News this Week

Science  28 Oct 2005:
Vol. 310, Issue 5748, pp. 598

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    'Security Breach' Leaks NIH Grant Applications Onto Web

    1. David Grimm

    When Leemor Joshua-Tor received an e-mail from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) earlier this month regarding her recent grant application, the structural biologist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York was hoping for good news. After all, a study section had ranked the proposal highly in June. Instead, the agency informed her that her application—containing a large amount of unpublished data relating to a project she had been working on for 10 years—had been posted on the Internet, freely accessible to the public.

    Joshua-Tor was not alone. One hundred and forty grant applications submitted to at least one NIH study section were recently released onto nonsecure Web pages. NIH has been mum about the leaks, citing only a “security breach” and vaguely alluding in a Web-posted open letter to the actions of a peer reviewer. More surprising, the agency has not informed all individuals affiliated with the study section about the incident and has not shared basic information with affected authors regarding exactly when or for how long their supposedly secure proposals were available for public consumption.

    “This is the first time I've heard of this happening, and it chills my blood,” says Julio Fernandez, a biophysicist at Columbia University, who chairs the Macromolecular Structure and Function C (MSFC) study section that reviewed Joshua-Tor's grant application. “It's an unthinkable attack on the entire system.”

    NIH spokesperson Don Ralbovsky says the agency can't discuss the specifics of the leak for security reasons. NIH would also not comment on why all affected authors had not been contacted or why individuals affiliated with the MSFC study section, including Fernandez and a number of peer reviewers who served on the section in June and February, had not heard of the incident before Science brought it to their attention.

    Confused and frustrated by the initial NIH e-mail, Joshua-Tor requested more information. She found the agency's response unsatisfying. Israel Lederhendler, the director of NIH's Office of Electronic Research and Reports Management, directed her to an open letter posted on the agency's grant Web site.* It stated that “a peer reviewer downloaded review materials in a way that allowed Google to capture, index them, and make them accessible via its search engine.” The letter added that NIH had addressed the problem and was taking steps to ensure that it didn't happen again. But Joshua-Tor is still left with unanswered questions: “The letter didn't say what exactly had gone up [on the Web] or how long it had been up,” she says.

    Going public.

    A letter posted on an NIH Web site blames the grant leak on a peer reviewer.


    Some affected scientists have yet to hear from NIH. Stephen Sprang, a biochemist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, found out about his grant application going public from a colleague, who discovered Sprang's proposal to the February MSFC study section as well as his own on the Web. “My reaction at the time was, 'This is odd and inappropriate,'” Sprang says. “Grant applications are presumably private, and this felt like an invasion of privacy.” Still, he says, it's difficult to assess the consequences of the leak without knowing further details.

    One scientist whose grant proposal to the June MSFC study section was also made public believes NIH's eRA Commons site, designed for the electronic exchange of grant information, may have been the source of the leak. The scientist, who declined to be named because his application is still pending, came across his proposal on the Web while doing a Google search for more information on software he uses in his research. He says he was able to access a number of other applications simply by entering the terms “sketch site:” into Google. When Science performed the search, it brought up several grant titles, but the proposals themselves were no longer available.

    Some worry that such security lapses could compromise NIH's ambitious plans to make its grant application and review process entirely Web-based. The agency plans to have all grant proposals submitted electronically by May 2007. “I'm sure there will be additional problems,” says Vernon Anderson, a biochemist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and a peer reviewer on another MSF study section. Still, he says, “personally, I'm more worried about someone getting my Social Security or credit card number than my grant information.” And he notes that even before electronic submissions, there was always the concern that peer reviewers would steal ideas from an applicant's proposal. “But at least then, if someone stole your idea, you could trace it back to the study section,” he says. “Now, if something goes up on the Web, there's no way to trace who saw it.”


    Science Takes Back Seat as Hubble Shoots the Moon

    1. Andrew Lawler

    The Hubble Space Telescope has joined the moon program. For the first time in its 15 years in orbit, NASA researchers late this summer appropriated the observatory for studies not strictly related to science, bypassing the rigorous peer review usually needed to win a slot on Hubble's crowded schedule, NASA revealed just last week. At a press conference on 19 October, the scientists also laid out the observations—although not the detailed data—that they said could help future astronauts learn to live off the land.

    Although NASA's use of the agency's premier scientific facility to push U.S. President George W. Bush's plan to return humans to the moon is unprecedented, researchers aren't complaining—yet. Many say the data are scientifically useful and should herald a flood of new information from two future lunar missions.

    As part of the Bush initiative, NASA intends to launch a lunar orbiter in 2008, followed by a robotic lander in the next decade. The instruments aboard the spacecraft will beam back data on potential human landing sites and resources that astronauts could extract, as well as detailed maps and spectroscopic information of value to basic science. Exploration—that is, planning for human visits—rather than pure science is driving the projects, but researchers starved for lunar data are enthusiastic. “Apollo was not driven by science, but it was a quantum leap in our understanding of the solar system,” says Carlé Pieters, a geologist at Brown University. “It's high time we got serious about exploring the character of the moon.”

    The idea of using Hubble to image the moon came from James Garvin, NASA's former chief scientist and now chief scientist at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who made a formal study proposal earlier this year. “This is a jump-start for lunar science,” he said at the Washington press conference. Hubble spent a dozen orbits in late August imaging three famous sites on the moon: the landing spots for Apollo 15 and Apollo 17 and the Aristarchus plateau, which has never been visited by humans or robots. NASA scientists used soil and rocks astronauts had gathered at the first two sites to calibrate Hubble's ultraviolet sensors for highly accurate analysis of Aristarchus. Because atmospheric interference makes ultraviolet imaging of the moon hard to do from Earth, researchers until now have made do with data from other wavelengths.

    Hot prospects?

    Comparing UV and visible light reflected from Aristarchus impact crater may reveal useful lunar minerals such as ilmenite.


    The plateau is 200 kilometers across and rises 2 kilometers above the Ocean of Storms. It is punctuated by a massive young crater, 42 kilometers wide and 3 kilometers deep. The crater and the unusual pyroclastic formations in the region, caused by huge plumes of lava, have long drawn scientific interest; the plateau was one of the candidate sites for a follow-on Apollo mission, which was canceled. Geologists are eager to probe the dark basalts disgorged from deep within the lunar interior, which contain volatiles absent from other rocks, for clues to the formation and evolution of the moon.

    Garvin also wanted to gather data on a mineral called ilmenite common in Aristarchus's basaltic flows. Made up of oxygen, iron, and titanium, ilmenite could provide a way for astronauts to make water and rocket fuel—and eventually, extract metals—from the lunar surface (Science, 12 March 2004, p. 1603). That could significantly lower transportation costs. NASA is funding efforts on Earth to break down ilmenite into its constituent parts. But for such an effort to be feasible, the percentage of ilmenite in the soil would have to be high—and researchers are divided over whether it is. Garvin hinted that the new Hubble data resolve the issue, but he and his team declined to provide details prior to publication.

    The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, which operates Hubble and is funded by NASA, agreed to the space agency's unusual request this summer after “extensive interaction,” says Bruce Margon, associate director at the institute. Hubble policy written before its launch allows NASA to use the telescope for broader purposes, and Margon adds that “this was a very small project and not an issue of controversy.”

    Some researchers, however, fear that in a time of tight budgets, science might end up playing second fiddle to exploration. Although remote exploration could provide new opportunities and technologies, “if it is funded by siphoning money away from robotic exploration, the net result will be a … dearth of new discoveries in the cosmos” in the next 1 to 2 decades, warns Jonathan Lunine, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

    For Pieters, who was not involved in Garvin's project, any lunar data are good news; she notes, for instance, that Hubble's ultraviolet readings will enable researchers to prepare to use similar data when the lunar orbiter is in place. “We don't have good remote-sensing data of the moon,” she says. But once NASA's spacecraft arrive there, along with an armada of European, Chinese, and Indian spacecraft, she predicts lunar science will finally come into its own. “At the end of 5 years, it is going to be absolutely fantastic; we'll be close to where we are now with Mars.”


    New Haplotype Map May Overhaul Gene Hunting

    1. Jennifer Couzin

    Three years after it was launched with high hopes of identifying genes behind complex diseases such as diabetes, the first, massive phase of the International HapMap Project is complete. Francis Collins, director of the U.S. National Human Genome Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, and a key participant, calls the map “a dream … come true.” He and others are concerned, however, that, as with any novel tool, researchers may be reluctant to apply it. And questions about the map's usefulness, which have dogged it from the start, haven't entirely disappeared.

