News this Week

Science  08 May 2009:
Vol. 324, Issue 5928, pp. 700
  1. Swine Flu Outbreak

    Out of Mexico? Scientists Ponder Swine Flu's Origins

    1. Jon Cohen
    Breathing easier?

    Mexican officials believe the outbreak there has stabilized, reducing fears of widespread disease and death.


    Each scientist at the forefront of the current swine flu outbreak remembers the day when it became clear that this was not a typical influenza season. For Celia Alpuche, that date was 7 April, more than 2 weeks before hundreds of other scientists, doctors, secretaries of health, and even presidents would also start losing sleep over a virus now officially known as 2009 A (H1N1).

    Alpuche is an infectious disease microbiologist who heads the Instituto Nacional de Diagnóstico y Referencia Epidemiológicos (InDRE) in Mexico City, the country's main lab for testing influenza samples. On that Tuesday in early April, she learned that the nearby National Institute of Respiratory Diseases had severe cases of pneumonia in young adults—the age bracket that typically suffers the least harm from flu. “It sounded unusual,” says Alpuche. “Immediately, we started to get the data around this cluster.”

    Alpuche and her team analyzed data on the country's influenza from this season and the one before, looking at the distributions of the virus's two strains, A and B. They noticed that this year's flu season seemed unusually long and that B cases accounted for 37% of the total, up from 15%. Surveillance data in the United States looked similar.

    It turned out that the bump in influenza B had nothing to do with the swine flu outbreak, which is caused by an A strain. But it clouded Mexico's early attempts to make sense of these odd respiratory cases in young adults. “It was very confusing,” says Alpuche. Nor did InDRE or other less sophisticated Mexican labs have the capability to identify a novel H1N1 strain, ultimately leading Mexico to ask Canada and the United States for assistance. “This is a new, unknown virus,” she says, and those are notoriously difficult to detect. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Public Health Agency of Canada confirmed that the novel virus was an H1N1 strain of swine flu origin on 23 April. Since then, says Alpuche, Mexico has been “working very hard” to overcome its limitations in diagnostics and surveillance.

    Alpuche and her superiors reject the assertion that Mexico, where the outbreak seems to have emerged, might have contained the virus if officials had pounced on it sooner. “I don't see any way we could have acted faster,” says epidemiologist Mauricio Hernández-Ávila, the vice minister of disease prevention and health promotion for Mexico's Ministry of Health.


    The exact dates remain fuzzy, but Mexico's outbreak of 2009 A (H1N1) surfaced at the earliest in mid-March, and Alpuche and colleagues had their antennae wiggling by early April. “I think the Mexicans did all that was possible with a virtually impossible situation,” says Ira Longini, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington, Seattle. Longini's models of influenza pandemics have shown that it's nearly impossible for a country to contain an outbreak of a new influenza virus. “You can see what happened in the United States,” says Hernández-Ávila. “They even found the virus before we did, and they were not able to contain it.” (The first U.S. case was confirmed on 14 April.)

    Mexico is but one player under the microscope for its early actions in this outbreak: The World Health Organization (WHO) and CDC have also received close scrutiny. And the microscope has finer resolution than ever before because of Web cast press conferences, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Google Maps, and Skype. Yet the same Internet-fueled technologies have helped these same people do their jobs. “I'm amazed at the capacity we have with the information and communication technologies,” says epidemiologist Mirta Roses Periago, head of the Pan American Health Organization. “We used to do things with our hands and smelling and looking at the patients.” During the past few weeks, she notes, scientists have rapidly shared sequences of the viruses, digital images of patient x-rays, and electron micrographs of the new H1N1. “At this point in history, this is the best surveillance we've ever had,” said Keiji Fukuda, one of WHO's assistant director generals. As of 4 May, that surveillance had confirmed more than 1000 cases in 21 countries, and WHO had raised the pandemic threat alert to phase 5, one shy of a full-blown pandemic. Phase 5 indicates that two countries in the same region (the United States and Mexico) had ongoing, person-to-person spread in communities. Although early this week there was some indication that the virus might not be as dangerous as first feared, many still expect that a phase 6 alert, which indicates the same high level of spread in two or more WHO regions, is inevitable.

    The origin of the virus, its muscle power, and how much of a threat it presents remain mysteries. “We're not quite certain how this is going to evolve,” said Fukuda at a 4 May press conference. Despite this uncertainty, health officials and companies are gearing up to rush a new vaccine into place, if it is needed (see p. 702); already, WHO and governments have released antiviral drugs from their stockpiles (see p. 705).

    After Mexico, the United States has had the most cases, which on 5 May totaled 403. The almost simultaneous confirmations of the outbreak in both Mexico and the United States initially added further confusion to the outbreak's origins. But the virus itself has helped clear up matters, says Ruben Donis, CDC's chief of the molecular virology and vaccines branch.

    Quick picture.

    Within a few days of isolating the virus, shown in the electron micrograph on left, CDC had a detailed genetic phylogeny.


    Donis has led a full-tilt effort to sequence viral isolates and post them in GenBank, a publicly available database that by 4 May had nearly 200 entries of H1N1 genes. The genetic information helps labs around the world develop diagnostic tests for this new virus, key to speeding the investigation; at first Mexico and many other countries had to rely on CDC or the Public Health Agency of Canada (Science, 1 May, p. 572) to confirm suspected cases.

    Donis's group has used the gene sequences to tease out some of the virus's surprising history. A comparison to known influenza strains in different species shows that about one-third of the virus is from “classical” North American swine influenza, one-third is North American avian, and the remaining third is divided evenly between human and Eurasian swine (see pie chart). “It's almost equidistant to swine viruses from the United States and Eurasia,” says Donis. “And it's a lonely branch there. It doesn't have any close relatives.”

    Some have speculated that the outbreak started from an infected pig in Mexico, as an early case occurred in a region in Veracruz state that has a large pig farm. But Donis says this explanation may be too pat. He suggests that the virus may have originated in a U.S. pig that traveled to Asia as part of the hog trade. The virus may have infected a human there, who then traveled back to North America, where the virus perfected human-to-human spread, maybe even moving from the United States to Mexico.

    Alpuche notes that some of the earliest cases occurred in communities “well known for migration.” And a scouring of older samples—which is ongoing—recently uncovered a Mexico City case from 11 March, about a week before any confirmed infections in Veracruz. As to what enabled this swine influenza for the first time to transmit easily between humans, Donis says the sequence alone can't answer that question.

    On 2 May, Canada's Food Inspection Agency reported that 2009 A (H1N1) had been found in pigs for the first time. But in yet another twist, the virus seems to have come from a farm worker who recently returned from Mexico with a bout of swine flu and then infected the herd. This type of transmission, so far detected in 220 of the 2200 animals, may be a first, says Christopher Olsen, a swine influenza researcher at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Wisconsin, Madison: “I honestly can't think of an instance where we saw a swine virus move to humans and move back in this fashion.”

    Viral itinerary.

    CDC's Donis worries about H1N1's next move.


    The greatest concern is what will this confusing virus do next? Hernández-Ávila says he believes the outbreak in Mexico has stabilized. By 4 May, fewer samples were coming into the labs and fewer patients were checking into hospitals with respiratory diseases. Earlier, the country reported a few thousand suspected cases and close to 200 deaths, but out of 2164 tested samples, labs only confirmed 727 infections and 26 fatalities.

    But several experts stressed that the outbreak is still young. “I don't think we're out of the woods yet,” said Anne Schuchat, CDC interim deputy director for science and public health, at a 3 May press conference. “We don't know if the virus will return in the fall and come back harder than it is right now.” CDC's Donis, originally from Argentina, also notes that the United States and Mexico are in the Northern Hemisphere, where flu season has peaked. “We're in a good position,” he says. “The folks in Buenos Aires are in trouble. They're entering winter now.”

    So while scientists and health officials in the north may soon be able to get a good night's sleep, the espresso machines in labs and government ministries in the Southern Hemisphere may soon be working overtime.

  2. Swine Flu Outbreak

    Devilish Dilemmas Surround Pandemic Flu Vaccine

    1. Martin Enserink,
    2. Jocelyn Kaiser

    If and when a pandemic of H1N1 swine flu hits, vaccines might be the world's best hope for softening the blow. But major uncertainties cloud the prospects for vaccines against the new strain. No pandemic vaccine yet exists, and it is unclear how much vaccine would have to be available, and by what time, to have any impact. Should manufacturers halt the production of seasonal influenza vaccine to focus on a pandemic version, and if so, when? And is there any way to ensure that people around the world have an equal chance to get the new vaccine?

    These topics have been the subject of frantic, almost daily discussions among scientists, vaccine manufacturers, regulatory agencies, and the World Health Organization (WHO) over the past few weeks. But so far, there are few concrete answers, in part because no one knows just how severe a threat the new virus poses, or how difficult it will be to mass-produce a vaccine. One thing is certain, however: There won't be nearly enough vaccine to protect all the world's citizens, and the question of who has first dibs could get ugly, says David Fedson, a former pharma executive and influenza vaccine expert living in France.

    Almost all seasonal flu vaccine is made using a clunky, 50-year-old process, in which companies adapt the virus to multiply in hens' eggs, grow the virus in eggs, then purify the key antigens needed to make vaccine—the hemagglutinin and neuraminidase molecules that stick out from the virus's surface. In all, the process takes more than 5 months. This is also how at least the vast majority of a pandemic vaccine will be made, because promising alternative production strategies won't be ready in time.


    Most flu vaccine is now produced in a process that requires growing the virus in eggs.


    Immediately after isolating the new H1N1 strain, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other labs began producing a “seed stock” of virus, which will be given to manufacturers in a few weeks for vaccine production. But how much pandemic vaccine will they be able to produce once they get going? A study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, whose main outcomes were announced in February, gives an indication. The study, carried out by Adam Sabow of the consulting company Oliver Wyman, in collaboration with WHO and the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations, showed that all manufacturers combined can currently produce some 680 million doses of seasonal flu vaccine per year—a number that is expected to grow to at least 1.4 billion by 2014.

