Random Samples

Science  05 Aug 2005:
Vol. 309, Issue 5736, pp. 872

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  1. Plague of Toads Down Under


    Cane toads, brought to Queensland from South America in the 1930s to tackle sugarcane beetles, have become Australia's latest big alien menace. The toads have been gradually spreading across tropical northern Australia, and citizens of Darwin are bracing for an invasion when the next wet season starts in December.

    The highly fecund cane toads (Bufo marinus) are a threat to native wildlife because of a poisonous sac at the base of the head that can kill any predators, from crocodiles to cattle, that take a nip at them. They have been implicated in the recent drastic decline of quolls, cat-sized marsupials. Authorities worry that they will cut a swath through native frogs, snakes, and goanna lizards in the Northern Territory's famous Kakadu Park.

    Trapping, monitoring, and public education activities are now in high gear. Zoologist Gordon Grigg of the University of Queensland in Brisbane and others are looking for “toad-specific” solutions, including scents and sounds that will draw the animals to traps, pheromones that might be used to disrupt breeding cycles, and toxins special to the cane toad. In the long run, government scientists hope that genetic engineering will allow them to throw a wrench into tadpole development.

    That solution is still far away, says Adelaide University zoologist Michael Tyler. Amphibians are rarely invasive species, he notes, so scientists still know little about the toad and its potential Achilles' heel. That is why, he says, “everything we've tried so far has been unsuccessful.”

  2. Burning Boats for Animal Rights

    Last month, animal-rights activists again attacked Oxford University over an animal research facility it is building, this time setting fire to a boathouse.

    A year ago, activists used threats and property damage to force the main contractor to withdraw from the $33 million project (Science, 23 July 2004, p. 463). Now the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) has claimed responsibility for the 4 July fire, which destroyed 24 shells and caused almost $1 million in damage. No arrests have yet been made.

    ALF has threatened the university and its suppliers with further attacks. “[N]othing … is off limits until the project is scrapped,” it wrote on its Bite Back Magazine Web site. A university spokesperson says it is still determined to resume work on the lab, designed mainly to house rodents.

    Some animal-rights protesters say their tactics are a response to stiffer laws against economic sabotage. A new law allows up to 5 years' imprisonment of anyone who harasses businesses supplying research organizations (Science, 4 February, p. 659).

  3. Bombs Away ... and Back

    Little Boy now just a toy. CREDIT: SARAH SHAY GAUSS

    After a 4-year absence from the Bradbury Science Museum at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Little Boy nuclear bomb has returned—sort of.

    Shortly after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, the museum and its counterpart at Sandia National Laboratories removed their Little Boy bombs, 4500-kilogram cousins of the device that killed more than 70,000 people at Hiroshima, Japan, 60 years ago tomorrow. Although the bombs lacked nuclear or explosive material, says Bradbury director John Wheaton, the government worried that their “ana-tomically correct” innards might interest terrorists. “These old, crude, brute-force World War II devices [had] suddenly become an issue,” he says. (The museum's Fat Man, a copy of the one used at Nagasaki, is only a bomb case.)

    Wheaton says Sandia carried out “surgery” on the private parts of its Little Boy. (Sandia would not confirm this.) But he says Bradbury's bomb was transferred to a well-guarded facility while modelmakers in Texas built the replica of its casing now on display.

  4. Adieu, Antibiotics

    Mal de gorge. It's time for Frenchmen to tough it out.

    In the latest step to wean its citizens of their antibiotic habit, France has banned 12 popular sore throat remedies that contain “topical antibiotics.” The drugs—lozenges, mouthwashes, and sprays—haven't been shown to do any good, the French Health Products Safety Agency has concluded. Most throat infections are impervious to antibiotics because they are caused by viruses, they note. And the drugs, all but one available over the counter, could foster the development of drug-resistant microbes.