    The HapMap denotes haplotypes, stretches of DNA that are inherited together as unbroken blocks and can be identified by just a handful of DNA markers known as SNPs (single-nucleotide polymorphisms), which are variations at the single base level. The map allows gene hunters to get away with less (and thus cheaper) DNA sequencing while still, it's hoped, homing in on disease genes. The current HapMap—a finer-resolution version will come out next year—includes more than 1 million SNPs drawn from the DNA of 269 individuals from four different populations, because haplotype frequencies vary based on evolutionary history. An international consortium announced the draft's completion at the annual meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics in Salt Lake City, Utah, this week; the map was also published in this week's issue of Nature. (The U.S. National Institutes of Health contributed more than $60 million toward the map's $138 million price tag; funds also came from the United Kingdom, Japan, China, and Canada.)


    Already, data from the map, which are freely available online, are helping pave the way toward finding genes involved in macular degeneration, dyslexia, and hypertension, among other disorders. The HapMap “opens up a really powerful new approach [for finding disease genes], but an unfamiliar one,” says Collins. Geneticists aren't necessarily accustomed to a gene-hunting method based on population genetics, Collins explains, so they may need some encouragement to use the HapMap.

    David Altshuler of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a leader of the HapMap project along with Peter Donnelly of Oxford, agrees. “When you present people with the sort of data they haven't had before, you end up with a lot of foment and confusion and excitement,” Altshuler says. More than 500 scientists signed up for a session in Salt Lake City on how to glean the most from the map.

    The Nature HapMap paper confirmed that, as hoped, a select set of SNPs reliably defines the DNA surrounding them, making it possible to locate relevant genes by comparing haplotype patterns in different groups. It also offers insights, say its more than 200 co-authors, into how evolutionary pressure shaped the genome.

    But concern lingers about how the HapMap will perform in the hunt for disease genes. Last week, two German researchers published a paper in the American Journal of Human Genetics in which they showed that selecting a different set of SNPs turns up somewhat different haplotypes. The worry is that gene-hunting on different haplotype maps—derived from different sets of SNPs—might lead to divergent results, says co-author Michael Nothnagel, a mathematician at Christian-Albrechts University in Kiel, Germany.

    So far, however, there's no evidence to support that contention, say Altshuler and David Cox, chief scientific officer of Perlegen Sciences in Mountain View, California. Cox led a private initiative that published its map in Science in February. Although the haplotypes identified in that map, of 71 Americans of Asian, European, and African ancestry, differ somewhat from those in the international consortium map, both should point gene hunters to similar DNA regions, says Cox. Exact haplotype boundaries don't seem to matter much, adds Altshuler, who compares a haplotype block with a mountain: No one agrees precisely on where one begins, but there's no dispute that it's there.


    Does Brain Cell Growth Drive Weight Loss?

    1. Gretchen Vogel

    Researchers are proposing that the long-lasting effect of a compound that triggers significant slimming in mice and humans is caused by the growth of new neurons in the brain's appetite-control center. If the find holds up—a company that tried to develop a related compound into a weight-loss drug is skeptical—it would be one of the first demonstrations of a physiological effect of new neurons in the adult mammalian brain.

    The compound under debate, ciliary neurotrophic growth factor (CNTF), was originally identified as a protein that helps keep neurons alive and prompts their differentiation. But when researchers tested whether it could keep motor neurons from dying in patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, they found an unexpected side effect: The patients lost their appetites and shed dramatic amounts of weight. Researchers in the late 1990s then found that the compound produced similar results in almost every type of obese mouse—those munching on high-fat diets as well as those with obesity-causing genetic mutations. Initial clinical trials of a related molecule called Axokine showed that it had significant effects in overweight patients as well (Science, 7 February 2003, p. 849).

    Especially impressive was the long-lasting effect. With most weight-loss drugs, animals and people quickly regain any weight they've lost once they stop treatment. But those receiving CNTF or Axokine don't have the urge to binge that normal dieters do. “Many of us found the effect absolutely stunning,” says Jeffrey Flier of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School in Boston.

    Initial hopes for Axokine dimmed when many patients in larger trials developed antibodies to the drug and stopped responding. But scientists are still trying to figure out why it and CNTF work the way they do. On page 679, Flier and his colleagues Maia Kokoeva and Huali Yin conclude that CNTF prompts the growth of new neurons in the brain region called the hypothalamus, which plays a crucial role in controlling appetite and the body's energy balance.

    The researchers gave mice that had been on a 2-month high-fat diet a 7-day treatment of both CNTF and bromodeoxyuridine (BrdU), a compound that marks newly divided cells. The compounds were injected directly into the cerebrospinal fluid via miniature pumps. As expected, compared to a control group, the CNTF-treated mice lost weight during treatment and kept it off for at least 2 weeks after.

    At that point, the researchers examined the hypothalamus in both groups of mice. Those that received CNTF had about six times the number of BrdU-positive cells, especially around areas where the CNTF receptor is expressed. A stain that identifies maturing neurons marked some of the new cells. And some new cells also seemed to respond to an injection of leptin, a hormone made by fat cells that regulates appetite by signaling cells in the hypothalamus and other brain areas.

    More brain, less gain?

    Growth of new brain cells may curb appetite.


    The team also gave one group of mice CNTF along with AraC, a compound that blocks cell division. The mice that received AraC and CNTF initially lost weight, but after going off both drugs, regained the weight and then surpassed even control mice that had been eating extra calories during the whole experiment. Flier suggests that CNTF has a dual function: During treatment, it suppresses appetite by activating the leptin-responsive pathway in the hypothalamus. And by triggering the growth of new leptin-responsive neurons there, it makes the body more sensitive to leptin even after treatment is stopped.

    “It's a very clever set of experiments,” says Jeffrey Macklis of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston, who studies neurogenesis. However, he doubts CNTF is promoting new cell division. More likely, he says, the compound is supporting the survival of immature brain cells that might normally be produced in small numbers in the hypothalamus. Theo Palmer of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, calls the work “very exciting” but adds that the paper doesn't test whether the leptin-responsive newborn cells are full-fledged neurons or whether newborn cells in other areas contribute to the effects.

    Moreover, George Yancopoulos of Regeneron Pharmaceuticals in Tarrytown, New York, the company that developed Axokine, challenges Flier's understanding of how CNTF works. The main effect, he says, can be explained by CNTF's suppression of appetite-increasing molecules such as the signaling factor NPY. Whatever CNTF's mechanism, neuroscientists and metabolism researchers are hungry for a resolution to the mystery.


    French Agency Cited for Lack of Women

    1. Barbara Casassus
    1. Barbara Casassus is a writer in Paris.

    PARIS—France's main basic research agency, CNRS, drew sharp criticism this week over the lack of women on its board of directors. The furor erupted when physicist Elisabeth Dubois-Violette, former president of the CNRS scientific council, complained in letters to agency officials and Research Minister François Goulard that a new 21-member board includes only one woman, despite a recent law guaranteeing women parity in the workplace. Goulard added fuel to the fire when he was quoted in the newspaper Le Monde as saying that Dubois-Violette was upset because she had not been given a CNRS directorship. Dubois-Violette rejects the accusation: Having served as scientific council chief for 4 years, she told Science, “I … want more time to devote to my research.”

    The dispute quickly blossomed on the Internet. Cell biologist Alain Trautmann, who led the researcher protest movement against government spending cuts last year, launched a petition calling for more women in science policy positions; early this week it had gathered hundreds of signatures. The fracas is adding to woes of the embattled CNRS, whose top officials—President Bernard Meunier and Director Bernard Larrouturou—have clashed over a plan to reform the agency.


    Fused Genes May Help Explain the Origins of Prostate Cancer

    1. Jean Marx

    Although gene fusions are well known to drive the development of blood cancers, such as leukemias and lymphomas, only rarely have they been detected in the common solid cancers, such as breast, prostate, colon, and lung cancer. Now researchers have uncovered the first evidence that such fusions play a widespread role in prostate cancer.

    The finding comes from Arul Chinnaiyan of the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor and his colleagues. On page 644, they report that perhaps as many as 80% of prostate tumors carry fusions of a segment of a gene called TMPRSS2 with either of two genes encoding related proteins, ERG and ETV1, involved in gene regulation.

