K., also intends to explore whether the polyethylene glycol sprayed during the restoration influences acid formation.

    Under siege.

    The museum housing the Vasa will remain open as researchers strive to rescue the stunning 17th century warship from the acid eating away its hull.


    The bugbear, though, is iron. There are two challenges: replacing the bolts and removing the iron ions that have diffused into the cellulose. The plan is to swap in carbon fiber-based fasteners for all accessible bolts, but that unavoidably will leave at least 4 tons of iron in the hull.

    Purging the iron ions without damaging the cellulose, meanwhile, is not so easy. Chemist Ingmar Persson of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala has tested a chelating agent developed for alkaline soils on samples of Vasa wood. The compound, similar to the common chelator EDTA (ethylenediamine tetraacetate), seems to be able to bind the iron and neutralize acid. But applying this method to the Vasa could take years. “We need to have something [that works] a bit faster,” Persson says. His team will test various preparations at a range of temperatures to try to hurry along the chelation process. Still, the compound's long-term effects on cellulose are unknown, says Persson, “and we certainly don't want to make things worse.”

    Moreover, it would be impossible to bathe the 69-meter-long ship in chelating solution, says Ingrid Hall Roth, head of conservation at the National Maritime Museums. Dismantling it would be a last resort. Everyone agrees, though, that a way forward must be found quickly: It's unclear how much time the researchers have before the ship is damaged irreversibly.

    Any fix the project devises will be welcomed by conservators around the world. Most wrecks salvaged in recent decades also suffer from less severe sulfur damage, Sandström says, including the Mary Rose, a 16th century British warship on display in Portsmouth, and the Batavia in Fremantle, Western Australia. The would-be saviors hope their solution will be kinder than the resurrections of the Vasa and other sunken vessels have proven to be.

  12. RUSSIA

    Haunted by Red October

    1. Paul Webster*
    1. Paul Webster is a writer based in Toronto, Canada.

    Technical and political hurdles have slowed Russia's efforts to dismantle dozens of decommissioned submarines before they fall apart or their nuclear fuel is stolen

    SEVERODVINSK, RUSSIA—A giant crane hoists the sheet-metal cowling off the rusty bowels of a Cold War dinosaur: a 40-year-old nuclear submarine. Buffeted by driving rain off the White Sea, workers with acetylene torches clamber through the corroded remains of the Victor class sub's conning tower and quickly pick their way down several meters into the dim hole. Beneath their feet is a compartment holding the ship's nuclear reactor, filled with 246 tubes of enriched uranium fuel and highly radioactive daughter isotopes that had accumulated during the reactor's lifetime.

    “We're on a tight schedule,” says Oleg Frolov, chief engineer here at the Zvezdochka shipyard, which granted a reporter from Science rare access to the once-secret facility. Norway has paid millions of euros to have two of these dilapidated attack subs dismantled by 15 November. But it's not only the need to meet milestones on a contract that has the Zvezdochka crew working overtime: There's an imminent danger that the deteriorating ballast tanks will give out, sending the subs and their nuclear remains to the bottom of Dvina Bay. “These things are ecological time bombs,” says Frolov. “We've waited far too long already to get rid of them.”

    That view is echoed in governments across the Western world. When the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991, nearly 200 decommissioned nuclear submarines were tied up at shipyards across Russia, from the Kola Peninsula in the northwest to Vladivostok in the Far East. More than a decade later, and thanks partly to hundreds of millions of dollars in Western assistance, Russia has dismantled more than half the Soviet-era submarines, removing their spent fuel and radioactive compartments and chopping up their hulls for scrap. But dozens of reactors from these ships, Science has learned, are afloat in bizarre buoys near the shipyards; Russia says it simply doesn't have the cash to haul them in and store the radioactive remains. Moreover, more than 100 subs still await dismantlement, according to Russia's Ministry of Atomic Energy (Minatom). These corroding hulks, Frolov and others say, are disasters waiting to happen, because the subs could sink and perhaps disgorge their spent fuel. Less likely but just as grave, the ships pose a proliferation threat. In principle, experts say, a terrorist group could mount a sophisticated operation to snatch the enriched uranium fuel.

    Iron grip.

    Decommissioned nuclear submarines are brought to this dry dock (top) for dismantlement at the Zvezdochka shipyard; carving up a hull (bottom).


    Last month's tragedy on the Barents Sea highlights the precarious nature of these Cold War leftovers. On 30 August, nine Russian sailors lost their lives when a 40-year-old decommissioned submarine, the K-159, sank in a storm while being towed to nearby Polyarnyy for dismantlement. Fortunately, its reactor appears to be intact. Russian officials say they plan to raise the K-159 next year and remove the nuclear fuel.

    Even before the accident, Western governments considered Russia's nuclear fleet to be one of the highest nonproliferation priorities in the former Soviet Union. At a G8 summit in Canada last year, governments pledged hundreds of millions of dollars over the next decade for sub dismantlement. And in early July, the European Commission and seven other governments allotted a further €160 million toward the effort.

    But Russia's pas de deux with the West has been awkward and filled with missteps. Although the government has avidly sought Western expertise and funding, it has often been reluctant to divulge information—technical data on nuclear reactor design, spent fuel, and radioactive waste—that's crucial to the task. “It's hard to even know what the scientific and technical issues are,” says Vince Novak, manager of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development's Northern Dimension Environmental Partnership. Another challenge is gaining access to the military docks where subs are berthed to ensure that Russian methods are sound.

    But there are encouraging signs that Russia is becoming less secretive, which could unfetter Western assistance and, observers hope, get the remaining submarines dismantled before the next disaster strikes.

    Sittin' on the dock of the bay

    Taking apart subs is a big business at Zvezdochka, which employs 10,000 workers in a sprawling complex built to service the Northern Fleet. Many of the fleet's submarines, once the pride of the Soviet navy, were launched from a shipyard on the opposite bank of the Dvina River. Zvezdochka has dismantled 19 subs since 1996, and its facilities are first-rate. A pair of gigantic shears from the U.S. Department of Defense is used to carve up 40-ton sections of hull removed from the subs in a dry-dock cradle. The United States also paid for a $60 million Russian-designed facility in which fuel assemblies are hoisted from the subs and put in transport casks for rail transfer to the Mayak reprocessing center in the Ural Mountains. There the spent fuel will be processed for use in civilian power stations.

