News this Week

Science  05 Oct 2007:
Vol. 318, Issue 5847, pp. 28

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    Promising AIDS Vaccine's Failure Leaves Field Reeling

    1. Jon Cohen

    On Tuesday 18 September, AIDS vaccine research suffered one of its most devastating setbacks.

    That day, an interim safety analysis that no one expected would reveal anything significant showed that the vaccine widely thought to have the best shot at success had failed in a large human trial. “We were all in shock and devastated,” says Peggy Johnston, who heads AIDS vaccine research at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in Bethesda, Maryland, which was one of three partners conducting the multicountry trial of the vaccine, made by the pharmaceutical giant Merck.

    Three days later, Merck, NIAID, and an academic consortium known as the HIV Vaccine Trials Network (HVTN) announced that the trial, dubbed STEP, had been halted. Started in December 2004, the trial involved 3000 HIV-negative men and women from North and South America, the Caribbean, and Australia who were at high risk of becoming infected.

    AIDS researchers around the world were stunned by the trail's results. “This was the first AIDS vaccine clinical trial in history where most people thought they'd at least see something positive,” says John Moore, an AIDS researcher at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. “It's very dispiriting for the field,” says Lawrence Corey, an AIDS researcher at the University of Washington, Seattle, who also heads HVTN. “It will take time to unravel where this leaves us and how we move forward.”

    Knocked out.

    Disappointing interim results abruptly ended a Merck vaccine trial that used this recruiting poster.


    Researchers had pinned their hopes on Merck's vaccine because it uses a novel strategy. Instead of trying to trigger antibodies to HIV, as most other candidates do to some degree, this one relies exclusively on another arm of the immune system that stimulates what are known as killer T cells. HIV has so many mutant types that it's easy for the virus to dodge antibodies. Killer T cells, in contrast, appear to work against a wide array of variants, selectively targeting and destroying cells that the virus has managed to infect. Although only antibodies can actually prevent infections, the hope was that a T-cell vaccine might beat back HIV before it could get a foothold, or at least keep levels of the virus (the viral load) in check.

    To trigger the T-cell response, the vaccine uses a modified adenovirus, or cold virus, as a vector to shuttle three HIV genes into the body. But many people have strong immunity to that adenovirus, which theoretically could cripple the vector and render the vaccine ineffective. To assess the magnitude of this problem and increase chances that the vaccine would work, half of the people enrolled in the study had to have low antibody levels against that adenovirus. The interim analysis focused on only those 1500 people, most of whom were men who have sex with men.

    In participants who received at least one dose of the vaccine, 24 of the 741 vaccinated people became infected, compared with 21 of the 762 participants who received a dummy shot. More discouraging still, there was virtually no difference in viral loads between the two groups. “I was hopeful we'd see some dampening of viral replication,” says Norman Letvin, an AIDS vaccine researcher at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, whose earlier monkey studies with the vaccine did show such a decline.

    Letvin and his colleagues vaccinated monkeys and then challenged them with a lab virus, SHIV, which combines HIV with its simian cousin SIV. But when another group later tested the Merck vaccine against a more potent SIV, it failed. To Ronald Desrosiers, head of Harvard's New England Primate Research Center in Southborough, Massachusetts, that failure should have raised more red flags. “Everything protects against SHIVs,” says Desrosiers.

    Anthony Fauci, NIAID's director, worries that the Merck failure will give the broader T-cell vaccine concept a bad rap. “Clearly this indicates the failure of a product. Whether or not it indicates the failure of a concept, we don't know at this point,” Fauci says. NIAID researchers have developed another T-cell vaccine that has more HIV genes and differs in several other key features. A large-scale trial was slated to start this fall but has been delayed pending a more thorough analysis of the STEP results. HVTN has also put on the back burner its plans for a trial of the Merck vaccine in South Africa.

    Fauci worries, too, that the failure could have reverberations throughout the pharmaceutical industry, which already is wary of investing in AIDS vaccine research and development. “There's certainly a danger of industry scratching its head and saying before we put substantial resources in, we need more sound scientific data,” says Fauci.

    Merck, based in Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, would not speculate about the future of its AIDS vaccine program. “The best thing we can contribute to the field overall is a thorough analysis of the data,” says Mark Feinberg, the company's vice president of medical affairs. Many intriguing questions remain, he notes, such as what happened in the other 1500 participants, what was the immune responses in the “breakthrough” infection cases, and are there differences in heterosexual transmission (so far, only one woman out of the 1000 volunteers became infected). “It's not like we're not interested in the questions anymore, but it's unclear where the next breakthrough will come from,” he says. “And that's not just a question for Merck. It's a question for the entire field.”


    Myanmar's Secret History Exposed in Satellite Images

    1. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

    When militiamen backed by Sudan's government attacked non-Arab villages in the country's Darfur region in 2003, Sudanese officials dismissed international criticism and called the reports of violence propaganda. Earlier this year, Sudan's denials lost all credibility when the world saw before-and-after satellite images showing that scores of settlements in the region had indeed been destroyed. Observers say the images played an important role in persuading the United Nations Security Council to authorize a new peacekeeping mission in Darfur this summer.

    Last week, AAAS (the publisher of Science) released similar satellite images of Myanmar—also known as Burma—showing that dozens of villages in the eastern part of the country had been uprooted or razed to the ground. The images, taken over the past year by commercial high-resolution satellites, strengthen field accounts of a military campaign by Myanmar's dictatorship against the country's ethnic minorities, which has claimed thousands of lives and forced many more to flee to refugee camps in Thailand.

    Human rights organizations hope the evidence will help prod the international community into taking tougher measures against Myanmar's government, which in recent days has cracked down on pro-democracy protestors in the capital city of Yangon. “We are following the example provided by the Darfur images,” says Aung Din, policy director for the U.S. Campaign for Burma in Washington, D.C., one of AAAS's partners on the project. “We have two intentions: Convincing the international community to do more to stop human rights abuses in Myanmar, and letting the military junta know that we have satellites in the sky watching this territory.”