    Because the two proteins are components of a major cell growth control pathway, the finding may help explain the origins of prostate cancer and provide a new target for therapeutic drugs. “If it holds up, it's the most common somatic [genetic] change in prostate cancer—and it's a fascinating one,” says William Isaacs, a prostate cancer expert at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. “It will invigorate the field in terms of looking for these kinds of fusions in other common cancers.”

    Although cancer researchers suspected that gene fusions might be lurking in solid cancers, the abnormalities eluded detection partly because the tumors display so many chromosomal abnormalities that it's hard to sort out which are significant. To get around this, Chinnaiyan and his colleagues took a bioinformatics approach to look for “outlier” genes: those that show very high expression in a set of cancers. They first surveyed the Oncomine database, a set of gene-expression data from DNA microarray experiments that was compiled by the Michigan team. “We found that we were picking up known gene rearrangements,” Chinnaiyan says. “That told us we were on the right track.”

    Among the top 10 outlier genes identified were ERG and ETV1—both overexpressed in prostate cancers. ERG was already known to be involved in oncogenic fusions, especially in Ewing sarcoma, a relatively rare bone cancer. And earlier this year, a team led by Gyorgy Petrovics and Shiv Srivastava of the Uniformed Services University in Rockville, Maryland, reported that the gene is overexpressed in prostate cancer. Now, the Chinnaiyan team's work provides a possible explanation for why ERG is overactive.

    The researchers found that in prostate cancers, each gene was frequently fused to the beginning segments of TMPRSS2, which encodes a protein-cutting enzyme that is turned on by the male hormone androgen. The gene fusions occurred both in cultured lines of prostate cells and also in about 80% of the 29 primary prostate cancers examined. They were present, however, only in those cells with high expression of ERGor ETV1, an indication that the fusions might underlie the excess activity of the genes. The overactivity may be due to the fact that the fused TMPRSS2 sequences carry so-called androgen response elements needed for androgen stimulation.

    Indeed, androgen treatment greatly enhances ERG production in cell lines carrying the fused gene. The finding is intriguing because many prostate cancers are androgen-dependent early on and thus can be treated with drugs that block action of the hormone. Ultimately, though, this dependence is lost and the cancers grow again. The fused ERG and ETV1 genes would be one place to look for the changes leading to that outcome, Isaacs says.

    Getting together.

    In this prostate cancer cell, the ETV1 gene (red) and the TMPRSS2 gene (green) are joined (yellow) on one chromosome.


    Whether identifying these gene fusions will lead to better therapies for prostate cancer remains to be seen. There is precedent, as the leukemia drug Gleevec blocks the product of a fused kinase gene. But ERG and ETV1, which are transcription factors that regulate gene expression, present tougher targets.

    Also unknown is whether similar gene fusions, also called translocations, occur in other common solid cancers. Janet Rowley of the University of Chicago, who pioneered the early translocation work, is eager to find out. “This approach cries out for application to all large [gene] expression databases as a remarkable tool for discovery of critical genes and, potentially, new common translocations,” she says.


    Aggrieved Turkish Scientists Welcome an E.U. Review

    1. Gretchen Vogel

    Scientists who accuse Turkey's leading politicians of meddling with scientific freedoms and stifling debate are hoping the European Union (E.U.) will take notice. These complaints could have far-reaching consequences: This month, Turkey was invited to apply for E.U. membership, which requires the country to demonstrate that its research establishment meets European standards. Critics say that scientific independence has declined in Turkey, but a Turkish science official dismisses this view as coming from a privileged group that's been displaced by a shakeup.

    Several prominent leaders in Turkey's science community—many of them current or former heads of research boards and institutes—have aired grievances about research oversight. They charge, for example, that the government has stacked the board of the country's main research funding body, TÜBITAK, with political supporters. Indeed, critics say that Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has refused to end political cronyism in spite of several court decisions that declared the disputed appointments illegal. They also say that new rules governing university and research appointments allow politicians to play favorites. If the E.U. investigates, “it's going to be a very uncomfortable problem” for the government, says Sevket Ruacan, a professor emeritus of pathology at Hacettepe University School of Medicine in Ankara and former TÜBITAK board member.

    The dispute over TÜBITAK started shortly after Erdogan came to power in May 2003. As the new prime minister and head of the Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party, he declined to approve the election of six new TÜBITAK board members. According to the body's bylaws, the governing board has the authority to elect new members, although the prime minister appoints them. Erdogan also overruled the board's decision to reelect physicist Namik Kemal Pak as its president. Instead, Erdogan pushed through a new law allowing the prime minister to appoint board members directly. Erdogan then named his own list of six board members and appointed Nüket Yeti, an engineering professor at Marmara University in Istanbul, acting president.

    The critics' second big concern is that a new policy requiring government approval of new university positions will increase political meddling. Until last year, the Turkish board of higher education approved requests for new research positions, from graduate students to assistant professors. But a law passed in May 2004 says the prime minister's office must give the go-ahead before lower-level university posts can be created or filled. “They are taking the universities under their yoke directly,” says Istanbul Technical University geologist Celal Sengör, a foreign member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and an outspoken government critic. “If they don't like the person, they can take away the position.”


    Critics say Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan stacked the nation's main research funding agency, TÜBITAK, with party favorites.


    The main opposition party in Turkey has brought both matters to the country's Constitutional Court, which declared the government's moves illegal. But the government's appointees remain in place, and there has been no change in the approval system for new positions. In the meantime, Sengör and others say, the government is funneling more of the country's research budget through TÜBITAK, cutting funds that were previously allocated directly to universities.

    But TÜBITAK vice president Ömer Cebeci says that university budgets have increased in the past 2 years, although not as much as TÜBITAK's, which he says has grown from about $8 million in 2003 to more than $60 million this year. He also claims that before the recent shakeup, TÜBITAK had been under the control of insiders who stifled new developments. TÜBITAK stood still for 40 years, he says, “while Turkey and its universities and scientists grew. This was unacceptable. It was a nice toy for a limited number of people.” Cebeci says the science community has responded positively to the changes. “In 2003, when the TÜBITAK administration was not getting along with the government, they received 850 funding applications. In 2004, we had proper relations with the government,” and the organization received 3800 proposals, he says.

    Ruacan, who resigned earlier this year from the TÜBITAK board in part over the legal controversy, says he is torn about the increased budgets. “More money is being given,” he acknowledges, but he worries that it may not go to the best science. “It is a sort of a bribe to the scientific community. All of a sudden they have enormous resources, and … universities don't want to speak up” about political influence on funding or appointments, he says.

    Aykut Kence, a professor of biology at Middle East Technical University in Ankara and an outspoken proponent of teaching Darwin's theories of evolution (Science, 18 May 2001, p. 1286), says that TÜBITAK has rejected all five of his research funding applications since 2003. He says the agency told him the proposals were not original or would not have a significant impact. “I don't want to believe that it is for political reasons,” he says, but he adds that he had no trouble getting funding before 2003.

    Ruacan says he hopes the E.U. negotiations will encourage the government to abide by the court rulings. “The E.U. talks are going to have a positive effect overall. The E.U. asks so many questions, it sometimes annoys everyone. But in these matters, the E.U. taking notice might encourage the government to pay attention to the law.”


    A Glass Ceiling for Asian Scientists?

    1. Jeffrey Mervis

    Asian scientists are a major presence in U.S. biomedical research labs. So why do so few hold leadership positions?

    Virologist Kuan-Teh Jeang always thought it strange that his employer, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), would celebrate Asian Heritage Week each year with a cultural fair. “We're not known for being great cooks or dancers. We're known for being great scientists,” says Jeang about an ethnic group that, according to 2000 census data, comprises 14.7% of U.S. life scientists despite being only 4.1% of the nation's overall workforce. So last year, he and the NIH/Food and Drug Administration Chinese American Association launched a new tradition: inviting a distinguished Asian researcher to give a scientific talk.

    This May, as Asian Heritage Week approached, Jeang and his colleagues had another idea: Why not use the occasion to examine the status of Asian scientists within NIH's intramural program? Jeang had already collected some disturbing numbers about opportunities for career advancement at NIH, and he was eager to see whether his numbers squared with an official tally by NIH officials.

