News this Week

Science  24 Feb 2006:
Vol. 311, Issue 5764, pp. 1082

You are currently viewing the .

View Full Text

Log in to view the full text

Log in through your institution

Log in through your institution


    Evangelicals, Scientists Reach Common Ground on Climate Change

    1. Eli Kintisch

    As chief lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), Reverend Richard Cizik never imagined spending a day with a bunch of climate-change scientists, much less leaving such a meeting convinced that working to mitigate global warming was consistent with his religious beliefs. But Cizik says a 2002 gathering in Oxford, U.K., was “a conversion … not unlike my conversion to Christ.” And he's not alone: This month, 86 influential leaders in the U.S. Christian evangelical movement came out for “national legislation requiring … economy-wide reductions” in carbon emissions. Quoting the Bible on the need to protect God's creation, the statement says that climate shifts “will hit the poor the hardest.”

    Warming trend.

    From left, Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals talks with ecologist Calvin DeWitt and atmospheric scientist John Houghton.


    The 8 February statement ( is seen as an important boost for supporters of mandatory controls on U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. The Evangelical Climate Initiative also represents the fruits of a 5-year effort by a handful of scientists, most of them devout Christians, to find common ground with an influential Republican constituency that is often an implacable enemy in science policy debates. The signers include the president of Wheaton College, a preeminent evangelical school in Illinois, and Reverend Rick Warren, pastor of an 85,000-member church in Lake Forest, California, and author of the bestseller The Purpose Driven Life. “What's going on here is peacemaking at its most basic level between the religious and scientific worldview,” says forester Jim Furnish, former deputy chief of the U.S. Forest Service and an organizer of the effort.

    The 2002 Oxford meeting that advanced the cause was organized by John Houghton, former co-chair of the science assessment for the 2001 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, and ecologist Calvin DeWitt of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. As evangelicals whose speeches often quote the bible, the scientists hoped to raise awareness of global warming on both sides of the Atlantic. “U.S. evangelicals' information [on global warming] had predominantly been from the active misinformation campaign you have in [the U.S.],” Houghton says.

    The meeting included sessions by top climate researchers, policymakers, and theologians. “Does [Scripture] not mean that we are called to those places where creation is most threatened?” Reverend John Paarlberg of New York's First Church in Albany asked the crowd in one of several speeches.

    The link between environmentalism and Christian faith was underscored during a 2004 “creation-care” retreat at a Christian conference center in Maryland. The Wynnewood, Pennsylvania-based Evangelical Environmental Network, headed by Reverend Jim Ball, was among the organizers of the gathering, which produced a pledge from some 30 influential evangelicals to fight climate change.

    Those two gatherings helped establish crucial trust, Ball says. But more work was needed before the 86 leaders were ready to sign a statement last year that “human-induced climate change is real.” Rightward political leanings—“Evangelists aren't tree-huggers,” one Christian biologist says—were one obstacle. So too was what DeWitt calls science's “connection with evolution.”

    So Ball enlisted devoutly religious researchers, mailing out copies of a statement on climate change signed by 50 evangelical scientists, along with a DVD of a speech by Houghton to NAE board members last March. “It's been critical to have these leaders see that the science of the IPCC was overseen by an evangelical,” says Ball. “It was easier for them to trust the information.”

    The group now plans to spread the word among missionaries, Christian colleges, and churches. In doing so, however, they will confront a small group of climate change contrarians attempting to rebut their arguments. The group has already helped persuade NAE to veto the idea of Cizik signing his name or lending the organization's support to this month's statement. “Manmade global warming is a theory and not a scientific observation,” writes meteorologist Roy Spencer of the University of Alabama, Huntsville, on the Web site of the group, which calls itself the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance.

    Spencer alleges that problems with sampling, flaws in climate models, and incomplete understanding of global weather undermine the mainstream view. “Instituting mandated CO2 cuts now will hurt the global economy, affecting the poor first,” he says. Members include church leaders who have previously urged evangelicals not to take stands on certain environmental issues and conservative political heavyweights such as Focus on the Family's James Dobson and Charles Colson of Prison Fellowship Ministries.

    Supporters say the successful coalition around global warming could point the way toward finding common ground on other issues, such as fetal health and mercury contamination, on which the public is divided. “We need to talk rather than draw lines in the sand,” says Bishop George McKinney of the Stephens Church of God in Christ in San Diego, California.


    Accelerator Delay Stuns U.S. Scientists

    1. Adrian Cho

    Plans for a nuclear physics facility that would mimic stellar explosions have been pushed back 5 years, U.S. Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman told Congress last week. U.S. researchers developing the Rare Isotope Accelerator (RIA) say the new timetable could put other countries in the lead.

    “This catches me completely by surprise, and it's quite alarming,” says Konrad Gelbke, director of the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory at Michigan State University in East Lansing. Robert Tribble, a physicist at Texas A&M University in College Station and chair of the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Nuclear Science Advisory Committee, says the delay “will be a significant loss for the field.”

    Researchers at Michigan State and Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois are vying for RIA. Meanwhile, researchers at the Japanese laboratory RIKEN in Wako and the German laboratory GSI in Darmstadt are developing their own machines. “They'll get a first crack at the science while we're standing on the sideline,” says Argonne's Robert Janssens. But he adds that RIA's ability to generate beams 10 to 100 times more intense than those at other facilities makes it still worth the wait.

    Generating unstable nuclei normally produced only in stellar explosions, RIA might allow researchers to develop a comprehensive theory of the nucleus. But DOE couldn't fit the $1 billion facility into its 2007 science budget, Bodman told the House Science Committee—even if Congress approves the president's request for a 14% increase (Science, 10 February, p. 762).

    DOE will continue to spend $5 million to $6 million a year on research and development and will aim for a preliminary engineering design by 2011, Bodman told legislators in response to a question from Representative Joe Schwarz (R-MI). “So in effect, the project will be put off for 5 years,” he said. “I know that's not happy news, … but those are the facts.”

    Conceived in 1999, RIA tops nuclear scientists' wish list and stands third on a 2003 ranking of 28 major facilities DOE hopes to build (Science, 14 November 2003, p. 1126). In 2004, it passed the first of five major reviews. But last year, DOE canceled a “request for proposals,” and the White House Office of Management and Budget ordered a review of its scientific potential. That review is now being conducted by the National Academies' National Research Council. NRC's Donald Shapero says the committee may issue an interim report this spring.


    Ohio School Board Boots Out ID

    1. Constance Holden

    Scientists are hailing the demise of an attempt in Ohio to sneak intelligent design (ID) into the public school science curriculum under the guise of a “critical analysis” of evolution. Last week, the Ohio Board of Education voted 11-4 to strike the words from its curriculum guidelines along with a creationist-inspired study guide. Evolution supporters called it a “stunning victory” and cited the influence of the December court ruling against the Dover, Pennsylvania, school board in the first test case of injecting ID into biology classes (Science, 6 January, p. 34).

    “Some of my colleagues have changed their perspective” after realizing that the lesson plan “did indeed contain elements of ID that was not apparent to them before,” says Robin Hovis, a Republican board member who opposed the plan. Virgil Brown, who originally supported the plan, says he changed his stance after he realized the language “was supportive of ID.” Martha Wise, who spearheaded the vote, says the outcome reflects a “sea change” in the 19-member board—a change aided by the recognition following the Dover case that “it might be a legal problem that would cost Ohio millions of dollars.”

