News this Week

Science  10 Nov 2006:
Vol. 314, Issue 5801, pp. 904

    Panel Prunes NSF Orchard to Make Room for Growth

    1. Adrian Cho

    Two major U.S. radio astronomy facilities funded by the National Science Foundation may need to close by 2011 to make room for new NSF astronomy projects. Last week, an expert panel put the two facilities—including the massive Arecibo radio telescope that fills a sinkhole in Puerto Rico—on a hit list ordered by NSF to save $30 million a year in its $191 million astronomy budget. Although researchers generally applaud the panel for its ability to make tough choices, some say the proposed cuts are unrealistic and may not achieve the desired savings.

    Help wanted.

    The Arecibo radio telescope may need new benefactors to stay in business.


    “I think they made as reasonable recommendations as possible,” says Virginia Trimble, an astronomer at the University of California, Irvine. But Jeremy Mould, director of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson, Arizona, says the committee underestimated the observatory's needs in part because it did not visit NOAO's facilities at nearby Kitt Peak and in Chile.

    NSF requested the review a year ago to help accommodate new projects—in particular, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, an array of 50 radio telescopes under construction in Chile—in an anticipated flat astronomy budget. “We were headed for a train wreck between the aspirations of the community and the reasonable budget prospects,” says Wayne Van Citters, director of NSF's division of astronomical sciences. Only $50 million devoted to research grants was off-limits.

    The committee, chaired by astrophysicist Roger Blandford of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, held seven town meetings and met with the groups that run NSF's five observatories. “We were faced with the choice of closing facilities that are doing tremendous science or having no future program,” Blandford says.

    In the end, the panel said NSF should cut Arecibo's annual $12 million operating budget by one-third starting in 2009 and look for partners to split the remaining $8 million tab. If no partners can be found by 2011, the panel said, the facility should be dismantled. Similarly, the panel recommended finding partners to assume half of the $6 million operating budget of the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), a network of 10 radio dishes stretching from Hawaii to the Virgin Islands. If no partners appear, the committee concluded, then the dishes should come down.

    Officials in charge of Arecibo fear the worst. “We're not very optimistic about being able to find $4 million from foreign partners,” says Joseph Burns, vice provost for physical sciences and engineering at Cornell University, which manages Arecibo. The 305-meter-wide dish discovered the first binary pulsar, has probed the planets, and is the best instrument for spotting near-Earth asteroids, says Burns, who hopes NSF will reconsider the proposal.

    In contrast, Fred K. Y. Lo, director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Charlottesville, Virginia, says he's cautiously optimistic that other countries will come forward to help save VLBA, which can pinpoint radio sources to an unrivaled precision. “The VLBA has a lot of unique capabilities that people would miss,” Lo says. “So we are certainly talking to our partners to see if we can keep it going.”

    The committee also recommended a 50% cut in the $13 million a year spent on administrative and scientific staff, instrument development, and data products by NOAO, which supports 4-meter telescopes at Kitt Peak and at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. NRAO's $5 million staffing budget faces similar cuts.

    Blandford admits that cost cutting is an inexact science. “By economic shenanigans, I can find you anywhere between $16 million and $60 million in our recommendations,” he says. NSF will conduct detailed cost analyses to determine precisely how much money the proposed cuts will save, Van Citters says.

    Staff members are also preparing specific recommendations for NSF Director Arden Bement to take to the National Science Board, NSF's oversight body, which must sign off on any decision. “We take the report very seriously,” says Bement. “I intend to act on it.”


    Chloroquine Makes a Comeback

    1. Gretchen Vogel

    Chloroquine, a malaria drug rendered useless in most of the world by drug-resistant parasites, is once again effective in Malawi. In a study in the 9 November New England Journal of Medicine, researchers report that chloroquine cured 99% of 80 malaria cases in Blantyre, the country's commercial capital.

    Cheap, easy to administer, and with few side effects, chloroquine was once considered a miracle drug. But by the 1980s, resistance had spread, and in 1993, Malawi became the first African country to officially discourage its use. Few suspected that natural susceptibility would return. But in 2001, molecular studies in Malawi suggested that the resistance mutation had nearly disappeared, and studies of adults hinted that the drug could again clear the parasite.

    The new study shows that chloroquine can also work in children with acute infections. Miriam Laufer and Christopher Plowe of the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and their colleagues treated children suffering from uncomplicated malaria with either chloroquine or sulfadoxine-pyrimethamine (SP), the standard first-line drug in Malawi. Chloroquine was effective in 79 of 80 children who received it. In contrast, SP failed in 71 of 87 children. (Those children received backup treatment, and all made full recoveries.)

    The result does not mean that Malawi should go back to using chloroquine, Plowe stresses. “Malawi is a little island of sensitivity surrounded by a sea of resistance,” he says. “Resistance would come washing back in” if the drug were widely used.

    But knowing that the drug can regain its usefulness after a prolonged absence gives researchers hope that the same might be true for other resistance-plagued drug regimes. The result “is another argument for getting chloroquine out of Africa,” says malaria expert Thomas Wellems of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland.


    Is China Coming Clean on Bird Flu?

    1. Dennis Normile*
    1. With reporting by Hao Xin in Beijing.

    World Health Organization (WHO) officials last week renewed calls for China to share information and data on avian influenza after a group of Hong Kong and U.S. researchers reported that a new H5N1 strain is circulating in southern China. But China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs denies reports of the new strain and insists that the country is cooperating.

    The row was set off last week by a report from a group led by Yi Guan of the State Key Laboratory of Emerging Infectious Diseases at the University of Hong Kong that a new strain of the H5N1 influenza virus had become predominant in southern China. Based on surveillance of live poultry markets in six provinces, the authors speculated in the online Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) that the new Fujian-like strain emerged in response to poultry vaccination and might be resistant to current vaccines. Other experts said further work was needed to confirm those conclusions (Science, 3 November, p. 742).

    After the paper appeared, Beijing-based WHO off icials publicly urged China to share samples of viruses circulating among the nation's poultry, which they say are needed to update diagnostic tests and develop prototype vaccines for humans. Responding to a question at a 2 November press conference, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Liu Jianchao said that China's own monitoring showed there to be “no distinct changes in [the virus's] biological characteristics.” Liu insisted that government departments are sharing all relevant epidemic and viral information, noting that Chinese authorities recently informed the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome and the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health of a new viral strain circulating in northern China.

    Julie Hall, the WHO coordinator for communicable disease surveillance and response in Beijing, says China's Ministry of Health has shared six virus samples from human cases over the past year, but the Ministry of Agriculture hasn't shared any since 2004. Over the past year, the Health Ministry has reported human cases in provinces where there are no reported poultry outbreaks. Now the PNAS paper suggests that the virus is circulating in poultry in six provinces even more widely than it has in the past, yet information from the Ministry of Agriculture's surveillance efforts is not showing the same results. “What we need is a clear and comprehensive picture” of which substrains are increasing and which are disappearing—and in what regions—as well as sharing of samples, Hall says.

    True or false?

    Chinese authorities have denied a report from Hong Kong and U.S. researchers that a new H5N1 strain is circulating widely in southern China


    A better understanding would enable China to evaluate and fine-tune its control measures. And sharing samples could help in the development of vaccines and diagnostics tailored to the strains in circulation. As an example, Hall notes that early this year a human case in northeast Liaoning Province tested negative using then-current diagnostic tests. But once viral strains circulating among poultry in the region were used to tweak the diagnostic test, it produced accurate positive results. “Even a minor change [in the virus] can affect the sensitivity of diagnostic tests,” Hall says.

    Last year, China's Ministry of Agriculture agreed to share 20 viral samples from strains circulating within China in 2004 and 2005. But Hall says that the samples have yet to be shipped to international reference labs. Ministry of Agriculture officials did not return e-mails seeking comment.


