News this Week

Science  12 Sep 2008:
Vol. 321, Issue 5895, pp. 1428

    U.K. Education Reform: Too Much of a Good Thing?

    1. Daniel Clery
    Eyes down.

    All U.K. students take national exams at 16. Few study science subjects after that.


    For more than a decade, the U.K. government has tweaked and revamped high school curricula and examination systems to stop a worrying slide in the number of children who study science and mathematics in their last 4 years at school. “The biggest problem is the high proportion of 15- and 16-year-olds who are dropping maths and science as soon as they possibly can,” says Michael Reiss, director of education at the Royal Society.

    Last week, the Royal Society issued a report that says the government implementation of science education reform is, well, unscientific. The changes have come so fast, one after another, that it's impossible to know whether anything has worked or just added to the problem, the report says. Moreover, new measures on the horizon, such as a high school science “diploma,” are being rushed in without appropriate testing, the Royal Society warns. Curriculum reform, it concludes, should be managed by fully independent bodies, not politicians with short-term interests. “We strongly felt [reform] should be taken away from immediate political gain so as to get a more measured response,” says polymer scientist Julia Higgins of Imperial College London, chair of the working group that produced the report.

    The malaise in U.K. science education has been well-documented. With fewer pupils studying science at school, applications for some university science courses are going down. With fewer science graduates, the demand for them in industry is high and fewer go into teaching; schools then have trouble finding specialist science teachers and teaching standards drop; and, closing the circle, even fewer pupils study science. “The best learning experience comes from teachers who really know their subject,” says Marianne Cutler, head of curriculum development with the Association for Science Education.

    Just as in the United States, where each state manages its own education system, each of the four nations in the United Kingdom—England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales—has developed slightly different ways of teaching its children. However, certain features are common across the United Kingdom. At 14, pupils drop some subjects and typically continue with eight or nine through to age 16 when they take examinations in each subject, called Standard Grades in Scotland and GCSEs in the rest of the U.K. Then compulsory education ends but the majority continue their studies until 18, some taking vocational courses while those aiming at university take three or four courses leading to exams called A-levels (“highers” in Scotland).

    Going down.

    The number of students starting A-level courses as a percentage of all 17-year-olds.


    A major change in the teaching of the sciences in most of the United Kingdom came in the early 1990s, when combined science GCSE courses were offered in place of separate physics, chemistry, and biology courses to students under 16. Separate discipline courses were considered inflexible because students who didn't want to specialize in science post-16 might drop one or two of them, thereby getting a lopsided science education. Instead, all pupils broadly studied science but could choose between a more intensive course, the equivalent of two GCSEs, or a slimmed-down single science course.

    The report says there is some evidence that this reform has reduced the number of children who pursue science after 16. In Scotland, where courses in the three basic sciences were retained, 12% of 17-year-olds studied for highers in physics in 2007, compared with just 3.6% studying for A-level physics in England. “The figures are strikingly awful if you look at them. It's a disaster,” says Higgins.

    In 2006, the English GCSE system was reorganized with the intensive double-science GCSE scrapped in favor of a range of single-award GCSEs, including separate physics, chemistry, and biology exams. The range of courses available is now “increasingly complex and targeted,” the report says. Cutler believes the new GCSEs are going “in the right direction,” but “they should have been piloted more widely and over a longer period.”

    The next step in the English school system, post-16 (the equivalent of junior and senior years at U.S. high schools), begins a makeover this year with the introduction of diplomas. These alternatives to A-levels combine theoretical study with practical experience, including in the workplace. Diplomas launched this year include engineering, IT, and society, health, and development. The government plans to launch a science diploma in 2011. Meanwhile, Wales is testing a European-style baccalaureate, and Scotland is in the midst of a major review of all its curricula from ages 3 to 18.

    The report does not say recent and upcoming curriculum reforms are misguided but rather that the U.K. nations have adopted a “nonscientific attitude to the introduction of change,” Reiss says. He contrasts the education reforms to the care and meticulousness with which drugs are tested in clinical trials: “There's nothing remotely like that for the introduction of major change in education.” He's particularly concerned about the upcoming science diploma in England. This “might fail precisely because it won't be piloted,” he says.

    The report concludes that the political pressure to deliver results before a government faces the next election is not compatible with methodical educational reform. That's why it called for an independent body to take charge of science education curricula. Reiss says they were open-minded about how such a body should be organized and constituted, but “we wanted it to be at arm's length from government.”

    The dwindling science pipeline feeding U.K. universities has had a noticeable impact: 22 physics departments have closed since 1997 (Science, 4 February 2005, p. 668), leaving fewer than half of U.K. universities now offering undergraduate physics degrees. Chemistry is in similar straits. Last December, the government commissioned a report on the state of physics in the U.K. from Bill Wakeham, vice chancellor of Southampton University. It is due to be completed this month.


    Brainy Babies and Risky Births for Neandertals

    1. Ann Gibbons

    Any new mother can tell you that modern human infants have exceptionally large brains, which makes giving birth more difficult for us than for other primates. Now, a new study of a rare Neandertal newborn and two infants shows that our closest relatives were born with brains as large as ours and that those brains grew rapidly during the first few years of life.

    This suggests that the uniquely human pattern of building big brains in utero and also expanding them quickly in infancy evolved long ago, before Neandertals and modern humans split from a common ancestor roughly half a million years ago, according to a report this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Another part of the study, an analysis of a Neandertal woman's pelvis, shows that “Neandertal women had to face similar obstetric problems as modern human women,” says co-author Christoph Zollikofer, a neurobiologist at the University of Zurich (UZ) in Switzerland.

    As adults, the extinct Neandertals had brains and bodies larger than those of living people. But little has been known about their early brain development because few fossils have been found of Neandertal newborns or female pelves. A 1990 study of 10 Neandertal fossils between the ages of 2 and 10 found that their brain volumes were as large as those of modern humans. But the new study uses “amazing specimens” to provide the first data on infants, says Christopher Dean of University College London, who worked on the 1990 study.

    Zollikofer and anthropologist Marcia Ponce de León of UZ took computed tomography scans of the most complete Neandertal neonate, which died 1 to 2 weeks after its birth about 63,000 to 73,000 years ago in Mezmaiskaya Cave in Crimea, Russia. They created a virtual reconstruction of the infant and calculated its brain size at birth to be 381 to 416 cubic centimeters (cm3), within the range of modern humans. They also calculated brain size for two infants aged 19 months and 24 months from Dederiyeh Cave in Syria and found them to be at the upper end of the size range for modern human infants of those ages. That suggests that Neandertals' brains grew even faster during infancy than do those of modern humans. That conclusion “seems pretty robust,” says paleoanthropologist Jay Kelley of the University of Illinois, Chicago, although he notes it is based on only one neonate.

