News this Week

Science  18 May 2007:
Vol. 316, Issue 5827, pp. 964
  1. RESEARCH INTEGRITY

    Sonofusion Back on the Firing Line as Misconduct Probe Reopens

    1. Robert F. Service

    Officials at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, have launched a new inquiry into bubble fusion researcher Rusi Taleyarkhan, just months after exonerating him of research misconduct. The inquiry was brought to light by a congressional report made public last week, which concluded that in its previous inquiry, “Purdue deviated from its own procedures in investigating this case and did not conduct a thorough investigation.”

    Taleyarkhan, a nuclear engineering professor at Purdue, pioneered the controversial notion that sound waves can collapse bubbles in a manner that causes atoms to fuse, releasing energy in the process. If true, “sonofusion” holds the prospect of clean and abundant energy. Fusion experts challenged Taleyarkhan's claims from the start. But last year, fellow Purdue researchers turned up the heat when they complained that Taleyarkhan was obstructing their efforts to duplicate the research (Science, 17 March 2006, p. 1532).

    In response, Purdue officials announced an initial review in February 2006. The university followed it over the summer with a formal inquiry to see whether a full-scale investigation was warranted. This February, Purdue officials announced that their internal investigations had absolved Taleyarkhan of wrongdoing (Science, 16 February, p. 921). Critics from both inside and outside the university complained that the inquiry had been too narrowly focused and that the Purdue committee never contacted them so that they could express their concerns. In March, Representative Brad Miller (D-NC), who heads the Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Technology, wrote to Purdue President Martin Jischke asking for copies of the university's internal reports.

    Although Purdue officials never made public the reports of their proceedings—or even the charges they were investigating—the congressional report quotes from them and makes it clear that the initial inquiry focused on the concern that Taleyarkhan improperly omitted his name as an author from two papers in an effort to make the work look like an independent verification of his research. The House committee argues that even Purdue's narrow investigation found “serious deviations” from commonly accepted scientific practices. Among them: that Taleyarkhan played a significant role in writing the disputed papers and that he placed junior scientists in “precarious positions” in order to promote his research program. “Based on these conclusions, it is difficult to understand how the Inquiry Committee could have then decided that Dr. Taleyarkhan's actions did not constitute research misconduct,” the report states.

    Embattled.

    Taleyarkhan (shown working on an earlier, unrelated experiment) says “sonofusion is for real” and suspicions about his work are groundless.

    CREDIT: CURTIS BOLES/OAK RIDGE NATIONAL LABORATORY/AP PHOTO

    In an e-mail message to Science, Taleyarkhan says he is “appalled” by the congressional report. “As written, the memo/letter presents only the accuser's point of view and passes its verdict on the accusations,” he writes. Later, in a phone interview, Taleyarkhan insisted that he had nothing to do with the papers in question and that it's the science of sonofusion that is being lost in the conflict. “Sonofusion is for real. It has been reproduced by groups without a conflict of interest. But it is not yet reproducible on demand,” Taleyarkhan says.

    Joseph Bennett, Purdue's vice president for university relations, says that “Purdue's position is that it did follow its policies correctly” and continues to do so. Shortly after completing the last inquiry, Bennett says the administration received additional allegations regarding sonofusion and has opened a new inquiry, which is expected to take 3 months to complete. Unlike the previous inquiry, the new panel is expected to broaden its scope to probe the integrity of the underlying studies.

    Miller's subcommittee became aware of the new inquiry while reviewing the case. Its report chides Purdue officials for the makeup of the new inquiry panel. According to the report, all three of the panel members served on previous sonofusion inquiry panels, as did the staff member assigned to it. The report recommends adding one or more outside members to ensure the panel's independence, which Jischke says he will do.

    Other Purdue faculty members say they will insist on such transparency to protect the university's reputation. “I am somewhat disappointed that the original sets of committees did not do a complete, thorough evaluation of the evidence at the time,” says Bernie Tao, a Purdue agricultural engineer who chairs the university senate. The senate was expected to meet this week to draw up a list of recommendations.

    Other faculty members say they are concerned about the impact of the conflict on Taleyarkhan's department. Chan Choi, a Purdue nuclear engineering professor, notes that in September, Lefteri Tsoukalas, a critic of Taleyarkhan, stepped down as chair of the nuclear engineering department. Eight months later, he says, the administration has yet to form a search committee to fill the post, despite written pleas from the faculty. Choi adds that the yearlong ordeal has prompted a few students to leave the department, although he says it has not hurt recruitment of new faculty and students. Now with the new inquiry, “we have a golden opportunity to clear our name,” Choi says.

  2. U.K. RESEARCH

    Blair Departs After a Decade of Strong Support for Science

    1. Daniel Clery
    Smooth transition?

    Tony Blair (left) with his likely successor, Chancellor Gordon Brown.

    CREDIT: STEFAN ROUSSEAU/REUTERS

    As Tony Blair last week announced his intention to step down in June after 10 years as the United Kingdom's prime minister, the British media cited his devastatingly low poll ratings as proof that the Iraq war would overshadow any other legacy for the Labour Party leader. But the U. K.'s scientific community has far warmer feelings toward Blair's government, thanks to its steady and significant increases in funding, its liberal attitude to human embryonic stem cell research, the recruitment of scientists to help shape government policy, and a clampdown against animal-rights extremists. And Blair early on embraced the dangers of climate change as a personal crusade, even making it a focal point of the 2005 summit of the G8 leaders.

    When Blair spoke out about science, his enthusiasm was evident. “This government is unabashedly pro-research,” says neurobiologist Colin Blakemore, head of the U.K. Medical Research Council. “There is a deep commitment to science and what it can achieve for government.”

    In 1997, Blair's Administration took over a scientific enterprise that had been slowly starved of funding over 18 years of Conservative government. The first sign of revival came in 1998 in the new government's initial spending review: Research got a 15% boost over 3 years. “[Blair's] interest and commitment to science go right to the beginning,” says University of Oxford ecologist Robert May, chief scientific adviser to the U.K. at the time. Over Blair's tenure, the science budget, which supports the grant-giving research councils as well as subscriptions to the likes of the CERN particle physics lab and the European Southern Observatory, has more than doubled in real terms to its present £3.4 billion ($6.7 billion). Among other things, that money paid for the new £380 million Diamond synchrotron, which began operating in January and is the biggest new U.K. research facility in 40 years. “There's a lot more of a positive feeling now in the whole scientific endeavor,” says geneticist Robin Lovell-Badge of the National Institute for Medical Research in Mill Hill.

    The scientific community has been impressed that Blair listens to them, especially in a crisis. His government first called on researchers for help in 2000 when foot-and-mouth disease was detected on British farms, threatening the nation's agricultural industry. Newly appointed Chief Scientific Adviser David King, a chemist from the University of Cambridge, was instrumental in enlisting academic epidemiologists, who recommended speeding up the preventive culling of millions of sheep and cattle. Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London, who was involved in the effort to model the disease's spread, says that although some government scientists were resistant, the prime minister's office was “receptive to the best scientific advice.” The culling slowed the disease, solidifying the link between Blair and researchers. “How science meets policy in the U.K. was fundamentally changed by the crisis,” Ferguson says.

    Since then, King has worked to have a scientific adviser appointed in every government department that uses research. “There's a growing engagement between government and the scientific community,” says astrophysicist Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, noting that the introduction into Britain of genetically modified crops in the 1990s was not as adeptly handled as the Blair team's recent management of innovations such as nanotechnology and stem cells. Now, says Rees, the government works with bodies such as the Royal Society to frame appropriate legislation and safeguards.

    Although stem cell research has stirred strong passions in many countries, U.K. scientists have been able to pursue a relatively steady course. “[The government] has been on the whole very supportive,” says Lovell-Badge. “Most people are able to do the experiments they want.” Some alarm bells have been rung, however. A Department of Health white paper last year proposed banning some stem cell experiments, including those in which human and animal material is mixed. Embryo researchers hope that their concerns will be reflected in a draft bill to be published in the next few weeks. “Words spoken by Tony Blair have been very encouraging,” says Lovell-Badge.

    Early in his tenure, Blair's apparent hesitation on animal research caused concern. A policy document produced when the Labour Party came into power suggested that the new government would restrict such experiments and reduce the use of animals. According to Simon Festing, director of the Research Defence Society, this encouraged animal-rights groups, and extremists “went on the rampage,” threatening and physically attacking scientists. In 2003, Cambridge abandoned plans for a primate research lab in part because of security fears; the following year work was halted on an animal research lab in Oxford. “People were scared by the relentless campaigns of harassment,” Festing says.

    Yet the government eventually expanded laws to target extremists and stepped up police activity; a raid this month, for example, resulted in the arrest of 30 people linked to animal-rights extremism by the police. Blair himself spoke out in support of animal researchers. “A significant number of extremists are now in jail,” Festing says. “Confidence in the bioscience community is growing strongly.”