    Indian Wildlife Researchers Show Their Fangs Over Permit Hassles

    1. Pallava Bagla

    NEW DELHI—Little is known about the Malabar civet (Viverra civettina), an endangered mammal the size of a small dog that lives in the wet forests of southern India. It has never even been photographed in the wild. To get a better understanding of this vanishing beast, N. V. K. Ashraf, a veterinarian with the Wildlife Trust of India in New Delhi, sought a research permit last January from the Kerala Forest Department, which manages the civet's last-known habitat. Permission was granted—but to work only between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. The Malabar civet, however, is a nocturnal animal. Not surprisingly, Ashraf has found no trace of the civet during his daylight-hours research.

    Ashraf ‘s frustrations are far from unique—and now India's wildlife researchers have had enough. Writing in the 25 October issue of the journal Current Science, 14 of the country's leading experts bemoan “a disturbing trend across India where scientists are increasingly denied access to wildlife reserves for scientific research or are seriously impeded, without scope for redress.” They blame the antiquated Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, which puts research and hunting permits in the same general category. They also claim that unnamed officials “arbitrarily” deny access to reserves and “demand co-authorship on publications as a precondition” for a research permit.

    In a report last year, the Tiger Task Force, set up by India's prime minister to determine the causes for the sudden decline in tiger numbers, noted that “almost every wildlife researcher has a grouse against the wildlife bureaucracy: either for its failure to aid in their research or for ignoring the findings of their research.”

    Beauty and the bureaucrats.

    Tiger and civet experts are among those who accuse officials of capricious rulings on reserve access.


    One tiger researcher, Raghunandan Chundawat, says that last year he was abruptly asked to quit his research area in Panna National Park in central India. Chundawat, formerly of the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York City and now based in India for the International Snow Leopard Trust in Seattle, Washington, says his research permit was revoked soon after he filed a complaint about the unnatural death of one of his radio-collared tigers. Rajesh Gopal, director of Project Tiger for the Ministry of Environment and Forests in New Delhi, claims that Chundawat “appeared to have a hidden agenda” in that he set up a nongovernmental organization near the Panna National Park with “an antisystem posture.” Chundawat dismisses the allegations as baseless. Prodipto Ghosh, secretary of the Ministry of Environment and Forests in New Delhi, accepts that wildlife researchers have “genuine complaints” and acknowledges that “the approach in the past [for awarding research permits] has been too conservative.” Ghosh says that the ministry plans to amend the Wildlife Protection Act to make procuring research permits easier. But he says strict controls must continue.

    Amending the wildlife act is one change that the Current Science authors seek. They also recommend a sweeping overhaul of wildlife research regulations. The Tiger Task Force has also recommended that parks “streamline existing procedures for clearances and co-ordination of research” for those who receive research permits. “We need to change the attitude of our managers from a guard protecting jewels to a librarian who is managing a library of unexplored knowledge and inviting people for learning,” says Chundawat. For now, however, India's wildlife researchers will have to continue working under the accustomed constraints.


    Sea Urchin Genome Confirms Kinship to Humans and Other Vertebrates

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi
    Well protected.

    The purple sea urchin's unusually complex immune system may explain how this echinoderm can survive for decades.


    Looking like old-fashioned pincushions and lacking legs, eyes, and even an obvious brain, sea urchins seem nothing like humans. But looks can be deceptive.

    On page 941, George Weinstock of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, and his colleagues describe the 814 million DNA bases that make up the genome of the purple sea urchin, Strongylocentrotus purpuratus. Its 23,500 genes suggest that these algae-eating invertebrates have more complex immune and sensory systems than researchers had appreciated. The genome also includes many genes essential to humans and other vertebrates, although notably missing are numerous genes typical of flies and worms. The genome “casts in concrete the reality” that sea urchins and other echinoderms really are closer kin to humans and other chordates than to beetles, flies, crabs, and clams, says Eric Davidson, a developmental geneticist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

    Even if the sea urchin didn't share an ancestor with the chordates, its genome warranted deciphering. The animal has been a boon to biologists and biomedical researchers for more than a century. In the late 1870s, researchers observed for the f irst time the fusion of the egg's and sperm's nuclei by studying sea urchin eggs. Twenty-five years later, in 1902, Theodor Boveri used urchins to show that development was impossible unless each embryonic cell had the full complement of chromosomes.

    Female sea urchins spew out millions of eggs at a time, which are easy to modify genetically, making them a perennial favorite of developmental and cell biologists. More recently, researchers have begun piecing together gene networks by tracing gene interactions during the sea urchin's development.

    Now this organism's contributions to genetics, developmental biology, immunology, and other fields should explode even further, and not just because of the genome sequence. For the first time, a new genome sequence is accompanied by a comprehensive analysis (p. 960) of when and where genes are expressed—the so-called transcriptome. Other reports on pages 939, 940, and 956, and in the 1 December issue of Developmental Biology, help define the sets of sea urchin genes associated with specific functions such as biomineralization, as well as unravel the evolution of the genome.

    Researchers have found unexpected sophistication in the urchin genome—particularly among its immune system genes—and in how the genes are employed for reproduction, development, and sensing the outside world. This complexity shows that “evolution was pretty successful in developing most of the major [genetic] building blocks of a very complex organism quite a long time ago,” says Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland. The sea urchin “provides a global view of the genes necessary for evolution to a human,” adds Gary Wessel, a developmental biologist at Brown University.

    Forty-eight hours.

    The sea urchin requires half its genes just to get to this simple gastrula stage.


    Complex simplicity

    With about 1500 cells and just a dozen cell types, the sea urchin embryo doesn't begin to approach the complexity of a human fetus. Yet the new analyses are showing that “it takes a lot of genetic information to make a really simple embryo,” says Davidson. For the transcriptome study, biochemist Viktor Stolc of NASA's Ames Genome Research Facility in Moffett Field, California, and his colleagues used NASA supercomputers to design microarrays covering all the urchin genes. The devices tracked which genes turned on and off during the first 2 days of development. About 11,500 protein-coding genes were involved, but the microarrays also revealed another 51,000 RNAs of as-yet-unidentified function.

    Meanwhile, Meredith Howard-Ashby in Davidson's lab and her colleagues looked in depth at most of the urchin's known transcription factors during the same 2 days, using a sensitive technique for measuring messenger RNA in cells. Over this 48-hour period, about 80% of the 283 transcription factors helped set up the embryo, they report in Developmental Biology. They calculate that by the time the larva was fully formed, 95% of these factors would be employed. “This tells us that most regulatory genes have to be used over and over again,” says Davidson, likely in different places during different times over the organism's life.

    Another genome analysis reported in Developmental Biology by Wessel, Jia Song, and Julian Wong at Brown shows that a different set of the urchin's transcription factors, many of which are not expressed in the embryo, are responsible for the maturation of the egg inside the adult. That work also illuminated the genes activated just after fertilization to prevent penetration by other sperm. Such detail “means we will have a better global perspective on the process of reproduction in general,” says Charles Walker, an invertebrate zoologist at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

    Sensory puzzles

    Other details about the urchin genome have left researchers scratching their heads. The urchin has about 979 genes for proteins expressly designed to sense light or odors—a number on par with what vertebrates have and more than in the invertebrates studied to date, Florian Raible of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany, Maria Ina Arnone of the Anton Dohrn Zoological Station in Naples, Italy, and their colleagues report in Developmental Biology. Yet the sea urchin lacks eyes, nose, antennae, and a centralized brain for coordinating and responding to incoming signals.

    Moreover, the urchin has six genes for opsins, molecules that are key to sensing light. Some of the urchin's opsin genes had previously been found only in the “eyes” of scallops. Raible and Arnone have found that tiny pincers tucked in below the spines, as well as the tips of the tube feet, express opsin and some of the other newfound genes. These appendages may not be “eyes” and “noses” per se, but “it is really interesting that the same [genes] are used in different ways, presumably to perceive the environment,” says Weinstock.

    Look and see?

    A larval sea urchin lacks eyes—as do adults—but its “arms” do have light-sensing proteins (inset, blue).


    Pathogen protection

    The sea urchin's immune system genes are also giving researchers pause. Invertebrates depend primarily on innate immunity, with pathogen-sensitive receptors encoded in their genomes sparking an immune attack. Vertebrates have this innate immune defense, but they also have an adaptive system, whose customized immune cells and proteins are capable of a more targeted response. Yet the sea urchin has genes for supposedly vertebratespecific immune proteins, Jonathan Rast, a comparative immunologist at the University of Toronto, Canada, and his colleagues report on page 952.

