News this Week

Science  10 Apr 2009:
Vol. 324, Issue 5924, pp. 157

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    Harvard's Financial Crunch Raises Tensions Among Biology Programs

    1. Eliot Marshall

    CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS— The richest school in the world reached into its pockets early this year to pay some bills and discovered that it didn't have enough cash. In January, Harvard University felt the simultaneous pinch of a 22% decline in its endowment and a loss of “liquidity.” The financial crisis had arrived here with a bang. Budget cuts since then have raised tensions with city politicians and exposed some fault lines within the faculty over an emphasis on stem cell medicine and a push for more collaborative, interdisciplinary work.

    This week, Harvard began the painful task of deciding how many and which of 1600 workers offered a severance deal will be let go. City politicians weighed in, telling Harvard it should not lay off janitors but should cut the pay of top academics. The college's daily paper, The Harvard Crimson, responded in a pragmatic editorial that workers need help, but Harvard cannot provide all of it—certainly not if it risks putting the university at a disadvantage—and politicians should “lay off our budget.”

    For scientists, the budget crunch hit home in February when Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust announced that construction of a massive science facility in Allston, Massachusetts, about a 20-minute walk from Harvard Square, would proceed at a “slower pace” (Science, 27 February p. 1157). The reality is an indefinite delay. That announcement has had a domino effect, raising tensions between two departments in biology.

    Researcher in motion.

    Stem cell scientist Douglas Melton co-chairs a department that's changing the rules.


    The older one, called the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB), includes well-known senior investigators and science leaders, such as molecular biologist Tom Maniatis, biochemist Matthew Meselson, and epigenetics researcher Catherine Dulac (the chair). The second department, initiated 2 years ago partly as an example of a scientific rebirth planned by Provost Steven Hyman and Harvard's then-president Lawrence Summers, is known as the Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology (SCRB). “Scrub,” Hyman calls it.

    Co-chaired by stem cell biologist Douglas Melton and Harvard Medical School hematologist David Scadden, Scrub is collaborative, hands-on, and interdisciplinary. It is the first department to bridge two schools (reporting to two deans) in Harvard's 373-year history. It's also the first to enlist basic scientists and physicians to run joint research projects and teach undergraduate courses.

    This upstart department also anchors a new Harvard Stem Cell Institute, headed by Melton and Scadden, which has raised more than $100 million in promised support, including $25 million over 5 years from the drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline. Its aim is to invent treatments for disease—Melton's dream is to create implantable beta cells that can supply insulin to diabetics—and put them into people. Melton says this will require “some version of the word ‘commercialization,’” which raises hackles. But Melton is proud of the practical focus and says he likes working with business people. He regrets that the institute will not soon be nestling up alongside the Harvard Business School, in a promised building on the Allston campus.

    “Among my defects, impatience is high on the list,” says Melton. “There is no way I'm going to just sit and bide my time and say we're going to do all these things 5 years from now.” In fact, the stem cell institute and its celebrated scientists—featured in a 9 February Time cover story—have not been asked to bide their time. Almost in the same breath that officials disclosed the Allston delay, they announced that by reconfiguring existing facilities, Harvard could assemble the elite cadre of stem cell scientists—some now located on the Boston medical campus—on Harvard's main campus in Cambridge. Doing this requires that all other MCB department members move out of the building in which they've been located for years, to make space available. It also requires a very expensive renovation.

    According to The Crimson, Dulac contacted MCB faculty members individually to deliver the news that they would have to move. Maniatis, Meselson, and biochemist Guido Guidotti reportedly were displeased. The Crimson also reported that Meselson expressed doubts about giving high priority to a specialized field such as stem cell research. Maniatis, according to two Harvard scientists who asked to remain anonymous, has told colleagues that he will leave the university. Maniatis did not respond to phone messages left for him. Guidotti confirmed that he had spoken to The Crimson but declined further comment. Meselson and Dulac did not respond to phone messages. One MCB scientist, who requested anonymity, told Science that Dulac had asked strictly that these events not be discussed with reporters.

    In recent weeks, the administration has reached out to the senior MCB scientists and offered them new labs, Hyman says, in “a brand-new building” where they will have “an opportunity to configure [space] to their liking.” The university also plans to give special consideration in tenure review to junior MCB faculty members to compensate for the disruption of their research. Regarding his abrupt handling of this business, Hyman adds, “I will admit that in the acute emergency I had to make some decisions” without the full consultation “that I normally engage in.”

    As the dust settles, Harvard is going ahead full steam with plans for a new layer of universitywide science, led by Scrub. Melton recently gave a formal presentation to the faculty of a new concentration (or major) for undergraduates based on stem cell and regenerative medicine. The first students will enroll in September. It will focus on diseases that might be treated with stem cells or advanced biological engineering, and some courses will be taught by some of Harvard's superstar physicians, including, in addition to Scadden, hematologists George Daley and Leonard Zon of Children's Hospital in Boston, both funded by the selective Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

    Melton dismisses gibes about running a premed course. “Really, as strongly as we can say it, No!” he insists. Melton argues that the availability of human stem cells and induced pluripotent cells—and a growing digital archive of data on human disease—now make it possible to teach basic biology using the human as a model organism. He already has undergraduates experimenting with stem cells. When students see cardiomyocytes in a dish begin to pulse with an incipient heartbeat, they ask deep questions, he says. Diseases will be examined as a portal into basic science. This is at least as good, he argues, as Harvard's traditional “eat-your-spinach” approach that required math, physics, or organic chemistry “before you can do what you want to do.”

    Endowment losses will affect everyone, Hyman says, but they won't reset the priority to forge novel collaborations or cross-disciplinary projects in science: “It would be a terrible error” to give every program “the same haircut.”

    Melton says he's still waiting to hear where he and his people will go temporarily while labs are being renovated. Meanwhile, he's busy on something new: “I'm going to do my own reprogramming and become an immunologist,” he says. After a lot of reading, he has decided to make a broad attack on autoimmunity—“the whole thing.” One specific goal is to reconstruct a model of human diabetes in a mouse and examine how the disease begins.


    Unlucky CLOVER: U.K. Halts Unfinished Telescope Project

    1. Adrian Cho

    The United Kingdom has canceled a cosmology experiment that would have been Europe's prime contender in the race to trace the gravitational waves that rippled through the infant universe. U.K. physicists complain that, to save less than £3 million, the nation's cash-strapped Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is abandoning a most promising field of inquiry. But the project—a suite of microwave telescopes called CLOVER—was 50% over budget and 3 years behind schedule, and scientists not associated with the project say they are not entirely surprised that STFC axed it.

    “I'm really disappointed,” says Radek Stompor, a cosmologist at the University of Paris 7 in France. “The fact that CLOVER is getting canceled really puts Europe at a disadvantage.” Nevertheless, the delays and cost overruns made the project vulnerable, Stompor says.

    The CLOVER telescopes would have studied the faint afterglow of the big bang, the so-called cosmic microwave background. That radiation is polarized, and the gravitational waves thought to have zipped through the primordial soup of subatomic particles just after the big bang should have created swirling patterns in the polarization that would linger in the sky 13.7 billion years later. More than half a dozen ground-based, balloon-borne, and satellite experiments—most from the United States—will search for those swirls in coming years.

    Too late.

    Still being assembled (above), the CLOVER telescopes may not get a chance to see the sky's microwaves.


    CLOVER should have gotten a jump on the rest of the field. Approved in 2004 for £4.78 million, the project originally consisted of three microwave telescopes of identical design but different sizes that would measure microwaves at three different frequencies. The array was supposed to be deployed starting in 2006 at a French-Italian base in Antarctica, with the French and Italian governments picking up the tab for maintaining the equipment at the site.

    Then things went awry. The telescopes would not fit at the Antarctic site, says CLOVER team member Michael Jones, an astrophysicist at the University of Oxford. So researchers switched to a site in Chile's Atacama Desert. But that meant the United Kingdom had to bear the costs of getting the equipment in place and maintaining it. The project was also over its design budget, and after a February 2007 review, CLOVER was “descoped” to two telescopes, one of which would work at both of the two higher frequencies.

    Researchers were also behind their goal of fully deploying the array this year, as neither telescope is complete. And STFC has been struggling to address ongoing budget problems (Science, 21 December 2007, p. 1851). In December, after another review, it decided to cancel CLOVER, says STFC spokesperson Julia Maddock.

