News this Week

Science  21 Jan 2005:
Vol. 307, Issue 5708, pp. 330

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    Titan, Once a World Apart, Becomes Eerily Familiar

    1. Richard A. Kerr

    The praise was polyglot, but the sense of it was clear enough: incredible, magnificent, astonishing. The European probe Huygens had blazed into the upper atmosphere of Saturn's big moon Titan, floated down by parachute for two-and-a-half hours—as it snapped pictures, sniffed the air, and checked the weather—and almost miraculously survived a hard landing to taste the surface and return a “wish you were here” view of a truly alien world.

    The mission was more than simply a brilliant engineering success. “I was blown away by what I saw,” said European Space Agency (ESA) science director David Southwood. “I had wanted to know that there was complexity down there.” And complexity he got. What had frustratingly remained an unrecognizable world of broad smears of light and dark, veiled even from the passing Cassini spacecraft by Titan's hazy atmosphere, exploded into sharp details of canyons, riverbeds, plains, rocks, mud, and possible lakes and seas.

    Perhaps most astonishing was how familiar it all looked. “I was struck by how similar it looks to what we've seen on a variety of planets,” said Huygens descent imager principal investigator Martin Tomasko of the University of Arizona (UA) in Tucson. In particular, this moon of rock-hard ice, organic goo, and liquefied natural gas bears a striking resemblance to deserts like the Mojave and to Mars.

    The shock of the familiar crept up on icy-satellite geologist Robert Pappalardo of the University of Colorado, Boulder. “When I first saw the image from the surface,” he recalls, “I scrolled right by it because I thought it was Mars. I was amazed.” The rusty orange color later added by the imager team is the cast that sunlight gives the surface as it leaks through Titan's hazy atmosphere; Mars, on the other hand, takes its color from the yellow-brown of oxidized iron. But the “rocks” strewn into the distance of a flat plain (middle figure) could at first glance easily be taken for martian. In fact, they are probably water ice, as suggested by spectra taken by Huygens. The 10- to 30-centimeter cobbles are well rounded, as if they've been tumbled in a streambed, and are scattered across the scene as if a powerful current had debouched nearby, spread across a broad valley floor, and dropped the rocks where they're now found. On Earth geologists call that a playa.

    A blur no longer.

    The Huygens probe revealed new detail on Titan (left, 60 kilometers across), including drainage channels (right) and surface rocks (middle).


    Huygens's view of the surface on its way down made it plain that powerful currents have indeed carved the surface of Titan. With 20 times the resolution of Cassini and a view from beneath the obscuring haze, the Huygens descent imager returned a picture (right) that screams fluid flow. The view from 16 kilometers up “looks very much like drainage channels,” said Tomasko, with signs of seepage from canyon walls familiar from both Earth and Mars. Collected fluids would run down the dark-floored channels “out to what looks very much like a shoreline” of a dark sea. This and other Huygens images now add credibility to earlier Cassini observations. “We saw what we called ‘dark meandering lines’” in Cassini images, says imaging team member Alfred McEwen of UA, but “we weren't ready to call them channels.” And Huygens radar team member Ralph Lorenz of UA had pointed out bright, triangular features in the radar images and suggested—boldly at the time—that they could be rough, bouldery fans of debris dumped where channeled flows opened onto valley floors.

    With so many signs of erosion, “the big question is, are the liquids there now?” McEwen asks. Theoreticians had invoked liquid methane—liquefied natural gas—on the surface to explain the presence of methane in the atmosphere. But Cassini observations had failed to reveal any clear sign of a dark methane ocean, sea, or even lake (Science, 3 December 2004, p. 1676). As much as the canyon-riddled highland draining to a dark, “shore”-lined plain suggested a sea, Huygens found no obvious sign of standing fluids either. It landed in a generally dark area, said Tomasko, that turns out to be a flat plain.

    Even so, Huygens may have found the predicted reservoir of liquid methane. Atmospheric chemist Sushil Atreya of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and the gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer team reported that when they gently heated their instrument's sampling inlet after it was driven into the surface on landing, methane was released. And John Zarnecki of the University of Kent, U.K., principal investigator of the surface science package, said that the penetrometer encountered a thin crust before passing through 15 centimeters of something the consistency of wet sand or clay. His most colorful analogy was a crème brûlée.

    Methane seas may yet turn up, but Titan already would seem to have all the parts of a “methylogical cycle” that is analogous—in sometimes strange ways—to the hydrologic cycles of Earth and ancient Mars. Titan's atmosphere contains methane and photochemically produced ethane—analogous to Earth's water vapor—that condense into hydrocarbon clouds. Some clouds must rain onto the surface to erode the channels, although just how hydrocarbons would erode the highly insoluble water ice remains to be worked out. The rain would presumably also pick up the many meters of dark photochemical goo that settles from the haze layer over the eons. That would explain the dark stain on canyon floors and outwash plains. Once the hydrocarbon rivers spread across the wide, flat plains, they would drop any heavy sediment in fans. If the fluids mostly evaporated away to complete the cycle, they would leave their load of organic goo the way water leaves its dissolved salts on a salt flat. Some fluid would likely soak into the plain to become “ground hydrocarbons.”

    All this sounds to Pappalardo like a desert environment on Earth. It doesn't rain often in deserts, but when it does, the rain can be torrential. That could well be the case on Titan, notes Jonathan Lunine of UA, a Huygens interdisciplinary scientist. Cassini has found few if any clouds outside the south pole region, but ground-based astronomers have seen one cloud outburst at mid latitudes in recent years. That level of activity could be all that's needed to shape a familiar-looking world.


    Global Tsunami Warning System Takes Shape

    1. Eli Kintisch

    The Bush Administration last week announced a new plan to protect American citizens from tsunamis, bolstering efforts both in wave detection and public readiness.

    Unveiling of the proposed $37.5 million effort came a day after Koichiro Matsuura, director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), announced that his organization would build a global tsunami warning system, starting with a $30 million network in the Indian Ocean. White House science adviser John Marburger, speaking at a press conference on 14 January, said the enlarged U.S. network could be part of the worldwide UNESCO effort.

    The Administration is proposing to expand the number of wave detectors in the Pacific from six to about 24 and to deploy another seven in the Atlantic and Caribbean. U.S. Geological Survey seismometers are also set for an upgrade. “It's [the] initial straw man plan,” said oceanographer Eddie Bernard, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA's) Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, Washington. In the coming months, tsunami experts at NOAA will work with volcano and landslide specialists to finalize the proposal.

    The current network of six American wave detectors, which measure water pressure on the sea floor, warns officials on the West Coast and Hawaii of long-ranging tsunamis heading south from Alaska. Ringing Pacific coasts on both sides of the ocean with some 18 new detectors will dramatically improve the network's capabilities. It will also provide crucial early warning to Asian and South American nations.

    More warning.

    NOAA's Conrad Lautenbacher says extending the Pacific tsunami network will make “a significant contribution to a global system.”


    The expanded detection system would be part of the American-led Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), a linking of existing networks for global studies, which is set for formal approval in Brussels on 16 February. Asked if the proposed U.N. and U.S. systems were connected, Marburger noted that UNESCO's Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission has endorsed GEOSS. And officials hope to coordinate the placement of wave and seismic gauges in international waters. “We want to work it out with our global partners,” said NOAA administrator Navy Vice Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher.

    Even the upgraded network would give little time to alert coastal communities if a massive earthquake were to strike just offshore. To prepare the public for that, the plan calls for an expansion of the Tsunami Ready program, which prepares local communities to seek higher ground after tremors, among other things. “It's not just a question of putting some buoys out there,” Marburger said.

    Bolstering defenses—especially for Atlantic shores—only became a priority after the destruction in South Asia. “Even though we haven't experienced an earthquake-tsunami off the East Coast doesn't mean it can't happen,” said Bernard, noting that although Atlantic coasts face lower risks from earthquakes, tsunamis can be caused by rare events such as landslides above ground or under water, as well as meteor strikes.

    The White House is pressing Congress to approve much of the funds for the new program as part of a supplemental tsunami-relief funding measure for this fiscal year. The House science committee will review the new plan in a hearing 26 January.


