Random Samples

Science  12 Mar 2004:
Vol. 303, Issue 5664, pp. 1608
  1. California County Bans GM Crops

    Mendocino County, a wealthy coastal wine-growing area in Northern California, last week became the first in the nation to outlaw genetically modified (GM) crops. None are grown there, but GM defenders are alarmed at the precedent.

    The ballot initiative, which would ban the raising and keeping of genetically engineered crops or animals, passed by a margin of 56% to 44%. The initiative was backed by organic wine growers, who fear “contamination” of their crops and loss of business, particularly from GM-phobic European customers.

    CropLife America, a plant science industry association, led an unsuccessful $500,000 campaign to reject the ban. The vote is “bad public policy,” says Allan Noe, CropLife vice president for biotech, who argues that the issue should be handled by the federal government. “We felt we could coexist with the organic industry, but obviously that feeling isn't mutual.”

    Andrew Kimbrell of the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C., which supported the ban, says the absence of federal regulations has left localities with “no alternative but to try and halt” the spread of GM crops. Several other California counties are expected to put similar GM bans before voters in the November election. “This is just the beginning,” says Kimbrell.

  2. Virtual Crack House

    Virtual-reality technology is being used for everything from phobias to colonoscopies. Now, researchers want to see if it will help people kick their drug habits.

    Virtual crack scene. CREDIT: KEN GRAAP/VIRTUALLY BETTER INC.

    Entering a dilapidated house, you hear a sexual encounter behind a closed door. In the next room, a woman lies on a filthy cot. In the corner, three people hunch over their pipes and, glancing through a hole in the wall, you glimpse money changing hands in a deal.

    The sequence is the brainchild of Barbara Rothbaum, a psychiatrist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and colleagues at Emory and the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. The group, which gave a presentation at a symposium on virtual reality held last month at the National Institutes of Health, uses such environments to help drug users resist cues that set off their cravings.

    The sequence is currently being tested at the Medical University of South Carolina to see if it really does trigger craving in crack cocaine users. Virtual reality may be a safer and more effective version of “cue exposure” for treating addicts, notes Scott Coffey, a psychiatrist at the University of Buffalo, New York. It's a novel approach, says Rothbaum, adding that “Even people who know what I do raise their eyebrows at it.”

  3. European Natural History

    Over the next 5 years, a new $17 million program called SYNTHESYS will be putting together a database of the collections of 20 natural history museums and botanical gardens throughout Europe—some 337 million specimens. Right now, researchers spend months tracking down the specimens they need, says Graham Higley, the librarian at the London Natural History Museum who is shepherding this effort. The project also will pay for researchers' visits to these museums and develop conservation standards. It's going to be a difficult task to carry out, says Thomas Garnett, a librarian at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. But “everyone agrees it's a great idea.”

  4. Mormon Genealogy Goes High Tech

    Mormons love genealogy. Now, those wanting to know if Mormon founding father Joseph Smith is among their ancestors are getting high-tech help. All it takes is a few cheek cells, says Scott Woodward, chief scientific officer of the Salt Lake City, Utah-based Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation.

    Last week, the foundation released its first version of a free database combining family records with genetic information that will aid Mormons in locating ancestors from the past eight generations. Over the last few years, Woodward and colleagues have collected baseline data—DNA and extensive genealogical history—from 40,000 Mormons worldwide. Individuals will be able to get their DNA analyzed, then look for a match in the database. If a match is found, clients will be given the names and locations of people with similar DNA who were born before 1900. This cutoff date protects the privacy of the DNA donors.

    The extensiveness of this repository will make it useful to geneticists tracking down particular disease genes as well as those who need large sample sizes, says Dennis Drayna, a geneticist at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders in Bethesda, Maryland. “It's unique,” he adds. Already the Mormons' detailed genealogical records have helped researchers track down disease genes, including one implicated in depression.

  5. Jiving With a Machine

    CREDIT: MIT

    Sommer Gentry is an award-winning swing dancer—and a graduate student in electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Surprisingly, those two worlds come together smoothly in the lab.

    Good dancers can execute complex, unrehearsed sequences while blindfolded, using only touch signals from the leader. Inspired by her passion for dance, Gentry is trying to create a common vocabulary of dance moves that will allow humans and robots to communicate as effectively as a human duo does.

    As a dance instructor, Gentry analyzes the connections between movement and signaling—for example, keeping a straight arm restricts the ability of dancing partners to signal the next move to each other. In the lab, she uses those insights to make robots' movements more natural and expressive.

    Gentry hopes her work will someday lead to more capable robotic assistants for a variety of tasks, including surgery. And she's off to a good start: Last year, she garnered an award for best student paper at the IEEE “Systems, Man and Cybernetics” conference.

  6. Awards

    Hear, hear. Masakazu (Mark) Konishi of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena is the first winner of a $50,000 neuroscience award presented by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's McGovern Institute. The Edward M. Scolnick prize, named in honor of the longtime president of Merck Research Laboratories, will be awarded every year to “recognize an outstanding discovery or significant advance in the field of neuroscience.”

    CREDIT: CALIFORNIA INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY

    Konishi, 71, and his colleagues study barn owls, which hunt in the dark, to learn how the brain localizes a sound to a particular place. He discovered that a part of the brain called the inferior colliculus contains a neural map of so-called auditory space. Konishi also studies how songbirds learn and remember their tunes.

    Konishi doesn't have plans for the prize money yet, but when he won the International Prize for Biology from Japan several years ago, he plowed the $100,000 back into his lab for research.

  7. Jobs

    Patient proximity. An expanding Children's Hospital in Boston has snagged a top stem cell expert from across the Charles River. George Daley, 43, recently left the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge for Children's new digs: a spacious 12-floor research building that opened in December.

    CREDIT: WHITEHEAD INSTITUTE

    Daley is one of 11 senior researchers whom the hospital has hired in the past 5 months. Its goal of swelling to 100 labs—up from 60—is to find new directions for biomedical science, says Bruce Zetter, the hospital's vice president for research. Besides launching new multidisciplinary programs in vascular biology and stem cell research, the hospital is melding fields within individual research projects—for instance, by bringing together geneticists, informaticists, and neuroscientists.

    Daley hopes that his work with genetically altered stem cells in mice will someday translate into treatments for sickle cell anemia and thalassemia.

  8. Money Matters

    Skygazing sentries. A California congressman thinks that amateur astronomers should receive a reward for spotting and tracking near-Earth asteroids.

    “Earth has experienced several near misses with asteroids that would have proven catastrophic,” notes legislation introduced by U.S. Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) that was approved by the full House last week. “And the scientific community relies heavily on amateur astronomers to discover and track these objects.”

    The bill, H.R. 912, would allow NASA to award $3000 annually to the stargazer who discovers the brightest near-Earth asteroid. The award posthumously honors Charles “Pete” Conrad, the third man to walk on the moon.

  9. Giving Back

    Ringing endorsement. Electrical engineer Andrew Viterbi was celebrating the Jewish festival of Purim, which marks the foiling of a plot against his religious ancestors, when he discovered his own solution to a vexing problem. The breakthrough led to an algorithm that proved to be an enabling technology for the cell-phone industry, allowing millions of cell phones to function simultaneously without interfering with one another. It also made him a billionaire.

    Last week, the retired co-founder of San Diego, California-based Qualcomm delivered a $52 million note of thanks to his alma mater, the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1962. Viterbi, 68, has also accepted a professorship at USC's School of Engineering, which now bears his name.

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