    The team also did a virtual reconstruction of the pelvis of a Neandertal female from Tabun Cave in Israel. Although the top of the pelvis was slightly wider than that of modern humans, they concluded that the anatomy of both Neandertals and modern humans limited fetal brain size to 400 cm3. And in Neandertals, like modern humans, the large-brained fetuses must have rotated as they descended the birth canal, making birth difficult.

    Bearing down.

    This computerized reconstruction of a Neandertal birth shows that Neandertal newborns had brains as large as those of modern humans.


    Neandertal mothers would have spent a great deal of energy to fuel their offsprings' large and rapidly growing brains, note the authors. They propose that modern humans, whose brains and bodies have shrunk over the past 40,000 years, may thus have had an energetic advantage. Although provocative, that hypothesis is “the weakest part of the paper,” says paleoanthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. He and Zollikofer agree that more data are needed to test whether it was smaller, more fuel-efficient brains that gave modern human mothers the evolutionary edge.


    India Hopes New Fellowships Will Attract Expat Scientists

    1. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

    Synthetic chemist Gopalan Sampathkumar had always planned to return to his native India after finishing his postdoc at Johns Hopkins University. But a job offer last year from Arizona State University's Biodesign Institute seemed a lot more appealing than the prospect of earning $500 a month and battling a suffocating bureaucracy back home.

    Last week, India's Department of Biotechnology (DBT) announced that it was teaming up with the Wellcome Trust, the U.K.-based biomedical charity, to level the playing field in a big way: a 5-year, $140 million program to support up to 375 scientists in all stages of their careers. “Our goal is to attract individuals who can go on to become leaders of India's growing biomedical research enterprise,” says S. Natesh, a senior adviser to DBT.

    The initiative has its roots in a DBT fellowship program for young scientists that helped persuade Sampathkumar to turn down the Arizona offer and join the National Institute of Immunology (NII) in New Delhi. That program, which offered twice the normal starting salary, received 72 applications for only 10 slots when it was launched in 2006 and convinced DBT officials that there was pent-up demand. “I still couldn't afford a mortgage on that salary. But at least it made family life in Delhi viable,” says Sampathkumar, who returned last fall with his wife and two children.

    The new program will provide annual salary packages ranging from $16,000 to $30,000 for 3 to 5 years, depending on experience. The awardees may work at Indian institutions of their choice. It does not include lab start-up packages, although recipients are free to negotiate one with their employer. They may also request funding for research materials in addition to the fellowship. Sampathkumar received a 2-year, $400,000 package from NII that has allowed him “to recreate the lab I worked at as a postdoc at Johns Hopkins University—we've bought exactly the same brand of equipment, from biosafety cabinets to fume hoods to incubators,” he says. DBT also plans to establish several research facilities in the next 5 years, including one for stem cells and regenerative medicine and another for translational health research.

    The new initiative builds on a smaller program run by the Wellcome Trust that currently provides fellowships to about 20 senior Indian researchers. “For a country of 1.2 billion, that's a grain of sand,” says Natesh, who along with other Indian officials proposed that DBT team up with Wellcome. The charity's director, Mark Walport, says Wellcome sees the program as a way to help “establish a critical mass of Indian researchers who will jump-start the development of academic biomedicine” in the country.

    Top of the line.

    Gopalan Sampathkumar says the equipment in his Indian lab is on a par with what he used in the United States.


    The fellowships should attract talented scientists, Sampathkumar agrees. But that's not the only ingredient for a productive lab, he says. Unlike in the United States, “where I could pick up the phone and order supplies worth up to $2500,” Sampathkumar says ordering anything at NII requires going through a purchase department that is often slow to respond. And a scientist might have to wait days for a trained technician to fix an important piece of equipment. “Every day that we lose because of purchasing or equipment hassles, we fall behind our competitors,” he cautions.

    Natesh says the DBT-Wellcome Alliance, an independent public trust that will administer the fellowships, will work with institutions to ensure that awardees get appropriate support and mentoring. The alliance plans to solicit applications later this year and hopes to announce the first round of awards—40 early-career fellowships for new Ph.D.s and 20 intermediate fellowships for those with postdoctoral experience—by mid-2009. Awards for 15 senior scientists, an extension of the existing Wellcome program, will be announced next month.


    Broad Gives $400 Million More to Cambridge Institute

    1. Jocelyn Kaiser

    The billionaire founder of a 10-year experiment in team science begun at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University has decided halfway through that it's working so well it should be made permanent. Last week, Los Angeles businessman Eli Broad announced a $400 million gift that will allow the Broad Institute, already a genomics research powerhouse, to become a self-sustaining entity. “I think we've all agreed it's been a resounding success,” Broad told reporters.

    Broad donated $100 million in 2003 to create the institute after visiting Eric Lander's huge lab at the MIT-affiliated Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research as it was winding up its part in sequencing the human genome. The new institute's mission was to move genomics into the clinic (Science, 20 June 2003, p. 1856). It was set up administratively as part of MIT, with Lander and three other scientific stars from MIT and Harvard as its founding faculty. It has since attracted another $100 million from Broad and $100 million from the Stanley Medical Research Institute for research on the genetics of psychiatric diseases.

    Proof of concept.

    Billionaire Eli Broad discusses his latest gift to the Broad Institute, directed by Eric Lander (left).


    Broad Institute researchers have played prominent roles in projects such as the HapMap, which studied human genetic diversity; a consortium to develop RNAi research tools; and a search for mutations in human cancers. The $150-million-a-year institute now has about 1100 full- and part-time permanent staff and 118 affiliated faculty members. Lander says its two strengths are strong technology and a structure that allows it to “self-assemble” teams from MIT and Harvard, including its 17 affiliated hospitals. “It is a really good, innovative model,” says Bruce Stillman, president of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York.

    Broad's latest gift will allow the institute to have something it has never had—an endowment. “[It] will secure the permanency of the institute,” says Broad, who hopes other gifts will raise the pot to $1 billion. Although the institute will still be governed by a board drawn from MIT and Harvard, its standalone status will give it greater flexibility in paying its scientists, staffers say.


    McCain, Obama Present Their Wars on Cancer

    1. Jennifer Couzin

    With the U.S. presidential election less than 2 months away, both candidates explained last week how their Administrations would combat cancer. Appearing on a celebrity-studded television fundraiser, Stand Up 2 Cancer, that aired on 5 September, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama advocated somewhat different strategies but agreed on the need for better access to early detection technologies and more preventive care.

    McCain's statement highlights legislation he supported in 2001 to improve access to clinical trials and, last year, to fund research on the environmental risk factors of breast cancer, a bill Obama endorsed as well. McCain also referred to his past support for doubling the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget over 6 years, adding that “as President, [I] will make sure that our researchers have necessary funding to defeat cancer once and for all.”