    Dismantling most types of nuclear submarines, if the ships are undamaged, is “not technologically challenging,” says Bill Youngstrom, who directs the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency's dismantlement efforts in Russia. Since 1996 the agency has managed a $461 million initiative, part of the multibillion-dollar U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, to improve the facilities at Zvezdochka, the Nerpa shipyard in Snezhnogorsk, the Vilyuchinsk shipyard in Kamchatka, and the Zvezda shipyard in Bolshoi Kamen, on the Sea of Japan (see map). Overall, CTR funds have paid for the dismantlement of 25 intercontinental missile-capable submarines, with 16 more planned by 2007 and a further seven by 2012.

    Radioactivity coast to coast.

    Russia's decommissioned nuclear subs await their fate at military facilities along the Kola Peninsula and near Arkhangelsk in the northwest and off Vladivostok and the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Far East.

    Getting the fuel off one type of submarine in particular—Alpha class attack subs with liquid metal-cooled reactors, of which seven were built—may be far more difficult. “The Russians never planned good ways to defuel these boats,” Youngstrom says. Viktor Akhunov, head of Minatom's nuclear decommissioning department, agrees: “We don't know whether to extract the fuel or simply extract the whole radioactive area from these ships for storage and eventual natural decontamination.”

    Another formidable task lies off Russia's eastern coast: three damaged subs of the Pacific Fleet that are riddled with radioactive contamination from Cold War accidents. Akhunov says that cutting up these subs would expose workers to severe radiation risks. “The best option,” he says, is to insert these small ships into much larger Shark class submarines. The makeshift sarcophagi, Akhunov says, “can be placed on shore and left for ages to decontaminate.”

    Minatom is also struggling to cope with a dilapidated fuel facility at Andreeva Bay, near the border with Norway, that stores 21,000 fuel assemblies extracted during the 1970s. These were submerged in a cooling pond that had hemorrhaged radionuclides into the groundwater and the bay until steps were taken in 1999 to stanch the flow. The assemblies were moved to concrete silos that are already corroding. “This is our most dangerous site,” says Akhunov. “We have to get the fuel out now.” The plan is to ship it to Mayak if Minatom can find the funds for the transfer. Once the fuel is removed, huge amounts of contaminated water, concrete, and metal scrap will have to be dealt with.

    Even with the fuel removed, the reactors themselves present a challenge. Many of the reactors removed so far have been simply left floating in their original compartments—huge circular buoys weighing up to 1600 tons. According to a report last January from the International Atomic Energy Agency, there are 89 such bobbing radioactive blocks, including 57 in Sayda Bay near Murmansk. Akhunov says that Minatom hopes to raise money to cut up the reactors offshore and store the remains onshore. Because the reactors are contaminated with primarily short-lived radionuclides, Minatom expects much of the radioactivity to decay over the next 70 years. In the meantime the ministry has scrapped plans to build a waste repository for reactors and spent fuel rods on Novaya Zemlya island above the Arctic Circle, citing concerns that global warming could make the permanently frozen ground there unstable. It has instead settled on a facility on the Kola Peninsula. “We want to store the waste as close to the submarine bases as we can,” says Akhunov.

    Another overarching technical issue is what to do with liquid radioactive waste from submarine cooling systems, fuel-handling facilities, and spills. Japanese experts have been at the forefront of efforts to tackle this problem. In 2000, the Japanese government commissioned the floating “Landysh” (“Lily of the Valley”) facility in Bolshoi Kamen Bay, near Vladivostok, to dispose of such waste.

    Military secrets revealed

    Russia's reluctance to divulge data hampered the Landysh project early on. “Getting technical information was always a problem, because everything is considered secret,” says Jim Stephens, an engineer at Crown Agents, a U.K. firm contracted by the Japanese government to manage its Russian sub programs. The information was coughed up eventually. “Although they knew they needed us, there was huge distrust,” he says.

    The key question now is whether Western experts will win more access to sensitive sites. Russian officials have long opposed visits by foreigners to military facilities, contending that it has sufficient expertise to carry out dismantlement on its own. But Western governments that are paying substantial sums for these programs have long pushed for more accountability. Russia's own contributions are paltry by comparison. Minatom has budgeted $204 million in 2003 to stabilize thousands of sites across the country that pose potential proliferation threats. Only $70 million of that is earmarked for dismantlement—a mere down payment on a “huge job” that could end up costing close to $4 billion, says Akhunov.

    View this table:

    Disputes over access and liability, for example, have impeded Japan's decade-long, $170 million assistance program at the Zvezda shipyard near Vladivostok, where 41 general-purpose subs await dismantlement. For many years, “the Russian side did not admit access to the location at all,” which also serves as the base for the Landysh project, says Toshiyuki Kawakami of the Japan-Russia Committee for Co-operation on Reducing Nuclear Weapons. In a high-profile snub last November, Yoshitaka Sindo, Japan's parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs, was refused entry to Zvezda. However, Kawakami says, “after controversial negotiations” the Russians relented, enabling Japan to reaffirm its commitment to submarine cleanup in a June agreement to speed up stalled programs.

    A similar thaw is taking place in the northwest. “The Russians are much more willing to open up access to us now,” says Torbjorn Norendal, special adviser on nuclear safety at the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He points to a recent Minatom decision to allow Norwegian inspectors into Andreeva Bay, where Norway had funded projects to help create safer environments for cleanup workers. “We told them more money would follow once access was granted,” Norendal says. Since November, a Norwegian contractor has had monthly access. One big hurdle was overcome last May, when Russia and several partner countries and organizations signed the Multilateral Nuclear Environmental Program for Russia, which clarifies tax and liability issues surrounding nonproliferation activities. With donors now writing checks, the accord provides legal assurances for €1.8 billion worth of proposed projects.

    “Working with Minatom is getting easier,” says Eduard Avdonin, deputy director of Minatom's International Center for Environmental Safety. He points to recent successes such as improved Western access at Andreeva, an international conference in Vladivostok last fall on the ecological threats posed by mothballed nuclear submarines, and joint research on the ecological impacts of ocean-dumping radioactive materials.

