Random Samples

Science  13 Aug 2004:
Vol. 305, Issue 5686, pp. 940

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  1. Bark Brouhaha

    Three bark etchings and an emu figurine—made by Aboriginal Australians in the mid-19th century—are at the heart of a legal wrangle in Australia that could complicate future worldwide loans of rare cultural objects.

    Last month, members of the Dja Dja Wurrung and Jupagalk Aboriginal peoples obtained an emergency order under Australian heritage protection laws barring the Museum Victoria in Melbourne from returning the objects—borrowed for a 3-month exhibition—to their current homes, the British Museum and the Royal Botanic Gardens in the United Kingdom. According to curators, the emu carving was used in hunting ceremonies, and the bark works are the only remaining examples of a lost Aboriginal artistic tradition. “We believe strongly that [these objects] connect us to our country, our culture, and ancestry,” says Dja Dja spokesperson Gary Murray.

    The British institutions have vowed to fight the order. “It is in the interests of everyone that objects of cultural and artistic significance … continue to be able to move around the world,” they said in a 30 July statement. But the two sides are optimistic that they can negotiate a compromise, perhaps by agreeing to let the museums serve as stewards of the objects for their Aboriginal creators.

  2. Beetles May Help Battle Blazes

    An unusual beetle that senses flames from as far away as 80 kilometers has inspired a new forest fire detector.


    Zoologist Helmut Schmitz and colleagues at the University of Bonn in Germany have used tiny polyethylene pellets to replicate infrared sensors found under the wings of the jewel beetle, Melanophila acuminata. The insect sensors expand when they absorb thermal radiation of the same wavelength as that emitted by wildfires, transforming the beetle into a “living fire detector,” says Schmitz. This ability allows the beetle to lay its eggs in smoldering bark, where its young can develop with little competition.

    Like the beetle's sensors, the polyethylene pellets expand when they absorb infrared radiation from a fire—a response that can be measured by scientists. Schmitz's prototype is detailed in an upcoming article on biological infrared receptors in the Journal of Comparative Physiology.

    Currently, firefighters depend on expensive or labor-intensive methods such as airplane, satellite, and watchtower surveillance to detect forest fires, says Richard Sneeuwjagt of the Western Australia Department of Conservation and Land Management. Devices such as Schmitz's, he says, may provide “cheap, reliable, and accurate technology for fire detection” that will improve our ability to fight wildfires.

  3. Aloe to the Rescue (Again)

    People have used extracts from the aloe vera plant for centuries to treat everything from cuts to constipation, but the plant may one day help save lives as well. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh report in this month's issue of Shock that a natural polymer isolated from aloe leaves prolongs survival in rats that have lost a massive volume of blood. In people, such a loss would lead to hemorrhagic shock, diverting blood from many of the body's organs and resulting in death. The aloe polymer may “act like a spring,” enabling blood to push its way more easily through the circulatory system to reach major organs, says the study's lead author, Carlos Macias. He suggests that the polymer could aid in combat and ambulance situations, where blood transfusions are not readily available and every second counts. Michael Dubick, a senior research pharmacologist at the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research, calls the findings “intriguing” but cautions that there is no evidence the treatment will work for humans. Still, he says, the Army is looking into it. “If it can buy time,” he says, “it may have large benefits.”

  4. Ice Age Cereal

    Grain starches extracted from an ancient grinding stone in Israel reveal that people milled wild barley and wheat 22,000 years ago, according to two archaeologists. The finding represents the oldest known evidence of processed food and may help explain how early humans transitioned from being hunter-gatherers to settled farmers.

    In the 5 August issue of Nature, Harvard University paleoarchaeologist Ehud Weiss and archaeobotanist Dolores Piperno of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama report the presence of wild barley and wheat on the Israeli grinding stone. Extensive carbon-14 dating of the Ohalo II site where the stone was found places occupation at 23,500 to 22,500 years ago, more than 10,000 years before the grains were domesticated in the region. People at the site may have done more than mill grain: A simple hearth oven found there suggests that they baked dough made from the flour.