    It's not easy to translate that figure into doses of pandemic vaccine. The number depends, among other things, on how successfully scientists can make the new virus grow in eggs, how much antigen is needed for an adequate vaccine response, and whether a socalled adjuvant can reduce the amount of antigen needed per shot. But Sabow's study concluded that in the most likely scenario, the world's vaccinemakers combined could produce almost 2.5 billion doses of pandemic vaccine in the first year.

    Assuming, as many scientists do, that two shots would be needed for adequate protection— as opposed to one for seasonal vaccine—that means there would be enough for 1.2 billion people, less than 20% of the world's population, that first year (see graph). The study was based on the assumption of a pandemic of H5N1 avian influenza, but the figures are not expected to be vastly different for swine flu.

    Achieving that output assumes, however, that vaccine manufacturers immediately stop their production of seasonal vaccine, which they are now making for 2009–10, and go full-bore on a pandemic vaccine—a very unlikely scenario. In reality, WHO has to weigh the risk of a shortage of seasonal vaccine, and the increased risk of disease and death that would ensue, against the threat posed by the new strain. For the moment, the new virus doesn't appear to be highly virulent, but that could change over time. After a relatively mild first wave in the spring of 1918, the Spanish flu returned with a vengeance in the fall.

    Who goes first?

    A study suggests global production of a pandemic vaccine will fall short.


    “It's a devilish dilemma,” says Jaap Venema, global project director influenza at vaccine producer Solvay in the Netherlands. At a press briefing last week, WHO vaccine expert Marie-Paule Kieny said the agency is in close contact with manufacturers; some are further along with their seasonal production than others, and those might switch first to pandemic vaccines while others do so later.

    How to ensure equitable distribution of the vaccine is trickier still. Since the threat of an avian influenza pandemic became urgent 6 years ago, a few developing nations have been fighting hard to ensure they will have access to vaccines if a pandemic strikes. Indonesia even went so far as to refuse participation in WHO's system for virus sharing in an attempt to wrest hard guarantees from the agency. WHO responded with a plan to increase production capacity in the developing world, which is now home to some 13% of the global vaccine production capacity—but the plan is still in its infancy. To ensure equal access, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan has called for “international solidarity,” and Kieny says WHO is already talking to donors and major global health funders about ways to buy vaccine for the world's poorest.

    But there are some major obstacles. Several countries already have first dibs on any pandemic vaccine. In 2006, for instance, the Dutch government signed a contract with Solvay guaranteeing that it gets the first 16 million doses of a pandemic vaccine to protect its own population. Other governments have signed similar deals, Kieny says, so “the books of the manufacturers are already quite full.”

    In addition, the governments of the countries with a flu vaccine plant in their territories will be under tremendous political pressure to protect their own populations first, Fedson predicts. “You don't need a contract,” he says; “all you need is an army” to prevent the vaccine from going across the border. Thus, even rich countries like Sweden and Spain that lack a vaccine plant could find themselves empty-handed, he says.

    Unfortunately, there are few alternatives for the moment. Most flu vaccine manufacturers are working to replace the antiquated chicken-egg technology with a cell-based method, in which the vaccine virus is grown in mammalian cells. This has several advantages: Manufacturers are less dependent on the supply of chicken eggs—which is difficult to increase quickly and can become vulnerable during bird flu outbreaks—and it could shave 10 weeks from the 22 weeks now needed to make influenza vaccine using eggs.

    But although more practical and cleaner, cell-based vaccines don't promise a major boost in production capacity. Moreover, success with the technique has been slow to come, despite more than $1.5 billion in U.S. Department of Health and Human Services contracts to several companies to fund clinical trials of cell-based vaccines and scale up manufacturing. “The cell-based vaccines are coming, but we're not going to see them for this pandemic,” says influenza expert Arnold Monto of the University of Michigan School of Public Health in Ann Arbor. Other recombinant vaccines that could truly lead to an explosion in production capacity are even further down the road, says John Treanor of the University of Rochester's School of Medicine and Dentistry in New York state.

    That means that, at least for now, the world is still dependent on chicken eggs.

  3. ScienceInsider

    From the Science Policy Blog

    Since the H1N1 outbreak first surfaced 21 April, ScienceInsider has posted dozens of items as events unfolded, mixing analysis with breaking news and interviews with scientists fighting the virus around the world.

    In an exclusive interview, Celia Alpuche of the Instituto de Diagnóstico y Referencia Epidemiológicos in Mexico City provided details of Mexico's early responses to reports of puzzling increases in respiratory illness. She described how the culprit was eventually unmasked with help from the Canadian Public Health Agency laboratory in Winnipeg and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). She also noted that researchers have been surviving on little sleep and a lot of coffee.

    Head CDC virologist Ruben Donis, in another exclusive interview, discussed the genetics of the new H1N1 strain and its relationship to other flu viruses that have been circulating.

    An analysis looked at the thorny issue of how U.S. and international health officials can balance the need to keep the public informed without causing panic. Building on the lessons of the 2003 SARS outbreak, officials have settled on a strategy of giving information early and clearly and being willing to admit that they don't know what's going to happen. “You need to announce early: People are sick, people are dying. You have to talk about that,” said one expert.

    Also … Writers analyzed the strange genetics of the new strain, how different countries are responding, whether travel advisories or seasonal flu vaccine can help, and how a Navy lab in San Diego first figured out that something was very wrong. An up-to-date, detailed timeline will continue to track the spread of the virus and the response.

    For continuing coverage and analysis of the pandemic and of other science policy developments, go to

  4. Swine Flu Outbreak

    What Role for Antiviral Drugs?

    1. Jennifer Couzin-Frankel

    When it comes to treatment, there's good news and bad news about the new H1N1 swine flu strain circling the globe. Two antiviral drugs can squelch it and are currently the best defense, given that a vaccine will not be ready for months. But stocks of Roche's Tamiflu (oseltamivir) and GlaxoSmithKline's Relenza (zanamivir) are too small to protect everyone in a worst-case scenario outbreak; health officials also worry that the virus could become resistant to the drugs.

    How many doses might be needed during a pandemic depends on how severe it is and how the drugs are used; so far, countries have stockpiled roughly 250 million courses of antivirals. By comparison, the 1918–19 flu pandemic sickened at least 800 million people.

    When the issue of shortages has come up at press conferences over the past 2 weeks, various health officials have pooh-poohed the role of antiviral drugs. “People get too focused on antivirals,” said Angus Nicoll of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control last week. There are “other important medicines,” he said, such as antibiotics.

    But many flu experts disagree. True, severe influenza can lead to secondary infections like pneumonia, and experts believe that such infections explain many deaths in the 1918 flu pandemic, notes Anne Moscona, a pediatric infectious disease physician and virologist at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. But, she and others say, antivirals are critical to preventing deaths and serious illness in an outbreak. “What else do we have?” asks Arnold S. Monto, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

    Both Tamiflu and Relenza block the function of a viral protein, neuraminidase, thereby preventing the virus from leaving the surface of the cell and spilling out into surrounding lung tissue. The drugs are most effective when given early, before influenza spreads through the lung. If the drugs are taken 12 hours after a fever hits, the flu lasts three fewer days than if they're taken 48 hours after fever begins, says Moscona.

    It's not known how effectively the drugs suppress the spread of the virus from person to person, but most flu experts believe they shorten the time course of disease and by stopping the virus from replicating. When given to healthy people, they've been shown to reduce the chance of getting sick by 70% to 80%. Flu specialists, however, disagree over whether offering the drug prophylactically now makes sense. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending prophylaxis for only those who've had close contact with someone with H1N1 and who are at high risk themselves, such as pregnant women or young children, as well as health care workers who may have been exposed.

    Will it work?

    Stocks of Tamiflu line a warehouse in the United Kingdom. The drug combats H1N1 swine flu, but there are worries about resistance.


    Supplying a drug to a large number of healthy people raises two concerns. First, because the new strain seems relatively mild, preventing its onset may not be a wise use of limited stocks—especially because they may be needed if the virus becomes more virulent later. Second, the virus could develop resistance to one or both drugs. This is a particular worry because a human H1N1 subtype—one of the seasonal flu strains—unexpectedly evolved almost complete resistance to Tamiflu in the past few years (Science, 27 February, p. 1162). “Giving antivirals will only force that selection” of a drug-resistant strain, says Scott Layne, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, Los Angeles.

    One pressing question is “how might you deploy” these two drugs to minimize the chance of resistance, says Ira Longini, a biostatistician at the University of Washington, Seattle. One possibility would be to treat a population with both Tamiflu and Relenza, to which H1N1 has more difficulty developing resistance. Longini believes models could help determine exactly how to distribute these drugs to minimize resistance. But because Tamiflu can be taken orally (unlike Relenza, which must be inhaled), countries have focused on amassing stocks of the former—until recently, as concern about resistance to Tamiflu spread.

    For now, distributing the drugs based on the most promising model may be a pipe dream. How these drugs are used “will change as the epidemic evolves,” says John Modlin, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Dartmouth Medical School—and as the companies race to ramp up production.

  5. Newsmaker Interview

    Corey Goodman, Post-Pfizer, On the Allure of Enterprise

    1. Jennifer Couzin-Frankel

    Neuroscientist Corey Goodman surprised his friends in 2001 when he took leave from a tenured professorship at the University of California, Berkeley, and gave up his post as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator to dive into the world of small biotechnology companies, becoming CEO of Renovis, a company he co-founded. He surprised them again in 2007 by joining pharmaceutical behemoth Pfizer, heading up its new Biotherapeutics and Bioinnovation Center (BBC) (Science, 23 November 2007, p. 1223). Its goal was to put Pfizer, which, like all of big pharma, is struggling to keep its pipeline filled with ideas, on a path to developing new, more innovative therapeutics. Goodman, ever restless, left that post in April earlier than planned, after just 20 months, but says he accomplished what he set out to do. He spoke with Science last week; the interview has been edited for brevity.