    Nowhere is the recent glasnost more evident than at Zvezdochka. “Back in 1993 when American advisers first came here, we realized that we had a vast amount in common. Now other countries are getting involved too,” says Frolov. When the shipyard finishes these two Victor class submarines, it hopes to turn its shears to three more, if it wins a contract for the job from Canada and Italy. “As soon as the funding is secure, we'll get them out of the water and the world will be that much safer,” Frolov says. But scores more decommissioned and deteriorating nuclear subs would still be waiting in line.

  13. RUSSIA

    Hoping to Lay a Radioactive Ghost Ship to Rest, at Last

    1. Fiona Proffitt*
    1. Fiona Proffitt is a freelance science writer based in Oxford, U.K.

    Russia's submarine fleet is not the only nuclear nightmare haunting its arctic ports. One of the country's most daunting decommissioning jobs is the Lepse, a ship moored in a dockyard on the Kola Peninsula near Murmansk, on the Barents Sea. The Lepse—a service vessel for nuclear-powered icebreakers during the Cold War—is stuffed with nuclear waste and spent fuel assemblies. Some of the assemblies are damaged, which makes their removal an unprecedented challenge. “It's a very delicate, difficult, and dangerous project with a high risk of radiation,” says Torbjorn Norendal, special adviser on nuclear safety at the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

    For more than a decade experts have struggled to overcome the obstacles that have thwarted dismantlement of the Lepse. But a solution may be in sight. Last month, the Murmansk Shipping Co. (MSC), which maintains the Lepse on behalf of the Russian Ministry of Transportation, and the Nordic Environment Finance Corp. inked a $1.4 million agreement that will help pay for removal of the spent nuclear fuel. A further $11.6 million has been pledged by Norway, France, the Netherlands, and the European Union. With funding secured, the next step will be to design a suite of robotic machines to remove the dangerous cargo.

    The longest serving of MSC's six nuclear service vessels, the Lepse's checkered history began in 1937, when the would-be freighter was scuttled before completion during World War II. The ship was raised and finished in 1961, and for the next 20 years it refueled a trio of nuclear icebreakers: the Lenin, the Arktika, and the Sibir. In the early 1980s, the Lepse had a new job, dumping nuclear waste in the Barents Sea, off Novaya Zemlya island.

    During its lifetime, the 5000-ton ship accumulated 639 assemblies—bundles of rods with nuclear fuel—including about 320 damaged assemblies, some of which came from an accident on the Lenin in 1966. Brimming with spent fuel that could not be removed and 39 cubic meters of solid radioactive waste that could not be stored elsewhere, the Lepse was retired in 1986 and has since been tied up at MSC's Atomflot icebreaker base.

    The biggest technical challenge is stripping out the damaged assemblies, which together hold 260 kilograms of enriched uranium fuel as well as plutonium and highly radioactive isotopes such as cesium-137 and strontium-90. Many of the assemblies, which had expanded from heat during the Lenin accident, are wedged into storage canisters. The spent fuel is so hot—it contains about 28,000 terabecquerels of radioactivity, or 60% of the radiation released during the Chornobyl accident—that according to Russian calculations, it would take 5000 workers to pry out the damaged rods without exposing individuals to radiation levels above the permissible maximum level.

    In an E.U.-sponsored study, two nuclear engineering firms—AEA Technology of Harwell, U.K., and Société Générale pour les Techniques Nouvelles (SGN) of St. Quentin en Yvelines, France—in 1997 recommended laying a steel plate as a radiation shield atop the storage tank with the damaged fuel. Next, the report suggested, robots could cut out each assembly and transfer these into steel casks for transport to storage. Several years ago, the operation was estimated to cost $9.9 million, but a current price tag won't be known until SGN hashes out technical details with MSC, says Paul Angelier, SGN's deputy commercial director. SGN hopes to have a contract with MSC by year's end to begin work; resolving the technical details should take several more months, says MSC Director Alexander Medvedev.

    Nuclear waste ship.

    Experts hope to embark soon on a “delicate and dangerous” task: to remove damaged fuel assemblies from the Lepse service vessel in northwestern Russia.


    Last year, a nuclear engineering firm called Ekoatom, based in Sosnoviy Bor, Russia, demonstrated that a technical solution is possible by removing damaged fuel assemblies from a military service ship in the Pacific fleet. Ekoatom's approach—details were unavailable as Science went to press—should be considered alongside SGN's, although it's unclear whether it could be applied to the Lepse, says Sergey Bocharov, executive secretary of the International Atomic Energy Agency's Contact Expert Group for International Radwaste Projects in Russia. One of the hassles for Western contractors, he says, is assigning responsibilities and familiarizing themselves with complex Russian regulations.

    In the meantime, recent repairs should keep the Lepse afloat for at least another 5 years, and workers have even spruced it up. “They've done some painting, so from the outside, it's not that shabby,” says nuclear physicist Nils Bøhmer of the Norwegian environmental group Bellona.

    But time is not on Russia's side. The Lepse is old and the fuel assemblies are in a very bad state, says Malgorzata Sneve, a physicist at the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority. In 1993, MSC moved the ship to a special floating dock at Atomflot and encased its fuel storage areas in concrete to try to contain the radiation. But this temporary measure, contends Bøhmer, makes it more difficult to get at the fuel.

    The sheer weight of the concrete has increased another risk: that the Lepse could capsize in a storm. Even more worrying, says Bøhmer, the Lepse is berthed in the narrow Kola fiord, near a busy shipping lane. “There's not much protection from collision. The Lepse is just sitting on the quay, with no barrier,” he says. In a worst-case scenario, Bøhmer says, if the uranium were to come in contact with water it could undergo a chain reaction, possibly dispersing fallout over nearby Murmansk, a city of 350,000. But simulations by the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow suggest that there is only “a very small chance that [a chain reaction] will happen,” says Sneve.

    Amid such uncertainties, the MSC crew members keep a tense, around-the-clock vigil from temporary cabins near the Lepse. Their job will end only after the fuel is removed and the Lepse's radioactive hull is carted away to a final resting place: a concrete tomb to be built somewhere on the Kola Peninsula.


