News this Week

Science  29 May 2009:
Vol. 324, Issue 5931, pp. 1124

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  1. Paleontology

    Celebrity Fossil Primate: Missing Link or Weak Link?

    1. Ann Gibbons
    Rock star.

    The University of Oslo's Jørn Hurum took Ida on a world tour.


    It's not every day that a 47-million-year-old fossil primate is the star guest on Good Morning America. “Ida is so big, she's even made the Google home page,” anchor Robin Roberts said on 20 May as she introduced TV viewers to the cat-size skeleton from Germany. Ida is so big, in fact, that “missing link found” was the hottest search term on Google that morning, the day after New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg helped unveil the fossil at a press conference at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Within days, Ida had appeared in People magazine, and she had her own book, Web site, and documentary film for the History Channel and BBC. “This little creature is going to show us our connection with the rest of all mammals,” pronounces narrator David Attenborough in the film. “The link they would have said until now is missing is no longer missing.”

    The man behind the fossil is paleontologist Jørn Hurum of the Natural History Museum at the University of Oslo. With a lock of long hair falling boyishly over his face, a photogenic smile, and a Nordic accent, Hurum—who stars in a weekly children's science show on Norwegian television—makes the dusty science of primate origins come alive as he describes Ida. “This is like finding the Holy Grail for paleontologists,” he enthused. “This is the first link to all humans.”

    Maybe so—but probably not. Many of the leading scientists who study primate evolution don't think Ida lives up to Hurum's billing as a human ancestor; most think she's a relative of lemurs instead. After looking at photos and a description that Hurum and his collaborators published in an online paper last week, most researchers think the skeleton—though stunning—reveals little new information about ancient primates, much less human origins. Some worry that the publicity framing Ida as a human ancestor will backfire as her true identity and lowly origins are revealed. “A lot of articles say it is a missing link. That is wrong,” says paleoanthropologist Elwyn Simons of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. “It has no convincing links to monkeys, apes, and humans.”

    Ida is indeed a special find—perhaps the most complete skeleton of an ancient primate ever found. About 95% of her bones are intact, as well as the outline of her furry body and even fruit and leaves from her gut. Private collectors dug the fossil out of the famed Messel pit near Frankfurt, Germany, in 1983, even though it was illegal to collect there. They split the fossil in half and sold one slab, with falsified features, to the Wyoming Dinosaur Center in Thermopolis. The other, better half was framed and hung as décor on the wall of an unnamed collector's home until 2006, when a dealer offered it to Hurum at a fossil show. At that time, Germany had an amnesty period when illegally collected fossils could be sold legally. The asking price was $1 million. Hurum returned to Oslo and, to his surprise, persuaded the board of his museum to buy it. He negotiated a lower, undisclosed price, and an armed escort delivered Ida to Oslo in September 2007.

    Hurum then put together what he calls a “dream team” of scientists who studied the fossil under a veil of secrecy for 2 years. The result of their scrutiny was published on 19 May in the online journal PLoS One. In the paper, they named the fossil Darwinius masillae to honor the bicentennial of Charles Darwin's birth. (Hurum dubbed it Ida, after his 6-year-old daughter.)

    Darwinius's identity is undisputed as a member of an extinct primate group known as the Adapiformes. Researchers have long known that some adapids share some features with higher primates, including anthropoids (monkeys, apes, and humans). Thus, a few have argued that adapids might be primitive relatives of anthropoids—and us. Most experts, however, think adapids should be grouped with lower primates, lemurs and lorises, in a suborder called Strepsirrhini (Science, 19 October 2001, p. 587).

    In their paper, Hurum, paleontologist Philip Gingerich, and colleagues propose that Ida is not on the primitive lemur line but belongs with more advanced primates, as a member of the so-called haplorrhine suborder. They also suggest that Ida could be a member of a stem group of adapids that gave rise to the earliest anthropoids, a role often assigned to another group of primitive primates, the small, nocturnal tarsiers. The team bases that conclusion on a dozen traits, the most significant of which is the surprising discovery that Ida lacks a key characteristic shared by lemurs and tarsiers: a grooming claw on her second toe. Gingerich also says Ida's spatulate front teeth, her interlocking canines, and the talus bone in her ankle resemble those of higher primates. He argues that Ida might be a direct ancestor of anthropoids—and, hence, humans.

    Not so fast, say many paleontologists who specialize in this early chapter of primate evolution. Paleontologist Erik Seiffert of Stony Brook University in New York state points out that many of the traits used to link Ida with haplorrhines are not found in some of the earliest universally accepted anthropoids, which lived as long as 37 million years ago in what is now the Fayum province of Egypt. Ida is crushed, Simons says, and lacks a key feature that all other anthropoids share: a wall of bone at the back of the eye socket.


    Google's home page celebrated the fossil.