    Q: What drew you to Pfizer in the first place?

    C.G.:I had been offered positions in large biotech and large pharma before and I had not gone. I always thought of myself as somewhere at the interface of biotech [and] academia, a small-company guy. Jeff Kindler [Pfizer's CEO] approached me in the summer of 2007. [He said], “What about the following opportunity? Big pharma is in trouble; the pipelines aren't deep enough; and they haven't been productive enough. Why don't you come join for a few years and build a new entrepreneurial model for how to do research?” It was very seductive.

    Q: What were the goals?

    C.G.:Pfizer, like much of big pharma, had its strength in small molecules, medicinal chemistry. They realized that they needed to play catchup. [In 2006, Pfizer acquired Rinat, a small company focused on antibody technology and protein engineering.] We took what was a superb group; I essentially set them free. Then we acquired CovX [another biotechnology company], and we really let that site continue to blossom. The key in both these cases is, you let these people who are so creative continue to create and innovate. We built collaborations with academic[s]. And finally, we established a unit of regenerative medicine in Cambridge, England. So we've set up these very entrepreneurial units. The notion is to build a hybrid model: Could we get the best of the biotech model and the pharma model?

    Q: All of this sounds great. Why did you leave?

    C.G.:We're in the middle of the acquisition of Wyeth [Pharmaceuticals]. I was a strong proponent of that. But my unit now instead of reporting separately to the CEO [is] going to report into a larger biotherapeutics division. It's going to be more East Coast–based. It just seems to me that I had accomplished what I came in to do; now it's time for my next adventure.

    Q: What's happening to your Biotherapeutics and Bioinnovation Center now?

    C.G.:On an interim basis, the person who is going to take it over is Rodney Lappe, [chief scientific officer] of CovX. He teases me by saying that he's been drinking the Corey Kool-Aid. He completely believes in this model. He's the perfect person to take my place.

    Q: Was working in pharma what you expected?

    C.G.:It has been a great education for me to see how a large corporation works. Surprises? I really enjoyed interacting with the commercial organization, with the business units. [You're] working for human health, but at the same time you have to make a profit and pay the bills.

    Q: There's a lot of concern inside and outside pharma about the future of the industry. What do you make of that?

    C.G.:The industry is going through a consolidation period. Companies are experimenting with new R&D models. Pfizer did what I think is a very successful experiment with our BBC model. I see variations on that going on [elsewhere]. I think over the next few years, more and more of the pharma companies will be switching to these entrepreneurial models and having more interactions with the academic and biotech communities.

    Q: Are the little idea-driven companies that you've long been a proponent of surviving?

    C.G.:The industry's going through a tough time right now. Capital markets have largely closed down for biotech. We will come out the other end. There will probably be a reduction in the number of biotech venture capital firms, there will probably be a reduction in the number of biotechs. [But] I think the need for innovation in biotech is as strong as ever.

    Q: What about personalized medicine? Everyone talks about it, but can anyone afford it?

    C.G.:It is a challenge, but it's a solvable challenge. Personalized medicine is here to stay, and it's fabulous for patients, but we have to figure out how to make it work for companies. We have to make sure that things are priced so that companies will be willing to develop all sorts of medicine. We already have evidence that it works: Genentech makes good money by selling Herceptin [a drug designed for a genetically defined subset of breast cancers]. We have to think about drugs that aren't just huge blockbusters, drugs that will still be financially successful but for a smaller group of patients.

    Q: What are you up to next?

    C.G.:I have ideas with friends for different companies to start, companies that want me to be in their board, going back to my roots with the biotech and venture world. I'm going to take my time. There are lots of opportunities.

  6. Biodefense

    Army Bans Pathogen Work at Lab After Security Lapse

    1. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

    Late last year, the U.S. Army took the unprecedented step of banning one of its premier biodefense labs from conducting any work involving dangerous pathogens. The lab is part of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP) in Washington, D.C. The Army and AFIP decline to cite the specific reasons behind the 2 December decision, which has not been publicly announced, but it was made a few months after the Army Inspector General's (IG's) office discovered a number of security problems at the lab—a biosafety level 3 (BSL-3) facility. These include a failure to prevent potentially unreliable employees from having access to anthrax and other deadly pathogens stored there. AFIP officials say they corrected all those problems and were taken by surprise by the ban.

    The decision has left some two dozen researchers in AFIP's microbiology division unable to continue high-profile research projects such as developing a vaccine against brucellosis and testing ways to rapidly detect biowarfare agents. They have been reassigned to other projects that don't involve dangerous pathogens, or select agents.

    Meanwhile, a spacious new BSL-3 lab, completed in 2006 for $19 million, is no longer being used for the research for which it was built. “That's very tragic because they had only recently completed building the [BSL-3] facility,” says Nobelist Sidney Altman, a Yale University biochemist who has been collaborating with AFIP on a project to inactivate biowarfare agents using RNA interference.

    The entire institute, which employs 93 scientists and 75 pathologists and offers pathology services in addition to doing research and training, is slated for closure by September 2011 under a government plan to shutter dozens of military facilities. Under that plan, AFIP scientists had expected to be able to conduct select-agent research for at least two more years.

    The lab's troubles began when it failed a Biological Surety Inspection that the Army IG conducted in March 2008. Officials faulted AFIP for inadequate locking systems and other physical security issues. More important, officials found that lab managers ignored information about certain employees that could have disqualified them from having access to dangerous pathogens. The redacted version of the IG's report released to Science does not divulge the nature of this so-called potentially disqualifying information, but it could be anything from alcoholism to mental instability.

    Based on the findings, the Army ordered a temporary shutdown of the lab on 16 April 2008 until AFIP fixed the problems. Florabel Mullick, a pathologist who has directed AFIP since mid-2007, declined to speak with Science but responded in an e-mail that “Immediate steps were taken to ensure continued safety, security and reliability.”

    Tough luck.

    Despite AFIP Director Florabel Mullick's efforts to fix security problems, the Army decided to terminate all select-agent research at the institute's BSL-3 lab.


    Among those steps, AFIP hired a new contractor to provide security. Robert Crawford, the head of the lab and director of the microbiology division since 2003, was let go. Mina Izadjoo, a microbiologist and longtime employee of the lab, succeeded him.

    Other heads rolled, though it is unclear how many. “The AFIP director cleaned house after [the inspection], and there has been a complete turnover in the microbiology division leadership,” Catherine With, AFIP's legal counsel, wrote in a 26 November 2008 e-mail that she sent to the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Army after learning that a permanent ban was imminent. “The … prior leaders were let go … because they could not operate in a world of rules and regulations,” With wrote. “And those non-leadership personnel who did not want to follow the applicable law, rules and policies are also no longer at the AFIP.” The Army won't comment on whether those steps were considered sufficient.

    Another incident seems to have undermined the Army's confidence. On 24 November, four broken vials of select agents were discovered during an internal inventory of pathogens at the lab. The employee who found them did not think the incident needed to be reported because the vials were in a contained area, says Cynthia Vaughan, a spokesperson for the Army Medical Command. “Two lab workers were referred to the occupational health clinic for evaluation and follow-up,” she says. Neither was infected.

    On 2 December, DOD approved the Army's recommendation to “permanently disestablish” select-agent operations at the lab. One Army official told Science that the Army did not consider it worth the effort to resume select agent operations for just three more years. Vaughan says that while working with AFIP to correct the deficiencies discovered by the IG, Army officials realized that “maintaining experienced personnel and keeping the operations safe and secure would be a significant challenge.” Mullick, on the other hand, says the decision was driven by the Army's desire to “consolidate” its biodefense labs and was unrelated to AFIP's impending closure or any safety issues.

    The shutdown incensed the lab's workers, who had been assured that they would be able to resume their projects once the security problems had been addressed. Outside collaborators say the ban is unfortunate. “It was certainly a loss for us,” says Steven Hinrichs, a microbiologist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha who was working with AFIP scientists to identify genetic markers of geographic origin in Francisella tularensis, a microbe that causes rabbit fever. Hinrichs says that although he has access to a BSL-3 facility on his own campus, he had entered into the collaboration because Crawford and other AFIP scientists had special expertise in locating the markers. Hinrichs terminated the collaboration in January.

  7. Energy Research

    DOE Commits $777 Million to Apply Basic Science to Urgent Problems

    1. Eli Kintisch
    Taking a shot.

    University of Notre Dame undergraduate Laura Adams works on a project to study nuclear fuels at one of DOE's new frontier research centers.


    Chemist Peter Burns is grateful to the Department of Energy (DOE) for supporting his work on the behavior of actinides, a class of radioactive elements found in the waste from nuclear power plants. But he confesses that the research, although it fueled his University of Notre Dame lab for a dozen years, left him feeling less than satisfied that he was helping to solve fundamental aspects of the country's energy problems.

    Last week, however, Burns won a 5-year, $18.5 million DOE grant that he says fully taps his scientific and creative juices. The funding makes Burns's team one of 46 Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs) that DOE hopes will bridge the gap between basic and applied work in energy research. Eight years in the making, the $777 million program will support 1100 scientists working in interdisciplinary groups examining everything from making lighting more efficient to using photosynthesis to create new fuels derived from solar energy. Burns's new center, linking researchers from five universities and national laboratories, will have essentially free rein to design more efficient nuclear fuels and processes while dreaming up ways to make nuclear waste less harmful. “It's a whole new world,” says Burns, one that he hopes will allow him “to have a much greater impact on energy.”

    Like many a frontier journey, the EFRC program has traveled along a bumpy road. Beginning in 2001, DOE's Office of Science sponsored a series of conferences at which energy industry officials and scientists brainstormed the fundamental breakthroughs required for new energy technologies. Drawing on that advice, DOE's Office of Basic Energy Sciences eventually sent out solicitations in solar energy, hydrogen research, nuclear energy, and instrumentation and attracted more than 700 proposals in 2007 and 2008. But a flat budget restricted DOE to only 40 small awards to individual investigators. Ever hopeful, DOE expanded the concept with a request for proposals for larger and more ambitious frontier centers. Understandably, applicants were skeptical. “We thought this might be another useless drill like the rest of the solicitations,” says geochemist Donald DePaulo of DOE's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) in California, who will lead a center focusing on storing carbon dioxide underground.