    At 25 of the 31 locations in east Myanmar that were examined in the study, researchers found visual evidence confirming eyewitness accounts of villages having been burned or shifted and showing military camps that have been set up near minority settlements. In one set of photos, for example, blackened scars of buildings appear in a village in Papun district after attacks were reported on 22 April.

    Wiped out.

    The village near Kewy Kee in east Myanmar photographed by a commercial satellite on 5 May 2004 (left) has disappeared in an image taken on 23 February 2007.


    “Eighteen of the locations showed evidence consistent with destroyed or damaged villages,” says AAAS's Lars Bromley, who directed the project. “We found evidence of expanded military camps in four other locations as well as multiple possibly relocated villages, and we documented growth in one refugee camp on the Thai border.” Bromley says the images help to “discredit the denials” issued by Myanmar's government.

    Satellite images helped in the same way to counter Sudan's denials, says Ariela Blatter of Amnesty International, which teamed up with AAAS for a project called Eyes on Darfur. Blatter says that although Sudanese officials have “downplayed the validity” of the project, they have found it hard to reject the evidence altogether.

    Myanmar's government may prove to be more unyielding. Last year, after AAAS launched the project, Myanmar's information minister, Kyaw Hsan, predicted that critics would use “fabricated satellite photos” to claim “that the [military] is dislodging villages by force and torturing the village people.” This week, Myanmar had no comment on the evidence.


    At Long Last, Pathologists Hear Plants' Cry For Help

    1. Mitch Leslie
    Silent scream.

    Tobacco leaves scarred by the tobacco mosaic virus emit a signal that boosts resistance in the rest of the plant.


    A sick plant has something in common with an athlete who slathers on stinky sports balms. Both are counting on the salutary effects of methyl salicylate, the pungent oil of wintergreen. This compound turns out to be a long-sought distress call that rouses plant resistance against disease, researchers report on page 113. “Finally, we've been able to identify a signal that activates this plant-wide defense,” says co-author and plant pathologist Daniel Klessig of the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research in Ithaca, New York.

    Unlike animals, plants can't mobilize a cadre of targeted immune cells to fight infection. But that doesn't mean that they just stand there and take it. When a pathogen infects one part of the plant, say a leaf, that tissue sounds the alarm, and other parts beef up their defenses, not only to that pathogen but also to other potential attackers. Some evidence even indicates that nearby plants can heed the alert.

    For more than 50 years, scientists have pursued the so-called mobile signal that wends through the plant's phloem, or food-transporting tissue, and spreads the alarm. In the 1990s, they thought they had nabbed this molecular messenger: salicylic acid, a key plant hormone and a close relative of the main ingredient in aspirin. However, grafting experiments proved them wrong: The graft still exhibited systemic resistance even if the infected part of the plant lacked the supposed messenger.

    Klessig and colleagues came upon what seems to be a real messenger while chasing the receptor for salicylic acid. The team's experiments eliminated one candidate receptor, the enzyme SABP2. However, they discovered that SABP2 transforms methyl salicylate into salicylic acid and that the enzyme is necessary for systemic resistance, suggesting that methyl salicylate might be the signal.

    To determine whether methyl salicylate indeed delivers a warning from the site of an infection to the rest of the plant, the team performed grafting experiments on tobacco plants and then exposed the graft recipient, or rootstock, to tobacco mosaic virus. Systemic resistance still occurred when the graft was missing an enzyme that makes methyl salicylate, but not if this protein was absent from the rootstock, indicating a need for methyl salicylate only where the infection occurred.

    The researchers engineered plants to make an overactive form of SABP2 that uses up methyl salicylate. When they used those plants as rootstock, no systemic resistance developed after the rootstock was infected. But if the graft alone manufactured this unstoppable enzyme, resistance appeared, again arguing for the need for methyl salicylate at the infection site.

    The scientists also used RNAi to banish SABP2 from the graft or the rootstock. After infection of the rootstock, the graft developed resistance only if it could make SABP2. It didn't matter whether the rootstock could produce the enzyme.

    Overall, the experiments indicate that the infected tissue requires the ability to make methyl salicylate, whereas the target tissue needs to be able to break it down. “I'd say we were quite confident that methyl salicylate is a signal [for resistance],” says Klessig.

    “It's a pretty persuasive series of experiments,” says molecular plant pathologist Terrence Delaney of the University of Vermont, Burlington.

    Raising the alarm probably involves two steps, Klessig says. The tissue under attack first produces methyl salicylate and releases it into the phloem for distribution. When this messenger arrives in target tissues, SABP2 converts it into salicylic acid, which triggers systemic resistance. The work is “an elegant solution” to the question of how to reconcile earlier evidence implicating salicylic acid in systemic resistance, says plant pathologist Luis Mur of the University of Wales in Aberystwyth, U. K.

    Agriculture could benefit from the discovery, says Klessig. Fine-tuning methyl salicylate levels—either through genetic engineering or selective breeding—might fortify crop defenses and reduce the amount of pesticides farmers need to apply.

    However, the methyl salicylate pathway may not be the whole story. Some data suggest that the signal is a lipid—methyl salicylate is not—and that a lipid called jasmonic acid might serve as an independent signal or as a partner. “The key question is, are we looking at a parallel system?” Mur asks. Klessig doesn't have an answer, at least not yet. “It's quite possible, even likely,” he notes, “that there are multiple signals.”


    Nariokotome Boy to Go on the Road Despite Protests

    1. Ann Gibbons

    When Ethiopian officials announced plans last year to send the famous human ancestor “Lucy” to the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Texas, many paleoanthropologists were furious at the risk to an irreplaceable specimen. The late F. Clark Howell of the University of California, Berkeley, predicted that Lucy's journey would “start an avalanche” of exhibits of original hominid fossils. Last week, Howell's remark began to seem prescient: Officials at the National Museums of Kenya announced government approval for their plans to send Nariokotome Boy, the partial skeleton of a 12-year-old, to The Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois.