    There's no such happy ending, yet, for the Labour government's management of science education at schools and universities. Blair's government has poured large sums of money into school buildings and facilities. But schoolteachers' salaries remain low, which has led many science graduates to take better-paying jobs and caused chronic shortages of specialist science teachers. One-quarter of British high schools now have no physics teacher.

    In 1997, Blair inherited a university system that was expanding rapidly. But the big growth has not been in science subjects, and some science departments are struggling to stay afloat. Although students in the U.K. pay some tuition fees—a Blair innovation—universities also get a sum per student from the government to cover teaching costs. Over the past decade, some small science departments have struggled to fill student places, reducing their income. As a result, 21 physics departments have closed, and fewer than half of U.K. universities now offer undergraduate chemistry courses (Science, 4 February 2005, p. 668). The government finally took pity last year and set aside £75 million over 3 years to increase the per-student fee in lab-intensive courses. It has also provided grants to stimulate interest in sciences among high school students.

    There has been criticism over the way Blair's government has funded university research. Science departments receive block grants from the government to cover the overhead costs of their research, and the size of these grants is determined by the quality of the department's research. Every 5 years or so, all science departments are carefully vetted in a process called the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). But with the most recent RAE in 2001—the only one during Blair's tenure—the funding rules were adjusted to give more money to the very top-rated departments, leaving many others with nothing. Although some say this has helped the best departments compete internationally, it has made the situation worse for struggling small departments. The system “should allow excellence to develop anywhere,” says Rees.

    Everyone is now looking for cues from Gordon Brown, the financial brain behind Blair for the past decade and now his likely successor. “Brown seems pretty supportive,” says Lovell-Badge. “He's provided modest funding increases that have accumulated over the years. I hope these will continue.”

  3. LIFE SCIENCES RESEARCH

    Massachusetts Proposes $1 Billion Plan

    1. Constance Holden

    Last week, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick declared his state's intention to crank up its status as a life sciences powerhouse. Speaking to the Boston convention of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), Patrick proposed spending $1 billion over 10 years to create a stem cell bank and promote therapies based on RNA interference (RNAi) technology to turn off genes, for which University of Massachusetts (UM), Worcester, researcher Craig Mello won a Nobel Prize last year.

    Biowords.

    Governor Deval Patrick (center) talks up his initiative at the BIO convention in Boston.

    CREDIT: CHARLES KRUPA/AP PHOTO

    “We think [the initiative] is pretty distinctive from [that of] any other state,” says UM President Jack Wilson, calling stem cells and RNAi the “twin pillars” of a proposal that is expected to be introduced shortly to the legislature. Several states, notably California with its $3 billion bond initiative, have new programs focusing solely on stem cells. Some $500 million for the new Massachusetts program would come from taxes, with a similar amount raised by a bond issue. Half the total would be spent on facilities and equipment; $250 million would be tax breaks to the private sector for jobs in the health and life sciences—a field that already employs one in seven Massachusetts workers. The rest will fund research grants, training, and fellowships. Patrick hopes for another $250 million in matching funds from the private sector.

    A centerpiece of the initiative is a stem cell bank to share with scientists around the world the more than two dozen human embryonic stem cell lines newly generated by Massachusetts scientists. That's more than the total available to federally funded researchers under a 2001 moratorium imposed by President George W. Bush. The bank will be at UM's Worcester campus, which is already planning an Institute for Stem Cell Research and Regenerative Medicine. Wilson says about $66 million is targeted for the stem cell facilities and $38 million for an RNAi therapeutic center, also at Worcester.

    Massachusetts stem cell scientists have been champing at the bit for years, frustrated by the opposition of Republican former governor Mitt Romney to destroying embryos for research. In 2005, the state legislature overrode Romney's objections to research cloning, or somatic cell nuclear transfer.

    Patrick, a Democrat elected in November, hopes the initiative will also help researchers hurt by the funding slump at the National Institutes of Health (Science, 20 April, p. 356). Harvard University spokesperson Kevin Casey says the package would provide “bridge funding” for people suffering grant delays and also fill “high-risk holes” that venture capitalists avoid. “I give the governor all the credit for this,” says Casey.

    Administrative details are yet to be settled. But Wilson says the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center at UM Boston, which will be expanded under the initiative, will supply the hub for creation of various mechanisms, such as peer-review groups.

  4. ANCIENT DNA

    No Sex Please, We're Neandertals

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi

    COLD SPRING HARBOR, NEW YORK—Did Neandertals and modern humans interbreed? Last year, that question took on new life when two groups of researchers reported the first results from sequencing parts of a Neandertal's nuclear genome. The answer, however, was equivocal: One group reported no evidence of interbreeding; the other reported tantalizing hints of mating (Science, 17 November 2006, p. 1068). Now, a paper presented last week at the Biology of Genomes meeting here gives the evidence a strong shove in the direction of the no-sex camp.

    The new findings also push back the date that Neandertals split from the human branch of the primate tree by 200,000 years—to 800,000 years ago. And another study shows that this ancient human ranged 2000 kilometers farther east—into southern Siberia—something anthropologists have suspected but not confirmed.

    These findings come out of an ongoing effort by Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolut ionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, to sequence the Neandertal genome. Until last year, researchers had only been able to extract and decipher mitochondrial DNA from Neandertal fossils. But in 2006, Pääbo and, using a different approach, James Noonan of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California and Edward Rubin, director of the Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek, California, sequenced nuclear DNA from a Neandertal bone from Croatia.

    Rubin and Noonan found no support for interbreeding in 65,000 bases their group sequenced, a finding in line with conclusions from mitochondrial DNA studies. Pääbo, however, found enough so-called singlenucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) shared with humans, but not chimps, among the million bases his group sequenced to question that conclusion.

    In that study, Pääbo used preexisting databases of human variation. Because those databases focus on common SNPs, Pääbo worried that biases might skew the analysis. So David Reich of Harvard Medical School in Boston and James Mullikin of the National Human Genome Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, have now compared SNPs in new Neandertal sequences to random SNPs obtained from one African and from one European. The result: “There's no indication of gene flow,” Pääbo reported. Pääbo and his group got the same result when they examined variation in the Y chromosome, looking for signs of Homo sapiens DNA embedded in the Neandertal sequence.

    It may never be possible to prove beyond doubt that interbreeding did not occur. “But if I were to make a guess, I would say more sequence will just confirm [these results],” says Noonan. “It convinces me.”

    DNA donor.

    This Croatian fossil is part of the Neandertal genome sequencing project.

    CREDIT: SVANTE PÄÄBO

    Last year, based on comparisons with the human and chimp genomes, Pääbo's group estimated that Neandertals split off from the human lineage about 600,000 years ago. But they have since found that that estimate changes by 400,000 years depending on the order in which they match up each species' sequence. A new three-way comparison that doesn't give one pairing priority over another comes out at 800,000 years, Pääbo and his Max Planck Institute colleague Richard Green reported at the meeting.

    In a side project, Pääbo and his graduate student Johannes Krause have examined 30,000- to 38,000-year-old human fossils from Uzbekistan and the Atlai region of southern Siberia whose identities were a mystery. When the researchers compared the bones' mitochondrial DNA with that from more than a half-dozen Neandertals, they found that the Asian fossils were clearly Neandertal. “It tells us that Neandertals were much more widespread than we thought,” says Pääbo.

    Neandertals may have roamed far and wide, but when it came to sex, they apparently stuck to their own.

  5. AUSTRALIAN SCIENCE

    Universities Are Big Winners in Election-Year Budget

    1. Elizabeth Finkel*
    1. Elizabeth Finkel is a writer in Melbourne, Australia.

    MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA—Australian universities are getting an antidote to their long malaise: a stunning windfall from a predicted surplus in the 2007-08 budget. The government announced last week that it will deposit $4.2 billion (5 billion Australian dollars)—roughly half the surplus—in a new Higher Education Endowment Fund (HEEF) whose interest would be used primarily to renew crumbling infrastructure at the country's 41 universities.

    There was also good news for CSIRO, the national science agency. It will receive $2.3 billion over 4 years: a 19.5% boost over the previous 4 years. CSIRO's record increase includes $43 million for a prototype for the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), a network of radio dishes that would be the largest astronomical instrument ever built (Science, 18 August 2006, p. 910). “This is great news,” says SKA project scientist Brian Gaensler of the University of Sydney.

    Punching below its weight.

    A budget windfall will boost Australia's R&D spending, which lags many developed countries (graph depicts averages for 1996-2002).

    SOURCE: OECD FACTBOOK 2006

    Few here expected that higher education would become a campaign issue in the run-up to national elections that must be called by January 2008. Top officials in the Liberal Party have pledged a similar contribution to HEEF next year if their party stays in power; they say they hope ultimately to plow $42 billion into the endowment. “It gives universities a profile they've not had for 25 to 30 years,” says Gerard Sutton, president of the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee.