    In 2000, the board rejected a proposal for a “two-model approach” in which students would learn about both evolution and ID. But 2 years later, it added “critically analyze” to the evolution standard, and in 2004, it adopted a model lesson plan that suggested activities such as dividing up classes for pro-and antievolution debates.

    Many see the Ohio vote as a severe blow to attempts to cloak ID under the guise of “teaching the controversy.” Kansas is now the only state with this phrase in its science standards. Whether Dover has set off a domino effect may be clearer next month when the South Carolina board of education meets to consider adding to its science standards a statement that students should be able to “investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory.”

    Barring the door.

    Scientists see school board vote as an important defense against creationist tactics.


    Officials at the Discovery Institute, a Seattle, Washington-based think tank for ID, did not respond to a request for comment. A press release claims the school board had been “bullied” into “censoring teaching of evolution” and cites a recent Ohio poll indicating that 75% of the respondents believe ID should be taught along with evolution. But biologist Patricia Princehouse of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, says anyone can play the survey game. Another recent poll, she says, showed that 84% of the respondents had never heard of ID.


    New Study Casts Doubt on Plans for Pandemic Containment

    1. Martin Enserink

    An audacious global plan to stop future influenza pandemics in their tracks, adopted by the World Health Organization (WHO), may be flawed, researchers say in a new paper in the Public Library of Science (PLOS) Medicine. The plan, based on containing an epidemic where it first erupts, may initially work, they write, but later-emerging pandemics would likely overwhelm it. But scientists who published studies last year supporting the containment strategy say it's the new study that is flawed.

    Mathematical models published in August in Nature and Science (12 August 2005, p. 1083) predict that by dispensing huge quantities of antiviral drugs to the area where human-to-human transmission of a new influenza virus begins—the prelude to a pandemic—and enacting rigorous quarantine measures, it might be possible to nip a pandemic in the bud. On 27 January, WHO published the first draft of such a “rapid response and containment” protocol, which the agency says is worth a try, despite the nightmarish logistics.

    The scheme may halt the first pandemic, write Marc Lipsitch and colleagues at Harvard School of Public Health in Boston and Carl Bergstrom of the University of Washington (UW), Seattle, in the PLOS Medicine paper. The problem is that, just as a parched forest rarely sees just one brushfire, if one pandemic virus emerges, it's likely that another will pop up somewhere else soon. And the more this happens, the more likely one of the containment efforts will fail, especially because, like fire brigades, the world would run out of manpower and resources.

    Not that containment at the source shouldn't be tried, Bergstrom hastens to add. Even if it succeeds just once or twice, containment “would buy time, which is incredibly useful,” he says, because scientists and policymakers would better understand their future foe. But in the end, the team's models show, the containment strategy may buy just a few years.

    “I don't agree with that argument at all,” counters Ira Longini, lead author of last year's Science paper. Longini, who just moved his group from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, to UW, believes the emergence of a pandemic virus in a human host—through mutations or recombination with a human flu virus—is and will remain a very rare event. The arrival of one pandemic virus doesn't mean the next one is around the corner, he says, noting that SARS and the “swine flu” that appeared at Fort Dix, New Jersey, in 1976 prove the point: Both emerged once and never again.

    WHO influenza expert Michael Perdue agrees and says the new paper won't cause WHO to reconsider its strategy. If pandemic viruses emerged that easily, he says, the world would have seen pandemics more often, or past pandemics would have started simultaneously at several locales.

    Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London, who led the team that produced last year's Nature paper, says he even cautioned Bergstrom and colleagues that publishing their paper might sap international enthusiasm for the containment strategy, which, he points out, is the only hope for countries too poor to stockpile their own drug and vaccine caches. But Jeremy Berg, director of the U.S. National Institute of General Medical Sciences, which funded all three studies, says that “policymakers need to weigh the arguments in this paper, too.” If the controversy illustrates anything, Berg says, it's that we still know very little about how pandemics start.


    Bird Flu Moves West, Spreading Alarm

    Where does it stop?

    After circulating in Asia since late 2003, in February, the H5N1 avian influenza virus jumped to Africa and spread through Europe, affecting 13 countries in a single month. It's unclear why the sudden jump has occurred.


    Massive Outbreak Draws Fresh Attention to Little-Known Virus

    1. Martin Enserink

    PARIS—A French island in the Indian Ocean is reeling from an explosive outbreak of a little-known viral disease. On 17 February, the French National Institute for Public Health Surveillance said that an estimated 110,000 residents of Réunion, population 770,000, had been infected with the chikungunya virus—almost 22,000 of them between 6 and 12 February alone. Chikungunya, which is spread by mosquitoes, is rarely fatal—of 52 patients who died, all but one were suffering from other diseases as well—but it can cause high fevers, rashes, and excruciating joint and muscle pains.

    Unusual suspect.

    Until now, the Asian tiger mosquito was not thought to be an efficient vector for the chikungunya virus, which has crippled the French island of Réunion.


    “It's a massive outbreak, it's absolutely alarming,” says Stephen Higgs of the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, one of a few dozen researchers around the world who study chikungunya, a member of the alphavirus genus that also includes rarities such as eastern equine encephalitis and western equine encephalitis. The epidemic has triggered a wave of activity in French labs to address scientific gaps; it could also breathe new life into a vaccine candidate developed by the U.S. Army that has been languishing for almost a decade.

    Chikungunya—often shortened to “chik” by scientists—is a Swahili word that means “that which bends up,” a reference to some victims' inability to walk upright. The disease is known to occur in large parts of Southeast and South Asia, as well as in Africa. Preliminary sequencing of virus isolates from Réunion at the Pasteur Institute in Lyon suggests that the virus was imported from East Africa, says Pasteur virologist Nathalie Pardigon. Other Indian Ocean islands—including Mauritius, the Seychelles, and the Comoros—have also have seen cases, although far fewer.

    It's unclear why the outbreak is so ferocious. One factor, says virologist Charles Calisher of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, may be that the virus is hitting Réunion for the first time, so almost no one has resistance. The mosquito species implicated as the main culprit in Réunion—Aedes albopictus, also known as the Asian tiger mosquito—was not believed to be a very efficient chikungunya vector, says Pasteur entomologist Paul Reiter, because it bites many different species. But perhaps it has acquired a particular taste for humans in Réunion, he adds.

    Although doctors can treat the symptoms with painkillers and anti-inflammatories, there are no specific drugs against chikungunya. Nor is there a vaccine. The most promising candidate thus far has been an attenuated virus, developed in the 1980s by researchers at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases in Fort Detrick, Maryland. Although a clinical trial in 73 volunteers, published by Robert Edelman of the University of Maryland and colleagues in 2000, showed that the vaccine triggered neutralizing antibodies, development fell flat because of a lack of money, says David Vaughn, who heads the infectious disease program at the Army's Medical Research and Materiel Command. The Réunion outbreak is “an opportunity to reactivate the research effort and to bring the vaccine to licensure,” Vaughn wrote in an e-mail.

    A spokesperson for French health minister Xavier Bertrand confirms that the French government is in conversations with the U.S. health and defense departments. But much more work is needed on the vaccine, he cautions—for instance, to investigate side effects, such as joint pains, which developed in some vaccinees in the clinical trial.