    The 1.5 million-year-old fossil, the most complete skeleton of Homo erectus found, continues to be a source of scientific data, and many researchers are angry at the news. A traveling exhibit is “prostitution” of the fossils, charges Kenyan paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey, whose team discovered the skeleton in 1984.


    This rare skeleton of Homo erectus may travel from Kenya to Chicago, Illinois.


    No formal agreement has been signed, and Field Museum officials say the announcement in Nairobi last week took them by surprise, as they are still in negotiations and have yet to raise funds for the exhibit. But the proposal under discussion includes exhibiting Nariokotome Boy and its retinue of fossils from Kenya for 18 months, perhaps as early as 2009. “The Field Museum is indeed currently at an initial stage of discussions … with the aim of organizing a traveling exhibit in the U.S.A.,” says Robert D. Martin, curator of biological anthropology at The Field Museum. He says The Field has great experience in caring for fragile fossils and will strive to make sure that profits benefit Kenyan science. The Field is also considering exhibiting Lucy, who is now drawing 2000 people each weekend day in Houston.

    With regard to the Lucy exhibit, many researchers argued that original fossils are too fragile to be packed up and sent around the world. Several museums declined to exhibit Lucy because of the risk of damage and because there was no compelling scientific reason to take her out of Ethiopia (Science, 27 October 2006, p. 574).

    The Nariokotome Boy announcement, made by National Museums of Kenya Director General Idle Omar Farah, is drawing similar reactions. Says co-discoverer Alan Walker of Pennsylvania State University in University Park: “Like many others, I don't approve. It took about a century after [finding] the first bones of H. erectus for us to find a partial skeleton, and it would be a disaster if we lost it.”

    The Lucy exhibit and any display of Nariokotome Boy outside their homelands also violate a 1999 international agreement that original hominid fossils should not be transported from their country of origin without compelling scientific reasons. Many African researchers oppose sending fossils overseas because such exhibits do little to spark investment in African scientific infrastructure, says paleoanthropologist Frederick Kyalo Manthi of the National Museums of Kenya. Meave Leakey, also of the National Museums of Kenya, adds that “the timing is unfortunate since the specimens will be seen overseas just at the time that they are planned to be put on exhibit for the first time in Kenya.”

    Field Museum Provost Neil Shubin says he and Martin are working to make sure the fossils would be available for study. They also would create an exhibit in Nairobi and have payments go to the National Museums of Kenya, which, according to Farah, is seeking a total endowment of $3.5 million.

    Some researchers do support traveling exhibits if done right. Lucy and Nariokotome Boy are the “patrimony for all of humankind” and should occasionally travel for study and short exhibits, says paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. So far, however, neither the American Museum nor the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., has signed on for either exhibit.


    Is Battered Arctic Sea Ice Down For the Count?

    1. Richard A. Kerr

    A few years ago, researchers modeling the fate of Arctic sea ice under global warming saw a good chance that the ice could disappear, in summertime at least, by the end of the 21st century. Then talk swung to summer ice not making it past mid-century. Now, after watching Arctic sea ice shrink back last month to a startling record-low area, scientists are worried that 2050 may be overoptimistic.

    “This year has been such a quantum leap downward, it has surprised many scientists,” says polar researcher John Walsh of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. “This ice is more vulnerable than we thought.” And that vulnerability seems to be growing from year to year, inspiring concern that Arctic ice could be in an abrupt, irreversible decline. “Maybe we are reaching the tipping point,” says Walsh.

    Bad sign.

    Arctic sea ice (gauged here using NASA's measurement techniques) has been declining, but 2007's unfavorable weather drove the increasingly vulnerable ice to a new record low.


    There's no doubt that 2007 was a special summer melt season. The ice area remaining in September—the year's low point—had been shrinking since satellite monitoring began in 1979. Some years it recovered a bit, others it declined further, but overall it shrank 8.6% per decade. In 2005, it hit a record low of 5.6 million square kilometers, down 20% from 1979. But last month, “we completely blew 2005 out of the water,” says sea ice specialist Mark Serreze of the University of Colorado, Boulder. Ice area plummeted to 4.13 million square kilometers, down 43% from 1979. That's a loss equivalent to more than two Alaskas. The new low is more than one Alaska below the trend line. Nothing else like that appears in the satellite record or, for that matter, in monitoring from ships and planes during the rest of the 20th century, says Walsh.

    An immediate cause of the record-breaking year is clear enough. As Serreze explains, an unusually strong high-pressure center sat over the central Arctic Ocean while a strong low hovered over Siberia. This weather pattern allowed more solar heat through the clear skies beneath the high-pressure center and pumped warm air up from the south between the high and the low.

    The vicissitudes of weather may have enhanced ice loss this year, but there's more going on than that, scientists are realizing. For one thing, their models underestimate how fast summer ice has been disappearing in the warming Arctic. “It's very alarming the way things are changing so fast,” says polar oceanographer D. Andrew Rothrock of the University of Washington (UW), Seattle. “We've thought we have the important physics in the models, but … it seems our models aren't very good in the Arctic.”

    Researchers say the models probably lack some realistic feedbacks, natural processes that can amplify a climatic nudge—whether natural or humanmade—into a shove. And that shove could send the ice past a tipping point. “You get a kick in the right direction,” says Serreze, “and it sends the ice over the edge” and into a meltdown from which it cannot recover.