    The sea urchin's innate immune repertoire is also more complex than the vertebrate one. The urchin has 10 times as many SRCR genes, which encode proteins that home in on microbial lipids, as vertebrates have. And it has 222 cell surface proteins called toll-like receptors; humans have just 10. “There is almost an embarrassment of riches of ways to generate diversif ied [immune responses],” says Eric Loker, a comparative immunologist at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. Some of the urchin's immune system genes pose evolutionary puzzles. The urchin can make both interleukins and tumor necrosis factors, even though it seems to lack the specialized immune cells that these chemicals control in vertebrates. The sea urchin also has Rag genes, which mix up DNA to generate an infinite set of antibodies in vertebrates—yet the echinoderm makes no antibodies. “Most elements of our immune system were already there [in the urchin],” says Louis Du Pasquier of the University of Basel, Switzerland.

    Other urchin genes not related to immunity also seem out of place. When Richard Hynes and Charles Whittaker of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and their colleagues tallied the sea urchin's “adhesome”—the genes whose proteins help hold cells together and link a cell with the local environs—they found among the 1000-plus genes one important for mammalian brain development and several others implicated in human diseases. The urchin versions must serve different functions, says Hynes.

    The newly unveiled sea urchin genome shows that vertebrates evolved by elaborating on and adapting a sophisticated, preexisting set of genes, some of which have changed roles over the course of evolution. “It's mind-boggling to think of all the many inferences one can make with the genome sequence [of the sea urchin] in hand,” says Chris Amemiya, a comparative immunologist at Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason in Seattle, Washington.


    Global Warming May Be Homing In on Atlantic Hurricanes

    1. Richard A. Kerr

    An analysis of satellite infrared images shows Katrina strengthening from maximum wind speeds of 157 km/h (top) to 232 km/h (bottom).


    WASHINGTON, D.C.—The idea that increased hurricane activity might be connected to global warming first blew in with Katrina and her cohorts of the horrendous 2005 Atlantic hurricane season. Then two studies reported a striking increase in the number of intense storms around the world. And that increase was suspiciously in step with the warming of tropical waters whose heat fuels tropical cyclones (also called hurricanes or typhoons). But skeptics wondered: Should anyone trust the patchwork records of tropical cyclones compiled over the past century? And couldn't the surge in storms be part of a natural cycle?

    New analyses have something to offer both skeptics and proponents. For most of the world's tropical cyclones, existing records should not be trusted, according to a new study presented here at a 20 October seminar on Capitol Hill sponsored by the American Meteorological Society ( The study showed that records of the intensity of most storms around the world have been skewed, producing the impression that tropical cyclones have been getting stronger globally. Records for the Atlantic Ocean, however, do seem to be reliable, and reanalyzed records from the Atlantic going back to 1983 still show a sharp increase in hurricane intensity as tropical Atlantic waters warmed. Other work presented at the seminar suggests that the Atlantic jump was a combination of a long-term increase in the number of storm—possibly under the influence of global warming—and a natural oscillation in storm intensity.

    Last year's provocative findings “woke people up,” says meteorologist Greg Holland of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, who co-authored a global intensification paper. Now “you're starting to see us make our minds up.”

    The trouble with tropical cyclone records is that techniques of observation and analysis have changed over the decades. And although observations are now more direct and analyses more objective than before, they still differ from place to place. To create a single, consistent record, tropical meteorologist James Kossin of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and colleagues altered the satellite records of storm intensity so that they would be uniform from end to end; any trends would reflect trends in the data, not trends induced by changing techniques.

    Satellites provide infrared images of storms. Meteorologists can calculate the intensities of those storms from their temperatures: The warmer the eye of a storm and the colder (that is, the higher in altitude) its cloud tops, the stronger the storm. So Kossin and his colleagues altered records to a single spatial resolution of 8 kilometers and a uniform time resolution of 3 hours. They then applied a single algorithm to calculate an objective intensity, as calibrated against Atlantic storms reconnoitered by instrumented aircraft.

    Kossin first gave the good news about record reliability. In two regions, the reanalysis was in excellent agreement with previous records. In the Atlantic, the storm energy released in a hurricane season did in fact more than double between the first and second halves of the 1983-to-2005 record. That pattern supports a record that meteorologist and hurricane specialist Kerry Emanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published in 2005 (Science, 16 September 2005, p. 1807). Agreement was also very good in the eastern North Pacific, where energy release declined 60%. These two trends are well-supported, said Kossin.

    Then again, there was “not so good news everywhere else,” Kossin noted. Where the standard records from the northern Indian Ocean, the southern Indian Ocean, the western North Pacific, and the South Pacific showed rising trends of intensity, the reanalysis showed modest declines or no trend at all. And 85% of the world's tropical cyclones occur in these ocean basins. Outside the Atlantic, Kossin concluded, storms show no signs of intensifying as the underlying waters warm, at least in the past 23 years.

    Meteorologist Philip Klotzbach of Colorado State University in Fort Collins says he generally agrees with Kossin's findings. The work “indicates that increases in [tropical cyclone] activity are likely much smaller than some recent papers have claimed,” Holland, an author of one of those papers, says the work “moves in the direction of what might be the truth. We need to look into this a little bit more.”

    Holland and tropical meteorologist Peter Webster of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta have been focusing lately on what many experts consider the most reliable tropical cyclone observations: the number of named tropical cyclones in the North Atlantic and the broad classification of hurricanes as minor or major. At the seminar, Holland reported that the overall number of named Atlantic storms jumped up twice since 1900: in the late 1920s and again in the mid-1990s. That rise was roughly in step with lasting increases in the temperature of waters in the eastern tropical Atlantic, where most storms form. The proportion of those hurricanes classified as “major,” however, shows no long-term trend but has oscillated up and down every few decades.

    Together, Holland said, the two patterns explain both the lull in hurricane activity in the 1950s and '60s and the surge in the 1990s. The latter was a “double whammy”: High storm numbers due to unprecedented tropical warmth coincided with a periodic—and presumably temporary—upswing in the proportion of major hurricanes. Klotzbach isn't so sure. He thinks that the more thorough and precise monitoring of recent decades could well have increased the number of storms rating a name and the number promoted to major status.

    Researchers may be edging toward some agreement about how storms respond to warming tropical waters, but they still don't understand why they respond. Modeling studies suggest that greenhouse warming played a substantial role in the recent warming of tropical waters, as climate researcher Thomas Wigley of NCAR and modeler Thomas Delworth of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL) in Princeton, New Jersey, separately reiterated at the seminar. But the best theory and modeling still indicate that ocean temperature has only a minimal direct effect on storms.

    As for indirect effects, researchers are just starting to sort them out. One promising step, Delworth said, comes from new work by Thomas Knutson of GFDL and his colleagues, who ran a highly detailed model of the Atlantic region. The model formed realistic tropical cyclones when the modelers fed in the actual ocean and global atmospheric conditions of the past 25 years. The results matched much of the year-to-year variability in actual hurricane numbers, as well as the surge in numbers after the mid-1990s. Now researchers will have to dissect the model's behavior to understand what factors combined to make that happen.


    Spain Reconsiders Its University Reform Law

    1. Xavier Bosch*
    1. Xavier Bosch is a science writer in Barcelona, Spain.

    BARCELONA—Eight years ago, astrophysicist Antonio Ferriz sued the University of Salamanca, charging that it violated hiring rules by passing him over for a local candidate. The case, and several similar ones, drew widespread publicity to complaints that Spain's system for appointing professors was flawed and inbred. The government paid heed: It reformed the law in 2001 to open up academic hiring, imposing a national system for vetting candidates. But now a bill being debated in Spain's Parliament would give more leeway to universities in hiring, and the academic community is deeply divided. Some academic leaders are pleased, but critics such as Ferriz say it could be a step backward.