    But this year, DOE struck gold. The overall 2009 budget for the Office of Science, which is funding the initiative, went up 17%, to $4.8 billion. The office also gained $1.6 billion from the government-wide $787 billion stimulus package, money that must be spent by September 2010. The infusion allowed DOE to fund 50% more centers than it had planned. Each center will receive between $10 million and $25 million over 5 years, compared with typical investigator grants of $400,000 over 3 years. More time should mean more chances “to explore highrisk, high-reward research,” says program manager Harriet Kung. The larger and longer awards will also make it easier to attract graduate students, Burns predicts.

    Raymond Orbach, who headed the office during the Bush Administration, says the groups are intended to be large enough to encourage team building but not so big as to be unwieldy. Burns, an experimental chemist, has hooked up with theoretical and thermodynamic chemists at the University of Michigan and the University of California (UC), Davis, turning one-time competitors into collaborators. That change is likely to make for better science, says John Hemminger of UC Irvine, a member of a DOE advisory committee. “Before, you might have had two or three PIs [principal investigators] funded in a small group, in the same university. This is now saying, ‘Identify an area of science that's important, and find the best people.’ ”

    DOE officials say that the new centers have already met one program goal, namely, to attract new faces to energy research. At a meeting last week hosted by AAAS, which publishes Science, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said he's making progress in persuading scientists to take up the subject. “It's becoming an easier and easier sell,” says Chu, a Nobelist and former director of LBNL, about his plea to colleagues “not to just write a paper and say this finding applies to energy” but to be willing to tackle a real-world problem.

    Part of the reason is the field's increased visibility, including the attention it's receiving from the new Administration. “In no area will innovation be more important than in the development of new technologies to produce, use, and save energy,” President Barack Obama declared last week during a speech at the annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences (Science, 1 May, p. 576). Having sufficient resources also makes a difference, Chu admits. “I know that you can't herd cats,” he quipped at the AAAS event, “but you can stimulate their movement by moving the cat food around.”

    Berend Smit, a theoretical chemist who moved from the Netherlands last year to UC Berkeley, says he was attracted by the enthusiasm of Chu and others in preaching the energy research gospel. “I wanted to be at the center of interest in energy,” says Smit, who had been working on the general challenge of separating mixtures of gases. His $10 million center will be devoted to developing chemical methods to capture CO2 from existing coal plants. “It's amazing,” Smit says of the opportunity to be a pioneer on the energy frontier. “For global warming, we need to do something quickly.”

  8. Astrophysics

    Fermi Data Dim Dark-Matter Claim

    1. Adrian Cho

    Data from a new satellite appear to stick a pin in a previous claim that a balloon experiment may have spotted dark matter. Last November, astrophysicists working with the balloon-borne Advanced Thin Ionization Calorimeter (ATIC) reported a dramatic excess of highenergy electrons and positrons from space, which could be a sign of dark-matter particles annihilating one another (Science, 21 November 2008, p. 1173). But researchers with NASA's orbiting Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope have measured the particles'energy spectrum with higher precision, and this week they reported that they see no such excess.

    “We have much better statistics and can tell you that we do not see so extreme a feature” as ATIC observed, says Steven Ritz, a Fermi team member from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. The results don't disprove the existence of dark-matter particles, but they dampen hopes that researchers had already begun to see them in a clean and simple way.


    The Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope also detects electrons and other particles.


    For decades, astrophysicists have known that the average galaxy contains too little ordinary matter to keep itself from whirling apart. They assume that some form of dark matter provides the extra gravity needed to keep a galaxy whole. But physicists have never detected the stuff, which supposedly interacts with ordinary matter very weakly.

    One way to spot it might be to look to the skies. Some popular theories suggest that if two dark-matter particles in space collide, they should annihilate each other to create an ordinary particle and an antiparticle, such as an electron and a positron. The electron and positron should emerge with an energy determined by the mass of the dark-matter particles, leading to a peak in their energy spectrum like the one ATIC observed as it circled the South Pole in 2000 and 2002.

    But the $690 million Fermi telescope sees no peak, Fermi team members announced on 2 May at the annual April Meeting of the American Physical Society in Denver, Colorado. Launched in June to detect high-energy photons called gamma rays, Fermi is a particle detector adept at spotting electrons and positrons, too. It detected more than 4 million of them from August through January, compared with ATIC's thousands.

    ATIC researchers stand by their results, however. Fermi's measurement may have far smaller statistical errors, but Fermi also has poorer energy resolution than ATIC, says John Wefel, an astrophysicist at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and an ATIC team leader. That would turn any peak into a broad bump, he says, noting that the Fermi spectrum does indeed show a gentle upwelling. “The difference comes down to the instrumentation,” Wefel says.

    Physicists may be seeing subtler signs of dark matter annihilations, says Neal Weiner, a theorist at New York University. Last year, the orbiting PAMELA cosmic-ray detector spied an odd increase in the ratio of positrons to electrons at lower energies. And the Fermi spectrum itself includes more high-energy electrons and positrons than expected. Such imbalances could be due to dark-matter particles, although stellar objects such as pulsars could also create them.

    Even before the Fermi team's result, Weiner adds, theorists had realized that in the simplest annihilation scenarios, it would be diff icult to produce enough electronpositron pairs to explain ATIC's big peak without also producing lots of other particles that would decay to electrons and positrons and smear the peak out. So they had begun to study more complex schemes, he says, and the new results will reinforce that trend. “I don't think it's going to dampen people's enthusiasm,” Weiner says. “It's just going to change the types of models they are considering.” Dark-matter annihilations aren't dead, but they may be better hidden than physicists hoped last fall.


    From Science's Online Daily News Site

    Beware the Planet Eaters! Like Icarus, some planets have wandered too close to their parent suns and perished. That's the conclusion of a new simulation—reported in The Astrophysical Journal—which helps explain why older stars tend to have few planets orbiting close to them.

    That Bird Can Boogie. Snowball, the dancing sulphur-crested cockatoo, is a big hit on YouTube—and now he's also a scientific sensation. Researchers have shown that the bird, who bobs his head and lifts his legs to the Backstreet Boys' song ”Everybody,” is in fact listening to and following the beat. The findings— detailed in a pair of articles in Current Biology—challenge the notion that only humans have the neural wiring for dancing in time to music. You can see a video of Snowball getting his groove on here:


    Invisibility Cloak for Almost-Visible Light. An invisibility cloak that works for visible light might soon be in sight, now that a team has made one that works for the slightly longer wavelengths of near-infrared light. The cloak, described in Nature Materials, is only about a micrometer in size. That makes it a little snug for Harry Potter, but experts say it's a major advance.

    Narcolepsy Revealed. The millions of people who suffer from narcolepsy might have their immune system to blame. Researchers have tied the disabling sleep disorder to two immune system genes, suggesting that it's an autoimmune disease. The discovery, reported in Nature Genetics, may eventually lead to improved narcolepsy treatments.

    Read the full postings, comments, and more on

  10. Plant Pathology

    The Famine Fighter's Last Battle

    1. Erik Stokstad

    More than a half-century after the research that helped spark the green revolution, Norman Borlaug is again fighting a devastating fungus that threatens wheat around the world. (Also: slideshow.)

    On a cold, January morning in 2005, a small plane landed outside the town of Njoro, Kenya, where a handful of scientists waited eagerly as the plane taxied. After the propellers stopped, an old man slowly climbed out and walked across the grassy airstrip. Norman Borlaug, then 91, had come from Nairobi to examine for himself the impact of a highly virulent race of stem rust, called Ug99, a plant pathogen that had recently crossed the border from Uganda and was now threatening wheat farmers around the world.


    Norman Borlaug surveying research fields.


    Few living people—scientists or farmers—had had any experience with outbreaks of stem rust. To Borlaug, however, it was a familiar enemy. After epidemics had devastated wheat fields in Mexico in the 1940s, Borlaug, who was working at an agricultural experiment station in Mexico, bred new varieties of wheat that could resist the disease. These varieties were a key component of the green revolution of the 1960s, helping to boost wheat yields in Mexico and avert famine in India, Pakistan, and elsewhere. Ever since, the world had seemed safe from stem rust. Now, the energetic, tenacious, Nobel Peace Prize–winner is trying once more to defeat the threat.

    At the airstrip, researchers from the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) hustled Borlaug into a car and drove him 50 kilometers to the experimental plots they had planted in the village of Mau Narok. These small fields contained more than 100 varieties of wheat that had been sent to KARI from around the world to see how they would fare against Ug99.

    The situation looked bad. As Borlaug combed every inch of the field, bent over in the chilling wind, his alarm grew. Almost all of the varieties were infected, their stems covered with a rash of red, spore-filled pustules of Puccinia graminis. Finally, Borlaug found a few varieties that showed some resistance, but he remained pensive. The world was ill-prepared to fight this reemerging threat, he thought.

    Back in his office at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in El Batan, Mexico, Borlaug kicked into high gear. With his characteristic passion and impatience with bureaucracy, he wrote a blunt memo to CIMMYT's director general calling for more funding and threatening to sever his ties with the institution if it didn't happen immediately. Soon the Rockefeller Foundation, which had supported Borlaug's early work on stem rust, contributed as well. Borlaug and others formed the Global Rust Initiative (GRI) to coordinate international activities, key among them testing more wheat varieties and breeding resistance. Relentless, Borlaug has kept using his connections and reputation to highlight the danger of Ug99 and extract more funding from governments.