    Facing a Revolt, Pasteur Board Members Offer to Resign

    1. Martin Enserink

    PARIS—Almost the entire board of directors of the Pasteur Institute offered to step down in an unprecedented mass resignation on 12 January. The disaffected members say they hope the move will calm a long-simmering battle between Pasteur's president Philippe Kourilsky and other scientists and staff—particularly over a plan to relocate some Pasteur labs and offices from central Paris to an unpopular suburban site.

    The troubles had been escalating at Pasteur for months. Rumors and anonymous screeds have made the rounds via e-mail and the Web, and the crisis had eaten away at the institute's scientific mission, says Antoine Danchin, head of the Genetics of Bacterial Genomes unit and a member of the board. “People are no longer working. Everybody is upset,” he says. “It's very bad for Pasteur.”

    Since taking the helm in 2000, Kourilsky, a renowned immunologist, has pushed ahead with an aggressive reform package aimed at revitalizing the institute. When Kourilsky was chosen, many scientists said the fabled but sclerotic research center desperately needed a change (Science, 15 October 1999, p. 382). Younger researchers especially have welcomed Kourilsky's efforts to give them a chance to create their own laboratories or direct international research programs, says Ralf Altmeyer, director of the Hong Kong University-Pasteur Research Centre in Hong Kong.

    But Kourilsky's “tough, abrasive” management style and indifferent communication skills have wiped out most of his credit, says Pasteur chief of molecular retrovirology Simon Wain-Hobson. “I'm all in favor of strong leadership,” he says. “But you can't lead if you're beating up your own troops.”

    Under pressure.

    Pasteur's president Philippe Kourilsky encounters dissent.


    The main irritant has been a plan to move some units out of central Paris—at least temporarily during a renovation—to a building donated by the drug company Pfizer and located 12 kilometers away in the town of Fresnes. Researchers questioned the move's rationale and the brusque way it was pushed through. The criticism has targeted not only Kourilsky but the board of directors, a 20-member body, 14 of them from outside the institute, which appointed him. During a meeting of the board in December, hundreds of pasteuriens clad in lab coats voiced their discontent outside. John Skehel, director of the Medical Research Council's National Institute for Medical Research in London, has been appointed a mediator; the mass resignation has delayed his interim report, scheduled to be delivered next week.

    Initially, some board members sought only the resignation of the chair, former France Telecomn CEO Michel Bon, a staunch supporter of Kourilsky. But when he refused to step down, a majority opted for a mass resignation that may “help clear the air,” says one member who requested anonymity, by giving the institute a chance to choose a new board more to its liking. The new board will be elected by the institute's General Meeting, a parliament-style body of about 100 members, more than half of them from outside the institute, that will meet on 15 March. (Four statutory members representing government agencies will remain.)

    Kourilsky, in an interview with Science, admitted that the Fresnes plan could have been handled more tactfully. “I don't deny that I have become somewhat controversial,” he says. But he vigorously defends his track record and chalks up the criticism in part to the fact that he threatened privileges. “Changing things in France is often very difficult,” he says. Last week, Kourilsky also sent all staffers a 47-page document outlining his management accomplishments.

    Whether Kourilsky will be eligible for a second term when his 6-year mandate ends in December—or whether he might even be asked to step down before that—will be decided by the new board. Kourilsky declined to say whether he's interested in staying on.

    Peace is unlikely to return to Pasteur's labs anytime soon. As one scientist notes, Kourilsky will continue to draw lightning, and jockeying over candidates for the new board is widely expected to be intense. Few are looking forward to it. Pascale Cossart, who heads Pasteur's Bacteria-Cell Interactions Unit, says, “We just want to work in a quiet place without always talking about politics.”


    Low-Power Mitochondria May Raise Risk of Cardiovascular Problems

    1. Jean Marx

    Try as we might, only an elite few will ever win the Tour de France or even the local 10-K foot race. People simply vary widely in their ability to perform aerobic exercise. New work with rats now suggests that individuals with a low tolerance for aerobic exercise may have a lot more to worry about than just their inability to run fast and long. The same underlying defect that reduces aerobic capacity may also predispose a person to a witch's brew of medical problems that could increase the possibility of heart attacks and strokes.

    On page 418, a research team including Ulrik Wisløff of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Sonia Najjar of the Medical College of Ohio in Toledo, and Steven Britton of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, reports that rats that have been selectively bred to have reduced capacity for aerobic exercise show obesity, resistance to the hormone insulin (a sign of type II diabetes), and high blood pressure, all symptoms of the so-called metabolic syndrome that raises the risk of cardiovascular disease. The researchers also provide evidence that impaired function of the mitochondria, small structures that produce most of a cell's energy, underlies the metabolic problems of the rats with low aerobic capacity.

    Previous work had implicated poor mitochondrial function with individual components of metabolic syndrome, but this is the first time researchers have linked it to all of them at once. “This is an incredibly provocative study,” says Vamsi Mootha of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, whose own work has linked mitochondrial malfunction to type II diabetes. “They linked metabolic syndrome to mitochondria in a way that hasn't been done before.”

    Running for their lives.

    These rats, bred to have high aerobic capacity, appear to have fewer cardiovascular risk factors than their couch-potato cousins.


    The rat-breeding experiments began in 1996, motivated mainly, Britton recalls, by dissatisfaction with existing animal models for diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Most of those models were created by very nonphysiological means, such as tying off the arteries of the heart or administering a drug that destroys the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas, far removed from the way the conditions develop naturally.

    To produce animals whose diseases more closely mimic those in humans, the researchers selectively bred rats to have either high or low capacity for aerobic exercise. They identified rats with a high capacity to run on a treadmill and mated them with one another, and they did the same for animals with a low running capacity. “Since oxygen metabolism is such a large part of biology, defects in it should underlie our pathology,” explains Britton.

    The animals described in the current report, the products of 11 generations of selective breeding, have a 350% difference in their running abilities. And by every measure tested, the couch-potato rats rank high on the cardiovascular risk factor scale: Compared to high-capacity runners, they are more obese, have higher blood pressures and higher levels of blood fats, and have increased insulin resistance.

    Although obesity itself can decrease aerobic running capacity, a statistical analysis showed that it accounts for no more than 20% of the decreased aerobic capacity. Indeed, studies of very young rats who were poor exercisers showed that metabolic changes, such as increased blood concentrations of fat and the sugar glucose, occurred before any weight differences became apparent.

    Because mitochondria provide the energy for exercise, Britton and his colleagues examined whether these organelles exhibited signs of reduced function in the low-aerobic-capacity rats. The researchers found that muscle from those rats had much lower concentrations of a number of key mitochondrial proteins than did muscle from the high-capacity animals. This indicates that they had either fewer mitochondria or less effective ones.

    The work provides “a strong link between aerobic capacity, mitochondrial function, and the full range of cardiovascular symptoms,” says Jeffrey Flier, an obesity and metabolism expert at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. “If you happen to have drawn the wrong genes, you may be subject to not only not being a long-distance runner but also to diabetes and cardiovascular disease.”

    All the researchers stress that the results should not be cause for despair among people who suspect that their own aerobic capacity may be on the low side. Wisløff's team is testing whether regular exercise can reduce the various risk factors in the low-aerobic-capacity rats, and early results look promising, Britton says. So rather than providing an excuse for sticking to the couch, the new data could well be yet another reason to hit the bike trail or aerobic floor.


    Judge Orders Stickers Removed From Georgia Textbooks

    1. Constance Holden

    A federal district judge in Atlanta, Georgia, last week ordered a county school board to remove stickers from textbooks that question the validity of evolutionary theory. Even as defenders of Darwin were hailing the victory, however, the school board voted to appeal the order.

    In 2002, the school board of suburban Cobb County ordered stickers pasted on high school biology textbooks. The labels describe evolution as “a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things” and advise that the material should be “critically considered.” A suit by parents claimed that the stickers violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that mandates separation of church and state. On 13 January, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia noted that describing evolution “as a theory rather than a fact” clearly identifies the school board as being on the side of “religiously motivated individuals.”

