Random Samples

Science  23 Sep 2005:
Vol. 309, Issue 5743, pp. 1986
  1. Genes of a Runner


    Portrait of Eclipse by famous horse painter George Stubbs. What makes some racehorses leave others in the dust? Researchers are using the bones of Eclipse, the most celebrated stallion of the 18th century, to look for clues in his DNA.

    Analyses of pedigrees and English Derby results have shown that “almost 35% of variation in race performance is due to inherited differences,” says Emmeline Hill, a geneticist at University College Dublin, Ireland. But fingering which genes are involved is difficult because the horse genome has not been sequenced, and racehorses stem from 28 horses brought to Europe from the Middle East in the early 1700s. Fewer than a dozen are responsible for 80% of racehorse genes, according to animal geneticist Patrick Cunningham of Trinity College in Dublin.

    To boost signal to noise, a team including Matthew Binns, a geneticist at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) in Hatfield, U.K., is comparing DNA from the greatest racehorses in history. The researchers are starting with DNA from a tooth belonging to Eclipse, whose 216-year-old skeleton now hangs in the RVC museum.

    The plan, described at the British Festival of Science last week in Dublin, is to look for differences in genes important for speed and stamina, such as those involved in glucose metabolism or oxygen transport, that correlate with performance. Binns wants to find out how many of Eclipse's genes have carried through to modern thoroughbreds.

  2. Ill-Fated Voyage

    An attempt to sail from Oman to India on a replica of a 5000-year-old boat this month (Science, 9 September, p. 1670) lasted less than 11 hours. The reed-and-tar construction of the 12.5-meter craft Magan proved no match for the Arabian Sea, which swamped it on 7 September a scant 10 kilometers from port. All eight crewmembers were picked up by an escort vessel, according to Oman's Ministry of National Heritage and Culture. No word yet on whether the mariners will try again to recreate this ancient trade route.

  3. Where the Bees Are


    Bees are crucial pollinators, second only to wind, but their numbers have been dropping. If electric companies would stop mowing under power lines and allow shrubs and brambles to spread in these right-of-ways, however, they could become bee refuges, scientists say.

    Conservation biologist Kimberly Russell of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City compared bees caught in dense scrub with those found in nearby grasslands. The scrub held one-third more species of wild bees and three-quarters of the rarest species, she and her colleagues reported in last month's issue of Biological Conservation. They calculate that if the roughly 2 million hectares of power-line strips in the country went unmowed, wild bees could pick up the slack for domesticated honeybees, whose numbers have dropped 50% since 1945 because of parasites, environmental toxins, and loss of habitat.

    Conservation biologist Gretchen LeBuhn of San Francisco State University in California says this plan could lead to more creative management of biodiversity in the midst of civilization. “Wouldn't it be great to do this at corporate headquarters?” LeBuhn says. “Instead of expanses of grass, you could have ponds for frogs.”

  4. World Map of Plant Biodiversity


    Biologists rely on maps showing the distribution of wildlife around the world for conservation planning. Now they've got a global chart for plants. Plants have a huge influence on other components of ecosystems, says Taylor Ricketts of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Washington, D.C. Without such data, “we've been flying blind in terms of conservation planning,” he says.

    The new map, published in the July issue of the Journal of Biogeography, plots the number of plant species in each of 867 terrestrial “ecoregions.” The most diverse region is the Borneo lowlands, with more than 10,000 species, followed by regions in Central and South America. One of the most impoverished, outside of deserts, was the southern Indian Ocean islands, with some 35 species.

    “It's an important benchmark,” says Robert Whittaker of the University of Oxford of the map, a joint effort of WWF and botany doctoral student Gerold Kier and colleagues at the University of Bonn, Germany. Whittaker predicts it will have a “powerful impact” on global conservation planning. A novel feature of the map is its assessment of the quality of the data available. The group found them particularly sparse for tropical grasslands submerged most of the year and for the southern Amazon basin.