    Since 2001, the French government has campaigned to drive down the country's use of antibiotics, among the highest in Europe, which has resulted in high rates of treatment resistance in pneumonia and hospital-acquired infections. The government prohibited the use of several medically important antibiotics in sore throat remedies in 2003. The latest ban affects four others whose overuse posed a much smaller risk to public health, says infectious diseases specialist Stephan Harbarth of the University of Geneva in Switzerland. Still, he adds, the move signals to doctors and patients “that France is getting tougher.”

  5. Jobs

    Stanford bound. CREDIT: LEROY N. SANCHEZ/LANL

    Four decades of research and administration at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) has taught Siegfried Hecker a thing or two about nuclear weapons and proliferation. Now the 61-year-old metallurgist will get to share that knowledge with students at Stanford University in California.

    Hecker, who served as LANL's director until 1997 and stayed on as a scientist before retiring from the lab last month, is going to Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation this fall as a visiting professor. There, he'll continue his work on curbing proliferation and nuclear terrorism and teach courses on science and nuclear security. Hecker says the looming new LANL contract clinched his decision to leave the New Mexico lab.

    “I got waylaid,” he says, about an academic post he turned down in 1968 to join Los Alamos, where he became an authority on plutonium. “And now, 37 years later, I'm finally doing it.” Center Director Scott Sagan says it's going to be “very exciting” to have him around.


    Scientists made “a huge mistake” this spring by sitting out the Kansas school board hearings on intelligent design, says science historian Niall Shanks, who has battled creationism in debates and writings. But he says his decision to join the philosophy department at Wichita State University (WSU) in Kansas, ground zero for the creationism movement, has little to do with that fight. It's “not really what I'm interested in,” says British-born Shanks, calling the defense of evolution “dirty work [that] someone's got to do.”

    It's an endowed position at Wichita that lured him from his current post at East Tennessee State University, says Shanks, who may extend his work from the study of biological self-organization and complexity into the philosophy of medicine. WSU philosophy department chair David Soles says Shanks's teaching ability and academic achievement won him the job, not his activism, although he says he's “gearing up for some flak” from the appointment. University of Kansas science education professor Steve Case takes umbrage at the criticism of the community's strategy by his new ally. “But otherwise I'm thrilled,” he said.

  6. Deaths

    A smoking gun. CREDIT: AP

    British epidemiologist Richard Doll, who helped save millions of lives by showing a causal link between smoking and lung cancer, died last week in Oxford, U.K., at the age of 92.

    Working with Austin Bradford Hill, Doll began asking British doctors in 1951 what they smoked and documenting what they died from. The work confirmed that smokers were much more likely than nonsmokers to die of lung cancer.

    In 1969, Doll became a professor of medicine at Oxford University, where he teamed up with Richard Peto and showed that smoking could also cause other types of cancer, as well as heart disease and respiratory disease. Doll's research “has done as much to save lives as the discovery of penicillin or the development of the polio vaccine,” says neuroscientist Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council in London. “The profound implications for health policy resonate to this day.”

  7. In The News


    Call it “Harry Potter Meets the Teacher of Science.” Christine Redman of the University of Melbourne in Australia has been using the wildly popular series to harness students' interest in science and mathematics. Her Potter-centric curriculum employs flying broomsticks to reveal fundamentals of mechanical engineering and Dementor-curing chocolate to illustrate brain biochemistry and social behavior. Redman has trained more than 600 chemistry school teachers in the past 4 years, and the state of Victoria offers her material to all its schools. Redman says she plans to create more lessons based on the latest volume, a 672-page spellbinder, once she finishes reading it.

  8. Awards

    Sounds good. Masakazu Konishi and his former postdoctoral researcher, Eric Knudsen, will share the $200,000 Neuroscience Prize from the Peter Gruber Foundation. Konishi, a professor at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and Knudsen, a professor at Stanford University in California, receive the honor for their research on the neural circuits and mechanisms that underlie sound localization in barn owls. The prize will be awarded at the Society for Neuroscience's meeting in November.