    To address the questions, the French government announced a broad research program last week, to be carried out by multiple institutes, and including basic virology, antiviral drugs and other treatments, vaccines, and mosquito ecology and control. On Monday, it also installed a panel to coordinate the battle, chaired by Antoine Flahault, head of the public health department at the Tenon Hospital in Paris.


    Foiled Dendritic Cell Suicide May Lead to Autoimmunity

    1. Jean Marx

    When the immune system malfunctions, it can become a turncoat, attacking the body's own tissues. Such autoimmune attacks underlie many diseases, including juvenile-onset diabetes. Immunologists trying to understand these attacks have long focused on overactivity of the T lymphocytes of the immune system. New results now point to a key role for another type of cell: dendritic cells.

    Dendritic cells activate lymphocytes to fight infection. They then die by a form of cell suicide called apoptosis, possibly cutting the risk of an autoimmune attack. On page 1160, Min Chen, Jin Wang, and their colleagues at Baylor College of Medicine and M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, report that blocking that apoptotic death in mice leads to dendritic cell buildup and the development of autoimmune symptoms.

    Autoimmune culprit?

    Abnormal accumulation of dendritic cells such as this one may contribute to the tissue damage of autoimmunity.


    Immunologist Roland Tisch of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, says the finding has “important implications regarding the initiation or progression of autoimmunity.” It also points to dendritic cells as possible targets for therapies aimed at treating autoimmune diseases.

    Previous work by several groups had suggested that dendritic cell malfunction might be involved in autoimmune disease. In the late 1990s, for example, Wang, who was then a postdoc in Michael Lenardo's lab at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland, looked for mutations that might cause a human autoimmune disease characterized by excessive immune cell accumulation. In a few such cases, he and his colleagues found mutations in the gene for caspase 10, a protein-splitting enzyme activated during apoptosis to bring about cell destruction. Dendritic cells bearing those mutations underwent less apoptosis than normal and built up in the patients.

    In the current work, the Baylor group genetically engineered mice to produce a caspase inhibitor called p35 in their dendritic cells. Fewer modified dendritic cells died when exposed to an apoptotic stimulus, and the cells accumulated in the animals. The mice also showed classic signs of autoimmunity such as production of antinuclear antibodies and antibody deposition in the kidneys. Lenardo says that the results make a “far more compelling argument” that defective dendritic cell apoptosis plays a role in autoimmunity than the previous human work.

    Exactly how that might happen remains a mystery, however. Wang suggests that dendritic cell buildup causes persistent lymphocyte activation but concedes that “we don't know the details” of the mechanism—an issue that must be resolved before any therapeutic applications are possible.


    U.S. Caps Number of AIDS Researchers at Toronto Meeting

    1. Jocelyn Kaiser

    The Bush Administration is again limiting attendance by federal researchers at the world's largest AIDS meeting, triggering an outcry among scientists.

    The policy, from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), is in line with a congressional cap on the number of employees from certain agencies who can attend meetings outside the United States this year. It affects AIDS researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) headed to the XVI International AIDS Conference in Toronto in August. Similar limits imposed 2 years ago before the same meeting in Bangkok set off charges of political interference in science.

    “I lament this decision, and I think it's shortsighted,” says McGill University researcher Mark Wainberg, past president of the International AIDS Society, lead sponsor of the Toronto conference. “It really doesn't make sense at all to apply these criteria to a meeting taking place on the U.S.'s doorstep.”

    The International AIDS Conference has sparked controversy in the past. The heckling of former HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson at the 2002 meeting in Barcelona upset congressional Republicans, who questioned sending 236 HHS staffers and spending $3.6 million on the conference. In 2004, the department imposed a 50-person limit for the Bangkok meeting, leaving some NIH and CDC scientists unable to present papers that had been accepted (Science, 23 April 2004, p. 499).

    Similar caps will apply to the Toronto meeting, according to a 16 February memo from the State Department's Office of the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator (OGAC), which runs the $15 billion President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. The memo cites a 50-person limit for sending U.S.-based staff to an international meeting in language setting current spending levels for several agencies, including State. The memo says a separate limit of 50 staff members will apply to HHS, with NIH getting 25 slots and CDC 20. Before the memo, NIH alone had planned to send 77 staffers. The decision was based on making the best use of overall U.S. resources for AIDS and “who needs to be there,” says an OGAC official.

    According to NIH sources, HHS has not objected to sending a larger number of NIH staff to other major international gatherings since 2004, including AIDS meetings. And hope springs eternal that HHS will reconsider. Helene Gayle, president of the International AIDS Society and the incoming president of CARE USA, hopes “a balance can be struck” between fiscal stewardship and “assuring the important work done by employees of HHS can be shared with the global community.”


    Math Clears Up an Inner-Ear Mystery: Spiral Shape Pumps Up the Bass

    1. Adrian Cho

    For decades, researchers have wondered why a mammal's sound-perceiving organ, called the cochlea, coils like a seashell. Now, a team of auditory researchers has come up with a calculation that sounds to their colleagues like an answer: The spiral shape increases sensitivity to low-frequency vibrations.

    Other researchers had tried and failed to find a reason for the delicate coiling, other than to save space in the skull, says Darlene Ketten, a neuroethologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts and Harvard Medical School in Boston. “This is a new one that seems to make a great deal of sense,” Ketten says.

    The cochlea breaks sound into its constituent frequencies mechanically. Within the bony spiral runs the basilar membrane, like a road curving ever more tightly to one side. From the outer end to the inner end of the spiral, the membrane becomes more flexible and will oscillate up and down at progressively lower frequencies. So when vibrations of a particular frequency slosh fluid above and below the membrane, ripples run down the membrane, and it wiggles most dramatically in the place where its frequency matches the frequency of the sloshing. That makes nerve-triggering “hair cells” atop the basilar membrane brush against another membrane, producing the sensation of a tone.

    Sounds simple.

    The cochlea's curling shape funnels energy (inset, purple) toward the outside of the spiral, making the ear more sensitive to low frequencies.


    But researchers had no evidence that the cochlea's shape affected its function. Mathematical models had shown that the spiral shape affects neither where the basilar membrane oscillates in response to a given frequency nor how much it moves. The new analysis reveals a subtle but important effect after all, report applied mathematician Daphne Manoussaki of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, biophysicist Richard Chadwick of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communications Disorders in Bethesda, Maryland, and colleagues.

    The spiral's increasing curvature shunts energy toward the outer wall of the spiral, just as orange cones on a highway might divert cars into the right lanes on a left curve, the researchers calculate. So deep within the spiral where low pitches are detected, the outer edge of the membrane moves more than the inner edge, producing a twisting motion, they report in a paper to be published in Physical Review Letters. The twisting should increase the flow of fluid across the tufted hair cells and stimulate them more, increasing sensitivity to low-frequency sound by as much as 20 decibels.

    The researchers suspected that the coiling did something, but “we had no idea it would be related to low-frequency” perception, Manoussaki says. Chadwick says others missed the effect because they analyzed the motion of the basilar membrane only along its centerline or averaged across its width. “They threw the baby out with the wash,” he says.

    Other researchers are eager to see the finding tested. “The obvious thing to do is to go in and change the curvature and see what happens” in a live cochlea, says William Brownell, a biophysicist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. Christine Petit, a molecular physiologist at the Pasteur Institute and the Collège de France in Paris says the idea can also be tested by comparing different species. “What would be fantastic would be to show a correlation between the capacity to detect low-frequency sound and the radius of curvature,” she says.