    Simons and others say Ida's most convincing feature is the absence of a grooming claw, but that trait alone doesn't sway them. Several also grumble that the team cherry-picked the traits and the species of fossils it compared with Ida. The analysis left out many traits and extinct primates, including the well-known Fayum anthropoids and Eosimias, a tiny 45-million-year-old Asian primate that most researchers think may be the earliest known anthropoid. “Smoke could be coming out of my ears,” says paleontologist K. Christopher Beard of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who found the first fossils of Eosimias in 1994. “It's like going back to 1994. They've ignored 15 years of literature.”

    Gingerich, who did the analysis to compare Ida with haplorrhines, responds that this is just the first description of Darwinius and that the team was trying to make the data public as quickly as possible. “If the critics want to do more, they can do more, and we will do more,” he says.

    Perhaps fewer paleontologists would be smoldering if the fossil had not been promoted as a direct ancestor of humans. The paper itself is “a very reasonable, very cautiously presented hypothesis,” says paleontologist D. Tab Rasmussen of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, who is among the handful who think adapids are haplorrhines and that Ida is “a reasonable candidate as our earliest anthropoid kin.”

    The “missing link” hyperbole in newspaper and Web stories—and Google—was a different story. “Since there's nothing very surprising about this specimen, the amount of media attention that it has gotten is just flabbergasting,” says paleoanthropologist Matt Cartmill of Boston University. As for its being an ancestor, “amoebas also are in our ancestry in a primitive sense,” says Stony Brook University paleoanthropologist John Fleagle.

    Hurum, who signed off on the text in the film and on the Web site and has compared Ida to the Rosetta stone and the Mona Lisa, is unrepentant: “It's hard to discuss haplorrhine and strepsirrhines in a press release. You need to link it to us.” He is proud of using multimedia to promote interest in fossils: “Yes, I am shaking things up. If you want kids to be interested in science, we need to start packaging it in many different ways.”

    Other researchers think rollouts like this one are just too risky. “On the one hand, I view it as a major task for scientists to translate their work for the public at large,” says Beard. “On the other hand, when you make these breathless statements, you have to have the goods to back it up. Otherwise, we all lose credibility with the public. The only thing we have going for us that Hollywood and politicians don't is objectivity.”

  2. Appointments

    Obama Turns to NASA Veterans to Lead Space Agency

    1. Andrew Lawler*

    President Barack Obama has chosen two long-time advocates of human space flight to lead NASA. On 23 May, the White House nominated former astronaut Charles Bolden Jr. and Washington lobbyist Lori Garver to take the positions of administrator and deputy administrator, respectively, for the space agency.

    If confirmed by the Senate, Bolden and Garver will confront a series of momentous decisions on where to take NASA in the coming decade. An expensive new launcher is now in the works to replace the space shuttle, due to retire next year, but its projected costs are rising rapidly. Meanwhile, the new Administration wants to spend more money on Earth observation at a time when the overall science program is suffering from delays and overruns. Yet Obama has proposed only small increases to NASA's $18 billion budget in the coming 5 years.

    A new mission.

    President Obama met with Bolden (right) on 19 May to talk about the top job at NASA.


    The situation is so urgent that the White House last month appointed a 90-day blue-ribbon panel led by former aerospace manager Norman Augustine to come up with options for the future human space-flight effort, which now is focused on a return to the moon by 2020 (Science, 22 May, p. 999). Given that the overall agency budget is unlikely to increase substantially in coming years, the outcome will have a profound effect on science as well. “NASA is facing a crisis that many of us knew would come,” says Charles Kennel, a former NASA advisory council chair and director emeritus of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California. Kennel says that the rush to get the new launcher in operation by 2015 has already caused “a slowdown in science funding.”

    Bolden is a 62-year-old retired African-American Marine brigadier general who flew on four shuttle missions. Garver is a former director of a pro-space-flight group called the National Space Society and also served as a senior NASA manager. Both are likely to get a warm reception in the Senate. Senator Bill Nelson (D–FL) pushed hard for Bolden's nomination, derailing other candidates favored by the White House, according to congressional and Administration sources. And Senator Barbara Mikulski (D–MD), who chairs the panel that funds NASA, said, “I will certainly support their nominations.”

    • * With reporting by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee.

  3. Venezuela

    As Research Funding Declines, Chávez, Scientists Trade Charges

    1. Barbara Casassus*

    Chávez (dark shirt), during the 2008 regional elections with candidate, now science minister, Jesse Chacón (third from left).


    Venezuelans have grown accustomed to blunt remarks from their president, Hugo Chávez, elected in 1998 with an agenda of empowering the poor. Still, academics were taken aback this month when Chávez turned his scorn on them: During his weekly television program on 3 May, Aló Presidente, Chávez said that researchers should stop working on “obscure projects,” such as whether life exists on Venus, and instead go into the barrios to make themselves useful. The words sent a chill through the scientific community, as did Chávez's comment that his recently appointed minister for science, technology, and intermediate industry, Jesse Chacón Escamillo, should “put the screws” on “feeble scientists” to get better results.