    Obama offered a denser, arguably more detailed plan, which included doubling the budget for cancer research in 5 years, mainly through the National Cancer Institute, and boosting from about 4% to 10% the number of adults with cancer participating in clinical trials. He also said he would provide “additional funding for research on rare cancers and those without effective treatment options” and for the study of genetic factors driving cancer and outcomes.

    “He's been hearing from scientists … who have told him that we're stagnating” because of a flat NIH budget, says Neera Tanden, an Obama domestic policy adviser. Tanden adds that “there's no reason to assume” NIH, which enjoyed a rapid doubling of its budget in the late 1990s, would suffer a second crash landing of the kind it's experiencing today if its budget again rose dramatically. Tyler Jacks, director of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, says he applauds McCain's pledge to better coordinate public and privately funded research because foundations and individuals have greatly increased their spending on cancer. But he found it “a little odd” that McCain emphasized past legislation rather than looking ahead.

    Richard Marchase, president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland, welcomes the willingness of both candidates to consider boosting the science research budget. But he cautions that “we're going to have much better results if we have a broader base than just cancer funding.” Focusing too heavily on one disease, he says, could blunt the impact of “serendipity” in the lab.


    Quantum Flashlight Pierces the Darkness With a Few Percent as Many Photons

    1. Adrian Cho

    Anyone who has stubbed a toe while creeping through a darkened bedroom probably has wished to see better in the dark. Now, a theoretical analysis on page 1463 shows how to do that using strangely interconnected particles of light, or photons. The approach greatly reduces the number of photons needed to detect an object. It could be used for imaging samples in the lab or for spotting satellites in the skies, says Seth Lloyd, the paper's author and a self-described quantum-mechanical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

    “This is a new way of exploiting quantum mechanics,” says Giacomo Mauro D'Ariano, a theorist at the University of Pavia, Italy. Juan Perez Torres, an experimenter at the Institute of Photonic Sciences and the Polytechnic University of Catalonia in Barcelona, Spain, says putting the plan into practice should be “not impossible to do.”

    To tell if there's something out there, you could shine a search beam to see if it reflects back to you. However, an object may reflect only a tiny fraction of light in the direction from which it came, and the surrounding environment can generate photons itself. So you'll have to send out enough photons to determine if the number coming from a particular direction exceeds the number expected from the environment alone.

    Quantum weirdness can whack down the number needed, Lloyd says. Suppose the photons in the beam are emitted one by one, and each can have any of 30 slightly different colors or frequencies. Then, bizarrely, quantum theory allows each photon to have all 30 different frequencies at once—although that delicate “superposition” collapses randomly to one frequency or another as soon as the photon is measured.

    Who's there?

    Entangled photons trapped in the lab can help tell whether other photons come from a beam bouncing off a foreign object.


    Moreover, two photons can be “entangled” so that each is in such an indefinite split-personality state, yet their frequencies are locked together. For example, the photons can be entangled so that when they are measured, the sum of their frequencies will equal twice the average of the 30 frequencies. Lloyd envisions sending one photon from each pair in the beam while keeping the other “ancilla” in a delay loop (see figure, above).

    A photon arriving from the chosen direction is then compared with the ancilla. If the arriving photon started out in the beam, its frequency and the ancilla's will add to the correct sum. A photon arriving from the background has only a 1-in-30 chance of making a correct tally, so it is harder for background photons to masquerade as returnees from the beam. That difference makes it possible to detect an object with only Graphic as many photons, Lloyd calculates. He says it should be possible to use 1 million frequencies in the future.

    Ironically, although the entanglement helps reveal the object through the background noise, the noise obliterates the entanglement. Without noise, the frequencies of every pair would add to the same sum. Mix in enough noise, and the sum varies from pair to pair essentially at random, signifying a complete lack of entanglement. Yet merely starting with entangled pairs is enough to improve the efficiency for detecting an object in the noisy case. “Any entanglement you put into the system is completely gone by the time you make the measurement,” Lloyd says. “Nonetheless, it helps.”

    That's surprising, says experimentalist Torres—so much so that he wonders if entanglement is really necessary after all. “It might be that the entanglement is destroyed but that you still have certain [weaker] correlations that give you an advantage,” he says. “But then it's not the entanglement that's producing the effect.”

    But the particular formula for the improvement suggests that entanglement, although destroyed, is key, says theorist D'Ariano. “There are many things to check, but this idea is very promising,” he says. Lloyd says he hopes someone will do a proof-of-principle experiment within a year.


    The Mushroom Cloud's Silver Lining

    1. David Grimm

    Fallout from atomic bomb testing is helping to solve crimes and address some of the most controversial questions in biology.

    Fallout from atomic bomb testing is helping to solve crimes and address some of the most controversial questions in biology

    Bomb boom.

    Hundreds of aboveground nuclear tests, like this one carried out in the Pacific in 1958, seeded the atmosphere with excess 14C.


    The two mummified bodies in the Vienna apartment told a sad tale. The reclusive elderly sisters had clearly been dead for several years, but no one had noticed; neighbors in the upper-middle-class complex believed they had merely moved away. Stale bank accounts finally tipped off the police, who discovered the remains in December 1992.

    Investigators found no evidence of foul play, so they focused on the question of who died first. Both sisters had large pensions and separate life insurance policies, and the insurance company of the woman who died last would collect the bulk of the funds. “There was a lot of money at stake,” says Walter Kutschera, a physicist at the Vienna Environmental Research Accelerator at the University of Vienna in Austria. Not long after the bodies were found, a scientist from the university's forensics department approached Kutschera and his colleague, Eva Maria Wild, to ask if they could help crack the case. The forensics expert knew the pair had been using radiocarbon dating to determine the age of archaeological samples, and he wondered if the same technique could shed light on the year each sister had died.

    It couldn't. Radiocarbon dating is a blunt instrument that relies on the slow decay of a form of carbon known as carbon-14 (14C), which is incorporated into animals during their lifetime. The method works well for samples that are tens of thousands of years old, but it's only accurate to within a few hundred years.

    Wild and Kutschera had another idea. Aboveground testing of nuclear weapons after World War II had injected 14C into Earth's atmosphere, creating an abnormally high level of the isotope that has been tapering off since then. If the researchers could measure the amount of 14C in something carbon-based that the sisters had generated just before death—fats in the bone, for example—and compare it with historic levels of 14C in the atmosphere, they should be able to tell which year each sister expired.

    It worked. Wild and Kutschera found that one sister had died in 1988 and the other in 1989. “One sister lived for some time next to the dead one,” says Wild. Investigators closed the case, and Wild and Kutschera returned to dating ancient bones and seeds. But it would soon become clear that the “bomb pulse” technique had much more to offer. In the past decade, thanks largely to the pioneering work of an Australian postdoc with a taste for trying new things, groups have begun using the strategy for diverse causes such as identifying disaster victims, authenticating wine vintages, and tackling some of the most controversial questions in biology, including whether the human brain generates neurons throughout life.