    Spanish universities rarely seek talent from afar when they hire professors. “Some people say that the Spanish system is particularly inward-looking,” says Ferriz, a professor at the University of Vigo who is currently a visiting scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Göttingen, Germany. “I think this is a very soft description of reality.” Spain's university system “operates like a mafia,” he fumes. Under the old system, Ferriz says, advertised positions were sometimes so narrowly defined that “only the preselected candidate fit.”

    Seeking reform.

    Astrophysicist Antonio Ferriz has campaigned to open up a system that he says promotes favorites “like a mafia.”


    The 2001 law sought to break this grip on academic posts by creating a centralized habilitation system to pass judgment on the quality of job applicants. However, the change proved unpopular among professors and administrators. Former education and culture minister Maria Jesús San Segundo and others proposed a model reform plan, which was approved early in September by the Ministerial Council and is now being debated in Parliament.

    The proposed law would still require candidates to submit their curriculum vitae for evaluation by “commissions made up of professors with a renowned teaching and research prestige.” But universities would be free to pick and choose candidates. The law would also create new posts for assistant professors and postdocs; permit mixed research institutes involving universities, the Higher Research Council, and private companies; and mandate gender equality in university decision-making bodies. It could also lead to academic evaluations like the U.K.'s “research assessment exercise.”

    Critics such as José Vicente, a professor of inorganic chemistry at the University of Murcia, say the new plan is no reform. It “simply consists of proposing the worst system for contracting with professors,” he says, adding that universities will be able to hire accredited researchers “after a pantomime competition before an ad hoc panel.” Less than 10% of successful professorial applicants in Spanish universities are outsiders, he says, predicting that “inbreeding will now increase up to 100%.”

    Others are more optimistic. Eugenio Degroote, a professor of mathematics at the Polytechnic University of Madrid, says that the first accreditation stage will be selective. Unlike in the past, “bad or mediocre researchers will be eliminated,” he argues. The parliamentary debate on the new law is expected to conclude with a vote before the end of the year.


    MIT Report Finds 'Breakdown' in Neuroscience Programs

    1. Andrew Lawler

    What began this spring as a private squabble over a faculty appointment led last week to a finding that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT's) extensive neuroscience program has deep-seated flaws. A report from an internal panel warns that turf battles among numerous institutes, labs, and departments have created a “breakdown of this system.” MIT officials responded immediately with a new advisory board to examine the neuroscience effort, a reaction that critics of the report say is inadequate.

    The fracas began when a young neuroscientist named Alla Karpova declined a position at MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research. She cited resistance to her appointment by Nobel laureate Susumu Tonegawa, who heads the rival Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT. Karpova's supporters say that e-mails sent to her by Tonegawa were inappropriate and intimidating—and that senior MIT officials refused to intervene. Some accused Tonegawa of actively seeking to keep women off the faculty. After the matter went public in July (Science, 21 July, p. 285), Provost Rafael Reif set up a panel to investigate.

    Young and restless.

    MIT Provost Rafael Reif sees neuroscience problems as “growing pains.”


    That committee found numerous flaws in how neuroscience is conducted at MIT, a complicated structure consisting of the McGovern and Picower institutes—both handsomely funded by wealthy donors—as well as the biology department and the department of brain and cognitive sciences. Although all but the biology department are based in a single building, the report concludes that the two institutes “have not worked cooperatively to serve the entire neuroscience community.”

    The panel criticizes the McGovern—which has been under fire since its inception for a lack of direction (Science, 24 August 2001, p. 1418)—as having no clearly defined mission. “The mission of the Picower,” on the other hand, “is too broad.” The independence of both, in addition, “makes it difficult if not impossible for the dean to resolve disagreements between the units.” Without changes, the panel predicts more trouble.

    On the job.

    MIT grad student Aaron Andalman assembles devices to record the brain activity of songbirds.


    As for Karpova, the report says that MIT's effort to recruit her was “unusual and flawed” because of faculty infighting over whether to make her an offer and attempts to dissuade her from taking the job once that offer was made. In particular, it faults McGovern Director Robert Desimone for “inappropriately attempt[ing] to influence the decisions of the biology faculty and department head.” And although the committee said Tonegawa had a legitimate right to inform Karpova that his lab would not work with hers, it also found that it was inappropriate for him to send her discouraging e-mails once she was offered a job.

    The panel found plenty of blame to go around. It concluded that “to some extent, Tonegawa was provoked,” because his concerns about research overlap were dismissed by members of the biology department. It also found no evidence that gender played a role in Tonegawa's attempt to keep Karpova off the faculty. Yet the panel fretted that “the negative publicity [from the ill-fated attempt to recruit Karpova] may be particularly damaging to MIT's efforts to increase the number of women on its faculty.”

    Senior MIT officials accepted the conclusions of the panel, chaired by MIT astrophysicist Jacqueline Hewitt. “We're talking about growing pains here,” says Reif. “This is a new model in a young research area.” In a prepared statement, MIT President Susan Hockfield, herself a neuroscientist, emphasized that “we cannot allow internal competitiveness to undercut the integrity, values, and mission of the Institute as a whole.” Reif added that he is talking privately with the relevant parties but does not plan to take disciplinary action against anyone. Desimone agrees that more cooperation is necessary, although he complained about numerous “factual errors, misstatements, and omissions” in the report.

    Materials scientist Lorna Gibson will lead the neuroscience advisory panel, which Reif said would address the broader issues troubling the field at MIT. But MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins, who led the effort to put the issue of women faculty on the university's agenda, criticized “this indecisive response by the administration” and said that it “perpetuates destructive behavior by senior faculty and administrators against young scientists, particularly women.”

    Ben Barres, an MIT alumnus and Stanford University neuroscientist, shares Hopkins's concerns that the incident will scare off potential recruits and that an advisory panel could prove toothless. “I am dismayed that MIT has essentially done nothing in response to the McGovern-Picower situation,” he says.

    Tonegawa issued a statement welcoming the advisory panel as a good step and maintains that he never acted inappropriately. Meanwhile, Karpova plans to finish a postdoc at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York next spring and become a group leader at the new Janelia Farm research campus of Howard Hughes Medical Institute outside Washington, D.C.


    Tracking People's Electronic Footprints

    1. John Bohannon

    Digital records, faster computers, and a growing tool kit of mathematical models are now giving social scientists a boost in analytical power

    Intimate links.

    Researchers are probing a data set of real calls made by 7 million telephone users in an unnamed European country.


    OXFORD, UNITED KINGDOM—The audience perked up noticeably when physicist Jukka-Pekka Onnela clicked to the slide showing his results—something like a big, colorful hairball. The average viewer might not be impressed. But it caused a buzz among the scientists meeting here recently to talk about complex networks.* The vast flurry of points and lines represents relationships between people in a communication network. What makes it remarkable is that it is no simulation: The data are from actual telephone calls among 7 million real people over an 18-month period.

    The data set was given to Onnela and his team at Helsinki University of Technology and the University of Oxford by a mobile telephone company, after replacing phone numbers with codes. “I felt a little surge of jealousy,” admitted Marco van der Leij, an economist at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Social scientists have dreamed for decades of getting their hands on such a global lode of data.

    The mobile phone data set was one of a variety of new collections on display at the meeting—many of them based on the captured digital signatures of human interactions such as communication, travel, voting, and shopping. These interactions have long been the bread and butter of the social sciences. But researchers have been frustrated by the size and complexity of the phenomena they study. Electronic footprints, faster computers, and a growing tool kit of mathematical models are now giving researchers a boost in analytical power.

    Up close and personal

    Some of the new data sets are downright intimate. Take for example a study by Oxford sociologist Peter Hedström of the records of the 3 million people above the age of 16 who lived in Stockholm from 1990 to 2003. After an ethics panel granted approval, the Swedish government gave Hedström data covering everything from workplace absenteeism and divorces to taxes, school grades, and criminal records. (Names and addresses were replaced by codes.)

    Hedström's goal is to see how the decisions of individuals add up to large-scale patterns such as unemployment, crime, and gender bias. “We often resort to hand waving” in trying to make the connection between individual behavior and social phenomena, he says. Having data for individuals in an entire society allows questions to be asked that “traditional social scientists simply could not address.”