    In the streets.

    University of Simón Bolívar students protested budget cuts in Caracas earlier this month.


    To many observers, it was another sign of the growing tension between Chávez and the academic establishment, particularly involving well-established research centers in Caracas. Nerves were already on edge following Chávez's dismissal in April of science minister Nuris Orihuela, a geophysical engineer, and her replacement by Chacón, an engineer and Army lieutenant. Critics say Chacón has scant scientific credentials but has been close to Chávez since at least 1992, when he backed Chávez's failed coup attempts.

    Disaffected researchers say they fear that science funding is becoming more politicized. This is one of many concerns they've added to a growing catalog of perceived government failures or threats. Heading this list is a complaint that the government has made broad cuts in funding for institutions that support research. This has come partly in response to declining government petroleum revenues. But critics say the trouble runs deeper—that research is being mismanaged, and that the government has fired, demoted, or blacklisted dissidents.

    Claudio Bifano, president of the Venezuelan Academy of Physical, Mathematical and Natural Sciences in Caracas, sent a letter with outstanding grievances to Science this month ( They are, he wrote, “just a fraction of the many actions that clearly reveal an aim of the government to control all of the national scientific activity and the higher education system, putting Venezuela's scientific activities at risk.” Bifano says that the government recently decreed the creation of about 40 new universities—on top of 51 existing public and private institutions. He says that Venezuela has insufficient academic resources for 90-odd universities and does not need that many.

    “We are worried about the dilution of funding, which could lead to the closure of universities not aligned to government policies,” adds biologist Roberto Cipriani, head of environmental studies at the Simón Bolívar University (USB) in Caracas. Scientists also view a 3-year-old program called LOCTI, which taxes companies to create a fund for research and innovation, as a disappointment. Publication indexes show that peer-reviewed publications from Venezuela have declined recently, says Cipriani. He notes that the ISI Web of Knowledge shows that science and technology articles written by Venezuelans dropped 15%, from 968 in 2006 to 831 last year.

    Other groups are protesting what they view as threats to research. A petition by the Caracas chapter of the Venezuelan Academy for the Advancement of Science, posted last week for comment (, states that the “fundamental pillars of Venezuelan science are in grave danger.”

    It claims that a key government science program—Misión Ciencia—has produced few tangible results despite massive spending and deplores budget cuts ordered in March that, it says, translate into a 33% reduction in operating budgets for the Central University of Venezuela (UCV), in Caracas, and several other institutions. These are having “a severe effect on [UCV's] basic scientific and technological research programs,” the declaration adds.

    On 14 May, about 20 scientists stood in silence for 5 minutes during a meeting of some 250 researchers at UCV to protest Chávez's statements on Aló Presidente and the government's withdrawal of certain awards funded by LOCTI. The protesters from the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research remained silent because the ministry had told them to make no public statements, say sources in Caracas who did not want to be identified.

    Whatever its flaws, LOCTI has been helpful to some institutions, researchers say. USB, the largest single recipient of LOCTI cash, received about 100 grants a year from 2006 through 2008, about 20% of the amount given to universities and agencies, says USB president and chemist Benjamin Scharifker. USB marine resources manager Eduardo Klein, a professor in the department of environmental studies, says he has been able to build labs and buy equipment that would not have been possible without LOCTI—including a 4000-square-meter, $7 million center for marine biodiversity now under construction. But Klein adds that funding needs are determined at the top: “The ministry decides on projects without our participation.”

    While some institutions have done well, scientists say that critics of government policy rarely escape punishment. A widely cited example this year is biologist Jaime Requena, a Cambridge, U.K.–educated professor at the government's Institute for Advanced Studies (IDEA) in Caracas. Requena and his supporters say that IDEA's director stripped Requena of his professorship just before his retirement, costing him his pension rights. IDEA took this step, according to an independent group, the Human Rights Commission of the Venezuelan Association for the Advancement of Science, after Requena published a letter in Nature criticizing the government for restricting support of the social sciences. Requena wrote that this government decision was one reason why Venezuela's scientific publications have fallen to a 25-year low point.

    Speaking for the science minister, IDEA president Prudencio Chacón, who is not related to the minister, denied that the government is imposing political control over science, stifling dissent, or cutting research budgets. He also said that Requena was dismissed because “he worked in two places simultaneously,” left work “several times without permission from his supervisor,” and because IDEA requested the purchase of software that Requena had developed. Requena and his backers deny the charges. IDEA's statement recognizes the significance of the dispute, however, saying it has become one of the “political flags” of government critics.

    • * Barbara Casassus is a writer in Paris.