    Wes McCoy, chair of the science department at North Cobb High School in Kennesaw, says he's “thrilled” with the court's decision ( The disclaimer created confusion about the meanings of fact and theory, he says, and led to requests from some students that “we simply not teach evolution anymore, ‘since so many people disagree with it.’”

    Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California, says she is “encouraged” by the ruling and hopes it “should at least discourage ‘theory, not fact’-type disclaimers.” She also sees it as a boon to plaintiffs in Dover, Pennsylvania, who have sued local school officials over a requirement that students be apprised that there are “problems” with Darwinism and that they may consider “other theories of evolution including … intelligent design.”


    Fossil Count Suggests Biggest Die-Off Wasn't Due to a Smashup

    1. Richard A. Kerr

    If an asteroid or comet impact wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, unleashing mammal evolution, then might a similar impact have triggered the even bigger extinction 251 million years ago that gave the ancestors of the dinosaurs their start? Evidence for an impact at the boundary between the Permian and Triassic periods (P-T) has yet to convince most researchers (Science, 14 May 2004, p. 941). Now, the latest fossil evidence argues that the die-off resulted from a protracted crisis, one that built over tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of years before pushing Earth over an ecological precipice. The fossil record of large animals in South Africa looks more consistent with extinction by, say, a millennia-long volcanic eruption than by impact.

    In a paper published online this week by Science (, paleontologist Peter Ward of the University of Washington, Seattle, and colleagues report on 126 fossil reptile and mammal-like reptile skulls they collected during the past 7 years across the P-T boundary in the Karoo Basin of South Africa. There the sand and mud of ancient meandering rivers entombed multitudes of animal skeletons in stone. To pinpoint the relative ages of the fossils from five different collecting sites, the researchers had to find “labels” in the rocks that held them. They used the rocks' changing carbon isotopic composition and Earth's flip-flopping magnetic field frozen into the rocks.

    A goner.

    This gorgonopsian carnivore disappeared as extinction accelerated in the late Permian, well before the main extinction event.


    Analyzing the newly found and ordered skulls as well as previously reported fossils, Ward and his colleagues found that after 10 million years or more of relative stability, Permian creatures suffered more rapid extinction in the time during which the last 50 meters or so of Permian rock were deposited before Triassic rocks appear. Time is hard to gauge in the Karoo sediments, but Ward guesses that the extinction-driven decline of Permian taxa might have gone on for as long as 1 million years or as little as 10,000 years. Then a burst of extinctions occurred at the P-T boundary, lasting perhaps 10,000 years, says Ward.

    The pattern on land of accelerating decline punctuated by a P-T pulse of extinction “is staggeringly similar” to the P-T pattern in the sea recorded at Meishan, China, says Ward. “Things [in the environment] were bad, and then they were really bad,” he says. “We can definitely see it's different from the [dinosaur extinction]. I think there was no impact at all” at the P-T.

    Paleontologist Desmond Maxwell of the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, agrees that the previously proposed foreshadowing of the mass extinction on land—which the new Karoo data strongly support—points to a noncatastrophic cause. Not that life would have been comfortable late in the Permian. In one scenario, eruption of the lavas of the great Siberian Traps at the time of the P-T boundary (Science, 21 November 2003, p. 1315) would have poisoned the air and water with acid and alternately chilled the world with a sun-screening haze and baked it with the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Hard times indeed.


    Inventor Knocks Japan's System After Settlement

    1. Dennis Normile

    TOKYO—Shuji Nakamura may be $8 million richer. But his new wealth doesn't seem to have bought much happiness.

    Last week the Japanese-born engineer blasted his native country's attitude toward innovation and told colleagues they should join him in the United States if they want to be rewarded for their creative talents. His comments followed a court-mediated, $8 million settlement of a suit against his former employer for a share of the enormous profits generated by his breakthrough development of a blue light-emitting diode (LED) and work on blue semiconductor lasers.

    Nakamura, now a professor of materials science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, spent 20 years at Nichia Corp. in Anan, Tokushima. The LEDs are now used in giant outdoor displays and traffic signals and could eventually replace ordinary light bulbs, and blue lasers will be at the heart of next- generation DVD players.

    In Japan, patents are awarded to individuals, who may cede rights to their employers in exchange for “fair compensation.” Nakamura claims to have gotten just $190 for relinquishing a key patent covering a new chemical vapor deposition method used in producing both the blue LEDs and blue lasers. The privately owned Nichia dominates the LED market, with total sales in 2004 topping $2 billion and profits estimated at $950 million.

    In 2001, Nakamura sued the company for a share of those profits. In January 2004, the Tokyo District Court awarded him $190 million (Science, 6 February 2004, p. 744). Nichia appealed to the Tokyo High Court, which in a statement recommending a settlement said fair compensation “should be sufficient to motivate employees but at the same time allow the company to survive international competition.”


    Nichia hailed the settlement, which covers all of Nakamura's patent claims. “Our position was well understood by the court, especially the point that the blue LED was not invented by a single individual,” Nichia President Eiji Ogawa wrote in a statement posted on the company's Web site. The business community breathed a huge sigh of relief, with Toyota chair Hiroshi Okuda, head of the Keidanren, Japan's leading business group, calling the amount “appropriate in light of common sense.”

    The court's concern for the company's bottom line is uniquely Japanese, says Robert Kneller, a U.S. intellectual-property lawyer on the faculty of the University of Tokyo. “I don't think any U.S. court would have said, ‘According to the law, damages should be X, but that might hurt the competitiveness of the company; therefore we have to make a judgment ourselves.’” But he noted that the issue of fair compensation is so fuzzy in Japan that it creates problems for judges.

    Regardless of the amount, the case may already have improved conditions for Japan's legions of engineers. “Engineers, like myself, think it was very good that this suit has prompted discussion about the low status of engineers,” says Hiroyuki Yoshikawa, a former president of the University of Tokyo who is now president of Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology. AIST now awards researchers 25% of the royalties from their patents, Yoshikawa says, and many companies have modified their policies to give scientists a bigger bite of the fruits of their research.


    Shuji Nakamura Speaks Out

    1. Dennis Normile

    Appearing at a press conference in Tokyo on 12 January, Shuji Nakamura had strong words about the settlement of his lawsuit against his former employer and what it represents:

    On Japan's court system: “U.S. courts really try to get down to the principles involved in a case. In Japan, hearings are over in 5 or 10 minutes! The court said that paying huge amounts of money to inventors would hinder industrial development. Who can be satisfied with such a system? If we don't change this kind of approach, [circumstances for inventors] in Japan can never be improved.”

    On the size of the award: “We've been fighting this trial on the idea of sharing ‘excess’ profits between the inventor and the company, based on their respective contributions. [In two other recent cases, courts awarded 10% and 20% of “excess” profits, judged as being above “normal” profit levels, to the inventors.] In my case, the district court determined that by 2003, Nichia had earned ‘excess’ profits of 160 billion yen. The high court set an award of 600 million yen. That means my contribution to this patent was not even 0.5%.”

    On conditions for researchers: “Basically, Japanese society doesn't value the contributions of individuals. In Japan, the world is centered on big companies. The underlying principle is the concept of sacrificing yourself for big companies. In Japan we have a saying that the nail that sticks up gets hammered down. … I can only say that competent researchers should come to America. It may be tough, but it is a country with a merit system. You'll be rewarded according to what you do.”

    On Japan's educational system: “One good point about Japan is its educational system. But it is geared toward turning out production workers. In America, inventors are educated, beginning in childhood, to dream of starting their own companies. American society values individuals, not companies; Japanese society values companies, not individuals.”

    On the impact of the award: “After paying taxes, attorney fees, etc., very little will be left. I might be able to pay off my mortgage. But that's about it. … I hate legal battles, they're such a waste of energy. I want to get back to the world of research, where I belong.”


    Grim Forecast for a Fading Fleet

    1. David Malakoff*
    1. David Malakoff, a former staff writer for Science, is now a correspondent and editor at National Public Radio in Washington, D.C.