    To his chagrin, they did. Whereas 21.5% of NIH's 280 tenure-track investigators (the equivalent of assistant professors) are Asian, they comprise only 9.2% of the 950 senior investigators (tenured researchers) at NIH. And only 4.7% of the roughly 200 lab or branch chiefs are Asian. (For this story, the term “Asian” includes all scientists with Asian surnames, regardless of their citizenship or immigration status. The group is dominated by scientists of Chinese, Korean, Indian, Pakistani, or Japanese origin.) Within particular institutes, the numbers were even more sobering. As of this spring, just one of 55 lab chiefs at the National Cancer Institute, NIH's largest, was Asian. At the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, where Jeang works, none of the 22 lab chiefs was Asian.

    To Jeang and others, the numbers point to a glass ceiling for Asian life scientists seeking to move up the career ladder. Asians are welcome in most labs, the numbers seem to say, and those who prove themselves can earn a permanent position. (Taiwan-born Jeang, who holds both an M.D. and Ph.D., came to NIH as a medical staff fellow in 1985 and was tenured in 1993.) But they shouldn't expect to enter senior management. “We feel that the field is not level,” says Jeang, who has calculated that, at NIH's three largest institutes, Asians make up roughly 12% of the eligible pool from which lab chiefs are drawn.

    Pressure from below.

    Asian scientists are underrepresented among tenured staff and lab chiefs.


    NIH isn't the only place with a glass ceiling, say some Asian life scientists. This summer, neuroscientist Yi Rao of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, took a look at the leadership ranks of the two major professional societies in his field: the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) and the American Society for Biology and Molecular Biology (ASBMB). What he found was even more troubling than the NIH figures.

    His snapshot showed that none of the 26 ASBMB council members was Asian, nor were any of the 193 members of the society's 11 standing committees. Asian scientists make up fewer than 4% of the 703-member editorial board at its top-tier Journal of Biological Chemistry (JBC), and none of the 21 associate editors with decision-making authority. Asians are equally invisible among the leadership ranks of the neuroscience society, Rao found. They hold only two of nearly 300 seats on 18 committees, and none of the 15 elected officer and councilor posts. Looking back, Rao found that only a handful of Asian scientists have ever held such elective positions in the society's 36-year history.

    Rao says the message is clear. “However the phenomenon can be described, the underlying problem is discrimination,” he wrote in July letters to ASBMB and SfN governing officers. “Chinese Americans tend to be quiet, partly because their voices and concerns are not listened to. But should that mean obedience and subordination forever?”

    Senior officials at NIH, SfN, and ASBMB don't dispute the numbers, although some say they were surprised by them. “There's an appearance of a glass ceiling, which is troublesome,” says Michael Gottesman, who heads NIH's intramural research program. “It makes you wonder if there's an inherent bias.”

    Looking for factors that might help explain the gap, he and others tick off the relatively recent arrival on the U.S. scientific scene of Asian scientists, language barriers, and cultural stereotypes that prevent Asians from being more aggressive in seeking promotions and honors. But in the end, they say, their organizations have an obligation to try to improve the situation. “The solution is straightforward. We need to make their accomplishments better known,” says Gottesman, who met with Jeang and three other Asian scientists this summer to discuss how NIH could do better.

    The stealth problem For Rao, Jeang, and other Asian scientists, the recent data-gathering exercise confirms something they had long felt to be the case. “It's an unspoken truth,” says neuroscientist Joseph Tsien of Boston University, who left China in 1986 for graduate school and later became a U.S. citizen. “We don't fall into the typical minority group because we're not underrepresented, especially in science. But you see so many [Asian scientists] at the bottom of the ladder and so few in the top ranks. … It's a funny situation.” In a letter this spring to NIH Director Elias Zerhouni that prompted NIH to gather the data, Jeang explains that “we want to disabuse you of the common mythology that Asians don't want to be leaders.”

    But the issue is also very complicated, says Yu Xie, a sociologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who has studied both the behavior of scientists and the growing presence of Asians in U.S. society. “Often people look at statistics, and they jump to the conclusion that there has been discrimination,” says Yu, who came to the United States from China in 1982 for graduate school. “I haven't seen any evidence that it is the case. It might be true, but we just don't know enough to reach a conclusion one way or the other.” Indeed, several Asian scientists interviewed for this article say they haven't experienced any type of glass ceiling. “I personally don't feel that it applies to me. But I'm not very sensitive,” says Liqun Luo of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who earlier this year was named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.

    Still, Luo says others have told him that the ceiling exists and that the issue seems to be on people's minds. A Stanford colleague contacted him after receiving Rao's letter, he says, and out of the blue, Luo says he was invited to be on SfN's program committee.

    Neuroscientist Eve Marder of Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, who chairs the society's program committee, says she and the society's other officials believe strongly that all panels should have diverse representation. “It so happens that this year almost none of them do, and I recommended to the committee on committees that they be more proactive.” She says she also suggested to Rao a tactic that has helped women rise through the ranks: “Forward us lists of people who are interested, so that nobody can say that they don't know any Asian scientists” who are willing and able to serve the society.

    The head of the committee on committees, Irving Levitan of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, says he was “stunned” when he saw the numbers. “There is great consciousness about gender and underrepresented members,” he says. “But frankly, we have not paid attention to Asian Americans because they are so visible in the lab.”


    NIH's Kuan-Teh Jeang wants a level playing field for Asian scientists.


    For some ASBMB officials, the tone of Rao's message was as shocking as the message itself. “It was a very insulting letter,” says Linda Pike of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. “He was accusing us of doing something that was awful and terrible and mean without bothering to find out why. You can't just look at the numbers.”

    In her reply to Rao, Pike explored a question often asked when the issue comes up: How many Asian scientists are truly qualified to hold leadership positions? “How many of the Chinese authors of scientific papers are in a position to serve on ASBMB committees?” she asked. “How many choose to return to their country, and how many seriously try to obtain faculty positions in the U.S.?” In addition, she noted that “a lack of language skills could put a faculty member at a severe disadvantage” in obtaining funding and, thus, building the track record needed to move up the career ladder. “While I sympathize with your concerns, there is much more that needs to be examined before diagnosing ASBMB as engaging in discrimination.”

    Even so, ASBMB is taking the charge very seriously, says president Judith Bond of Hershey Medical Center in Pennsylvania. Last month, Bond says, the society decided to invite “a Chinese-American member” of the JBC editorial board to become an associate editor, and the council plans to discuss the issue of a glass ceiling at its December meeting.

    For Gottesman, inertia and a limited number of available slots are bigger obstacles to progress than the qualifications of Asian scientists. “The pool is getting bigger,” he says. “But the average age of our lab chiefs is about 10 years more than it was 10 years ago. There's a need to turn those positions over more often.” He says it's his job to remind the scientific directors to look at a broader spectrum of potential candidates for these jobs.

    A glass ceiling doesn't mean that no individuals have risen to great prominence in the profession. Examples abound. In fact, some Asian scientists say that the critics have gone overboard in painting a bleak picture of the United States. “They are fighting for a good cause, but they are going to an extreme,” says Mu-Ming Poo, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley, about those who claim that the data prove a glass ceiling exists. “The United States is the most tolerant society in the world, including China, for foreign scientists. In 10 years, Yi Rao will probably be holding one of these leadership positions, and so will many of his colleagues.”

    Indeed, many are anticipating a rosier future. It will come, they say, both because of the graying of the current generation of leaders and because Asian scientists will become more adept at learning how to get ahead. “This is America. And you need to embrace those qualities that are appropriate for success,” says Victor Dzau, chancellor for health affairs at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who was born in Shanghai and educated in Canada and the United States. “It will require a conscious effort. But I would predict that the disparity will narrow as the next generation moves forward.”

    Jeang also believes that change is coming. Last year, he says, he was on the brink of leaving NIH when a senior colleague convinced him that history was on his side. “When I was growing up at NIH,” the colleague confided to Jeang, “every chief of medicine and every director was a WASP. But all their right-hand men were Jewish doctors. Now all our right-hand people are Asian. It just takes time.” That pep talk, plus a recent meeting with Gottesman, has persuaded Jeang that NIH means business. So he says he'll stick around and wait for a time when the disparity disappears.


    South Africa's Bone Man: 80 and Still Digging Into the Past

    1. Robert Koenig*
    1. Robert Koenig is a writer in Pretoria, South Africa.

    With a career spanning the days of legends like Dart and the Leakeys and today's systematic practitioners, Phillip Tobias has shaped paleoanthropology, and much else, in southern Africa

    JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA—The year before Phillip Vallentine Tobias was born, miners blasting a lime deposit in South Africa found a grapefruit-sized skull that seemed more rock than bone. That fossil, the Taung child, was sent to anatomy professor Raymond Dart, who startled scientists in 1925 by contending that the child's skull represented an intermediate creature between ape and man—igniting a fierce debate about the African origins of humanity that took 2 decades to resolve.