    From pet shop to slaughterhouse

    2001 started well for Kirsty Spalding, but by the end of the year she would be knee-deep in a failing project. The 29-year-old had just finished her graduate work in neuroscience at the University of Western Australia in Perth, and she was planning on spending a year in Europe as a postdoc before moving to the United States. On her way to interview at a couple of prospective labs at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, Spalding caught a talk by Jonas Frisén, a prominent stem cell researcher there. “It wasn't what I had planned on doing,” says Spalding, referring to Frisén's work on the formation of new neurons in the brain—a process called neurogenesis. “But I found him very personable and the work very interesting.”

    A few months later, Spalding was in Frisén's lab, trying to map neurogenesis in the zebrafish brain. But neither she nor her lab-mates had worked with the animal before, and they weren't aware that technical suppliers provided fish specially bred for laboratory study. Instead, Spalding biked over to a local pet shop and brought a few zebrafish back to the lab. Needless to say, the experiments didn't work.

    Her mentor didn't lose faith, however. “I could tell that Kirsty liked challenges and that she was extremely entrepreneurial,” says Frisén. That made her perfect for a new project he had in mind. Familiar with the bomb-pulse work done by Wild and Kutschera, Frisén wondered if it could be applied to DNA. When a cell divides, 14C in the environment is incorporated in new chromosomes, and thus the DNA effectively takes a snapshot of the amount of atmospheric 14C—and hence the birth date—of the cell. If Frisén could exploit this, he might be able to show whether humans generate new brain cells throughout life—a central question in neuroscience. But no one would take on the project. Postdoc after postdoc turned him down, calling the work too risky and too difficult. When Frisén saw Spalding with the zebrafish, he knew he had found someone who wouldn't be daunted.

    Spalding agreed. “I liked the problem-solving aspect of it, and I didn't have the burden of knowledge to know how difficult it would be,” she laughs. Spalding's planned 1-year sojourn in Europe suddenly became an indefinite commitment.

    To address neurogenesis in humans, Spalding needed brains from an animal with a similar life span, so she turned to horses, which can live more than 25 years. That meant trips to the local slaughterhouse. “I would watch them walk the horse in, … and then they would chop off its head and hand it to me,” recalls Spalding, who had to excavate the skulls herself. “It's not so easy to hack your way into a horse's head. … It was not pretty.”

    Brains in hand, Spalding still had challenges to overcome, such as measuring a scarce isotope. 14C makes up only one part per trillion of all of the carbon in the atmosphere. Most comes from cosmic ray collisions with nitrogen, but when the United States, the former Soviet Union, and other nations detonated more than 500 nuclear warheads aboveground in the 1950s and '60s, the atmospheric 14C level doubled. It only began to dissipate when the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963 moved atomic tests underground (see illustration).

    Atomic child.

    14C levels in DNA from visual and memory neurons stay the same throughout life, indicating no neurogenesis in these brain regions. Levels in fat cells change, suggesting constant fat cell turnover. 14C levels in tooth enamel remain constant and can be used to calculate a person's birth date.


    Despite these elevated atmospheric concentrations, only about one atom of 14C incorporates into every 15 cells. So relatively huge amounts of tissue—up to 5 grams, depending on the part of the body it comes from—are needed for even the world's most powerful isotope detectors to spot it. Horse brains were big enough to provide that amount, but Spalding also had to find a way to sift through a custard of fat, glia, and fibroblasts for the neurons she needed. After taking nearly a year to develop a technique, she was ready to pin ages on neurons and enter the ongoing fray over neurogenesis.

    The brain war

    Pasko Rakic is a five-star general in a conflict that's been raging for more than a decade in the neuroscience field. The Yale University neuroscientist, who did pioneering work in how the primate brain forms, has famously established the beachhead position that the human cerebral cortex—a region key for memory, language, and consciousness—does not make new neurons after development. He's often made the point that such adult neurogenesis would be counterproductive, disrupting already formed memories, for example.

    But in 1998, a research team found evidence to the contrary. It gave people with terminal cancer a synthetic compound called bromodeoxyuridine (BrdU), which inserts into newly synthesized DNA and thus serves as a marker for new cells. The compound was supposed to gauge tumor growth, but it also showed up in the hippocampus, the brain's learning and memory center (Science, 6 November 1998, p. 1018). A year later, Princeton University neuroscientist Elizabeth Gould bolstered the case for ongoing neurogenesis in the brain by giving adult macaques BrdU and finding it in the neocortex, a region responsible for language and consciousness in humans. But 2 years after that, Rakic injected a different DNA marker into monkeys and saw no new neurons in the adult brain. The field has been divided ever since.

    “It's been extremely difficult to get any information in humans,” says Gerd Kempermann, a neurogenesis expert at the Center for Regenerative Therapies Dresden in Germany. BrdU is toxic, so it can't be given to healthy people, and Rakic has expressed concern that the compound confuses cells into dividing, leading to false positives.

    14C doesn't have that problem. It's not toxic, and like it or not, we've all absorbed it. “All of humanity is labeled,” as Kutschera puts it.

    As the salvos continued in the neurogenesis debate, Spalding had proved that she could use the bomb-pulse technique to date brain cells in horses. She shipped her first human samples—from the brain's visual center, the occipital cortex—to Bruce Buchholz, who runs an isotope detector the size of a basketball court at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Although nonhuman studies had suggested that the occipital cortex was a hotbed of neurogenesis, the 14C data collected by Buchholz indicated that human neurons from this region had the same birth date as the people they came from. That meant no new visual neurons for adults. A year later, Spalding and colleagues found similar results in the human neocortex.

    “It's really extraordinary work, and it's extremely clever,” says Kempermann. “I think many people will take it as the final word in the debate.” Still, Gould notes that other regions of the human brain—such as the hippocampus—have yet to be tested with the technique. And she says that because the bomb-pulse method doesn't target individual cells, it may not be sensitive enough to pick up a small population of neurons that does divide and could contribute to repair and learning. Spalding was in the midst of addressing those questions when disaster struck a continent away.

    CSI: Sweden

    “Total chaos.” That's how Stockholm's former chief medical examiner, Henrik Druid, describes the scene as bodies piled up at the Karolinska Institute morgue in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people, including more than 500 Swedish tourists. “The bodies were so badly decomposed, you couldn't tell the teenagers from the old people,” he says.

    Hoping to help, Spalding approached Druid with some intriguing findings from her days at the slaughterhouse. In addition to analyzing horses' brains, she had looked at their teeth, showing that because enamel is permanent and forms early, its 14C levels give an accurate estimate of the animal's age. Spalding asked Druid if the technique might be useful to him.

