Random Samples

Science  08 Jul 2005:
Vol. 309, Issue 5732, pp. 242
1. Fake Meteor Exposed

A metal object long regarded as a famous meteorite, and displayed in a Madrid museum since the 1940s, is apparently nothing more than a ball of steel. The Los Blázquez meteorite was donated to the Geomining Museum by José María Melgar, a mining company employee and meteorite aficionado. The discoverer was said to be the eminent Spanish geo-logist Casiano de Prado, who died in 1866.

But when curators Tomás Crespo and Rafael Lozano began cataloging the collection a few years ago, the supposed extraterrestrial metal did not respond to magnetic tests, as authentic meteorites do, the pair report in the June issue of the journal Boletín Geológico y Minero. The artifact turns out to be made of austenitic steel, an industrial alloy invented 16 years after de Prado's death. The object will remain on display—but with a new and accurate label, says Crespo.

2. Butterfly Sparkle Lures Mates

Some male butterflies have small, reflective patches dotting their wings. Resembling eyes with white “pupils” that reflect ultraviolet (UV) light, the spots are thought to confuse predators. But the butterflies, members of the species Bicyclus anynana, also sport the eyes on their inner—and more hidden— dorsal wings, suggesting an additional purpose: setting females aflutter. Antónia Monteiro, a biologist at the University at Buffalo in New York, her graduate student Kendra Robertson, and their colleagues scrutinized more than 1800 butterflies from the lab's colony. When the researchers blacked out some insects'” pupils” with paint, they found that females flocked to males whose pupils remained visible. UV reflection seemed to be the draw: Dabbing the pupils with a UV-absorbing pigment was a turnoff for females, the team reports online 6 July in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. Males with more UV reflectivity probably appear younger and healthier, attracting mates, says Robertson.

“The results are convincing, and the outcome is amazing,” says Ronald Rutowski, a biologist at Arizona State University in Tempe. But one wrinkle, he points out, is that the amount of UV light available in the environment can change from one habitat to the next.

3. Isotopes of Cattle Feed

Wondering if that steak on your plate came, as advertised, from a contented cow that spent its days munching tender grass in a pasture? German researchers have taken an old technique—carbon isotope testing—and successfully applied it to a cow's feeding history.

A team led by grasslands scientist Hans Schnyder of the Technical University of Munich collected tail hair samples from three to five cows from each of 13 farms in Upper Bavaria. The sites ranged from organic farms where cows ate only grass to heifer-fattening feed lots that relied mainly on corn.

Because of differences in photo-synthesis, the ratio of carbon-13 to carbon-12 is higher in corn than in grass. And, indeed, the isotopic signal in the cow hair matched that of their feed, the group reports in the August issue of Agriculture, Ecosystems, and Environment. “What's really novel is that we were able to show that you can differentiate [types of farming],” says Schnyder. The method would work just as well in meat or milk, he adds.

John Maas, who studies cattle nutrition and health at the University of California, Davis, says the approach is promising but needs to be validated on a broader scale.

4. Monkey See, Monkey Abuse

Rhesus macaques are supplying clues about how abusive behavior passes from parents to their children, with a new study suggesting that the link is environmental, not genetic.

Like humans, rhesus macaques that are abused as infants are more likely to become abusive parents, tossing, crushing, and biting their offspring. The monkey-human parallels piqued the interest of Dario Maestripieri, a behavioral biologist at the University of Chicago.

Maestripieri housed 14 female infants with adoptive mothers, some abusive and others not. Seventeen other monkeys stayed with their biological mothers, some of whom were abusive. He followed them for 5 years. The result: Being raised by an abusive mother, adoptive or not, made a difference in their behavior as adults. Nine of 16 infants cared for by abusive mothers became abusive parents, whereas none of those paired with nonabusive mothers did. The study appeared in the 27 June online Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Still, the study doesn't rule out genetics, says Joseph McClay, a geneticist at the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics in Richmond. Some individuals may be genetically predisposed to become abusive, he says, and the trait may be exacerbated by early environmental influences.