    Unless the government takes action, aging vessels, tight budgets, and rising demand could mean rough weather for U.S. marine scientists who need to go to sea

    Early this month, one of the world's most powerful ice breakers reached the U.S. research station at McMurdo Bay after smashing its way through the Antarctic ice pack. It's a familiar task for the candy-red, 122-meter-long Polar Star, which has been opening essential supply lanes to McMurdo for more than 30 years. But this year she's had to plow through some 200 kilometers of pack ice—nearly five times the usual distance—to reach the logistical hub of the U.S. Antarctic program. And she's done it without help from her customary companion, the twin icebreaker Polar Sea, which is idled indefinitely with age-related mechanical ailments.

    Much more work, with fewer resources. Things aren't quite that bad for the U.S. science fleet as a whole—yet. But oceangoing scientists don't like what they see when they look out at the fiscal horizon. Over the next decade, a combination of aging vessels and scant funds for replacements could dramatically shrink the number of ships available for marine science just as new, large-scale research programs are expected to greatly boost demand. The mismatch “is making the ocean science community very nervous,” says Robert Knox, an associate director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. “Unless we start building some new ships soon, the fleet will wither away.”

    Crunch time.

    Two U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers clear a path through Antarctic sea ice.


    Down to the sea

    Ships have long played a central role in marine science, allowing researchers to do everything from track currents critical to understanding Earth's climate to sample life on the deep sea floor. For years observers have predicted that new technologies, from satellites to robotic submarines, will ultimately make ships obsolete. “But for the moment, if you want to do good science, there is no alternative to going to sea,” says Dave Hebert, an oceanographer at the University of Rhode Island, Kingston.

    To keep researchers sailing, the United States has funded the construction of a small armada of research ships. They range from nimble day-trippers that carry just a few researchers to massive floating laboratories able to sustain dozens of scientists for months at a time (see table*). Today, the loose-knit fleet boasts about 60 major ships (those longer than 20 meters). Many are owned and operated by the U.S. Navy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and other agencies.

    Throughout the Cold War, the Navy was the most reliable source of funding for new research vessels. In return, it expected scientists to help predict conditions its ships would face at sea and find new ways to spot threats, such as Soviet submarines. But after the fall of the Berlin wall, the military's interest in marine science began to fade. Although other agencies have tried to fill the gap, none have had deep enough pockets to build many new ships, which can cost up to $100 million each, depending on their size and capabilities.

    For most academic researchers, the key component of the fleet is the 27 ships that are operated by the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS). A coalition of 60-plus research institutions, UNOLS was formed in 1971 to help share ship time and costs. NSF provides about two-thirds of the $65 million needed each year to operate the UNOLS ships, with the Navy and NOAA supplying the balance.

    Without a formal capital improvements budget, the UNOLS fleet is showing its age. Twelve of the 17 largest UNOLS ships, for instance, are due to be removed from service by 2020, and several could retire as early as the end of this decade. And given the 10 years needed to design, fund, and build replacement ships, researchers don't have much time to spare. “The clock is ticking,” says Knox.

    Exactly what a new fleet should look like, however—and who should pay for it—has become an increasingly hot topic. Four years ago, a government body called the Federal Oceanographic Facilities Committee (FOFC) recommended building nine new large ships in three size classes by 2020 for the academic fleet. But it didn't specify who should pay for them. Academic scientists weren't entirely pleased with the recommendations, noting that even if the blueprint were followed, scheduled retirements would cause the fleet to shrink. UNOLS officials successfully argued for including three more “potential” ships in the group's final report. Insiders dubbed the added UNOLS vessels the “gray ships,” corresponding to the color used for them in one key chart that displayed the FOFC-backed ships in black.

    Making waves.

    The science of going to sea is always evolving.


    Whatever their shades, few of the recommended ships have acquired the most important color of all: green. “Unfortunately, [the plan] has not yet been funded or implemented,” notes a congressionally mandated report on U.S. ocean policy that came out last fall ( The pending lack of ships, the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy added, threatens to “hinder the conduct of research.”

    It's not for lack of interest. NSF is hoping to make room in its budget over the next few years for three smaller “regional class” vessels, at a cost of about $30 million each. The schedule, however, will most likely be disrupted if NSF's budget, which Congress cut this year, fails to rebound. NSF has already stretched out its timetable to refit an ocean drilling vessel after receiving only $15 million of the $40 million it requested to start the work, which will cost an estimated $100 million. At the same time, Senate appropriators reminded NSF last summer that they expect it to ask for $50 million in 2006 to start building a new flagship for Arctic marine science.

    Other agencies are also trying to stand up for the fleet. The Navy's Office of Naval Research is trying to scare up funds to build one of the plan's biggest ships, a $75 million “global” ship capable of staying at sea for months. But the ongoing cost of the Iraq War has slowed their progress, Navy officials say. Still, there have been some successes: The National Marine Fisheries Service is buying up to four new trawlers for fisheries surveys, and the Navy recently donated one of its ships to NOAA for its Ocean Exploration program. Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the University of Delaware are also getting new research ships, drawing on a mix of government funding and other sources.

    Pleas for more additions could get a boost in the fall, when FOFC is due to issue updated recommendations for the entire spectrum of federally funded ships. “We're considering the whole national fleet, not just the academic ships,” says FOFC chief Robert Winokur of the Navy. But Winokur has already warned researchers that they may not like everything the committee will say about the UNOLS fleet. “The message I gave UNOLS is that we need to develop a plan that is tied to realistic budgets,” he says. Knox, meanwhile, predicts that the UNOLS response will be guided by “what the science requires. … The community won't be asking for Cadillacs and gold faucets.”

    Sinking slowly.

    Studies project fewer days at sea unless the research fleet is renovated.


    One key issue will be predicting how many “ship days” researchers will need. The current annual number of 3600 could grow significantly if Congress funds current proposals to build several major ocean observing systems, including one that aims to cover an entire tectonic plate with cabled sensors. Contrary to predictions that such robotic sensors could reduce the demand for ships, deploying and maintaining these systems will actually increase demand for large ships able to operate in deep seas and handle heavy equipment, a recent UNOLS report concluded. And even if ship use doesn't grow, a separate UNOLS analysis suggests that retirements could eat away at available ship time in just 5 years if no new ships are built (see graph, above).

    The best way to avoid the crunch, it concludes, is to build all 12 of FOFC's black and gray ships. A less costly alternative would be to upgrade vessels or delay their retirement dates, UNOLS and Navy officials note. Extending by 5 years the life of 11 UNOLS ships over 40 meters long, for instance, would cost just $1 million to $5 million per ship, the group estimates.

    But there's a price to pay for that penury. Aging ships are generally more expensive to maintain and often can't be equipped with the state-of-the-art sonars, submersibles, and navigation systems that are becoming must-haves for marine scientists. They are also more likely to break down. “What happened with the icebreakers is a lesson we don't want to repeat,” says Knox.

    Chilling costs

    The icebreakers also offer a warning about the high cost of ship repairs and the need to plan as far ahead as possible. White House officials are pondering the fate of the 3-decade-old Polar Sea, now moored alongside a pier in its home port of Seattle, Washington. Coast Guard officials say that years of battling ice up to 5 meters thick have taken their toll. Two of its three massive engines are worn out and have been condemned.

    Replacing them, however, could require cracking open the hull and inserting new hardware—at a possible cost exceeding $200 million. “It's a very big ticket item,” said Karl Erb, head of polar research programs at NSF, at a recent meeting of the Polar Research Board of the National Academies. Even that price tag, however, is smaller than the cost of an entirely new ship, which could run as high as $1 billion.

    Those eye-popping numbers prompted Congress last year to ask the polar board to examine the scientific need for the icebreakers, which spend a large fraction of their time supporting research in the Southern Ocean. The Coast Guard, meanwhile, has commissioned its own studies, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is pondering the problem. A decision on what to do could come as early as next month as part of the president's 2006 budget request. But final action will be up to Congress.