    For example: Are suicides contagious? The traditional method of studying the social causes of suicide “has been either to do small case studies or try to include some questions in larger surveys about the very local networks individuals are embedded in,” says Hedström. But he notes that this approach will never capture a complete web of social interactions. Hedström's team is trying to track the ripple effect caused by each of the 2621 recorded suicides in Stockholm over a decade by looking for the social connections that link them. Although the results are “preliminary,” he says, they indicate that the chance that exposure to a suicide will tip an already unstable person into taking his or her own life is related to the strength of the social ties. “Not surprisingly,” he says, “the suicide of a family member has the strongest effect on an individual's suicide risk.” But a suicide in a school or workplace exposes far more people, so although the individual effect may be smaller, “the public health effect is large.”

    Others, such as Onnela, are studying the architecture of social webs. His team is interested in how information flows through society, and how the network imposes “constraints,” he says. His data set of 7 million people represents 20% of the population of a European country where 90% have mobile phones. (The team agreed to keep the country's identity secret.) Aside from the very young and old, says Onnela, “this is a good representation of the entire society.” Because the phone records contain no personal information, the researchers characterized relationships by weighing the “intimacy” of the links based on the number and duration of phone conversations. Because the data only include calls between mobile phones, most business calls are excluded, says Onnela, because most businesses use landline phones. “We think this is a reasonable proxy” for intimacy, says Onnela.

    To examine patterns of diffusion, Onnela's team “infected” a single individual in a simulated version of the real network with a piece of information and watched it spread, with the chance of it passing between two people determined by the intimacy of their relationship. The result suggests that a classic idea in network theory—that large, complex networks tend to maximize flow efficiency—does not apply. The information tended to become trapped within tightly knit communities rather than spreading freely across the society.

    Probing the network further, Onnela's team blocked the phone connections between people in different categories, starting with the most intimate relationships. In another case, they started from the opposite end, severing the least intimate relationships. The difference is dramatic. Although losing 20% of the most intimate connections causes individual communities to break down, society's interconnections hold together, and information still flows from one end to the other. But after the same fraction of the weakest links are cut, the system shatters into islands (see figure above). Van der Leij calls this the first large-scale, empirical confirmation of a theory, first proposed in 1973 by Mark Granovetter, a sociologist at Stanford University in California, that “for keeping society connected, acquaintances are more important than close friends.”

    The big picture

    On the macro end of the scale, the search is on for fundamental rules that may undergird collective behavior. This work is aided by recent progress on the mathematics of networks (Science, 4 August, p. 604). But “getting our hands on real and sufficiently detailed empirical data is what is truly exciting and new,” says Felix Reed-Tsochas, a theoretical physicist who now does network research at Oxford's Saïd Business School.

    In an effort to understand how social networks survive stress, Reed-Tsochas, Serguei Saavedra, an engineer at Oxford, and Brian Uzzi, a sociologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, are studying the New York City garment industry. In a complex web of collaborations, clothing is designed, manufactured from raw materials, distributed, and finally sold in retail stores. New York's industry shrank over 2 decades as garment production shifted to Asia, declining from 300,000 workers in 3000 firms during the 1980s to 190 firms today.


    A study in New York City's garment district found that social networks remained strong during a period of attrition.


    In spite of this big shrink, the network has held together and continued to function throughout. That robustness is a mystery, says Uzzi, because “there is no master planner,” and “the individual actors are not even aware of the system beyond their local part of the network.” When the team modeled the same contraction based on what is known about network dynamics, the garment industry quickly fell apart, he says.

    Luckily for science, a New York garment workers union has kept a digital record since 1985 of 700,000 financial transactions among the firms and gave Uzzi access. Nearly all of the research on network dynamics has been based on periods of expansion, says Reed-Tsochas, but “this is the first well-characterized example of a network undergoing sustained contraction.”

    The researchers have created an evolving map of the flow of money. As companies went bankrupt, relocated, and cut budgets, the remaining ones were forced to decide which relations to sever and which to keep. The study is at an early stage, but some ingredients of the network's robustness are becoming clear, says Uzzi. The contraction looks like a movie of the expansion “played backwards in time,” says Reed-Tsochas. The team has devised a model that, they say, can explain how robustness is an unintended consequence of individuals following their own self-interest based on local information. It will debut in a journal soon.

    Reed-Tsochas and his colleagues built their model from a wealth of data. Social scientists studying the collective behavior of terrorist groups don't have that luxury: Members of such groups don't keep detailed records. But their deadly attacks are chronicled. To see what can be gleaned from such data, a pair of Oxford physicists, Neil Johnson and Sean Gourley, have teamed up with social scientists at the Conflict Analysis Resource Center (CERAC), based in Bogotá, Columbia. Researchers at CERAC have so far amassed a record of more than 55,000 attacks going back to the 1960s, compiled from other studies; they have also sifted information on events around the world from media and government reports, ranging in size from a single death to the 3000 killed at the World Trade Center.

    A striking pattern has emerged. When the researchers graphed all the attacks within a given conflict, with the number of attacks plotted against the number killed in each, it produces a fat-tailed exponential curve. And the exponent of the function, which determines the curve's shape, is nearly always the same. “Terrorism and guerrilla warfare everywhere in the world has a signature of about 2.5,” says Gourley. Plotting the distribution of these events over time produces another, distinctive signature.

    Johnson and Gourley have been building computer models of terrorism to see what kind of social networks can fit the patterns. Only one does the job, says Gourley, and it's a surprisingly simple model of human gregariousness. “All you need is to have people forming cohesive groups that share information, technology, and supplies,” he says. Using this simplified social network model, they are drawing conclusions about the Iraq insurgency that are extremely difficult to assess from the ground. For example, “the bursty distribution of attacks over time shows that terrorists don't rely on a hierarchical organization to pass along orders, nor do they attack at random,” says Gourley. Instead, “they must be coordinating by proxy,” such as by reading the very same media reports of each other's attacks.

    Johnson and Gourley also believe they can infer how many different factions are involved throughout Iraq. “In the first 180 days of the war, there were 15 to 35 groups,” he says, and “after day 540, our model estimates there to be 100 to 130 different groups.” The model assumes that each group is capable of no more than one attack per day, he adds, so that number could be lower if some groups are capable of multiple daily attacks.

    The fact that all the conflicts around the world they have analyzed share these patterns “is extraordinary,” says Gourley, “when you consider how different they are, involving actors with very different motives and goals, operating in very different environments.” They must be following rules without being aware of them, he says: “There seem to be only a limited number of ways for people to form networks and coordinate activities.”

    Whether laws governing social groups can be found is an open question. But many social scientists are optimistic that such sets of real-world data will lead the way, and they are hungrily eyeing new sources (see sidebar on p. 915). “Great science can potentially come out of these efforts,” says James Moody, a sociologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. But he and others agree that it will take more than “just mining the data” to learn what drives social phenomena. What's needed is an exponential boost in the power of social science theory and analysis. And this, says Granovetter, “is a very tall order.”

    • *European Conference on Complex Systems, Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, U.K., 25–29 September 2006.


    Google's Hidden Wealth

    1. John Bohannon

    Type the word “science” into the Google search engine, and a list of one-and-a-half million Web pages appears in a fraction of a second. Behind this service lies an enormous reservoir of data that researchers would like to harness for science of their own, in fields from social psychology to global economics. But although some computer-based companies such as Microsoft have eagerly embraced scientific collaboration, Google so far has not. “Google has a reputation … for being very negative to letting researchers in,” says Richard Swedberg, a sociologist at Cornell University. This could soon change, a Google spokesperson has told Science.

    Google's data are a potential social science gold mine, “both for observing social interactions in real time and also for measuring their consequences for individual and collective behavior,” says Duncan Watts, a sociologist at Columbia University. The key is the electronic “cookie.” As you browse the Internet, many Web sites such as Google's record a string of tex—the cookie—representing the identity of your computer. And when you use Google, its servers keep track not only of what you search for but also where you go next. People add new entries to this record at the rate of 200 million Web searches per day. This electronic record is key to Google's business model: Most of its $1 billion annual revenue comes from Internet advertising targeted to individuals.

