Random Samples

Science  08 Oct 2004:
Vol. 306, Issue 5694, pp. 224

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  1. Secret Species Nabbed in DNA Sweep

    Bar codes are ubiquitous. Now birds and butterflies are in on the act: Scientists intend to give each species its own bar code, made up of sequenced DNA from part of a mitochondrial gene (Science, 13 June 2003, p 1692).

    These DNA tags are already showing that they can clear up identity problems. In a pilot project to create bar codes for 260 North American bird species from museum specimens, Paul Hebert, a zoologist at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, and colleagues found that the marsh wren, the warbling vireo, the eastern meadowlark, and the solitary sandpiper had similar looking “twin” species that systematists had missed. And butterfly experts working with Hebert have snagged nine new Costa Rican species. The findings appeared, respectively, in last month's Public Library of Science and the 28 September Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    Hebert wants every animal to have a bar code. He envisions handheld DNA sequencers as standard equipment that field researchers can use to scan feathers or other tissues. “The ability to gather data quickly, cheaply, in large quantities, and from [museum] specimens makes bar coding a hugely valuable tool,” says Scott Miller of the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Skeptics—especially taxonomists—worry that it is simplistic to assume that species can be distinguished by means of the 600 bases in one gene.

  2. India Gets EDUSAT

    Indians online. CREDIT: P. BAGLA

    India has long been regarded as a perfect candidate for satellite education with its multilingual and largely rural population, separated by huge distances and difficult terrain. There have been small pilot programs since the 1970s. But last month finally saw the launching of EDUSAT, the first satellite dedicated to supplying educational material to the entire country. Designed to hover over the subcontinent for the next 7 years, it will start providing interactive instruction and audiovisual material when it goes operational in mid-November.

    The satellite will beam down programs in English and Hindi, as well as India's 16 official regional languages, via its 96 channels. It will also open up connections between universities and isolated rural schools, says Yash Pal, former chair of the University Grants Commission in New Delhi.

    In addition to supporting formal education ranging from grade school through graduate education, the satellite will be used to disseminate health information to patients and professionals as well as train teachers in the use of educational technology. There will also be a science channel called Jigyasa, or inquisitiveness.

  3. Prehistoric Garbage Crisis?

    Did civilization begin when people started taking out the garbage? Two Australian archaeologists say the answer may be yes. Tania Hardy-Smith and Phillip Edwards of La Trobe University in Victoria took a close look at the rubbish situation at the 12,000-year-old settlement of Wadi Hammeh 27, a site occupied by the Natufians, sedentary hunter-gatherers who lived in present-day Israel. The scientists counted more than 439,000 pieces of refuse, mostly debris from stone tool making and discarded animal bone, on one occupation level. They found 82% of the trash within two stone structures believed to be dwellings.

    Dwellings at other Natufian sites, the researchers found, were also “smothered in a rich farrago of refuse.” But a look at several later Neolithic farming settlements revealed that people became more fastidious over time, depositing their garbage in exterior areas apart from dwellings, the authors report in the September Journal of Anthropological Archaeology.

    The Natufians did suffer from a “veritable garbage crisis,” says archaeologist Nigel Goring-Morris of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. But he cautions that the structures at Wadi Hammeh 27 might have been used for “symbolic purposes,” such as ritual dining, rather than as dwellings. The lack of hygiene, he adds, also may have been deadly: The Natufians appeared to have had higher death rates than did the later farming people.

  4. Civilian Space Race


    SpaceShipOne looks to be first in line to capture a $10 million “X-Prize” offered by aerospace enthusiast Peter Diamandis for the first privately funded team to launch a vehicle that will be able to carry tourists into space. The 8-meter-long folding-winged craft was released over the Arizona desert at about 15,000 meters on 29 September. Then pilot Mike Melvill fired up its rocket motor and soared to the edge of the atmosphere, about 100 kilometers up. To clinch the prize, the SpaceShipOne team was to attempt to repeat the feat on 4 October.

    Another entrepreneur, Robert Bigelow, chief of Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace, is setting the stakes even higher for the civilian space race: He's offering $50 million to anyone who can build an orbital travel vehicle by the end of the decade.

  5. Quick Exit for Gal?pagos Director


    Ecuador's government has fired the controversial director of the Galápagos National Park just 2 weeks after hiring him.

    Biologist Fausto Cepeda's appointment on 13 September sparked outrage from park rangers, who alleged that his close ties to the fishing industry would compromise the fragile ecosystem that inspired Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. About 300 rangers staged a sit-in, blocking Cepeda and tourists from entering the park. A small group of fishermen, who oppose catch limits on lobsters and sea cucumbers, responded by storming the park's main gate and attacking the rangers. Riot police and the navy quelled the violence. But on 27 September government officials bowed to the pressure and replaced Cepeda with Victor Carrion, a biologist associated with conservation initiatives. Neither Cepeda nor Carrion could be reached for comment.

    The future of the 13-island reserve depends on qualified, impartial biologists like Carrion and should not be shaped by politics, says Johannah Barry, president of the Charles Darwin Foundation Inc., which supports the Charles Darwin Research Station located on the islands. “The park is a jewel in the crown of biodiversity, and people will make their concerns known when they think it is being compromised.”

  6. Awards


    Developmental engineering. As a Peace Corps volunteer in Botswana, Amy Smith saw how simple technological innovations could improve people's lives in remote parts of the world. So she returned to her alma mater, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), to develop low-cost technologies for problems such as purifying water and milling grain. Last week, the work earned her a $500,000, 5-year MacArthur Fellowship.

    The 41-year-old mechanical engineer, now an instructor at MIT's Edgerton Center, will use some of the money to help Haitians develop ways of making charcoal from the byproducts of sugar cane. Smith is also helping undergraduates further their own ideas for developing world technologies.

    Six scientists and engineers are among the remaining 22 MacArthur Fellows chosen this year. The complete list is at www.macfound.org/programs/fel/winners_overview.htm.

    EMBO prize. Spanish molecular oncologist Maria Blasco has won the 2004 gold medal from the European Molecular Biology Organization. Blasco, a researcher at the Spanish National Cancer Center in Madrid, receives the honor for her work on telomeres.


    Incomparable foodie. Food writers typically undertake only gastronomic experiments, but then Robert Wolke isn't your typical food writer. The retired nuclear chemist turned Washington Post columnist occasionally runs chemistry experiments to debunk common myths about food and cooking. For a recent column, in which he exposes the fallacy of foods releasing flavors when cooked in wine, Wolke performed tests to confirm that there is too little alcohol in wine to dissolve water-insoluble flavors. What really happens, he says, is that the alcohol promotes chemical reactions, creating new flavors in addition to those that come along with the wine.

    Such insights earned Wolke this year's Grady-Stack award from the American Chemical Society for interpreting chemistry for the public. Although the former University of Pittsburgh professor has hauled in other awards for his food writing, “this one means an awful lot to me because it is from my own chemistry colleagues,” he says.

  7. Campaigns


    Apes for a cause. Nine researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, were among 650 participants at the Great Gorilla Run held in London on 19 September to raise money for gorilla research and conservation. The Leipzig team, composed largely of scientists who study genetic material collected from wild gorilla droppings, called itself DNApes—short for DNA Analysis of Poop, Excrement, and Scat. The runners “walked briskly” for the 7-kilometer route, says team leader and gorilla researcher Linda Vigilant, who claims that limited vision in the gorilla suits prevented a faster pace. The group raised $4000 that will go to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.