    Last December, researchers reported finding that at least one climate model includes feedbacks that can accelerate sea ice into a tipping point. Modeler Marika Holland of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, and colleagues wrote in Geophysical Research Letters (GRL) that when NCAR's Community Climate System Model, version 3—which has one of the most sophisticated ice components available—is run under a strengthening greenhouse, sea ice loss can suddenly accelerate, in one case cutting ice area by twothirds in a decade and wiping out September ice by 2040.

    A plus.

    The record-breaking loss of sea ice this summer opened the Northwest Passage.


    Such accelerations were driven by two feedbacks in the model. In one, thinner ice one year made ice melt more easily the next year. In another, when white, highly reflective ice melted, the darker, more absorptive open water that replaced it absorbed more solar energy. The added heat could help melt more ice and keep new ice thinner that year—and even the next, if the heat lingered through the winter.

    Holland and her colleagues “showed that in models, these abrupt changes can occur,” says Walsh. Now, “this is the first time we may have seen it” in the real world. In an in-press GRL paper, polar researcher Donald Perovich of the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Hanover, New Hampshire, and colleagues report estimates of increasing solar heating of the Arctic Ocean. They found that a large area of Arctic waters north of the Bering Strait had been absorbing increasing amounts of solar heat since 1979 as summer ice retreated, suggesting that the ice-reflectivity feedback has been operating there.

    And in a paper appearing in GRL this week, Son Nghiem of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and colleagues report a continuing decline in the thicker, older ice that tends to persist from year to year. Much of the decline in perennial ice, they found, was due to winds blowing it out of the Arctic Ocean. But thinning from added heat had made it easier for the wind to blow the ice out. That would add a dynamical feedback to the thermal feedback of ice reflectivity.

    Researchers suspect that these and other feedbacks are eroding sea ice's ability to resist the warming of recent decades. “Might we lose summer sea ice by 2030?” asks Serreze. “That is not unreasonable.” Next September could tell whether natural variability just made for one bad year in the Arctic or whether it is pushing the ice over the edge. Meteorologist Ignatius Rigor of UW is wor ried. Given the beating the ice has taken of late, he says, “the chances of another extreme next year are pretty high.”

  6. European Science by the Numbers

    1. Gretchen Vogel

    The first round of peer-reviewed grants from the European Research Council (ERC) is out, and the agency's analysis of applicants and finalists paints a revealing picture of Europe's scientific landscape. Nearly 9000 applications flooded in this spring (Science, 4 May, p. 672); review panels narrowed these down to just 559 finalists. The ERC will select about 250 young scientists from the list by January 2008 and award each of them roughly €1 million ($1.4 million). This week, the ERC released new figures about where the applicants come from and where they hope to work. Italians far outpaced all other nationalities, submitting more than 1700 applications—a sign, says ERC Vice President Helga Nowotny, of the dire lack of support for young researchers there. Italians were fairly successful, too: 70 made it to the final round, although just fewer than 50 plan to work in Italy. The U.K. has the best “braingain” statistics: More than 100 of the finalists work in the U.K. but just 42 are British. The big surprise, Nowotny notes, is Poland. Just three Polish researchers are finalists, and none plans to work in Poland. Michal Kleiber, president of the Polish Academy of Sciences and a member of the ERC scientific council, sees the results as disappointing; he thinks they reflect the salary caps in Poland that spur top applicants to work elsewhere. He also notes that although Poland has 8% of the E.U. population, its science budget accounts for less than 1% of overall E.U. research spending. More details are available at:


    Europeans Lay Down Their Wish List for Next 2 Decades

    1. Daniel Clery

    European astronomers are in a buoyant mood. They have what is widely acknowledged to be the world's number one optical instrument—the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile—and several other ambitious projects under construction or on the drawing board. And last week, following a consultation process that for the first time brought together European researchers from all branches of astronomy, a new umbrella body called Astronet laid out the continent's goals for the next decade or two. “It describes the sort of science we want to do and the sort of tools we will need,” says Johannes Andersen, director of the Nordic Optical Telescope at La Palma in the Canary Islands and chair of the Astronet board.

    Astronet's Science Vision poses four basic questions, including “Do we understand the extremes of the universe?” (which takes in dark matter, dark energy, regions of strong gravity and the source of high-energy cosmic rays) and “How do we fit in?” (covering the heliosphere, Earth-sun interactions, minor bodies, and planetary atmospheres). Along the way, the vision dips into galaxy formation and evolution and how dust clouds form into stars and planets. The document also suggests a list of instruments needed to meet each question's science goals (see figure). More than two dozen of these instruments are still at the planning stage, and the report says building them all would cost “several billion euros” over the next 2 decades. But the report's authors readily acknowledge that this is a wish list. A construction schedule “wasn't the job of the Science Vision,” says Astronet program coordinator Jean-Marie Hameury of the French research agency CNRS. “We won't be able to do it all. Hard choices will have to be made.”


    The Astronet Science Vision describes what European astronomers want to find out and what tools they need for the job.


    Those hard choices will fall to a Roadmap working group, which over the next year will hammer out realistic schedules and cost estimates under the watchful eye of Astronet's funding-agency sponsors. “We will be pushing the bounds, making the case where appropriate for increased astronomy spending in Europe,” says the working group's head, astrophysicist Michael Bode of Liverpool John Moores University in the U.K.

    European astronomy has in the past been a fragmented community. Optical astronomers work together through the European Southern Observatory; the European Space Agency handles most space missions; and national research agencies fund those bodies as well as their own astronomy programs. Europeans watched enviously as their American counterparts laid out plans in a series of decadal reviews drawn up by the U.S. National Research Council. Andersen says that plans for a similar European effort were discussed a decade ago, but it was not until 2005 that a group of national funding agencies for astronomy grew impatient, set up Astronet, and told astronomers to get organized. “Funding agencies want a comprehensive long-term plan so they can act rationally,” says Andersen.