    Money Spinner or Loopy Idea?

    1. Edwin Cartlidge*
    1. Edwin Cartlidge is news editor of Physics World. With reporting by Richard Stone.

    A tabletop synchrotron claimed to generate unusual radiation could transform communications and radar systems. But critics say it is based on flawed science

    BRISTOL, U.K.—After the Turweston Aerodrome in Northampton shuts down for the night, three physicists wheel onto the runway a 2-meter-long device and jack it up on a scissor lift. They flip a switch and the machine emits radio waves that they pick up with an antenna down the runway. They rotate and tilt the device at a variety of angles, noting the radiation intensity, then move the antenna farther away and repeat the experiment. The trio—John Singleton of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, Houshang Ardavan of the University of Cambridge, and Arzhang Ardavan of the University of Oxford—leave before dawn and return in the evening. Odd nocturnal activity, perhaps, but the researchers are chasing a dream: to circumvent the hallowed inverse square law, which holds that radiation intensity falls off in proportion to the square of the distance.

    Others say they're chasing a phantom. If the team's machine—called a polarization synchrotron because it rotates a polarization pattern much like a conventional synchrotron rotates charged particles—does indeed emit radiation that defies the inverse square law, it would shake the physics community and possibly spur radical design alterations for all sorts of devices that generate electromagnetic radiation. “This machine opens up a new way of emitting radio waves,” Singleton claims. Antennas powered by miniature polarization synchrotrons would require less power or transmit farther—perhaps, for example, allowing mobile phones to communicate directly with satellites without the need for relay stations.

    The bold claims are stirring consternation and anticipation. It's “nonsense,” says Antony Hewish of the University of Cambridge, who shared the 1974 Nobel Prize in physics for the discovery of pulsars. The physics, he says, “is simply wrong. … The radiation from such a device must be conventional.” Others disagree. “I've no doubt that what they've modeled is correct,” says John Ffowcs Williams, a professor of acoustical engineering at the University of Cambridge. However, he says, whether the machine works according to the model is another question.

    If the polarization synchrotron seems otherworldly, so are its theoretical underpinnings: a controversial hypothesis for how pulsars—rapidly spinning neutron stars—emit radio waves in regular, coherent pulses. The conventional view is that such pulses result from clusters of electrons and positrons that move along the magnetic field lines of pulsars at nearly light speed, shedding electromagnetic radiation in the direction they are moving. Like a lighthouse, this beam moves as the pulsar rotates, producing the pulses observed on Earth.

    To dizzying effect.

    According to their model of how the polarization synchrotron emits radiation, the Los Alamos-Oxford team claims that spherical wavefronts spiral away from the machine (point source S, left)


    In a 1998 paper in Physical Review E, Houshang Ardavan, a mathematician and astrophysicist and Arzhang's father, offered a new interpretation. Ardavan argued that the telltale beam is generated when a pulsar's magnetic field polarizes the electrons and positive ions that make up the plasma surrounding the star. As the magnetic field sweeps around, so too does the polarized region of plasma. Far enough away from the pulsar, the polarization pattern moves faster than light, Ardavan asserts, although the particles themselves, of course, do not surpass light speed. “Imagine spinning a flashlight on a turntable; get far enough away and the beam [representing the pulsar's field] sweeps past you faster than the speed of light,” says Singleton. “We don't break relativity or any laws of electromagnetism.”

    According to Ardavan, because each point within the rotating polarization pattern exceeds light speed, the wavefronts emanating from a point bunch up behind it. The interference among wavefronts reinforces the emission along spiraling trajectories that the researchers call “cusps”; these increase in diameter as the radiation streaks away from the pulsar (see diagram). Ardavan contends that these cusps are what form a pulsar's directed beam.

    Father and son discussed the idea, and Arzhang, a postdoctoral researcher in Singleton's laboratory at the time, realized that their experimentation in high-frequency electronics could be used to test Houshang's ideas. They got hold of a piece of alumina—a dielectric, or nonconducting, material in which an applied electric field displaces charge but does not induce a current—and milled it into a gently curving arc. Next, they fitted this with a series of electrodes to polarize it, in other words to shift the positively charged aluminum ions with respect to negatively charged oxygen ions in the alumina. They varied the voltage across each electrode sinusoidally and introduced a slight delay between electrodes. Although no charge moved between electrodes, the polarization pattern varied like a sine wave from one electrode to the next. By carefully selecting the voltage frequency and time delay between electrodes, the pattern, they claim, can be ramped up beyond light speed.

    Because radiation from a conventional source spreads out in all directions, at any given distance from the source it impinges on the inside of an imaginary sphere. The surface area, and hence the degree of spreading, is proportional to the square of the radius from the source—the basis for the inverse square law. But the Ardavans and Singleton argue that the polarization synchrotron, like Houshang's pulsars, generates radiation cusps that alter this equation. Essentially, rather than spreading out over a sphere, the radiation spreads out over the circumference of one turn of a cusp. Although each cusp is formed from wavelets that obey the inverse square law, the cusp's geometry dictates that radiation intensity falls off in proportion to r rather than r2, they argue in a paper submitted to the Journal of the Optical Society of America A.

    Based on experiments carried out at Turweston since May, Singleton and company now claim to have evidence that radiation from their synchrotron, as Ardavan predicted, bunches up in cusps and falls off in intensity accordingly. The team members have tested the device to distances of up to 900 meters, and they say they have mapped the three-dimensional shape of the emission, confirming that it is a curved beam that could only have been generated by a superluminal source.

    Ready for takeoff.

    Preparing a test of the synchrotron at Turweston Aerodrome.


    Critics are unconvinced. Over limited distances, notes theoretical physicist John Hannay of the University of Bristol, conventional antenna dishes or laser beams can focus radiation in particular directions such that its intensity falls off more slowly than 1/r2. But even a highly focused beam begins to disperse such that beyond a certain distance, inverse square is the rule of law. “The acid test in physics is experiment,” adds Hewish. “They should just point the thing towards Oxford from a great distance and see if they pick up anything from their machine. To my mind 1000 meters is nothing. They need more like 50 miles [80 km].”