    Eighty years later, Tobias—who succeeded Dart as head of the University of the Witwatersrand's anatomy department and surpassed his mentor's expertise in studying ancient human bones—now waits anxiously to join younger colleagues in examining what he believes to be the most important South African fossil since the Taung skull: the complete skeleton of “Little Foot,” an Australopithecus ape-man who fell to his death 3 million years ago in Sterkfontein cave, about 60 kilometers west of here.

    During the 8 decades between the Taung skull and Little Foot, Tobias—perhaps South Africa's most honored living scientist—pursued his career as an anatomist and emerged as a key figure in paleoanthropology between visionary pioneers such as Dart and today's more systematic practitioners. Digging into Tobias's career, one unearths strata after strata, marking a complex scientific life that has crossed many disciplines—from caves to chromosomes, from studies of human growth to detailed analyses of fossil skulls. Two themes stand out: humankind and Africa.

    “I have sometimes been asked, in a derisive tone: 'What has Africa given the world?'” says Tobias, enunciating each syllable as he sits in his memento-filled office at the Witwatersrand University medical school. “And I reply: 'Africa has given the world humanity.' That's not a bad contribution.”

    Among old friends.

    Tobias with Australopithecus and other skulls from southern Africa.


    Tobias's own contributions to Africa, to his university (known as Wits), and to science have been considerable. He has authored 1130 publications, including landmark studies of the Australopithecus ape-man and the early human Homo habilis; conducted groundbreaking research into the growth patterns of the San, or Bushmen, and other indigenous Africans; enthralled students with his legendary lectures; and “inspired a generation of paleoanthropologists and many more by standing firmly against apartheid and pushing forward with science in South Africa,” says paleoanthropologist Tim White of the University of California, Berkeley.

    When Tobias turned 80 this month, he was overwhelmed by the outpouring of affection and praise. The nation's Royal Society honored him with a special issue of its journal; the new visitor center at Sterkfontein cave was named the Tobias Center; and more than 250 colleagues, officials, and friends gathered for a dinner in his honor—with a skeleton named Yorick presiding next to the podium. The first volume of Tobias's memoirs, Into the Past, was published this month, and Wits is holding an international “African Genesis” paleoanthropology conference in his honor.

    Tobias's personality looms large at Wits. He is legendary for his punctuality, his long but brilliant lectures, and his incredible memory for detail. Although he retired as an active anatomy professor in 1990, Tobias remains emeritus director of the university's Sterkfontein Research Unit and works in his office at the Wits medical school several times a week.

    During a 2-hour interview, Tobias joked about the “rogues' gallery” of 20th century paleoanthropologists and political figures that fills nearly every inch of his office wall. He had anecdotes about every luminary pictured: Dart, “the most unforgettable figure known to me”; Louis and Mary Leakey, pictured at the Olduvai Gorge, where they found hominid bones that Tobias analyzed; and Ralph von Koenigswald, a friend who analyzed the Java Man fossils; as well as two former South African leaders, Jan Smuts, a champion of fossil digs, and Nelson Mandela, who awarded Tobias the Order of the Southern Cross for service to the nation.

    As a Wits medical student in the mid-1940s, Tobias entered an anatomy department led by Dart that was “steeped in physical anthropology.” But Tobias focused on genetics. He and a fellow Wits student, Sydney Brenner—later to win a Nobel Prize for his work in molecular genetics—both analyzed mammalian chromosomes. Whereas Brenner joined the exodus of South African scientists who left the country during the 1950s, Tobias opted to stay and fight the apartheid system at the university level. He became president of the National Union of South African Students at Wits and later helped lead the effort to force an official inquiry into physicians' mistreatment and neglect of Stephen Biko, a leader of the antiapartheid struggle who died in prison.

    While he was working on chromosomes, Tobias also traveled to South African sites to dig up and collect fossils. “I had two strings in my bow: genetics and anthropology,” he recalls. In 1955, one of his mentors—Oxford University anatomist Wilfrid LeGros Clark—suggested that Tobias make a choice; he opted to pursue physical anthropology. He began to study the San people of south-central Africa, research that led to groundbreaking publications showing that the Bushmen were getting taller. Later, however, Tobias and colleagues showed that this was not true of other indigenous populations in South Africa, and other studies confirmed that growth trends in many poorer nations did not match those of the developed world. “To my horror, I found that South African black people of the Bantu language group were not getting taller.”

    While studying the anatomy of living humans, Tobias retained his fascination with the remains of hominids that had died 2 million or more years earlier. When a Wits group led by Tobias began finding fossils at the Makapansgat lime-works site in 1945, legendary fossil-finder Robert Broom took notice and began his own research there. Broom's competition and the fossil finds at the site enabled Tobias to convince Dart—who had been stung by the negative reaction to his Taung skull paper in 1925—to return to paleoanthropology in the early 1950s. Although Dart was eventually proven correct about the Taung skull, his analysis of an array of sharp bones and other fossils at Makapansgat, which led him to conclude that early man was bloodthirsty and violent, was widely criticized. “Louis Leakey and I felt that the early humans were really rather gentle creatures,” says Tobias.

    Dart was Tobias's mentor in anatomy, but it was the Leakeys who drew him into the upper echelons of paleoanthropology. “I had avoided encroaching on Dart's domain, handing over fossils to him and confining my studies to living humans, until the Leakeys in 1959 asked me to tackle the analysis of the 'Dear Boy' fossil [then Zinjanthropus, but now called Australopithecus boisei],” says Tobias. “That launched me onto the pathway of paleoanthropology, which has been my major interest for the last 46 years.”

    Tobias views himself as a “hybrid” of two types of paleoanthropologist: the visionaries like Dart and Louis Leakey and the more detail-oriented laboratory analysts. White agrees, saying that “Tobias has played a crucial role in bridging paleoanthropology's pioneers with its modern practitioners.” According to Tobias, “Louis Leakey tended to jump to conclusions; I was the one who often filled in the details.” For example, after the Leakeys found the fossils later classified as Homo habilis, “Louis knew by instinct that this was a Homo specimen—that is, human, not ape-man. But I would not accept Louis's judgment on H. habilis until I had filled in all the details.”

    Paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey, the son of Louis and Mary, contends that Tobias's two-volume study of the H. habilis fossils “set a standard in paleoanthropology that I believe never will be equaled.” Leakey, White, and paleoanthropologist Alan Walker of Pennsylvania State University, University Park, agree that Tobias will be remembered not only for that and his Australopithecus analysis but also for continuing the Sterkfontein excavation, despite years of backbreaking work during which few significant hominid fossils were found. Says Walker: “His work with various colleagues at Sterkfontein has produced large numbers of very important hominid fossils.”

    The bone collector.

    Tobias in Paris in 1955 with Neadertal, Cro-Magnon, and other skulls.


    On the surface, Sterkfontein seems an unlikely place for blockbuster discoveries. The dolomite cave lies under a nondescript landscape in hilly and rocky farmland west of Johannesburg. But the cave, first mined for its lime in the 1890s, preserved thousands of high-quality fossils in its breccia deposits. Broom died in 1951 and others left the dig; by the early 1960s, Sterkfontein lay neglected. “I started planning a new dig and—after consulting with leading people in the field—we decided to take a systematic approach, which has continued since 1966—5 days a week, 48 weeks a year,” says Tobias, making it the longest continuous excavation of any cave in the world. “We have taken out about 600 hominid specimens since then.”

    The most startling find came in the mid-1990s when Ron Clarke of Wits spotted a hominid foot bone in a tray full of animal fossils and returned to the area the fossils came from. Clarke has spent the years since then carefully chiseling rock away from the bones his team discovered, exposing as much as possible of the complete skeleton in situ, dubbed Little Foot. The excavation is now nearly complete, and Clarke plans to make a plastic cast of the skeleton later this year and remove the fossil bones for analysis. “It is the oldest complete skeleton of a hominid ever found,” says Tobias. Richard Leakey predicted that Little Foot, once excavation and analysis are completed, will prove to be “probably the most important to have been found in southern Africa.”

