Random Samples

Science  24 Apr 2009:
Vol. 324, Issue 5926, pp. 445

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  1. All in the Family


      Charles II, the last king of the Spanish Habsburg dynasty, died without heirs in 1700 after a short, sickly life marked by deformity, impotence, and recurring bloody urine. A new genetic analysis suggests that royal inbreeding was to blame, as historians have long suspected.

      Researchers led by Gonzalo Alvarez, a geneticist at the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, built a family tree of more than 3000 Habsburg relatives and calculated inbreeding coefficients for various family members. These coefficients give the probability that a person would have received identical copies of a gene from each parent—a chance that increases when the parents are blood relatives.

      The inbreeding coefficient for the Habsburg kings increased 10-fold over five generations, from 0.025 in Philip I to 0.254 in Charles II. What that means, the authors reported 15 April in the online journal PLoS One, is that an extraordinary 25.4% of Charles II's genome could have consisted of pairs of identical genes—as many as in the child of a brother-sister union.

      The authors suggest that Charles II's genome left him vulnerable to a host of rare recessive disorders, including a possible hormone deficiency and renal disease that would account for his unpleasant illnesses and death at age 38. But although inbreeding was “very likely” the culprit, says Rita Cantor, a geneticist at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Medicine, only Charles's own DNA could pinpoint what made the king so sick.

    1. A Croissant From the Sun

        CREDIT: NASA

        Every so often, powerful blobs of plasma and magnetic energy from the sun pummel Earth's magnetic field, playing havoc with satellites, GPS and cell phone signals, and electrical grids. Now, three-dimensional pictures of these so-called coronal mass ejections (CMEs)—40 of which have been observed by NASA's twin STEREO spacecraft since 2007—show that the ejections take on the shape of croissants as they billow through space. STEREO's measurements have also helped improve the accuracy of predicting a CME's intrusion into Earth's magnetosphere from within 12 hours to about three, says Michael Kaiser of NASA's Goddard Space Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

        The improved accuracy will help to better warn electrical companies and satellite operators when a strong CME event is on the way. Doug Biesecker of NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado, says the new 3D imagery will also help researchers study the solar atmosphere and develop advanced CME models.

      1. The Texture of Einstein's Genius


          A new study of Albert Einstein's brain has identified unusual anatomical features that researchers say may be linked to the physicist's knack for conceptualizing physics problems and to his famed love of music.

          When Einstein died in 1955 at Princeton Hospital in New Jersey, a local pathologist removed his brain, suspended it in preservative, and photographed and measured it. In a study published in 1999, a team led by Sandra Witelson of McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, found that Einstein's parietal lobes—which are implicated in mathematical, visual, and spatial cognition—were 15% wider than normal parietal lobes.

          Now Dean Falk, an anthropologist at Florida State University in Tallahassee, claims to have identified more than a dozen previously unrecognized features. They include a pronounced knoblike structure in the part of the motor cortex that controls the left hand; other studies have associated similar “knobs” with musical ability. (Einstein loved to play the violin and took lessons for many years as a child.) Falk says the parietal regions of both sides of Einstein's brain show a rare pattern of grooves and ridges that might be related to the great man's genius for conceptualizing problems. Einstein often reported that he thought in images and sensations rather than in words. Falk's findings are in press in Frontiers in Evolutionary Neuroscience.

          Frederick Lepore, a neurologist at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, New Jersey, says that the features Falk identified are “unambiguously apparent” and that “Einstein's genius certainly exploited his ability to visualize physical problems, for example, what it would be like to ride on a beam of light.”

        1. An Editor With Punch

            John Maddox, who captained Nature into the modern era with two transformative stints as editor, died on 12 April at the age of 83.

            Maddox was born in Wales on 27 November 1925. After studying physics and chemistry, he taught theoretical physics at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. He went on to work as a science correspondent for The Manchester Guardian (now The Guardian) from 1955 to 1964.

            Maddox brought his journalistic instincts with him when he joined Nature as its editor in 1966. He had manuscripts edited to make them more punchy and put in place a stringent peer-review system. Nature also became known for Maddox's animated and sometimes controversial editorials, and the journal grew to be a platform for opinionated and incisive science journalism. In 1973, he stepped down to start his own publishing company, resuming editorship of the journal in 1980. After his resignation in 1995, he was knighted for his services to science.

            “He was most engaging, a real polymath,” says Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society. “He exemplified [how] a generalist and a man of culture can contribute a great deal to the stimulus of the scientific community.”