  4. Swine Flu Outbreak

    New Details on Virus's Promiscuous Past

    1. Jon Cohen

    An international team of scientists working at breakneck speed has provided the most detailed description yet of the origins of the novel H1N1 swine flu virus now causing a global outbreak. The study, published online by Science on 22 May (, has good news about the prospects for making a vaccine against the virus. It also raises the intriguing possibility that a species other than pigs might have harbored a precursor to the virus.

    Much of the data have already dribbled out, released as soon as it was generated. But this new study, which involved a team of 59 researchers led by investigators from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the University of Cambridge, U.K., is the first to pull it all together. “The people at CDC deserve to have this published,” says leading flu expert Robert Webster of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. “They bust their butts and have done the lion's share of the work and tried to be as open as possible.”

    The authors reconstructed the puzzling past of what's known as influenza A 2009 (H1N1) by analyzing 76 isolates from people in Mexico and the United States. The paper begins the somewhat operatic and knotty story of this outbreak's origins with an H1N1 first isolated in swine in 1930, which itself was a close relative of the virus that caused the 1918 pandemic in humans. Unlike flu viruses that affect humans, the eight influenza genes in this swine H1N1 changed very little for 6 decades. In 1998, researchers discovered that this rock-steady swine H1N1 had combined with a human H3N2 and a U.S. avian virus. This so-called triple reassortant spread to Asian pigs, and many different variants soon began popping up in swine all over the world.


    In a separate drama, related but distinct H1N1 strains have long circulated in humans. An H1N1 caused the 1918 pandemic and remained the predominant strain until it was replaced by an H2N2 that caused a new pandemic in 1957. The human H1N1 then suddenly reappeared in 1977 and has been making the Homo sapiens rounds ever since. Then an H3N2 strain that caused the 1968 pandemic replaced the H2N2. So today, both H3N2 and a human H1N1 cocirculate, along with two strains of influenza B.

    Now along comes the swine flu outbreak of April. The paper explains that this novel H1N1 has two genes from avian influenza that entered Eurasian swine in 1979, three from the old-fashioned H1N1 in North American swine, two from the triple reassortants in North American swine, and the final one from humans transmitted to us from birds in 1968. That head-spinning mix has never been seen before, and given its genetic distance between known strains, CDC chief influenza investigator and co-author Nancy Cox said the virus was likely lurking around somewhere long before it jumped into humans. “We do not know if the virus entered the human population directly from swine or via an intermediate host,” said Cox.

    The encouraging news for vaccine development is that the many isolates of the new viruses analyzed in this report showed little variation, much less than typical seasonal influenza viruses. This makes it “much, much easier” to make a vaccine, said Cox.

  5. National Science Foundation

    The Money to Meet the President's Priorities

    1. Jeffrey Mervis

    Money talks. But this year it's on the move at the National Science Foundation (NSF), which has turned recent actions by Congress and the priorities of a new president into an array of programs to strengthen the scientific work force, tackle pressing societal problems, and foster collaborations across disciplines.

    The initiatives are made possible by the brightest budget picture in NSF's 60-year history. Some $3 billion from the one-time stimulus package, combined with a 6.5% boost to its regular 2009 budget, has brought spending to a record $9.5 billion this year. Its 2010 budget, excluding stimulus funds, would rise by 8.5%, to just over $7 billion, if Congress approves President Barack Obama's request.


    “This Administration has made clear its priorities in science,” notes NSF Director Arden Bement Jr., “and they include all the things we're doing.” In particular, that translates into an increase of $197 million in 2010 for all manner of climate research, plus $20 million over 2 years for climate change education; $31 million more for research on improved silicon technology to push beyond Moore's Law; $12 million more for technology training at community colleges; $50 million for high-speed networks in low-intensity research states; and $92 million for novel ways to fund out-of-the-box research ideas.

    Although Congress passed the stimulus package in February and the 2009 budget in March, it was only last week that NSF revealed in detail how that money will be allocated, along with the specifics of its 2010 request. That additional information fleshes out why research gets an 11% increase, education only 1.5%, and funding for major new facilities drops 23%.

    For example, Obama has promised to triple the number of NSF's prestigious graduate research fellowships by 2013. But after getting a 20% boost in 2009, NSF has asked for only a 6% increase in 2010, to $122 million. Why so low? The answer is the $45 million in stimulus funding that Bement allocated to the program. That influx will allow NSF to grow this year's class by roughly one-third and make good progress toward Obama's goal of 3000 new awardees.

    The faculty early career development (CAREER) program is an even more dramatic example of the interplay between stimulus funding and NSF's regular budget. Despite strong interest from both Congress and the White House, NSF requested only enough money in 2010 to restore the program to its 2008 level of $203 million. However, those numbers do not include a whopping $165 million increase for the program this year, using stimulus money spread across all six of the foundation's research directorates.

    Some priorities come courtesy of Congress. As part of the stimulus package, legislators designated $60 million more for scholarships to undergraduates majoring in science and engineering. That jump will enable NSF to expand the program while holding its 2010 request flat at $55 million.