    Even so, south and eastern Africa are no longer the sole sources of early hominid fossils. Recent finds in Chad and Ethiopia have yielded fossils estimated to be much older than the South African and Tanzanian hominids. Over the past dozen years, scientists have discovered new species of fossil hominids at the rate of nearly one per year. Tobias is excited by the finds in Chad and Ethiopia and predicts that—if molecular evolutionists are correct that the chimpanzee-human split occurred more than 7 million years ago—excavations in less well dug sands of northern Africa may yield even older hominid fossils. “I would not be surprised if researchers in, say, Morocco eventually will find evidence of earlier hominids,” says Tobias.

    To peer even further back into humanity's origins, scientists will need a type of paleoanthropology very different from the pioneering digs in which Tobias began his career. “Today, we must work in teams,” he says. “We need geophysicists to examine the paleomagnetism of the Earth's crust; dating experts to develop new techniques; molecular evolutionists; we need 'old-fashioned' anatomists who can read the bones; and our cultural brethren to help describe how the early hominids lived.”

    “Gone are the days of one strong, usually white male doing all the research,” says Tobias. “These days, if you are excavating in areas that are not in your own country, you have a solemn duty to work with local scientists and students. … This is the new approach to paleoanthropology, and it is a good thing.”


    The Plan to Unlock Lake Vostok

    1. Mason Inman*
    1. Mason Inman is a writer in San Francisco, California.

    After a 6-year pause to consider the risks of environmental contamination, a Russian research team will resume drilling through the Antarctic ice next month

    Beneath an ice sheet 4 kilometers thick lies one of the most isolated bodies of water on Earth, the immense Lake Vostok of East Antarctica. It has been locked up, researchers think, for more than 10 million years. But it may not remain so much longer. A team of Russian researchers is poised to resume drilling through its ice cap next month, restarting a project that has been on hold since 1999 while experts debated how to proceed. Despite an extensive review, some still fear that the team's approach could alter the lake and make it impossible to obtain untainted water samples.

    But the Russians, led by Valerii Lukin, an oceanographer who directs the Russian Antarctic Expedition and ice coring at Vostok, have promised they will take it slowly, studying the ice as they inch toward the lake's surface. In late 2007, they plan to poke through and take the first sip of the waters.

    Vostok is the largest of more than 100 subglacial lakes in the Antarctic. None has been directly sampled, and scientists in a variety of fields are eager to tap one. What they know at present comes mainly from ice cores and flyover observations, including radar and gravity measurements. Geologists and glaciologists want a peek at isotopes taken from the lake to understand how such lakes form and behave. Climate researchers would like to see if the sediments hold records of Antarctica's past. And biologists want to verify studies that suggest Lake Vostok supports life despite its utter darkness, near-freezing waters, and scant nutrients (Science, 2 March 2001, p. 1689).

    But Antarctic researchers from several nations are concerned about contamination. The borehole at the Russian site now brims with 60 tons of drilling fluid, a soup of kerosene and Freon that teems with foreign bacteria. The critics worry that a leak could muck up the ecosystem permanently. The Russian team, however, is confident that its extraction technique will prevent this. And because Antarctica has no laws—just international treaties—there is little to hold them back.

    What lies beneath?

    Surveys have identified about 145 subglacial lakes dotted around Antarctica, but the figure “is by no means exhaustive,” says Martin Siegert, a glaciologist at the University of Bristol, U.K. “It wouldn't surprise me if there are more than 1000.” Yet for many scientists, Vostok remains the Holy Grail. The Manhattan-shaped lake is probably the largest—250 kilometers long and 50 kilometers wide—and possibly the oldest. It sits in a deep depression between two tectonic plates, says glaciologist Michael Studinger of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York. Glaciologists believe it may have formed before Antarctica froze solid, 15 million to 30 million years ago. Climate records don't reveal much about this period, but sediments on the lake floor could give “a record of Antarctica's change from greenhouse to icehouse,” Studinger says.


    Although researchers have taken no direct samples, cores from ice just above Lake Vostok have given them a glimpse of its chemistry and the potential for life inside. Studies of trapped isotopes and of the ice's crystal structure suggest that the ice melts at the base of the sheet, mixes with the lake, and slowly refreezes, locking some water in this “accreted” ice. “We used to think some heat source below Lake Vostok was necessary to keep it liquid,” Studinger says. But isotopes in the accreted ice suggest that the underlying rock “seems to be a rather old and stable piece of crust.” The uniform heat rising from Earth's depths, coupled with the immense pressure of the overlying ice, appears to keep the lake liquid.

    The primary scientific disagreements center on whether the lake can sustain life. Microbiologist John Priscu of Montana State University in Bozeman says his group has recently cultured about two dozen samples of bacteria from accreted ice; they can tolerate temperatures below 10°C but grow slowly. He estimates there are about 100 bacteria per milliliter in the accreted ice and predicts that the surface waters hold about 10,000 per milliliter, about a hundredth the density in the open ocean—still a lot given the conditions.

    Radically different results come from studies led by Sergey Bulat, a molecular biologist at the Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute in Russia. Using different methods to clean drilling fluid off ice cores and different standards to identify lake inhabitants, his group found little DNA in the accreted ice that they consider to be from bacteria in the lake. And the DNA they did find, surprisingly, matched most closely that of heat-loving bacteria in hot springs. Bulat speculates that the lake bottom could have warm vents, similar to deep-sea vents.

    Still others are skeptical about most of the data on life from Lake Vostok's accreted ice. Molecular biologist Eske Willerslev, who studies ancient DNA at Copenhagen University in Denmark, says, “It's a very promising area, but it needs much more controlled experiments.” The first step toward resolving differences, scientists agree, is to get some lake samples. “We know more about the deepest parts of the oceans than we do about these lakes,” Priscu says. “Until we get into these lakes, we'll just sit here and speculate.”

    A big surprise

    Working on climate studies, the Russian team has already extracted one of the world's longest ice cores above Lake Vostok, drilling 97% of the way through the ice sheet. They stopped to consult other experts around the world in 1999, about 130 meters short of the lake's surface. The Russian government has given the team permission to use a mechanical drill to go 50 meters further in the 2005-'06 season, starting in November. The team plans to drill mechanically another 50 meters in 2006-'07, then switch to a hot, ice-melting probe for the final 30 meters in 2007-'08. After poking through the base, they will allow water to flood up into the borehole and freeze, then take out an ice core. “It's a quite cheap, doable, plausible experiment,” Siegert says.

    But critics of the plan worry that the pressure may drive lake water into the drilling fluid. Some point to a bad experience with the North Greenland Ice Core Project in 2004. Researchers drilled to the bottom of the island's ice sheet to collect water samples but had a “big surprise,” says glaciologist Sigfus Johnsen of Copenhagen University, who worked on the project. Five meters higher than expected, water flooded into the hole and got contaminated with drilling fluid. Perhaps they broke through sooner, Johnsen says, because the base was not flat but ridged with high conduits. Priscu's group found bacteria in the ice core, but he asks: “Are they from the drilling fluid or the bottom of the ice sheet? We don't know.” Willerslev, who has also studied the same cores, says, “The samples are completely contaminated and completely useless.”

    A mishap like this is unlikely at Vostok because the ice ceiling over the water is unlikely to have conduits, Johnsen says. Still, the base might have weak “soggy ice” that will give way, worries microbial ecologist Cynan Ellis-Evans of the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge. Others contest this: “There are no arguments to say the quality of the ice is poor,” says glaciologist Jean-Robert Petit of the Laboratory of Glaciology and Geophysiology of the Environment in Grenoble, France. And the Russians are “very good drillers and have great engineers,” Priscu says. “They seem genuinely concerned about environmental disasters.” Nonetheless, Petit, Priscu, and others are concerned.


    Buried under 4 kilometers of ice, Vostok (radar image, inset) is believed to be the largest subglacial Antarctic lake.


    “No one has said what an appropriate level of cleanliness would be” in water samples, says geologist Robin Bell of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Many are also skeptical of the Russian team's plans because their drilling equipment has not been field-tested. (Project chief Lukin says tests are not necessary.) “There's a lot of discomfort with the Russian plan,” Bell says.

    Even a little bacteria from the drilling fluid could swamp life in the lake or swap DNA and viruses with indigenous microbes. If the lake gets exposed to outside bacteria, says microbial ecologist Cynan Ellis-Evans of the British Antarctic Survey, “you've opened Pandora's box.” The Russians' plan has also drawn the ire of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC), a nongovernmental watchdog organization. “Russia's using technology that was never designed to be ultraclean. It's not up to the task,” says Ricardo Roura of ASOC.