    Manoussaki, Chadwick, and WHOI's Ketten have begun such comparative analyses. And preliminary data are “right on the money,” Chadwick says. That must come as music to the ears of those who have puzzled over the cochlea's curious curl.


    An Entrepreneur Does Climate Science

    1. Richard A. Kerr

    Lands' End founder Gary Comer—former king of the clothing catalogs—has turned a high-Arctic epiphany into millions for no-strings funding of research into abrupt climate change. But the transforming funding is about to end

    Gary Comer knew something wasn't right. John Franklin and 128 companions had famously tackled the Northwest Passage in 1845, and none of them returned. Roald Amundsen finally conquered the passage in 1906; it took him 3 years. Yet in the summer of 2001, Comer was motoring unscathed through open Arctic waters that should have been ice-clogged. He made the transit over the top of North America in just 19 days. “We were able to do it, and so many people had failed,” he says. “Something had happened.”

    It was global warming, Comer decided. Months later, he began to work on the problem of sudden changes in his beloved Arctic. “I had some cash,” he recalls, having the day before cleared about $1 billion selling his Lands' End catalog business. And his sense of urgency had been sharpened by a recent diagnosis of prostate cancer. So he told a Nobel-laureate geochemist, “I'd like to do something that would be helpful” about global warming.

    Thus began Comer's freewheeling research enterprise targeting climate's propensity for sudden, potentially debilitating shifts. He hoped to awaken the American public to the threat of global warming. His approach was unconventional but not so surprising coming from a world-class sailor, empire builder, and former ad man: Identify a few top-notch senior scientists; give them money, unsolicited, to support up-and-coming young scientists; fund fieldwork nobody else would touch; and then—less predictably—jump in and enjoy the science.

    Tens of millions of dollars later, Comer has made an impression. “He changed the field” of abrupt climate change, says glacial geologist George Denton of the University of Maine, Orono. And “he changed my life. He's something very special. This guy is thinking about the world; he thinks something has to be done.” Comer hopes that money well spent on a key climate unknown will prompt the federal government to take up the burden. “Who needs to go to the moon?” he asks. “Take care of Earth.”

    From dinghy to deep sea

    Comer's entrepreneurial career as well as his foray into science funding really began on Lake Michigan. Born to a working-class family and raised on the South Side of Chicago, he began sailing small boats off Chicago at age 14. By age 30, Comer had sailed his 7-meter Star Class Turmoil to second place in the world championships. At the same time, he was having second thoughts about his 10-year advertising career as a copywriter at Young & Rubicam, a job he had approached through sailing friends. So he started a sailing-gear supply company, Lands'End Yacht Stores (misplacing the apostrophe by typo), which morphed into the huge catalog and Web apparel business of Lands'End Inc.

    Far traveler.

    Comer's Turmoil has carried scientists to Greenland's glacier-grooved coast to unravel climate history.


    The Turmoil boats grew as well, and lost their sails, until Comer was motoring to remote coasts in a 46-meter Turmoil that “from the outside looks like a fishing vessel,” as one guest puts it, “and from the inside like The Four Seasons.” On it, he traveled more than a quarter-million kilometers, much of it to high latitudes. “My lifelong fascination with the Arctic and things Arctic started [when] I became obsessed with news of the plane crash that took the lives of pilot Wiley Post and humorist Will Rogers” near Bar row, Alaska, he wrote in a journal. “I was 10. … It was the beginning of my fascination with airplanes, pilots, Eskimos, igloos, and life in the bitter cold. … The sheer strangeness of it all—I was amazed.”

    Charles Hollister, a deep-sea sedimentologist, was the first to begin turning Comer's adventurous spirit toward science. By the late 1990s, Hollister, a longtime Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) researcher, had become an administrator and fundraiser there. What better person to interest in oceanography than this well-heeled adventurer of the sea? Hollister contacted Comer and got an invitation to cruise the Kurile Islands northeast of Japan with Comer on Turmoil. Hollister died in 1999 in a fall while hiking, but the new WHOI director of development, Daniel Stuermer, soon invited Comer on a different sort of ocean expedition: heading down in the deep submersible Alvin to the subsea mountain range of the East Pacific Rise.

    The tipping point

    “Gary got excited,” says Stuermer. But Comer had not yet made up his mind to spend major amounts of money on anybody's science. That came after his “over-the-top cruise.” On returning from the Northwest Passage, he called Stuermer. “I'm really worried,” Stuermer recalls him saying. “I shouldn't have been able to do that. Global warming is really a problem for the world. What are we going to do about it?” That began Comer's career in funding climate change research.

    “There wasn't any plan,” Comer concedes. Instead, he picked up “little threads” that presented themselves. There was, however, a new motivation. In December 2001, he learned he had advanced prostate cancer. That “made me realize whatever I was going to do, it was time to do it,” he says. And “it's important to let other people know there are things you can do with money that are very satisfying and helpful.”

    One thread came in conversation with a Chicago friend in early 2002. When global warming came up, the friend mentioned a scientist—the friend's ex-wife's cousin's husband—who would share Comer's interests. So Comer went to visit the laboratory of F. Sherwood Rowland, an atmospheric chemist at the University of California, Irvine, who had won the 1995 Nobel Prize for his role in pinning ozone losses on chlorofluorocarbons and was now studying methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

    That summer, Comer sent his jet to pick up Rowland and his wife near Irvine. They were to meet him on Turmoil in Victoria, British Columbia. Comer arrived late but exuberant. He had just sold Lands' End to Sears for $1.9 billion, clearing about $1 billion cash on the deal. So he popped the question: “If I wanted to put $1 million into climate change,” Rowland recalls him saying, “what should I do?”

    Rowland had a ready answer that set the core structure of Comer's funding program: Comer should support 10 graduate and postdoctoral fellowships at $50,000 per year for 2 years. Rowland offered to take one fellow and choose researchers to handle the rest. Comer liked the idea, but he thought it called for “not enough money, too many people.” Instead, he proposed five fellowships at $100,000 per year to run for 3 years—overhead-free, he would insist.

    On to abruptness

    Comer wasn't finished. He had “started out wanting to bring the climate-change problem to public attention,” he says. He intended to be in the thick of climate research. And for that, it seemed, he needed geochemist Wallace Broecker. Comer kept coming across Broecker's name, whether from Stuermer, an environmentally connected friend, or his own reading. A longtime researcher at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York, Broecker was obviously the point man on nasty surprises that might be lurking in the looming greenhouse (Science, 10 July 1998, p. 156). Comer wrote Broecker a letter about his disturbing trip through the Northwest Passage, but Broecker was too busy teaching near the end of the semester to go see Comer at his homes in Waukesha, Wisconsin, or Chicago. So Comer came to Broecker.


    Glaciers have withdrawn (light-brown areas) since Greenland's last cold snap 13,000 years ago.


    Within a few minutes of meeting Broecker in his hotel's coffee shop, Comer popped his question again: “Wally, I want to help you,” Broecker recalls him saying. “What can I do for you?” Rowland's fellowship idea sounded good to Broecker, especially with a focus on abrupt climate change. This was the climate system's big unknown, Broecker argued. Sudden shifts in climate had rattled the hemisphere if not the globe not so long ago, and the growing greenhouse could conceivably trigger a recurrence. Broecker was worried in particular about the heat-carrying ocean conveyor that warms the far northern Atlantic. If the greenhouse shut it down, as something did repeatedly more than 10,000 years ago, there could be hell to pay.