    There are several key differences between the European and American planning efforts, Andersen says. First, Astronet was instigated by funding agencies (now numbering 17) rather than by the research community. The agencies will be involved in framing the Roadmap document, so they “will have signed up to it in principle,” says Bode, although Andersen adds that “there are no guarantees.”

    The Astronet process also differs from the decadals in that first a panel, consulting with the whole community, works out the scientific priorities, and then a new panel has to whittle those aspirations down to a realistic program in the Roadmap. The Science Vision—coordinated by Tim de Zeeuw, director of ESO since last month—involved a draft report, extensive consultation via a Web site, and a meeting in Poitiers, France, last January attended by 228 scientists from 31 countries. “This has never been done before in Europe,” says Bode. “Some were very skeptical, but it worked very well. People learned to think more strategically.” The Roadmap will follow a similar trajectory culminating in a symposium in Liverpool next June. And finally, whereas the decadals prioritize projects and list construction costs, the Roadmap will go into much more detail and will also cover operating costs, schedules, management, research and development, and industry involvement. “The Roadmap is going to bite all those bullets. That's why it's going to be so tough,” says Andersen.

    With U.S. astronomers facing a flat budget and possible facility closures to pay for new projects (Science, 10 November 2006, p. 904), Britain's Astronomer Royal Martin Rees of the University of Cambridge, U.K., who has not been directly involved in Astronet, thinks Europe has reason to be optimistic. “The VLT is a symbol of what Europe can do when it works together,” he says. “It's important that Europe thinks big and long term.”


    Greening the Meeting

    1. Benjamin Lester

    Scientific travel pours huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Some societies are changing the way they run their annual meetings—and a few scientists are proposing even more drastic changes


    Every December, geoscientists descend on San Francisco for the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU). In 2002, the 9500 participants traveled an average of 7971 kilometers to get there and back. That means their share of the carbon dioxide emitted by the planes they flew on totals about 11,000 metric tons—roughly the same as 2250 Honda Civics during a year's worth of normal driving.

    Flying is a carbon-intensive activity. Scientists may not rack up as many frequent-flier miles as international business travelers, but one thing every field has in common is the big annual meeting and numerous smaller workshops and conferences. Add up the CO2 emitted in traveling to all those gatherings, and it amounts to a sizable contribution to global warming. Scientists have been instrumental in raising public consciousness about air travel and CO2 emissions. Now they are beginning to examine the consequences of their own jetting around the globe.

    Several scientific organizations are trying to reduce the carbon footprint of their gatherings. The approaches include tinkering, such as reducing the use of plastic cups and reusing tote bags, and offering attendees the chance to pay to compensate for the carbon emissions their travel generates. More radical ideas include shrinking or eliminating some meetings. A few virtual meetings have taken off, but they sacrifice networking and brainstorming. Until there's a quick, convenient, and carbon-neutral way to travel, self-restraint may be the solution, says David Reay, a climate scientist at the University of Edinburgh, U.K.

    A growing problem

    Scientific conferences are a booming business. Conference Service Mandl, a scientific conference service provider, lists nearly 4000 upcoming events over the next 2 years or so in its online directory. They range from tiny, highly focused Gordon Research Conferences (GRC) to the 800-pound gorilla of the conference world: the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. (AAAS, publisher of Science, runs an annual general scientific meeting that drew 8000 attendees in 2007.)

    Conferences are also growing in size. Since 1971, Neuroscience attendance has burgeoned from less than 1500 to a 2005 peak of nearly 35,000—a small city's worth of researchers, flying in from all over the planet. AGU's Fall Meeting has added 6000 participants over the past 5 years, an increase of more than 60%. And since 1995, the number of Gordon conferences in the United States and overseas has jumped from 130 to 180, with a surge in combined attendance of 40%. In short, even as the globe warms, more scientists than ever are on the move.

    The Ecological Society of America (ESA) has taken a hard look at the environmental impact of its annual meeting. In response, it slimmed down the program book, began using soy-based inks, and now distributes its advertiser kit only electronically. The society also arranges with hotels to change linen less frequently and has removed Styrofoam from the meeting entirely. Some of the changes make more of a difference than others, but “every little bit helps,” says Michelle Horton, a meeting organizer at ESA.

    Other organizations are moving in similar directions, albeit more slowly. AGU paid little attention to the environmental impact of its meeting until recently, according to a spokesperson, but at its next meeting in December the organizers intend to try webcasting some conference sessions to make it easier for people to tune in from home, as well as asking shuttle-bus drivers to turn off their engines while waiting to load.

    These measures only address the conference itself, of course, rather than the larger impact of people traveling to it. According to the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB), 95% of the society's entire emissions comes from jet fuel used in getting members to the annual meeting. Everything else—running the executive offices for an entire year, for instance—pales in comparison. So SCB, as well as ESA, has begun offering carbon offsets to its members to compensate for the emissions related to their air travel. Check a box on either organization's meeting registration form, and they'll tack a maximum of $20 on to the admission fee, putting it toward projects that help offset carbon. However, offsetting is still new, and some environmentalists think the practice is so plagued by flaws that it is little more than feel-good green-washing (see sidebar).

    Even within ESA, the idea has been slow to catch on. Last year, only six ESA members ponied up extra cash to offset their trip, meeting organizers say. At this year's conference, held in August in San Jose, California, greater awareness pushed that number up to 500—a huge increase but still less than 15% of the meeting's 3600 registrants. Members of SCB seem to feel more strongly; in the program's debut in July, 97% of the 1600 attendees at the meeting held in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, checked the offset box on their registration form.

    Make the meeting count

    Another option would be to hold annual meetings less frequently. But that can be a tough sell. When SCB's Board of Governors voted on this idea in South Africa, some members considered the meeting's exchange of ideas too important to forgo. “We tied eight to eight,” says Paul Beier, a conservation biologist at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff and chair of the SCB carbon-offset committee. So the issue was tabled until the next meeting. In any case, Beier thinks his society should restrict meetings to major cities because holding them in scenic outlying areas such as Port Elizabeth means more connecting flights and more emissions. “Nearly everyone flew through Johannesburg,” he says, so “in the future, we should hold any meeting in southern Africa in Jo'burg.”