    The CLOVER team contends that the chance to discover primordial gravitational waves is worth the extra £2.55 million needed to complete the project. “I would still argue that in terms of the science impact it might make, this is a very cheap experiment,” Jones says. But, says Maddock, “They spent their contingency, they had one cost increase, and now they were asking for another. To fund additional costs to CLOVER, we would have to make cuts to some other project.”

    CLOVER team members have one last shot. If they're lucky, a private donor could rescue the project.


    Arne Duncan Hopes a Team Approach Will Improve U.S. Schools

    1. Jeffrey Mervis
    Listen up.

    Duncan joins President Obama at a Washington, D.C. elementary school.


    After graduating from Harvard University in 1987, Arne Duncan followed his dream and joined Australia's top basketball league. Although the Melbourne Eastside Spectres dropped him after 2 years, the high-scoring forward signed on with a Tasmanian team and was ready to settle down Down Under. “I had accomplished my goal to be a pro player,” he says. “I was making lots of money, doing something I loved. … Had I stayed another year or two, I would still be there.”

    Instead, Duncan returned in 1991 to his hometown of Chicago, Illinois, to work with underprivileged children. “I know it sounds corny, … but I had been given extraordinary opportunities growing up in Chicago, educationally, socially, and athletically, and I felt I owed something to the community.” A decade later, he was running the third largest school district in the country. And in December, President-elect Barack Obama, a fellow Chicagoan, chose Duncan to be the next U.S. secretary of education.

    The 44-year-old Duncan has displayed impressive offensive skills in his first few months at the $50-billion-a-year federal agency. He's barnstormed with the president to highlight the $100 billion in education spending that's part of the $787 billion stimulus package. On his own, he's touted the Administration's education initiatives—in particular, expanding preschool programs, shifting the emphasis from testing students to raising standards and improving teacher quality, and making college more affordable. At every turn, Duncan has hammered on the same themes: School districts need to find fresh ways to improve student achievement, from alternative teacher certification to differential pay to Saturday classes, and the federal government is eager to scale up what works.

    Duncan expanded on those points during a recent interview with Science in his Washington, D.C., office.

    Q: What is it about effective teachers that makes a difference?

    A.D.: It sounds like common sense, but still, having teachers that truly know the content is critically important. You can't teach what you don't know. Beyond that, great teachers are passionate, they have high expectations, they go way beyond the call of duty. And they are really able to differentiate instruction, to work with kids who are struggling and those on track to becoming the next generation of chemists and physicists.

    Q: What can the federal government do?

    A.D.: A lot. We have very significant resources that can go to professional development, that can go to sending folks back to universities to get endorsements in math and science. I'm pushing hard to pay math and science teachers more. I think we also have to think about compartmentalization in the middle school level, getting folks that really know the content.

    Q: What evidence do you have that higher pay will attract better STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) teachers?

    A.D.: I don't think money alone is the answer. We've had shortages for decades. So let's do something different. When you have an imbalance between supply and demand, let's do something to create larger demand. I think that one of the few benefits of the current economic recession is that more folks may start to think about alternative certification. It's a chance for us to get some really smart folks to come in from industry.

    Q: The 2010 budget contains a $2.5 billion fund for college completion. Leaving aside the cost of tuition, why is there so much attrition?

    A.D.: It's interesting to me that in recent years we have become very aware of high school graduation rates. But nobody really knows what college graduation and dropout rates are. And there are very few incentives for universities to graduate students. They get money based on kids coming in the door. There's no back-end incentive.

    Q: What should they be doing?

    A.D.: It's the same thing that works in high school. It's a strategy, it's a culture, it's a set of supports. It's a commitment to working with those students. It's looking at kids, one by one, and figuring out who's at risk, and who's not, and what adults are available, and what type of supports [they need] to make sure they come out the back end.

    Q: Do you think we have clear definitions and agreement on what students should know about science before they leave high school?

    A.D.: I would say that, across the board, we need to get clearer, higher, fewer standards. We talk a lot about internationally benchmarked standards. And I would argue that in many places around the country, our standards are far too low.

    Q: You've said we're lying to kids by having these different, low standards. And you've also said you want to do what works. If we know what works, why don't we just mandate it?

    A.D.: You could, although I think that would ultimately fail … because there would be such a backlash. The goal here is to get it done and not create a lot of drama. … And having it come from the states, and from the community, rather than top-down, is much more powerful.


    A Primal Crust Found on the Moon, While Mercury's Proves Elusive

    1. Richard A. Kerr


    Our moon's bright highlands—set against dark “seas” of frozen lava to form the man in the moon—have undergone centuries of ever-closer scrutiny. But it was not until scientists could put moon soil under the microscope that they had any idea where the highlands came from. The highlands, some decided, were the remains of rocky scum that floated to the top of a churning ocean of moon-girdling magma soon after the moon formed.

    The “lunar magma ocean” hypothesis gained support from later Apollo, ground-based, and orbital observations to become the paradigm for how planetary bodies get their first, or primary, crust. But nearly 40 years after Apollo, no one had directly and unequivocally confirmed the true nature of the lunar highlands.

    At the meeting, researchers from two ongoing missions to the moon reported that they now have the final, direct proof. The latest spectroscopy from lunar orbit shows that the key diagnostic rock “is everywhere,” said planetary spectroscopist Carlé Pieters of Brown University. Orbiting spectrometers can finally see the lunar surface in fine enough detail and split the spectral colors of the surface into small enough bits to reveal the composition of the highlands unambiguously, speakers said.

    Mineralogists expected the whitish mineral plagioclase to crystallize from any lunar magma ocean and float to the top. There it would form a primary crust tens of kilometers thick made of anorthosite, rock consisting of nearly 100% plagioclase. Although cruder spectroscopic searches showed strong hints of anorthosite, a thin surface layer—perhaps impact debris—seemed to be at least partially masking the long-sought primary crust.

    Pieters, principal investigator of NASA's Moon Mineralogy Mapper instrument flying onboard India's Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft, reported that “the entire Inner Rook Mountains is anorthosite. That validates the magma ocean.” The huge impact that formed the great Mare Orientale basin threw up those mountains to expose the anorthosite. And Makiko Ohtake of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency in Sagamihara, Kanagawa, and her colleagues operating the Multiband Imager on JAXA's Kaguya spacecraft reported finding anorthosite exposed in 70 impact craters around the moon. Case closed.

    Meanwhile, scientists trying to tell a similar story about another once-magma-covered body—the planet Mercury—continue to draw blanks. “We're not even sure what [its primary crust] would look like,” says planetary geologist James Head III of Brown, summing up meeting presentations. The MESSENGER spacecraft has now imaged 90% of Mercury's surface during two flybys, MESSENGER team members including Head reported, and there's no sign of anorthosite but plenty of younger lavas. But Mercury's rock is lower in iron than the moon's is, so entirely different minerals may have floated to form a crust. MESSENGER scientists may be seeing such an alternative primary crust where impacts have punched through the lavas, but they have yet to recognize it. Perhaps after MESSENGER goes into orbit around Mercury in 2011, all will become plain there as well.

    Bright pay dirt.

    Regions bright at visible wavelengths (left, 40-kilometer-wide swath) mark the moon's first crust of nearly pure plagioclase.


    Water Everywhere on Mars, But Is Any of It Ever Liquid?

    1. Richard A. Kerr


    Water on Mars is nothing new. It's been “discovered” many times, but it's always frozen. The liquid form would be so much more exciting in an astrobiological way. At the meeting, meteorologist Nilton Renno of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and 21 of his teammates on the Phoenix mission to Mars reported Phoenix observations buttressed with thermodynamic arguments that suggest to Renno, at least, that briny liquid water exists at the Phoenix site. Not everyone agrees.

    Renno starts with the discovery of both ice and salts in the soil of the Phoenix landing site. As he sees it, temperature swings from day to day or millennium to millennium should drive water from the ice into the salts, which become wet and dissolve. Even when it gets much colder, the briny water will stay liquid longer.

    Renno points to blobs adhering to a leg of the Phoenix lander as evidence that local salts will keep water liquid even under current Mars conditions. In still images of the leg, he sees the blobs—apparently blown there by the Phoenix landing rockets—growing, moving, and dripping. And where the Phoenix arm dug through icy soil, he sees signs of soft frozen brine rather than hard, clean ice. “Not everyone [on the team] agrees with everything,” he says, “but I think they're moving toward agreement.”

