Random Samples

Science  07 Jan 2005:
Vol. 307, Issue 5706, pp. 38

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  1. Obesity in the East

    You don't have to be wealthy any more to be sedentary and overweight. As this chart shows, the Chinese are gaining according to measurements of body mass index. They're also experiencing “a marked decline in physical activity,” according to a new report from the U.S. National Academies. The report, “Growing up Global: The Changing Transitions to Adulthood in Developing Countries,” says the proportion of Chinese children who are overweight increased from 6% to 8% in a 7-year period.

  2. Toughening Up Brain Cells

    Scientists have demonstrated a direct link between a very low calorie diet and resistance to Parkinson-like symptoms in rhesus monkeys—the first time this has been observed in primates.

    Researchers at the National Institute on Aging in Baltimore and the University of Kentucky in Lexington put seven male rhesus monkeys, out of a group of 13, on a bare-bones diet for 6 months. They then injected a neurotoxin into one side of the brain in all 13 monkeys to produce Parkinson-like symptoms. Compared to their free-eating colleagues, the dieting monkeys maintained significantly higher levels of locomotor activity after the injections.

    Post mortem analysis of movement-related brain areas showed that the dieters also had slightly higher levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is depleted in Parkinson's patients, and about three times the levels of GDNF, a nerve growth factor.

    This suggests that caloric restriction may protect brain cells by turning up the production of growth factors, and suggests that a long-term calorie-controlled diet might reduce the risk of Parkinson's disease in humans, the scientists report in a paper published online last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Neuroscientist Ole Isacson at Massachusetts General Hospital in Belmont says the results confirm that calorie restriction somehow makes the brain cells “tougher.” But he cautions that the molecular mechanisms behind that effect remain to be identified.

  3. California Cancers


    Asians have low cancer rates; Latinos getting more melanomas. A racial and ethnic breakdown of the nearly 2 million Californians diagnosed with cancer from 1988 through 2001 reveals dramatic group differences in the disease. In a report released last month by the California Cancer Registry, epidemiologists Myles Cockburn and Dennis Deapen of the University of Southern California's Cancer Surveillance Program tracked 23 types of cancer in 9 major ethnic groups. Among unexplained findings, says Cockburn, is that South Asians have the lowest cancer incidence of all groups. Among women, Koreans had the lowest breast cancer rate. Rates of skin cancer are rising in Latino populations. Other findings confirm previous data—for example, blacks have the highest prostate cancer mortality, with rates 10 times as high as in Asians.

    “It is well known that there are androgen receptor differences between races” that may contribute to the prostate cancer gap, says geneticist Joel Buxbaum of Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla. But screening programs are probably responsible for the decline in cervical cancer among immigrant Vietnamese women and the lowered breast cancer mortality rate in all but Filipino women. Observers say the report should serve as a goldmine for other researchers. “The level of detail is what makes it unique,” says biostatistician Brenda Edwards from the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland.

  4. Giant Eagle had Modest Origins


    Using DNA extracted from 2000 year-old bird bones, scientists have discovered that an extinct giant eagle from New Zealand was descended from an Australian bird one tenth its size.

    Haast's eagle was the biggest the world has ever seen. It weighed about 12 kilograms, had a wingspan of up to 3 meters, and had talons as big as tiger's claws and strong enough to puncture the pelvic bones of the huge flightless birds that it dined on.

    New Zealand paleobiologist Richard Holdaway had surmised that the bird was descended from the 4.5kg Australian wedge-tailed eagle. But an analysis of mitochondrial DNA shows a closer tie with eagles of the South Pacific that only weigh about one kilogram, Holdaway's team reports in the 4 January issue of the Public Library of Science Biology. They say the New Zealand eagle underwent an exceptionally large and rapid size increase once it settled on the islands, probably benefitting from being at the top of the food pyramid with no predators in prehistoric New Zealand, which saw its first human settlers only 700 years ago.

  5. People to Watch 2005


    Tectonic shift. Only at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) would a group called the Logarhythms serenade the school's new president. But their warbling is music to the ears of neuroscientist Susan Hockfield, who has pledged to sing the praises of MIT's faculty and students “to kids in our own nation and around the world” as part of a broader effort to “reinvigorate science and technology education” in the United States.

    Hockfield arrives 5 years after MIT publicly admitted it was discriminating against its women scientists. Researchers and administrators around the country will be watching to see how Hockfield, who took over last month from Chuck Vest, will change the playing field for women in science.


    The Peacemaker. Look for nuclear watchdog Mohamed ElBaradei to take on an even higher profile this year as the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In addition to reining in ambitious nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea and watching developments in Brazil and South Korea, the Egyptian-born lawyer will also be trying to secure a third term despite blatant U.S. efforts to oust him by searching for a viable replacement.

    Finding coherence. The burden of defending Europe against infectious diseases rests on the shoulders of Hungarian epidemiologist Zsuzsanna Jakab. Nominated last month to lead the new European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) in Stockholm, Jakab must figure out how a small outfit with no labs can help agencies and labs in 25 countries battle SARS, influenza, and other threats to public health. If confirmed, Jakab would be the first agency head from one of the 10 countries that joined the European Union in 2004.


    National Shrinking Foundation. Arden Bement could be the first director in the 55-year history of the National Science Foundation (NSF) to preside over consecutive years of declining budgets. Bement, who started a 6-year term in late November after spending most of the year as acting NSF director, is already coping with a 2% cut in 2005 imposed by Congress. And the Bush Administration has told NSF to prepare for a 4% cut in the president's 2006 budget request next month. Bement is also trying to find heads for three of NSF's seven research directorates, one of which has been vacant since last March.


    Enough tarrying. As head of the European Commission's directorate general for research, economist Achilleas Mitsos has a mandate from his political bosses to build the $6-billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in France. But he'd rather have all six ITER partners, including Japan, on board than split the collaboration. In addition to those seemingly endless negotiations, Mitsos will also be pushing to double the budget of the European Union's next 5-year research program, which starts in 2006, and launch a new basic research agency, the European Research Council.


    Up in the air. The space science spotlight in 2005 will be on Al Diaz, the new head of a reorganized science office within the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). A dyed-in-the-wool technocrat who joined NASA in 1964 and most recently ran Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, Diaz will have the thankless task of slicing and dicing research programs to fit into a 2005 budget that, despite increasing, falls far short of what the agency needs. With Sean O'Keefe headed out the door, Diaz will also need to sell that science to a new NASA administrator.

  6. EVENT WATCH: Look for...

    -the Department of Energy (DOE) to pick a new contractor to run Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The University of California's contract to manage the lab expires 31 January, but it will stay in charge until DOE announces its decision later in the year.

    -the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to announce the team of academics that will run the new Center for HIV/AIDS Vaccine Immunology, a virtual lab that will receive at least $300 million over the next 7 years. The center will support a research program aimed at addressing immunological challenges that stand in the way of an effective HIV vaccine.

    -the launch of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, the centerpiece of a 10-year, $3 billion plan for stem cell research approved by the state's voters last year. The institute plans to award its first grants by May.

    -NASA's Space Shuttle to return to orbit to continue building the International Space Station.