    “At first I was skeptical,” he recalls. But Druid didn't have many options. In the confusion surrounding the disaster, identifying materials such as x-rays and DNA samples from relatives had not been shipped with the bodies. “If you have no clue to the identity of a person, age and sex are the most important way to limit the search,” he says. Anthropologists are only accurate to within about 10 years when trying to determine age from a skeleton. So, aided by Spalding, Druid applied the bomb-pulse technique to the teeth of six tsunami victims. After adding the time it takes for human enamel to form (about 12 years for wisdom teeth, for example), they were able to predict the ages of every victim to within 1.6 years, as borne out by the identifying materials that eventually arrived at Karolinska.

    Carbon warrior.

    Kirsty Spalding has used the bomb-pulse technique to reveal whether adults generate new neurons and fat cells—and to help identify disaster victims.


    With further refinement, Druid has shaved the accuracy down to 1 year, and he's now using the approach to help Swedish investigators crack two unsolved homicides. “This is going to be very, very valuable for criminal investigation,” says Druid. “In a year or two, you're going to begin seeing cases in the newspaper that were solved with this method.” Spalding too has begun working with Swedish police—as well as with investigators in Canada—and she eventually hopes to set up a company to perform the tooth analysis. In preparation, she has taken business classes at night, all while forging ahead with her brain work—and a new project that would send her spinning in an entirely different direction.

    The fat offensive

    In 2005, Spalding was presenting her brain findings at Karolinska when a member of the audience approached her. “A Ph.D. student came up to me and said he thought the 14C work was something his dad would be interested in,” she says. The father—a prominent researcher at Karolinska named Peter Arner—was grappling with a debate not unlike the one faced by the neurogenesis community.

    This time the issue was fat. “If you go to any textbook, it will tell you that once a fat cell is born, you've got it forever,” explains John Prins, an expert on fat-cell turnover at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. But there were some who believed that the blubber on our bellies and hips is constantly dying and being replenished. It's not just an academic debate: If you can make the body destroy more fat than it creates, you've got a ticket to weight loss.

    But no one could conclusively address the question. “The techniques we have for measuring fat turnover are insufficiently sensitive and fairly inaccurate,” says Prins. The best researchers could do was have volunteers drink heavy water, which contains elevated levels of an isotope of hydrogen known as deuterium, and look for that isotope in fat cells. “Not too many people want to drink heavy water,” Prins says.

    Spalding began working with Arner, and by 2006 she had developed a regimen for isolating fat cells from the vast array of other cells found in human flab. Analyzing fat biopsies and liposuction leftovers from people of various ages, Spalding showed that people born a few years before atomic bomb testing began had fat cells with high levels of 14C, which only made sense if these cells were generated after the fallout had spiked the isotope's levels. When Spalding looked at people born after the bomb tests, she saw fat cells with different amounts of 14C, levels corresponding to various dates on the bomb-pulse curve. In all, the data indicate that people replace half of their fat cells about every 8 years, Spalding reported this summer in Nature.

    “It's a landmark paper … and a phenomenal advance on a number of fronts,” says Prins. “You've got this technique out of Star Trek, and now everybody thinks that fat is a dynamic organ.” No drug company would have looked into fat turnover before, he says, “but now people will start to consider therapeutic perspectives.”

    Loving the bomb

    As the years go by, the 14C level in the atmosphere is slowly returning to its prewar levels. Rising carbon dioxide emissions, chock-full of 12C, have only hastened the isotope's demise. And yet the bomb-pulse technique is just taking off.

    Both Spalding, who left Frisén's lab in 2006 to become an assistant professor at Karolinska, and Frisén are expanding its applications. Entering debates similar to the ones about neurogenesis and fat turnover, they're looking at whether heart cells and insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas renew throughout life or whether we're stuck with the ones we're born with. In tissues in which stem cells have been identified, they plan to examine how often these cells divide and how they are made.

    “The clinical implications are huge,” says Yuval Dor, a cell biologist at The Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School in Jerusalem, Israel, and an observer of the bomb-pulse technique. “There are hundreds of great biological questions that can be answered. … We're all very much looking forward to how this will turn out.”

    The weight isn't all on Spalding and Frisén's shoulders. Other groups have begun to experiment with the technique as well. Like Frisén, diabetologists David Harlan and Shira Perl of the U.S. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland, are using 14C to measure turnover in beta cells. And Lawrence Livermore's Buchholz says he's been approached by a number of labs interested in everything from climate modeling (changing weather patterns are reflected in 14C levels in coral) to dating confiscated ivory tusks and authenticating wine vintages (see sidebar).

    Still, it's not a technique that most labs have the resources to adopt. “There are no kits you can buy to do this,” says Buchholz. And most labs don't have access to the powerful isotope detectors needed to perform the 14C analysis.

    Critics also point out that the bomb-pulse technique has limitations. Although Spalding's work supported Rakic's stance on neurogenesis, Rakic notes that when damaged cells repair DNA, that DNA could incorporate new 14C, suggesting new cell formation when there is none. Conversely, fat-turnover expert Prins says that new cells sometimes recycle DNA from dead cells, giving the impression—under 14C analysis—that no new cells have been made.

    And Spalding admits that the forensics applications have a shelf life: As 14C levels recede to background in the atmosphere—Buchholz estimates a return to prebomb conditions by 2020—it will become harder and harder to tell a corpse's year of death. But she's optimistic that as isotope detectors become more sensitive—she's working with Wild and Kutschera to help make this happen—police will be solving cases with the technique for years to come. Brain, fat, and other clinical research won't be affected by the dissipation, as scientists can turn to tissue samples banked over the decades after the bomb tests.

    Back at Karolinska, Spalding, Frisén, and a few other collaborators have just formed a Center of Excellence to map the regenerative potential of the entire human body. Over the next 10 years, they'll try to gauge the turnover of every cell type they can. “I love this technique,” says Frisén. “We're having a lot of fun with it.”

    Next year, for a sabbatical, Spalding will head off to California, where she will look for new challenges while continuing her brain and fat research. Stay tuned for an upcoming paper on neurogenesis in the hippocampus—and some more surprises with fat turnover.

    Meanwhile, at the birthplace of the atomic bomb in New Mexico, retired Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist Donald Barr reflects on what Spalding and the other bomb-pulse researchers are doing. He's been at the lab for more than 50 years, keeping tabs on nuclear fallout in the atmosphere, and he still comes in a couple of days a week to chat isotopes with his former colleagues. The mushroom clouds from nuclear detonations do indeed have a silver lining, he says. “There are questions we can now answer because of that testing that scientists never thought about at the time.”


    Forgers Face the Nuclear Option

    1. David Grimm

    Australian winemakers concerned about their vintage wines being disputed in the wake of surging exports to Europe in the late 1990s have turned to the bomb-pulse technique (see main text) to verify the year a wine was made.

    Graham Jones knows a good wine when he tastes one. For nearly 2 decades, the enologist has been teaching students and winemakers at the University of Adelaide in Australia how to become better connoisseurs of the beverage—and how to spot a fake. So when the Australian wine industry became concerned about its vintage wines being disputed in the wake of surging exports to Europe in the late 1990s, it turned to Jones.