5. Jobs

The next job for a public health expert who steered Hong Kong through the 1997 avian influenza epidemic and the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is to prepare for a global flu pandemic.

Margaret Chan has been chosen by the World Health Organization (WHO) to help its 192 member countries “mitigate mortality and reduce social and economic disruption” from an anticipated influenza pandemic. Chan, who joined WHO 2 years ago from the Hong Kong Department of Health, plans to use her contacts to strengthen WHO's pandemic preparedness efforts throughout Asia, where the H5N1 avian influenza virus is believed to be endemic. “But I keep reminding myself that [a pandemic] can emerge from any country or any part of the world,” she says.

Janelia's first crop. Bio-informatics whizzes, a worm brain mapper, and a scientist who built a flight simulator for fruit flies are among the first seven group leaders recruited by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Janelia Farm, a $500 million research campus set to open in mid-2006 in Ashburn, Virginia. The glass-roofed, snake-shaped laboratory will bring up to 300 physical and biological scientists together in 24 groups to figure out how neuronal circuits work and come up with new imaging technologies. The bent is quantitative: Of the group leaders hired so far, five studied physics or math in college and later moved on to biology. The complete list is neuroscientists Dmitri Chklovskii and Karel Svoboda of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York; bioinformaticists Sean Eddy of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and Eugene Myers of the University of California, Berkeley; protein imager Nikolaus Grigorieff of Brandeis University in Massachusetts; neurogeneticist Julie Simpson of the University of Wisconsin, Madison; and neurobiologist Roland Strauss of the University of Würzburg, Germany, who models insect flight. Handprints from children at the development center he championed, an honorary law degree from the agency's general counsel, and a photograph of a plateau in Antarctica that now bears his name are just three of the many going-away presents that Joseph Bordogna received last week as he ended 14 years at the National Science Foundation (NSF), the last nine as the agency's longest-serving deputy director. Serving under four NSF directors, Bordogna was known for both his attention to detail and his labors on the agency's evolving strategic vision. NSF Director Arden Bement presented the 72-year-old electrical engineer with a clock, then quickly noted that “Joe isn't a clock watcher. He comes to work when the sun rises and leaves when it sets.” Bordogna plans to continue that pace at the University of Pennsylvania, where he reclaims his endowed chair in engineering. He'll also be working with new president Amy Gutmann on implementing her strategic plan for the university. 6. Awards Living in a relocation camp with other Japanese Americans during World War II, Gordon Sato grew corn and vegetables on a patch of land in the California desert at the age of 14. The experience inspired a lifelong interest in agriculture under harsh conditions, which led Sato (left) to develop a technique for cultivating mangrove trees using seawater on the Eritrean coast. Last week, that achievement earned the 77-year-old biochemist the$460,000 Blue Planet Prize, awarded by Japan's Asahi Glass Foundation.

Launched in the 1980s, Sato's Eritrean project has led to the development of 700,000 hectares of mangrove plantations, which could be used as a pasture to rear sheep and goats and lift millions of people out of hunger and poverty. The work has demonstrated that seawater agriculture can be profitable and a means for sustainable development in some of the world's poorest regions, says Sato, adding that it's time for the world to think about “implementing far-out ideas such as converting the Sahara into a mangrove forest.”

The foundation awarded another Blue Planet Prize to British geologist Nicholas Shackleton for his contributions to paleo- climatology, including a technique to analyze the fluctuations in the size of ice sheets during the past 1.8 million years. He too will receive \$460,000.

7. They Said It

“I would prefer to call [it] oocyte genome replacement.”

—Developmental biologist Roger Pedersen suggesting a new name for research cloning, a term that stem cell researchers say has drawn undesirable political attention to their field. Others have suggested “somatic cell nuclear transfer.”