    Singleton claims a long-distance experiment that provides meaningful results is not feasible, as it would require numerous measurements at various distances from Turweston, often on private property. More important, he says, are their measurements showing how cusp shape and position evolve with distance. Singleton doubts whether further data could satisfy the critic. “There are so many conceptual barriers,” he says. The device “appears to go against several of the things that we were taught as undergraduates.”

    Singleton and his team have not let the skepticism prevent them from attempting to capitalize on their invention. They are setting up a company, Oxbridge Pulsar Sources, and drumming up seed money. Besides offering a way to improve antennas, the cusp's unusual shape would make it difficult to trace radiation to its source—an obvious improvement for defense radar systems, Singleton says.

    They also plan to test their hypothesis that the superluminal polarization pattern will produce radiation in a wide range of frequencies—including the difficult-to-generate terahertz band, which is well suited to skin and breast cancer diagnosis. In another article in press in the Journal of the Optical Society of America A, the researchers lay out the theoretical groundwork for how their device should emit a broad band of frequencies simultaneously.

    Nevertheless, some superluminal luminaries doubt that the synchrotron will perform as advertised. “I do not believe it will work,” says Vitaly Ginzburg, an expert on superluminal charge patterns at the Lebedev Physics Institute in Moscow. “But that is different from saying it is impossible.”


    Fungi Shield New Host Plants From Heat and Drought

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi

    From 17 to 23 August, 17,250 biologists from 25 countries gathered in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to talk about plant, animal, and microbial partnerships.

    Could watermelons grow in the steamy environs of the geyser Old Faithful? Or wheat thrive in the hot, dry desert? These crops don't usually survive such hostile conditions, but with help from some microscopic sidekicks, they just might one day. By transplanting symbiotic fungi from drought-tolerant or heat-tolerant plants into crops, researchers have turned wimpy species into hardy ones. The find could expand the range of valuable food crops into currently uncultivable areas.

    Researchers typically think poorly of endophytes, fungi that live their entire lives within plants. Many are pathogens, and plant pathologists are working out how to prevent or get rid of infections. But geneticist Regina Redman and microbiologist Russell Rodriguez of the U.S. Geological Survey in Seattle, Washington, have gotten fungi to take up residence in new plant hosts. They now show that fungi “can have big impacts in adapting the plant to particular environments,” says James White, a plant pathologist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Furthermore, the researchers are “demonstrating that these [fungi] can be quite useful.”

    Redman and Rodriguez and their colleagues first reported benefits from fungi-plant alliances last year. They studied a perennial grass that grows in hot soils around geysers. In the lab, they grew some grass that lacked the normal complement of fungi and others that had it, then exposed both groups to hot soils. Only the plants with fungi survived (Science, 22 November 2002, p. 1581).

    Their subsequent work has shown that isolated fungi are also overcome by the heat, suggesting that it takes two—the fungi and the host—to deal with the stressful environment, Rodriguez said at the meeting. Other research has indicated that fungi help these plants ward off invading pathogens. With fungi, plants mount a defense response within 24 hours; plants not harboring the endophytes take 3 days longer.

    Now Redman, Rodriguez, and Joan Henson, a microbiologist at Montana State University, Bozeman, have demonstrated that these same fungi can protect other plants as well. They put fungal spores on watermelon, tomato, wheat, and other seedlings. The researchers then compared the stamina of infected and uninfected individuals in places with high heat or no water—environments where they wouldn't typically survive.

    Hot stuff.

    Fungi living inside this grass make life near thermal springs, where soils can be 60°C, tolerable.


    The food plants became much more tolerant of harsh conditions, the researchers reported at the meeting. Watermelon and tomatoes whose roots would barely withstand 38°C did fine at 50°C. And if the researchers let them cool off at night, some of the plants survived in up to 70°C in the day. The results “blew me away,” comments David Garbary, a plant evolutionary biologist at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia.

    Wheat still suffered in the heat but improved its ability to make it through a drought. Uninfected wheat succumbed within 10 dry days; wheat carrying the fungi lasted 18 without water, Rodriguez reported. And the improvement in the plants' disease resistance was equally promising. “The degree of stress tolerance [endophytes] could confer was a surprise,” says Daniel Panaccione, a plant pathologist at West Virginia University in Morgantown.

    White, Panaccione, and others hope that these experiments will eventually improve agriculture. “It would be very interesting if one could put thermotolerance into crops,” says White. But he and others caution that the work needs to be repeated and extended to field studies. At the very least, Panaccione says, the new find shows that interactions between fungi and plants have “greater ecological significance than [we] previously thought.”


    Scurrying Larvae Join Seaweed Society

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi

    From 17 to 23 August, 17,250 biologists from 25 countries gathered in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to talk about plant, animal, and microbial partnerships.

    Walk almost anywhere along a North Atlantic rocky shore at low tide, and you may trip over a clump of brown seaweed called Ascophyllum, or knotted wrack. The plants host an unusual partnership. Larvae of a tiny insect populate the plant's inner sanctums, David Garbary, a plant evolutionary biologist at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, reported at the meeting. He and his colleagues calculate that in terms of biomass, this is likely one of the most abundant marine insects ever described. Yet it's “essentially unknown,” he pointed out: Only two previous reports from Canada are on file.

    Knotted wrack plants live a half-century, and their fronds can last 20 years. That's plenty of time to build up a large community. A small brown alga called Elachista fucicola and a red seaweed typically grow on Ascophyllum fronds. A fungus whose threads are tightly entwined with Ascophyllum cells seems to promote the seaweed's growth, at least in the lab. And diatoms munch their way up and down Elachista.

    Seaweed stowaway.

    The marine fly larva creeps along seaweed munching on diatoms.


    Garbary's newfound insect sits atop the chain of command: It eats the diatoms. Upon finding the first specimens 2 years ago, “we were shocked” by their existence, Garbary recalls. Zoology colleagues at St. Francis informed him he had insect larvae. Collaborator Peter Cranston, an entomologist at the University of California, Davis, determined that the larvae belonged to a mosquito-sized marine fly called Halocladius variabilis.