    “We wanted to develop a technique that, if our wines were challenged, we had the ability to authenticate them ourselves,” says Jones. A colleague suggested he take a look at the bomb-pulse technique (see main text). Applied to wines, the method should allow researchers to verify the year a wine was made. That's because, when grapes grow, vine leaves take up 14C-containing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it to sugar, which eventually becomes the alcohol in wine. Jones's lab developed a procedure to separate the alcohol from other components of wine, but he needed a way to measure its 14C content. So he turned to scientists at Australia's only nuclear research accelerator, based at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) in New South Wales.

    A good year.

    Graham Jones has used the bomb-pulse technique to authenticate wine vintages


    The team was able to accurately calculate the vintage, within 1 year, of a variety of South Australian Cabernet Sauvignons bottled between 1958 and 1997. Although the technique is too expensive to be used regularly, Jones thinks the study warded off European regulators. “The fact that they haven't challenged any of our wines yet is a definite plus for the work,” he says.

    The ANSTO team has since moved from wine to illicit drugs. When sold illegally, narcotics like morphine tend to be produced and shipped quickly, says Jones, whereas legal morphine can sit around for a while after it's made. ANSTO researchers have shown that it's possible to date these drugs—via the 14C content of the poppy plants they come from—as a way of gauging their legality.

    Scientists elsewhere have targeted another type of illicit activity: poaching. Bruce Buchholz, who runs an isotope detector at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, is collaborating with researchers to date ivory tusks and lion teeth. Because tusks grow throughout an elephant's life, scientists can determine if one has the 14C signature of a time after an ivory ban went into effect. Similarly, 14C in teeth could ostensibly reveal whether hunters are killing off too many young male lions. Buchholz has also heard about groups using the technique to gauge whether a painting supposedly made before the 1940s is a recent forgery, based on the 14C content of the canvas. “If it's supposed to be old and it has bomb carbon in it,” says Buchholz, “you know something's wrong.”

  9. ELECTION 2008

    Obama and McCain Are Swept Up in a Surprising Space Race

    1. Andrew Lawler

    Space policy may not be on the minds of most Americans, but it's become an important issue in the race for the White House. How did that happen, and what does it mean for President Bush's 2004 vision for exploration?

    Space policy may not be on the minds of most Americans, but it's become an important issue in the race for the White House. How did that happen, and what does it mean for President Bush's 2004 vision for exploration?

    Stem cells, climate change, energy research, the teaching of evolution—these are today's hot-button science and technology issues. But in the contentious U.S. presidential race, the human space exploration program stole the limelight last month.

    A savvy group of business boosters in electoral-vote-rich Florida and a small band of determined space advocates have convinced the Republican contender, Arizona Senator John McCain, and his Democratic rival, Illinois Senator Barack Obama, that NASA's fortunes are intertwined with their quest for the Oval Office. Vying last month to prove their space-friendly credentials, the two men visited the area around NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, issued dueling policy statements, and insisted that they were eager to boldly go where humans have not been since geologist Harrison Schmitt closed the hatch on the lunar module in 1972. Returning to the moon even made it into the Republican Party platform finalized last week in St. Paul, Minnesota.

    The impetus for the debate is the job losses connected to a 2010 phaseout of the aging space shuttle. Both candidates say they will consider postponing that retirement date while pushing for a new launcher that could speed humans to the moon by 2020. Both also want to bolster scientific research aboard the international space station still under construction—and question the Bush Administration's decision to mothball it in 2016.

    The unusual bout of political one-upmanship has broadened the debate over the agency's future beyond its traditional audience of university researchers and aerospace engineers who benefit from NASA's annual $17 billion largesse and their congressional supporters. It also promises to brighten the agency's current gloomy fiscal picture. “Raising the profile of space as a campaign issue in Florida is an excellent way to increase the budget of NASA,” says Dale Ketcham, director of the Spaceport Research and Technology Institute, a consortium based at Kennedy that backs research and commercialization efforts. The debate provides a rare glimpse into how politics, economics, and science and technology interact to make a campaign issue. “It's lucky we're a swing area in a swing state,” says Lynda Weatherman, president and chief executive officer of the Economic Development Commission of Florida's Space Coast, which played a starring role in placing space on the presidential candidates' agenda.

    Campaign sweet spot

    The business group represents a region along the state's central Atlantic coast that depends heavily on Kennedy, where the space shuttle orbiters are refurbished, mated with solid rockets and a large external tank, and launched. Although the center employs fewer than 2000 civil servants, tens of thousands of locals work for NASA contractors and subcontractors. In addition, shuttle launches draw large numbers of tourists, pumping more money into the local economy.

    That prosperity, however, is threatened by the 2004 initiative put forward by President George W. Bush. Under that plan, the shuttle is slated to be retired in 2010 to free up funds for a successor launcher that eventually would take humans back to the moon. On 24 June, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin told a Senate panel meeting in nearby Port Canaveral that Kennedy alone will lose between 6000 and 7000 shuttle-related jobs. That loss, he added, will be offset by 3000 new jobs at or near the center associated with the space station and the new launcher. An estimated 1000 people converged the night before the hearing for an emotional rally decrying the impact of the shuttle's retirement on local jobs and urging legislators to extend the program.

    “Families are anxious,” says Ketcham, who began to woo the campaign staffs of presidential candidates as early as March 2007. “This is not rocket science but simple political arithmetic. This is a critical corridor, and this is an issue which could decide who wins the state.” Florida played the decisive role in the tight 2000 race between Bush and Democrat Al Gore and again in 2004 in the race between Bush and John Kerry. Its 27 electoral votes are the fourth biggest prize in the country, a total likely to rise in 2012 after reapportionment following the 2010 census.

    Although the demographic trends brought erstwhile Republican candidates Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney to the Kennedy Space Center in January, Weatherman knew that simply complaining about job losses was not enough to make space matter in the campaign. “A bigger issue was needed for national leadership to take note,” she says. By the time a delegation of Space Coast businesspeople met with McCain staffers in Washington, D.C., in April and 1 month later with Obama staffers in Chicago, Illinois, the commission had found the answer: the projected 5-year gap in access to the international space station between the time the shuttle flies its last mission in 2010 and the new Constellation rocket begins operations by 2015.


    To bridge the gap, the White House initiative assumes that U.S. astronauts will hitch rides on the Russian Soyuz vehicles to service the space station. That dependence initially concerned only a handful of politicians, notably U.S. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), who flew on the shuttle while a congressman and who is a longtime NASA supporter. Although McCain chaired the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee when it held hearings on the proposal in 2004 and 2005, he declined to join the attack on the president's plan. And he remained quiet during the long season of presidential primaries.