    Not yet. Some team members, such as physicist Michael Hecht of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who is not a co-author, contest Renno on almost every point. But Renno co-author and chemist Samuel Kounaves of Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, says, “Nilton may be right about what we have under Phoenix, but the environment there during landing was extreme and very different. It doesn't mean [liquid water] is possible on Mars. We need some lab experiments, but even then we may never know.”


    Darwin Applies to Medical School

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi

    When George Williams and Randolph Nesse made their first pitches for Darwinian medicine in the early 1990s, they turned some heads, but not the right ones. Reviving and building on European traditions that melded medicine and evolutionary biology, the duo argued that diseases could be best understood from an evolutionary perspective. Their first meeting on the subject in 1996 attracted 60 enthusiasts but few practicing clinicians, probably because physicians couldn't envision practical applications. “The folks who were excited about it weren't in a position to do anything about it,” recalls anthropologist Peter Ellison of Harvard University. Although a better understanding of the evolution of drug resistance has helped shape the use of antibiotics, when it comes to evolution, “medical schools are mostly oblivious,” says Nesse, a psychiatrist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

    But times may be changing. Last week, a similar meeting* in Washington, D.C., attracted dozens of physicians, including the dean of Harvard Medical School and the president of the Institute of Medicine (IOM). Several participants described new medical school programs at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, involving evolutionary medicine, as well as a pending textbook. “A thoughtful strategy for the future education for health professionals would incorporate a strong evolutionary perspective,” says IOM President Harvey Feinberg.


    Citation maps from 1995 and 2004 (above) reveal a sevenfold increase in direct interactions between evolutionary biology and medicine.


    At the meeting, researchers reported headway in understanding drug resistance through the lens of evolution. Others described progress linking past evolutionary adaptations with current health problems. For instance, anthropologist Kathleen Barnes of Johns Hopkins University has evidence that for some asthmatics, this overly energetic inflammatory response may be a holdover from the body's successes in coping with parasitic disease.

    Despite the intellectual appeal of adding evolution to the medical school curriculum, medical schools are already straining from an explosion in information and technology, and clamors for change come from many directions. “Medical schools have a lot on their plate,” says James Lupski of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. And, notes Harvard evolutionary biologist David Haig, “Evolutionary thinking is not going to give cheap medical solutions.”

    Proponents counter that evolutionary thinking can provide a fresh way of looking at the human body and a framework for organizing a deluge of new genomic information. Those new data are driving home how tightly disease is linked to evolution, says David Valle, a geneticist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. He and others want to move away from viewing the human body as a generic, one-size-fits-all machine. Individuals vary not just in their genetic makeup but in their connections to the microbes in their gut and their environmental exposures. “All this must somehow be understood” to manage disease, says Diddahally R. Govindaraju, a Boston University geneticist who co-organized the meeting. With genomic data in hand, “medical students are much more equipped to understand the connections between all organisms,” he adds.

    During her talk, Barnes presented several examples that suggest that how humans evolved to cope with past parasitic diseases has predisposed some of us to contemporary health problems. The malaria parasite Plasmodium vivax, for instance, depends on a surface protein called Duffy to gain entry into human red blood cells. In certain malaria-endemic areas, a mutation in the gene for Duffy, called DARC, leads to the loss of this surface protein, and malaria can't gain a foothold. But Duffy also acts as a sponge to keep immune system messengers in check; otherwise excess immunoglobulin E (IgE), which underlies allergic asthma and other allergic reactions, may be produced. Barnes and her colleagues have found that asthma is associated with the defective Duffy gene in populations in Brazil, Columbia, and the Caribbean whose recent African ancestors lived where malaria was endemic.

    Similarly, others have found asthma associated with high IgE in areas such as Egypt where schistosomiasis is common. Today, cockroach and dust mite allergens are well-established triggers for asthma, and those proteins are quite similar to the schistosomiasis worm protein tropomyosin, which sets off the IgE response. People with high IgE are most able to curb parasite infection, but there can be a downside. “Individuals who are most resistant in these [worm-ridden] environments are the ones who produce the most IgE, and they are primed to respond to the common household allergens,” says Barnes. She has traced this sensitivity to some variants of the gene for the immune system messenger interleukin 13.

    “She has sophisticated evolutionary thinking that she's applied to two different medical problems, and she has not just clinical and epidemiological data, she has the genetic underpinnings. She has the complete story,” says Nesse.

    Knowing these evolutionary connections could help physicians recognize who might be at increased risk for asthma and who should take precautions to limit exposure to allergens, says Barnes.

    At the beginning of the meeting, Harvard Medical School Dean Jeffrey Flier called himself agnostic about the need to incorporate evolution into medical education. But now, “I want to start to influence the medical curriculum toward that,” he announced as the meeting wrapped up. “Evolutionary biology needs to get in the queue.”

    At last, says meeting co-organizer Stephen Stearns of Yale University, “we've gotten the attention of the medical community.”

    • * Evolution in Health and Medicine was held at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., 2–3 April 2009.


    Two Sides of the Same Coin?

    1. Constance Holden

    Scientists have long puzzled over the persistence of schizophrenia—a deleterious condition that by rights should have been pretty much bred out of the human gene pool.

    At the Sackler Colloquium on Evolution in Health and Medicine held last week at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in Washington, D.C., evolutionary geneticist Bernard Crespi of Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada, threw some evolutionary firepower at the question. He proposes that both schizophrenia and autism are disorders of the “social brain”—but at opposite ends of the same spectrum. Psychiatrist Ezra Susser of Columbia University calls it an “imaginative proposal, … although I don't think it's supported yet by the data.”

    Last year Crespi, with Christopher Badcock of the London School of Economics, presented the hypothesis in a lengthy article in Behavioral and Brain Sciences. At the NAS meeting, Crespi claimed that recent research on copy number variations (CNV), segments of DNA containing duplications or deletions, further bolster his case. These new studies suggest that schizophrenia may be the result of multiple rare mutations that occur spontaneously. A number of studies have shown some overlap in genomic “hot spots” for CNVs in schizophrenia and autism, with, in some cases, deletions in one condition just where there are duplications for the other. Some scientists suspect some overlap between the two conditions. Crespi and Badcock think, rather, that they are diametric opposites, occupying the same continuum and thus affecting the same pathways.

    That would fit with their theory that psychotic disorders—including not only schizophrenia but also bipolar disorder and some major depression—result from “overdevelopment” of the social brain, and autism spectrum disorders reflect underdevelopment of that brain. Many scientists believe socialization is the main force behind the rapid expansion of human brains, said Crespi, pointing out that in primates the size of the cortex increases with size of social groups. The components of the social brain, according to Crespi, include language, self-awareness, “social emotions” such as pride and guilt, logical thinking, pursuit of goals, and awareness of the mental states of others.

    In autism, he pointed out, these functions are deficient. In schizophrenia, on the other hand, they are out of control—the language function leads to auditory hallucinations; awareness of others' mental states becomes paranoia; and logic is distorted by uninhibited associations.

    Although the data are admittedly preliminary, Crespi maintains they support the notion that autism and schizophrenia are “cognitive, neurodevelopmental, and genomic opposites.” He pointed out that some existing theories about the disorders complement this view—for example, some have proposed that glutamate, the brain's main neurotransmitter, is deficient in schizophrenia and overactive in autism.

    Social brain.

    In existing primate species, the size of the neocortex in relation to total brain increases with group size.


    To evolutionary biologist Randolph Nesse of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who organized the talks on evolution and mental health, the hypothesis shows “the heuristic value of an evolutionary approach in medicine.” If correct, “it will fundamentally change our understanding of schizophrenia and autism, … [and] even if it is not, the research is deepening our understanding.”


    From Science's Online Daily News Site

    Bugs build batteries. Green technology just went viral. Researchers have used viruses to create rechargeable batteries similar to those found in hybrid cars and laptops. Until now, batteries like these were made in chemically intensive, high-heat processes. The results could herald a low-energy, environmentally friendly alternative.


    Oldest stone blades uncovered. Paleoanthropologists working in Africa have discovered stone blades more than a half-million years old. That pushes the date of the earliest known blades back a remarkable 150,000 years and raises a question: Which human ancestor made them?

    Tropical parents more likely to hear, “It's a girl!” Wondering about the gender of your future offspring? Check your GPS. Girls are more likely to be born at tropical latitudes than in temperate or subarctic climes, according to new research. The study provides the first global look at human sex ratios and could shed light on how temperature and day length influence human reproduction.