    The stimulus package also added $400 million to NSF's major facilities account, which typically contains a half-dozen big projects in various stages of construction. Bement has divvied the money among three projects—the Alaska Region Research Vessel (ARRV), the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope, and the Ocean Observatories Initiative—that have been in the pipeline for years but were held out of the 2009 request for various reasons. Bement says the $148 million for ARRV should be enough to finish the ship, so nothing is being requested for it in the 2010 construction budget. One big facility still awaiting a green light from NSF is the National Ecological Observatory Network, first proposed a decade ago but still awaiting approval of its final design.

    Bement promises that the bolus of new funding will enable NSF to be more innovative, and he's asking each of the foundation's 46 divisions to spend $2 million next year on innovative research ideas chosen outside the normal grants-making procedures. “We hope to stretch the culture of what's acceptable,” explains Jim Collins, head of the biology directorate, which this spring sponsored a weeklong workshop in synthetic biology that featured real-time peer review (see sidebar). “We don't want to put too many boundaries on people.”

    One effort to break down disciplinary boundaries is already under way, as 17 program managers from the biology and geosciences directorates are being formed into an “integrated global system science” team. “The phrase ‘earth system science’ has been around since the 1970s,” says geosciences chief Timothy Killeen. “But it didn't bring in the human dimension of these processes.” NSF has already set aside money for proposals in three areas that will funnel into this new “node”—emerging topics in biogeochemical cycles, multiscale modeling, and environment, economics, and society. “It's not enough to talk the talk,” says Killeen. “We also have to walk the walk.”

  6. National Science Foundation

    Digging for Fresh Ideas in the Sandpit

    1. Jeffrey Mervis

    Does the idea of writing a grant proposal that's been all but approved before it's even sent in sound appealing? Then play in the sandpit.

    That's what 30 scientists did this spring, meeting outside Washington, D.C., for 5 days of intense discussion about synthetic biology under the auspices of the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.K. Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. But instead of simply discussing where the burgeoning field is headed and then waiting for a possible funding solicitation down the road, the scientists—equally split between the United States and the United Kingdom and drawn from several disciplines—assembled into 10 teams and came up with specific research proposals.

    Water works.

    This “cyberplasm” will try to mimic the undulations of the lamprey.


    That's when the fun began, at least for some participants. Each team presented its idea to the larger group, received instant feedback, made revisions, and presented it again—six times in all. By the end of the week, officials from the two government agencies—each of which had agreed to put up $5 million to fund the best ideas—verbally signed off on five of the 10 proposals. The two agencies also split the $200,000 cost of the workshop, held in Warrenton, Virginia.

    The exercise, conceived in 2004 by the U.K. research council and labeled a sandpit (the British term for sandbox), is the latest attempt by governments to fund so-called transformative research. Joanne Tornow of NSF's biology directorate told the participants—chosen from among 170 applicants—that she and her U.K. counterpart, Paula Duxbury, “didn't want to hear anything that had more than a 10% chance of succeeding.” The week began with team-building exercises designed to help participants “strip off their preconceived notions,” says Duxbury, before choosing partners and getting down to the science. “The talent in the room was just amazing,” says Joseph Ayers, a neurophysiologist at Northeastern University Marine Science Center in Nahant, Massachusetts, who had spent 15 years working on biomimetic marine robots. “You'd ask a question, and people would respond with a lecture.”

    Andy Ellington, a self-described evolutionary engineer at the University of Texas, Austin, admits that it took him a while to embrace the sandpit approach: “It was like nothing I've ever done before.” He says the most important lesson he learned “is shutting the heck up … and letting others put their ideas forward.” Ellington says that the sandpit approach “is more like Twitter” than the usual process of “writing a grant proposal, submitting it, and then 6 months later getting back three pages of detailed comments. … But we probably got just as many incisive comments and a lot fewer nonincisive comments.”

    Some participants never warmed to the task, however. “I did not expect an environment in which scientists competed against one another [in real time and often late into the night] for a limited pool of funds,” wrote one prominent scientist in an anonymous evaluation submitted at the end of the week. The exercise evoked “Darwinian selection for limited resources in a pleasant natural environment (Airlie House), where the least successful individuals die a slow and agonizing death. … It was one of the most unpleasant weeks of my life.”

    The prospective winners—no decisions will be final until July—have taken on big challenges within this sprawling field. Ellington and four other scientists hope to create genetically altered polymers, in effect, artificial versions of amino acids and their related genes. Ayers is part of a four-person team that is building a “cyberplasm,” a device possessing an integrated system of fuel cells, activators, muscles, and sensors that will move through the water like a lamprey. A third team hopes to produce synthetic taxol, a cancer-fighting drug, in large amounts and at low cost, building on the success of team member Jay Keasling of the Joint BioEnergy Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, with the antimalarial drug artemisinin. There's even a project to address ethical and societal issues, in hopes of avoiding the controversy that has bedeviled the related field of genetically modified crops.