    Australia's universities have struggled for the past decade. The present government had continued a trend of cutting support, with the percentage of university funds from public money sliding from 90% in 1994 to 40% in 2005. Certain disciplines have been hit disproportionately hard. For example, many mathematics departments can't afford to invest in computer labs or retain staff, says the University of Melbourne's Hyam Rubinstein, chair of the Australian Academy of Science's mathematics committee. The new budget allocates an extra $1.4 billion over 3 years to help cover university operating costs. Math departments stand to receive 50% more money per student. “I am hoping this is the beginning of a turnaround,” says Rubinstein.

    An HEEF board will divvy up this year's estimated $253 million in HEEF interest. Education Minister Julie Bishop has argued that Australia's universities are too homogenous, so the new funds may be used to help establish centers of teaching excellence or tightly focused research institutes. “We would want the projects to reflect the government's call for greater diversity and specialization,” Bishop said last week. The science ministry will appoint the HEEF board, which is expected to include the government's chief scientist, Jim Peacock.

  6. BIOMEDICAL RESEARCH

    Temporary Cuts Hit Labs at Child Health Institute

    1. Jocelyn Kaiser

    Scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have been relatively quiet about recent in-house budget cuts—until now. Last week, distress was audible at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), where officials confirm that lab operating budgets, covering expenses such as research materials and travel, are being slashed by 50% in the remaining 5 months of the fiscal year.

    NICHD's 84 principal investigators are now scrambling to keep projects going. “This is one of those danger signals” of long-term troubles, says NICHD cell biologist Bruce Howard, who calls the situation unprecedented in his 33 years at NIH. One scientist who asked not to be identified out of concern for reprisals says his lab is “effectively shut down.” Others seem more confident that they can weather the storm.

    NICHD Scientific Director Owen Rennert explains that the institute's intramural program got 0.5% less for fiscal year 2007 than last year, or $151 million. Then when final budget numbers came through a few weeks ago, he learned that overall costs would go up 5% to 8%, more than expected, largely because of high winter utility bills on NIH's Bethesda, Maryland, campus. Because personnel costs eat up about half of his budget and staff aren't being cut, that meant much less operating money. Normally, Rennert says, he would use small adjustments to cover a shortfall, such as delaying new hires. But this year, that was not enough. He announced the 50% cut in lab budgets on 4 May.

    “It's been a hard week for me, and it is a big cut,” Rennert said last week. However, he says that spread out over the entire year, it's closer to 13%. Still, he admits, it means those who spent at a faster rate early in the year are better off.

    Scientists say they are now shutting down some studies that use expensive reagents. One investigator says his group is killing transgenic mice; others may pay their own way to meetings. Postdocs nearing the end of their 5-year term may not be able to finish projects that would be important for seeking faculty positions. Judith Kassis said her fruit fly lab will switch from costly molecular projects to genetics work to cope with a budget cut from $29,000 to $14,500. Even so, Kassis feels she may be doing “better than the outside” because “at least we have some money.”

    NIH Deputy Director for Intramural Research Michael Gottesman says the trend reflects hard times across NIH in recent years, including lab closings at the cancer institute and a 7% reduction in 2006 operations at the diabetes institute. The budget cuts have not changed the fact that NIH “is still a wonderful place to do research,” Gottesman says, but “we can't do this forever.”

  7. ECOLOGY

    Savannah River Lab to Close After DOE Cuts Its Funding

    1. Eli Kintisch

    Researchers from around the world have come to the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory (SREL) near Aiken, South Carolina, since 1951 to study how nuclear waste can affect habitats and wild populations of bacteria, fish, and reptiles. But this month, the Department of Energy (DOE) lowered the budget ax after deciding that those efforts were “not in line” with the agency's needs in waste management. Now U.S. ecologists are preparing for the demise of the lab itself and the potential layoffs of its 100-member staff, 10 of whom are faculty members at the University of Georgia, Athens, which operates the facility.

    The verdant, 803-km2 Savannah River Site is a multibillion-dollar cleanup area that holds some 140 million liters of Cold War-era high-level weapons waste. It affords one of the largest fenced-in area east of the Mississippi River for ecological studies. SREL's work, says radioecologist F. Ward Whicker of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, “has demonstrated time and again how nuclear activities can be made compatible with maintenance of a high degree of environmental quality.”

    Two years ago, the lab managed to fend off DOE's attempt to shut it down (Science, 25 March 2005, p. 1857). But this year, after DOE pared back funding to $1.8 million from an expected $4 million, lab officials said they would need to close its doors at the end of the month. “We're all shocked,” says ecologist H. Ronald Pulliam of the University of Georgia, Athens.

    The lab, which got $4.5 million from DOE last year, also receives outside funding, although the extent of that support is under dispute. Last month, DOE said there was “very little evidence” that SREL had sought such funds. But lab director Paul Bertsch says SREL scientists have obtained $5.4 million in multiyear contracts since 2005 and are currently pitching some $15 million in grant proposals to various sources.

    DOE and the lab also disagree about the nature of this year's funding. Bertsch says that DOE gave him “verbal agreements” to maintain funding levels. But a DOE spokesperson says no, adding that an internal review of SREL's ongoing studies—including studies of wetlands restoration efforts, metal contaminants, and woodpecker and fish species—compelled the department to limit funds to what had already been spent.

    Founded by legendary ecologist Eugene Odum, SREL plays the role of “watchdog” of DOE's Savannah River cleanup, says ecologist Vincent Burke, an editor at Johns Hopkins University Press. Research at the site showed DOE how to save billions in cleanup costs by demonstrating that a contaminated lake habitat could survive without being dredged (Science, 12 March 2004, p. 1615). Other studies have looked at how ash from coal plants, which DOE uses to produce power on the site, affects their surroundings.

    Hot zone.

    A budget crunch has doomed jobs at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, whose researchers are shown here sampling radioactive soil.

    CREDIT: SAVANNAH RIVER ECOLOGY LABORATORY

    Outside researchers who prize SREL's facilities worry that the closure will undermine a broad swath of basic ecology work. Avian ecologist Gary Hepp of Auburn University in Alabama, for example, is studying how incubation practices among wood ducks on the site affect development of their young, using a grant from the National Science Foundation. “It's isolated; you don't have people interfering with your sites [or] equipment,” says Hepp, noting that SREL staff facilitate access to the heavily guarded Savannah wilderness.

    Bertsch is now trying to dispose of lab chemicals and transfer some of the animals on the site. He fears that time will run out, however, before he can raise enough money to continue operations.

  8. ENTOMOLOGY

    The Case of the Empty Hives

    1. Erik Stokstad

    Honey bees worldwide are abandoning their hives, and scientists aren't sure whether to blame pathogens, pesticides, or the artificial diets fed to the bees. It's not even clear if the phenomenon is new

    SOURCE: BEE ALERT TECHNOLOGIES

    David Hackenberg was the first beekeeper to draw attention to what is now one of the hottest problems in agriculture: a devastating collapse of honey bee colonies. Last October, while inspecting 400 of his company's hives in Florida, he noticed that 368 were almost empty, despite having been healthy just 3 weeks earlier. Gone were the swarming worker bees; instead, the eerily quiet hives housed just the queen bee and many doomed brood. All told, Hackenberg has lost 85% of his 3000 hives—and $450,000 of income. Although beekeepers are used to abandoned hives and bee die-offs, the extent was far worse than Hackenberg had ever experienced—and he has tended bees for more than 4 decades. “It's probably the most stressful year of my life,” he says.

    Alarmed, Hackenberg contacted Diana Cox-Foster, an entomologist at Pennsylvania State University (PSU) in State College. Soon she and Dennis vanEngelsdorp, the state apiarist, heard of similar problems from beekeepers across the country. By January, the two had established a network of researchers from Florida to Montana to solve the puzzle of what they're calling colony collapse disorder (CCD). “It's a science-fiction scenario come to life,” says entomologist May Berenbaum of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

    Last year, Berenbaum led a National Research Council panel that warned of a looming pollination crisis if honey bees and other pollinators continue to decline in number (Science, 20 October 2006, p. 397). Some scientists now fear that the emergence of CCD will tip the balance, forcing many beekeepers out of business and raising costs for farmers who already rent hives because of a lack of natural pollinators. “We may be near the point when there are not enough bees,” says Danny Weaver, a queen breeder with B. Weaver Apiaries in Navasota, Texas.