    Heat and acidity ganging up on coral. Human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide are starting to harm marine life with a one-two punch of rising temperatures and stronger ocean acidity. Now a study of a reef in the Red Sea confirms the impact of rising acidity and suggests that it could eventually make reefs across the globe dissolve. “This is a very significant and important result,” says Ben McNeil of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. “We are finally moving towards a more complete picture of how coral reefs will respond to a high CO2 and warmer ocean.”

    Read the full postings, comments, and more at ScienceNOW.


    New Way to Target Hormone Receptor Thwarts Prostate Cancer

    1. Jocelyn Kaiser

    For the unlucky 10% of men diagnosed with prostate cancer who have the most aggressive form, the prognosis is grim. The available prostate cancer drugs may initially shrink their tumors, but the remaining cancer cells usually grow out of control again after a couple of years. These drug-resistant cases account for nearly 29,000 annual deaths in the United States from prostate cancer.

    Researchers led by Charles Sawyers at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City have now developed a compound that could prevent some of the deaths. They report online in Science ( this week that in mice the compound shrank implanted human prostate tumors untreatable with current drugs and that it showed signs of arresting tumor growth in men with similarly drug-resistant cancer. Although more clinical studies are needed, cancer researchers are excited about the potential drug, which tackles prostate cancer by a mechanism different from that of current drugs. “It's possibly a new and better way of treating prostate cancer,” says oncologist Philip Kantoff of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

    Smart weapon.

    A new compound that gums up the androgen receptor shrank drug-resistant prostate cancer tumors in mice (lower row, tumors after 5 days).


    In prostate cancer, genetic changes within cells allow testosterone and similar hormones, known as androgens, to fuel unrestrained cell growth. Most patients receive drugs to limit the body's production of androgens. If the tumor continues to grow, physicians prescribe other drugs that bind to the androgen receptor in the prostate cell's cytoplasm so that the hormone cannot land on the receptor and turn it on. But these drugs usually fail after a time.

    This problem intrigued Sawyers, who had earlier worked on resistance to Gleevec, a potent leukemia drug he helped develop. In 2003, Sawyers's team showed why cells from advanced prostate tumors eventually thwart standard drugs: The cells produce high levels of the androgen receptor, and this makes them so sensitive to androgens that even the receptor-blocking drugs can stimulate the cells to grow. Sawyers next joined forces with chemist Michael Jung, whose group at the University of California, Los Angeles, synthesized nearly 200 androgen-like compounds. The researchers screened the molecules, selecting ones that bound tightly to the androgen receptor but didn't activate it. Jung's group then tweaked promising candidates to make two potential drugs.

    In addition to binding to the androgen receptor, the new compounds seem to hinder it from getting into the cell's nucleus, binding to DNA, and triggering the expression of genes, the team reports. “It's a beautiful story,” says cancer pharmacologist Donald McDonnell of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

    In a clinical study with one of the compounds, dubbed MDV3100, levels of prostate-specific antigen—a marker for prostate tumor growth—dropped by at least 50% in 13 of 30 patients with advanced disease for whom other treatments had failed. “For this group of patients, this is a very impressive result,” says Sawyers. Medivation Inc. in San Francisco, California, which collaborated on this work, is now testing the drug at higher doses on more patients. (Sawyers is a consultant for the company and is a co-inventor on a patent for MDV3100.)

    Even if MDV3100 extends the lives of men with advanced prostate cancer, their tumors will likely become resistant to it, too. But researchers hope the compound can be combined with another drug candidate, developed by a different team but also in trials, that stops cancer cells from making their own supply of androgens. “A very exciting possibility” is that a cocktail of these drugs will prevent men with early prostate cancer from ever reaching the drug-resistant stage, says Kantoff, who heads one of several centers that are testing MDV3100.


    From the Science Policy Blog

    A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., last week ruled that the sequence of DNA obtained from a known protein is obvious and therefore unpatentable. The court was ruling on a case, In re Kubin, involving a patented gene sequence for the human immune protein NAIL, owned by Amgen Inc. in Thousand Oaks, California. The judges ruled that it took no original insight to work out the gene's code. The decision is the latest blow to gene patents, which are facing increased scrutiny.

    A scientist targeted by animal-rights extremists is taking to the streets to rally support for research using animals. In March, animal-rights terrorists burned the car of University of California, Los Angeles, neuroscientist J. David Jentsch, the latest in a string of such attacks on UCLA faculty. Now Jentsch has founded a chapter of Pro-Test, a British group supportive of animal research. A rally at UCLA on 22 April coincides with a planned animal-rights rally elsewhere on campus, but Jentsch says he is not looking for a confrontation.

    News that the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's new batch of 50 early-career awards includes only nine women is causing a stir among those working to broaden participation in science. The institute says its decisions were based strictly on scientific merit and notes that only a quarter of the applicants were women.

    Elsewhere … Oceanographers took issue with recent reports that a German-Indian experiment to fertilize the ocean with iron shows the technique can't work. The nomination of a new Census director drew applause from scientists and criticism from some legislators. The blog also noted Japanese plans to send a walking robot to study the moon, a new tornado hunting program, plans by Stanford University to publicize payments to faculty members from drug or device firms, and police protection for the head of India's space program against a possible terrorist attack.

    For the full postings and more, go to ScienceInsider.


    Science Gold Mine, Ethical Minefield

    1. Jennifer Couzin-Frankel

    Health agencies launched a system 40 years ago to identify babies at risk. Now there are millions of blood samples in files that researchers want to access, raising public concern.

    Health agencies launched a system 40 years ago to identify babies at risk. Now there are millions of blood samples in files that researchers want to access, raising public concern


    From Minneapolis to Paris to Auckland, nearly every new baby experiences the same procedure hours after birth: a prick of the heel to draw a few drops of blood, which are applied onto filter paper. The paper is shipped off and tested for rare metabolic diseases, which can be devastating if they're not treated early.

    Most parents have only the faintest idea that this testing occurs; they are even less likely to know that health agencies are storing their child's blood for years, in some cases indefinitely, in dusty file boxes or deep-frozen in giant warehouses. This growing treasure trove of samples is catching the attention of researchers, who are turning to them to study everything from the origins of childhood leukemia to toxin exposures in utero. The blood spots have been “vastly underexploited in the past,” says Mel Greaves, a pediatric cancer biologist at the Institute of Cancer Research in London.

    But the same feature that makes bloodspot repositories so potent—mandatory screening means that they capture entire populations—also makes them ethically and legally tenuous. Parents of newborns are rarely informed that samples will be stored and made available for research. And if studies do take place, they're likely to be done anonymously; most families will never know the findings on their child's blood.

    The newborn-screening system has skirted some questions about consent in the past. But as more locales shift to long-term storage and more researchers seek access to the blood spots, it now faces direct challenges. In Minnesota, a group promoting confidentiality in health care has been engaged in a 6-year battle with the state legislature and the courts over whether its newborn-screening program violates privacy by storing and disseminating samples. Last month, a civil rights group sued the state of Texas, charging that its screening program is unconstitutional because it stores samples long-term without obtaining informed consent.

    Such objections reflect a discomfort with government agencies gathering and filing away everyone's DNA without explicit notification. “It's one thing to justify the testing at the time of birth for disease,” says James Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project in Austin, whose organization filed the lawsuit against the Texas screening program. “It's quite another just to keep it for something as nebulous as scientific use at a later date.” Parents, he says, are “not led to think” that anything more than testing of their baby is taking place, and “that deception is troublesome.”

    A federal committee that advises the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on newborn screening is now considering the use of blood spots. Among other issues, the panel is reviewing how long samples should be stored and under what conditions they should be available to researchers. It hopes to make recommendations later this year.

    Some states, such as Michigan, are trying to stay ahead of the critics, consulting bioethicists and residents as they transform their repository of 4 million blood spots into one that's friendlier to researchers. “It's become a real social and, I think, political hot potato,” says Aaron Goldenberg, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, who has studied Michigan's efforts. “Is the use of these samples … a big enough shift to make us rethink issues of informed consent? A lot of screeners are afraid to go there because they don't want to damage the system.”

    More than a PKU test

    Newborn screening began in the 1960s, when physicians recognized that babies with certain rare diseases, such as phenylketonuria (PKU), could be saved from a lifetime of mental retardation if they were identified immediately. Many countries initiated mass-screening programs, which have expanded dramatically as new technologies made it easier to test for many gene mutations at once. In 2005, the American College of Medical Genetics recommended that all U.S. states screen for 29 conditions. Most states quickly adopted this as a minimum, and today some test for as many as 50.

