Random Samples

Science  19 Aug 2005:
Vol. 309, Issue 5738, pp. 1180

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  1. Starvation and Schizophrenia

    Epidemiologists have long suspected that malnourishment in pregnant women can raise the risk of schizophrenia in their offspring. The hypothesis is based in part on a study showing that people conceived in the Netherlands during the winter of 1944-45, when Hitler's army blockaded food supplies, were twice as likely to develop the mental disorder.

    Now a new and larger analysis of people born during the Chinese famine of 1959-61 has bolstered the connection. Geneticists David St. Clair of the University of Aberdeen, U.K., and Lin He of Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China analyzed 3 decades of records from the Fourth People's Hospital, the only psychiatric hospital in the Wuhu region of eastern China, which was hit hard by the famine. After adjusting for differing mortality rates before, during, and after the famine, the researchers found that 2% of people conceived in the region in 1960 and 1961 developed schizophrenia, as opposed to 0.9% of those conceived in the 3 years before or after the famine.

    The study, which appeared in the 3 August issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, “offers a compelling confirmation” of the theory that prenatal malnutrition raises schizophrenia risk, says epidemiologist Richard Neugebauer of the New York State Psychiatric Institute in New York City. If animal studies can identify the key nutrients, this could yield “an almost utopian opportunity” to reduce schizophrenia risk by ensuring that pregnant women receive adequate nutrition, he says.


  2. A Whiff of Malaria to Whet the Appetite


    Offering another example of how shrewdly manipulative parasites can be, researchers have discovered that Plasmodium falciparum, which causes malaria, can make its human host more attractive to Anopheles mosquitoes, thus boosting its chances of being transferred to another host. The “bite me” signal is sent out only when the parasites are in the gametocyte stage, ready to be picked up by a mosquito.

    Researchers had long speculated that parasites might tinker with mosquito attraction. To test the idea, a team led by Jacob Koella of the Université Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris screened schoolchildren in a Kenyan village for the presence of malaria parasites. Then every day for 12 days they selected three different children: one who was uninfected, one who carried the parasite in the nontransmissible stage, and one with parasites in the gametocyte stage.

    At sunset, the three lay down in three nylon tents connected to a central chamber, into which 100 uninfected mosquitoes were set loose and given 30 minutes to choose a tent. On average, the children carrying the gametocytes drew about twice as many mosquitoes as the other two, but after the infected subjects were treated with antimalarial drugs, the difference disappeared.

    Presumably, the parasite triggers changes in breath or body odors, the researchers report in the September issue of Public Library of Science: Biology. The study has a “very, very elegant design,” says Andrew Read, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Edinburgh, U.K., and may eventually help scientists in designing so-called olfactory traps to catch the insects.

  3. Image Doctors

    Do two bands on that Southern blot in the paper you're reading look oddly similar? Do the colors on a gene-expression microarray figure appear suspiciously bright? The federal Office of Research Integrity (ORI) reports that, in part thanks to the wonders of computer graphics, over the past decade cases involving questioned images—such as fabricated bands on a gel and cut-and-pasted cells in a micrograph—have grown from 4% of its caseload in 1993-94 to more than 40%.

    ORI investigator John Krueger says that whereas the ORI cases reflect possible deliberate fakery, in many other instances, biologists probably are just trying to make data clearer and don't realize they're crossing an ethical line. “We think there should be a broader discussion in the community about this,” Krueger says. Some journals are trying to screen for doctored images. To help them and anyone else who wants to play forensic scientist, ORI has posted some computer tools and practice examples from actual ORI cases at ori.hhs.gov/tools/data_imaging.shtml.

  4. Chacun à son Goût

    “It's fine that someone has it who will enjoy it. If I had that money, I'd probably be buying pictures.”

    —Art connoisseur James Watson, to The New York Times, about his sometime rival J. Craig Venter spending several million dollars to buy a collection of historically important biology papers, including an early draft of Watson's famous account of the discovery of DNA's structure.

  5. Awards

    Personal connection. CREDIT: UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE

    Theoretical physicist Samuel Edwards of the University of Cambridge last week won a prize awarded in the name of one of his former teachers. Edwards (top left), who studied quantum mechanics under Nobelist Paul Dirac as a Cambridge undergraduate 60 years ago, received the Dirac Medal from the International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy, for his work on polymers, spin glasses, and granular materials.

    Dirac was a mediocre instructor whose lectures consisted of reading aloud from his book The Principles of Quantum Mechanics, recalls Edwards, 78. “And sometimes he missed pages,” he says.


    The other physicist to receive this year's medal—awarded on 8 August, Dirac's birthday— was Patrick Lee (bottom left) of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, honored for his work on the localization and interactions of electric charges in metals. “I'm pleased to see our field—condensed matter physics— get recognized,” says Lee, 58, about an award typically given to research in particle theory and other esoteric fields.

  6. Jobs

    Capital's call. CREDIT: C. J. KAZILEK

    Keeping his lab going at Arizona State University was a prerequisite for Jim Collins before agreeing last week to become head of the biology directorate at the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Arlington, Virginia. “My obligations are to the foundation, which I think is a terrific institution,” says the 58-year-old ecologist, who has spent 30 years at the Tempe, Arizona, university interrupted by a 1-year sabbatical as an NSF program manager. “But I had to convince myself that I could still interact with students before I decided to take the job.” His solution: a 2-year stint as a rotator, “commuting as much as is reasonable” to shepherd his flock of a dozen undergraduates, grad students, and postdocs.

    A longtime NSF grantee for his work on morphological variation within species, using salamanders as a model organism, Collins has more recently begun to explore the fledgling field of ecological ethics. He hopes to expand biology's interactions with NSF's seven other directorates and other federal agencies and says he isn't fazed by the dim prospects for significant budget increases. But he's not planning to set down roots in the nation's capital: “I love the Sonoran Desert and my research. I certainly wasn't looking for a change of scenery.”

  7. Data Point

    Impact factor.

    A theoretical physicist has proposed an index to rank the productivity of scientists by a single number. Named “h” by its creator—Jorge Hirsch of the University of California, San Diego—it is the largest number such that the researcher has h papers with at least h citations. For example, Edward Witten, a string theorist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, has an h of 110 because 110 papers of his papers have received at least 110 citations. The index favors researchers who produce a stream of influential papers over those who publish many quickly forgotten ones or a few blockbusters. “I can't imagine a person with a high h index who hasn't done important work,” says Hirsch, whose own h is 49.

    Manuel Cardona (h = 86), a physicist at the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research in Stuttgart, Germany, says “the great advantage of the index is that you can get it in about 30 seconds” using the ISI Web of Knowledge. However, he says, researchers shouldn't use it as the only measure of their colleagues' performance. The index is described in a preprint posted at http://www.arxiv.org/

  8. They Said It

    “The trouble with the 'missing link' is that it is still missing! … The theory of evolution … has more holes in it than a crocheted bathtub.”

    —Utah state senator D. Chris Buttars in an op-ed published in the 9 August edition of USA Today.