    “I became pretty tight with Wally,” Comer says. “I've always had an interest in science, though it was nothing I studied in school. Wally was a great inspiration; he has a knack for explaining things. He came up with really interesting things to do. His interests became my interests.” Broecker returns the compliments. “He's really made a difference to me,” he says. “It's been much, much more than the money. He caught me at a time when I was thinking of retiring. He inspired me and gave me a mission.”

    The Comer way

    Once he made his initial contacts with the scientific community, Comer grew his funding much as he grew his business. He rooted out good people and let them loose, while keeping a close eye on how they did. “He's very straightforward, very direct,” says Stuermer. “If you're satisfying him, you know. If not, you know that.” Stuermer's marching orders were simple: “Do things that are important but won't be done by government,” he recalls. “Choose people Comer would like—that is, respect and admire.” And finally, Comer said, “Dan, I'm letting you guide me here; don't [mess] up.”

    No one has messed up so far. Comer initially gave $1 million to WHOI's Climate Institute, followed by an unrestricted $5 million gift to WHOI, some of which went to climate-related research. He expanded his centerpiece, the Comer Fellows, to 31 “mentors” running two fellows each over 5 years. The fellows program will end 2 years from now, if all the pending renewals go through as expected, for a total of about $6 million. Most of the mentors were chosen by Rowland and Broecker and some more after Broecker brought in glaciologist Richard Alley of Pennsylvania State University in State College to form a troika of overseers. “It's quick funds,” says Comer. “We don't have a peer-review system.” His motto: “Keep it simple.” In addition, Comer has set aside $5 million to be distributed with advice from the troika. Unsolicited proposals are not considered.

    Comer has also picked up the annual tab of about $50,000 to support the “Changelings,” a small group of abrupt-climate-change specialists who periodically gather with invited experts to ponder special problems. After starting the Changelings in the mid-1990s, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) dropped the funding in a cost-cutting move. And Comer is covering $18 million of the $40 million needed to replace Lamont's 50-year-old “Quonset hut” of a geochemistry building, where Broecker has spent all 53 years of his career. The move is reminiscent of Comer's 2001 $21 million contribution to help build a children's hospital for the University of Chicago. Indeed, his climate contributions are in much the same spirit as the several million he has contributed over a few years to stabilize schools and the community in his childhood inner-city neighborhood of Chicago.

    Field workers.

    Left to right, glacial geologist Denton, glaciologist Alley, environmental organizer Phillip Conkling, funder Comer, and geochemist Broecker tackled the icy wastes of Greenland.


    Big fish, smallish pond

    Millions may be small potatoes in biomedicine, but in a subspecialty of climate change, it's real money. The pace of Comer's spending on research over 6 years will equal or exceed that of NOAA funding specified for abrupt climate change. And that's about the only U.S. public funding directed toward that area. Comer's contribution is “a very large and beneficial infusion,” says Alley. “There's an immense amount of really good science. The total output of the field is much greater than it would have been otherwise.”

    Six million dollars'worth of cheap, productive postgraduate labor is in fact buying a good deal of science. For example, one of the first people Rowland contacted was geochemist Jeffrey Severinghaus of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California. The call came out of the blue: “This is not a contest. You've already won.” He'd won two fellows, no strings attached. “Gary clearly has an interest in abrupt climate change,” says Severinghaus, “but there's been no heavy-handed direction.”

    One of Severinghaus's fellows showed that carbon dioxide was not the ultimate driver of the last deglaciation; that work was published in Science in 2003. A second fellow refined Severinghaus's geochemical “thermometer,” which used air trapped in ice cores to document Greenland's stunningly abrupt 10°C temperature drops during the last ice age.

    “It's a very effective way of funding science,” says climate modeler Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, another mentor. At first, his offer from Rowland “read like a Nigerian e-mail scam,” he says. He found it “wonderful to be able to think freely, … follow scientific instincts, and explore things” without all the usual bureaucracy.

    Comer has also taken researchers on four field trips to high latitudes. Two expeditions were to survey areas of Canada, in part using Comer's 12-seat jet, eight-seat Caravan prop plane, and a chartered helicopter. There researchers—including Comer, Broecker, and Denton—found signs that the trigger for an abrupt cooling 13,000 years ago called the Younger Dryas may not have been a gush of glacial meltwater, as many had thought, because the meltwater was still blocked by ice then.

    Two other field trips took Turmoil to southern Greenland and into Scoresby Sund on the east-central coast to unravel the glacial history of the Younger Dryas. Working off of Turmoil and reconnoitering in Comer's float plane or helicopter, Denton, Alley, and others studied the ridges of debris deposited by glaciers at their maximum extent, when summers were coldest. Drawing on that fieldwork, Denton, Alley, Comer, and Broecker reported last year that a broad expanse of North Atlantic ice cover seems to have been key to a brutally cold Younger Dryas. That implies that in a future greenhouse world—when sea ice is diminished, not expanded—a repeat cooling like the Younger Dryas would be less likely.

    As evidenced by his prominent authorship on the resulting papers, it was these field trips that drew Comer deeply into the science. The authorships were “not an honorary thing,” says Alley. “He was in the discussions, he was contributing.” That's the way he's always been, says his daughter Stephanie Comer. “He's someone who barely made it out of high school and never went to college,” she says. “But he figured out how to educate himself. He'd find the best people out there who knew about, say, inventory control, and he'd learn through them. He approaches everything that way.” Her father's initial hope of bringing in the general public proved unrealistic, he says. Instead, “I became interested in the science side, understanding it myself.”

    Good but not forever

    Whatever the motivation, the Comer approach has been well received in the broader community. “They're good people doing good science, no doubt about that,” says paleoclimatologist Thomas Crowley of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who has received no Comer support. El Niño o modeler Mark Cane of Lamont, who only recently got “a little money” from Comer, says, “A lot of good work has come out of it. Climate research in general is not very well funded these days, so he's keeping areas alive that would be in serious trouble.” That's okay with non-Comer recipients such as Crowley; it's Comer's money, not the public's, and he seems to know what to do with it.

    Well received or not, Comer's program is not open-ended. When fellowship extensions end in 2 years, “I'm out of funds for it,” says Comer. “We're trying to get things started, things that wouldn't be supported otherwise. [After that], Uncle Sam is going to have to take over. The fellowships enabled a group of 60 or 70 people to find jobs in climate research, particularly abrupt climate change. That was the purpose.”

    Comer does have one other iron in the climate fire. Backing up the science he's funded, he is sinking millions a year into a small Arizona company developing a method for extracting the main greenhouse gas—carbon dioxide—right out of the air for permanent storage underground. If some new science can't win the day, perhaps some innovative engineering can.


    The Prion Protein Has a Good Side? You Bet

    1. Jennifer Couzin

    Prion diseases are caused when a normal but enigmatic protein misfolds and turns deadly. New work is beginning to unravel what this protein does in the first place

    Why has the human body preserved a protein that can turn deadly? This mystery has bedeviled the field of prion diseases such as “mad cow disease,” in which a normal protein, called PrP, misfolds and assaults brain tissue. Prion diseases are exceedingly rare, but PrP is not. It's found throughout the body, from the blood to the brain.

