Random Samples

Science  21 Nov 2008:
Vol. 322, Issue 5905, pp. 1169

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    Political pressure on sex-related research drove some scientists to “self-censorship,” a researcher at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey, reports.

    In 2003, some members of the U.S. Congress tried to rescind funding for several National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded projects dealing with various aspects of sexual behavior. A conservative Christian group called the Traditional Values Coalition followed up with a list of 250 sex-related grants, which NIH dutifully reviewed.

    Although all remained funded, observers worried about the “chilling effect” on research. So sociologist Joanna Kempner asked the 157 principal investigators how they were affected. Eighty-two filled out a written survey. In items answered by 76 respondents, 54 felt the controversy had a chilling effect on research, and 60 felt funding decisions were getting more political during the Bush Administration. Nonetheless, 60 agreed that “no amount of political controversy could dissuade me from conducting HIV- or sex-related research,” Kempner reported last week online in PLoS Medicine. To cope with the scrutiny, half of the researchers said they had resorted to camouflage, purging their abstracts of dicey terms such as “gay,” “bisexual,” “homophobia,” and “needle exchange” to foil key-word searches on NIH's grants database. One interviewee even changed the euphemism “sex workers” to “women at risk.” But 24% of the respondents said they had shifted the content of their research, and one reported being driven out of research altogether.


    Don't tell the graduate student who is sweating to get his or her first paper accepted, but publication is only the beginning. Next come the critical discussions during which scientists pore over a paper's methods, dissect its conclusions, and plumb its implications. The goal of the Web site BioMed Critical Commentary (bm-cc.org/home.php) is to ensure that these discussions, which are often confined to journal clubs or seminar rooms, reach a broader audience.

    Edited by cancer geneticist Scott Kern of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, the site lets researchers submit brief commentaries on any paper in PubMed. Commentaries are not limited to recent papers but may rehash historical gems by luminaries such as Gregor Mendel and Louis Pasteur. So far, the work that's attracted the most page views is an influential 1971 article by Alfred Knudson asserting that the eye cancer retinoblastoma stems from two mutations.

    Commentary contributors have to provide their contact information, but comments can run anonymously.


    Turtle workout. CREDIT: PETER ZANI

    Real-life turtles might never outrace hares, but they can claim green credentials for energy efficiency.

    Biologists Peter Zani and Rodger Kram of the University of Colorado, Boulder, trained 18 ornate box turtles to walk on a treadmill and measured their oxygen consumption. After 141 trials in which the turtles trudged along at a little over 4 meters an hour, the scientists concluded that their “cost of transport”—an index of the power needed to move an animal's body mass—is about half of what would be expected for reptiles of their size.

    Turtles owe their efficiency to their peculiar skeletons, Zani says. The top shell keeps the shoulder in place, and the plastron (bottom shell) helps hold in the gut, so energy is saved from these tasks. Sluggishness helps, too. “Fast muscle is very expensive,” says Zani, whose paper is in last week's Journal of Experimental Biology.

    Biomechanicist Roland Ennos of the University of Manchester in the U.K. calls the work “fascinating.” He says that with their short legs and constraining shell, turtles “have a lurching gait which should be energetically expensive.” Most researchers concentrate on the mechanical aspects of locomotion, he adds, but this result suggests that for walking animals,” muscle efficiency is more important.”



    A Stone Age grave (above) has yielded what scientists say is the oldest molecular genetic evidence yet of a “classic nuclear family.” Known as Grave 99, it's one of four multiple burials discovered 3 years ago near Eulau, Germany, that are casting new light on the people who lived in northern Europe some 4600 years ago.

    The grave held the bones of a man, a woman, and two boys, presumably killed in a raid, as they were buried at the same time. The boys shared the woman's mtDNA haplogroup and the man's Y haplogroup, indicating that they were a family, researchers led by geneticist Wolfgang Haak of the University of Adelaide in Australia report online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    The scientists also found evidence that the men in the graves sought wives from outside communities. Analysis of strontium isotopes in tooth enamel—levels of which vary depending on where people spent their early years—showed that only the men and children were locals.