    At a recent meeting to devise a research strategy on CCD, scientists debated whether known bee killers, including pesticides, the varroa mite, viruses, and bacteria, were responsible. Others suspect a novel pathogen, and several top virologists are analyzing samples from afflicted hives at a breakneck pace. Researchers have even irradiated honeycombs to determine whether an infectious agent explains the disorder. Yet some blame the collapses on better understood problems, such as spells of bad weather that leave bees hungry. Or perhaps industrial-scale beekeeping—in which hundreds of thousands of hives are trucked around the country and pumped up with sugar syrups to boost their numbers—has made colonies more vulnerable.

    Little consensus about the cause of CCD emerged at the meeting, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Beltsville, Maryland, convened. It could be a variety of factors, notes Jeffery Pettis of the USDA bee lab in Beltsville, Maryland: “At this point, we're proceeding not knowing which causes might be more important.” In fact, given that there are so few data on the health of domesticated honey bees—and even fewer on wild populations—many scientists aren't even convinced yet that what's going on is really a new phenomenon.

    In decline

    Honey bees are indispensable farmhands, pollinating some 95 kinds of fruits and vegetables grown in the United States. An estimate by Cornell University researchers in 2000 placed the value of the insects' services at $14.6 billion in extra yield and improved crop quality. Yet honey bees, like other pollinators, have been in trouble for a while. The number of U.S. honey bee colonies fell from 5 million in 1940 to 2 million in 1989, a decline largely attributed to economic shifts in farming.

    For the last 20 years, the biggest issue for beekeepers has been the varroa mite, first noticed in the United States in 1987. Once infected, an untreated hive can be totally wiped out in a few months. “Varroa mites are public enemy number one for bees,” says Pettis. The mites have nearly eliminated feral colonies of honey bees, which used to pollinate many vegetable crops. Many farmers must now rent bees for pollination, which has contributed to the growth of large-scale beekeeping; since the late 1980s, the number of colonies has expanded by 25% to 2.5 million.

    Déjà vu?

    Beekeepers across the country have reported colony collapses. A mysterious syndrome, called disappearing disease, struck similarly in the 1970s.

    SOURCE: WILLIAM WILSON AND DIANA MENAPACE, AMERICAN BEE JOURNAL, MARCH 1979

    But now CCD threatens to erase that small comeback—and with lightning speed. Although bees occasionally abandon their hives if disturbed, the demographics of these recent collapses are odd. The queen usually remains, surrounded by untended brood. And other insects, such as wax moths or small hive beetles, don't rob the abandoned hives of honey or nectar, suggesting some sort of contamination. “It's bizarre,” says Berenbaum.

    Puzzling sudden losses of bees have happened before. In 2004, beekeepers had trouble with struggling hives sent to California for pollinating almond trees. And in the 1960s and '70s, before the arrival of mites, beekeepers around the country reported disappearing bees. “It sounds for all the world like what happened last year,” says Eric Mussen of the University of California, Davis. Even an article in a bee journal from 1897—long before synthetic pesticides—describes healthy hives collapsing within a week, with the queen still there.

    Scrutinized.

    Scientists are probing the enigmatic disappearance of worker bees, with brood and queen left behind (right, bottom). Parasitic mites (right, top) could be a factor.

    CREDITS (TOP TO BOTTOM): AP; DENNIS VANENGELSDORP

    Severe bee losses do appear to be a widespread problem (see map, above). Some 29% of 577 beekeepers across the country reported CCD and losses of up to 75% of their colonies in the last 16 months, according to a survey run by Bee Alert Technology in Missoula, Montana. Losses range from 35% to 100% of hives in each operation. Other countries are also having problems with rapid losses of wild and domesticated honey bees. In Europe, beekeepers from Spain to near the Arctic Circle are reporting deaths or disappearances of their insects, but the symptoms aren't exactly the same as in the United States.

    Still, honey bee researcher Nicholas Calderone of Cornell University says it's not clear that these collapses are something other than normal losses. “We're getting a lot of reports of CCD that are not narrowly defined,” says entomologist Robert Danka of the USDA bee lab in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

    Rogues' gallery

    Assuming that something new is occurring, researchers since January have investigated the usual suspects, including pesticides and other environmental chemicals. The main focus of Cox-Foster's working group is on nicotine-based compounds called neonicotinoids, which were first introduced as pesticides in 1992. One idea is that low doses interfere with a bee's ability to navigate back to the hive. And lab studies have shown that at least one such compound, imidacloprid, can kill bees at high doses.

    There are few data that imidacloprid harms bees in fields, however. And other lines of evidence argue against blaming these pesticides. In 1999, France banned imidacloprid after beekeepers complained that it was causing up to 40% of their colonies to die. Yet the colonies don't seem to be doing much better now, notes Yves Le Conte of the Laboratoire Biologie et Protection de L'Abeille, INRA, in Avignon, France.

    And in the United States, there has been no spike in imidacloprid usage that might account for the recent colony collapse. “Pesticides can't be an explanation for why organic beekeepers are losing their colonies,” Berenbaum says. The CCD working group has nevertheless sent samples of wax, honey, and pollen from hives to be tested by USDA food-testing labs for more than 200 chemicals, including fungicides, pesticides, and their metabolites.

    To assess whether pathogens explain CCD, Cox-Foster and her colleagues have collected samples from Pennsylvania of bees remaining in collapsed hives, as well as bees from nearby hives that were healthy or declining. USDA researchers also went to California to get bees from afflicted hives; all told, members of the working group have begun to examine samples from more than 200 hives.

    At the meeting, Cox-Foster presented some initial results. “We were shocked by the huge number of pathogens present in each adult bee,” she says. The highly diverse array of teeming pathogens included bacteria that cause a condition known as American foul-brood, which turns bees gooey and smelly, a fungus that causes a disease called chalkbrood that turns the insects into white mummies, and four kinds of viruses.

    Some researchers suspect that an infectious agent may be spreading between hives via the wax combs and other equipment used by beekeepers. In February, Pettis and his colleagues took combs from CCD-affected colonies in Florida and gamma-irradiated or fumigated some of them before inserting the combs into hives with mite-free bees imported from Australia. Six weeks later, the scientists counted the number of missing brood cells as a measure of colony health. Because the hives with the irradiated combs had fewer missing brood than ones receiving untreated combs had, Pettis suspects pathogens as a possible cause of CCD.

    Adding to suspicions that one or more new pathogens are behind CCD are the results from a team led by Ian Lipkin of the Mailman School of Public Health of Columbia University, which has been doing high-throughput DNA sequencing of bulk bee samples from strong, weak, and recovering colonies. The bees from CCD-afflicted colonies have bacteria, fungi, viruses, and parasites that don't match any known bee pathogens and are not in the healthy colonies, Lipkin says. Cox-Foster suggests that the discovery of so many kinds of pathogens in the collapsed colonies indicates that the bees in them, for whatever reason, have suppressed immune systems.

    Yet contradictory results have just come in from bee researcher Jerry Bromenshenk of the University of Montana, Missoula, and Bee Alert Technology and his colleagues. In December, they collected samples from hives in Florida. Preliminary analysis by researchers at the U.S. Army's Edgewood Chemical Biological Center in Maryland found similar viral burdens in healthy, failing, and collapsed hives. “It doesn't seem to fit the idea of a suppressed immune system,” Bromenshenk says.

    Perhaps the most obvious suspect for CCD, the varroa mite, was also a matter of debate at the Maryland meeting. Mites don't seem to be the main problem, at least in California, says Pettis, because the weak colonies on average didn't have more mites than the strong colonies had. But others argued that mites shouldn't be ruled out yet. Marla Spivak of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, cautions that even if beekeepers eliminate a mite infestation, weakened colonies may be set to collapse later.

    Dangerous diet?

    Modern beekeeping itself, some suggest, puts the insects at risk. In the past 2 decades, as the United States started importing cheap honey from abroad, large beekeeping operations began to make more of their income from renting hives to farmers. California's almond growers, for example, pay a premium rate for pollination.

    For bees, that means annual trips to California's central valley, where spring starts early and can be cold and damp. In October and November, more than 1.2 million colonies are trucked into California from all across the country and put into holding yards. Hives are normally inactive during this time of year. But the colonies need to be jam-packed with bees when placed into the flowering almond groves in February, so beekeepers feed them a high-fructose sugar syrup. “They are trying to totally reset the natural cycle of bees,” says Marion Ellis of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. “It's throwing the bees' rhythms out of whack.”

    The syrupy diet may impair the bees' health, putting them on the verge of a colony collapse. “We can't raise feedlot bees,” Ellis says. Pettis doesn't think the syrup is to blame but agrees that no one has hit upon a perfect nutritional formula yet. Last fall, USDA researchers compared two commercial syrups and an experimental one, all designed to stimulate larger increases in bee colonies for almond pollination. None of the diets did the trick, but the experiment did confirm that bee numbers decreased if the insects weren't fed any supplements.