    At the same time, “everyone began to see the value of these specimens in terms of future research,” and many locales shifted from quickly discarding the samples to storing them long-term, says Brad Therrell, director of the federally funded National Newborn Screening and Genetics Resource Center, which is based at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and provides information on newborn screening to the public and health care workers. In North Carolina, epidemiologist Andrew Olshan of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and other researchers lobbied the state health department not to throw away samples after just 1 year. Today, North Carolina stores blood spots in perpetuity. In the United Kingdom, storage varies by region from 2 months to indefinitely; at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London, the blood-spot card of every child with leukemia in the area is yanked from the repository at the time of diagnosis to ensure that it will be available for studies. Normally, London-based samples are stored for 10 years.

    Greaves pushed for this change, after pioneering a blood-spot technique in the mid-1990s called “backtracking.” When children were diagnosed with leukemia, he and others turned to their blood spots to determine whether the signature abnormalities in their cancer cells were also present at birth. “By the time you see the patient and you characterize the mutation, it's too late” to understand when and how cancer began, says Greaves. Hunting for preleukemic DNA in the sea of 30,000 white blood cells that make up each blood spot, he found that in 50% to 100% of cases, depending on the form of leukemia, genetic mutations were present—suggesting that the cancer was seeded in utero.

    Epidemiologist Gary Shaw of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, meanwhile, has used blood spots to examine interactions between genes and the environment. For example, he's focused on the intricate dance between cigarettes, folate in the maternal diet, and birth defects such as cleft lip. By studying genes that metabolize cigarette smoke and those that code for folate, he's found that maternal smoking compromises folic acid's role in healthy fetal development and raises the risk of cleft lip—a discovery, he says, that required an enormous number of DNA samples.

    Shaw is keen on another hot area as well: examining not DNA but contaminants, such as pesticides, that may be present in blood spots. By combing through hundreds or thousands of samples, epidemiologists can assess exposure levels across a population or compare different regions. Or they can match exposure with certain health problems. Henry Spliethoff, an environmental health scientist at the New York State Department of Health Center for Environmental Health in Troy, wondered whether phasing out products that contained perfluorinated compounds around the year 2000 had reduced exposure levels in utero. By comparing blood spots collected before 2000 with those collected after, he found that exposure had gone down by as much as 70% between 1999 and 2004 and had dropped further after that. Such studies are still in their infancy.

    Just gaining access to the spots can be a logistical challenge because many U.S. state health departments are strapped for cash and don't have the staff to handle a growing number of requests. At Maryland's health department, Christopher Loffredo, an epidemiologist at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., says, “I spent 6 months of my life going through boxes and boxes and boxes of blood spots looking for the ones I needed” for a study on congenital heart disease. California, which has stored samples since 1983 and now has 14 million, gets about one research request every 2 weeks. But because it is short of staff, it hasn't been filling them for more than a year.


    View this table:

    Safeguards and gaps

    In most countries, researchers must seek approval from an ethics board before getting their hands on the blood spots they want to study. They generally obtain informed consent in cases in which a blood spot could be identified—for example, when detailed health information is needed. Greaves, for example, seeks consent from families of the children with cancer he studies. In cases without consent, the health department might provide researchers with an anonymous sampling of blood spots, offering them, say, geographic information but nothing more; or it might provide control samples for a study of a particular disease.

    Many people consider such protections insufficient. In the Netherlands, where samples are kept for 5 years and sometimes used in research studies, the newborn-screening program was thrust into turmoil in 2000. A fireworks depot exploded in the Dutch city of Enschede, killing 22 people and injuring almost 1000; officials discussed using blood spots to help identify the dead. An outcry ensued, because the Dutch public hadn't realized the samples were being banked. “People were very angry. … It was never kept secret, but it wasn't clear,” says J. Gerard Loeber, a member of the steering committee for the Dutch screening program and president of the International Society for Neonatal Screening. Since then, the country has incorporated informed consent for the program into its prenatal care. Midwives offer the chance to opt out of sample storage, something about 100 to 150 families do each year, says Loeber.

    Consent standards vary wildly between and even within countries. In Australia, screening programs do not seek consent for sample storage; in New Zealand, practices differ from region to region. In France, where samples are stored for at least 1 year, researchers generally must have families sign their children's blood-spot card if they wish to perform a specific study, says Jean-Louis Dhondt of the Catholic University in Lille, who heads up the screening lab of one French region, Nord-Pas de Calais. “We have no right to look at other genes” beyond those already being tested for, Dhondt says.

    In Denmark, where the public enthusiastically participates in national biobanks, sample storage is discussed in newspapers and elsewhere, and residents “certainly know” that research is performed on the blood spots, says Mads Melbye, head of epidemiology at the Statens Serum Institut in Copenhagen. Individuals can opt out of having their samples used in research if they wish.

    The patchwork U.S. system changes from state to state: Blood-spot cards are kept indefinitely in some places and discarded immediately after initial testing in others. A handful of states, including California and Michigan, have statutes that provide legal authority to store the blood spots.

    But nearly everywhere in the United States, there is no informed consent for any element of the screening program. Families can decline to participate on religious or other grounds, or accept screening but refuse to have the sample stored. But they must know to do so in advance, and most do not. Even though some states distribute information sheets at a child's birth, “many people aren't aware of the infant-screening program,” says Tom Tomlinson, a bioethicist at Michigan State University in East Lansing. And “you can't do research on people without their consent.”

    Tomlinson was recruited to advise the Michigan Department of Community Health, which plans to make its repository more accessible to researchers and is considering the ethical minefields around doing so. Samples there are stored in perpetuity. The Michigan Neonatal BioTrust, as the effort is called, is trying to shift storage from room temperature to freezing to better preserve the samples, improve tracking of what's been distributed to researchers, and encourage community input into how samples are studied.

    Research treasure.

    Cancer biologist Mel Greaves uses blood spots to track the trajectory of childhood leukemia.


    “There's an ethical gap” in how federal rules govern protection of human subjects, says Tomlinson. “They are all about protecting individuals against risk” and guarding privacy. But “people have other [concerns about] the way in which their materials are used,” for example, to study medical conditions that could stigmatize an ethnic group to which they belong.

    In brief.

    California tells families that they must opt out if they don't want a child's blood used in research studies.


    Delayed impact

    Information from a baby's blood spot may pose other difficult questions. For example, should parents be told if researchers discover that their child carries a gene that increases the risk of disease? In New Zealand, one group inquired about using samples to examine the prevalence of gene mutations for long QT syndrome, a condition that can cause sudden cardiac death. “We went to an ethics committee and they said, ‘It's not ethical to do this [anonymously] because you might find information that's useful to families,’” says Dianne Webster, director of the New Zealand Newborn Metabolic Screening Programme in Auckland. But gathering permission from families was deemed “too logistically difficult,” and the project was abandoned.

    In Denmark, Melbye and his colleagues have funding from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) to examine gene sequences that might contribute to preterm birth in 4000 mothers and their babies. (Samples were collected by the country's biobanks and a study on pregnant women.) The Danish ethics committee chose not to mandate seeking permission from the mothers, concluding that the project was unlikely to come up with genetic risk factors that would make preterm birth extremely likely in a future pregnancy. If that happens, however, says Melbye, “we will write to the scientific ethics committee and say, ‘This is a very strong marker, it's important for the mothers to know—they will decide what needs to be done.’”

    Obtaining consent years or decades after a blood spot was collected may not be possible, some say. Furthermore, seeking consent at any time could potentially be alarming to families. Imagine, for example, a study that finds a mutation in blood spots whose medical significance is fuzzy, says Jeffrey Botkin, a pediatrician and bioethicist at the University of Utah. “No way can you call those families up and say, ‘We've found something about your child,’” because there's no guidance anyone can offer. “You're not going to do anything with that information.” Botkin received NIH funding last year to examine the ethical issues and public attitudes involved in retention and research use of blood spots.

    Tomlinson, however, notes that in his experience in Michigan, a “significant minority” of the people he speaks with would prefer that researchers obtain consent from individuals whose blood spots are used in a given study. That desire may be important to heed, in part to maintain good community relations.

    Leaders of newborn-screening programs are sensitive to public perceptions: A misstep, they fear, could taint the entire program, leading families to decline screening altogether. “These are extremely valuable samples for public health research,” says Logan Spector, a childhood cancer epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota. “That's why I would support strengthening the law to protect them from any perceived misuse”—for example, invoking a “firewall” that allows for research but not nonresearch uses, like those involving law enforcement. Botkin favors obtaining consent from a couple before a child's birth for storage and potential research. After the lawsuit in Texas was filed in March, members of the Texas House of Representatives introduced legislation to require consent.