    Since then, CIMMYT has created 15 varieties of high-yielding Ug99-resistant wheat. Seed is being grown to send to countries infected with, or in the path of, Ug99. The fungus is already endemic in Kenya and Ethiopia, it has been found as far east as Iran, and it is threatening the breadbaskets of South Asia. Meanwhile, three new, dangerous variants have appeared in South Africa and Kenya. “There is no room for complacency,” Borlaug exhorted more than 300 wheat breeders and pathologists at a March conference in Ciudad Obregón, Mexico. “So let's get on with the job.”

    Hunger pangs

    Born and raised on a farm near Cresco, Iowa, Borlaug initially wanted to be a high school science teacher. When he enrolled at the University of Minnesota in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, he was sickened by the number of homeless people he encountered camped out in parks, hungry and begging for food—a sight he never forgot. In the fall of 1937, Borlaug heard a lecture by Elvin Stakman, a renowned plant pathologist who studied stem rust, a poorly understood disease that periodically decimated wheat production around the world. “Rust is a shifty, changing, constantly evolving enemy,” Stakman said in his lecture. “We can never lower our guard.” Inspired by Stakman's weaving together of microbial evolution and human hunger, Borlaug switched to plant pathology and earned his Ph.D. with Stakman in 1942.

    Borlaug took a wartime job with DuPont, working on fungicides and bactericides. At that time, the Rockefeller Foundation was starting to work with Mexico to improve its agriculture. The foundation hired Stakman, and Borlaug joined the team in 1944. It was a rude awakening coming from the laboratories of DuPont. When Borlaug arrived at the fields donated by the Mexican government 30 kilometers outside of Mexico City, there wasn't much to work with: one adobe shed and no equipment.

    Once again, Borlaug was shocked by poverty and hunger; on top of other problems, 3 years of stem rust had slashed wheat yields in half. “I've seen the misery that comes from rust epidemics,” he says. Borlaug began to train Mexican technicians and made thousands of crosses of wheat varieties from around the world, trying to improve resistance to stem rust, boost production, and adapt varieties to local conditions. Counter to the culture of the time, Borlaug insisted that scientists work alongside technicians in the fields. Yields began to improve.

    But the progress wasn't fast enough for Borlaug. When he learned about an abandoned experiment station 2000 kilometers to the north in the Yaqui Valley of Sonora, he decided to visit. Stem rust had caused massive problems for wheat farmers there as well, but apparently one variety was somewhat resistant. It took 2 days to fly there in an old Fokker Tri-Motor.

    The station was in shambles, Borlaug recalls. “There was nothing except a few goats running around.” But Borlaug saw an opportunity and had a crucial—if unorthodox—insight: He realized that because of the difference in climate between the two stations, his team could grow two generations of wheat a year. First, they could plant summer wheat in the cooler highlands near Mexico City, then harvest that seed and plant it in the warmer fall weather in Sonora, which was only 40 meters above sea level.

    In action.

    Borlaug evaluating wheat in Mexico in the early 1960s. He assessed damage from Ug99 in Kenya in 2005.


    His idea instantly met with opposition. At the time, most agronomists thought that seeds required a dormant phase after harvest. Another dogma was that breeders should plant their varieties and make selections in the same place that farmers were planting. His boss, who vetoed the idea, also balked at the cost of renovating a second experiment station, as well as the time involved in transporting researchers and seed across the country. Borlaug threatened to resign. Finally, Stakman intervened, and Borlaug got the green light.

    This new approach, called shuttle breeding, cut breeding time in half; it also allowed Borlaug's team to produce more adaptable varieties that could grow in a range of latitudes, climates, and soils. By 1956, the team had introduced 40 varieties that could resist stem rust, and Mexico no longer needed to import wheat. Breeders at CIMMYT are still shuttling seeds between Mexico City and Ciudad Obregón.

    Starting in 1953, they bred varieties with even greater yield potential, crossing their resistant wheat with short-stemmed wheat from Japan that produced more grain. Their short, sturdy stems prevented them from blowing over, which damages the plant. With these dwarf Mexican wheat varieties, first introduced in 1961, yield potential doubled to 9 metric tons per hectare.

    Worldwide impact

    Impressed with the success in Mexico, the Rockefeller Foundation decided to take it global. Working with the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, Borlaug helped create a network of about 15 testing nurseries around the world to test the disease-fighting, yield-boosting potential of these new varieties. These data proved crucial for helping deal with famines in South Asia in the mid-1960s. After some head-butting with bureaucrats to get the seed introduced, wheat yields rose by 60% in India and Pakistan by 1970. Pakistan became self-sufficient in 1968, and India 6 years later.

    When CIMMYT was founded in 1966, Borlaug became director of the wheat-breeding program. On 20 October 1970, he had already left for the fields when his wife, Margaret, received a call at 4 a.m. announcing that Borlaug had won the Nobel Peace Prize. The citation noted that “more than any other single person of this age, he has helped to provide bread for a hungry world. We have made this choice in the hope that providing bread will also give the world peace.”

    The green revolution has been criticized for its reliance on synthetic fertilizers, irrigation that led to salinization of soils, and other problems; Borlaug acknowledges some of these shortcomings but says they pale in comparison to starvation and political unrest. Moving forward, he says, scientists will have to find a way to boost global grain production by 50% in 2 decades “in environmentally more sustainable ways.”

    After he officially retired from CIMMYT in 1979, Borlaug turned to Africa, co-leading the Sasakawa-Global 2000 Programme to bring relatively simple technology—fertilizer, improved irrigation techniques, and crop management—to poor farmers. By the 1990s, Borlaug was also teaching fall semester courses at Texas A&M University. He spent the rest of the year mainly in Mexico, where he consulted at CIMMYT, starting his workday, as usual, before 6 a.m. His family saw him for just a few months a year, at most, as had been the case since he first began fighting stem rust in the 1940s.

    Stem rust returns

    Borlaug's resistant varieties protected the world's wheat against stem rust for decades. So it was a surprise to Ravi Singh, the chief bread wheat breeder for CIMMYT, when he heard about an infestation of stem rust at a research station in Uganda in 1998. “My first thought was it's a mistake. It can't be possible,” Singh recalls. Wheat in Uganda had typically been afflicted with yellow rust, not stem rust.

    But Borlaug says he was not surprised by the return of stem rust. “I used to tell the new people, ‘Don't think this isn't a problem,’ ” he recounted to Science in a 2007 interview.

    At first, the severity of the threat was hard to gauge, Singh says. After surfacing in 1998, the new race, dubbed Ug99, did not reappear at the Uganda research station's monitoring plots for several years. But in 2002, the fungus showed up at the research station in Njoro, Kenya. Initially, some 30% of the varieties tested at KARI appeared vulnerable. The wind-borne spores were clearly spreading.

    “This is a time bomb,” Borlaug told his colleagues at CIMMYT, recalls Christopher Doswell of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a longtime associate. Even if conditions are not wet enough for an outbreak, stem rust can lie in wait on alternative hosts, such as a shrub called barberry. Ug99 is “going to lie there, and then all of the sudden it's going to go boom,” Borlaug warned colleagues.

    In 2003, Ug99 was detected in Ethiopia, where it became established in the damp wheat fields of the highlands. Borlaug thought nations should start growing, or “multiplying,” seed from the few known resistant varieties from Kenya. But agriculture departments in various nations that hadn't seen stem rust in decades underestimated it, thinking their own varieties would be resistant. Hit with a budget crisis, CIMMYT couldn't do the work alone.

    Test bed.

    Wheat varieties are being bred in many countries, including Ethiopia (top), for resistance to stem rust (bottom).


    Borlaug started a quiet campaign, requesting a private meeting in 2004 with then–U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Michael Johanns, who steered an initial $35,000 of emergency funds to testing efforts by scientists in Kenya and Ethiopia. Borlaug and Doswell also went to the U.S. Agency for International Development, which later provided $400,000.

    Borlaug was even more alarmed when he returned from his visit to Kenya in January 2005. He railed against the bureaucracy and the shortage of funds at CGIAR, which hampered a rapid response. He was also mad at what he saw as the low priority national agricultural departments were giving to monitoring for rust.

    Again, he appealed to the Rockefeller Foundation, which provided $80,000 to CIMMYT. It was enough to fund an expert panel to further assess the threat. Then CIMMYT and the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas hosted an international meeting in Nairobi. Borlaug and Singh had urged breeders from 18 countries to send samples of commercially grown wheat to be planted by KARI. That way, they could see how they fared when infected with Ug99. During the field trip to the experimental plots, the visiting breeders were shocked at how many wheat varieties were stricken. “It was a mixture of embarrassment and desperation,” says Miriam Kinyua, a wheat breeder who was head of KARI's Njoro station at the time.

    Ug99 continued its march. The next year, it turned up in Yemen, continuing a global track predicted to take it across the fertile crescent and into Southern Asia (Science, 30 March 2007, p. 1786). By 2007, the fungus had been found in the main wheat-growing area of western Iran, where for now it has stalled due to drought.

    Borlaug, too, has slowed down a bit after being diagnosed with lymphoma in 2006. But he still helped garner a 5-year, $27 million grant from the Gates Foundation that's being used to fund basic research, surveillance, and breeding.

    The cancer is under control now, and Borlaug was full of vigor at a March meeting of the renamed Borlaug Global Rust Initiative in Ciudad Obregón. After visiting his old research plots, he says he's pleased with progress but insists much more needs to be done. “It has to be an international effort,” he says, thumping his finger on the arm of his wheelchair. “So you can move the multiplication [of seed] and the replacement of the susceptible varieties before disaster strikes.”

    Ronnie Coffman of Cornell University, BGRI's vice chairperson, says that bringing researchers together to work on stem rust has become a second calling for Borlaug. “He's almost an evangelist now,” he says. And the missionary work continues. When Coffman and Borlaug visited Washington, D.C., last year, Borlaug insisted on renewing his passport.

  11. Wenchuan Earthquake

    A Deeply Scarred Land

    1. Richard Stone

    Rock and mudslides in Sichuan have buried vast forested areas, ruined farmland, and disrupted the habitats of pandas and golden monkeys; the recovery will take decades.