    Contaminants in such syrups have also been an issue, Mussen notes. Last summer, beekeepers in California noticed that their syrup smelled and tasted wrong. Lab tests revealed that it had high levels of hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF), a compound that can be toxic to bees. But Hackenberg, who sells supplements, doubts that HMF was the problem. Bees will eat HMF-laced syrup, but last fall they weren't taking in any syrup or pollen supplements at all. “They just wouldn't eat the stuff,” he says.

    On the road again

    Ellis and others suspect that the increased trucking of hives may also cause problems for bees. This concern is in part related to nutrition too; whereas bees in Nebraska, for example, used to spend winters in Texas with excellent forage, now they head for California. An abnormally dry season there means fewer wildflowers and less nectar, which weakens the colonies. Mussen wonders whether that caused the problems for hives in California earlier this year. “As soon as they were taken off the almonds, they started going downhill,” Mussen recalls. “They were not big, fat bees; they looked malnourished.”

    Outbreak?

    The large concentration of hives waiting to be placed in California almond groves could allow diseases to spread.

    CREDIT: RANDY PENCH/MCT/LANDOV

    Ellis speculates that the physical movement of hives from state to state disturbs the colonies. And placing vast numbers of colonies in one part of California raises the risk of spreading diseases, he says. Mussen agrees on the latter possibility but points out that hives have been trucked around for many years, making that an unlikely explanation for the recent spurt of colony collapses.

    The working group is testing the role of shipping using colonies from three large beekeeping operations. Two, including Hackenberg's, were hit by CCD, and one wasn't. In the experiment, 140 hives are staying in one place for honey production, while another 140 are being moved five times for various pollination jobs. At each point, bees will be sampled and sent to PSU and USDA for pathogen analysis.

    Researchers at the Beltsville meeting agreed that the immediate top priority is better surveillance to establish the true incidence of colony collapse. They called for a $2 million survey of bee health by USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which the agency had proposed last year but was not funded. Ultimately, researchers want to be able to predict and then prevent CCD. “We need practical bioassays for beekeepers—and to be able to tell them what to do in response,” says vanEngelsdorp.

    Despite the recent colony collapses, almond growers expect a bumper crop this year, says Marsha Venable of the Almond Board of California. But they've had to raise their payments for renting hives from $50 a colony a few years ago to $120 this spring. And with another 40,000 hectares of young almond trees that will need pollination in the next few years, the price will only go higher if the riddle of the abandoned hives isn't solved. Beekeepers, Pettis says, “aren't going to meet the demand without something changing.”

    Indeed, Hackenberg, who has spent the past months trying to rebuild his colonies, worries that another year like this one will put him out of business: “This is do or die.”

  9. SUSAN DUDLEY PROFILE

    New Regulatory Czar Says Rules 'Should Make People Better Off'

    1. Dan Charles*
    1. Dan Charles is a freelance science writer based in Washington, D.C.

    Critics wonder how free-market economist Susan Dudley will apply her cost-benefit analysis to federal regulations

    Insider now.

    Susan Dudley brings her record of criticizing federal regulatory policy to the White House.

    CREDIT: GREG SCHALER

    Susan Dudley, the new White House czar of regulation, calls it her “dream job.” It's a homecoming of sorts: 20 years ago, during the Reagan Administration, she worked as a staff economist in the Office of Management and Budget's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). She is now OIRA's administrator, with the power to review all proposed U.S. government regulations.

    But Dudley, 51, returned to the White House last month via the side entrance. Her nomination last summer by President George W. Bush enraged environmentalists and consumer advocates. For the past 4 years, as head of regulatory studies at the Mercatus Center of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, she's been a vociferous critic of many federal regulations, usually arguing that their costs outweigh their benefits. Two groups, Public Citizen and OMB Watch, called her “an antiregulatory zealot with close ties to corporate interests.” After the Senate refused to consider her nomination, Bush sidestepped the confirmation process and appointed Dudley during a congressional recess. That allows her to serve through the next session of Congress, most likely through the waning days of the Bush presidency.

    Dudley is widely regarded as personally likable, even charming. As evidence of her “personal commitment to environmental stewardship,” White House officials touted the fact that she and her husband, a top official at the Environmental Protection Agency, drive to work in a hybrid car. They neglected to mention, however, that it's an hour commute from a historic mill town near Warrenton, Virginia.

    In an 18 April interview, her first since taking office, Dudley was careful to avoid further controversy. She declined to criticize current regulations or comment on possible new ones, such as limits on greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. Her job, she said, is “to implement the law of the land.”

    On her goals

    “A lot of what OIRA does is reactive. We evaluate agencies' regulations. I want to make sure that those regulations, within the constraints that we have, are based on the best available evidence, that they go through open and transparent public comment, that the process and the analysis on those regulations is the best that it can be. One of the things that happens at the end of [any] administration is the “midnight regulation” phenomenon. Regardless of party, you see an increase in regulation.

    “I probably can't say that we won't have an increase in regulatory activity. But they won't be slipshod, dashed out at the last minute. They will have gone through careful review … to make sure that they really make people better off and not worse off; that they serve a broader public interest and not a narrow interest.”

    On regulatory burdens

    “I would say that there are better ways to do regulations. We can regulate smarter, get the benefits that we all desire, with fewer costs.

    “I did my master's thesis on economic incentives for pollution control. Back then, it was a novel idea. In the 1970s and early '80s, command and control [legal limits on pollution, enforced by fines or criminal penalties, as opposed to economic measures such as taxes or tradable pollution permits] was the standard approach to addressing environmental problems. Now, it's 'How can we harness market incentives?' People realize that if you provide incentives, you can reach the outcome you intended. Command and control doesn't always reach that outcome. If you force people to do something, but they don't really want to, they'll find ways to meet the letter of the law, but you might have some unintended effects.”

    On other regulatory agencies

    “OIRA is a bit of a watchdog. I don't think it's antiagency. A lot of what we do is interagency coordinating, … making things more transparent, and that's not always welcome. I was here for 5 years. My experience is, it's actually quite collaborative. My own style is collaborative. It certainly does not need to be antiagency.”

    Comparing the Reagan and Bush years

    “I think that the focus now is more on regulatory reform, or smarter regulation. Back then, the phrase was 'regulatory relief.' Now you won't see that phrase. You'll see people talking about smarter regulation.”

    On OIRA's proposed risk-assessment guidelines

    “What [the recent National Academies report] said was, 'We agree with your goal. We don't think you got it quite right.' There were very constructive suggestions in the report. I think there is something we can do to meet everyone's goal. I think there is a path forward, to rationalize the risk-assessment process and coordinate across agencies.”

  10. SUSAN DUDLEY PROFILE

    Decision on Lead Emissions Weighs Heavily on EPA

    1. Dan Charles

    The latest regulatory controversy heading toward Susan Dudley's inbox involves the toxic legacy of lead pollution. At the center of the controversy is Dudley's favorite theme: costs versus benefits.

    Lead is one of six major pollutants covered by the Clean Air Act, but levels of lead in the air have fallen dramatically since it was removed from gasoline in the 1970s and 1980s. Rarely do air-pollution monitors anywhere detect levels above 1.5 μg/m3, the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) current “ambient air quality standard.” EPA is currently reviewing that standard and expects to have a new one in place by the end of next year.

    Last fall, the lead battery industry suggested that EPA declare victory in the battle for lead-free air and stop regulating it under the Clean Air Act. On 27 March, however, EPA's scientific advisers urged exactly the opposite. They unanimously called for a drastic tightening of the agency's air-quality standard for lead, lowering the permissible level to 0.2 μg/m3. Bruce Lanphear, director of the Cincinnati Children's Environmental Health Center in Ohio and a member of the EPA panel, says that scientists were persuaded by recent studies showing lowered IQ among children exposed even to tiny amounts of lead. Some members of the panel proposed an even stricter standard of 0.025 μg/m3.

    Such a tight limit would face stiff opposition. David Weinberg, a lawyer who represents Battery Council International, an industry group, says that air along many old and heavily traveled roads sometimes exceeds this standard because lead deposited in the soil decades ago is stirred up by passing traffic. “The only realistic way to meet this standard would be to treat, dig up, or cover the roadsides,” he says.

    In her interview (see main text), Dudley said she “hadn't heard” about the issue. But one of her former colleagues and collaborators, Andrew Morriss, now a professor of law and business at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, says the proposed lead standard touches on some problems she often raised with regulations. EPA's science panel didn't consider the cost of a tighter limit on lead in the air, he says, “but when you don't have information on cost, you can't prioritize anything.” Morriss says it's likely that more children could be protected from lead, at a much lower cost, by renovating old houses rather than eliminating contaminated soil from along the road.

    Current laws, however, don't authorize such comparisons, which limits Dudley's power to change policy. “Her hands are tied in many respects,” says Morriss.

  11. WILDLIFE CONSERVATION

    Giant Panda Numbers Are Surging--or Are They?