    Opening up the inner workings of the screening program is crucial to keeping samples in the world of science, says Loeber, citing his own experience after the explosion at the Dutch fireworks depot. “If you don't do that, some parents will always feel that something secret is going on. … The general population has always the sense of, ‘Hmmmm, what are they doing with the blood of my baby?'”


    The 'Tamba Dragon' Has Japanese Dinosaur Hunters All Fired Up

    1. Dennis Normile

    A serendipitous sauropod specimen could shed light on the evolution of our planet's largest land animals.

    A serendipitous sauropod specimen could shed light on the evolution of our planet's largest land animals

    Pay dirt.

    A sauropod is emerging from this riverside dig. (Inset: Bones in orange recovered in 2007, blue in 2008.)


    TAMBA, JAPAN— Haruo Saegusa's 17 years of encounters with amateur fossil hunters didn't prepare him for the surprise he was in for on 9 August 2006. Ordinarily, he says, people who bring specimens to the Museum of Nature and Human Activities in Sanda, in central Japan's Hyogo Prefecture, suffer from “fossil mania,” imagining that oddly shaped rocks or round stones they've found are dinosaur bones or eggs. So when a pair of elderly men showed up with two objects pulled from the bank of the Sasayama River, Saegusa, a paleontologist at the Sanda museum, had low expectations. But the fossils were bona fide. “I was astonished,” he says.

    After Saegusa visited the site in nearby Tamba with museum colleagues the next day, he says, “I thought we might get one or two bones and that would be it.” Instead, they hit the jackpot. So far, Saegusa's team has unearthed 50 large bones—about one-third of a skeleton of a sauropod from the early Cretaceous, dating to 120 million to 140 million years ago.

    “It could be a really great skeleton,” says Jeffrey Wilson, a paleontologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. The find, a work in progress, could be a new species, filling an evolutionary gap in this diverse group of colossal plant eaters. The specimen, along with other fossils recovered recently in Japan, raises questions about when sauropods spread across Asia. But the challenges of prizing the rest of Tamba-ryu—the Tamba dragon, as it has been dubbed—from the riverbank may prove insurmountable.

    The fossil haul includes the dinosaur's sacrum (the bone at the base of the spine), parts of the pelvis, numerous vertebrae, several ribs, some teeth, and the braincase, a rare find. Saegusa and colleagues estimate that the dinosaur was 18 to 20 meters long—average among sauropods, which diversified during the Jurassic and became common in the Cretaceous. Its chevrons—bones along the tail's underside—have a mix of primitive features and advanced ones previously thought to be restricted to the titanosaurs, a group that arose later in the Cretaceous. “The derivation of titanosaurs from [earlier dinosaurs] is more complicated than previously assumed,” Saegusa says.

    The find could shed light on the evolution of characteristics such as body size and neck length, says Wilson. He is particularly excited about the braincase because it preserves anatomical information useful for comparing sauropod specimens. “The pattern of genealogy is really important because it tells us about the timing and sequence of the appearance of certain characteristics,” he says. The ability to clarify lineages and relationships would make the Tamba dragon “a very important specimen,” adds Yoichi Azuma, a paleontologist at Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum in Katsuyama.

    Stay tuned.

    More remains may be entombed behind Haruo Saegusa.


    The Tamba dragon also has a tale to tell based on when and where it lived. During the Jurassic, sauropod species such as Brachiosaurus and Diplodocus were “running all over” North America, Africa, and Europe, Wilson says, but “they don't appear in Asia,” suggesting a geographic barrier. Then during the Cretaceous, sauropods boomed in Asia. “There is a real change in the fauna in Asia right around the Jurassic-Cretaceous boundary, and we don't know why that is,” Wilson says. The Tamba dinosaur “will allow us to see in a clearer way what the Asian sauropod fauna looked like,” he says.

    A sharper view may hinge on recovering more of the Tamba dinosaur. The 5-meter-deep excavation is submerged much of the year: during spring runoff, the summer rainy season, and when typhoons hit in the fall. This limits digging to 2 months in late winter when the river is at its lowest. The team recovered fewer bones this year than in the previous two seasons, and Saegusa worries that more of the skeleton might be scattered in a rock layer that dives under the riverbed. Following it much deeper would require a costly and difficult diversion of the Sasayama, which Saegusa says would be hard to justify unless they could guarantee a payoff. Digging will resume next winter, he says, but “money could be a problem going beyond that.”

    Tracking the formation to other exposures in search of additional specimens is also problematic. Earthquakes and volcanic activity have warped Japan's geologic layers, resulting in few complete dinosaur skeletons, says Makoto Manabe, a paleontologist at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo. And because much of the country is covered with lush vegetation or concrete, Manabe says, “it's very difficult to prospect for fossils in Japan.” Meanwhile, a legal loophole in Japan impedes serendipitous discoveries: Although builders must inform authorities if they find archeological artifacts at construction sites, the law does not apply to fossils.

    Such circumstances make the Tamba dragon all the more remarkable. “It was like hitting the lottery,” says Saegusa.


    Détente in the Fisheries War

    1. Erik Stokstad

    After a controversial projection that wild-caught fish will disappear, top researchers buried the hatchet to examine the status of fisheries--and what to do about it.

    After a controversial projection that wild-caught fish will disappear, top researchers buried the Dhatchet to examine the status of fisheries—and what to do about it

    All gone?

    A controversial projection of exhausted fisheries led to a new look at the oceans.


    Doomsday will come to fishes across the world's oceans by 2048. That was the startling implication of findings published in 2006 by marine ecologist Boris Worm of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, and several colleagues. The projection was merely a side note in a paper in Science about the relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem services in the oceans, which concluded that the world's oceans were in bad shape, in part because of overfishing. Then, in the next-to-last paragraph, the authors extrapolated from the percentage of fisheries that have already collapsed and predicted that in 32 years no more fish would be caught in the ocean. That point, not their larger conclusions on the role of biodiversity in ecosystem functions, was highlighted in press releases and then garnered headlines around the world.

    Many fisheries scientists were appalled. Trained in quantitative techniques for determining the abundance of fish stocks, they questioned the methods used in Worm's global assessment, such as a reliance on the mass of fish reported caught. They also blasted the paper for ignoring fisheries that are doing well, like those in the northeastern Pacific and New Zealand, and those that are now recovering from decades of overfishing.

    One particularly prominent critic was Ray Hilborn of the University of Washington, Seattle. In media interviews, he called the analysis “incredibly sloppy” and the projection “mind-boggling[ly] stupid.” Worm and his colleagues defended their analyses in responses in Science and elsewhere. The conflict continued a charged and long-simmering debate between marine ecologists and fisheries scientists about the status of the world's ocean ecosystems.

    Yet less than a year later, Hilborn and Worm began meeting on neutral ground to hammer out their differences—to the amazement of some observers. “There were such extreme attacks on the [Worm et al. paper] that it was a little hard to imagine that they would have a constructive dialog,” says ecologist Larry Crowder of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Working under the auspices of the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) in Santa Barbara, California, a grant-funded center run by the University of California to facilitate collaboration among ecologists, Hilborn and Worm have brought together some 20 scientists from their respective disciplines as well as dozens of graduate students who they hope will also learn to think more broadly. “This is the most interesting thing I've been involved in in a long time,” Hilborn says.

    The goal was to figure out why their different data or methods yield such divergent impressions of ocean ecosystems—and in the process create better databases that both camps deem reliable and informative. Perhaps more importantly, they have used the new databases to develop a common vision of how to balance fishing and conservation most effectively. Joint publications are expected to start appearing later this year. “I have high expectations that they'll come back with useful outcomes,” says Steven Murawski, chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Service in Silver Spring, Maryland, who participated in the first meeting.

    Head to head

    In large part, the Worm-Hilborn clash reflects the different worldviews of the two disciplines. Fisheries scientists see marine ecosystems as a resource to be used, whereas marine ecologists usually envision pristine, unfished habitats as the ideal.

    The two fields also tend to rely on different types of data. In their 2006 Science paper, Worm and his co-authors were trying to look at the global impacts of marine biodiversity loss. For that, they had to rely on the most comprehensive kind of data available: the tonnages that countries report are caught. Fisheries scientists, by contrast, tend to look at individual stocks of fish and typically use sparser data gathered by scientific means; they consider catch reports unreliable.