    The finding is “clearly a breakthrough” in establishing a time frame for wild grain processing, says archaeologist Naama Goren-Inbar of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel, and as such, it's a “wonderful contribution to our understanding of human behavior.”

  5. The Sweetness of Conservation

    Working in Central America through the 1990s, Allen Young showed that cacao plants promote animal biodiversity when they are grown under the shade of tropical trees. Now the Milwaukee Public Museum zoologist is applying that knowledge to save rainforests—one chocolate bar at a time.


    Young and the museum had a chocolatier develop a candy bar that uses a specific type of Costa Rican cacao bean. The goal is to encourage local farmers to choose environmentally friendly cacao farming over banana agriculture, which involves flattening large tracts of rainforest. If demand for the chocolate grows, the farming practice “could catch on and spread throughout Central America,” predicts Young.

    Launched last fall, Cacao de Vida (Chocolate of Life) has been selling at select museum shops and may soon be available in stores nationwide. Fellow rainforest researcher Russell Greenberg, director of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and an advocate of “shade-grown” coffee beans, says Young's idea of combining environmental research with a consumer product may start a trend. “If this becomes a model for other countries,” he says, “it could have a large impact on global conservation.”

  6. JOBS

    Eastward bound. Singapore has added to its lengthening roster of biomedical science stars by luring prominent British cancer researcher David Lane to the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB). Lane, who was knighted for his research on the tumor suppressor gene p53, is taking a 2-year sabbatical from the University of Dundee to be IMCB's executive director.


    IMCB Deputy Director Wanjin Hong says Lane was an ideal choice for the position, which has been vacant since founding director Chris Tan retired in 2001. As someone who founded a biopharmaceutical company and held administrative posts at Dundee, Lane brings more to the job than his stellar scientific credentials. Lane will “take IMCB to a different level” in terms of international recognition, says Hong, and provide a sharper focus on research with potential commercial payoffs.

    “We're hoping we'll be able to convince him to stay 10 years,” he adds. Lane's wife, University of Dundee skin cancer researcher Birgitte Lane, is moving with him to become a principal investigator at Singapore's new Center for Molecular Medicine.

    Reason to exist. After a decade in government and academia, mathematician Susan Ganter has switched to something closer to her heart: promoting scientific opportunities for women. Last month, she left Clemson University in South Carolina to become executive director of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) in Washington, D.C.


    Ganter, 40, says she plans to build on AWIS's traditional strengths—mentoring of female graduate students and young scientists, for example—to expand its influence to every part of the country. She also intends to establish stronger ties with professional societies and get more men involved in the activities of the 33-year-old association.

    “The ultimate goal of organizations like us,” she says, “is not to have to exist anymore.”


    Green grants. Eight scientists and environmental activists from the United States, Argentina, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, the Philippines, France, and Madagascar have won $900,000 in Biodiversity Leadership Awards. The awards are given by the Bay Foundation and the Josephine Bay Paul and C. Michael Paul Foundation of New York City.

    Physics honor. David Gross, director of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara, California, and a pioneer of quantum chromo- dynamics, has been awarded the Grande Médaille by the French Academy of Sciences for his work in quantum field theory and particle physics.


    Transition grants. The European Science Foundation (ESF) has announced its inaugural batch of young investigator awards, aimed at helping junior scientists pursue independent research at a European institution. The 25 recipients this year have an average age of 35 and include citizens from 13 European countries, one American, and one Israeli. Each will receive a grant of up to $1.5 million spread over 5 years.

    Open to researchers of any age and nationality, the awards are designed to attract global talent to Europe. They fill a gap in funding between a postdoctoral fellowship and a position as an established scientist, says Bertil Andersson, ESF's chief executive officer. “It's a stage when researchers establish themselves scientifically and socially,” he says, “so if you're going to persuade them to move to a new place, you've got to do it then.”