    Google expanded its reach in 2001 when it acquired the largest group of Internet-based communities, or “chat groups,” known as Usenet and rechristened as Google Groups, including Usenet's records of topic-specific conversations between 25 million people going back to 1981, all of it searchable. And Google is amassing other treasures, such as its regularly updated satellite-based map of Earth. Users can instantly retrieve many kinds of sociological data such as local crime rates from that map. Thousands of people are voluntarily developing new (but not peer-reviewed or verified) layers of data with so-called mash-ups that are freely available on the Internet.

    Google has been cautious about scientific collaboration because “we don't want to give users the impression that we're free and easy with their data,” says Rachel Whetstone, a London-based Google spokesperson, “especially in light of what happened with AOL.” In August, the Internet company American Online (AOL) released a record of Internet searches done by 650,000 people. A furor erupted when it was discovered that people's identities were easily reconstructed from the data. AOL removed the data from the Internet 3 days later, but the file had already been downloaded and replicated worldwide. In what may be Google's first invitation, the company's public relations department said in an e-mail to Science that “Google wants to support scientific endeavors” and would consider providing data for “legitimate scientific research … so long as we could ensure that it included no personally-identifiable information.”

    Added value.

    Users are adding their own data overlays, or “mash-ups,” to Google Earth.


    Some academics are urging caution. There is “significant potential for abuse, given the ease of transporting computerized data,” says Frank Miller, a bioethicist at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. “Ethics review committees will need to scrutinize research using such data very carefully to ensure that adequate protections are in place.” Requiring people's consent will be difficult, he says, and “investigators might resist this move, as it could narrow the pool of subjects.”


    Kremlin Brings Russian Academy of Sciences to Heel

    1. Andrey Allakhverdov,
    2. Vladimir Pokrovsky*
    1. *Andrey Allakhverdov and Vladimir Pokrovsky are science writers in Moscow.

    New oversight measures, insists the president of the venerable academy, will spur evolutionary change. Others contend that the Kremlin is mounting a hostile takeover

    MOSCOW—Thanks to lavish support and autonomy even during the darkest Stalin years, the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) became a national refuge for intellectuals, nurturing a parade of Nobel Prize winners and training a formidable scientific diaspora. In the last decade or so, however, the 282-year-old academy has come under attack. A rising chorus of critics has caricatured it as a bastion of privilege, bloated with mediocre scientists who draw salaries year after year and resist every attempt at reform. During his 4 years as science minister, Andrey Fursenko has vowed repeatedly to modernize RAS and its 400 institutes. For the first time, he has won a small victory: In September, the Kremlin unveiled amendments to the science law that would give Russian President Vladimir Putin's cabinet the right to approve the selection of future RAS presidents and the academy's charter. RAS has postponed its upcoming presidential election, scheduled for next month, until after parliament signs off on the amendments.

    RAS and ministry leaders insist that the academy will continue to manage its affairs without meddling from the state. RAS President Yuri Osipov, for one, is putting on a brave face. “Some people say [the new procedure according to the amendments] is wrong. I think it is right. It would even strengthen the academy's position,” he says. Because the next RAS president will have the explicit endorsement of Putin, says Osipov, “that will highlight the responsibility of this person for the immense financial and material resources of the academy.”

    Privately, however, sources say the latest developments are the first shots in a battle over RAS's substantial land assets, including prime real estate in central Moscow and on the Neva River in St. Petersburg. Many contend that the Kremlin's ultimate aim is to acquire these assets and transform RAS into a club or honor society akin to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. “We are being castrated,” complains nuclear physicist Nikolay Ponomarev-Stepnoy, an academician at the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow. “They are demolishing the academy.”

    Soon after the Soviet breakup in 1991, then-science minister Boris Saltykov argued that RAS needed to shrink and focus spending on quality research teams. The reforms he prescribed included peer review of labs and competitions for funding rather than block grants. Osipov beat back the challenge. But the mathematician, completing a third term as RAS president this year, has been less effective at thwarting Fursenko, a young reform-minded physicist who has survived a couple of cabinet shakeups. Fursenko did not respond to an interview request. But his deputy, Dmitry Livanov, says the ministry's intention is to make the academy more “cost-effective.” It's necessary, he says, “to focus support on world-class researchers” and to favor areas, such as physics and life sciences, “in which Russia already shows world-class results or can achieve such results in the shortest time.”

    Taking one for the team?

    RAS president Yuri Osipov receives an honor from President Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin may covet juicier prizes, such as the RAS leadership's Moscow mansion.


    Osipov, who has assented to the changes, insists they are evolutionary. Livanov agrees, noting that there are no plans at present to strip RAS of its institutes—even if some don't merit support. “It cannot be that all the institutes are world-class,” Osipov says. “As in chess, you cannot have only grand masters.” RAS will continue to receive about 35% of the Russian government's R&D spending, which in 2006 amounted to $1.27 billion. The big change is that the next RAS president will be held accountable for spending it wisely. And if RAS fails to modernize on its own, Livanov says, “it may happen that more radical measures will become urgent.”

    Saltykov argues that the ministry's reforms do not go far enough. He says that a new system is needed to manage Russian R&D. “It is not a secret that the academy is dying,” he says. At many institutes, he continues, “scientific life has stopped. There are dusty passages instead of working laboratories. And something has to be done. A serious audit is needed to define where there is life and where there is simulation of life.” After that, he says, steps must be taken to salvage the good science. To reform the academy, Saltykov says, “one must do it seriously. And I do not see any seriousness.”

    Some observers contend that the Kremlin has a darker motive for bringing the academy under its wing. In 2004, RAS institutes lost a vital perk: sharply discounted property taxes. Now they are obliged to pay in full. As most institutes cannot afford the tax, which can run more than an institute's annual budget, the cabinet for the past 2 years has covered the payments. Osipov says he does not know how long the cabinet will continue bestowing this favor. “At the moment, the property remains at RAS's disposal,” says Osipov, who adds that it has not been easy safeguarding academy assets.

    Rank-and-file scientists hope that something good will come out of the battle over the academy's future. Certainly, RAS needs to change, says Ponomarev-Stepnoy. But the way the ministry and the Kremlin are going about it could well sound a death knell for the venerable institution established by Peter the Great in 1724, he says: “We'll have to wait for another Peter to reconstruct it.”


    Italy's Influenza Diva

    1. Martin Enserink

    She set in motion a worldwide movement to share information on avian influenza. Italian bird flu scientist Ilaria Capua says what she thinks—and often gets what she wants

    Rolling up her sleeves.

    In Italy, Capua pioneered a vaccination strategy called DIVA to battle outbreaks of bird flu.


    LEGNARO, ITALY—When she traveled from Italy to Paris in mid-March, Ilaria Capua had a plan. She was going to attend a meeting of the scientific committee of OFFLU, an international network of bird flu experts, and she wanted participants to commit to getting more genetic data about the H5N1 bird flu strain in the public domain—a cause she had championed since January of this year. With scientists sitting on their samples, Capua believes, it's impossible to track the virus' movements and understand the tricks it may play on humankind.

    But persuading her 13 colleagues, gathered in the graceful Parisian mansion of the World Animal Health Organization (OIE), wasn't easy, and the debate dragged on. Some were opposed, whereas others were sympathetic to Capua's cause but saw clear drawbacks as well. For instance, if every sequence became public information, how could they prevent others from scooping them with a scientific paper? But Capua insisted, and in the end, the group committed to sharing. As a first step, all participants identified at least 20 bird flu strains in their collections to be fully sequenced by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, which has a flu genome sequencing project, and then released.

    It was quintessential Capua, says Christianne Bruschke, an OIE officer charged with bird flu who was at the meeting. “She's somebody with strong opinions,” says Bruschke. “She's very dominant; she knows how to convince people.” Adds Juan Lubroth of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations: “She is very charismatic, and she has a big persona. When Ilaria says something, it carries weight.”

    Capua's in-your-face opinions do occasionally rub people the wrong way. “There are people who don't like her because of that,” says virologist Albert Osterhaus of Erasmus University Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Still, her campaign for openness around H5N1 data has been unexpectedly successful and has won her wide admiration. Colleagues, newspaper editorialists, and even Web loggers have heaped praise on her.