    But Lukin thinks the critics are exaggerating. He agrees that the lake is under pressure: He estimates about 375 times atmospheric pressure at its surface, comparable to the deep ocean. But he says the weight of the drilling fluid in the borehole should roughly balance it, holding the drilling apparatus in place and keeping the lake's water put. Besides, Lukin says, the apparatus is designed to prevent leakage: “I am convinced the concerns about possible contamination of the lake's water with the drilling fluid do not have any physical grounds.”

    Even if the Russian plan goes smoothly, though, some question the value of sampling water from the lake's surface. “I thought that's what we were already studying [in accreted ice],” Ellis- Evans says. “I cannot see that what they're planning would put us all that far ahead.”


    While the Russian team has been formulating its plan and seeking approval, researchers in other countries have been cooking up plans to explore other subglacial lakes. Some argue that before going for the crown jewel, Vostok, drilling methods should be tested elsewhere first. A leading option is hot-water drilling, a fast and clean but energy-intensive method that many think impractical for Vostok, which boasts Earth's coldest recorded temperature, -89°C. U.K. researchers are focused on Lake Ellsworth, a relatively small subglacial lake in West Antarctica, and Italian researchers are targeting Lake Concordia, a neighbor of Vostok in East Antarctica about half the size. These plans are in their infancy, however, and researchers are unlikely to get in and take water samples before 2007, when Russia plans to enter Vostok. Should Russia decide to go ahead without waiting for data from other sites, there is little other countries could do.

    The main forum for vetting research proposals is the annual Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting, where researchers submit environmental assessments and get back advice. The Russian team has already submitted preliminary assessments for the next 2 years. This satisfies the requirements for now, but the treaty requires Russia to submit a more comprehensive assessment 60 days before drilling to the water's surface. After they see the details, researchers worldwide will weigh in.

    Countries are not obliged to follow such advice, but normally they do. If Russia were to go forward in the face of international opposition, “it would absolutely be a big break from tradition,” Ellis-Evans says. Lake Vostok could become a test of how well the treaty actually protects the continent. “It's a showcase for the Antarctic Treaty,” Priscu says. But ultimately the decision on whether and how to go into Lake Vostok rests with Lukin's team and the Russian government.


    'Deviant' Burials Reveal Death on the Fringe in Ancient Societies

    1. Michael Balter

    Bodies buried in unusual ways—decapitated, stuffed into caves, or set aside in special cemeteries—offer clues to how the ancients treated their misfits

    CORK, IRELAND—From the numerous deep blade cuts on the back of the young man's skull, it seemed likely that the executioner had made a bad job of it. “It took at least four blows to get his head off,” said Jo Buckberry, an osteologist at the University of Bradford, U.K. She added that the angles of the cuts suggest that the man had been kneeling with his head down when the blade fell.

    Back in the 1960s, the excavators of this site of Walkington Wold in East Yorkshire had concluded that the skeletons they unearthed—nearly all decapitated males—were victims of a massacre during the late Roman occupation of Britain, around the 4th century C.E. But Buckberry's study of 11 of the skeletons, presented at a meeting* here last month, suggests that these were executions rather than war casualties. And recent radiocarbon dates on three skeletons show that they were buried at different times between 640 and 1030 C.E., during the Anglo-Saxon period and long after the Roman occupation. Thus Buckberry concludes that Walkington Wold was a special burial ground for criminals only.

    Buckberry's talk was part of a daylong session devoted to “deviant” burials. Archaeologists have long analyzed elite burials, marked by opulent grave goods and dramatic monuments. But researchers recognize that in many societies, special burials were also given to outcasts and certain classes of people, including criminals, women who died during childbirth, people with disabilities, and unbaptized children. Investigating such burials can give insights into the “broader social and religious beliefs” of a society, says session organizer Eileen Murphy, an archaeologist at Queen's University in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

    Cast out.

    Decapitation cut marks suggest the headless bodies at Walkington Wold were executed criminals.

    The session covered burials from 5000 years ago in Britain to 19th century Vienna and demonstrated some of the imaginative ways that humans have disposed of the corpses of people deemed to be different: Their bodies have been stuffed into crevasses in remote caves, tossed into peat bogs, and sliced into pieces, among other practices. Sometimes the motive behind such burials is clear. For example, in Catholic Ireland stillborn and unbaptized children were buried in isolated, unconsecrated burial grounds called cillini, beginning sometime after the 13th century C.E. and continuing as late as the early 20th century, says Murphy. But the reasons remain obscure for the relatively rare “charcoal burials” found across Europe between about 700 and 1250 C.E., in which the deceased was laid on top of or below a layer of charcoal.

    Moreover, because burial practices change over time, they can be used to track changes in societal values. Archaeologist Andrew Reynolds of the Institute of Archaeology in London described a survey of some 30 sites that suggests that Anglo-Saxons began to bury executed criminals separately only after they converted from paganism to Christianity beginning in the 7th century C.E. Previously, criminals and other outcasts were buried along with the rest of the community, although their bodies were often treated differently. For example, they were often buried face-down, their limbs were sometimes amputated, and their bodies were weighed down with stones; contemporary writings suggest these practices arose out of fear that the bodies might run around at night.

    The switch to burying outcasts separately probably reflects new Christian ideas about “cleanliness and uncleanliness,” as well as a continuing fear of the dead from pagan times, says Reynolds. “It is the geographical separation of 'bad' people rather than the individual burial rites that marks the major change in behavior between the two periods,” Reynolds concludes.

    Yet isolated burial is not always an indication of outcast status, argued biological anthropologist Stephany Leach of University College Winchester in the U.K. Leach reported on her studies of human remains from five caves in a 16-kilometer radius in a hilly region north of Manchester. Her work is the first systematic study of the bones, most of which were recovered in the early 20th century. New radiocarbon dates revealed that the burials clustered tightly between 4800 and 5000 years ago during the Early Neolithic period in Britain, when most burials were in scattered graves or in artificial earthen mounds called barrows, a treatment possibly reserved for the elite.

    Leach found that the cave burials were all either children or adults suffering from severe arthritis or serious injuries. The early excavation records showed that some of the skeletons had been deliberately packed into cave alcoves and crevasses with a mixture of limestone and plant material known as tufa. Where the burial conditions were poorly recorded, Leach nevertheless often found traces of tufa on the bones. She considered several hypotheses to explain these burials, including that the people were spiritually excluded from the community or that they were simply left behind when the group moved on. But in her view the tufa packing shows special care, and she suggests that the suffering of these people was acknowledged by their burials in a “special” place.

    Other researchers find Leach's ideas intriguing but say more data are needed. “Her findings do suggest that these were special members of society, but we need to know more,” says Murphy. New excavations of nearby caves may help establish whether the burials really were special or just “a normal part of the repertory of Neolithic burials,” she says. One thing seems certain: Burials at the margins of a culture have much to say about the core values of the society that interred them.

    • *11th Annual Meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists, Cork, Ireland, 5-11 September 2005.


    Astronomers Sweep Space for the Sources of Cosmic Dust

    1. Robert Irion

    Tiny interstellar grains dim the brilliance of many stars and galaxies, but the origins of the universe's ubiquitous dust remain hazy


    The infrared Spitzer Space Telescope sees warm dust in the nearby Andromeda Galaxy


    Long before the love song “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” made its debut in 1933, astronomers had to contend with a smoky pall that dulled their view of the universe. Dark, sooty particles and fine, sandlike grains drift among the stars, obscuring attractions such as the cores of galaxies and the nurseries where new stars emerge. “Dust was a thing that just got in the way,” says astronomer Angela Speck of the University of Missouri, Columbia.

    Today, that dirty reputation has faded. Astronomers know that interstellar dust illuminates the erratic deaths of stars, and it traces a direct link from stars to the birth of our solar system—and ultimately, to Earth. Researchers can deduce the histories of ancient stellar grains, embedded for billions of years in meteorites and cometary debris. Yet astronomers still have a poor grasp of where these flakes of the cosmos puff into existence.

    New observing tools are making inroads. Most notably, NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope is sensing the infrared warmth of dust motes near and far, within our Milky Way and in galaxies from the early universe. Much of the dust has an organic component, showing that old stars and ultraviolet light can combine to create a pervasive prebiotic haze.

