Science  08 Aug 2008:
Vol. 321, Issue 5890, pp. 753

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    LOOKING AHEAD. James Hicks studies how the human body responds to zero gravity. In 2005, Hollywood's Andrew Stanton, then directing the animated film WALL-E, phoned with a question Hicks had never considered: How would 700 years of space travel affect the human race? “They're going to lose muscle mass, get atrophied limbs, and have difficulty getting around—a bloblike phenotype,” Hicks, a physiologist at the University of California, Irvine, told the director.

    That answer had a big impact on the way Pixar's animators depicted humans in the whimsical sci-fi fantasy that hit theaters this summer. During the making of the film, Hicks met with the crew and delivered a 2-hour talk on the effects of microgravity on the body. The humans in WALL-E are bloblike indeed; they rely on personal hovercrafts to move around and are addicted to liquid food and digital entertainment. Some critics have called the movie “antifat,” a charge that Hicks calls “ridiculous,” noting that the corpulent humans in the film return to redeem a polluted Earth.


    NEVER AGAIN. Floyd Chilton didn't expect to generate much heat with a recent paper on the nutritional content of various farmed fish. But a comparison of farm-raised tilapia with hamburger, bacon, and doughnuts in his discussion has put him at the center of a searing controversy.


    Chilton, a biochemist at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, studied several types of farmed fish, including the ever-more-popular tilapia. Compared with salmon, tilapia was low in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and high in omega-6 fatty acids. Chilton suspects that this combination can exacerbate inflammation in vulnerable people, such as those with heart disease (a hypothesis that is doubted by other researchers). In the July issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, he and his co-authors wrote: “All other nutritional content aside, the inflammatory potential of hamburger and pork bacon is lower than the average serving of farmed tilapia.”

    Dozens of media outlets ran with the story, some concluding that burgers and tilapia are equally good for the heart. The National Fisheries Institute, a trade group, called the coverage “sensational” and put out a press release with a letter in which 16 researchers and physicians emphasized that swapping hamburger or bacon for tilapia is “absolutely not recommended.” Chilton, who feels caught in the crossfire, says he totally agrees. “What I regret is providing a sentence that, although factual, could be such a strong sound bite.”


    SMART AND LEAN. After 34 years, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama is getting a new director: Eldredge “Biff” Bermingham.


    The 55-year-old evolutionary biologist will take over what was once a small biological field station and is now considered a premier tropical research organization, with a $25 million annual budget, 40 scientific staff, and about 1000 visiting researchers per year. On staff since 1989, Bermingham has brought molecular studies to bear on tropical systematics and evolution. As deputy director since 2003 and acting director for the past 16 months, he helped departing director Ira Rubinoff expand STRI's work in forest dynamics, including obtaining $8 million in private support to be used in part for a long-term watershed study along the Panama Canal.

    Bermingham's expertise in evolutionary biology should help STRI widen efforts to meld ecology and evolutionary biology, says STRI adviser Robert Holt, a professor at the University of Florida, Gainesville. Bermingham hopes that STRI, which gets about two-thirds of its budget from the federal government, can continue to attract the private support it needs to thrive in a tough funding climate. “We're smart, we're lean, and we are willing to take risks,” he says.



    EMPIRICAL RESEARCH. When the Iowa River began to flood after a record rainfall in June, hydraulics engineer Larry Weber and his colleagues found themselves both with and without a lab. The rising water forced the researchers to evacuate their offices in the main building of the University of Iowa's Institute of Hydraulic Research in Iowa City. The next day, the surrounding landscape and the river became their backup lab, and studying the flood became a backup project.

    The researchers have been collecting water samples and taking measurements of water levels to better understand the flood, which caused about $500 million in damages to the area around the university alone. Later this month, Weber and his colleagues expect to reclaim their offices following cleanup and restoration of the building.

    Weber says living with and studying a flood has given him and others at the university a new appreciation for water resources in his native Iowa. “We just kind of take it for granted,” he says.