    Brain cell birth.

    Prp (red) is splashed across newly born neurons (green, with their nuclei in blue).


    Now two papers in the online Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, one published 7 February and the other scheduled to appear this week, may offer the beginnings of an explanation. The research found that PrP is expressed on the surface of stem cells in bone marrow and on cells that become neurons. In both, PrP seems to offer a guiding hand in cell maturation.

    What this means, exactly, and how it's occurring haven't been deciphered. Doing so might shed light on what sends PrP morphing into prions. But to scientists accustomed to the PrP black box, even nuggets of news are welcome. Says Neil Cashman, a neuroscientist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and scientific director of PrioNet Canada: “It's clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that they've established a function” for the enigmatic protein.

    The project began in the lab of Harvey Lodish, a stem cell biologist at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There, lab members were struggling with how to keep their mouse stem cells dividing in petri dishes. Postdoc Cheng Cheng Zhang noticed PrP on the surface of cells that facilitated the division of hematopoietic stem cells, which go on to form the blood and immune system. PrP was also “hugely expressed” on the surface of these stem cells, says Lodish.

    Intrigued, Zhang and Lodish teamed up with Whitehead prion expert Susan Lindquist and graduate student Andrew Steele. Mice without PrP, they found, had healthy blood systems. But although that might suggest PrP played no role, the scientists knew that when one molecule becomes defective, others may make up the deficit and keep the organism healthy. They wondered whether that might be the case here, with some proteins filling in for PrP's absence to keep the blood system humming. The scientists decided to stress the animals' hematopoietic stem cell system to better see whether PrP had a role in its development.

    The group irradiated the mice to kill their bone marrow and then performed a series of hematopoietic stem cell transplants. The irradiated mice were infused with a mix of hematopoietic stem cells, half from mice expressing PrP and half from mice that didn't. After a few months, these animals became donors for a new set of irradiated mice. The question was whether the stem cells lacking PrP repopulated the blood system as readily as those with the protein did. If PrP and non-PrP cells were equal, half of the animals' blood cells would be expected to boast a surface marker showing they came from PrP-positive cells, and half wouldn't.

    In the blood.

    Hematopoietic stem cells, which form the blood system, carry the prion protein on their surface.


    But by the third transplant, roughly 71% of circulating blood cells had the surface marker, suggesting that stem cells with PrP flourished more readily than those without. As further evidence, the researchers used a retrovirus to reinsert PrP into hematopoietic stem cells; this restored their ability to divide and survive. Although PrP is clearly “mediating survival” here, says Gerald Spangrude, a stem cell biologist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, “is [the protein's role] transient, or is PrP needed throughout the life of the stem cells?”

    Another question is whether PrP expression alone explains the results. The mouse strains used have slight genetic differences beyond PrP expression, says viral immunologist Bruce Chesebro of the Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Montana, and these “contaminating background genes” might affect the results.

    Recalling a lecture on early nervous system cells by Harvard University neuroscientist Jeffrey Macklis, Steele began to wonder whether PrP had a hand in primitive neural cells as well. Macklis's postdoc Jason Emsley agreed to help Steele and Lindquist find out.

    First, the group examined whether primitive central nervous system cells in normal mice expressed PrP. The protein's expression grew more apparent as early neural cells developed. PrP was also expressed in “whopping amounts” in mature neurons, says Steele—something others had previously found. But it was undetectable in other types of brain cells, an observation that's both supported and contradicted by earlier work. In both embryonic and adult mice, PrP was expressed at brain locations “right where neurons are born,” says Macklis.

    Further findings, in tissue culled from mice genetically engineered to overexpress PrP and mice that lacked the protein, suggested that PrP might help guide the decision of a neural progenitor cell to become a neuron. In petri dishes, 26% of neural progenitor cells from PrP overexpressors became neurons, compared with 18% from normal mice and 14% from PrP knockouts. But these and other researchers haven't found differences in the brains of adult animals with and without PrP, something that's sown confusion about PrP's healthy function. Rather than implying that PrP is governing neural differentiation, says Macklis, the work suggests that “it's another fine-tuning knob, one of many fine-tuning knobs on the amplifier.”

    Now, the team hopes to do what was done for hematopoietic stem cells: Challenge the system as a way to strip bare PrP's role. Rather than receive stem cell transplants, the mice are being placed in mentally stimulating environments, which should trigger growth of new neurons. Instead of barren cages, they're housed with exercise wheels, cotton for nest-building, and hidden granola treats, says Steele. Will mice without PrP grow fewer neurons? That's the next question on the docket.


    Is the Education Directorate Headed for a Failing Grade?

    1. Jeffrey Mervis

    Education researchers say that a sinking budget, a leadership vacuum, and an administrative reshuffle put NSF's education activities at great risk

    Speaking this month at an elite science high school in Dallas, Texas, President George W. Bush told the assembled students that the United States “needs a workforce strong in engineering and science and physics” to remain the world's top economic power. His words would seem to bode well for precollege activities funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the only federal agency with an explicit mission to improve science and math education. But 3 days later, the president unveiled a 2007 budget request that would cut—for the third straight year—a 4-year-old program at NSF aimed at doing exactly that.

    The decline of the Math and Science Partnerships (MSP) program, which links university science and math faculty with their local elementary and secondary schools, is only one of many problems facing NSF's $800 million Education and Human Resources directorate (EHR). The directorate's once-robust budget, which includes efforts to foster greater participation in the sciences by women and minority groups, has turned anemic at the same time the president has proposed a $380 million initiative to improve elementary and secondary school math and science funded by the Department of Education (ED) (Science, 10 February, p. 762). EHR has been run for more than a year by a temporary head after its top official, Judith Ramaley, was denied an opportunity to stay on. (She is now president of Winona State University in Minnesota.) And this month its acting director, Donald Thompson, quietly announced plans for a major internal reshuffling that is being seen as accelerating a move away from direct intervention in the classroom. Several researchers worry that the change will reduce the impact of NSF's strong research-based approach to educational reform and substitute lower-quality programs run by ED.

    A reeducation.

    NSF Director Arden Bement (left) has given acting EHR Director Donald Thompson the green light to reshape the education directorate.


    Together, these developments have caused “a dangerous downturn” at EHR, says Gerry Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association in Arlington, Virginia. Many education researchers say they fear that bleak picture may scare away any outside scientist or science educator looking to make an impact in Washington, D.C. “Maybe there's some brave soul” who might take the job, says Manuel Gomez, vice president for research at the University of Puerto Rico. “But if you put enough constraints on the problem, then it doesn't have a solution.”

    A theoretical physicist and science educator, Gomez has more than a passing interest in what happens to the directorate. Science has learned that Gomez was the top candidate to head EHR on a list compiled by an outside search committee in late 2004 and one of three people interviewed by NSF officials for the post last March. The others were Margaret (Midge) Cozzens, a mathematician and former EHR division director now at the Colorado Institute of Technology in Broomfield, and Claudia Mitchell-Kernan, head of graduate studies at the University of California (UC), Los Angeles, an anthropologist and former member of NSF's oversight body, the National Science Board. All confirm they met with NSF Director Arden Bement to discuss the post, and all say that the prospects for the directorate gave them pause.

