Random Samples

Science  09 Jan 2004:
Vol. 303, Issue 5655, pp. 166
  1. Ratting Out Tuberculosis

    Get a whiff of this: Researchers in Africa are training rats to sniff out tuberculosis in human sputum. If the furry sensors prove reliable, they could process samples many times faster than human technicians do.

    New breed of TB hound?

    CREDIT: APOPO

    African giant pouched rats have a sense of smell comparable to a dog's, and researchers at the humanitarian research organization Apopo in Morogoro, Tanzania, have already trained them to sniff out landmines. Now the researchers are training the nosy rodents to recognize the scent of tuberculosis bacteria in human saliva. In December, the team received a $164,000 grant from the World Bank to compare the performance of the rats to that of human lab technicians, who analyze sputum smears under the microscope. Whereas a person can analyze 20 samples in a day, a rat can sniff through as many as 150 in a half-hour, says Apopo director Bart Weetjens. Early results suggest that the rats may be more sensitive and produce fewer false positives, he says.

    “I think it's a wonderful idea,” says James Walker, a psychobiologist at Florida State University in Tallahassee who is studying the ability of dogs to detect prostate cancer by sniffing urine. “But it's important that it's done very carefully.” The researchers must develop strict protocols to determine precisely how good the rats are, Walker says, and how best to use them.

  2. Scaling New Heights

    No, it's not Spiderman. It's Svante Pääbo scrambling up the wall to his new office. Although the five-story climbing course isn't in the official architectural description of the new Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, visiting scientists can rope up just behind the entrance desk.

    Last month's building opening featured a climbing demonstration by director Pääbo, who is best known for his work teasing information out of ancient DNA. Word is that Pääbo was lured to Leipzig from his previous post in Munich in part by a promise of the climbing wall—compensating for the city's distance from the Alps.

    Pääbo's climbing attire includes PLoS T-shirt.

    CREDIT: SUZANNE PHILIPP

    The wall ends on a platform conveniently outside Pääbo's office. And the perks don't end there—topping the building is a sauna room (a donation from Applied Biosystems).

    Primatologist Linda Vigilant says the wall and the sauna not only let researchers unwind but also lead to more openness among the 220 staff members. “You interact with someone on a totally different level,” she says.

  3. NASA Bows to Military in Christmas Battle

    NORAD, the agency responsible for the United States' air defenses, has been tracking Santa Claus's Christmas Eve peregrinations for nearly half a century (see http://www.noradsanta.org/). So in 2002, when NASA, the U.S. space agency, also began monitoring the jolly old fellow, border skirmishes seemed imminent. Worse, the two agencies' tracks disagreed, raising questions about the quality of the nation's Santa-tracking capability.

    Now, the turf war is apparently over. John Petty, a spokesperson at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, confirms that NASA is out of the Santa-tracking business; “I'm not quite sure why.” Observers speculate that NORAD prevailed because it's better poised to intercept Santa if necessary for national security purposes.

  4. Flocking to Physics

    CREDIT: AMERICAN INSTITUTE OF PHYSICS

    More U.S. high school students are taking physics, and the gap between white and minority student enrollment is narrowing, according to a new study (see graph). Thirty percent of high school seniors in the class of 2001 had taken physics, up from 20% in 1986–87, according to the American Institute of Physics (AIP), which surveyed 5500 high school principals and physics teachers (see “Broadening the Base” at aip.org/statistics). AIP's Michael Neuschatz credits the increases to tougher state requirements “and high school counselors telling students they need more science to get into college and find a good job.”

    But although there's more physics instruction, most teachers—61% in this survey—continue to reject the “physics first” approach, a controversial initiative to invert the usual course sequence and teach a more conceptual brand of physics to ninth-and tenth-graders before they tackle biology and chemistry (Science, 10 July 1998, p. 161). “I'm not surprised,” says Aaron Sadoff, emeritus physics professor at Ithaca College in New York. “It's more work, and there's a lot of inertia out there.”

  5. People to Watch 2004

    No encore. Rita Colwell's 6-year term as director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) ends in August, and few expect President George W. Bush to reappoint the 69-year-old microbiologist to another term. History is against her—the only repeater in NSF's 52-year history was its first director, Alan Waterman. And so is the lack of enthusiasm for her at the White House, in Congress, and within the scientific community. Colwell hopes to nab a university presidency (see below) by the time she leaves office. If the Bush Administration dawdles on a replacement, look for long-serving deputy Joseph Bordogna to be named interim director.

    Japanese rankings. Winning a Nobel prize might have been easier than Ryoji Noyori's new assignment. As head of a government-appointed committee, the 2001 chemistry Nobelist and current president of Japan's Institute of Physical and Chemical Research (RIKEN) is supposed to devise a system to evaluate Japan's soon-to-be-independent national universities. The assessments will determine government funding for each institution. The panel hopes to unveil its plan this spring.

    Clean contest. Patrick Schamasch has the job of keeping the 2004 Olympic games drug-and doping-free. A practicing surgeon, Schamasch is also medical director for the International Olympic Committee. This summer in Athens, Schamasch and his colleagues will test nearly one-quarter of the participating athletes in search of erythropoietin and other banned substances, including the first test for synthetic hemoglobin. Schamasch's team is also fine-tuning ways to detect stamina-boosting blood transfusions, from either an athlete's own stored blood or donors.

    CREDIT: IFSE

    Eyes on FDA. Pharmaceutical companies, patients, and consumer protection agencies are waiting anxiously for U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Mark McClellan to fulfill his promise to speed up the approval of new drugs. FDA is already working with the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, but the two organizations have yet to settle on a strategy for accelerating the regulatory process. McClellan must also decide whether to endorse an FDA advisory committee's decision to approve over-the-counter sales of an emergency contraceptive, the so-called morning-after pill.

    Growing family. The newest offspring from the recent marriage of biology and national security are the Galveston National Laboratory in Texas and a similar facility at Boston University (BU). They are the biggest of 12 biodefense centers being funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Their principal scientists, virologists C. J. Peters and Scott Weaver and BUmicrobiologist Mark Klempner, face intense scrutiny from activists worried about the growing U.S. effort to combat bioterrorism.

    CREDIT: JIN YANG

    Let US in. Jin Yang and dozens of other foreign researchers are hoping that the United States relaxes its visa procedures so that they can reenter the country more easily. Yang, a doctoral candidate in neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, has been trying since October to return to his lab after visiting his ailing grandfather in China. Officials won't tell him how long it might take to renew his visa, says Yang, who frets that he has missed “too many scientific meetings” and “fallen way behind” on his research.

    Big kahuna. Keep an eye on Richard Klausner—both for what he attempts and for what others attempt to do to him. The ex-chief of U.S. cancer research is shepherding megabucks as executive director of international health programs for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington. But he also has congressional investigators nipping at his heels. Representatives Billy Tauzin (R-LA) and James Greenwood (R-PA) have already blasted Klausner for alleged conflicts of interest in his handling of NIH funds, and hearings are expected.

  6. Jobs

    Top rung. Interested in heading a major research university? Here's a list of slots opening up in 2004:

    University of Pennsylvania (outgoing president—Judith Rodin)

    Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Charles Vest)

    Syracuse University (Kenneth Shaw)

    University of California, Berkeley (Robert Berdahl)

    University of California, San Diego (Marsha Chandler, acting)

    University of Nebraska, Lincoln (L. Dennis Smith)

    University of Washington, Seattle (Lee Huntsman, interim)

    Boston University (Aram Chobanian, interim)

    Duke University (Nannerl Keohane)

    University of Tennessee System (Joseph Johnson, interim)