Random Samples

Science  17 Jun 2005:
Vol. 308, Issue 5729, pp. 1738
  1. Bank on These Stamps

    Some may be cautious about the promise of stem cell research, but not the South Korean post office. Even before Woo Suk Hwang and his team at Seoul National University announced the establishment of cell lines from cloned human embryos (Science, 20 May, p. 1096), the post office issued this stamp to celebrate his achievements. Last month Hwang said that by the end of the year he plans to set up a new stem cell bank in his country, one that would provide cells to researchers around the world.

  2. A Boost for Aquaculture?

    CREDIT: NOAA

    Submerged cages tethered to the sea floor house millions of fish. The Bush Administration sent proposed legislation to Congress last week that would allow fish farmers to operate as far as 320 kilometers offshore, the boundary of the U.S. exclusive economic zone. Currently they are limited to state waters, which only extend to about 5 km from land.

    “Nearly 70% of our seafood is imported, costing us about $40 billion,” NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher noted at a press conference announcing the proposal. If the United States encourages large offshore aquaculture operations, which consist of gigantic submerged cages, it may help reduce this deficit and meet a growing global demand for seafood, which is projected to more than triple by 2025, he said.

  3. Computing: The Ultimate Challenge

    CREDIT: IBM CORP.

    Pyramidal neuron. Swiss researchers have teamed up with IBM to create the first computer model of the mammalian cerebral cortex.

    It's a daunting task: Each of our 100 billion neurons can share synapses with as many as 10,000 others. But there's hope, believes Henry Markram, a neuroscientist at the École Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne, because of the uniformity of the brain's cortical architecture.

    The neocortex, seat of higher cognitive functions, is built from about 1 million parallel columns of neurons. By modeling one of these cerebral building blocks, Markram's team hopes to scale up eventually to the entire cortex. “We are now at a crucial moment in the history of neuroscience where we can bring together 100 years of research into a single model,” says Markram. He plans to do comparisons with rat brains to test the accuracy of the simulation.

    The project, dubbed “Blue Brain,” will run on a superfast IBM machine about the size of four large refrigerators. The researchers are shooting for a model of a single cortical column within 3 years. Adding more will require either more computing power or finding a way to simplify the columns before duplication, says Markram.

    “I worry that we might not yet understand the cortex well enough to make this work,” says neuroscientist Colin Blakemore, chief of the U.K. Medical Research Council, but “it will be a success if it generates predictions [for] neurophysiology.” In addition to modeling cortical functions, Blue Brain's designers envision it as an animal-free medical model—for example, to test new epilepsy drugs.

  4. Flat in the Wardie Shales

    Evolution seems to inspire the scientific soul, judging by entries in the “first annual evolution poetry contest” at the Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE). The winning poems, announced last week at a banquet at the SSE annual meeting in Fairbanks, Alaska, were selected from among 85 from seven countries, says SSE vice president Jessica Gurevitch of Stony Brook University in New York. One of the winners was Stanley Salthe of the University of Binghamton in New York, who composed:

    Flat in the Wardie Shales, the Burdiehouse limestones, pressed beneath the Pentland Oil Works and in Pitcorthie in Fifeshire, we have learned there lurk still some of the first ones of us to come ashore on fours. In stony waters, crumbling slabs of frozen ripples near surfs long extended in time as tunnels— the roar of them unheard because uncompleted— dainty Dolichopareias was, and is, still, making a moveless step. Also here in the measured coal swims Adelogyrinus, its motion now too that of the earth itself only. See how they have found the lower levels of energy that fit them for the grander equations!

  5. Milestones

    CREDIT: AFP/GETTY IMAGES

    Trade secret. A 24-year-old French informatics student has broken his own world record in mental calculation by extracting the 13th root of a 200-digit number. Alexis Lemaire of Reims performed the feat in 4:28 at a mathematics festival in Paris earlier this month. He broke his old record, set in April, by more than 4 minutes.

    Aside from the obvious talent for rapid computation and an amazing memory, Lemaire uses an algorithm he developed but has only partially disclosed, says mathematician Jean-Paul Delahaye of Lille Science and Technology University, who was a witness at both events. “It would be very interesting to know how that works,” says Delahaye, “because it is adapted to the human brain instead of a computer.” Lemaire says he would like to set his next record in the United States. “In France almost everybody knows me now,” he says. His winning answer: 2396280083911011.

  6. Awards

    Bountiful harvest. Indian fisheries scientist Modadugu Gupta, whose innovations have helped fuel fish production in developing countries, has won the $250,000 World Food Prize. The prize, founded by Nobelist Norman Borlaug, is awarded annually by the Des Moines, Iowa-based World Food Prize Foundation.

    Responding to declining harvests due to pollution and overfishing, Gupta crossbred species with different feeding habits to create strains that could feed on all natural products, including farm waste such as chicken manure and rice bran. Raising these all-feeding varieties of fish in ponds has helped increase yields across India, Laos, Vietnam, and China.

    The research coordinator for the World Fish Center in Penang, Malaysia, the 66-year-old Gupta is now studying the ecological impact of introducing his strains.

    Cancer Prizes. Pharmacologist Angela Brodie of the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, biochemist Gerald Wogan of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, and structural biologist Roger Kornberg of the Stanford School of Medicine in California are the winners of the 2005 General Motors Cancer Research Awards. Each will receive $250,000.

    Shaw Prizes. A cell biologist, a mathematician, and two astronomers are the recipients of the $1 million Shaw Prizes awarded by the Hong Kong- based Shaw Prize Foundation. Michael Berridge of the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, U.K., receives the award for investigating the role of calcium signaling in regulating cellular activity. Andrew Wiles of Princeton University in New Jersey wins for his proof of Fermat's Last Theorem, and Geoffrey Marcy of the University of California, Berkeley, and Michel Mayor of the University of Geneva in Switzerland share $1 million for finding and characterizing the orbits and masses of extrasolar planets.

  7. Jobs

    CREDIT: DONNA COVENEY/MIT

    Firm offer. Boston University has raided neighboring Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for its new president. The appointment of chemical engineer Robert Brown is aimed at calming the tumultuous leadership waters at the nation's fourth-largest private campus since longtime president John Silber retired in 2001. Silber's successor, Jon Westling, served only 18 months, and the trustees' next choice, former NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin, triggered such a row that he was asked to withdraw the day before he was to take office.

    Brown, who has been MIT provost for 7 years, is unlikely to generate controversy. He was the search committee's only choice, says a BU press release, and his deep understanding of academia makes him “wonderfully suited to lead [BU's] broad community of scholars,” says electrical engineer Roscoe Giles, chair of BU's faculty council. He takes office 1 September.

  8. Data Point

    Spreading the wealth. All boats were lifted by the recent doubling of the budget for the National Institutes of Health, new NIH data suggest.

    Some observers had worried that the 1999–2003 doubling might have simply allowed an elite cadre of principal investigators (PIs) to expand their already large labs. But the new data show that the number of PIs rose steadily over the period, and the number of awards per PI barely changed (it went from 1.07 to 1.10). “There was a broader distribution of the funds than some might have imagined,” says Howard Garrison, head of public affairs for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.

    NIH's numbers also show that application success rates may be misleading. Although that rate dropped from more than 30% (during the doubling) to 25% in 2004, the success rate for grantees was 4 to 6 percentage points higher in each year. For more details, see table at www.sciencemag.org/sciext/news/061705.xls.