Random Samples

Science  26 Nov 2004:
Vol. 306, Issue 5701, pp. 1469

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  1. Something in the Water


    Scientists have long puzzled over what killed the animals that became the superbly preserved 47-million-year-old fossils recovered over the past few decades from the Messel Lake deposits in Germany. A team at the University of Bonn suspects that toxic algae did them in.

    The fossils from the World Heritage Site of Messel near Darmstadt show astonishing diversity, from dog-sized primitive horses to birds, bats, beetles, and plants. Especially mysterious is the presence of birds and bats, which might have been expected to fly away from noxious volcanic gases previously invoked as the likely cause of death.

    Now paleontologist Wighart von Koenigswald and colleagues think they have the answer. They observed that an unusually high proportion of specimens of the primitive horse Propalaeotherium (five out of 50) were pregnant mares. And there were five obvious pairs of Allaeochelys turtles. All this suggested a link between early summer reproduction and death in the lake. The Messel sediments are oil-rich muds made up of alternating fine layers of limestone and algae. Comparison with other deposits indicates that the algal layers were created by abundant blooms of cyanobacteria, normally present in low numbers but which sometimes take over surface waters and release toxins when nitrogen levels are high. “Animals drinking such poisoned water die almost instantly,” observes Koenigswald's team. The authors, whose report is in the latest issue of Paläontologische Zeitschrift, say the presence of toxins is difficult to prove. But it's a “provocative new model for the death of the Messel mammals,” says Yale University paleontologist Derek Briggs. “It should stimulate new research to detect any correlation between death assemblages and cyanobacterial blooms.”

  2. Fear as Action

    Fearful (a), neutral (b), and happy (c) poses.CREDIT: B. DE GELDER ET AL., PNAS ONLINE EARLY EDITION (16 NOVEMBER 2004)

    Much research has been conducted on how the human brain responds to facial expressions. A new Harvard brain-scan study suggests that reactions to scary bodily gestures involve not only the emotional brain but the motor areas as well.

    Psychologist Beatrice de Gelder and colleagues at Harvard Medical School in Boston selected 24 photographs of actors in gestures that were fearful, happy, or emotionally neutral. They then blurred the faces so subjects' brains would only react to bodies. In a 16 November paper appearing online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers report that whereas happy gestures only spurred activity in the visual cortex, the fearful ones revved up not only emotional centers, such as the amygdala, but also areas involved in movement and action representation. This combination “may constitute a mechanism for fear contagion” as well as for action in response to fear—that is, fleeing—the authors observe.

    De Gelder notes that because most research on emotions looks at faces, not bodies, scientists have assumed that amygdala activation is specific to fearful faces. This study suggests that “a more holistic view of visual processing” is needed, says cognitive scientist Pawan Sinha of the Mass-achusetts Institute of Technology, who adds that the brain “appears to be more flexible and opportunistic” in how it picks up fear messages than previously realized.

    De Gelder says studies on the relation between emotion and movement could offer insights into movement disorders that also feature emotional disturbances, such as Parkinson's and Huntington's.

  3. Gulf Oil Decline in Sight

    The price of a barrel of crude is way up, and government officials say incentives implemented by the Bush Administration in 2001 will soon be boosting production in the Gulf of Mexico. But despite the incentives, oil production in the Gulf may start to decline within the next 6 years, according to a new forecast from the Department of the Interior.

    Total U.S. oil production peaked in 1970, but drillers have been driving up production in the Gulf, the country's top oil-producing area, by pushing into ever-deeper waters. Now companies are poised to extract the last drops. According to a new forecast by Interior's Minerals Management Service (MMS), Gulf production should surge by almost 50% by the end of the decade as industry reaches for oil beneath “ultradeep” (more than 1500 meters) waters and from more than 9 kilometers beneath the shallow sea floor. But that surge will be short-lived, says MMS, and Gulf production is likely to decline after 2011.

    That's sharply at variance with the outlook espoused by the U.S. Department of Energy, which recently forecast that total U.S. oil output would hold steady through 2025. The projected Gulf peak—at 2.3 million barrels a day, or a quarter of total U.S. oil production—is the kind of sign that pessimistic oil analysts expect to see as world oil production peaks in the coming decade and the era of cheap oil comes to an end.

  4. Awards


    Math prizes. A request for a letter of recommendation led to a major mathematical discovery and earned Cambridge University's Ben Green one of three 2004 research awards from the Clay Mathematics Institute.

    “I asked [mathematician Terence Tao] for a reference for a job application,” says Green, who had met Tao during a stint at Princeton University in 2001. “He said, ‘Yes, of course, … and I've been thinking about such and such.’” The conversation pulled Green and Tao into a close collaboration. The two soon solved a famous conjecture about the prime numbers: They showed that for any given number n, there are an infinite number of evenly spaced progressions of primes that are n numbers long (Science, 21 May, p. 1095).

    Green, 27, wins a 2-year fellowship and a sculpture. (Tao won a Clay award last year for other work.) The other two winners this year are Gérard Laumon and Bao-Châu Ngô of the University of Paris-Sud, honored for their work in algebra.

    Mental health prize. Child psychiatrist Jonathan Picker has won the first Sidney Baer Prize for mental health research from the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression. Picker, a researcher at Harvard Medical School's McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, wins the $40,000 prize for his work examining the role of genetic and environmental risk factors in the development of schizophrenia.

    Bioinformatics award. Biochemist Amos Bairoch of the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics in Geneva has won the $88,000 Latsis Prize from the European Science Foundation.

  5. Celebrities


    Household name. Women sitting down to breakfast will soon get tips on how to combat heart disease in a cereal promotion that features a New York City cardiologist. Starting in January, boxes of Wheat Chex and Multi-Grain Chex will deliver a public-service message from Nieca Goldberg, chief of women's cardiac care at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, as part of a public-service campaign sponsored by General Mills.

    It's not Goldberg's first venture into popular culture: Earlier this year she worked with script writers for the soap opera One Life to Live in a plot line involving a female character with heart disease.

  6. Jobs

    Culture shift.CREDIT: FMI

    An American molecular biologist has become the first woman to direct the Friedrich Miescher Institute in Basel, Switzerland. Next month Susan Gasser will take the reins of the 34-year-old biomedical research institute, funded by pharmaceutical giant Novartis. She succeeds Denis Monard, who has served as interim director since 2002.

    Gasser, now a professor at the University of Geneva, hopes to aggressively develop the careers of young group leaders, who she says do not receive enough attention. Hans Hengartner, a biologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, says Gasser has what it takes to connect the academic and pharmaceutical worlds. “She is outspoken, and she is a leader,” he says.

    Gasser, 49, has lived in Switzerland since moving there as a graduate student in 1979.

  7. Checking In


    Behavioral ecologist Peter Smallwood misses doing fieldwork. But he doesn't really mind that his new job keeps him tied to a desk. That's because Smallwood is serving a 1-year stint in Baghdad as the new director of the Interim Iraqi Center for Science and Industry, which hopes to find employment for scientists and engineers from Saddam Hussein's weapons programs (Science, 25 June, p. 1884).

    Since arriving in September, Smallwood has encouraged the Iraqi scientists to think creatively about how they can apply their skills to civilian projects. “Under the regime, you did exactly what you were told and nothing else,” he says. One vehicle will be a fellowship program in which applicants must submit detailed proposals. He hopes by the end of the year to have 120 scientists on contract, with a long-term goal of helping 500 find new livelihoods.

    The 43-year-old Smallwood is on leave from the University of Richmond in Virginia. And although he no longer has the chance to commune with nature, he says that “finding a praying mantis here in Baghdad one day totally made my day.”