    The importance of location is also evident from the unpublished analysis of the 2002 AGU and ESA meetings by David Scott and Lawrence Plug, both of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. They found that ESA could have reduced its meeting's emissions more than 13% by changing the venue from Tucson, Arizona, to the more central spot of Omaha, Nebraska.


    Edward Hall, a geographer at the University of Dundee, U.K., suggests a more radical approach: Limit attendance, especially by international travelers. Earlier this year, Hall published a breakdown of the environmental impact of the 2006 annual meeting of the Royal Geographical Society in Area, the society's journal. He found that more than 95% of the 810 metric tons of carbon emitted during 4 million kilometers of conference travel resulted from foreign attendees flying into the U.K.

    That idea might have trouble getting off the ground. Case in point is a small conference concerning, ironically, greenhouse gases. The organizers of the conference—the groups Chemical Research Applied to World Needs and the International Conference on Carbon Dioxide Utilization (ICCDU)—had some discretionary funds at their disposal, and several of the 151 delegates suggested carbon offsets for travel to the conference in Ontario. Instead, the organizers decided to offer travel scholarships to delegates from developing countries, which will be less equipped to cope with warming. “We felt it was very important for them to attend,” says Philip Jessop, an ICCDU member and chemist at Queen's University in Kingston, Canada.

    Virtually there

    Researchers don't necessarily have to attend a meeting in person to get something out of it. Virtual conferences are a growing trend; they have recently been held on topics including nanoscale structures, animal diseases, amphibian conservation, and climate change.

    One of the largest such events is the Virtual Conference on Genomics and Bioinformatics (VCGB). In 2001, a Peruvian geneticist named Willy Valdivia-Granda, then associated with North Dakota State University in Fargo, founded the conference to enable researchers from poorer nations to attend scientific conferences in developed countries. The most recent conference, held in 2005, included 3000 people in more than 50 countries. Valdivia-Granda, now of Orion Integrated Biosciences in New York, recalls a particularly jam-packed venue in India. “They had so many people participating that they had to show the conference in city hall,” he says.

    Poster child.

    The Society for Neuroscience hosts the largest scientific meeting, but all such gatherings consume copious jet fuel and other resources.


    Attendees to VCGB gather at local nodes linked together using Access Grid, a virtual collaboration system developed at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. A simple node typically consists of a laptop with a webcam, says project lead Thomas Uram of Argonne, but a top-of-the-line installation might feature a dedicated conference room sporting several computers linked to large flat-panel displays with motorized webcams, microphones, and sophisticated echo-cancellation equipment. All that can cost as much as $20,000—much more than the cost of getting to a conference.

    Face to face.

    Virtual meetings, like this one at the Access Grid site in Arlington, Virginia, save on travel—at the expense of hallway brainstorming.


    The system creates a permanent virtual meeting space on the Internet, which can house collaborators' data and files, that allows participants to talk things over via video, audio, and chat. Although the original purpose was to facilitate collaboration between small groups of researchers, Access Grid also works for an international multicast on the scale of VCGB.

    In addition to broadening its audience, VCGB has had an environmental payoff. According to an analysis by climate scientist Reay, the 2001 conference prevented the release of 900 metric tons of CO2. The savings have increased with subsequent years' growing attendance.

    Lower tech virtual formats avoid some of the costs and technical savvy required to set up a conference using Access Grid, but they have the same basic shortcomings: They lack impromptu conversations and networking between sessions. “I'm nervous of virtual conferences,” says plant biologist Gregory Copenhaver of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Although he has never participated in a conference like VCGB, he says he worries that “you lose that sense of catching someone in a hallway” and sitting down for a chat.

    Reay agrees. “I can't see a future where we don't have conferences,” he says. “A lot of the best scientific ideas I've been privy to have come over a glass of wine at a conference dinner or a bar later on.” The problem is magnified at small, focused meetings like the Gordon conferences, whose main focus is on that kind of direct personal interaction. According to a GRC organizer, linking in an attendee remotely has been tried: It “failed miserably.”

    At their best, conferences put minds in close proximity and can foster the kind of environment that leads to new ideas. Sometimes, they just rehash information that is already published or easily accessible online. Researchers concerned with the environmental impact they make should pose a question before they register, says Reay. “Ask yourself, ‘Do I really need to go to this meeting?’”


    Offsets: Worth the Price of Emission?

    1. Benjamin Lester

    With society's environmental conscience outpacing its willingness to cut down on carbon-intensive travel, carbon offsetting is coming to the fore as a way for concerned citizens and organizations to reduce their contributions to global warming. The most popular approaches are planting trees to sequester carbon from the atmosphere or paying energy companies to pump renewable energy onto the grid. A new crop of companies has sprung up to cater to the need.

    It's a simple idea that's fraught with problems. For instance, the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) offsets members' emissions from travel to the annual meeting by hiring locals to replant goat-decimated World Heritage Area habitat in South Africa's Baviaanskloof (Baboon Valley). According to offset committee chair Paul Beier, the project provides real, verifiable carbon reductions. However, trees die, so organizations that use offset schemes like SCB's must commit to maintaining their investment and replanting in case of fire or disease. Offsets based on renewable energy technology only work if every dollar spent on an offset actually translates into an increase in the number of green kilowatts a provider pumps onto the grid—tricky to verify if the offset provider is half a world away.

    Issues like these have led governments and nongovernmental organizations around the world to introduce offset-certification schemes to give consumers confidence that their money won't be wasted. Technical matters aside, however, some, like British environmentalist George Monbiot, argue that the very concept of offsets—allowing people to feel better about causing carbon emissions—saps the will to conserve or consume less.


