Random Samples

Science  29 Oct 2004:
Vol. 306, Issue 5697, pp. 808
  1. Birds Attack Cats

    CREDIT: PHOTOS.COM

    The Sriracha Tiger Zoo near Bangkok boasted 441 tigers. Visitors could cuddle with tiger cubs and watch shows featuring tigers jumping through hoops of fire and dancing with female handlers.

    But now the zoo is closed. The bird flu epidemic that has killed 31 people in Southeast Asia and led to the death of more than 100 million birds is now claiming big cats too. Upward of 100 Bengal tigers at the zoo have died after eating raw chicken apparently infected with the highly pathogenic H5N1 influenza virus. A veterinarian at Thailand's Department of Livestock Development says all the tigers were probably infected by a single batch of bad chicken.

    In a recent laboratory experiment (Science, 8 October, p. 241), Dutch researchers reported that domestic cats can contract the H5N1 virus from infected chicken meat and can pass it on to other cats. No cat-to-cat transmission has yet been seen at the zoo where the sick tigers have been isolated. But officials aren't allowing poultry within a 5-kilometer radius of the zoo to be moved as they attempt to track the source of the infected meat. Raw chicken is on the menu at most zoos in Thailand. And meat from H5N1-infected birds was also blamed in the death of a clouded leopard and the illness of a tiger at another nearby zoo earlier this year. The veterinarian suggests that zoos should either start cooking their chicken or switch to beef or pork.

  2. State of ART

    In vitro fertilization and other reproductive technologies make low birth weight and prematurity more likely. But the techniques don't seem to boost the risk of malformations or cancer, according to a presentation last week at the meeting of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

    A panel chaired by biostatistician and epidemiologist Steven Goodman of Johns Hopkins University and organized by the Hopkins Genetics and Public Policy Center announced preliminary conclusions after combing through 169 studies of children conceived using assisted reproductive technologies (ART). Even singleton ART babies had roughly double the risk of prematurity and mortality soon after birth and triple the risk of very low birth weight compared with babies conceived the old-fashioned way, the review found.

    The panel's reassuring data on birth defects contradict findings published 2 years ago in the New England Journal of Medicine that ART doubles the risk. (Major birth defects occur in 2.5% of naturally conceived infants.) That report, by a team in Australia, studied approximately 1100 ART children and 4000 conceived normally. But Goodman says that study, which the Hopkins panel considered, covered far fewer subjects than other studies his group examined.

    Why so many ART children are born prematurely is “a bit of a puzzle,” says Goodman. Several experts say the problems may stem not from the technology but from biological differences in infertile parents. “It may not be the technique so much as the people,” says Michael Greene, head of maternal and fetal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

    The panel hopes to publish a final report with research recommendations early next year.

  3. Mystics and Synesthesia

    CREDIT: ROYALTYFREE/CORBIS

    Psychics are always talking about the “auras” they claim to see around the heads of clients. A new study suggests that seeing auras actually may be a rare form of a neurological condition called synesthesia.

    In synesthesia, the stimulation of one sense evokes another. Some synesthetes can “taste” what they touch or “see” what they hear, a phenomenon thought to be the result of abnormal crosstalk between sensory pathways in the brain.

    The case of “G.W.,” a 19-year-old female, is different because she experiences colored halos around the names and faces of people close to her. Thus it links emotions, not just sensory stimuli, with the synesthetic effect, says Jamie Ward, a neuroscientist at University College London. G.W.'s experiences bear striking resemblance to visions described by mystics, says Ward, who reports on the case in the October issue of Cognitive Neuropsychology.

    For example, whenever G.W. saw or imagined the face of her friend James, she experienced a vibrant pink halo. She also saw colors in association with emotionally charged words. Positive feelings tended to produce more pink, orange, and yellow halos, whereas negative feelings elicited brown, gray, and black halos.

    Far from indicating an ability to see into another's soul, Ward believes that G.W.'s condition is likely due to crosstalk between emotional processing centers and areas in the visual system. V. S. Ramachandran, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, says that a study of people who claim to see auras could broaden current theories about synesthesia and “open up a whole new field of inquiry.”

  4. Pioneers

    CREDIT: JENNIFER MONCEL/MATERIALS RESEARCH INSTITUTE

    Nanoschooling. Materials scientist Robert Chang wants schoolchildren to feel the excitement of nanotechnology, and he's just received $15 million from the government to make it happen.

    Chang, a professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and 70 researchers from 13 institutions are setting up the country's first National Center for Learning and Teaching on nanoscale science and engineering. The 5-year National Science Foundation grant will help them develop, among other things, 2-week-long nanoscience “modules” using hands-on demonstrations, computer simulations, and visualizations that middle school and high school teachers can integrate into existing science curricula.

    Chang has done similar work over the past decade in materials science, and he hopes the new center will encourage students to explore the expanding frontier of nanoscience.

  5. Jobs

    Eliminating hoops. Bernard Meunier says he likes administration, not bureaucracy. That's good news for French science, given that the 57-year-old biochemist has just been named president of the country's flagship basic research agency, CNRS.

    Meunier says one of his priorities will be to simplify paperwork at CNRS, which has often been criticized for red tape and rigidity. And he'll channel more of its $2.8 billion budget to science, not bureaucrats, he promises. He also intends to continue reforms, such as strengthening research evaluation and fostering international ties, as planned by his predecessor, Gérard Mégie, who died in June.

    A 31-year veteran of CNRS, Meunier has led a research group at its chemistry lab in Toulouse since 1979, focusing on organometallic and oxidation chemistry. He's internationally appreciated as a “calm and experienced colleague,” says chemist Jan Reedijk of Leiden University in the Netherlands. Bernhard Lippert of the University of Dortmund in Germany says Meunier's skill at combining basic and applied research—he also founded a company to develop malaria drugs—“is what makes him strong.”

  6. Honors

    IOM members. The Institute of Medicine of the U.S. National Academies last week elected 65 new members including 14 women, raising its total active membership to 1416 (http://www.iom.edu/). The institute also elected five foreign associates from India, Israel, Mexico, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.

  7. Misfortunes

    CREDIT: PATRICK DUMAS/EURELIOS;

    Cruel irony. The German hiker who in 1991 came upon a Neo-lithic mummy in the Tyrolean Alps has died during a hike 150 km from the site. Helmut Simon, 67, left for a solo climb in the Alps south of Salzburg on 15 October. After an extensive search, Simon's body was found 23 October by a hunter who spotted his orange jacket in a small creek bed. Authorities suspect that he accidentally fell 100 meters from an unmarked parth to his death.

    Scientists have used traces from the clothes and stomach contents of the 5300-year-old mummy, dubbed Ötzi, to piece together a detailed picture of his life and death (Science, 31 October 2003, p. 759). In the meantime, Simon and his wife, Erika, have battled the Italian province of Bozen-South Tyrol, which operates a museum dedicated to the mummy, over the couple's claim to a $200,000-to-$300,000 reward for their discovery.

  8. Data Point

    CREDIT: EPA

    Geek factor? The gender gap in the computer science workforce has widened over the past 2 decades, according to a report from the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology. The report shows modest to impressive gains for women in other science and engineering occupations.

    One factor behind the “disappointing trend” in information technology is that “the field has a real image problem,” says Tracy Camp, co-chair of the Association for Computing Machinery's Committee on Women in Computing. “When people think of computing jobs, they think of antisocial men sitting in front of a computer all day, and that picture scares away a lot of girls,” says Camp, who believes that the IT community needs to “put a lot more women role models out there before school and college students.”

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