    But Spitzer and other telescopes have not yet resolved a key puzzle: Does most dust condense in gentle breezes of gas emitted in the dying gasps of stars like our sun, or as a result of the much rarer concussive blasts of supernova explosions? Models predict that vast volumes of dust, roughly equal in mass to our sun, should form in the aftermath of a supernova. However, observers have spotted less than 1% of that amount in the debris from these detonations. “This is a real conundrum,” says astronomer Robert Gehrz of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

    Alien dust.

    Isotope analysis singles out silicate grains from a supernova (top) and an old star.


    Stellar Grape-Nuts

    No matter its source, interstellar dust rarely lasts long in its pristine state. Just a few hundredths of a micrometer across when they condense, dust grains easily disintegrate if they encounter shock waves or harsh radiation. Survival is a group effort: Grains clump like lint, often with help from icy rinds of water or carbon mon-oxide. This buildup is most fruitful in the reservoirs of gas called giant molecular clouds, which span dozens of light-years. As grains stick, they morph into micrometer-sized blobs that look like fractal clusters of Grape-Nuts cereal. Many such conglomerates settle into the whorls of nascent planetary systems around protostars, where they catalyze the growth of ever-larger pebbles.

    By examining individual grains within primitive meteorites, researchers can unlock what astronomer Donald Clayton of Clemson University in South Carolina calls the “cosmic chemical memory” of interstellar dust. “It's a beautiful thing,” says one of Clayton's former students, Eli Dwek of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Each dust particle locks in the composition of the source where it formed.”

    For example, one of the first extrasolar grains identified in meteorites was silicon carbide. The isotopic makeup of this cinderlike material did not resemble the blended ingredients of our solar system. Rather, cosmochemists found, the distinctive dust came from the smoky winds of old stars that sloughed off their outer layers in languorous waves.

    Our sun will reach this brief phase of evolution in several billion years, as will all stars with about 0.8 to 8 times the sun's mass. When such stars run out of hydrogen at their cores, they start to fuse helium. That reaction releases more energy, bloating the stars into red giants. Later still, the helium begins to run dry. The stars then contract and expand in on-again, off-again pulses of helium burning, creating unstable orbs that would envelop the orbit of Mars in our solar system. For hundreds of thousands of years, stars in these rhythmic last gasps of fusion reside on what astronomers call the “asymptotic giant branch” (AGB) of a diagram that plots stellar evolution.

    Gravity at the surfaces of distended AGB stars is so low that the outer layers escape with each expansive throb. When this liberated gas cools below 2000 kelvin, it starts to form tiny grains of dust. Their nature depends on the proportions of two elements forged by the stars' nuclear fires: carbon and oxygen, which quickly combine to make stable carbon monoxide gas. If there's carbon left over, a fraction of the gas will condense into sooty compounds such as graphite, silicon carbide, and complex organic molecules called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Oxygen-rich atmospheres spawn aluminum and titanium oxides as well as silicates with calcium, magnesium, and iron—the stuff of sand and rocks.

    As more dust forms, radiation from the luminous stars—thousands of times brighter than our sun—pushes on the grains. The dust accelerates away and drags more gas with it, making the stars shed mass copiously. Late-stage AGB stars may vanish in optical light as the new dust screens our view, but they shine with a dazzling infrared glow. A new Spitzer image of the nearby Andromeda galaxy features thousands of false-color red dots that astronomers believe are shrouded AGB stars.

    Each low-mass AGB star is a modest dust factory, but there are so many of them that they may be the predominant sources of cosmic dust. Indeed, most of the presolar isotopes in dust grains embedded in meteorites appear to have arisen by capturing neutrons inside AGB stars. The stars then ejected the isotopes in gentle stellar winds, says cosmochemist Ernst Zinner of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. “Supernovae get a lot of the glory,” Speck observes. “But the isotopes we see indicate that most of these grains formed at a much slower rate, not explosively.”

    Hot blasts, cold clumps?

    Galaxies today may teem with AGB stars, but that was not the case in the early universe. It takes billions of years for stars like our sun to reach the AGB phase. So if those stars churn out most cosmic dust, then galaxies in the young universe should have been much cleaner than today's polluted systems.

    That's not what telescopes see. In the mid-1990s, a submillimeter instrument on the U.K.-operated James Clerk Maxwell Telescope at Mauna Kea, Hawaii, spotted extremely dusty galaxies that existed when the universe was just one-quarter of its current age. And in the past year, the Spitzer Space Telescope has found primordial galaxies choked with warm dust—in some cases, less than a billion years after the big bang.

    Supernovae are the most logical sources, many astronomers maintain. A star more hefty than eight times the mass of our sun keeps fusing progressively heavier elements at the end of its life. It forms nested layers of carbon, oxygen, magnesium, silicon, sulfur, and ultimately iron at the core. When the thermonuclear chain stops at iron, the core implodes. The star then detonates its rich broth of heavy elements—the prime ingredients of new dust—into space.

    Turbulent eddies within the debris concentrate the gas. For a while, any solid material that tries to form is instantly rended by the hot environment. “It takes at least a year for temperatures to get low enough to condense the seeds of dust grains,” says postdoctoral researcher Ben Sugerman of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. “Around 1.5 to 2 years is when we really start to see unambiguous evidence.”


    The best evidence for dust freshly created by a stellar bomb is Supernova 1987A, which burst into view in the neighboring Large Magellanic Cloud in February 1987. Astronomers saw three convincing signs: an extra infrared glow from cooling grains, a simultaneous dimming of optical light, and spectral lines showing dust in front of receding gas on the far side of the expanding cloud. “The gold standard is to see all three, and that's only been done for 1987A,” says Sugerman. “It's the only one people don't argue about.”

    Sugerman and co-workers are using Spitzer and the 8.1-meter Gemini North Telescope at Mauna Kea to survey supernovae that popped off in other galaxies within the past several years. The team has found solid markers of newly manufactured dust in one of those remnants, Sugerman told Science.

    But there's a serious problem. Data for both the new supernova and 1987A point to a smidgen of dust: about 1/1000 the mass of our sun. That's a factor of 100 to 1000 less than models predict. Rich supplies of fresh dust could hide in two ways, Sugerman notes. The dust may cool off faster than expected, below the sensitivity of infrared surveys to date. It also may clump in knots, shielding the interior dust from detection. Other astronomers claim to see a bit more dust made by different supernovae, but some emission could come from preexisting shells of dust ejected by the stars before their doom.

    Another recent analysis also came up short. Gehrz and his colleagues at the University of Minnesota, including Charles Woodward and graduate student Tea Temim, used Spitzer to study the iconic Crab Nebula. There, dust has spread out for nearly a millennium since the supernova was recorded in 1054 C.E. Spitzer measured some coarse dust particles but saw no fine dust suffusing the remnant. Blazing energy from the Crab's active pulsar may have eradicated the small grains. “This adds credence to the theory that supernovae may destroy their own dust,” Gehrz says.

    Shock waves from a supernova's interaction with nearby matter are a real hazard for new dust, says astronomer Peter Meikle of Imperial College London, U.K. “I am confident that a lot of grains form in supernovae, but they may get destroyed when they go whacking into the interstellar medium,” he says. Even so, Meikle suspects that supernovae did pump waves of dust into the earliest galaxies. In that era, the explosions would have expanded more smoothly into relatively uncluttered space.

    Although they seem rare, supernova-spawned dust grains do survive today. Zinner and collaborators have identified several hundred silicon carbide and graphite grains from supernovae. Researchers also found a fleck of the common mineral olivine in a particle collected in Earth's atmosphere by a NASA aircraft. A team led by cosmochemist Scott Messenger of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, described the tiny crystal in Science (29 July, p. 737). “This grain had a unique isotopic composition,” says Messenger, including a “whopping enhancement” in oxygen-18. The signatures suggest that the grain's parent gases arose in the helium-burning shell of a massive star, with doses of the heavier elements deeper within.

    Messenger and Zinner expect that concerted searches will unveil more supernova grains. If all goes well, such detective work will become easier after 15 January 2006. On that date, NASA's Stardust mission will drop a capsule softly onto the Utah desert with a precious payload: particles collected from a close flyby of comet Wild 2 (Science, 9 January 2004, p. 151). Frozen into the comet's body, researchers believe, are the constituents of the solar nebula—including bits of dirt that drifted toward our gestating sun 4.6 billion years ago. Scrutiny of those grains will take years, but it may settle the question of whether our primal seeds had calm or cataclysmic origins.