  7. ScienceInsider

    From the Science Policy Blog

    News about the impact of the U.S. stimulus funding package on researchers, the ongoing battle against swine flu, and the impact of California's financial troubles on the state's universities were among the headlines on ScienceInsider last week.

    The competition for Grand Opportunities (GO) grants at NIH, which start at $1 million and use stimulus money, has drawn 2400 letters of intent, in contrast with the 20,000 applications submitted for the smaller Challenge Grants. NIH officials expect success rates for the GO grants to be as high as 10%. Meanwhile, NIH plans to fund more than 30% of the 1600 scientists who have applied to expand an existing grant. In other NIH news, the agency has announced a $120 million, 5-year plan to set up a drug-development service center that will focus on rare and neglected diseases.

    The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last week sought to reassure the public that a vaccine for swine flu would be ready by late fall, in time to combat a possible comeback by the H1N1 virus. CDC's statement came after a World Health Organization working group estimated that it could be December before authorities are able to start immunizing people.

    Last week's resounding defeat of ballot measures aimed at helping California's finances darkens the outlook for the University of California (UC). UC had already instituted hiring and salary freezes and raised student fees by 9.3%. The university now faces a possible $322 million budget reduction, which could lead to further fee increases, larger classes, and pay cuts.

    The tough economic climate will force more than a quarter of medical charities in the United Kingdom to cut funding by anywhere between 10% and 40%, according to a survey released this week by the country's Association of Medical Research Charities.

    To keep up with science policy news daily, visit

  8. Archaeology

    Arsenic and Old Mummies: Poison May Have Spurred First Mummies

    1. Heather Pringle*

    About 6800 years ago in the Camarones River valley of northern Chile, a 6-month-old male infant died mysteriously. After death, his head and internal organs were removed and his body cavities packed with animal hides. Someone, perhaps the child's mother or another female relative, modeled a new head and mask of white clay and placed it atop the small torso. Then she painted the mask with black pigment and adorned the head with tufts of human hair. The resulting mummy, created by the Chinchorro people, is among the oldest intentionally created mummies in the world.

    Archaeologists have long puzzled over the nearly 200 Chinchorro mummies found to date. At the Society for American Archaeology meetings in Atlanta, Georgia, last month, researchers presented new evidence for a provocative hypothesis about why the Chinchorro began the practice and why their morticians initially focused on young children. They showed that the Chinchorro were being poisoned by arsenic in their water, likely leading to a high rate of miscarriage and child mortality. Such deaths may have helped to spawn a mummification practice in “an emotional response to an environmental contaminant,” says anthropologist Bernardo Arriaza of the University of Tarapacá in Arica, Chile.

    Mummification is known from more than a dozen ancient societies around the globe, but the Chinchorro practice was different. Other intentional mummies are later in time and generally come from politically and socially complex societies, with the privilege of mummification reserved for adult elites. But the Chinchorro lived in a relatively simple society of fishers and seal and sea lion hunters, and they started out mummifying young children. Eventually, they extended the practice to adults, before abandoning it in about 1700 B.C.E.

    After reading about arsenic's toxic effects on human fetuses and infants, Arriaza began examining in 2007 the possibility of arsenic poisoning among the Chinchorro. Arsenic occurs naturally in geological formations in many parts of the world, and as precipitation weathers these strata, it carries the poison into local rivers, often with devastating effects (Science, 23 March 2007, p. 1659). This hazard came to public attention in Chile in the 1960s, after the city of Antofagasta started drawing water from a river that turned out to be laced with 860 micrograms of arsenic per liter—86 times higher than the World Health Organization's (WHO's) current provisional guideline. During the peak exposure from 1958 to 1965, infant mortality rates in Antofagasta soared by as much as 24%. From 1958 to 1961, 4% of newborns and 9% of all older infants died in the city. It was “a major public health issue,” says José Centeno, a senior research scientist at the U.S. Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, D.C.

    Ancient infant.

    This mummy from northern Chile, created by the world's oldest mummification process, preserves the body of a child.


    Arriaza suspected that the Chinchorro suffered similarly high infant mortality rates for exactly the same reason. The four earliest Chinchorro mummies—two newborns and two infants between 12 and 24 months of age—came from the Camarones River valley, where today the water tests as high as 1000 micrograms of arsenic per liter. Moreover, a 1996 study of Inca mummies from northern Chile identified arsenic in soft-tissue samples and discerned skin lesions characteristic of arsenic poisoning.

    Arriaza collected hair samples from 46 Chinchorro and pre-Inca mummies excavated from 10 sites in northern Chile where the water tested above WHO guidelines for arsenic. He sent the samples to chemist Dulasiri Amarasiriwardena of Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, for mass-spectrometry testing.

