Random Samples

Science  26 May 2006:
Vol. 312, Issue 5777, pp. 1115

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    Hoping to get their roosters in a row, chicken researchers gathered earlier this month at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York and hatched plans for analyzing the first bird genome. Eighteen months after an initial draft of the chicken sequence was released, bioinformaticists are still struggling to identify the fowl's 20,000 or so genes.

    Chicken genome researchers face a host of obstacles including insufficient funding, confusing new gene names, conflicting computer predictions, and the need to nudge other chicken scientists into the genomics world. The ancestor of domesticated chickens, the red jungle fowl (Gallus gallus), is the lone avian among a dozen vertebrates already sequenced, and comparison with other genomes is difficult because the chicken evolved 300 million years ago—much, much earlier than humans or mice.

    David Burt, a molecular biologist at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, U.K., has asked U.S. and British science agencies for money to set up a consortium to characterize the bird's genes. But getting organized is tough, says Wes Warren of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. “We have two different communities”—agricultural poultry scientists and biomedical researchers using chickens to study diseases—who have had little in common.


    Oily hole in the sand.CREDIT: NOAA

    Memories of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska may have dimmed, but its menace endures. A new study suggests that ducks and otters are still being affected by a persistent oil presence.

    The Knight Island region of Prince William Sound was hard hit when the supertanker Exxon Valdez leaked 40 million liters of oil, killing thousands of otters, seals, birds, and other marine species. Earlier studies confirmed that oil persisted in the area, but the surveys only looked for oil high on shore and not in the wetter low tidal zones where marine mammals dig for food.

    Environmental chemist Jeffrey Short of the National Marine Fisheries Service in Alaska and colleagues recently surveyed 32 shorelines in the region, checking for oil both on the surface and in half-meter-deep pits. They found oil in 59 of 662 quadrants; subsurface oil appeared in 51 quadrants, distributed in lower and middle as well as higher tidal zones.

    Oil in the lower tidal zone is bad news for animals such as ducks and otters, which forage in wet sand, says Short. The team, reporting online last week in Environmental Science and Technology, say run-ins with oil probably are why local otter and sea duck populations in the area haven't fully recovered since the spill. “This work is going to be useful for other oil spill sites,” says marine chemist Christopher Reddy of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.


    Andean frowny face.CREDIT: NEIL A. DUNCAN

    Two recent finds suggest that early South Americans may have been more attuned to the cosmos than commonly believed.

    In Peru, archaeologist Robert Benfer, retired from the University of Missouri, and colleagues have unearthed a 4200-year-old temple in the Andean foothills that may be the oldest astronomical observatory yet found in the Western Hemisphere, built about the same time as Stonehenge.

    Benfer found that certain features, such as this frowning face (above), aligned with other geographic features at precise angles. Consulting with a physicist, he learned that the angles are related to where the sun would rise or set during seasonal solstices and equinoxes. Benfer, who reported the discovery at a meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Puerto Rico last month, says these features suggest that the temple was used to help plan crops. “It's the most sophisticated early public art that has been encountered up to now anywhere in the Central Andes,” says archaeologist Richard Burger of Yale University.

    Another recently announced find, in the Brazilian Amazon, has also drawn comparisons to Stonehenge. It consists of 127 evenly placed stones, each weighing several tons, driven into the ground in a pattern that might help pinpoint the date of the winter solstice. Archaeologists with the Amapa Institute of Scientific and Technological Research in Brazil say ceramics in the area date back 2000 years.

    The Amazon contains few clues to past civilizations because people rarely built in stone, says archaeologist John Walker of the University of Central Florida. But researchers are “coming around to the notion that there were some large-scale and pretty sophisticated societies throughout the Amazon.”