Random Samples

Science  14 Jan 2005:
Vol. 307, Issue 5707, pp. 204

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  1. A Clean Sweep

    The gecko's self-cleaning footpads stay tacky. CREDIT: W. HANSEN AND K. AUTUMN

    A sticky situation with geckos has been resolved. The nimble little reptile's toes are so adherent that it can suspend itself by a single digit, yet its feet never get fouled up with dust. Now, using microscopic silica-alumina spheres, a physicist and a biologist at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, have figured out why.

    They dusted geckos' feet with the spheres and found that as the reptiles walked, their feet shed the spheres and quickly returned to peak stickiness. The spheres stuck to the surface more readily than they did to the feet because the electrostatic attraction of the surface is greater than the collective attraction of the tiny hairs on the toe pads, explain the scientists, Wendy Hansen and Kellar Autumn. So the pads naturally cleaned themselves as the lizards ambled about.

    “It opens up the question, ‘Can we repeat this with manmade materials?’” says Daniel Fletcher, a bioengineer at the University of California, Berkeley. A self-cleaning adhesive would obviously be useful, he says. This sort of research, Fletcher adds, might also help people figure out how to thwart infectious diseases by foiling microbial adhesives, such as the one that allows the diarrhea-causing parasite Giardia lamblia to stick to the walls of the intestine.

  2. Monumental Makeover


    Brussels's most famous science monument is getting a facelift. The Atomium, a 102-meter-high model of iron atoms in a crystalline structure (magnified 165 billion times), has been part of the landscape since its construction in 1958 as part of the World Expo celebrations. But guests in recent years have noticed that the oversized tribute to the 1950s' faith in science and technology is looking increasingly tatty. The city of Brussels and the Belgian government are now contributing 70% of the $32 million needed to replace the aluminum and steel surface and update the interior where people look out from the windowed spheres and read yellowed posters about the wonders of atomic energy.

    To help cover the rest, the 1000 old aluminum panels that covered the atoms are being sold to Atomium enthusiasts for €1000 ($1400) apiece. The monument, closed during the renovations, is expected to reopen early next year.

  3. Primordial Fungus


    Exquisite microfossils dissolved out of 850-million-year-old rocks could be from the most ancient fungi ever discovered.

    Fungi, which are closer relatives to animals than to plants, have been conclusively identified as far back as 380 million years ago. The new fossils, which are no bigger than half a milli-meter, were pains-takingly sieved out of a slurry of dissolved shale from Victoria Island, Canada, by paleontologist Nicholas Butterfield of the University of Cambridge, U.K.

    Most of the fossils have a rounded central body covered with multicellular filaments. The key feature, as Butterfield describes in the current issue of Paleobiology, is that these filaments join to form networks of loops—diagnostic of modern “higher” fungi. The fossils don't belong to any living group. But Butterfield says they resemble mysterious microfossils from China and Australia called Tappania, some of which are nearly 1.5 billion years old. “I can almost put my hand on my heart and say we've got a fungus at 1400 million years,” Butterfield says.

    Other experts say the evidence is strong, but not conclusive, that the Canadian fossils are fungi. Emmanuelle Javaux of the University of Liège, Belgium, a member of the team that first described the Australian fossils, thinks the two groups could be related. But she also notes that the older Tappania have different features and lack the joined loops, known as hyphal fusion. If fungal identities are confirmed by further studies, they would add substantially to the known diversity of early life and provide a new calibration point for the molecular clocks used to date major evolutionary events, says Butterfield.

  4. Jobs


    Is it contagious? The head of infectious diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, is stepping down, the latest in a string of high-profile departures from the agency. Physician James Hughes, 59, who for 12 years has led CDC's National Center for Infectious Diseases (NCID), this spring will move to nearby Emory University to direct new international programs on safe water and infectious disease.

    The directors of five other centers run by CDC have left in the past year. CDC spokes-person Thomas Skinner says they all were eligible for retirement. However, observers say other factors—such as new requirements for CDC staff in the U.S. Public Health Service commissioned corps and an ongoing reorganization by Director Julie Gerberding that groups CDC's 11 centers into “clusters” (Science, 30 April 2004, p. 662)—are contributing to the exodus. Some are worried, for example, that changes in budgets could harm CDC's infectious disease control efforts, notes a member of NCID's board of scientific counselors. But he adds that the reorganization “could be a positive thing if done correctly.”

    NCID is also losing its second in command, epidemiologist Stephen Ostroff, who is taking a job as a Department of Health and Human Services health attaché in Hawaii next month. Hughes was on medical leave and not available for comment.

    Offering stability. Spain hopes to slow the exodus of young scientists by creating 900 new jobs at universities and nonprofit research centers over the next 3 years. The Science and Education Ministry says the positions will be permanent, unlike the temporary jobs offered under past initiatives aimed at reversing the country's brain drain.

    State secretary of science policy Salvador Barberá says the ministry will provide up to $14 million a year in grants to regional governments to fund the plan. Scientists with 4 years of domestic or overseas postdoctoral experience will be eligible for the positions, which will emphasize research over teaching.

    Biologist Arcadi Navarro, who joined Barcelona's Pompeu Fabra University in 2002 under a program with similar goals but no guarantee of permanent employment, welcomes the announcement but has a “lot of doubts” about whether the positions will truly be secure in the long term. He also thinks that 900 jobs may not be enough to make a difference.

  5. Honors


    Cultural icons. These four stamps, to be released by the U.S. Postal Service in April, honor four American researchers who helped shape science in the 20th century.

  6. Deaths


    Unfinished business. Archaeologist Robson Bonnichsen, a plaintiff in a suit by scientists seeking to study the 9300-year-old remains of Kennewick Man, died in his sleep on Christmas Eve in Bend, Oregon, where he and his wife were visiting family members. He was 64.

    Head of the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A&M University in College Station, Bonnichsen never tasted the fruits of the 8-year battle that culminated in victory for the scientists last year (Science, 30 July 2004, p. 591). Although the ruling provided for access to the skeleton, which Native American tribes had claimed as an ancestor, the terms are still being negotiated.

    “I keep worrying that several plaintiffs are going to be dead before it's decided,” his lawyer, Alan Schneider of Portland, Oregon, said prophetically a few years ago. Bonnichsen's death, he now says, “is a shock for all of us.”


    Doctorate by default. For a young scientist, joining Julius Axelrod's neuroscience lab at the National Institute of Mental Health was once considered a big risk. A chain smoker who spoke with a stutter, Axelrod didn't earn his Ph.D. until his mid 40s, when he bundled together copies of the roughly 100 papers he'd published as a lab technician at NIH and elsewhere. And he didn't act like a scientist: At a time when mentors favored formality, he insisted on being called by his nickname (Julie) by his juniors.

    Then in 1970 he won the Nobel Prize for his research on how nerves communicate with one another. And the outsider—blocked from medical school because of Jewish quotas and blind in one eye from an accident in a vitamin-supplement lab in New York City—evolved into a grand old man of science.

    Last month Axelrod died at the age of 92. His work revolutionized the field of brain chemistry and led to modern-day treatments for depression and anxiety disorders. He also trained more than 70 scientists. “It's an honor to have been shaped by him,” says MIT neuroscientist Richard Wurtman, an early postdoc in Axelrod's lab. “And in my lab, I'm Dick to everyone.”