    Arsenic values in hair from all 10 sites point to chronic arsenic poisoning, Arriaza reported in his talk. Ten mummies from the Camarones River valley, for example, exhibited a mean value of 37.8 micrograms per gram, well above the 1 to 10 micrograms considered to indicate chronic arsenic poisoning. The two most contaminated individuals were a Chinchorro infant and an adult, each of whom had readings in excess of 219 micrograms. Although some arsenic could have come from washing hair in contaminated water, washing is unlikely to have pushed levels that high, says pathologist Larry Cartmell of the Central Texas Pathology Laboratory in Waco, a specialist in ancient hair analysis: “I believe [Arriaza's] deductions about infant and fetal morbidity are sound.”

    Arriaza theorizes that grief-stricken Chinchorro parents, who suffered repeated losses of their children, wanted to preserve the infants' bodies and so created mummies they kept in shrinelike areas. (Some mummies' faces reveal repeated paint touchups to cover nicks and dents, suggesting that they were kept above-ground.) Cartmell thinks the idea makes sense, noting that parents today sometimes keep locks of hair from a dead child or preserve an infant's room as though it were a shrine.

    But the connection between infant deaths and mummification is psychological and therefore hard to prove, says Sonia Guillen, a physical anthropologist at Centro Mallqui-Museo Leymebamba in Lima. “When you can't interview the people, you can't say anything,” she says.

    All the same, Guillen and others find Arriaza's evidence for arsenic poisoning convincing. Although many researchers may have assumed that environmental contamination became a major problem only for later industrial societies, these findings strongly suggest that earlier societies were at risk, too. “You can't smell arsenic or taste it,” says Arriaza. “The Chinchorro had no way of knowing they were being poisoned.”

    • * Heather Pringle is a contributing editor at Archaeology magazine.

  9. Tropical Meteorology

    A Cloudy Crystal Ball for the Coming Season's Hurricanes

    1. Richard A. Kerr
    Tough call.

    Forecasting hurricane activity months ahead has proven difficult.


    Every June for 25 years, meteorologist William Gray and associates at Colorado State University (CSU), Fort Collins, have tried to decipher what the coming summer and fall have in store for hurricane country. Now for the first time, the CSU group has graded itself. The researchers' statistical analysis credits their forecasts with a “modest” improvement over the baseline assumption that every season would be normal.

    Others concede that the group has shown some measurable skill in forecasting—just not much. The performance of the CSU forecasts has been “not too good” to “pretty bad,” says seasonal forecaster Anthony Barnston of Columbia University's International Research Institute for Climate and Society in Palisades, New York. But then, he and colleagues have done their own seasonal hurricane forecasts, and “our skills are lousy also. No one is very good at this.”

    The trick to forecasting hurricane activity months ahead is to identify conditions that can directly or indirectly influence the number, strength, and duration of storms. To be useful, those “predictors” must also change so slowly that they will still be around months later, during the June-through-November hurricane season. Prominent among the CSU group's predictors has been the tropical Pacific's El Niño.

    Gray and CSU colleague Philip Klotzbach reported 13 May in Geophysical Research Letters that statistical analyses of forecasts made from 1984 to 2008 “have shown some promise” in forecasting hurricane activity. They compared how far their forecasts departed from reality with how well they would have done by simply assuming that the coming season would be like the average of past intervals ranging from 3 to 50 seasons long.

    The CSU forecasts made in early June and especially those made in early August tended to have smaller errors than those made using averages of past seasons, Klotzbach and Gray reported. The forecasts' edge over averagebased forecasts was often statistically significant, they found, at least for August forecasts. And using their current set of predictors—the product of 25 years of refinement—to forecast the past 25 seasons in hindsight much improved the forecasts over those made before each season. That bodes well for future forecasts, they say.

    Researchers give Gray credit for making the most of the few glimpses of the coming hurricane season that nature provides. “Unquestionably, there is real skill in these forecasts,” says Robert Livezey, who is retired from the National Weather Service, where he supervised seasonal forecasting of U.S. climate. The problem, he says, is that “there isn't very much being accomplished” in the early June forecasts. The August results are “a lot better,” though still “modest,” he adds. For example, CSU August forecasts of the number of tropical storms and hurricanes were off by 2.4 storms from the actual number (typically 9.6 during the past 50 years). Forecasts that assumed every coming season would be typical were off by a bit more: 3.5 storms.

    No one is likely to improve much on those results, says Livezey. The CSU group's new forecasting methodology is not nearly as useful as the group claims, he says, due to an error in the group's statistical analysis. Tropical meteorologist Peter Webster of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta sees a sunnier future elsewhere. “Bill Gray has pointed the way,” he says, but “I think we're now doing better with [computer] models.” As happened 50 years ago in day-to-day weather forecasting, the job of forecasting the next hurricane season might begin to pass to the machines.