    High-profile journals have been publishing dire warnings about the impact of fishing on ocean ecosystems for years. One of the first was a 1998 Science paper by Daniel Pauly of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, one of the few fisheries biologists who takes a global perspective (Science, 6 February 1998, p. 860). He and his colleagues speculated provocatively that with continued overfishing, only jellyfish and plankton would remain to be harvested.

    In 2003, a paper in Nature continued that tradition. Written by Worm and the late Ransom Myers of Dalhousie, the paper concluded that industrial fishing had reduced global populations of sharks, tuna, and other large open-water predators by 90%. Again, the conclusion attracted international media attention. It was also the first big paper for Worm, then a postdoc. Now 39, he is a rising star among marine ecologists; soft-spoken and media-savvy, Worm is a passionate conservationist.

    Fisheries scientists fought back. Leading the charge was Hilborn, who received the Volvo Environment Prize in 2006 in part for his work on mathematical models and fisheries management. In a scathing opinion piece titled “Faith-based Fisheries,” which was published in Fisheries in November 2006, Hilborn accused Worm, Myers, and others of cherry-picking data to support “sensational but unsubstantiated headlines” and asserted a “lack of the basic skepticism needed in science.” Swinging widely, he also took Science and Nature to task for seeking publicity at the expense of rigorous peer review.

    A crack in the ice emerged when the two scientists were invited to talk on a National Public Radio call-in show about the future of fish not long after publication of the 2006 paper. When they started to discuss the issue on air, Worm recalls, they didn't seem to be that far apart. The two continued to converse by phone and agreed to collaborate at NCEAS. “Ray and I realized independently this [public disagreement] was not going to make the science any better, because you have the danger of being blind in one eye,” Worm recalls.

    Splitting the difference

    In large part, it was the prospect of looking at new data sets that brought Worm and Hilborn to the table. The two decided to assemble a resource they both could agree on. “It's being data-driven that's led us to common ground,” says Hilborn, who is now a member of Science's Board of Reviewing Editors. The results are much more comprehensive and rigorous databases to examine the status of the world's fisheries, NOAA's Murawski says.

    The first target was an updated collection of stock assessments, the gold standard of analysis in fisheries science. These consist of surveys and statistical models of fish populations. Second, they compiled a similar database of trawl surveys, a broader sampling of fish populations usually conducted by research vessels. They also collected about two dozen ecosystem models, which show the interactions of various species in a particular fishery. Finally, they also examined the catch data that Worm and his colleagues had relied on in their 2006 paper.


    Boris Worm (top) and Ray Hilborn set aside past disagreements to launch a joint study on the state of the world's fisheries.


    The databases had to be a joint effort, they say, because that showed that the group was not trying to attack fisheries management—and that helped persuade fisheries scientists elsewhere to contribute data. “There's trust because there are checks and balances in the group, there are people from each field,” Worm says.

    With these new tools, the group is now taking a fresh stab at assessing the status and trends in world fisheries and ecosystems. They plan to publish an overview this summer. Although Worm and Hilborn don't agree on everything—such as the projection that first triggered the project, the disappearance of wild-caught fish by 2048—they have found middle ground about the present. “There are a lot of problems, but things may not be as bad as ecologists have thought,” Hilborn says. For his part, Worm says he's surprised by the number of places where managers have gradually reduced fishing over the past 10 years.

    Both agree that more needs to be done. They are outlining a balance between extraction and conservation, a way to most effectively manage the world's oceans for human use while maintaining biodiversity and the structure of natural ecosystems. The key conclusion—coming from comparisons of management in both successful and failing sites—is that a little change in fishing practices could go a long way. The current practice is for fisheries scientists to set a target called maximum sustainable yield (although in practice, many stocks are over-fished). Hilborn and others had already noted that it is more economical to fish less than this (Science, 7 December 2007, p. 1601). The new findings show that somewhat reducing fishing offers biological benefits as well, including more preservation of biodiversity. “There is this new area of consensus, that fishing below maximum sustainable yield would be beneficial in all these realms,” Worm says.

    In their final meeting next month, the researchers and graduate students will summarize what they've learned and finalize results of the main papers. “You can already see how things will trickle down and be taken up and processed by the next generation of scientists, who hopefully will not be part of that polarized debate anymore,” Worm says. Although it can sometimes be useful to have contrasting views, he says, “there is only one world, and we need to work on it together.”

  14. ENERGY

    Renewables Test IQ of the Grid

    1. Dan Charles

    Everybody agrees that tomorrow's electrical grid must incorporate wind and solar power seamlessly. But solving the reliability issue won't be easy.

    Everybody agrees that tomorrow's electrical grid must incorporate wind and solar power seamlessly. But solving the reliability issue won't be easy

    Cash crop.

    The fields of west Texas are producing a harvest of electricity, along with cotton.


    In the afternoon of 26 February 2008, the winds died down in a stretch of west Texas that's home to thousands of tall wind turbines. Over a span of 3 hours, the turbines' contribution to the state's electricity grid fell by 75%. That 1500-megawatt (MW) drop—equivalent to the output of three midsized coal-burning power plants—coincided with a spike in demand. At 6:30 p.m., the alternating current in the state's transmission lines started to alternate more sluggishly, an ominous signal that the system was approaching collapse.

    Fortunately, managers of the state's power network had struck a set of agreements with large industrial customers allowing them to cut off power temporarily in exchange for lower rates. Within 10 minutes, about 1200 MW of load was sliced from the sagging electrical grid, and the system stabilized. Texans were blissfully unaware that the state's grid had just dodged a bullet. But the episode was an unsettling reminder that not all electricity is created equal, and that clean energy harvested from nature can complicate the job of keeping the lights on.

    Such episodes could become more common—and disrupt service—if plans for a massive expansion of wind and solar power are realized. Both sources of energy are variable and relatively unpredictable. Those traits will require the electrical grid to become smarter and more agile, so that it doesn't stumble and collapse when the wind stops blowing or clouds obscure the sun.

    Calls for a “smart grid” have become routine in Washington, D.C., and President Barack Obama's stimulus package includes $4.5 billion for “smart grid demonstration projects.” Utilities, national laboratories, and universities are all gearing up to compete for those funds. One focus is installing “smart meters” in homes that show consumers how much energy they are using. Another involves planning high-capacity transmission lines to bring wind and solar power from the nation's high plains and deserts to its cities, creating an interstate highway for green power.

    But the most important piece of the renewable-energy puzzle may be finding a solution to its erratic spikes and dips. “Everyone understands the need for transmission,” says Arshad Mansoor, vice president for power delivery and utilization at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) in Palo Alto, California. “Not everyone understands the reliability issue.”

    Dance partners

    The electrical grid demands exquisite balance. At every instant, the supply of electricity throughout the system—thousands of power plants, substations, and transmission lines—must equal demand. If not, wires overheat, voltage drops, and circuit breakers snap open to protect parts of the grid where supply still matches demand.

    To keep the system running smoothly, grid managers line up generating capacity ahead of time. Then, as actual demand swells and falls, minute by minute, gas turbines automatically throttle up and down and coal-fired plants deliver more steam to generators. “Utilities have become accustomed to variations in the time frame of minutes to hours,” says Loren Toole, an electrical engineer at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. But Toole says the current system isn't nimble enough for wind and solar generators, which can produce surges and drops in electricity within a few seconds or minutes.

    That variability hasn't caused problems yet for the overall U.S. grid because solar and wind power supply just over 1% of the country's electricity. But many states, including California, New York, and Illinois, have passed laws requiring that at least 20% of their electricity come from renewable sources within a decade or two (see map, below). Congress is drafting a similar requirement for the entire country.

    Unpredictable power.

    Over the course of a typical week, the amount of wind energy received by the Bonneville Power Administration reached nearly 2000 MW and fell to almost zero.


    A study that General Electric prepared for the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas shows the impact on the Texas grid of incorporating 15,000 MW of wind power—four times the amount it now receives. About twice a year, the study predicts, grid managers would see the supply of wind-derived electricity fall by 2400 MW—the equivalent of four or five midsized coal plants—in less than 30 minutes. Power from photovoltaic panels, meanwhile, can drop when clouds come over, only to spike back up a few minutes later.

    What utilities desperately need, according to industry insiders, is an array of “dance partners”—sources of additional power that can mirror every tricky move from the forces of nature, stepping forward without missing a beat as the winds die down and retreating when the wind picks up. Potential dance partners include equipment for storing large amounts of electricity, bigger transmission networks that allow utilities to draw power from a larger area, and the ability to control demand by turning off appliances in their customers' homes.