    In the meantime, NSF is hoping that the Polar Star can keep open the path to McMurdo for ships carrying critical cargoes of fuel oil, food, and other supplies for the 1200 scientists and support staff who work at NSF's two mainland Antarctic stations each austral summer. Erb is confident that the Star can do the job. But just to be safe, the agency has hired the Russian icebreaker Krasin, which this week was due to arrive at the edge of the ice after making the trip from Vladivostok. It's not the best way to run a research fleet, say polar researchers. But in the current era of constrained spending, just-in-time icebreaking may be the best option for U.S. officials.

    The same is true for the U.S. research fleet as a whole. With overall U.S. research funding facing its biggest political challenge in a decade, the preferred alternative—an orderly replacement schedule made possible by long lead times and expansive budgets—may have to be abandoned and replaced by a strategy that gives marine scientists at least a chance to keep their heads above water.


    A New Benefactor Takes Aim at Basic Scientific Questions

    1. Robert Irion

    Norwegian-born industrialist Fred Kavli is dedicating his wealth to fundamental research in fields that have fascinated him since childhood

    SANTA BARBARA, CALIFORNIA—As a child in Norway, Fred Kavli skied under the clear shimmer of the Northern Lights, wondering about the universe beyond and our place within it. Today, Kavli still wonders, and in the past few years he has spent tens of millions of dollars to bring answers within reach.

    Kavli eased into academic philanthropy after 2000, when he sold the precision-sensor company he founded and ran for more than 40 years. Two physics institutes, at the University of California here (UCSB) and at Stanford University, took his name after receiving $7.5 million grants from his Kavli Foundation. Last year, the foundation crossed state and disciplinary borders with a flourish: It endowed eight more institutes at major universities, featuring top-rank scientists in Kavli's chosen fields of astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience.

    With gifts surpassing $100 million and more to come, Kavli is making an impact at a time of unsteady federal funding. And he is doing it out of curiosity. “He is interested in deeply fundamental questions,” says neuroscientist and Nobel laureate Eric Kandel of Columbia University in New York City, director of the Kavli Institute for Brain Science. “He is absolutely distinctive because of this. It's just a spectacular impetus for universities.”

    It's a whirlwind retirement for a lifelong industrialist, but Kavli is having a grand time. “I always felt strongly that I wanted to do something of value for mankind,” he says. “To start a business and be successful, it's good. But that was not my goal at all.”

    On a clear day.

    Fred Kavli's property overlooks the Santa Barbara Channel.


    Paneling and presidents

    During a walk through his oceanfront home a few kilometers from UCSB—a stunning house, much of which he designed—Kavli apologizes for a towel on his bedroom floor. “I was stretching there this morning,” he explains. Tall and lean, with thin tufts of white hair and an angular face, Kavli resembles the late Francis Crick without the unruly eyebrows. A treadmill, tennis court, and 50-meter stairway to the beach keep him spry and sharp at age 77, as does his favored diet of fruit, fish, sushi and sashimi, and soymilk.

    As Kavli climbs a stairway, he passes an array of framed photos without pausing. The faces are familiar: Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher, George and Barbara Bush, Dan and Marilyn Quayle. Kavli appears in every image, dashing in a tuxedo. Those were boom times for the military-industrial complex, and he was every bit the politically attuned CEO. “I've met all the presidents, but not [Jimmy] Carter,” he observes.

    Upstairs, in a simply outfitted study, Kavli slows his pace. High-powered binoculars are fixed upon the orange-hued Kohn Hall at UCSB, home of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics (KITP). He lingers over pictures of his children Ingrid and Eric, adopted with his former wife, Helen; an ultrafast SR-71 reconnaissance jet, for which his company was the sole supplier of flight-control sensors; and a joyous photo from the 1940s with his older brother Aslak. The two blond hotshots sprawl in a field near motorcycles, amid a rapt cluster of three Norwegian girls.

    Aslak and Fred, 7 years younger, were inseparable on their family farm near the town of Molde, about 180 kilometers southwest of Trondheim and 5 kilometers inland from the Norwegian Sea. The boys ran a profitable business cutting trees to make planks for furniture factories, as well as wood briquettes that fueled cars and buses during World War II gasoline shortages.

    Fred was just as precocious at school, one of which was seven bus and ferry rides from home. He dove headlong into extracurricular life and served as student body president. “Leadership came naturally to me,” he says. “More than anything, those activities gave me the confidence to go to America, completely alone, and start my business.”

    He earned a degree in engineering physics from the Norwegian Institute of Technology (now the Norwegian University of Science and Technology) in Trondheim. Two days later, he boarded the S.S. Stavangerfjord in Oslo to steam for Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was 1955, he had $300, and no sure prospects awaited him.

    Kavli's quiet voice catches and his eyes well up as he mentions leaving a dear school friend at the port in Oslo, never to see her again. Later, he remembers how much he loved the farm's horses—how gently they responded to kindness, how they looked at him when they grew angry. Conversations with Kavli combine these Old World manners and emotions with dispassionate business acumen, and the fusion draws people in. “He's a shrewd but simple man,” says one UCSB physicist. “His heart is in the right place.”

    Engineer seeks funding

    After a year of making ammunition and explosives for a Canadian firm, Kavli got his U.S. visa. His first job, in southern California, was designing flight-control transducers for the Atlas missile. “I had only been out of college 1 year, and they made me chief engineer,” he marvels. “I discovered very soon that in America you didn't need to know anything. You just needed to ask the right questions.”

    Kavli soon itched to step out on his own. He did so in 1958 with a two-line ad in the Los Angeles Times: “Engineer seeking financial backing to start own business.” “Surprisingly enough, I got several responses,” he says with a laugh. The company, soon called Kavlico, was born.


    Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Kavlico grew into a major supplier of pressure, position, and force sensors for commercial airplanes and military jets, bombers, and missiles. In 1976, Kavlico outcompeted 41 companies to land a contract with Ford Motor Co. for automotive sensors. Kavli found that the transition to producing cheap but reliable sensors for cars was excruciatingly difficult. “I wouldn't have done it if I had known. Ignorance is bliss,” he says. But ultimately, the automotive contracts made Kavlico's value soar. A Canadian conglomerate bought the company from Kavli in 2000 for $340 million.

    “I had no doubt I would succeed,” says Kavli, “but I could not have been as successful anywhere else.”

    Building the foundation

    For years, Kavli repaid his gratitude by donating to civic causes in Ventura County and Santa Barbara County, such as the Fred Kavli Theatre for the Performing Arts in Thousand Oaks. But his company's sale enabled him to set up his Kavli Foundation and leave his mark upon science. His themes of astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience—“from the largest, to the smallest, to the most complex,” in Kavli's words—reflect both his industrial expertise with micromachinery and his deeply held fascination about the extremes of nature (see table, above).

    To run the foundation's programs, Kavli recruited physicist David Auston from the presidency of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. A member of both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering, Auston shares and enacts Kavli's philosophy.

    “I have a real concern about the argument that many scientists and universities promulgate these days, that science is good for the economy,” Auston says. “If that is your only short-term goal, you'll be disappointed in most cases. Our foundation is really distinct in that regard. We are dedicated to long-term—and in some cases high-risk—basic research that advances knowledge as its goal.”

    With just Auston and Kavli at the helm and a couple of support staffers, the foundation does not respond to unsolicited proposals. Rather, the two conduct dozens of site visits in search of what Kavli calls “winning science teams with the very best supporting organizations.” From the leading candidates, they ask for simple proposals that strip basic mysteries to their essence: the links between cosmology and string theory, the nanomachinery of proteins in cells, the evolution of thought.

    “If you applied for [federal] grants asking these questions, you would be laughed off,” says neuroscientist Pasko Rakic of Yale University, director of the Kavli Institute for Neuroscience. “They want to know which subunit of which channel you want to study for the next 3 years. But [Kavli] wants to ask the big questions.”

    Auston and Kavli ask the host universities to support the institutes with more funds, infrastructure, faculty recruitments, and the like. Moreover, they expect researchers within each of the three themes to collaborate. In the near future, a grand assembly may involve all 10 institutes—soon to be 12, with the expected addition of others in Europe and Asia.