    Garbary's crew looked for more larvae along Nova Scotia's coast and found them only among Elachista filaments. Not all plants hosted the insects, and those that did were twice as big as those without larval guests. This difference points to a happy partnership. The larvae have a safe haven in cavities excavated in Ascophyllum fronds by Elachista roots. In return, the larvae travel along Elachista filaments keeping the diatoms in check, Garbary said. And each larval dropping is “a load of fertilizer,” Garbary noted, which helps replace the phosphorus and nitrogen siphoned off by the diatoms.

    Garbary has “unraveled a very interesting insect and a very interesting system,” says Merlin White, a mycologist at the University of Kansas, Lawrence.

    The team calculated that there could be up to 190,000 larvae per square meter of seaweed. Despite this massive presence, the researchers found only two adult flies. “They may be coming out at night, and it's almost certain that they are short-lived,” Garbary suggested. The research sends a very important message, says Ann Cleveland of the Maine Maritime Academy in Castine. “We truly do not know what exists in the natural world, and we must look at all scales from micro-to macroscopic.”


    Worms Open Route to Whale Bones

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi

    From 17 to 23 August, 17,250 biologists from 25 countries gathered in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to talk about plant, animal, and microbial partnerships.

    About 2 years ago, Shana Goffredi and her colleagues came across sunken treasure on the sea floor of California's Monterey Bay. It wasn't gold coins that got them excited but the body of a recently dead whale lingering on the sea floor 3000 meters deep. “It's one of the deepest known whale falls,” and deeper than most scavenger fish dare to go, said Goffredi, a marine biologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing.

    Using a remotely operated sub, the researchers discovered what appeared to be a carpet of red fuzz on the whale's corpse. That fuzz proved to be thousands of polycheates, segmented worms typically found in marine mud. The worms' red plumes stuck out about 6 centimeters into the water and, with about 25 individuals per square centimeter, gave the carcass a rosy tint. “It's a new polycheate, a new genus and species, and we think it's unique to whale falls,” Goffredi reported at the meeting.

    The worms crawl in.

    A small worm (inset) that colors a sunken whale carcass depends on bacteria for sustenance.


    No one was surprised by the worm's plumes, typical “tentacles” that filter food from the water. But in addition, “the worms just riddled the [whale] bones with strange roots,” Goffredi said. Surprisingly, the roots were chock-full of bacteria. She wondered whether the bacteria played a role in making the bones fragile and soft, and how the microbes secured a safe haven in the worms' roots. “The question is, Is [the microbe] a symbiont?” she asked.

    One bit of evidence for symbiosis was that “the worm doesn't appear to have a functional mouth or gut,” Goffredi said; “it has no way to feed itself.” Thus the worm probably relies on carbon compounds produced by the bacteria as they feast on oil oozing out of the whale bones.

    In return for this nourishment, specialized cells in the worms' roots provide housing for the bacteria. Goffredi, Greg Rouse of the South Australian Museum in Adelaide, and their colleagues found none of these microbes outside the roots. And the worm “probably provides oxygen,” via a blood vessel extending into the roots, she added.

    Molecular analyses support the idea that the microbes feast on whale oil. They are related to bacteria that thrive in oil-contaminated soil, where they “eat” hydrocarbons. If it is truly a symbiont, this microbe would be the first hydrocarbon degrader known to form any symbiotic relationship, Goffredi reported.

    “One of the exciting things … in the deep sea is you find new creatures, sometimes very weird ones,” says Charles Fisher, a marine biologist at Pennsylvania State University, University Park. “If the environment requires unique adaptations that cannot be accomplished via one organism, then almost certainly two or more organisms will find a way to make it work.”


    Fixers in the Sky

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi

    From 17 to 23 August, 17,250 biologists from 25 countries gathered in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to talk about plant, animal, and microbial partnerships.

    In Hawaii, the koa has always been regarded as a special tree. Long before planes and motorboats, Hawaiians depended on the koa canoe to carry them from island to island. It was a sacred resource protected by a god called Kupulupulu, and canoemaking rituals involved priests, sacrifices, and birds representing a transformed goddess.

    To James Leary, a graduate student at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, the koa is special for quite a different reason. While conducting a statewide survey of nitrogenfixing bacteria that have symbiotic relationships with koa trees, he discovered that some bacteria opt to live among the tree's branches rather than its roots. Remarkably, “nitrogen fixation is occurring in the air,” says Douglas Zook of Boston University. “It's the first representation of [a rhizobium] that lives high in a tree.”

    In the treetops.

    Koa tree canopies host nitrogen-fixing bacteria that usually live in the ground.


    The koa is one of just 14 endemic legumes in Hawaii. They play a vital role in the islands' nitrogen cycle. Until now, researchers had observed the nodules where the bacteria reside only along the tree's shallow roots, Leary explained at the meeting. But on a handful of the hundreds of trees Leary looked at, he found the nodules in piles of decomposing wood or soil-like debris that had accumulated in the crotches of branches and in pockets farther out on these limbs.

    Those piles support a diverse community: mold, fungi, and lichens, as well as ferns and other plants—and, as Leary discovered, in some instances the bacteria that supply the tree with ammonia important for growth. Concentrations of organic carbon, a boon for bacteria, were three times higher in the canopy detritus than in the soil surrounding the trees, whereas quantities of aluminum, which somehow interferes with the legume-bacteria partnerships, were several times higher in the ground. The canopy could provide a richer nitrogen-fixing environment than the soil, he suggested.

    With his advisers, Dulal Borthakur and Paul Singleton, Leary found that, overall, root-dwelling microbes were much more adept at infecting other plants. The canopy microbes appeared to be specialized for living with the koa.


    Visualization and the Communication of Science

    1. Curt Suplee, Director,
    2. Monica Bradford, Executive Editor
    1. Office of Legislative and Public Affairs, NSF

    Data may be the gold standard of science, but they don't exactly glitter. A neat table of values cannot convey the significance, context, or excitement of research results to anyone besides other scientists in the same subfield. No one else quite gets the picture— including the larger community that supports the global research enterprise.

    So it's not surprising that more and more scientists are striving to illustrate and explain their work with digitized images, color diagrams, and even multimedia. This effort, visible weekly on the cover and pages of Science and other journals, must increase. It is especially important because investigators at the outermost frontiers of science and engineering frequently study phenomena that are extremely difficult for most scientists to visualize, and downright formidable for the general public.