    But McCain broke his silence in a 29 July statement marking the 50th anniversary of NASA. “My opponent seems content to retreat from American exploration of space for a decade,” he declared. “I am not.” His reference was to an $18-billion-a-year education plan from Obama that would be paid for in part by delaying the new launcher by an additional 5 years. Although Obama's staff beat a hasty retreat after harsh criticism from Senator Hillary Clinton's (D-NY) staff and space advocates (Science, 1 February, p. 565), the candidate himself had not publicly revised his education plan.

    To set himself apart, McCain promised to give the Constellation program the funding it needs to begin a new era of human exploration. Although the statement does not mention returning humans to the moon, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former Congressional Budget Office director and now a senior policy adviser to McCain, said that the Republican “thinks that we need the capacity to put men in space and get to the international space station. He also believes we need to put men back on the moon.”

    Four days later, Obama came to the Space Coast and picked up the gauntlet that McCain had thrown down. Visiting the nearby town of Titusville with Nelson and standing behind a sign declaring “Economic Security for American Families,” the Democratic candidate pledged to allow at least one additional shuttle flight, speed up the shuttle's successor, and make sure “that all those who work in the space industry in Florida do not lose their jobs.” He also promised to reestablish a presidential aeronautics and space council “so that we can develop a plan to explore the solar system—a plan that involves both human and robotic missions, and enlists both international partners and the private sector.” Standing beside a beaming Nelson, Obama said that “under my watch, NASA will inspire the world, make America stronger, and help grow the economy here in Florida.” Nelson and sources close to Obama's campaign say that the candidate wants to boost NASA's budget by $2 billion, although they aren't clear whether that would be a one-time or an annual increase.

    Heavy lifting.

    The potential loss of thousands of jobs at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where workers prepare the shuttle orbiter Atlantis for its next launch, has helped Lynda Weatherman (inset) and other local business leaders inject space into the presidential campaign.


    McCain didn't wait long to reply. On 12 August, he released a two-page statement in which he promised to finish the space station, support Constellation, and ensure that space exploration “is a top priority.” He also touted his history of pressing NASA to control costs and promised to prevent pork-barrel spending from sapping the agency's research muscle. And on 18 August, McCain spent an hour in a closed-door session with space industry representatives adjacent to Kennedy, where Weatherman says he questioned them on NASA's future. At a press conference the same day, he criticized Obama for having a “short, thin record” on space.

    By then, however, Obama had released a seven-page paper laying out in surprising detail his plan for space. Along with backing a new generation of science probes and observatories, the plan endorsed sending humans to the moon by 2020—as Bush proposed—and eventually on “to more distant destinations, including Mars.” To get there, Obama backed a new launcher, though he did not endorse the specific Constellation effort, which faces technical and budgetary hurdles. Two weeks later, he repeated that message in a reply to questions from a grassroots science advocacy campaign, calling it part of “a 21st century vision of space” (

    McCain has also continued to speak out. Two days after his visit to the Space Coast, he told a Florida television station that “I stand for not cutting any of the NASA budget, which Senator Obama proposed and then reversed himself, as he has on a number of things.” On the same day, Obama explained that he changed his view after consultations.

    Making the case

    Obama's attention to detail, say several Democratic insiders, owes much to a small group of space advocates led by Lori Garver, a former NASA official under President Bill Clinton, director of the National Space Society, and currently a consultant with Washington's Avascent Group, an organization that works primarily for aerospace companies. Garver, who advised Senator Clinton's campaign until her defeat this spring, declined to discuss how that policy was formulated. Her counterpart on the McCain campaign, former Apollo astronaut Walter Cunningham, isn't so shy. He calls Garver “the architect” of Obama's space policy, which he said shows “a good understanding of space science and exploration.”

    Meanwhile, the conflict between Russia and Georgia, which broke out in early August, provided an unexpected boost to those hoping to make the launch gap a campaign issue. The resulting deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations led a growing number of politicians to question NASA's dependence on the Soyuz. McCain and two other senators sent Bush a 25 August letter warning that retiring the shuttle promptly could endanger U.S. access to the space station even if it makes financial sense. Speeding up the new launcher program, which already faces technical hurdles, or encouraging private launchers won't be enough to close the gap, they warned. Instead, they recommended that NASA “take no action for at least one year from now that would preclude the extended use of the space shuttle beyond 2010.” The message, says Cunningham, is “we gotta keep the shuttle flying.”

    Griffin complained bitterly in a recent e-mail that White House officials are conducting a “jihad” against the shuttle and that the only “politically tenable course” for the next president is to extend the shuttle, according to a report in the 7 September Orlando Sentinel. Garver admits that she is “thoroughly amazed” the gap has emerged as a contentious national issue.

    Unlike in past campaigns, space has even become part of each party's platform, a nonbinding compilation of positions. There's a brief mention in the Democratic version of a “strong and inspirational vision” for space and a sentence in the Republican document declaring that “we look toward our country's return to the moon.” That's nice, say the Florida Space Coasters, but it's not enough. “[The candidates] are competing with one another, which is good for us,” says Ketcham. Adds Weatherman, “Now we need specifics.”

  10. ELECTION 2008

    New Institute Shoots for the Moon

    1. Andrew Lawler

    The home of the new NASA Lunar Science Institute lacks air conditioning, a conference room, and a working water fountain. But lunar scientists hope to refurbish the shabby surroundings as part of a larger renovation that will set the agenda for a new generation of scientific exploration.

    A relaunch.

    Scientists dedicate the old Moffett Field headquarters as the lunar institute.


    MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIFORNIA—The home of the new NASA Lunar Science Institute, which opened its doors here on 1 March, is a shadow of its former glory. Once the centerpiece of the Navy's now-abandoned Moffett Field, the stately stucco building currently sits on the periphery of NASA's Ames Research Center. The two-story structure lacks air conditioning, a conference room, and a working water fountain. But lunar scientists hope to refurbish the shabby surroundings—which now reflect the tattered state of the discipline—as part of a larger renovation that will set the agenda for a new generation of scientific exploration.

    Whether that happens depends in large part on the next U.S. president (see main text). The 500 scientists, engineers, and students who gathered here in July to lay out an ambitious new agenda for lunar science are hoping that he retains President George W. Bush's 2004 initiative to return humans to the moon. Lunar scientists hope to ride the coattails of that exploration effort, which will require robots to scout out the lunar environment before astronauts land and conduct extensive research on the surface, beginning in 2020.

    But U.S. scientists aren't taking any chances. European, Japanese, and Canadian representatives stayed after the meeting to hammer out plans for an International Lunar Network to coordinate the plethora of lunar missions planned by several nations in the next several years (Science, 16 March 2007, p. 1482). So even if the United States ultimately were to bow out of human exploration, its researchers could still have a hand in the field. “During the next 5 years, there will be an astounding amount of data” coming back from the moon, says Carlé Pieters, a planetary scientist at Brown University who co-chaired a National Research Council study last year on lunar research. “There will be a feast—and there are not enough people to analyze it.”