    Sanctuary or survival test?

    Scientists can only guess how pandas are faring in Baishuihe reserve, beyond the collapsed Xiao Yu Dong Bridge.


    LONGMENSHAN, CHINA—In the morning of 12 May 2008, Ren Diandong gave a talk on landslide modeling at the Institute of Atmospheric Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Beijing. A few hours later, Ren's model was put to the supreme test: a magnitude-7.9 earthquake in Sichuan Province's Longmenshan range (Science, 20 June 2008, p. 1578). As early reports came in that afternoon of a disaster that would leave nearly 90,000 people dead or missing, Ren, a climatologist at the University of Texas, Austin, knew the quake had struck in landslide country—and with the rainy season about to begin, the fractured land would soon be thick with mudslides.

    In the weeks that followed, Ren and colleagues pored over satellite images of landslides, rock falls, and debris flows in an earthquake-ravaged area the size of Belgium. Their model suggests that slides buried about 235 million tons of carbon in vegetation from Longmenshan's forest ecosystem. As it rots in the coming decades, it should release more than 100 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), according to the model—roughly equivalent to 2% of current annual global emissions from fossil fuel combustion. Soil in many landslide zones will also be nitrogen-poor for decades to come.

    As China mourns the first anniversary of the Wenchuan earthquake, the ecological toll is just coming to light. Besides unleashing greenhouse gases, landslides caused widespread habitat fragmentation—threatening the region's unique assemblage of species, including its dwindling wild population of giant pandas. Landslides destroyed 122,000 hectares of vegetation, including 98,000 hectares of forest, says Bao Weikai, a plant ecologist at Maoxian Mountain Ecosystem Research Station of CAS's Chengdu Institute of Biology (CIB). It will take years of survey work, he and others say, to understand how Sichuan's biodiversity hot spot will respond.

    Damaged habitats

    On a misty late April day, schoolchildren on bicycles race home along a highway leading to the Longmenshan mountains. They blur past four elderly men playing mahjong outside a prefabricated shelter, past a group of women practicing tai chi moves in sync, past bustling construction sites in Tongji, where duplexes and townhouses will replace homes reduced to rubble by the Wenchuan earthquake. Most of the town's houses were destroyed, but by good fortune only a few dozen residents died. “When the earthquake struck, farmers were in their fields, and it was 3 minutes before the next class, so a lot of children were outside the school,” says CIB ethnobotanist Luo Peng.

    End of the line.

    The road to Baishuihe disappears just past this wrecked hotel in Longmenshan town.


    In neighboring Longmenshan town, on the other side of the collapsed Xiao Yu Dong Bridge, the semblance of normality evaporates. Sheared-off slabs of highway lie in ravines, and landslides with patchy new grass entomb other sections. In a narrowing valley, just past a ruined hotel—ecotourism was Longmenshan's main source of revenue before the quake—the road leading to Baishuihe National Nature Reserve was wiped off the map.

    That makes Zang Xuan's job difficult. Before the earthquake, the ranger lived in a field station deep inside the reserve. Zang and his fellow rangers escaped with minor injuries when their outposts collapsed. Nowadays, getting into Baishuihe is an arduous hike. “We can't carry out regular monitoring,” Zang says. But from what they've seen in limited excursions, the damage is enormous: Landslides caused extensive forest fragmentation up to an altitude of about 2500 meters. “The earthquake damaged half of the giant panda's habitat in Baishuihe,” says CIB forest ecology Pan Kaiwen. Rangers have no idea how the reserve's star attraction is faring, nor how other animals such as golden monkeys are coping. “With the road gone and no more tourists, maybe the pandas are happier. Or maybe they are struggling to find food,” says Zang. “We just don't know.”

    Although the impact on the panda's food supply is still unclear, many farmers suffered real losses. “Landslides destroyed a lot of cultivated land,” Pan says. One priority of the reconstruction effort is to identify new cropland—no easy task in the rugged earthquake zone. A failure to replace farmland could further harm the region's ecosystems, says Pan, if desperate former farmers were to start foraging in nature reserves for lucrative medicinal plants.

    Slow recovery

    Since the first days after the earthquake last May, a team led by geomorphologist Cui Peng of CAS's Institute of Mountain Hazards and Environment in Chengdu has made a few dozen expeditions into the disaster area to chart the extensive scarring of the slopes. Because landslide scars tend to be midway up slopes, the loss of shearing resistance makes slides at higher elevations more likely. The dramatic loss of stability “is a huge change” that could last 5 years or more, says Cui.

    Ren's group took stock using a model that he calls “a unified approach for a disparate set of poorly understood geophysical phenomena,” from landslides to glacier movements. The team cut its teeth on southern California's wildfires in 2007, successfully predicting which burn scars would be most unstable and prone to slides. Applied to the Wenchuan quake, the model produced staggering figures for how much carbon and nitrogen will seep into the atmosphere, the team reported in March in Geophysical Research Letters. And those releases could become chronic: “If a warming climate causes more frequent storms of greater intensity, it's likely that the affected ecosystem will become a net CO2 source,” Ren says.

    CIB researchers are eager to ground-truth Ren's predictions, which they feel may be an overestimate. Data in Ren's paper are “coarse,” says Bao. On many Longmenshan slopes the soil is “very thin,” he says, and could not support the amount of vegetation Ren's group says was uprooted or smothered. The CIB team also notes that satellite-based estimates of landslide- degraded land are imprecise. “Monitoring should give us a more exact understanding,” says plant ecologist Wu Ning, CIB's director. According to Bao, CIB plans to assess carbon loss at as many as 200 landslide sites in various ecosystems and climate regimes.

    Another wildcard is how fast vegetation will recover—and that will not be uniform across the Longmenshan range. Areas to the south and east “are very moist and should recover more easily,” says Pan. Grasses and shrubs are already gaining footholds on landslides in those areas. But it could take much longer for more arid land to the west, where the soil is thinner and nutrient-impoverished, to regain its pre-earthquake vitality, he says. Even 30 years after the magnitude-7.2 Songpan earthquake rattled the northern Longmenshan, some steeper slopes are still mostly bare. It could take a century or longer for forests to return on similar dry slopes destabilized by last year's earthquake, says Bao.

    For most slopes, CIB researchers will be content to watch natural restoration unfold. But they are planning to restore destroyed sections near towns and along highways, mainly by planting indigenous shrubs. When they are able to lay hands on seedlings, that is: No organization has been responsible for breeding these species, says Wu. CIB also hopes to minimize the impact of a major reconstruction project, a new railway line that will connect Chengdu and Lanzhou. The tracks will run through several reserves and could further degrade habitats, CIB researchers say. Bisecting the reserves could be a particular problem for pandas, which range widely for food.

    In the meantime, some researchers could spend the rest of their careers measuring the earthquake's ruinous environmental footprint. “We'll need at least 30 to 50 years to get a true picture of how the region recovers its ecological function,” says Wu.

  12. Wenchuan Earthquake

    Some Unwelcome Questions About Big Dams

    1. Richard Stone

    Soon after the magnitude-7.9 Wenchuan earthquake struck last May, geologist Fan Xiao asked: Could a large dam near the fault have triggered the devastating quake? Science spoke with Fan about his views.

    CHENGDU, CHINA—Soon after the magnitude-7.9 Wenchuan earthquake struck last May, geologist Fan Xiao uttered publicly what many anxious scientists were discussing privately: Could a large dam near the fault have triggered the devastating quake?

    The 156-meter-high Zipingpu Dam began to fill in December 2004, and within 2 years the water level had risen to 120 meters. Following normal operation, the reservoir's level dropped as water was released downstream during the winter and early spring 2008 and was at a low level when the Wenchuan earthquake occurred. Removing the pressure of several hundred million tons of water on a slip thrust fault like Longmenshan may have destabilized it, increasing the risk of a rupture, argues Fan, a senior engineer at the Sichuan Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources in Chengdu. Reservoir-induced seismicity is an accepted phenomenon, but Wenchuan's magnitude was much higher than that of the biggest earthquake previously linked to a dam, a magnitude-6.5 temblor in India in 1967 that killed nearly 200 people.

    Sticking his neck out.

    Fan Xiao.


    Dam or no, the Wenchuan earthquake was inevitable, Fan says. But he asserts that Zipingpu, just 5.5 kilometers from the quake's epicenter, may have caused the Longmenshan fault to fail decades or even centuries earlier than it might have without added stress. Fan's outspokenness—and Science's coverage (Science, 16 January, p. 322)—has provoked the wrath of hydropower proponents and scientists who rule out a Zipingpu-Wenchuan link. Science spoke with Fan about his views.

    Q: What further evidence would support a Zipingpu-Wenchuan link?

    X.F.:According to the State Council, every dam higher than 100 meters and with a capacity of more than 50 million cubic meters of water must have a special monitoring system to detect slight tremors. Zipingpu has such a system. A reservoir-triggered earthquake should have more foreshocks than a natural earthquake. Last fall, a paper in Geology and Seismology reported that before the Wenchuan earthquake, there were many small foreshocks around the dam. And this activity correlated to changes in the reservoir's water levels.

    Q: You mean the earthquake swarm near Dujiangyan [a town near the epicenter badly damaged in the quake] in February 2008?

    X.F.:Yes, it was spectacular. There were about 200 small earthquakes, including five bigger than magnitude 3 during the evening on 14 February. Many people in Dujiangyan ran out of their homes. Then there was another swarm at the end of February and early March between Dujiangyan and Pengzhou. All these earthquakes happened when the water level in Zipingpu reservoir was low.

    SSB [Sichuan Seismological Bureau] has data that would let us examine this more closely. Last October, SSB's director promised to release the data. I hope this happens soon.

    Q: There are many dams planned or under construction in seismic areas in western China. Are there any you are especially worried about?