    1. Jerry Guo*
    1. Jerry Guo is a writer in New Haven, Connecticut.

    Experts are sparring over a controversial count of wild pandas and plans to expand captive breeding of China's revered symbol

    Reaching new heights.

    Wolong Nature Reserve bred a record number of pandas last year.

    CREDIT: CHARLOTTE JENNINGS

    WANGLANG NATURE RESERVE, CHINA—The excited cry of a park ranger pierces the stillness of a bamboo forest high in the Min Mountains. Zhan Xiangjiang, an ecologist with the Institute of Zoology in Beijing, bounds through waist-deep snowdrifts to investigate. Catching up with the ranger, he kneels down and points at a small, round object that, at first glance, looks like a greenish yam. “Smell this!” he exclaims. The not-unpleasant odor of fresh bamboo wafts up. Along with other clues—chewed bamboo stalks, paw prints, and urine-marked trees—the fresh scat is the latest evidence that Zhan's monitoring team is hot on the heels of a giant panda.

    Their quarry may be elusive, but Zhan is upbeat. “Pandas are making a comeback here,” he declares. In the mid-1980s, poaching and a mass bamboo die-off sent China's flagship animal into a tailspin: The country's wild panda population plummeted to about 1200, landing the species on the endangered list. Experts decried its imminent extinction. But with a logging ban in all panda habitats since 1999, the species appears to be on the rebound.

    It is a hotly debated question, however, whether panda populations are just beginning to regain lost ground or are already healthier than they have been for many years. Using DNA from hundreds of scat samples collected in Wanglang, Zhan and colleagues published a paper last year in Current Biology (20 June 2006) claiming that China may have 3000 wild giant pandas—a doubling in less than a decade since the previous survey. The rosy analysis has been vigorously contested. “It frankly seems preposterous” that panda numbers have grown that rapidly, says David Garshelis, Bear Specialist Group co-chair for the World Conservation Union (IUCN). Wanglang scientists defend their robust figure. “The situation [for pandas] has really improved,” says Wanglang reserve vice-director Jiang Shiwei. “We've seen a population increase, with newborns every year.”

    Virtually nothing about the iconic mammal is without rancor. Another controversy swirls around China's program to breed giant pandas in captivity. Last year, the effort produced more than 30 cubs—a record—as well as the first captive released into the wild. Some conservationists say the breeding program can bolster wild populations. Others are skeptical. “The key is to protect the habitat, not reintroduce more pandas,” says Lu Zhi, director of the nonprofit Conservation International's China office. “They can breed themselves, and it's a reasonable population already, so why add another flower to the garden?”

    Arguable estimates

    Zhan cups some scat in his bare hand and grins as it shimmers in the sunlight. “The shiny layer is mucus,” he says—and it's full of DNA. To gauge how many pandas are prowling Wanglang, Zhan spent much of 2003 and 2004 combing the area for precious panda droppings. His zeal almost got him killed—in 2004, he slipped and broke his spine and had to endure a bumpy 400-kilometer ride to a hospital in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. He was not paralyzed, however, and returned to work after a 3-month-long convalescence.

    Zhan's team extracted DNA from the mucus in 2005 and used genetic markers called microsatellite loci to identify individuals. Based on this DNA-fingerprinting technique, Zhan says there are at least 66 pandas in Wanglang—a big jump over the 27 estimated in the Third National Survey. That census, in 1998, employed the traditional bamboo-fragment method, which differentiates individuals by comparing the lengths of chewed bamboo in scat. Zhan argues that the bamboo fragment method's total of 1596 pandas in China's 60 panda reserves low-balled the actual population size. “We found the population is much more than we thought in the past,” says the Institute of Zoology's Wei Fuwen, senior author of the Current Biology paper.

    In an unpublished letter to Current Biology, Garshelis and five colleagues expressed doubts about Zhan's analysis. “Our concern is that it's jumping the gun,” says Garshelis. “They only have one data point [Wanglang], which they extrapolated to the entire range.” And that data point is suspect, he says. Garshelis thinks that Wanglang simply can't support that many pandas; according to Zhan's estimate, one section of the reserve has two pandas per square kilometer—the highest recorded density for any bear species.

    A population doubling at Wanglang is impossible, argues Wang Dajun, a panda researcher at Peking University, because habitat there shrank steadily until at least 1998, when the logging ban was enacted. By comparing satellite images from 1990 and 2000, Wang quantified a heavy degree of deforestation that, he says, must be harmful to pandas. Jiang agrees that habitat fragmentation imperils panda populations in smaller, isolated reserves—but not Wanglang.

    Cut to shreds.

    Panda habitat today covers a tiny fraction of the bear's historic range.

    SOURCE: COLBY LOUCKS/WORLD WILDLIFE FUND

    The uncertainty means the giant panda will remain classified as endangered in an IUCN report slated for release later this year, the first panda update in a decade, says Garshelis. “I get the feeling the population is slowly growing,” he says. “But until there's better evidence, there's certainly no reason to remove pandas from the endangered list.”

    Growing pains

    On a single-lane dirt road wending between misty crags deep in Sichuan Province, traffic has slowed to a crawl. Hundreds of dump trucks and steamrollers are expanding the only road to Wolong Nature Reserve into a modern freeway. Conservation biologist George Schaller of the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York City was the first Westerner to study giant pandas in China when he came to Wolong, about 500 kilometers southwest of Wanglang, in 1980. Now, more than 100,000 tourists every year flock to Wolong, the country's most famous panda reserve, to see its 120 captive-bred pandas, the largest such population in the world.

    More captives would be better, argues Wolong Director Zhang Hemin, who is aiming for 300 within the next decade. A population of this size, he says, could ensure the panda's survival for the next century while retaining 95% of its genetic diversity.

    A decade ago, the captive birth of a single cub would cause a huge media sensation. Back then, if a mother bore twins, she would invariably abandon one and raise the other. In 2000, breeders figured out how to raise twins by allowing one cub at a time to stay with the mother and raising the other by hand. They frequently swap cubs so both learn survival lessons from mom. Now Wolong is trying to outdo last year's record number of births by artificial insemination.

    Not everyone is handing out cigars. Lu argues that Wolong's ambitions may divert funds from conservation programs aiming to protect wild populations. “Maintaining a captive population is not cheap, so they seriously need to ask themselves why they need 300 pandas,” she says.

    Zhang defends the target. Wolong's goal, he says, is to introduce 10 to 20 captive pandas a year to shore up smaller wild populations. In April 2006, Wolong staff for the first time released a captive: Xiangxiang, a mild-mannered 5-year-old male. He was so badly mauled by a wild male last December that rangers had to treat him at the reserve's “panda hospital” before releasing him back into the wild. Then in late March, rangers found Xiangxiang dead; apparently he had fallen from a tree after clashes with other pandas, says Zhang. “The reintroduction program is very difficult,” he admits. But he will not be deterred: Wolong plans to release another bred panda within the next 5 years.

    Panda experts agree that the species needs all the help it can get. Tourism and development are nipping at the reserves. Tourists leave garbage, and villagers lay traps for game animals that inadvertently snare pandas, says Lu. Conservation International is testing a new community-based conservation model this year that will give villagers financial incentives to protect panda habitat outside the reserves. Three villages abutting Wanglang have signed on, and negotiations are under way to add 100 more sites in the next 3 years.

    The central government, too, is taking action. Its Wildlife Conservation Protection Program seeks to bring 90% of wild pandas under the reserve system, from 75% today. In the 1980s, there were fewer than 20 reserves for pandas. Now there are 60. “The State Forestry Administration is putting a lot of money to set up this panda reserve network,” says Wei, who notes that two or three reserves are added each year, on average.

    Down from the mountain, Zhan's monitoring team encounters a pair of blue-eared pheasants, their most dramatic wildlife sighting all day. No black-and-white bamboo eaters—but that's not necessarily a bad thing, says Zhan. It means the pandas are somewhere in the highlands, deep in the bamboo forest, and safe from humans for another day.

  12. PSYCHIATRIC RESEARCH

    Putting the Brakes on Psychosis

    1. Charles Schmidt*
    1. Charles Schmidt is a writer in Portland, Maine.

    A group in Maine is exporting a program that flags young people for therapy before mental illness sets in

    Decline.

    Brain scans of a group of teenagers with schizophrenia show a loss of gray matter, suggesting a need for early intervention.

    CREDIT: PAUL THOMPSON/UCLA

    PORTLAND, MAINE—Last month, William McFarlane, a psychiatrist at Maine Medical Center here, received an appeal for help as he was leading an informational conference call about psychosis. In a weary voice, barely audible over speakerphone, a mother recounted changes in her teenage son, recently diagnosed with schizophrenia. Once friendly and outgoing, the boy had become isolated, suspicious, and threatening. At times he would retreat to his room and lash out at whoever approached him. The closest psychiatrist was located far from the family's home in rural Mississippi.