    This Man Wants to Green Your Lab

    1. David Grimm

    Allen Doyle and his team spread the gospel of sustainability from lab to lab, but it's no easy task in the competitive world of research

    Treasure hunt.

    If there's anything reusable in this dumpster, Allen Doyle will find it.


    SANTA BARBARA, CALIFORNIA— For the price of a few pizzas, Allen Doyle saved his science building $16,000 in electricity costs this year—and kept more than 6 metric tons of carbon from entering the atmosphere. The six-story structure where Doyle manages a soil ecology lab at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), houses 55 fume hoods, each of which burns through as much energy as three averaged-sized U.S. homes. “I offered pizza to anyone who would let us shut off their [unused] hoods for 6 months or more,” he says. “I was hoping for three hoods; we got nine.”

    Doyle hates to see anything wasted. The typical lab consumes four to five times as much energy as an equivalent-sized office or classroom, to say nothing of the huge amount of plastic, paper, and hazardous chemicals researchers go through. Yet in Doyle's experience, scientists are blasé about reducing their environmental footprint while at work. “There's a bit of a ‘Don't ask, don't tell’ culture out there,” he says. Many researchers chastise the government for not doing more for sustainability, says Doyle, “but we're ignoring the same issues in our own labs.”

    In the spring of 2006, Doyle co-founded a program called Laboratory Assessments for Research Sustainability (LARS)* with campus sustainability coordinator Katie Maynard. Assisted by a team of interns, Doyle goes from lab to lab on campus, identifying trouble spots, offering advice, and throwing in cookies and coffee when necessary. “We're just looking for simple answers that may have a significant impact on campus,” he says.


    What makes Doyle's program stand out from other sustainability efforts around the country is its student-driven approach, says Dale Sartor of the U.S. government-sponsored Labs21 Program, which aims to improve the sustainability of research laboratories (see p. 40). Already, LARS has helped shut down unused vacuum systems and other utilities, saving departments thousands of dollars in electricity. And by helping researchers trade surplus materials, Doyle has cut down on industrial waste.

    Still, the grassroots effort has its limits. Doyle says his team has been stymied by scientists more concerned with cost and competition than conservation. But he remains optimistic that his program is a model for what scientists with a green streak across the country can do to help their labs go easier on the environment.

    Campus crusader

    Tag along with Doyle for a day, and you can't help but catch a bit of his sustainability fever. The lanky 49-year-old credits his environmental passion to “Jacques Cousteau, Marlin Perkins, and the brook across the street.” After earning a master's degree in chemical oceanography from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Doyle came to UCSB almost a decade ago. Since then, he has somewhat obsessively turned the lab he manages into a shrine to conservation. Old wooden shelves overflow with opaque plastic tubes, each sporting numerous black marks indicating the number of times they have been reused. And almost every scrap of paper in the room has been printed on at least twice: readouts from a spectrophotometer bleed through to a lab inventory list.

    In June, Doyle was spreading the gospel to a neuroscience lab run by Kenneth Kosik. Doyle sees opportunities for conservation around every corner; sometimes he gets so fired up, he can't get his suggestions out fast enough. As third-year graduate student Fernando Santiago shows the team around Kosik's lab, two of Doyle's undergraduate volunteers pepper Santiago with questions. Is there a labwide policy for shutting the lights off? Do you recycle unused chemicals? How does everyone commute?

    Inside the tissue-culture room, two large hoods glow aquamarine with UV light. Doyle immediately zooms in on a glass vacuum trap that isn't working efficiently. By simply repositioning it, he tells Santiago, the lab could avoid clogging the building's vacuum system and cut down on wasted energy. “It made a lot of sense and hadn't occurred to me,” Santiago says later.

    Elsewhere in the lab, Doyle's team offers more obvious suggestions. Turn your computers off at night. The average computer uses at least 100 watts. If the members of the Kosik lab powered down its four desktop computers when they left for the night, the lab could keep a maximum of 700 kilograms of carbon out of the atmosphere each year. Defrost your freezers regularly. The frost insulates the coils and makes the compressor work harder to pull heat away. Make yourself aware of the electricians on campus. Sometimes a simple tweak can help a piece of equipment run more efficiently or save a gadget that would otherwise end up as industrial waste.

    Waste stream.

    Plastic tubes and old electronics can become huge sustainability problems for biomedical labs.


    Other issues don't lend themselves to simple solutions. For example, Santiago guesses his lab goes through somewhere between 20 and 40 kilograms of plastic a month—in the form of pipette tips, polypropylene tubes, and tissue culture plates (not to mention the packaging). “Plastic use is a huge issue in biomedical labs,” says Doyle. But when he suggests that the Kosik lab switch to glass, Santiago looks skeptical. Reusing glass opens the lab up to the risk of contamination. “If we lost even a few cell lines because of this, it would be a big punch to the stomach,” Santiago says. “Nobody wants to take that kind of blow to their science in the name of sustainability.” Plus, hiring a dishwasher would cost $7 to $8 an hour.

    Doyle admits that the issue is not clear-cut. Washing glass has its own environmental impact in terms of water use—especially in southern California. Still, he doesn't give up easily. “I could reuse your plastic for my work,” he says, explaining that because his lab studies dirt, it doesn't have major contamination issues. “I could live downstream of you.” Santiago agrees, and a new sustainability relationship is born.

    Not easy being green

    Even with the best intentions, Doyle's program is struggling to grow beyond its pilot phase. LARS currently operates on about $40,000 and is largely staffed by interns, who call themselves the Laboratory Research and Technical Staff (LabRATS). Doyle and his helpers scrounge most of the money from receptive departments and grants from foundations. The university won't commit hard funding until more labs are eager for assessments.

    That's been a big challenge. In its first year, Doyle and his crew only visited labs they were friendly with, racking up 11 assessments. But in early January, the program started cold-calling professors, and the reception was far more chilly. Out of 27 invitations, only four labs have said yes.