    X.F.:Jinping on the Yalong River. When it's finished, it will be one of the highest dams on Earth—305 meters high—and it will accumulate four times as much water as Zipingpu. It's in an earthquake-prone area [of southwestern Sichuan]. Last year, SSB found that the dam's developers hadn't yet established the required monitoring system.

    Q: What should be done about this?

    X.F.:There's no possibility to delay or stop building dams, even in high-risk areas. What we can do is raise building standards and improve monitoring of foreshocks. Early warning might give people a chance to escape.

    Q: Have you come under pressure for expressing your views?

    X.F.:Scientific issues are open to discussion. But hydropower companies—it is fair to say they are not happy with me.

  13. Myanmar

    One Year After a Devastating Cyclone, a Bitter Harvest

    1. Richard Stone

    Myanmar weathered Cyclone Nargis better than expected, but the global financial crisis has jeopardized the country's fragile food security.

    During the night of 2 May 2008, Cyclone Nargis barreled across Myanmar's Ayeyarwady delta, flattening homes and sweeping away people, draft animals, and stores of rice. On a visit to the region 4 months later, plant physiologist Abdelbagi Ismail saw vestiges of the storm's fury, including tidal-surge watermarks more than 2.5 meters high on the few trees left standing. He witnessed the lingering anguish of survivors who lost entire families among the 140,000 people dead or missing. “The scene was shocking, and the stories we heard from farmers were horrific,” says Ismail, who with four colleagues from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, Philippines, went to Myanmar (formerly Burma) to advise local scientists on how to restore rice yields after the cyclone.


    Nargis survivors transplanting rice last August in the Ayeyarwady delta.


    A year after one of the deadliest cyclones in modern history, Myanmar's food security teeters on a knife's edge. Emergency food relief averted starvation among the 2.4 million survivors in the delta, and rice production countrywide has largely rebounded thanks to favorable weather and the use of high-yield varieties. But Nargis paved the way for another crisis—the global financial meltdown—to push Myanmar to the brink of catastrophe. Credit has evaporated, paddy farmers are going broke, and household rice stores are dwindling. “The country's rural economy has virtually collapsed,” an official with International Development Enterprises, a nonprofit operating in Myanmar, said to a gathering of food security experts in Yangon in March. “The current conditions are unprecedented in living memory.”

    To help Myanmar cope, the European Commission, Australia, the U.K.'s Department for International Development (DFID), and other donors are establishing LIFT, a $100 million, 5-year fund for livelihoods and food security. Priorities of the U.N.-managed fund are expected to include microcredit schemes, agricultural policy reform, small business development, and R&D to boost agricultural productivity.

    Nargis meted out a major blow to fragile farm communities. With gusts topping 200 kilometers an hour, the cyclone cut a swath of devastation 150 kilometers wide as it churned northeast across the Ayeyarwady delta and over Yangon (formerly Rangoon), Myanmar's capital and biggest city. The tidal surge swamped an estimated 783,000 hectares of paddy fields, destroying a third of the crop in the delta, the country's rice bowl. Local rice varieties are tall and blow down easily, says Ismail, and they succumb readily when fields are flooded or salty. Nargis also ruined much of the delta's rice seeds, which had been stored in bamboo containers that were easily water-logged. “Nargis made a bad food-security situation worse,” says Zoe Hensby, livelihoods adviser at DFID.

    At first, Burmese scientists feared that delta paddies would remain too saline to grow rice for months. “From the beginning, our advice was not to worry about it,” says Ismail. According to observations after the December 2004 tsunami and Cyclone Sidr, which slammed Bangladesh in November 2007, salt intrusions were washed out the following rainy season. Nargis came at the end of Myanmar's dry season, just before cleansing rains. By the time the IRRI team arrived in the middle of the monsoon season in August, salinity was back to normal in fields they inspected and farmers had managed to replant 80% of disaster-hit paddies. “They bounced back and had a crop in the ground,” says IRRI's Grant Singleton. “They showed tremendous resilience.”

    Such perseverance helped Myanmar last year to export nearly half a million tons of rice, according to a report last January for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the U.N. World Food Programme. “The paddies are recovering,” says Cheng Fang, an economist at FAO's Global Information and Early Warning System on Food and Agriculture in Rome. His team had rare permission from Myanmar authorities to travel to all areas of the tightly controlled country for a month last autumn.

    Robust rice yields were about the only piece of good news that Fang's team uncovered. In addition to the appalling human toll, Nargis drowned 122,000 water buffalo and robbed survivors of farm implements and fishing boats and gear. “Many families lost everything: their homes, property, and job opportunities,” says Fang.

    The U.N. team also noted that Nargis coincided with a grave pest infestation in Chin, Myanmar's poorest state. In a phenomenon that recurs every half-century or so, bamboo flowered en masse in Chin in 2007. The sudden fecundity fueled an explosion in the rat population. “When this happens, it is invariably a major traumatic event,” says Singleton, a zoologist who specializes in rodents. Last year, rats decimated Chin's corn and rice harvests, “leading to acute food insecurity in many villages,” according to the U.N. report, which forecasts that the situation will remain critical until July.

    In the meantime, the global financial downturn has exposed and aggravated the frailties of Myanmar's agricultural system. “Many households are facing unprecedented levels of hardship,” says Hensby.

    To mitigate the impact of future cyclones, IRRI has sent submergence and salt-tolerant rice varieties to Myanmar for testing. IRRI's Irrigated Rice Research Consortium is also working with Burmese universities to incorporate cutting-edge technologies and knowledge into curricula to better train future agricultural scientists and extension officers. Myanmar may have weathered Nargis better than expected, but the country's food security is more vulnerable than ever.

  14. Archaeology

    Going the Distance to Uncover The Roots of Trade in the Near East

    1. Andrew Lawler

    Archaeologists are revealing the “invisible exports” of the world's first civilizations: textiles, silk, and stone shipped to ordinary people rather than elites.

    As long as there have been humans, there has been trade. Long before animals were domesticated and agriculture took hold, people moved prized objects over long distances. But trade in gemstones and other prized goods has generally been seen as playing only a minor part in the emergence of civilization.

    Nomad man.

    Michael Frachetti examines ancient pastoralist evidence in Kazakhstan.


    Now archaeologists are finding a more important role for trade at the start of the 2nd millennium B.C.E., when the first complex societies took hold across the Old World. “Most of our focus on trade in the Bronze Age has been on exotic, high-value goods,” says archaeologist Monica Smith of the University of California, Los Angeles. There is growing evidence that more ordinary goods—ranging from textiles to food—were transported over long distances, Smith and others said at the recent Society for American Archaeology (SAA) meeting, held in Atlanta, Georgia, from 22 to 26 April. That network, connected in part by mobile pastoralists or nomads, may have played an important role in encouraging the growth of the world's first cities, as well as mercantile classes, standardized measures, and other aspects of life we take for granted in our globalized economy.

    During the start of the 2nd millennium B.C.E., the market for precious goods such as lapis lazuli boomed from Central Asia in the north to the Persian Gulf in the south, and from Mesopotamia in the west to the Indus in the east (see map). Such durable goods were often passed on or buried, and so are visible to archaeologists.

    Until recently, however, there has been little data on trade in more ordinary and degradable objects, such as textiles. But scholars who examine Mesopotamian cuneiform texts have long puzzled over hints of widespread trade in common goods as far back as 2500 B.C.E. Using new methods of analysis, researchers are now picking up traces of what they once called “invisible exports.” In recent years they have found evidence, for example, that linen, wool, and hemp were shipped from the Indus civilization in today's Pakistan and India to Shahr-i Sokhta, a former city in eastern Iran. In a recent issue of Archaeometry, Harvard University archaeologist Irene Good demonstrated that silk made in the Indus (centuries before there is evidence for it in China) made its way as far north as Afghanistan and as far east as the Deccan plateau. Fabric impressions, knives likely used for cutting carpet fibers, and images showing sophisticated patterns in clothes point to textiles as an important export of the Indus civilization until it began to dissolve around 1800 B.C.E. And to the north, in today's Afghanistan and Turkmenistan, large settlements that were part of the Oxus civilization, which flourished from roughly 2000 to 1700 B.C.E., imported a host of goods. “It is hard to imagine the immense amount of raw stone, metal, and other production materials which had to be brought into the desert oases,” says archaeologist Fredrik Hiebert of the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., who presented at the SAA meeting. “It represents interregional exchange to a level not previously seen.”

    Global market.

    Ancient objects such as this chlorite vase from Iran traveled thousands of kilometers, while Mesopotamian tablets detail trade in textiles, perhaps hinted at in the elaborate clothing of an Indus statue.


    How were these goods moved? In Mesopotamia, Assyrian traders left behind texts detailing their business. But some archaeologists are also turning their attention to the shadowy role of nomads.

    Nomads were once thought to have grown numerous only with widespread domestication of the horse across Eurasia, well into the 2nd millennium B.C.E. But Michael Frachetti of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, has found evidence that mobile pastoralists thrived as early as 2460 B.C.E. in eastern Kazakhstan—800 years earlier than once thought. In an SAA presentation, he asserted that such sheep and goat herders played a key role in transmitting innovations during the Bronze Age.

    Nomads could carry large quantities of light goods such as textiles over long distances as part of their regular movements. Rather than an organized system controlled by a powerful king or merchant class, trade in this period may have depended in large part on such pastoralists who left little behind in the archaeological record. “They are the agents of the networks—the Web brokers of their world,” says Frachetti. Solid evidence of this has yet to come to light and may be hard to come by. But Hiebert agrees that pastoralists likely played a critical role in connecting urban societies like the Oxus; he found evidence that the Oxus people turned to the growing pastoral populations as both a market and source of goods after the Indus civilization collapsed.

    And where there were few pastoralists or independent merchants, there may have been little trade. During the early 2nd millennium B.C.E., few pastoralists roamed between Mesopotamia and Egypt, and the civilizations apparently had virtually no interaction, says Smith. Meanwhile, trade between Mesopotamia and the Indus was steady despite the longer distances involved.