    From Portland, there was little McFarlane could do. But his frustration was palpable; McFarlane believes that if caught early enough, psychosis is preventable. Hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, and other symptoms of psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia afflict more than 2 million people in the United States and account for more than half the suicides among adolescents and young adults.

    Now, with a $12.4 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) in Princeton, New Jersey, McFarlane is expanding the most far-reaching effort yet to prevent psychosis among those at greatest risk. Launched in 2000, the Portland Identification and Early Referral (PIER) program works with communities in southern Maine to identify the riskiest cases among adolescents and young adults in crisis and prevent them from spiraling into profound mental illness. The 4-year grant awarded last month will allow McFarlane to add four new sites embracing populations of up to 400,000 each—in Sacramento, California; Ypsilanti, Michigan; Salem, Oregon; and Glen Oaks, New York.

    The key to PIER's strategy is to identify “prodromal” symptoms that are evident for months or years before psychotic illnesses appear and treat aggressively. Such symptoms include declining school or work performance, jumbled thoughts and confusion, trouble speaking clearly, and hearing sounds that aren't there. PIER trains those who work routinely with adolescents and young adults to recognize prodromal symptoms; up to 17 school districts in greater Portland are involved, as are health care workers.

    Although telltale signs typically precede psychosis, those signs are also shared by other, more benign conditions, including depression, anxiety, or even adolescent growing pains. As a consequence, only about one-third of the patients who could qualify as prodromal actually develop a psychotic disorder. This high false-positive rate raises the question of whether it is right to deploy therapies—including drugs—as broadly as PIER does.

    Patients enrolled in PIER undergo an intense regime of low-dose medication and counseling, aimed at eliminating stressful situations that could trigger psychotic reactions. Family involvement is crucial, as are social networks designed to keep patients in school or at work. McFarlane is convinced that with time, they can overcome—or even outgrow—their vulnerability and remain symptom-free. The positive results in Portland, which McFarlane is preparing for publication, persuaded RWJF to invest.

    McFarlane's efforts to intervene in psychosis before it happens are unique, says psychologist Dennis Dyck of Washington State University in Pullman: “Most interventions take place after the first psychotic break has already occurred.” PIER treats such patients, too, but it stands apart because of its emphasis on prevention and links to the community.

    Medication warranted?

    The first large test of psychosis prevention took place in the 1980s under the direction of the late Ian Falloon, a professor of psychiatry at Auckland Medical School in New Zealand. Citing growing evidence that a cluster of symptoms could predict schizophrenia—and that the disease itself was triggered in genetically susceptible people by major life events and stress—Falloon proposed that medication and psychosocial supports could reduce the individual's vulnerability to psychotic episodes.

    Falloon created a model mental health service in Buckingham and Winslow, two small towns northwest of London, that identified high-risk patients in the community. Caregivers followed up with support services, including education about schizophrenia, home-based stress-management resources, and low doses of antipsychotic drugs. When the study wrapped up 4 years later, Falloon reported in the journal Psychiatry in 1992, rates of hospital admissions for psychosis in the treatment zones were one-tenth those in the rest of the country. But because screening methods may not have caught some people who were headed for schizophrenia later, he warned, the results may have overstated the program's effectiveness.

    That uncertainty fuels an ongoing debate over how prodromal symptoms should be treated. Mounting evidence suggests that early interventions can delay or prevent psychosis while helping patients lead healthier lives. But both medication and psychosocial methods pose a degree of risk. With psychosocial interventions, says Thomas McGlashan, a professor of psychiatry at Yale University, there is a risk that treating false-positive patients might add stress, making them think they're on the verge of schizophrenia when they're not. “But that isn't something we've seen in our patients,” he says.

    Antipsychotic drugs, meanwhile, can produce weight gain and metabolic problems, including diabetes. What's more, the drugs might negatively impact the developing adolescent brain. However, Cameron Carter, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the University of California, Davis, suggests that those risks could be more than offset by lowering the risks of a psychotic reaction, which itself can be highly damaging, sensitizing the brain to ever more severe hallucinations, delusions, and other psychotic symptoms when under stress.

    Still, some researchers insist that antipsychotic drugs should not be given to patients who are not diagnosed as psychotic. “We don't know enough about the risk-benefit ratio,” says Diana Perkins, a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who believes more study of the effects of antipsychotics in adolescents is warranted before a study like McFarlane's moves forward. “So we don't want to expose people who aren't at risk of psychosis to a drug that can hurt them.”

    Anthony Lehman, chair of psychiatry at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, warns against using medication during early prodromal stages but adds that it may be appropriate if the patient appears close to a psychotic break. “It really depends on where you are in the prodromal phase,” he says. “That's where the tension in this whole area lies: You have to make decisions based on each case.”

    Patrick McGorry, a research psychiatrist at the University of Melbourne in Australia, suggests that prodromal interventions should be deployed in stages, starting with psychosocial methods and omega-3 fatty acids (which may have mood-stabilizing effects) as a frontline treatment. “We would reserve medication for when it's clearly indicated,” when psychosis is evident, he says.

    It's difficult to compare the benefits of medication versus psychosocial support because there's so little data, says Jeffrey Lieberman of Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. Of the available studies in preventing psychosis, only one—published by McGlashan in 2006—investigated medication as the sole intervention. That study suggested a drug called olanzapine could cut progression rates to psychosis in prodromal patients by half. However, the results were deemed inconclusive because weight gain and fatigue led to a high dropout rate in the treatment group.

    In another study, published in 2002, McGorry reported that a combination of medication plus cognitive behavior therapy—a talk therapy that aims to reorder distorted thinking—was more effective at preventing psychosis than psychotherapy alone. Over time, however, several patients in the treatment group became psychotic, diminishing the significance of the initial results. In the only study of psychosocial supports without medication, Anthony Morrison of the University of Manchester, U.K., found in a study of 58 patients that the progression to psychosis could be delayed, or prevented, solely with cognitive behavior therapy. That finding, he wrote in his 2004 paper, “suggests psychosocial intervention … will be an effective and acceptable alternative to antipsychotic medication, particularly for patients at ultra-high risk of developing psychosis.”

    In McFarlane's view, medication stabilizes patients, enabling psychosocial supports that bolster self-confidence and coping skills to take effect. “I started off as a psychosocial intervention researcher, and when we launched PIER, we weren't going to use medication unless it was absolutely necessary,” McFarlane says. “But as it turns out, absolutely necessary was just about every case. I can't recommend we go to a no-medication control. That essentially consigns half the group to inevitable mental illness and psychosis.”

    New horizons.

    William McFarlane heads the PIER network, which is gearing up to test a formula for managing schizophrenia in five states.

    CREDIT: AP

    Minimizing drugs

    For the newly expanded study, McFarlane will consider a staged approach such as that proposed by McGorry—limiting medication only to those who appear at greatest risk. Among the newer drugs used will be aripiprizole, an antipsychotic that shows little evidence—so far—of weight-gain side effects.

    Meanwhile, every patient brought into the program will get the psychosocial treatment used in PIER, one that McFarlane started honing 25 years ago at a mental health clinic in the south Bronx, New York. Known as Family-Aided Assertive Community Treatment, the model has two components: The first, called the multifamily group model, unites several patients and their families in group therapy, so they don't have to go it alone. McFarlane has found that the approach helps families cope with the isolation and stigma that comes with mental illness. The second component—Assertive Community Treatment (ACT)—has a long history in the management of psychotic disease. ACT involves schools, employers, and other community elements. Each patient will be treated for a minimum of 2 years, he adds, and some may be treated for four.

    As the effort moves forward, hospitalization rates for psychosis in the catchment areas—where early-intervention resources have been made available in a given state—will be compared to those in the rest of the state. McFarlane says: “I'm confident this is going to work; our kids just keep getting better and better. Our experience has been that after a couple of years, they don't need a lot more support.” That conviction will soon be put to the test.

  13. SOCIETY FOR AMERICAN ARCHAEOLOGY MEETING

    Portals to the Supernatural World Uncovered in Mayan Tomb

    1. Andrew Lawler

    SOCIETY FOR AMERICAN ARCHAEOLOGY, 25-29 APRIL, AUSTIN, TEXAS

    Monkey writers.

    Monkey heads suggest that an entombed Maya ruler may have been a scribe.

    CREDIT: MICHELLE RICH

    Deep in the Guatemala jungle, archaeologists have found a 1400-year-old royal tomb with a spectacular array of artifacts, including a carved stele, heirlooms from an earlier civilization, and an unusual set of intact figurines that are dazzling Mayan experts. “The figurines are of quite astonishing quality, and their layout is evidently that of a royal court,” says Mayan specialist Stephen Houston of Brown University, who was not involved in the discovery. “It's unprecedented.” Such figurines tend to be found in isolation, but the circular arrangement in which these objects were found offers a glimpse into both the political and religious realms of the Maya, says Houston.