    By all accounts, there is no pressure to do science in a “Kavli way.” “Our initial reaction [to the new institutes] was a loss of uniqueness,” says UCSB physicist Joseph Polchinski. “We all wondered, ‘Are we now part of a chain?’ But no, each of these Kavlis retains its unique identity.” Indeed, Kavli seeks independent and strong-willed scientists who won't hesitate to plunge in unforeseen directions. In return, he asks only for periodic reports and occasional invitations to special programs.

    The researchers are not as sanguine about the foundation's plan to bestow three $1 million Kavli Prizes, one within each theme, biennially starting in 2007. Auston and Kavli feel that a grand ceremony, possibly conducted in Oslo, eventually could rival the Nobel Prizes in public impact. But several at UCSB worry that the effort will land with a thud in the prize-heavy fields.

    To the recipients of Kavli's largess, it's a minor point. “As a donor, he's a jewel,” says physicist David Gross, KITP's director and one of the latest set of Nobel laureates. “He doesn't interfere. You hear a lot of horror stories with other donors. They give money and then lots and lots and lots of advice.”

    Ever the businessman, Kavli trusts his investments. His only advice is to keep working at the frontier toward a future he will not see and cannot imagine. “Fred wants this foundation to exist in perpetuity,” says Auston. “He will dedicate his entire wealth to that goal.”


    A Physics Home Away From Home

    1. Robert Irion

    The peach, orange, and mango tones are clues that Kohn Hall isn't your typical academic building. Then there are the light maple furniture and green carpeting, the wall-size Vermont slate blackboards, and the giant round windows in a hexagonal tower that glows like a lighthouse at night. In the New Age words of a promotional article, it is “a warm, inviting environment that simultaneously relaxes and alerts the visitor's mind.” However, funding constraints are casting a chill inside the hall's cozy womb.

    The building houses the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics (KITP), formerly known as ITP. Established in 1979 after a national competition, ITP was created for the community to use. “This was the first institute in physics based on visitors,” says University of California, Santa Barbara, physicist Robert Sugar, part of the proposal team. “It was very controversial at the time.”

    But in its 25 years, the institute has grown to play a central role in the intellectual lives of most theoretical physicists. Scientists come by the dozens for “programs” on emerging topics that last from a few weeks to several months. They leave classes and committees behind to think and talk within the building's residential atmosphere. Recent programs ranged from the physics, chemistry, and mineralogy of Earth's interior to the intersection between string theory and strong nuclear interactions.

    Warm retreat.

    Nobelist David Gross oversees a national physics institute housed in striking Kohn Hall.


    “When people are here, they're in a different state,” says astrophysicist Lars Bildsten, one of KITP's five permanent members. “You really see them get refreshed.” Or in the words of astrophysicist Kip Thorne of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena: “Thank god for the KITP.”

    With 1000 visitors each year, it's common to see cosmologists, string theorists, biophysicists, condensed matter physicists, particle theorists, and others forge new ties, Bildsten says. “Everyone higher up in the [academic] food chain talks about the importance of interdisciplinary research, and we say, ‘Indeed. We have a model for that.’”

    Fred Kavli entered the picture in 2001, when the Kavli Foundation awarded a $7.5 million grant to ITP. Now, Kohn Hall features more offices and dramatic new spaces thanks to a $6 million expansion funded out of the grant. Designed by the building's original architect, Princeton-based Michael Graves, the hexagonal tower is proving a popular meeting place. A newly enclosed outdoor courtyard—with the Vermont slate—has led to open-air chats. “Theoretical physicists are incredibly collaborative and interactive,” says KITP director David Gross. “They don't need labs; they just need a blackboard.”

    The staff also webcasts and archives talks from a striking new auditorium, which seats 50 within tightly curved rows so that everyone can see everyone else. Fifteen ceiling microphones pick up every word, so some physicists have stifled their nasty asides, Bildsten jokes.

    But Kohn Hall's new spaciousness also frustrates Gross, for he lacks the budget to take full advantage of it. Flat funding from the National Science Foundation has eroded KITP's abilities to support visitors and run programs. “We built this for the community,” says Gross, “but now we are funds limited. I regard it as an outrageous, scandalous tragedy.”


    Twisted Parasites From "Outer Space" Perplex Biologists

    1. Fiona Proffitt

    A bizarre group of parasitic insects challenges the biological rule book

    The odd group of insects called twisted-wing parasites, or more formally Strepsiptera, is easily overlooked. Spending most of their lives hidden inside other insects, the majority of the 596 known species have been identified only from adult males caught during their brief mate-seeking flight. “These are really, truly enigmatic insects,” says David Grimaldi, entomology curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. “They break all the rules.”

    The differences between males and females of the same strepsipteran species are extreme. Adult males are small, flylike creatures, whereas most adult females resemble grubs and remain inside their host, merely protruding their fused heads and thoraces when ready to receive a male's sperm. In one strepsipteran family, males and females actually parasitize different kinds of insects. “Everything you find about them is like they came from outer space,” says population geneticist J. Spencer Johnston of Texas A&M University in College Station.

    Unlocking the secrets of how these strange parasites originated and how they maintain their bizarre lifestyle promises to deliver new insights in evolutionary and developmental biology, says Jeyaraney Kathirithamby, an insect evolutionary taxonomist at Oxford University in the United Kingdom. She and Johnston have recently turned up oddities in the strepsipteran genome and begun to tease out how the parasites survive within their hosts. Kathirithamby and researchers in Papua New Guinea have even enlisted Strepsiptera in the battle against important insect pests.

    Quirky physical characteristics and lifestyle have made Strepsiptera tough to place in the insect family tree, notes Grimaldi. Some systematists group them with the beetles, others with flies. Grimaldi, however, has recently analyzed a primitive strepsipteran found in Cretaceous amber and says it doesn't resemble either flies or beetles. Meanwhile, he adds, molecular analyses of strepsipteran phylogeny have been “at best controversial.”

    The sequencing of a strepsipteran genome could resolve its phylogeny, but no organization has stepped forward so far to fund such an effort. Last month, however, a team led by Kathirithamby and Johnston reported online in Insect Molecular Biology that the strepsipteran Caenocholax fenyesi has the smallest documented genome of any insect. In still-unpublished work with graduate student Joseph Gillespie of Texas A&M, they also discovered that the ribosomal DNA of this species has a unique structure. “They're just so different from everything else,” says Johnston.

    Strange pair.

    Strepsipteran males (left) and females (right) look very different and, in one family, parasitize completely different hosts.


    Strepsipterans parasitize 34 families across 7 of the 32 orders of insects, most commonly wasps, bees, and Hemiptera (true bugs). The discovery last year that the larvae of one species, Stichotrema dallatorreanum, wrap themselves in a bag created from their katydid host's epidermis, thereby eluding an immune response, may explain how strepsipterans are able to parasitize such a wide range of hosts. But Kathirithamby and Johnston think it's possible that this strategy only evolved in the family Myrmecolacidae to which S. dallatorreanum belongs.

    For most parasites, males and females prey upon the same host. Myrmecolacids are an exception: They are the only group of parasitic insects in which male and female larvae enter completely different hosts, notes Kathirithamby. The males parasitize ants, whereas females take up residence in crickets or grasshoppers. An intriguing question, says Kathirithamby, is whether myrmecolacid larvae start life sexless and only become male or female once they enter an ant or cricket. “To date, there is no organism that determines its sex by its host, but it makes sense to me,” says Johnston. It's possible that a signal from the host sets off a cascade of sex-determining genes, he adds.

    Studying sex determination in myrmecolacids is no easy task. The differences between the sexes have made it difficult to find the females and match them to males of the same species. Kathirithamby and Johnston scored a first last year when they used DNA analyses to match male and female specimens of C. fenyesi from Mexico.

    At the same time, they discovered that there are significant differences between the DNA sequences of two genes in C. fenyesi males from Texas (which parasitize red imported fire ants) and identical-looking males from Mexico (which parasitize other ants). That suggests that these insects are actually separate species, or are on the verge of becoming so, because they have different hosts. “What is puzzling us is how this speciation is going on,” says Kathirithamby.