    Why the cold shoulders? “People don't want to take time away from their projects,” says LARS co-founder Maynard, even if it's only for a couple of hours. And researchers just don't give conservation a high priority, adds UCSB paleobotanist and campus sustainability crusader Bruce Tiffney: “Scientists think about being green in their personal lives, but when it comes to work, they start thinking about publications and promotions.” To that end, they typically don't want to risk using recycled reagents or tweaking delicate equipment just to save a few watts.

    The lack of tangible incentives is also a roadblock, says Doyle. Sustainable lab practices often save money, especially when energy is involved, he says, but labs don't see those savings because the university pays the bills. UCSB campus energy manager Jim Dewey agrees. “Researchers aren't going to make compromises just to save the campus money,” he says. And if making a change costs the lab itself cash, forget it. “Researchers are not held responsible for meeting carbon goals,” Dewey says. “They're held responsible for meeting their budget.”

    Labs in hot fields—especially those run by young professors—also worry about competition. Doyle recommends that researchers turn off their water baths at night to save energy. But heating those baths back up in the morning can take precious time. “The pressures on productivity are huge,” he says. “If you ask a lab to do something that will slow them down, it won't work out.”

    Spreading the word

    Despite faculty resistance, Doyle's program has begun to win converts on campus. After the LabRATS visited a soil science lab in the fall of 2006, the researchers began pestering the recycling office about recycling pipettes, paper, and electronics. “Apparently, we got them thinking, and they started calling every other day,” says Maynard. In other instances, lab members have become LabRATS themselves and have helped spread the word to other labs. “Once you tune people in, some people get really turned on,” says Doyle.

    Over the next year, Doyle hopes to reach even more scientists. One goal is to incorporate “eco-training” into the safety course that all faculty members and students must complete before working in a lab. Another project involves creating a Web site for surplus equipment to make it easier for scientists around campus to find and trade used equipment.

    Still, Doyle says that to make more than an incremental impact, he'll need to get the university involved. If UCSB were to mandate a similar program in every department—what Doyle describes as going from retail to wholesale—he predicts it could save the campus hundreds of thousands of dollars in utility bills and equipment purchases. So far, university officials have shown no sign of wanting to set any requirements. With enough faculty support, however, they just might. A positive sign is that LARS just got permission from the dean of the Division of Mathematical, Life, and Physical Sciences to assess all eight labs in the department's new marine science building.

    Doyle thinks his approach could work at other institutions, too, at least on a similarly small scale. “The challenge is finding a blend of dedicated staff and students to make the communications happen and to look for the conservation opportunities,” says Doyle, “but our experience is that there are strong personalities and dedicated conservationists on most campuses.” They just need the right tools, says Doyle, and he is planning on publishing his survey questions and other techniques on the Web.

    For now, however, Doyle is focused on the task at hand. A couple of hours after visiting the Kosik lab, the LabRATS finish an assessment of an ecology lab run by Bradley Cardinale. The lab runs out of a World War II Army barracks, and Doyle jokingly refers to it as a recycled building. Cardinale's lab has done a good job optimizing its equipment to save energy, but Doyle suggests decommissioning a few unused overhead lights and unclogging a cold-room compressor. Cardinale seems eager to comply. “I think it's going to be a very successful program, and it makes a lot of sense for academics to get involved,” he says. “If we don't take leadership for sustainability, who will?”


    Energy-Efficient Freezers for Everyone

    1. David Grimm

    If you live in the United States, it's easy to spot the most energy-efficient appliances at your local home electronics store. Thanks to a joint program of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Energy, more than 50 types of products—from computer monitors to air conditioners—sport an “Energy Star” label if they are among the most energy-efficient items in their line. But leaf through a catalog of lab equipment, and you'll find no such guides.

    Paul Mathew hopes to change that. The staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has been working with EPA for more than a year to put Energy Star labels on lab appliances. “People are clamoring for energy-efficient equipment,” he says, “and the best way to do this is to have labels.” Starting in 2008, researchers should have their wish—at least as far as fridges and freezers are concerned.

    That still leaves out a host of other lab gadgets, including ovens and centrifuges. The short-term prospects for getting Energy Star labels on these products are dim, says Mathew, because they represent a niche market. So he and colleagues at Labs21,* a federal green-labs program, have been calling manufacturers and plugging in watt meters to obtain energy-use figures for as much lab equipment as they can. Those data should start appearing on the Labs21 Web site in about a year, meaning scientists will soon be able to tell which water bath is likely to send their energy bills off the deep end.


    Do-It-Yourself Recycling

    1. David Grimm
    Tip top.

    Devin Dressman sits on a throne of recyclable pipette tip boxes.


    What if your lab went through enough plastic pipette tip boxes a month to fill a small backyard pool, and your university didn't recycle any of it? Such was the case in the Johns Hopkins University laboratory of Bert Vogelstein as it plowed hot and heavy into the cancer genome project in early 2006. “The sheer volume of what we were wasting was annoying to me,” says postdoc Devin Dressman.

    So Dressman took matters into his own hands. He hauled the plastic boxes to a local recycling pickup site and made reusable cardboard receptacles back in the lab. “Most people were really into it,” Dressman says of his labmates.

    Eventually, Dressman convinced his building manager that the program made financial sense. Johns Hopkins pays about 66 cents a kilogram to destroy biohazard trash, he notes, so the campus reduces those costs by recycling the harmless pipette boxes. The entire medical campus is now recycling the boxes, and efforts are under way to get the rest of the university involved. “It's a win-win situation for everybody, and it's self-sustaining,” says Dressman. Best of all, he no longer has to schlep plastic across town himself. “My goal was to take myself out of the picture,” Dressman says. “I'm not here to do recycling, I'm here to do research.”