  5. Pioneers


    Sharing space. With help from astronautics engineer Bob Twiggs of Stanford University in California, Romanian students are building their country's first satellites. But that big news comes in a small package. Sponsored by the Romanian Space Agency, the five students spent a week at Stanford this month learning to build “CubeSats”: tiny technological marvels that are 10 cm on a side and weigh less than a kilogram. If all goes well, the first Romanian CubeSat will rocket into space in 2007 via a launcher at California Polytechnic State Institute in San Luis Obispo.

    Twiggs has made his CubeSat designs freely available, and some 70 universities around the world now openly share information on design and technology à la Linux. However, the Romanian visit is the first time that students have traveled to Stanford, Twiggs says. The first two satellites were launched in 2003—Stanford's QuakeSat, which can detect pre-earthquake energy emissions, and Japan's remote-sensing CUTE-I—and another 15 await launch next year. But, Twiggs says, “the major purpose is to train budding space scientists.”

  6. Update

    China bound. A federal judge in Seattle, Washington, has ruled that former Microsoft vice president Kai-Fu Lee is free to head Google's new China-based R&D office. Microsoft had sued both Lee and Google, claiming that Lee breached a 1-year, no-competition clause in his contract (Science, 29 July, p. 697).

    Both sides are claiming victory from the 13 September ruling, which bans Lee from continuing the search and speech technology research he worked on at Microsoft pending a final decision in January. Google has filed a countersuit against Microsoft in California.

    In the meantime, Lee is already hard at work, says Michael Kwun, an attorney for Google. “The first steps are getting a facility and hiring engineers,” Kwun says. “The court has confirmed he can do that, and he has already started.”

  7. Jobs


    New line. University of Cambridge has recruited one of the world's foremost experts on stem cells to lead a new institute that it hopes will take it to the top of this hot field.

    Next year, developmental biologist Austin Smith will move from the University of Edinburgh to head up the Institute for Stem Cell Biology. His deputy will be Fiona Watt, now at Cancer Research UK's research institute in London.

    The institute will open in August 2006 with room for at least 12 groups. The U.K., unlike the United States, allows researchers to use national government funds to cultivate new lines of human embryonic stem cells. But Smith says that President George W. Bush's restrictive policies have not created an American brain drain. “It's really the reverse,” he says. “My goal is to create a place where people can stay in Europe.”

  8. Deaths


    A steady contribution. Mathematician and astrophysicist Hermann Bondi, who described the basic theory for how matter falls onto a star or black hole, died in Cambridge, U.K., on 10 September. The Vienna-born Bondi, a life-long advocate of scientific literacy who taught mathematics at King's College London and later Churchill College in Cambridge, was 85.

    With astronomers Thomas Gold and Fred Hoyle, Bondi formulated the once-popular “steady-state” model of cosmology that eventually lost out to the big bang theory. In the 1970s, he was chief of European space research as well as scientific adviser to the British government. Martin Rees, the United Kingdom's Astronomer Royal, says Bondi had tremendous energy and “spoke in a clear and cogent way” that a nonspecialist could understand.

  9. Society Matters


    No talking. Two members of an American Chemical Society (ACS) committee have resigned to protest what they say is the society's tight-lipped handling of its battle against a free federal chemical database.

    The flap involves the National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) PubChem, which ACS leaders see as a threat to the fee-based Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS) (Science, 2 September, p. 1473). At an ACS meeting in late August in Washington, D.C., member David Spellmeyer distributed fliers announcing that the issue would be discussed at the open meeting of ACS's Joint Board-Council Committee. But CAS president Robert Massie told the crowd there was no time and that those with PubChem questions could talk to an ACS spokesperson.

    That was the last straw for Spellmeyer, an IBM researcher, and informatics expert Gary Wiggins (left) of Indiana University, Bloomington, who chose to resign from the committee. “It's mostly because they're not talking about it openly,” says Wiggins. ACS spokesperson Nancy Blount says ongoing negotiations with NIH require “confidentiality” and that the council's chair must approve additions to the agenda. But “we do take seriously the request for more communication,” she says.

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