    Understanding the basic biology of strepsipterans may prove useful in controlling insect pests, such as those ravaging coffee, rice, and oil palm crops. S. dallatorreanum is already a hit with oil palm growers in the Papua New Guinean island of West New Britain; since its introduction in 2000, it seems to have reduced katydid numbers and lessened oil palm damage.

    Whether strepsipterans could also control U.S. red imported fire ants remains an open question. Jerry Cook, an entomologist at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, has estimated that C. fenyesi is unlikely to be effective because it parasitizes only 1% to 2% of ants. Kathirithamby and Johnston think that this is an underestimate; in large fire ants, parasitism rates run as high as 55%, they say.

    Still, Johnston acknowledges that the “funny biology” of strepsipterans may create a hitch. Fire ants naturally eat any insect in sight, including crickets, the most probable hosts of C. fenyesi females.


    Using Scientific Assessments to Stave Off Epidemics

    1. Gretchen Vogel*
    1. With reporting by Martin Enserink.

    In devastated villages and refugee camps, aid workers are racing to stay ahead of and systematically block microbes that could prove as deadly as the tsunami

    At least one early-warning system in Indonesia is in place and working. On the morning of 8 January, World Health Organization (WHO) officials in Banda Aceh received a call from a relief worker reporting a case of measles—one of the biggest potential killers of children during humanitarian disasters. The team confirmed it within hours; by afternoon, health officials and aid workers were able to vaccinate more than 1000 people in the sick child's village.

    The danger is far from over: WHO estimates that only a quarter of the children in the Aceh area have received a measles vaccination. But the quick and effective response to this case—and another a few days later—is one example of the kind of science-based approaches that relief organizations are bringing to the region devastated by the tsunami, says Ronald Waldman of Columbia University, who helped coordinate WHO's team in Banda Aceh.

    As soon as the extent of the tsunami's devastation became clear, WHO and relief agencies went into overdrive to try to prevent what all too often occurs in the aftermath of natural or humanmade disasters: killer outbreaks of communicable diseases that can sometimes claim more lives than the original disaster itself. Ten years ago such efforts were well meaning but often ineffective and were considered secondary to providing food and housing. But a better understanding of the epidemiology of so-called complex emergencies has changed relief agencies' priorities. “The question is determining what can cause a large amount of death quickly and then ensuring that we prioritize our efforts accordingly,” says Peter Salama, an epidemiologist and relief expert who works with UNICEF and USAID.

    Paul Spiegel, a physician and relief expert with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, credits Waldman with helping pioneer the use of epidemiology and other science-based assessments in disaster relief efforts. Waldman and Michael Toole, now of the Burnet Institute in Melbourne, Australia, published a 1990 study showing that vaccine-preventable measles infections had helped push the mortality rate of children in Ethiopian and Sudanese refugee camps to 60 times the normal rate. Even though measles is well known as a major child killer, the finding surprised many public health and aid agency workers, Spiegel says: “Before that, people just weren't looking that closely.”

    Preventive medicine.

    Health workers hope that mass vaccination campaigns will block any spread of measles in the Aceh region.


    Now they are looking. Indeed, WHO identified disease surveillance, along with water and sanitation, as one of the top priorities for the tsunami-affected region. “The key issue here is to make sure we hear about the first 10 or 20 suspected cases” instead of the 200th, says Máire Connolly, who heads the Communicable Diseases in Complex Emergencies program at WHO. Aid workers need to be able to recognize the signs of the major killers and confirm a diagnosis as soon as possible, she says. One of the most notorious examples of a relief effort that failed is the 1994 epidemic of cholera and dysentery in a camp sheltering Rwandan refugees in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. The outbreak killed an estimated 50,000 people in 3 weeks. “If we had had [these techniques] in 1994,” Connolly says, “it is possible we could have prevented that major outbreak.”

    The measles report in Aceh came the first morning after Waldman and his colleagues met with nearly two dozen relief organizations to hand out and explain the agency's standardized form—tailored to local conditions—for recording and reporting epidemic-prone diseases.

    The forms ask workers to notify authorities of signs of potential killers in 10 categories: measles, cholera, dysentery, meningitis, malaria, acute respiratory infections, jaundice, hemorrhagic fevers, any fever of unknown origin, and any acute clusters of disease that can't be explained. Such surveillance will also pick up tetanus, Japanese encephalitis, and hepatitis A and E—as well as unknown killers that could emerge, Connolly says.

    Many of the affected areas already had disease surveillance teams in place, says Aberra Bekele, medical director for UNICEF in Sri Lanka. In India, workers trained to immediately report any signs of polio are being tapped to watch for diseases such as cholera, typhoid, and malaria. In Sri Lanka too, Bekele says, efforts are focused on supporting the existing disease monitoring system and expanding it to include possible disaster-related epidemics. Ideally, he says, the efforts will leave behind a stronger system for the long term.

    A crucial part of that system will be diagnostic labs that can quickly tell the difference between diarrhea caused by relatively benign viruses and that caused by deadly cholera, Connolly says, as well as perform immunological tests for hepatitis, Japanese encephalitis, and leptospirosis—a major concern following floods.

    “We are better prepared than we would have been 5 years ago,” Connolly says. “We now have refined tools for the early-warning systems. We have access to standard protocols for dealing with cholera. We have recommendations for what should be in a stockpile, what field workers should have in an investigation kit.”

    But to use those tools, relief workers must reach the people in need. In spite of intense efforts, the tsunami's destruction prevented aid workers from reaching the northwest coast of Aceh for nearly 3 weeks, leaving officials worried that preventable disease—especially malaria and leptospirosis—may be spreading. “I won't be satisfied until 100% of the population is reached,” Waldman says. “There was a blind spot” along the coast, agrees David Nabarro, head of WHO Crisis Operations. But he is cautiously optimistic. “You can have an epidemic of an infectious disease anytime … until you have improved sanitation and a safe water supply,” he says. But with the surveillance system now in place, “it would be very hard for a major outbreak to take root and cause mass mortality.”


    Scurrying Roaches Outwit Without Their Brains

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi

    SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA— From 4 to 8 January, agile roaches, swimming robots, and digging reptiles demonstrated the synergy between robotics and biology.

    To an urbanite, it's a depressingly familiar scene: You flip on the light, and there's a cockroach, zipping across the cluttered countertops, scooting along a wall, and disappearing behind the sofa. Cockroaches are master escape artists. Two studies combining math, engineering, neurobiology, and biomechanics have begun to tease out the secret of this pest's success: conservative use of brainpower. According to the new research, a cockroach taps the brain when sticking close to walls but skips nervous system control during excursions across countertops and other uneven surfaces. “It can go on its own without a lot of sensory input,” says Robert Full of the University of California, Berkeley, who led the work.

    In 2002, as part of their effort to understand cockroach locomotion over flat surfaces, Full and his colleagues tied miniature cannons onto cockroaches' backs. When they fired the cannon to knock the treadmill-running insects off balance, the researchers discovered that the bugs seemed to recover too fast for their muscles to be controlled by nerves (Science, 6 September 2002, p. 1643).

    To follow up, Simon Sponberg, a graduate student in Full's lab, tracked the neuromuscular activity of cockroaches as they scrambled through an insect-scale obstacle course. “We usually think about these complicated leg movements as being coordinated neuromuscular interactions,” says John Bertram, a biomechanicist at the University of Calgary in Canada.

    To think or not.

    On obstacle courses, cockroaches are on autopilot (left). But this antenaed robot (right) has shown that running along walls takes brains.


    But that proved not to be the case. Sponberg's colleagues first used mathematical modeling to show that an insect relying on the natural springiness of its legs could run the obstacle course without peripheral nervous system guidance. Next, they modified the control program of a cockroach-inspired robot so that it ran without such guidance; it did fine on an obstacle course. Sponberg then monitored the electrical activity of cockroach leg muscles and the nerves working them as the insects sprinted across both flat and rough terrain. The pattern of electrical activity was the same on both terrains, indicating that no additional neural control is used to navigate complex environments, he reported at the meeting. The work “has revealed that the mechanical system [legs, etc.] is a complex, dynamic system with a mind of its own,” says Devin Jindrich, a comparative physiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles.