    Within the world of avian influenza, however, Capua already had a “very good reputation,” says Michael Perdue, an avian influenza expert at the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. In 8 years, she has put the Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale delle Venezie (IZSVe) in Legnaro—a lab with regional as well as national responsibilities located in a small town outside Padua—firmly on the global flu map. And within Italy, she has pioneered a controversial vaccination strategy for bird flu, dubbed Differentiating Infected and Vaccinated Animals (DIVA), that has helped deal with two devastating outbreaks.

    Modesty is not her strong suit, Capua readily admits. “I'm very brave,” she said matter-of-factly on a recent Wednesday morning, while driving her black mini-Mercedes to a restaurant close to her lab for a pasta lunch. “I'm often ahead of others in thinking about important issues.” Later, back at her lab, she asserted: “My colleagues at the lab respect me very much because of what I have achieved.”

    Tall and invariably stylishly dressed with trademark rectangular glasses, Capua, 40, also adds an unmistakable element of glamour to often-staid meetings of the international veterinary circuit, a heavily maledominated world. In Italy, she has become something of a media darling, especially after reporters discovered that she's a cousin of Roberta Capua, a former Miss Italy. She has turned down requests for a joint interview with the beauty queen.

    Not so crazy

    Born in Rome, Capua obtained a degree in veterinary science at the University of Perugia in 1989, then worked at a few other labs before she became head of the virology department at the institute here in 1998, in a calm period when bird flu wasn't considered much of a problem. That changed, at least in Italy, in 2000, when a major outbreak of a highly pathogenic (HP) influenza strain named H7N1—which, unlike H5N1, is not dangerous to humans—struck poultry farms in a belt stretching roughly from Milan to Venice.

    Although the Italian government managed to quash the outbreak by culling more than 13 million poultry, a so-called lowpathogenic (LP) version of H7N1 kept circulating, and researchers feared it might revert without warning to the HP version and kick off a new disaster. A massive poultry vaccination campaign in the area might help root out the LP strain. But widespread use of an H7N1 vaccine would pose an economic problem: Like any vaccine, this one would trigger the same antibodies as the disease, so that a standard test wouldn't be able to tell vaccinated from infected chickens. That, in turn, would prevent the country from showing that it was disease-free, endangering its trading status.

    Capua's team argued that the so-called DIVA strategy might circumvent that classic problem. Instead of basing a vaccine on the H7N1 strain already infecting poultry, they suggested using a closely related strain, H7N3, which differs in a viral coat protein called neuraminidase. Vaccinated animals could be distinguished from infected ones because they would carry antibodies against the N3 variety of the neuraminidase protein instead of N1, the team argued.

    Convincing European Union authorities that this approach would wipe out the disease was tough. “Some people thought I was crazy, that we would make the disease endemic,” says Capua. But the team persisted, developing a new, fast test for antibodies against N1 and showing that it was reliable. And 4 months after the vaccination campaign went live in November 2000, the LP strain of H7N1 was eliminated. A year later, when an H7N3 outbreak swept the area, the same trick was put in reverse, using an H7N1 vaccine.

    “Many people were talking and thinking about DIVA strategies, but she was the first to actually take it to the field and implement it,” says Perdue. In theory, the same tactic, called heterologous vaccination, could also be used against H5N1, but it hasn't so far. Many at-risk countries don't have a good network of veterinary labs to screen poultry for infection.

    After the Italian outbreaks died down, bird flu surfaced in other locations: There was an outbreak of H7N2 in Virginia in 2002, a massive H7N7 outbreak in the Netherlands in 2003, and the worldwide spread of H5N1, now in its third year. The increasing prominence of the disease helped Capua build up her lab. Staff tripled to almost 50 in 6 years. More than 70% of them are women—not necessarily because Capua wanted it that way, but because most graduates in veterinary science these days are women. It does have an advantage, however, she observes: “Men are incapable of multitasking, as I'm sure you're aware.”

    After Capua took over, IZSVe became Italy's reference lab for bird flu, testing samples from all over the country. In 2002, OIE asked Capua if IZSVe could serve as one of its global reference labs as well; FAO asked in 2004. As a result, the institute has received a steady stream of samples from H5N1-affected countries, primarily in the Middle East and Africa.

    It was because she was at the hub of this research that Capua became aware of the lapse in data sharing. Her discomfort began in February, when WHO asked her to deposit the sequence of a sample from Nigeria, the first African country affected, in a closed-off compartment of a flu database at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, to which fewer than 20 labs have access. If she shared her sequence, WHO scientists said, she would have access to the rest of the hidden Los Alamos data.

    “I'm very brave. I'm often ahead of others in thinking about important issues.” —Ilaria Capua

    Capua refused and instead deposited her sequences in GenBank for the entire world to see. At the same time, in a message on ProMED, an e-mail list for emerging infectious diseases, she asked her colleagues to follow suit (her posting won ProMED's annual award in August); she also asked Science to investigate (3 March, p. 1224).

    WHO defended the closed database on the grounds that H5N1-affected countries often don't want reference labs in the developed world to publish information about the strains circulating within their borders. But Giovanni Cattoli, the director of research and development in Capua's lab, says that “is simply not our experience,” noting that of the 15 countries the Capua team has dealt with, 14 said sharing data was “fine.” As to scientists' worries that they might be scooped if they post their sequences in real time, Capua says: “What is more important? Another paper for Ilaria Capua's team or addressing a major health threat? Let's get our priorities straight.”

    Help wanted.

    Capua, here with colleagues Giovanni Cattoli and Paola De Benedictis, says she'd like to lure Italian talent working abroad back home.


    Sexist world

    Eventually, Capua's call resulted in a new organization uniting dozens of researchers, called the Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data (GISAID), that plans to set up a system for sharing (Science, 25 August, p. 1026). GISAID's charter is still being hashed out with specialists in intellectual property and bioinformatics, and it's unclear exactly how it will work.

    But no matter what comes of the deal, says Capua, momentum for sharing is clearly building. Although some at WHO were irked by the sudden announcement of GISAID—most people weren't aware of what was going on, Perdue says—WHO does support the idea. The Indonesian government and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, both recently released a series of sequences. And on a visit to the United States this week, Capua was set to discuss the sequencing of a large number of strains from OFFLU labs at The Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville, Maryland.

    Meanwhile, Capua's lab seems set to grow. She'd like to lure back Italian talent now working overseas. “Italians are very creative,” she says. “Look at the food, the fashion.” It pains her that Italian science has such a bad image; in a recent issue of Nature, for instance, one editorial praised Capua's sharing initiative whereas another one on the same page slammed the Italian government for its research management.

    Capua says she's driven in part by the desire to show that it's possible to do outstanding research in Italy. Doing so, however, requires a hefty dose of determination— especially if you're a woman, she says. “My husband tells me I come off as a dragon, like Condoleezza Rice,” she says, slamming her hand on her desk as if to illustrate what she's talking about. “But I have to defend my ideas and make sure I get heard. We live in a sexist world, especially here in Italy.”

    Then she adds: “But I'm not very concerned about how other people perceive me. I just tend to do my thing and get on with it.”


    Soft Tissue in Dinosaur Fossils? The Evidence Hardens

    Two of the hottest discoveries in dinosaurs last year—the first definitive sexing of a dinosaur, from egg-laying tissue, and the amazing preservation of what looks like original cells and still-stretchy blood vessels—came from the lab of Mary Schweitzer of North Carolina State University in Raleigh. At the meeting, another group reported further evidence of egg-laying tissue, suggesting that it evolved early in dinosaur history. And Schweitzer discussed additional evidence that the tissue may be original, although doubters remain.


    New findings support the idea that this and other ancient dinosaur tissue may be real.


    The egg-laying tissue, called medullary bone, was previously known only in living birds. Ovulating females rapidly create this mineral-rich tissue inside their legs and other bones as a storehouse for calcium for making eggshell. In a paper in Science (3 June 2005, p. 1456), Schweitzer and her colleagues compared the fossilized leg bone of a roughly 70-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex with modern ostrich bone, showing many similarities.