    Gomez echoes many in the field when he complains that the directorate's budget has dwindled at the same time “everybody recognizes that strengthening human resources and education are essential for the health of U.S. science and technology.” In the last 2 years, EHR's budget has fallen from $939 million to $796 million—and that's after Congress added nearly $60 million to a Bush Administration request for only $737 million. Next year's request is for $816 million, a 2.5% rise that trails the overall 7.9% increase sought for the foundation as a whole. “If the EHR budget stays flat, there's no hope of accomplishing what corporate America says is needed to improve the U.S. workforce,” says Wheeler, a member of the search committee. “I think we're facing a real crisis.” Notes Mitchell-Kernan, “I don't know why anybody would go there just to mind the store.”

    Researchers and policymakers are especially troubled by the cuts to NSF's precollege programs, part of what they see as a conscious shift of resources by the Bush Administration to ED. In addition to hosting the proposed math and science education initiatives in the president's 2007 budget, ED runs its own version of the MSP program, which has grown from $12.5 million in 2002 to $182 million this year. In contrast, the MSP program at NSF would receive $47 million, down from $63 million this year and $140 million in 2004.

    That shift in the MSP program is a mistake, say researchers and policymakers, who believe that it will deprive U.S. schools of effective, science-based improvements in teaching and learning. “Both programs should be continued because they serve different purposes,” says Representative Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), a former physics professor and indefatigable campaigner for improving U.S. science education. “The ED money goes to states as block grants,” he explains, and each state doles out the money as it sees f it. In contrast, he says, NSF's “are peer-reviewed grants for individual projects” that survive a rigorous competition. “It's the difference between a meritocracy and an egalitarian system,” says Representative Bob Inglis (R-SC), who chairs the panel's research subcommittee. “NSF looks for the best, while ED is supposed to serve everyone.”

    Bement and his senior education staff say that the critics are wrong and that the outlook for the directorate is actually very bright. For starters, Bement says he didn't offer the job to any of the selection committee's choices because Thompson “is better than any of the people that I interviewed.” And although Bement told Science he is still weighing “two or three candidates,” he says he has total confidence in Thompson's ability to move EHR forward.

    Distancing himself from those who call for more money, Bement says the president's budget request “allows us to address our priorities” within EHR and to grow several important programs. Efforts to broaden participation in science by minorities and women, he notes, would jump by 21%, to $144 million. The internal realignment is another sign of good health, Bement says: “We've had a number of fragmented programs that overlap, and these changes will allow us to give them more resources.”

    Bement, who was confirmed in November 2004 after 9 months as acting director, signaled his plans to move the foundation away from direct intervention in the classroom when he told a House spending panel last year that “we know what works” and that many of EHR's programs “are in the flat part of the learning curve.” Last week, he went further, telling the House Science Committee that the large-scale, systemic initiatives NSF funded in the 1990s at the state and local level were “test beds” to demonstrate the value of good practice and strong involvement by local industry and the community. “These lessons have been learned,” he says, “and now the time has come to propagate that message to the nation's 15,000 school districts.”

    The realignment reflects that shift in emphasis. The Division of Elementary, Secondary, and Informal Education within EHR has morphed into the Division of Research on Learning. And its major program components, which once included words such as “teaching” and “instructional materials,” have been amalgamated under the rubric “Discovery Research: K-12.” Those changes, says Bement, will give program officers greater flexibility “to address some grand educational challenges, such as finding new ways to make science exciting for elementary school children by incorporating some of the recent advances in the f ield.” Thompson, a former professor of urban studies and education school dean, says that the realignment will also put “research and evaluation closer to the K-12 programs” and ensure that every program solicitation and proposal submitted to NSF addresses “not just the goals of discovery but also how the results will impact learning in the classroom.”

    Ebb and flow.

    Precollege programs have borne the brunt of the recent funding cuts within the directorate. (REC and ESIE have been combined starting in FY 2007, and the MSP program is joining undergraduate education.)


    But figuring out what works is an enormous challenge for evaluators. For example, a 2004 report by the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academies (Science, 11 June 2004, p. 1583) examining nearly 700 studies of 13 math curricula developed by NSF found that only 21% were rigorous enough to be evaluated. And the committee could find none that clearly demonstrated effectiveness. “I don't think that [NSF and ED] have managed to find much of substance” in their evaluation of these curricula, says Jere Confrey, a math educator at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and chair of the NRC panel. “So it's not clear to me how they expect to build on existing work.”

    Bruce Alberts, who pushed hard for reform of K-12 science and math education during a recently concluded 12-year stint as president of the National Academy of Sciences, is even blunter about the problem. “It's not enough to ask if a particular program is working,” says Alberts, now back at UC San Francisco. “What you want is general information that would help people do it better the next time.” Alberts doesn't spare NSF in his criticism of what evaluation research has contributed to student performance. “I don't think NSF evaluations have been very effective in providing anything that is useful to anybody else,” he says. “Maybe NSF education programs need to be rethought.”

    Part of the obstacle to reforming EHR is recognizing its limitations. NSF's budget isn't big enough, nor does it have the direct links to school districts, to improve U.S. science and math education. Its strength lies in working with the academic community, and the challenge for NSF officials is to meld that expertise with the practitioner-driven focus of ED. “All the time I was in D.C., there has been a war between ED and NSF over jurisdiction on K-12 programs,” says Alberts. “If I were Arden, I'd try to straighten out [the relationship] with ED before I went ahead [with any changes] at NSF.”

    Bement says that's exactly what he's been doing, citing ongoing meetings with top ED officials to coordinate joint activities. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings says she hopes NSF can play a role in two math initiatives for elementary and middle school students proposed for 2007, although NSF has not been given any funding for either initiative.

    Within NSF, Thompson says he's doing similar outreach across the foundation's six research directorates, teaming up with them on education programs in fields such as biology, geology, nanotechnology, and the International Polar Year that runs through 2007. And members of his staff say those efforts are working. “We're trying to increase the research component of our programs by working with the other directorates,” says John Cherniavsky, a senior EHR adviser within the new Division of Research on Learning. “Nobody likes budget cuts, but you learn to make the best of them.”


    Don't Sugarcoat Corals

    1. Eli Kintisch


    Potentially shaking basic assumptions of marine biologists, the first large-scale ecotoxicity study of coral has identified a new and surprising suspect for what may be killing reefs worldwide: organic carbon in the form of simple sugar molecules.

    Carbon killer.

    New findings suggest that sugars may overfeed bacteria on corals.


    Coral reefs are under global assault; Caribbean reefs, for example, have lost 80% of their coral cover in the last 3 decades. As coastal populations near reefs have skyrocketed, scientists have fingered phosphates, nitrates, and ammonia as the most likely culprits. They surmised that these pollutants aid the growth of algae that compete with coral for space. The new results, presented at the annual meeting of AAAS (the publisher of Science), suggest that carbon-induced bacterial growth may also be a major problem.

    In 2003, marine biologist David Kline of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Balboa, Panama, performed more than 3000 individual monthlong experiments on coral heads sampled from the Panamanian coast. After dosing the corals with solutions of basic chemicals found in sewage and agricultural runoff, he found that, on average, almost 35% of corals exposed to carbon compounds died compared to about 7% of those given nitrate or phosphate.