    Such independence simplifies locomotion, as the brain doesn't have to keep track of either the legs or the obstacles. If designed properly, robots too could conserve brainpower, adds Jindrich. “That allows you to free up control for other things that might be more difficult,” he notes.

    However, brainpower is crucial to running next to a wall, another typical behavior for cockroaches, says Noah Cowan, now an engineer at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Cowan recently blindfolded cockroaches, forcing them to use just their antennae for guidance. Using high-speed video of roaches running next to walls, he concluded that the insects monitor the bend of an antenna as it touches a wall. If the antenna bends back too much, the body is heading too close; when the antenna is straight, the insect is too far away. Sensing these differences, the brain signals muscles and adjusts the insect's orientation to the wall accordingly. When he gave an antenna-laden robot that capability, however, it didn't stay close to the wall at all.

    After more observations of the live specimens, Cowan realized that a cockroach also factors in its speed. It determines velocity based on how quickly the antenna bends and unbends, input that adds another degree of control for the behavior. With that added feature, the robot excelled as a wall runner. “A combination of these two control systems was absolutely necessary,” says Bertram. If only such understanding of how roaches use—or don't use—their brains would make us smarter about catching them.


    With Flippers, Two Can Equal Four

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi

    SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA—From 4 to 8 January, agile roaches, swimming robots, and digging reptiles demonstrated the synergy between robotics and biology.

    Researchers trying to model how a beast that vanished millions of years ago swam through oceans have discovered that more isn't always better when it comes to flippers.

    Intuitively, two pair of fins—as in those used by the large, extinct reptiles called plesiosaurs—would be faster than one pair. But then why do many modern aquatic animals usually use just two, with the other two limbs reduced in size or eliminated all together? Seals, for example, evolved from a four-legged terrestrial ancestor but now depend on just modified hind feet for locomotion. Similarly, sea lions use mainly their front flippers.

    Using a robot, a team of engineers and biologists has begun to resolve not just how plesiosaurs swam but also the pros and cons of two versus four flippers. Their preliminary conclusion: Two limbs are good for a steady swimmer, and four are better for starts and stops, John Long, a vertebrate physiologist at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, reported at the meeting.

    Long's colleagues Charles Pell, Brett Hobson, and Matthew Kemp of Nekton Research LLC in Durham, North Carolina, designed and built their robot over the past 9 months, dubbing it “Madeleine.” She looks a little like a turtle and can swim forward or backward. Each side has a front and back “flipper”—flexible flaps that can move in sync or independently. The robot can roll and wiggle side to side as well as tilt its body up and down. “By simply turning on various combinations [of the fins], they can get different kinds of locomotion,” says Frank Fish, a functional morphologist at West Chester University in Pennsylvania.

    Hang 10.

    Researchers are using this surf-swimming robot to learn about underwater locomotion.


    A computer onboard Madeleine lets the researchers determine the efficiency of locomotion in a way not yet possible in living organisms, says Adam Summers, a comparative physiologist at the University of California, Irvine: “It's not a good mimic of a truly biological system, but it provides a platform to understanding the mechanics of multiple [limbs].”

    Long has now looked at the possible mechanics of swimming plesiosaurs, which plied the oceans between 248 million and 65 million years ago. Researchers have had different ideas about how these creatures' four flippers worked. To begin to characterize a plesiosaur's stroke, Long's team has varied the speed of the robot's flapping, the time between each stroke, and whether the fins worked independently or together as a twosome or foursome. “We asked the robot how might the [plesiosaur's] four limbs interact,” says Long. They also compared those interactions against the dynamics of using just two limbs.

    When Madeleine was swimming steadily, two fins were as good as four. “Adding fins did not produce faster [motion],” Long explains. Water swirling off the front fins interfered with the thrust provided by the second set, preventing any boost from the extra fins.

    Four fins came in handy for starting and stopping, though. When the robot begins to swim, its front fins have not yet created any turbulence, enabling the back fins to work efficiently. And four fins were better at stopping than two, thanks to the added resistance created by the extra pair. Long suggests that plesiosaurs, with their four limbs, “may have been good starters and stoppers” who ambushed prey rather than chasing them down.

    Robert Full, an integrative biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, worries that Long, Pell, and their colleagues' approach is too simplistic to reveal how plesiosaurs swam or even that two fins are better than four. He suggests that they need to do more mathematical modeling and make more of an effort to incorporate biological data into the robot's design.

    But even with the robot's shortcomings, Summers has high hopes for Madeleine. “I'm very impressed,” he says. “I think there are many more interesting questions ahead for this robot.”


    More Than One Way to Dig a Tunnel

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi

    SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA—From 4 to 8 January, agile roaches, swimming robots, and digging reptiles demonstrated the synergy between robotics and biology.

    Digging with one's nose is no small feat. Snakes and other legless animals do just that, typically relying on tough skulls, long slender heads, and strong trunk muscles to pound their way through soil. But researchers have recently found surprising exceptions, including a snake that tunnels by “wiggling” its nose and another reptile that uses its head but not its body to push forward. “We've had a lot of traditional ideas about how limbless animals burrow,” says James O'Reilly, a functional morphologist at the University of Miami, Florida. “They all have to be revised.”

    Most legless burrowers are small, with tiny eyes and a narrow, pointy snout fused to the skull to form a battering ram. The shield-nosed cobra (Aspidelaps scutatus) doesn't fit that mold. It's small, about 50 centimeters long, but its eyes are large, its head is broad, and its snout is just loosely connected to the rest of the skull. In addition, it has a large, flat scale—the shield—at the tip of its nose. None of this hints at the snake's talent: “It doesn't look like it would be able to burrow,” says Adam Summers, a comparative physiologist at the University of California, Irvine.

    It digs quite well, however, just not the way people would have thought, Alexandra Deufel, a functional morphologist at Minot University in North Dakota, reported in San Diego. She put the shield-nosed cobra into an aquarium filled with moist sand and videotaped the snake's progress as it tunneled along the bottom.

    The cobra's shield can move independently of the head, she found. To begin, the snake arches its neck, lays the shield flat on the ground, and moves its head from side to side, throwing the shield back and forth. The shield wiggles just slightly—about 10 degrees off center—but enough that it can shove a little dirt out of the way with each nod of the head. “That's a completely novel mechanism,” says O'Reilly. Adds Summers: “It's awesome to see a snake that can wiggle its nose.”

    Nosing along.

    Shield-nosed snakes depend on their “shields” to dig.


    O'Reilly found a different digging strategy in a worm lizard, a reptile that is neither a snake nor a true lizard. Unlike most worm lizards, Leposternon microcephalum uses its head, with little help from its body, when traveling underground. “We were really surprised,” O'Reilly says.

    Normally an elusive study subject, hundreds of these worm lizards were recently captured by O'Reilly's Brazilian colleague Nelson Jorge da Silva of the Catholic University of Goiás as the creatures tried to escape the rising waters behind newly constructed dams. That allowed O'Reilly to study their digging habits more closely. For example, he set up a test tank where the reptile pushed against a force sensor as it tunneled through the soil. The worm lizard pounded its head against the soil around it, presumably to pat the soil down and make a clear path for the rest of the body. In most other legless dirt dwellers, the body provides the momentum that drives the animal forward. Typically, muscles along the body contract, bracing it against the sides of the burrow and enabling the head to ram into the dirt ahead. But L. microcephalum doesn't really have those muscles, O'Reilly and his colleagues found.

    Instead, as researchers discovered when the worm lizard was placed in a very short artificial tunnel, the work is done by using muscles in the head. In such a setting, most limbless animals lose traction because their body needs walls to brace against—but not the worm lizard, which braces its skull against the burrow and thrusts forward and upward. “One of the most surprising [findings] is that these guys could generate all this force with virtually none of their body,” says Summers. Now that's using your head.