    Smith further suggests that ancient peoples may have seen goods such as ceramics and flints as throwaway items and viewed “perishable” textiles as both valuable and durable. Viewed from that perspective, the Mesopotamian rug may have entranced an Anatolian homemaker—and spurred civilization at the same time.

  15. Astronomy

    Shuttle Crew Set to Prepare Hubble For a Star-Studded Grand Finale

    1. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

    New instruments and crucial repairs will make the Hubble Space Telescope's last years an astronomical feast, if a NASA mission this month goes as planned.

    Five years ago, after NASA canceled its fifth and final servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope in the aftermath of the Columbia shuttle disaster, the glory days of the astronomical workhorse seemed to be drawing to a close. Unless NASA changed its mind, astronomers predicted, the end of the decade could be the time to write the telescope's epitaph.

    This month, however, a mission to fix and upgrade the Hubble will blast skyward in hopes of giving the orbiting observatory a fresh lease on life and another shot at glory. Astronauts are scheduled to install a new camera and a spectrograph many times more powerful than previous instruments, swap out all six of the telescope's gyroscopes, replace its batteries, install a new backup computer, and attempt to repair an existing spectrograph and camera that are not functioning. The mission—expected to be the final maintenance visit to the Hubble—is aimed at keeping the telescope in operation until 2014.

    If all goes well, NASA officials and researchers outside the agency say the upgraded Hubble will send home images of the near and distant universe far more detailed than anything seen before. In doing so, the telescope should enable astronomers to gain new insights into fundamental questions such as the structure of the universe and the nature of dark matter. Observations made by the new instruments should also provide researchers with a better understanding of the evolution of galaxies, the birth of stars, and the composition of intergalactic gases.

    Astronomers expect the results from the next chapter to match the luster of Hubble's legendary discoveries such as the age of the universe and the existence of dark energy. In its 18 years of operations, “Hubble has changed the way the world looks at the universe,” says Eric Smith, NASA program manager for both Hubble and the James Webb Space Telescope—an infrared telescope scheduled for launch in 2013. The coming 5 years of observations “will push Hubble to its limits,” he says. “The questions that arise from these observations will point the way to telescopes in the future.”

    Coming up.

    Wide Field Camera 3 (above) and the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (right) are scheduled to be installed aboard the refurbished space telescope.


    Fainter, farther, sharper

    The two new instruments being flown to the Hubble are the Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3), which will replace the existing Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2), and the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS). They will join two instruments on board that astronauts will maneuver to fix after they have installed the new ones. The first is the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS), which gave researchers the deepest glimpses yet of the distant universe before an electronics failure put it out of commission in January 2007. The second is the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph, which enabled astronomers to find supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies and fathom the atmosphere of an extrasolar planet until a 5-volt power supply failure froze it in August 2004.

    WFC3 is designed to take pictures in wavelengths stretching from the ultraviolet (UV) to the near-infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum. That will allow it to observe young, hot stars, which glow in the ultraviolet, as well as older and cooler stars, which glow in the infrared. With a wider field of view than the ACS and more-efficient detectors, the camera should be 10 to 30 times more sensitive than previous instruments were: It will see fainter and more distant objects and image nearby galaxies in more telling detail.

    The range of observations possible with WFC3 gives it the capability to address a variety of astronomical questions, says Robert O'Connell, an astronomer at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville who chairs the scientific oversight committee for the camera. For example, researchers will be able to use its sensitive infrared channel to get detailed pictures of objects with a very high redshift: galaxies so distant—and receding from us so quickly—that the light waves coming from them are stretched along the way. The light from supernovae or exploding stars spotted within these galaxies should lead to insights about dark energy, whose effect on the expansion of the universe is discernible from the brightness of such supernovae. WFC3's unprecedented sensitivity in the UV region will provide for high-resolution images of stellar populations nearby, which researchers will be able to mine “to learn about the star-formation history” of those galaxies, O'Connell says.

    COS is an instrument the size of a snack vending machine, built to observe how UV light from a variety of sources is modified as it passes through the material between galaxies. The most sensitive UV spectrograph ever built for space, it should be able to observe objects 20 times fainter than what was possible with previous Hubble instruments, says J. Michael Shull of the University of Colorado, Boulder, where the instrument was designed. As a result, researchers will now be able to look at light from many more background sources than before, in effect expanding the cosmic vistas that can be probed.

    One of COS's goals is to help understand the structure and composition of the cosmic web—the cross-linked arrangement of narrow filaments containing the matter that galaxies and planets are made of. Much of this matter—comprising protons, neutrons, and other subatomic particles—is invisible and resides in the gigantic voids between galaxies. Using COS to trace the spectral signature of ionized hydrogen and oxygen in the intergalactic medium, “we are going to map out the filaments of the web to billions of light-years away,” says Shull. He adds that the instrument will also enable researchers to study questions such as the chemical composition of some of the earliest stars to form after the big bang and the nature of intergalactic dust clouds.


    Pushing the envelope

    It's not just the upgrades to the Hubble that astronomers are looking forward to. Many are just as keenly hoping that the scheduled repairs go as planned. Brian Chaboyer, a professor at Dartmouth College, is counting on the replacement of the gyroscopes for his studies of some of the oldest stars in the universe.

    Originally designed to operate using three gyros, instruments that help the telescope point and stabilize in space, the Hubble has been using only two since February 2005. Chaboyer says that has been a limitation in accurately determining the distances of old stars. With three gyros working again, he expects to be able to “push the envelope on accuracy,” going down from a 10% margin of error to within 3% to 4%. It makes a big difference: “The current error can mean plus or minus 2 billion years for the age of the star,” he says. The improved accuracy can help better address questions related to the formation of early galaxies, for instance, “if there was a window of 2 [billion] to 3 billion years when stars were forming all over the place,” Chaboyer says.

    François Schweizer, an astronomer at the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, California, is keeping his fingers crossed about the repairs to ACS. He needs that camera to resume studying NGC 7252, the remnant of a merger between two galaxies. On the basis of earlier observations with the WFPC2, the camera scheduled to be taken off the Hubble during this mission, Schweizer and colleagues reported in 2003 that NGC 7252 had some extraordinarily massive young star clusters. High-resolution imaging of the clusters with ACS, they hoped, would help them understand how clusters form and evolve in the merger of galaxies. But ACS failed before the researchers could get their chance.

    Schweizer and his colleagues have again been granted observing time with ACS, whose spatial resolution—unmatched even by WFC3—is essential for the planned study. “The catch is that it's the very last scheduled repair. Every planned fix will have to be carried out successfully before it happens,” he says. “As you can imagine, all members of our team are keeping their fingers crossed.”

    NASA officials are optimistic. “The fully restored instruments, along with the new ones, will give the astronomical community a marvelous machine to exploit its creativity,” says Smith. “The science we expect to get will be great, but the science we didn't forecast will change the way we think about the universe forever.”

  16. Astronomy

    A Reprieve—and Risk

    1. Andrew Lawler

    The mission to give the Hubble Space Telescope a new lease on life is just the tail end of a long and bitter battle waged by scientists, who won critical support from politicians and the public, after a previous mission was canceled in the wake of the Columbia disaster.

    Dry run.

    Astronaut in a neutral-buoyancy tank train to repair the Advanced Camera for Surveys.


    It's the ultimate house call. Orbiting 500 kilometers above Earth, astronauts should soon begin the laborious and dangerous task of repairing and renovating the world's most famous telescope. Juggling 60 new tools, wrestling with more than 100 pesky screws, and dodging countless micrometeoroids, the crew of the Atlantis orbiter aims to refurbish the Hubble Space Telescope during five feverish days. “This is no piece of cake,” says Edward Weiler, NASA's space science chief. “But there's a huge payoff.”

    The astronauts' task in orbit, however, is just the tail end of a long and bitter battle. The fight began in 2004, in the wake of the Columbia disaster, when NASA officials decided that returning to the $1.5 billion Hubble posed an unacceptable risk to astronauts and the space shuttle. “That threw the [astronomy] community into a frenzy,” recalls Eric Smith, NASA's program scientist for the Hubble. Researchers, he adds, were eager to keep Hubble going until the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) goes into orbit in the next decade. But without a fifth servicing mission, Hubble was likely to go on the blink by 2007 or 2008.

    Scientists were not the only people flummoxed and infuriated by the decision. “The public had a great sense of ownership,” Smith recalls. Angry editorials appeared, congressional hearings were called, and then–NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe was put on the defensive. Efforts to send a robotic mission to upgrade the telescope fell through when high cost and technical risk made it an unrealistic option. O'Keefe eventually resigned, in part, NASA insiders say, because the White House lost faith in him because of the controversy. At the prodding of Congress, his successor, Michael Griffin, reversed the decision in October 2006.

    A second shuttle will be poised on the launch pad when Atlantis roars into space, in case a space rescue is necessary. And the crew is experienced: John Grunsfeld flew twice on earlier repair missions to the telescope. The astronauts have been undergoing years of grueling training sessions at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Along with installing two new instruments (see main text), the crew will replace failed and failing batteries and gyroscopes with new ones designed to allow Hubble to function at least until 2014—a year after JWST is slated to take to the stars. They will also replace Hubble's data formatter, which failed just weeks before a planned October 2008 launch of the Atlantis mission, forcing NASA engineers to postpone the flight by several months while they readied replacement hardware and trained the crew to install it.

    The sheer complexity of the task, which will require two more days of spacewalks than previous repairs did, is not the only concern. Hubble flies higher than the space station and is exposed to a greater amount of rocket and satellite debris as well as to micrometeoroids that burn up at lower altitudes. To avoid that space junk, which could puncture the shuttle, the pilot will turn the craft's rugged main engines in the direction most likely to encounter oncoming debris.

    If the complex effort proves successful, NASA officials say that it will demonstrate conclusively that humans can play an important role in future robotic missions—what Smith calls “the beautiful dance between man and machine.”

Log in to view full text

Via your Institution

Log in through your institution

Log in through your institution

Navigate This Article