Random Samples

Science  28 May 2004:
Vol. 304, Issue 5675, pp. 1239
  1. Stem Cell Bank Gets First Deposits

    The world's first publicly funded stem cell bank is open for business. The U.K. Stem Cell Bank, in Potters Bar, outside London, received its first donations on 19 May: two human embryonic stem (ES) cell lines derived by researchers in Newcastle and in London. The bank, funded by the U.K. Medical Research Council and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, plans to start distributing cell lines within the next couple of months (Science, 13 September 2002, p. 1784).

    British scientists who are licensed by the national Human Fertilisation and Embryo Authority to derive new ES cells from human embryos must agree to donate samples to the bank, says Alison Murdoch, a fertility researcher at the Centre for Life in Newcastle, where one of the new lines was derived. The bank will store, characterize, and distribute stem cells from embryonic, fetal, and adult tissues and will distribute them to researchers worldwide for a fee. U.S. government-funded researchers won't be able to use the cell lines donated last week, however, because they were derived after August 2001.

    Murdoch's group is not only one of the first to submit a cell line but also the first to apply for permission to experiment with human nuclear transfer to create new sources of ES cells. The application was submitted in February, she says, and she expects to receive approval sometime this summer.

  2. Colossal Prank

    CREDIT: AARON KITE

    Photo hoaxes can be amusing. But it's rare they get the legs this one did. Last month, it was circulating around the Arab world after being picked up by a Bangladesh newspaper—accompanied by a story relating how an Aramco oil exploration team in the Empty Quarter of the Saudi Arabia desert discovered the buried skeleton of a giant. The item raised a flurry on many Listservs devoted to ancient mysteries, as well as speculation that this could be the remains of Adam, who in some Muslim accounts was 60 cubits (27.5 meters) tall.

    The original source of the picture is a photo of a recent Cornell University mastodon dig near Hyde Park in New York. The creator, who submitted it to an archaeological photo hoax contest (http://www.worth1000.com/), says he'd rather stay anonymous because the situation has gotten politically touchy—the pic and story were put together by an anti-Muslim group to dupe Muslim newspapers. “Ironic, out of the hundreds of digital manipulation projects I've created, the one that gets international notoriety is the one that I'm too nervous to take credit for,” he says.

  3. Rare Cat Catch

    CREDIT: CONSTANZA NAPOLITANO

    Scientists have at long last caught a rarely seen mountain cat in the Bolivian Andes.

    “The cat world is buzzing,” says mammalogist Jim Sanderson of Conservation International, who last month helped local scientists capture and radio-collar the 4.5-kg, 59-cm-long (not counting the tail) predator. “This is the most endangered cat in the Americas.” Hardly anything is known about the elusive feline, which Sanderson has been trailing for 6 years.

    Scientists are now trying to determine the range of the Andean mountain cat (Oreailurus jacobita). They predict that creating a conservation plan will be a challenge. Sanderson says the animal he tagged (see photo) would have ripped him to shreds if she hadn't been drugged. But because the cats lack a hard-wired fear of humans, locals easily kill them with rocks. The dead cats are believed to have magical powers.

  4. Diffusion View

    CREDIT: M. GASTNER AND M. NEWMAN, PNAS 101, 20 (2004)

    Physicists at the University of Michigan say they have harnessed a principle from physics to solve the problem of how to present maps that show geographic regions in proportion to their population. “Previous methods didn't produce very good maps,” says Mark Newman, co-author of a paper on the new method in the 18 May issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The distortion was so great that you couldn't recognize geographic areas, and sometimes areas were forced to overlap, he says. But “we found a way of actually producing these maps [using] the idea of diffusion of gases.” Just as a gas spreads to fill available space with uniform density, the computer model by Newman and Michael T. Gastner spreads out population to a uniform distribution and stretches or shrinks state boundaries accordingly.

  5. A Ticket to Tinseltown

    Remember that killer idea for a science-based, blockbuster movie that you had in graduate school? Its time may have come.

    The American Film Institute is offering a 2-day workshop to train researchers who can help Hollywood get the science right (afi.com/education/catalyst). The 12 individuals chosen will receive a crash course on movie and television writing from seasoned professionals. And best of all, it's free, courtesy of the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research, which is putting up $300,000 for a 3-year project aimed at improving the scientific content of films.

    The workshop is a worthy effort toward “demystifying Hollywood” for scientists, says marine biologist-turned-filmmaker Randy Olson. But don't quit your day job. Collaborations between scientists and moviemakers rarely yield scientifically accurate films, he says, because “the scientists spew out science, and the screenplay writers pick and choose a few things that sound interesting.”

    The deadline for applications is 9 June.

  6. Awards

    CREDIT: MARSHA MILLER

    Chemistry prize. Chemist Allen Bard has won the $300,000 Welch Award for his contributions to electrochemistry. A professor at the University of Texas, Austin, Bard is best known for helping to develop scanning electrochemistry microscopy—a technique for studying electrochemical reactions in solutions or on surfaces using a tiny electrode.

    Science communication. British astronomer and author Martin Rees is the winner of the Royal Society's Michael Faraday Prize for 2004. Rees, a professor at the University of Cambridge, receives the award for his efforts to popularize astronomy.

  7. Money Matters

    Feeling flush. Three years after cutting back on research funding, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) is looking to expand again. This month, it announced plans to add between 30 and 50 biomedical scientists to its current roster of 318 investigators by inviting 200 institutions to nominate candidates.

    The new class, the first since 2000, would add roughly $50 million a year to HHMI's annual budget of $500 million, says spokesperson Avice Meehan. Last week, Hughes also awarded $49.7 million to 42 predominantly undergraduate U.S. institutions to develop new courses, train postdoctoral researchers as teachers, and offer research experiences to disadvantaged students.

  8. Deaths

    CREDIT: ROBERT PAZ/CALTECH;

    A century's work. Photochemist, entrepreneur, and philanthropist Arnold Beckman died last week at a hospital in La Jolla, California. He was 104.

    A professor at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Beckman started a scientific instruments company in 1935 based on his invention of the pH meter. The eponymous company now has more than 10,000 employees and 50 facilities worldwide. And, since 1977, the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation has spent more than $270 million in support of science.

    Beckman's instruments “combined electronics with chemistry, which accelerated research discoveries in biochemistry and human medicine,” says Caltech chemist Peter Dervan. “These discoveries fueled the biotechnology revolution in the 20th century.”

  9. Jobs

    Fresh blood. The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has chosen the University of Pennsylvania's Charles Alcock as its next director. He will succeed Irwin Shapiro, who is stepping down after 20 years at the helm.

    Alcock, who studies comets and asteroids, “is widely regarded at a fine teacher and mentor, dedicated researcher, and experienced leader,” says David Evans, Smithsonian undersecretary for science. In addition to managing the center's 900-member staff and $110 million annual budget, Alcock will also serve as a professor of astronomy at Harvard University.