    With a current budget of $1.5 million, the institute will design neither instruments nor missions, says astronomer David Morrison, its acting director pending the appointment of a permanent head by the end of the year. (NASA has a separate fund for peer-reviewed lunar basic research by individual investigators.) Instead, Morrison says, the institute hopes to be a nexus for a growing number of lunar research teams, complementing other organizations like the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.

    In charge.

    David Morrison is the institute's acting director.


    The first visible signs of that commitment will come later this year with the signing of 4-year cooperative agreements with several universities and research institutes. Morrison hopes the institute's 2009 budget will grow to $10 million, split between NASA's science and exploration offices. In addition to funding more data analyses, says Morrison's deputy, Greg Schmidt, the additional resources will help “create a community” of lunar scientists.

    That community is eager to provide input for human missions that would explore the moon in far more detail and subtlety than is possible with robotic missions like the current Mars rovers. Scientific questions include the extent and nature of the massive bombardment that took place 3.9 billion years ago, leaving the lunar surface pockmarked; how the lunar crust separated itself from the mantle; and the impact of the ancient solar wind on the lunar surface. Answering such questions requires a human touch. “You can't just send a robot out to collect rocks,” says G. Jeffrey Taylor, a planetary scientist at the University of Hawaii, Manoa.

    Robotic probes will dominate NASA lunar exploration during the next decade, however. NASA plans to launch the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter early next year, a mission that includes Ames's Lunar Crater and Observation and Sensing Satellite. The Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory, twin spacecraft designed to map the lunar gravity field in unprecedented detail, will follow in 2011, along with the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer. Last year, NASA canceled a series of rovers designed to conduct science and provide data on potential human landing sites, but scientists hope to persuade a new Administration to revive them. In the meantime, workers are getting an old building ready for a new mission.


    The Houbara: Headed for Oblivion?

    1. Richard Stone

    The elusive Asian houbara bustard could fall victim to falconers and poaching without strong international protection.

    The elusive Asian houbara bustard could fall victim to falconers and poaching without strong international protection

    Second nature.

    Reared at NARC and set free in the UAE desert, this houbara bred 2 years later.


    URUMQI, CHINA—When Yang Weikang stalks his quarry in the Junggar Basin of western China, he needs all the patience he can muster. “The creature is shy—and very cunning,” says Yang, an ecologist at the Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Urumqi. The elusive animal is the Asian houbara bustard (Chlamydotis undulata macqueenii), a cranelike bird with sandy buff plumage, mottled with dark-brown spots, that nests in open desert and dry steppe. Yang's team uses telescopes for observations; with its superb vision and a clear line of sight, houbaras can spot threats from hundreds of meters away.

    But the houbara's guile alone will not save it from oblivion. The bird has the unhappy fate of being the favorite prey of falconers. Over the past few decades, hunting pressure across a wide swath of Asia has risen in concert with two other threats: poaching and habitat loss as arid land is converted to farms or urban sprawl.

    To address these woes, bird experts are negotiating with governments to establish protected areas in key countries where the bird breeds or winters. “We're working on this very seriously,” says behavioral ecologist Olivier Combreau, director of the National Avian Research Center (NARC) in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE). Creating new reserves where taking houbaras is banned and enacting stiffer penalties for poaching and overhunting are components of an action plan the signatories of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals are now reviewing. “If we do nothing, there is no hope for the houbara,” says Yang.

    The houbara's downward spiral began with the economic rise of the Persian Gulf, and it accelerated after the Cold War ended. Adults, which are about 60 cm long, have a wingspan of 140 cm, and weigh in at around 2 kg, breed in early spring in China, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia. Around late September, houbaras head south on a journey of up to 7000 km. Some migrate to Iran and the Arabian Peninsula, while others flock to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

    Houbaras that winter in the Persian Gulf often end up on dinner plates. Falcons are trained to hunt the delicacy. Falconry, an Arab tradition, soared in popularity as the oil-producing nations grew rich; falconers, who until the 1960s struck out on horse or camel, now roll into the desert in four-wheel drive convoys. “Before oil, hunting was a way to make a living,” says Yang. “Now it's mostly for sport.” As houbaras became scarcer, falconers descended on wintering grounds in Pakistan. The Soviet disintegration in 1991 opened a new frontier; newly independent central Asian countries were soon welcoming hunting parties to bag houbaras during its spring and fall migrations.

    Researchers knew the embattled bird was on the ropes. But when a team led by Combreau undertook surveys in China, Kazakhstan, and Oman from 1998 to 2002, they discovered that houbaras were vanishing before their eyes. During the 4-year study, houbara numbers declined by 63% in China, 60% in Kazakhstan, and 50% in Oman, the researchers reported in Biological Conservation in 2005. Some experts have pegged the Asian population at about 50,000, but Combreau says no one really knows how many are left. One thing is certain, he and his colleagues warned in their 2005 paper: “The Asian houbara may face extinction in the wild in the foreseeable future.”

    The houbara's decline has continued over the past few years, Combreau says. His team keeps a close eye on Kazakhstan, where their surveys show drops of between 5.5% and 8.3% a year. Because most houbaras breed in Kazakhstan and the rest migrate through the vast country, decreases there “give a fairly good idea” of the overall population's vulnerability, Combreau says. As a last resort, he says, NARC's successful captive-breeding program could reintroduce houbaras into areas in the wild where the bird goes locally extinct.

    Averting that doom will mean reining in falconers. In China and Mongolia, taking houbaras is outlawed. In UAE, hunting is limited to a couple of months a year in a few spots. “They will not stop the hunt, of course. It's tradition,” Combreau says. “But there is a genuine effort here to promote sustainable hunting.” Many other countries regulate hunting, he says, but lack the means for enforcement.

    One bright spot is Pakistan. Falconers are a rare sight there these days because of the deteriorating security situation. “Last year, hardly any hunting took place,” says Mukhtar Ahmed, president of Houbara Foundation International Pakistan in Lahore. And poaching has declined, he says, because Gulf nations have cracked down on the market for houbaras used to train falcons. Still, NARC estimates that up to 7000 houbaras each year are spirited into UAE alone.

    The houbara's decline pains Yang, who holds the bird in high esteem. To lure a fox or other predator away from her nest, a female will bravely hobble away from her eggs, pretending to have a broken wing. Once the predator is off the scent, she'll drop the charade and run back to the nest. A female once put similar moves on Yang's jeep: “She ran slowly in front of us, trying to guide our car away from her nest,” he says.

    Such rare encounters require spending weeks in the field. In China and Kazakhstan, there's roughly one bird per 10 square km. “It's very unlikely one would see a houbara in the wild,” Combreau says, except when males are putting on breeding displays for females. Otherwise, “they're almost impossible to detect.” Unless countries act quickly and forcefully, it soon may be impossible even for the falcons to detect the furtive, and fading, houbaras.

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