Random Samples

Science  24 Mar 2006:
Vol. 311, Issue 5768, pp. 1687

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    Close to 1 billion people lack access to fresh water, according to the second triennial World Water Development Report from the United Nations. The report, presented this week at the World Water Forum in Mexico City, is a panoramic view of world water problems. It includes photographs such as this one above of nomad women drawing water in Mauritania; case studies, such as water-management plans for the Danube watershed and for the greater Tokyo area; and illuminating charts, including one showing how U.S. sales of agricultural products to Japan make Japan a huge importer of “virtual water.”



    Baby Blues.

    Many species of birds lay blue-green eggs, but what the color signifies has stumped biologists. One theory is that it serves as a signal of quality to males, as the shell pigment, biliverdin, is expensive to produce.

    To test whether blueness is an indicator of reproductive benefits, a team led by Juan Moreno, an ornithologist at the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid, measured the color intensity of the eggs of pied flycatchers. The researchers also measured the amount of antibody proteins within each egg and the survival rate of the chicks.

    The bluer the better, it turns out. Bluer eggs contained more maternal antibodies—the first line of immunological defense for freshly hatched chicks. Chicks from such eggs also were more likely to survive their first 2 weeks, the researchers reported online 15 March in Biology Letters. As a bonus, biologists can now use egg color as a quick guide to the health of such bird populations.

    These results firm up the “signal theory” of egg color, says Lynn Siefferman, an ornithologist at Auburn University in Alabama. The next step, she says, is for researchers to artificially color eggs and see if males invest more care in bluer ones.


    You're a journal editor looking at a paper whose authors have drug company ties. Or you suspect the paper has already been published in Norwegian. How do you make sure it's on the level? Many journals may be at a loss, a new survey finds, because they lack policies to deal with such situations.

    The U.K.-based Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) surveyed its 346 member biomedical journals. About one-third responded. “So many journals had weak or nonexistent policies” for authors, says COPE chair Harvey Marcovitch, a pediatrician. Some 13% lack a procedure for handling conflict of interest, and 28% have no system to ensure that a paper has gone through an ethics approval. Feedback mechanisms are also weak: 60% had no complaint procedure for authors, and 9% did not publish letters to the editor, which COPE considers an important postpublication peer-review mechanism. And 64% of journals have no policy for dealing with a potential case of research misconduct. Even when journals tried to get to the bottom of an allegation, one in five cases ended in a stalemate. (See the report at http://www.publicationethics.org.uk/reports/2005.)



    Proust, move over. A woman known as “AJ” remembers every day of her life since she was 14. So unusual is she that neuroscientists have coined a new term—“hyperthymestic syndrome”—for someone in whom “remembering dominates her life.”

    AJ, now in her early 40s, caught the attention of neuroscientist James McGaugh of the University of California, Irvine, in 2000 when she sent him an e-mail saying “since I was eleven, I have had this unbelievable ability to recall my past.” The memories, she wrote, are “nonstop, uncontrollable, and totally exhausting.”

    Over the next 5 years, McGaugh and colleagues gave her various tests. Once, for example, they asked her to recall the previous 24 Easters. In 10 minutes, she came up with the dates as well as details of her activities. Every date but one was accurate. “She sort of has a vacuum cleaner sucking up all of the personal experiences and storing them away so that they're available,” says McGaugh.

    The researchers say AJ differs from other cases of extraordinary memory because hers is all about her own life—unlike autistic savants who can recall vast amounts of irrelevant information or calculate dates far in the future. Tests do show that AJ may have impairment in the left frontal lobe, like people with autism or obsessive-compulsive disorder. But AJ, who has average intelligence, has managed to graduate from college, hold jobs, and get married, researchers report in the February issue of Neurocase.

    Some researchers are skeptical that AJ's abilities are all that unusual. Cognitive neuropsychologist Stephen Christman of the University of Toledo in Ohio says they may result from a combination of natural retentiveness and a tendency to obsess over her memories for hours every day. McGaugh says the team plans to do brain scans to see whether areas involved in memory look different in AJ.