    Separate experiments showed that sugars led to an explosive growth of coral-associated bacteria not caused by other chemicals. If this holds true in the ocean, says Kline, corals already under stress from warmer water temperatures and the loss of fish and urchins that eat algae may succumb directly to the rapid growth of the normally symbiotic bacteria. Or they may be weakened enough that the fleshy algae finally win out. “Carbon-loading disrupts the balance between coral and its associated bacteria, leading to disease,” says Kline, who will detail the work in Marine Ecology Progress Series next month.

    “Retrospectively, it makes sense that the bacteria would benefit from the sugars, but it's not something I would have predicted,” says Mary Alice Coffroth, a coral reef biologist at the University at Buffalo, New York. “Sugar has never been looked at like this.”

    Noting that 7% to 8% of the coral controls in the study died, coral biologist Alina Szmant of the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, cautions that Kline's experimental system may lack the natural water flow that corals use to fight bacteria. The microbes may have an artificial advantage, she says. Forest Rohwer of San Diego State University in California, a co-author of the upcoming paper, counters that most corals survived, indicating that the system was robust.

    Kline says these new results should motivate coastal officials to utilize basic sewage treatment that would reduce organic carbon levels—only 10% of sewage flowing into the Caribbean is treated—and check organic carbon levels along with other pollutants. “We are not monitoring a critical component of the water in the system,” he says.


    A First Look at a Comet's Dust

    1. John Travis


    The success of NASA's Stardust mission, which returned material from comet Wild-2, is giving planetary scientists a chance to test theories about the composition and formation of the early solar system. “We're seeing a variety of things we absolutely know came from a comet,” says Stardust principal investigator Donald Brownlee of the University of Washington, Seattle, who in St. Louis described the first analyses of microscopic cometary particles trapped in the craft's 132 ice-cube-sized blocks of aerogel.

    So far, scientists have identified glassy and crystalline compounds, including iron sulfides. Although sulfides were not unexpected, there had been no spectral evidence that comets contain sulfur, notes Brownlee. Mission scientists have also found hints of organic matter and so-called GEMS (glass embedded with metal and sulfides); the latter are thought to be from stars.

    Comets originated at the periphery of the rotating cloud of gas and dust that formed our solar system and likely retain pristine material from that time. After Stardust's 4.6-billion-kilometer, 7-year roundtrip, we now “have exciting samples from the edge of the solar system 4 billion years ago,” says Brownlee. Mission scientists have dug out particles at the ends of impact tracks (above) preserved in six aerogel cubes and expect to present much more data at a meeting next month. “I've made all sorts of predictions [about the early solar system], and I figure half of them will be wrong,” says Joseph Nuth of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, with a smile.

    Comet tracks.

    Two microscopic cometary particles slammed into a block of aerogel, fragmenting and making these tracks.


    Hot Times for the Cretaceous Oceans

    1. Eli Kintisch


    Ancient evidence from the sea floor suggests that the ocean surface some 90 million years ago was hotter than the water in a hot tub—and that climate modelers are underestimating the link between carbon dioxide and warming.

    The new data, presented in St. Louis, Missouri, by climate modeler Karen Bice of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, comes from three sea-floor cores drilled in 2003 off Suriname in the tropical Atlantic. The cores contain rocks from the Cretaceous period, 65 million to 145 million years ago. By studying microscopic shells in shale and analyzing oxygen isotopes and trace elements, the researchers concluded that sea surface temperatures then may have reached 42°C—14° warmer than the tropical Atlantic is now and 5° higher than previous estimates for the period. Studies of organic material from the cores confirmed previous estimates that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels during 20 million years of the Cretaceous were between two and six times the current level of 380 parts per million.

    A report on the research will be published soon in Paleoceanography, but it's already making waves. The proposed blistering ocean temperatures bring “into question whether there are any limits to the temperature in the tropics in the future,” says paleoclimate scientist Mark Chandler of Columbia University.

    The paleoclimate results may also retune the computer climate models currently used to forecast future global warming. Running GENESIS, a top atmospheric model developed at Pennsylvania State University in State College, Bice had trouble getting the carbon levels she had measured in the cores to produce the high temperatures she had obtained. To make the model match her temperature estimates, Bice had to assume that another greenhouse gas, methane, was 30 times as abundant in the Cretaceous atmosphere as it is today. Most scientists consider that figure far-fetched, although they don't yet have a way to estimate the actual Cretaceous level. Bice concludes that climate models predict too little warming as carbon dioxide skyrockets.

    Drilling down.

    Karen Bice analyzes sea-floor cores for clues about ancient climate.


    Not everyone accepts those results. “The fascinating and alarming aspects of the study are probably simply not true,” says paleomodeler Matthew Huber of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, arguing that Cretaceous plants could not have survived such high temperatures. But Bice says Cretaceous organisms had time to evolve adaptations to the warming climate.

    Bice notes that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is asking modelers to predict how temperatures would be affected by a fourfold increase in carbon dioxide—roughly what the ocean core data suggest existed during the Cretaceous period. Other leading models share GENESIS's low sensitivity to greenhouse gases, Bice says, so if her results hold up, global warming “is going to be more dramatic than what is shown in these models.”


    Preyed Upon, Hominids Began to Cooperate

    1. Dan Ferber


    Watch the 6 o'clock news or stroll through a natural history museum of spear-wielding cavemen, and you might think humans have been killers since the dawn of time. But our hominid ancestors actually lived as prey, a researcher argued at the meeting. And our past as prey, he speculates, laid the foundations of society by forcing those ancestors to live together peacefully in groups.

    Dogma has it that humans and our ancestors have always been violent and warlike, in part because we evolved as hunters, says biological anthropologist Robert Sussman of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Proponents of that view cite evidence of aggression in modern primates, fossil evidence of hunting by early hominids, and anthropological studies of war and violence in human tribal and hunter-gatherer cultures.

    Cat chow?

    A leopard's teeth fit perfectly into this hominid's skull.


    Yet fossil evidence indicates that Australopithecus afarensis, a 1.2-meter-tall hominid that many think evolved into Homo sapiens, had no stone tools or weapons with which to defend itself, no fire to cook meat, and no sharp teeth to eat it. For millions of years, Sussman contends, A. afarensis was stalked by numerous and large predators, including a now-extinct dog as big as a bear, saber-toothed tigers, hyenas, and crocodiles.

    At the meeting, Sussman noted that about 5% of A. afarensis fossils show evidence of having been eaten, such as holes in skulls that fit the teeth of ancestral leopards. Modern large predators take about the same percentage of prey species, including chimpanzees and gorillas. What's more, humans are still hunted by crocodiles in Africa, tigers in India, brown bears in Tibet, and cougars in California.

    Because A. afarensis did not have physical defenses with which to ward off predators, it was forced into groups, Sussman argues. He notes that all modern primates that are active during the day and are preyed upon live in groups. Such groups have more eyes and ears with which to spot predators and more individuals to mob or confuse them. Living in such defensive groups ultimately led early hominids to cooperate and socialize more fully, says Sussman, who details his theory in the recent book Man the Hunted: Primates, Predators, and Human Evolution.

    Others have argued that group hunting or warfare led hominids to develop those traits. “You can't go from the observation a species is preyed upon to anything specific about their social relationships,” says evolutionary ecologist Richard Wrangham of Harvard University. Primatologist Frans de Waal of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, is more receptive to Sussman's theory. While noting that violence and war have probably always occurred, he stressed that “we are also a species marked by high levels of cooperation [and] conflict resolution, … and it is time science started paying more attention.”