    Now Sarah Werning and Andrew Lee, graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley, and paleontologist Paul Bybee of Utah Valley State College in Orem have found medullary bone in two other kinds of dinosaurs. Looking at a nearly 150-million-year-old tibia of the large predator Allosaurus fragilis from Utah, the trio found a layer of bone in which the tissue was disorganized and replete with traces of blood vessels, suggesting it had grown quickly. “It was really convincing,” says paleontologist Martin Sander of the University of Bonn, Germany.

    The same pattern turned up in a femur and tibia of an approximately 110-million-year-old Tenontosaurus tilletti from Montana. What's striking is that Tenontosaurus belongs to a major division of dinosaurs called the Ornithischia. This group split more than 230 million years ago from the other major group of dinosaurs, the Saurischia. Because members of both groups had medullary bone, the tissue likely evolved in a common ancestor, after it split from the crocodilians (see figure, below). “This really pushes [the origin] back,” Werning told the audience.

    Family trait.

    Medullary bone occurs in both branches of dinosaurs, so it likely evolved soon after the split from crocodilians.

    Meanwhile, Schweitzer has been testing whether the medullary bone and other soft tissue she discovered are original. Her first report of the preserved tissue (Science, 25 March 2005, p. 1952) was based on preliminary tests. At the meeting, Schweitzer reported that she had looked at the transparent vessels and cell-like structures using a transmission electron microscope. Elemental analyses revealed the presence of the mineral hydroxyapatite of a type created by living organisms. “There is a small fragment of mineral that the dinosaur laid down originally,” Schweitzer said.

    She has also found what appears to be collagen, which could be authentic dinosaur protein. Atomic force microscopy of fibers showed 67-nanometer-wide bands like those of emu collagen. Schweitzer even managed to get short sequences of peptides that matched collagen. “Looks like collagen, behaves like collagen, and it's 68 million years old. How cool is that?” says David Martill of the University of Portsmouth, U.K., who was not at the meeting but is familiar with the findings.

    Gel electrophoresis revealed signals consistent with osteocalcin, a protein thought to help in bone mineralization. Antibodies to osteocalcin reacted to extracts of the bone matrix, but much less strongly than they do to extant bird tissue. The tests suggest that any remaining original material is quite scarce—on the order of parts per trillion. “It's very frustrating,” Schweitzer said, explaining that the tiny amounts make confirmation difficult.

    But skeptics have another, less sexy, explanation for the tissue: the replacement of original tissue by microbes. Thomas Kaye, a full-time amateur paleontologist in Prospect Heights, Illinois, examined wellpreserved bone from four kinds of late-Cretaceous dinosaurs using a scanning electron microscope and sees signs that microbes have replaced the original tissue. During 200 hours of observations, Kaye found hollow vascular canals like those of Schweitzer's specimen. But he also discovered evidence that microbes had moved through a thick film. In some samples, this film had dried out and had a carbon-14 date of 1960–1970. As for the structures resembling cells called osteocytes, Kaye and colleagues think they could be microbes that filled in a void in the bone.

    Hans Larsson, a paleontologist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, says the theory of microbial replacement is “totally logical” and that carbon-14 dating should be done to rule out modern biofilms. The debate is expected to continue. “The proof is going to be tricky,” Larsson says. “It's going to take years.”


    Crestfallen: Sexually Dimorphic No More

    1. Erik Stokstad

    Paleontologists had long thought that the skulls of certain duck-billed dinosaurs might provide a clue about the largely mysterious sex lives of dinosaurs. The animals sported crests that seemed to become more prominent as the creatures matured. Some were more ornate than others—presumably a display that males used to impress females. But research presented at the meeting shows that the crests differ not by gender but by species. “A very nice story of sexual selection just doesn't hold up,” says Zhexi Luo of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, about the new evidence.

    The story began in 1975, when Peter Dodson of the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) proposed that several species of hadrosaur described from Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta, Canada, over the previous decades were actually just two genera—Lambeosaurus and Corythosaurus—that changed their crest shape as they matured. The variation among adults, he argued, was due to differences between male and female animals, known as sexual dimorphism. A few years ago, David Evans, then a graduate student at the University of Toronto in Mississauga, Canada, decided to test Dodson's idea.

    Evans worked with paleontologist Philip Currie of the University of Alberta in Edmonton and others to pinpoint the locations of the several dozen specimens of Lambeosaurus and Corythosaurus within the 120-meter-thick formation of sedimentary rock in the Dinosaur Provincial Park. They searched for markers left at each field site by earlier paleontologists, then used centimeter-resolution GPS to pinpoint what rock layer the bones had come from.

    It turned out that all of the presumably female forms of Corythosaurus came from the uppermost portion of the formation, ranging in age from 75.3 million to 74.8 million years. The males were exclusively from lower rocks, stretching back 500,000 years earlier. “These guys would have had to wait a long time for a date,” Evans quips. Lambeosaurus had a similar pattern. Instead of sexual dimorphism, Evan concluded, the forms probably represent separate lineages.

    Gender bender.

    Male and female forms of Corythosaurus are actually separate species.


    The different clusters likely represent changes in form within the groups, called anagenic evolution, says Kevin Padian of the University of California, Berkeley. He believes the head crests may have helped dinosaurs recognize members of the same species. “It's a beautiful study,” adds Dodson, who is still at UPenn. “I embrace the findings wholeheartedly.” An example of sexual dimorphism that Dodson identified in the horned dinosaur Protoceratops is still generally accepted.


    Snapshots From the Meeting

    1. Erik Stokstad

    Amphibian development. The origin and evolutionary relationships of amphibians—frogs, salamanders, and the limbless caecilians—have long been murky. Some paleontologists think all three groups evolved from a single, long-extinct ancestor, whereas others suspect that each had separate evolutionary roots. A new study provides the first developmental evidence from the fossil record, but it doesn't settle the question.

    One fact that has long puzzled paleontologists is the order in which salamanders develop their digits. In frogs and every other terrestrial tetrapod, the fourth finger and toe develop first, followed by the third, fifth, second, and first digits. Salamanders buck this trend, starting with the thumb, a process called postaxial dominance.

    So, too, it turns out, did extinct amphibians called branchiosaurids, graduate student Nadia Fröbisch of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, concluded after examining more than 600 well-preserved specimens of a branchiosaurid called Apateon. That means that postaxial dominance developed more than 300 million years ago. To Robert Carroll of McGill University, a co-author on Fröbisch's paper in press at Evolution & Development, the evolutionary kinship between salamanders and branchiosaurids helps demonstrate that salamanders evolved from a different fossil ancestor than did frogs or caecilians.

    Andrew Milner of the Natural History Museum in London and others aren't so sure. They point to another possibility: What if a single ancestor of all modern amphibians developed like salamanders, and then frogs reverted to standard tetrapod pattern? More fossils are needed to resolve the issue.

    Baleen and teeth. Blue whales and other mysticetes feed like no other mammal, sucking in great volumes of seawater and straining out plankton with great racks of keratinous fibers called baleen. How toothed whales developed baleen is a mystery, because the tissue hardly ever fossilizes. Now, paleontologists have taken a step toward solving the issue by reporting the first transitional fossil with both teeth and evidence of baleen. “That's pretty cool,” says Mark Uhen, a whale paleontologist until recently at the Cranbrook Institute of Science in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

    Thomas Deméré of the San Diego Natural History Museum in California described how he and colleagues studied an ancient toothed whale from Oregon called Aetiocetus weltoni. After removing rock from the skull to expose the palate, they spotted tiny grooves and holes that match those in the palate of baleen whales, where the grooves contain nerves and blood vessels that connect to the baleen. Lawrence Barnes of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County isn't convinced. Barnes, who first described A. weltoni, notes that some living toothed whales have similar palatal grooves.

    Aetiocetus lived between 24 million and 28 million years ago and coexisted with baleen whales, so it's not their direct ancestor. But it provides a glimpse of the stepwise transition toward baleen feeding. Deméré says he has no idea about the role of incipient baleen.

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