    To recognize and encourage visualization in the communication of science, and to showcase the exceptional talents of those who work in this area, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Science cosponsored the first annual Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge. Earlier this year, we invited entries in three categories: photography, multimedia, and illustration. Those judged best in each category would be featured in Science. We received 297 entries, which were screened by an internal NSF and Science committee. A panel of experts in scientific visualization then reviewed the 30 finalists and selected the winners, whose work appears in these pages. We congratulate the winners and all the other entrants, whose combined work attests to the vitality of scientific visualization.

    Susan Mason of NSF organized this year's challenge; Naomi Lubick of Science's News staff wrote the text that accompanies the winning images. Stewart Wills and Tara Marathe of Science have put together a special Web presentation, including audiovisual clips, at

    We intend to make the challenge an annual event. Entries for 2004 will be solicited early next year through announcements in Science and elsewhere.






    Donna J. Cox

    Professor, School of Art and Design, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign Specialist in three-dimensional computer animation

    Felice Frankel

    Research Scientist, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge Science photographer and director, Envisioning Science Project

    Jon Franklin

    Professor of Journalism, University of Maryland, College Park Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist formerly at The Baltimore Sun

    Gary Lees

    Chair and Director, Department of Art as Applied to Medicine, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland Specialist in medical illustration

    Thomas Lucas

    Thomas Lucas Productions, New York City Producer of science documentaries

    Boyce Rensberger

    Director, Knight Science Journalism Fellowships, MIT Science journalist formerly at The Washington Post and The New York Times



    1. Naomi Lubick


    Mongolian Frost Rings DEE BREGER Magnification: 35x Sample courtesy of G. Jacoby

    A core sample from a Siberian pine tree in Mongolia tells a cold, dark tale. Dee Breger used a scanning electron microscope (SEM) to create this image of the tree's rings spanning the years A.D. 535 to 539. The narrow, deformed rings at the center of the image correspond to the years 536 and 537. The ruptured cells graphically record a catastrophic summer cooling that froze the tree's sap—a climate blip that has been linked to a massive eruption of a young volcano, the precursor to Krakatoa, or possibly an impact event.

    Breger, who manages the SEM and X-ray Microanalysis Facility at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York, framed the cold season with normal tree rings for context. She colorized the image, using Adobe Photoshop, “to enhance its appeal,” she says. The hues are slightly more vibrant than pine but still look like wood.

    “It's the tiniest fragment of an ancient tree, and yet it tells a story of global proportions,” says panel of judges member Thomas Lucas. “That's why it won: because it was an astonishing story encapsulated in a teeny, teeny little thing.”


    Black Sea Pyrite DEE BREGER Magnification: 6400x Sample courtesy of W. Pitman, W. Ryan, and C. Major

    Lamont-Doherty's Dee Breger also took the second spot with another scanning electron micrograph that has connections to ancient history. The image shows a tiny cluster of pyrite crystals forming inside a microplankton called a coccolithophorid, taken from sediments in the Black Sea. The pyrite has replaced one cell nestled among the original armoring plates that composed the plant's calcareous shell.

    The chemical reaction that creates pyrite occurs when marine sediments lack oxygen. This indicates that the bottom of the Black Sea was lifeless and stagnant when the coccolithophorid was deposited thousands of years ago. The unbroken plates surrounding the pyrite also suggest that there was no life present to break them down. Such anoxic conditions may have arisen from a rush of salty Mediterranean water flooding the original freshwater “Black Sea Lake,” an event that could have been the biblical Noah's flood. The salt water would have sunk to the bottom, creating a layer of oxygen-free water.

    Breger colorized a scanned darkroom print using Photoshop. “I chose to portray the realistic gold of pyrite while enhancing the shell with blue-green shadows for greater aesthetic appeal,” she says.

    Breger's image is “very fine,” says panel of judges member Felice Frankel, “especially because of the story behind it.”


    Buckling Nanotube With Conductivity Map MICHAEL STADERMANN

    At first glance, the image could be a three-dimensional map of a pier jutting off a coastline, or some strange earthwork. But it is on an entirely different scale: a carbon nanotube, resting on a silicon dioxide surface, next to a smattering of gold atoms.

    Michael Stadermann, a physicist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, made this image with an emerging technique called conductance-imaging atomic force microscopy that measures a sample's topography and conductivity simultaneously. The conductivity appears as color—the brighter the color, the higher the conductance—superimposed on the topography.

    Merging the different properties of the object into one image provides clues to how they interact. Stadermann thinks the brighter spots indicate where the tube is buckling, which changes the tube's contact area with the probing tip.

    Panel of judges member Donna J. Cox said that the judges gave the piece honorable mention because of Stadermann's “effort at pioneering a visualization technique in a very challenging area,” in addition to communicating two very different kinds of data sets on the same page.



    1. Naomi Lubick


    Auditory Transduction BRANDON PLETSCH

    “Auditory Transduction” takes viewers on a step-by-step voyage through the inside of the ear, to the accompaniment of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Along the way, snatches of music trigger movements of each ear part.

    Brandon Pletsch began the animated video when he was a medical illustration student at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta. He dissected the outer, middle, and inner ear of a human cadaver in his anatomy courses and built a physical model so he could map which frequency ranges hit which parts of the basilar membrane of the snail-shaped coil of the inner ear. Pletsch then created digital renderings of each part of the hearing pathway, using several software packages, including Discreet's 3ds max and Adobe's After Effects, to make the 7-minute video.

    A narrator describes how the sound waves travel through each portion of the ear and how hair cells translate the vibrations they induce into nerve impulses.

    Pletsch, who now works for iMed Studios, an interactive medical communications company in Ames, Iowa, says he intended the piece for high school audiences studying anatomy and physiology, as well as medical students.

    “It took the whole of medical imaging and really brought it to the audience in a very understandable way,” says panel of judges member Donna J. Cox. Also, she says, “the narrative in itself was excellent writing.”



    Until humans can go there, the only way to experience space beyond our solar system is through three-dimensional animation. To visit the Orion Nebula, 1500 light-years away, a team from the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) and the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City created an ethereal flight in and around the stellar nursery.