    Sacred circle.

    Maya figurines were carefully arranged around a sacred space.

    CREDIT: VARINIA MATUTE

    The tomb is at El Perú, about 60 kilometers west of the famous Mayan ruin of Tikal in northern Guatemala, which flourished in the centuries before and after Christ. In 2006, during the fourth season of digs at the site, archaeologists led by David Freidel of Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, Texas, uncovered the remains of a ruler dating to the mid-6th to mid-7th century C.E., a period for which there has been no written evidence until now.

    Along with the two dozen ceramic figurines, the vaulted tomb within the pyramid included a child sacrifice covered with a jaguar pelt, a mosaic mask, 33 ceramic vessels, and two tiny, finely made heads of monkeys, which are associated with scribes. The monkeys may indicate that the El Perú ruler was himself a trained scribe, says SMU archaeologist Michelle Rich, who presented a paper on the find. This and other recent discoveries point to Mayan rulers who were artists and scholars as well as the warrior-kings favored in current popular culture, says Freidel.

    The cluster of figurines includes an outer circle representing a king, queen, ballplayer, scribes, and other court members. An inner circle includes an array of creatures that inhabit the world between the real and the supernatural, including a frog, dwarves, and a shaman with a contorted face. Rich speculates that the inner circle signifies a portal both to the supernatural world and to a period before time and may represent a creation myth similar to the one outlined in the Mayan texts of the Popol Vuh. Such portals are a common feature of both architecture and religious texts in ancient Mesoamerica.

    Houston says nothing like the El Perú figurines has been found since excavations in the 1950s at La Venta, an important Olmec city that flourished nearly a millennium before the Mayan classic period. The tomb also contained a statue from the Olmec civilization, an unusual discovery suggesting a marked reverence for the distant past.

    Archaeologists are eager to analyze these and other treasures from El Perú —which remain at the team's lab in Guatemala City—including two sculptural heads that use imagery from Teotihuacán, a great city far to the north. The heads may even celebrate the arrival of a Teotihuacán warlord in El Perú in 378 C.E. A stele found at the tomb entrance, the first inscription found during this era, likely was erected by a successor king a half-century after the royal burial in about 600 C.E. There may be even more to find: Rich hopes to return to the site for further excavations in 2008.

  14. SOCIETY FOR AMERICAN ARCHAEOLOGY MEETING

    Climate Spurred Later Indus Decline

    1. Andrew Lawler

    SOCIETY FOR AMERICAN ARCHAEOLOGY, 25-29 APRIL, AUSTIN, TEXAS

    Climate change is not just for us moderns. Four millennia ago, a pronounced dry spell settled over much of western Asia, stressing the young Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations. But archaeologists have puzzled over the fact that the Indus River civilization, centered in what is now India and Pakistan, was at its height during this time.

    Now a team made up of a climate modeler, a geologist, and an archaeologist say they have solid evidence about how climate affected Indus society. They suggest that the Indus people were able to adapt to the immediate climate change, but that resultant shifts in vegetation and landscape eventually set the culture on a slow course of decline. “How people coped varied region to region,” says Yale University archaeologist Harvey Weiss, who is not part of the effort. Weiss argues that the Akkadian empire in Mesopotamia collapsed as a result of the dramatic drought that affected societies from Ireland to China.

    Previous researchers depended primarily on cores from off the coast of Pakistan and other regional data to understand climate change in the Indus region. But the team also drew on data collected between 1996 and 2001 at the ancient mound of Harappa, one of the principal cities of the Indus, and its immediate neighboring areas. By 2600 B.C.E., Harappa was a thriving urban center. But starting at about 1900 B.C.E.—2 or 3 centuries after the drying period to the west—the city and nearby settlements began to lose population. By 1600 B.C.E., people appear to have abandoned their towns and moved north.

    The researchers fed information from the soil samples, plus data from other sources such as Arabian Sea cores, into a climate model developed by Reid Bryson of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The resulting curve for rainfall shows that for a millennium leading up to the Indus's peak, rainfall patterns—winter rains and the summer monsoon—remained remarkably stable. That changed dramatically in the same period that drought afflicted Mesopotamia. “They went out of kilter,” says Joseph Schuldenrein, who runs Geoarchaeology Research Associates, a Riverdale, New York-based consulting firm. Winter rains increased, but the monsoon became undependable—a pattern that continued for some 6 centuries. The result shows that the climate event did indeed affect the Indus region, says Weiss, although he has not yet seen the detailed data.

    Rain on the plain.

    During the height of the Indus civilization, the monsoon began to sputter (blue) while winter rains increased dramatically (red).

    CREDIT: REID BRYSON/UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN

    But the rainfall change did not spark a sudden collapse in Indus settlements, notes New York University archaeologist Rita Wright, who is part of the team. “As these changes occurred, it is clear that the Harappans were experimenting with new cropping patterns” to cope, for example by planting summer crops such as millet twice a season.

    In the long run, however, their adaptation apparently failed, perhaps due to a lag time in the impact of the climate change, the researchers say. Vegetation and the landscape around the area's rivers slowly transformed, as plants vanished and rivers shifted course, according to geomorphological data the team gathered in the Harappa area. Those changes, rather than the change in rainfall per se, likely played a critical role in the move north, says Schuldenrein.

    The Indus experience may hold a lesson for today. “Very large climatic changes can happen within a century,” points out Bryson. And the success with which societies cope may depend on local impacts—and how adaptable the locals prove to be.

  15. SOCIETY FOR AMERICAN ARCHAEOLOGY MEETING

    Snapshots From the Meeting

    1. Andrew Lawler

    SOCIETY FOR AMERICAN ARCHAEOLOGY, 25-29 APRIL, AUSTIN, TEXAS

    Out of the blue.

    Lapis from Ur may now be sourced.

    CREDIT: UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA MUSEUM

    Tracking lapis's lure. Egyptian pharaohs treasured it. Mesopotamian rulers were buried with it. And Indus River craftsmen carved lapis lazuli into myriad shapes for export. The rare blue mineral has been prized since prehistoric times, but scholars have been frustrated in their attempts to use it to track ancient trade networks. Lapis is heterogeneous in its makeup, and traditional methods often failed at sourcing samples. Now, researchers can use mass spectrometry to examine a sample's trace elements and track its origins, says Harvard University archaeologist Irene Good.

    Physicist Judit Zsöldföldi of Tübingen University in Germany and chemist Zsolt Kasztovskzy of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences recently subjected modern lapis samples to two techniques: atomic absorption spectrophotometry, which can produce a detailed mineral analysis using as little as one-hundredth of a gram, and prompt gamma ray activation analysis, which can measure mineral content without destroying a sample. The pair identified mineral signatures in lapis from the biggest and most archaeologically relevant quarries, including in Afghanistan, Lake Baikal, and elsewhere.

    Applying these methods to ancient lapis is “an important discovery,” says Good. It means that lapis in museum objects—such as King Tut's mask from Egypt or the stunning jewelry from the Royal Tombs of Ur in Iraq—may be able to be sourced. The trade in lapis, which dates back more than 5 millennia, could reveal the antecedents of the later silk road from Central Asia to India and Europe, Good says. Her team plans to conduct studies this summer with samples from Tajikistan and Iran.

    Searching for inequality. Archaeologists have long assumed that agriculture and social inequality emerged together. Whereas egalitarianism reigned among hunter-gatherers, the thinking goes, agriculture sparked a centralization of power, with one group toiling in the fields while another directed construction of monuments and cities. That inequality can be seen clearly in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, where some tombs are laden with gold and gems while others are bare.

    But at an unusual session spanning different periods and places, researchers packed the room to ponder whether hierarchy and social complexity are always visible in the material objects of the archaeological record. Kenneth Ames of Portland State University in Oregon suggested turning to cultural anthropology and primatology for clues. For example, recent studies show that among African pygmies who appear to lack hierarchy in elite goods, some individuals nevertheless have better dental health—a sign that this apparently egalitarian society nevertheless has high-status members with better diets and health. Hunters and gatherers such as the native Americans of the northwest coast can also have clear hierarchies, adds Douglas Price of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, although their material differences are not as distinctive as those of the classic Near East societies. Ames also notes that primate societies show a wide variety of dominance structures, a sign that egalitarianism is not common even among humanity's close cousins.

    Even in the Near East, the link between early social inequality and agriculture remains ambiguous, says Ames. The Natufians who lived there at the dawn of agriculture left little clear evidence that some had substantially more power and wealth than others. “Archaeologists rely on exotic artifacts,” says Price. “We need more robust indicators in equality, such as dental health and diet.”

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