    Several technologies in a future “smart grid” could help manage this dance. They include sensors that monitor the state of high-voltage transmission lines and react instantly when conditions deteriorate. Such technologies already exist, but deploying them on a large scale will cost billions of dollars.

    Bringing more renewables online may also require more sophisticated analysis of the grid's behavior when power comes from thousands of independently controlled solar panels and wind turbines. Marija Ilic, a specialist on electrical power systems at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, says researchers at universities and national laboratories are leading the way. “Some utilities are just waking up” to the problem, she says.

    Utilities also need more accurate predictions of the weather. “If I can't forecast the wind accurately, I have no choice but to start a bunch of [coal- or gas-burning] units” to serve as a reserve in case the wind dies, says David Hawkins of the California Independent System Operator (CAISO), which manages that state's electrical system. “If I have to do that, I've lost all the advantages of the green energy.”

    CAISO buys forecasts of its wind power from AWS Truewind LLC, one of a handful of companies selling such a service. “They're getting good,” says Hawkins. The day-ahead forecasts—which provide hour-by-hour predictions of a wind farm's power production—used to be off by 40% or more, but “now we're getting errors in the low 20s, heading toward 15 to 17%.” The forecasts are continually updated, and “within the hour, we can usually nail it,” says Hawkins. The National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, recently got funding from Xcel Energy to develop an “advanced wind-prediction system.”

    Storing power underground

    The ideal dance partner is hydroelectric power. Dams are giant energy-storage devices, and they can react quickly, releasing exactly enough electricity to balance what the fickle winds deliver. Denmark is able to meet 20% of its electrical demands with wind power, for example, by drawing upon imported hydropower from Norway.

    Unfortunately, there isn't nearly enough hydropower to go around. EPRI is promoting what it considers the next best thing, storing power in the form of air pumped into underground caverns under high pressure. “Compressed air is one of the few options we have for real bulk power storage,” says EPRI's Dan Rastler. Two such facilities already exist in the United States and Germany. EPRI and a consortium of utilities are planning a more efficient and larger one that would drive a standard gas turbine and generate 400 MW of electricity for up to 10 hours.

    Smaller storage projects are also in the works. The Bonneville Power Administration, a federal agency based in Portland, Oregon, already generates enough wind power to satisfy 20% of its peak demand (see graph), and it's working with CAISO to build a facility that stores energy in spinning flywheels. The flywheels are meant to smooth out small fluctuations in wind power, storing excess electricity from brief gusts of wind and releasing it when the wind turbines slow down.

    Utilities also have their eye on the batteries of plug-in hybrid vehicles. Those vehicles could become a nightmare for utilities if their owners insist on charging them up after ar riving home from work, when power use is at a peak. “My view is, that's no time to charge customers 6 cents per kilowatt-hour; that's a time to charge 6 bucks!” says David Mohler, who's in charge of “smart grid” efforts for Duke Energy, headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina.

    But under some circumstances, those batteries could be a boon to the electric grid. Managers of the grid could pay vehicle owners for the right to control when the charging occurs and eventually the discharging, too. They could fill up the batteries of plug-in hybrids when electricity is abundant in the wee hours of the morning, then draw on that stored-up power in available vehicles to respond to power shortages in the middle of the day.

    The two-way communications needed for such a system are part of what is now being called the “smart grid.” Such links, allowing utilities to directly control appliances in people's homes, could become one of the most important tools for adapting to variable power from the sun and wind.

    Florida Power & Light (FPL) Co. has been doing this for years to handle peak demand. Almost a million customers have signed up for FPL's “On Call” program, which allows the utility to turn off their water heaters, pool pumps, and sometimes air conditioners for short periods of time. FPL communicates with control boxes on those appliances with signals sent directly over power lines. In an emergency, On Call can quickly cut FPL's peak energy load by 4%.

    Many utilities are now experimenting with more ambitious versions of this technology. Duke Energy has outfitted the homes of 32 customers in Ohio with an “energy optimization engine” that allows the utility to manage the most energy-hungry home appliances in the home in exchange for cheaper electricity bills. So far, the utility has only used its power to prevent ovens or water heaters in the same neighborhood from turning on at exactly the same time.

    The utilities are treading carefully to avoid a backlash from customers who cherish their ability to dry clothes at their convenience. Mohler says utilities could probably use this tool to cut their load by 10% or 20%. “But could we do it without customers noticing? Probably not.”

    Green freeloaders?

    Christopher DeMarco, an electrical engineer at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, is examining a more subtle feature of green power, namely, its reluctance to perform certain unglamorous but essential functions that keep the grid on solid footing. Old-style power plants, for instance, provide some extra “reactive power” that helps keep voltage stable on the grid. Without it, voltage in an AC system tends to sag.

    Early versions of wind farms and solar panels did not help to support the voltage. “It costs them money,” says EPRI's Stephen Lee. “So independent power producers, including renewable generators, just pump power onto the grid and depend on the transmission company to provide voltage support.” That approach may have been okay when renewables were a boutique source of energy. But as their presence grows, grid managers are requiring many of them to provide voltage support.

    DeMarco says solar and wind power also do little to cushion the grid from shocks such as a power plant shutting down unexpectedly. Traditional power plants do this naturally, he says, through the sheer physical mass of machinery that is rotating exactly in time with the oscillation of the grid's alternating current. This system “has a very nice stabilizing dynamic effect,” says DeMarco. If a factory operator somewhere flips a switch and pulls more power from the grid, DeMarco says, the generator responds instantly. “It will slow down slightly, and what was kinetic energy gets converted into electrical energy going out the wire.”

    Solar and wind generators could mimic this response, says DeMarco, but it would require them to reduce their output by a few percentage points and have that power poised to respond instantly to shocks on the grid. Without their cooperation, he predicts, “we are going to run into hard limits on how much renewable generation we can live with, without destabilizing the operation of the grid.” DeMarco and his fellow researchers are trying to determine just where those “hard limits” lie.

    “There is a tendency in some circles to paint renewables as a threat to the grid,” says DeMarco, but he thinks the two can work in harmony. “You need to spend a little money to make them compatible with the grid,” he explains, “but there's no insurmountable hurdle.”

  15. ENERGY

    Students Energized by Power Engineering

    1. Dan Charles

    The study of electrical power generation and transmission has long occupied the dusty back corners of U.S. academia. But with energy back in the headlines, students are returning to the field.

    The study of electrical power generation and transmission has long occupied the dusty back corners of U.S. academia. The field was neglected by funders and students alike. When power engineers retired from university faculty positions, they often weren't replaced.

    Students avoided the field, in part because deregulated utilities, anxious to cut costs, weren't hiring, says Anjan Bose, a professor of power engineering at Washington State University, Pullman. A National Science Foundation-sponsored workshop in 2007 on the future power-engineering work force called the situation “a national crisis.”

    With energy back in the headlines, the tide appears to have turned. The evidence is mostly anecdotal because there is no national census of power-engineering students. But engineers at many U.S. universities tell the same story: Students are back, and faculty members are expecting a big increase in funding opportunities as demand grows for a “smart grid.”

    “Classrooms are full, and we have this very alive group now,” says Marija Ilic of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At the University of Wisconsin, Madison, says Christopher DeMarco, “we're definitely seeing a greater influx of students at the graduate level.” For many years, these programs relied heavily on students from abroad. DeMarco was grateful for those students, but he admits to being “frustrated” by the scarcity of U.S. students. “That's changed dramatically in the last 2 or 3 years,” he says.


    Marija Ilic says students like the idea of improving the grid.


    Ilic herself was born in Yugoslavia (in the part that is now Serbia) and studied electrical engineering in Belgrade before receiving a D.Sc. degree from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1980. The field itself has changed, she says. Instead of focusing strictly on technical skills, faculty members now encourage students to explore the political and economic context and environmental impacts of power systems. Students also arrive with different expectations. “People are not just thinking about this as doing engineering but as something that's good for mankind,” Ilic says.

    One clear sign of renewed interest is at the University of Michigan, which abandoned power engineering in the 1970s because of a general lack of interest. “There was not much of a market for it,” says Khalil Najafi, chair of the electrical and computer engineering department. Last fall, the department hired Ian Hiskins, an authority on power grid control, and it is about to add another specialist in energy systems. A third faculty position may open up next year, Najafi adds.