    David Nadeau of SDSC created the volume and structure of the central region of the nebula as it would appear to a viewer actually there. He used Hubble Space Telescope images to generate true colors and fed infrared astronomy data into volume-rendering computer programs to model the light from glowing gases, as well as occlusions from dust and gas clouds. The animation also depicts proto-star systems embedded in the nebula.

    The production team from AMNH created the underskeleton of the nebula and chose the flight path. The SDSC team used a supercomputer to compute 30,000 frames in the 3-minute animation, for use in a longer planetarium show. For the television version submitted to the competition, final production work on the narrative and music was completed at SDSC by Jon Meyer.

    Panel of judges member Felice Frankel says this animation had “a quiet beauty” not present in other submissions. Even the sounds of the narration and background music were tempered, she says. “I think we can get sidetracked with overwhelming animation, but … something that brings us into ourselves is just as powerful.”


    Interactive CD-ROM on Milankovitch Cycles DENNIS TASA FRANK PAZZAGLIA

    Frank Pazzaglia, Tasa's collaborator at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, “was to first get the student to appreciate changes in Earth's annual energy balance that they experience every year—the seasons—and then ramp those observations up to millennial time scales.” Tasa animated a series of lessons, using Macromedia Director to animate multiple planet Earths that he created with Strata StudioPro 2.5.

    The viewer must answer questions about obliquity (tilt), precession (wobble), and eccentricity (the change in Earth's orbit around the sun). For example, a student using the program must choose which of three rotating planets would receive the longest period of sunlight on its north pole. The CD-ROM ends by bringing the three cycles together to show how shifts in the ratio of oxygen isotopes in ice cores, which represent climate change over thousands of years, match Earth's wobbles and wanderings.

    Panel of judges member Donna J. Cox called the interactive project “innovative” and “the most creative” using relatively simple multimedia technology. In conjunction with achieving its clear educational goal, the committee felt that the program communicated “very complex ideas very well,” she said.



    A Class Of Its Own

    The Hayden Planetarium, housed in the Rose Center at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City, takes museumgoers into the depths of space, to the big bang and back. A cross-country consortium of supercomputer centers, scientists, artists, and others has created an array of animations and three-dimensional modeling to pull audiences along on these fantastic journeys. AMNH submitted one several-minute segment from its most recent time-and-space travelogue, exploring life in the universe.

    Narrated by actor Harrison Ford, the “Creation of Earth” segment shows, for example, likely scenarios of how dust and gas coalesced into the Milky Way galaxy, how our solar system and sun formed, and finally how our planet might have come together from tiny planetesimals (with whirring and falling sand noises in the background).

    Because this piece was produced with vastly more resources than the other entries, the judges decided it was in a class by itself. This year, they awarded it the multimedia category's honorable mention. Next year, it may give rise to a new category altogether



    1. Naomi Lubick



    This Ferris wheel-like arrangement may be the next elegant solution for managing unwieldy amounts of information.

    The three-dimensional interface organizes computer contents by their relationships rather than their physical position on a hard drive. Each spider-web thread marks the ties between folders holding contents related to the open file folder (in the center in purple). Colors show how the other folders are related: The red folder is the parent one, blue folders are subdirectories, and the yellow and gray folders are located elsewhere but relate somehow to the central folder.

    The program displays relationships that would not be clear in a normal two-dimensional file tree, says Adam Miezianko, who created it with three fellow seniors at Boston University in Massachusetts. Miezianko says the system, built with OpenGL on a Linux platform, could be applied to any sort of hierarchical database, from corporate organizational charts to genetic or ecosystems data. The software could find, for example, all far-flung files containing data on mammals that live in tree canopies. The user can rotate, zoom into, pan across, and spin the three-dimensional file tree to see all possible links with varying criteria.

    The screen snapshot the team submitted from the program is “visually striking,” says panel of judges member Boyce Rensberger. “It's a good example of a way of organizing somewhat abstract information into categories, things that are normally not visual … showing degrees of relationship.”


    Macrophage and Bacterium 2,000,000x DAVID GOODSELL

    A scene of cellular destruction should not be so pretty. This watercolor painting is an interpretation of an immune-system cell called a macrophage (left) engulfing a bacterium (lower right) in the bloodstream. Just a portion of the cells are visible. Their genetic material is depicted in red and orange, the cytoplasm is blue and mauve, and membranes and the endoplasmic reticulum—or the inner highway system and other structures—are shown in greens. Blood, in the upper right of the third panel, is brown and yellow. (For a diagram identifying the major elements, see

    David Goodsell created the image as a triptych for scientists walking into the Center for Integrative Molecular Biosciences at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. He based the work on published data, electron micrographs, and other images. The three canvases, each 1 meter high and 0.5 meter wide, represent a view of 0.25 micrometer across, and they hang with captions challenging viewers to hunt for each piece of a cell they might recognize.

    The competition's criterion of accuracy led the judges to find the painting controversial because it combines different scales—it hints at protein structures, for instance, that would not be visible through a microscope—and overemphasizes certain elements. In the end, says panel of judges member Gary Lees, Goodsell “magnificently portrayed the interaction of two foreign cells … although he is editing what's seen.” Lees compares the image to seeing the forest and the trees, with a view of all the trees—the molecules making up the structures—and their larger interactions.


    Cytokines in Hematopoiesis and Development

    Every year, R&D Systems Inc.'s catalog of biological reagents is graced by an illustration. For this year's cover art, marketing manager Jennifer Harrington chose the role of cytokines in embryonic hematopoiesis and the generation of hematopoietic stem cells, which eventually give rise to liver, blood, and other kinds of cells. That image became the first half of a larger, more detailed version of the illustration, showing the pathways through which such stem cells develop and differentiate into other cells. The final product, created by freelance medical illustrator Daphne Orlando with research and production assistance from Gregg Hickey and Rita Nistler, respectively, became the poster that won honorable mention. Panel of judges member Thomas Lucas says that the panel liked the piece's clarity in illustrating a complex issue and that “the artist arranged the material into a presentation that was as fascinating up close as it was from afar.” The poster is being distributed for free this year by the company, which creates a free educational poster every year.