    From Science's Online Daily News Site

    Compact Discs Enter the Fifth Dimension. Better clear a shelf in your basement for that high-end Blu-ray DVD player you just bought. Researchers report that they can boost the amount of data stored on a disc 10,000-fold by using gold nanoparticles. If commercialized, the technology could allow a single disc to hold as many as 300 movies or 250,000 songs.

    A Shake May Prevent a Crash. You're driving down the highway late at night, talking on your cell phone and fiddling with the radio. As you begin drifting into the lane on your right, your steering wheel suddenly vibrates, and you swing back to the left, narrowly missing a car you never saw. Such tactile warnings may be more effective than audio or visual cues in preventing collisions, according to a new study.


    Earth's Hellish Era Not So Bad for Life. Four billion years ago, asteroids and comets rained down on our planet with such ferocity that scientists have labeled the era the “Hadean”—literally, hell on Earth. Yet despite these infernal conditions, early life could have survived—and may even have thrived in the warm, wet spots left in the crust by impactors—according to a new study.

    New Clue to Cancer Protection in Down Syndrome. Down syndrome causes mental retardation and a host of health problems. But it also appears to protect people from cancer. Researchers have now found a potential genetic mechanism for this protective effect. The findings might one day lead to cancer-prevention treatments in the general population.

    Read the full postings, comments, and more on

  11. Whale Stocks

    Mystery of the Missing Humpbacks Solved by Soviet Data

    1. Virginia Morell

    In 1991, Victoria University postdoc C. Scott Baker set out to study humpback whales migrating through New Zealand's Cook Strait. Although locals hadn't spotted a humpback for 30 years, Baker knew that the whales, once hunted to the brink of extinction, were recovering elsewhere, even in Australia, and that the Cook Strait had been one of their classic migration routes from the Antarctic to the islands of Oceania. Baker, now a conservation geneticist at Oregon State University's Marine Mammal Institute in Newport, quickly learned that “the locals were right. There weren't any humpbacks. And there should have been.” Had there been some environmental change in their breeding or feeding grounds? “It was a puzzle because the Australian and Oceania populations feed in the same [Antarctic] waters,” says Baker.

    Whales beware.

    Dimitri Tormosov, Yuri Mikhalev, and Nikolai Doroshenko (inset) were told to falsify data on Soviet whaling ships.


    A paper in Marine Fisheries Review, made available online last week in advance of its June publication, now solves the mystery: “It was massive illegal hunting by the Soviet Union and other countries,” especially of the Oceania humpbacks, says whale biologist Phillip Clapham of the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle, Washington, lead author of the study and an accompanying commentary. The study concludes that the high number of unreported catches by Soviet whalers of humpbacks in the Southern Ocean decimated this population so severely that it has not yet recovered. These revelations have implications for the management of whales today, for the papers come at a time when the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the primary body for the global conservation and management of whales, is itself at a crossroads, divided between pro- and antiwhaling factions (Science, 27 April 2007, p. 532).

    “These papers lay out how [IWC] got into this mess,” says marine biologist Douglas DeMaster of NOAA Fisheries in Juneau. DeMaster headed the U.S. delegation this year to a series of IWC negotiations designed to reconcile the organization's differences, which have so far failed, according to an IWC report posted online last week. IWC's troubles “all stem from this overharvesting as well as the illegal, unreported, and unregulated hunting,” says DeMaster.

    From 1947 to 1973, the Soviet Union, as a member of IWC, was allowed to take a certain number of whales of certain species in certain areas. (IWC was created in 1948 to put commercial whaling on a sustainable course.) As required, each Soviet whaling vessel carried biologists to record various data about the harpooned whales.

    But instead of the prescribed catch, Clapham and his colleagues report, whalers on Soviet ships such as the Sovetskaya Ukraina killed every whale they encountered, regardless of species, age, size, or sex. Marine biologists on the Soviet whaling fleet in the Southern Ocean recorded the correct data, then turned these over to KGB commissars who created a second set of books with false figures for IWC, say the study's authors, who have extensively interviewed four biologists through a translator. “The marine biologists had to sign a KGB statement saying they would never release any of their data,” says co-author Robert Brownell Jr., a cetacean biologist with NOAA Fisheries in Pacific Grove, California.

    All four biologists, however, went to extraordinary lengths to protect their real records for eventual release. One, Dimitri Tormosov, spirited away nearly 60,000 pages, each a record of a killed whale, says Brownell. Tormosov surreptitiously removed each page, one at a time, from his Ministry of Fisheries lab and stashed them in his potato cellar. Another, Yuri Mikhalev, distributed the true records to colleagues in other labs; he complained so loudly about the fake data that he lost his job as a researcher. In 1993, a top Russian scientist admitted the deception, and later, the biologists began turning over their original data to IWC.

    In the current paper, Clapham's team combines interviews with the biologists with other records to link the Soviet catch data to specific IWC-management areas in the Southern Hemisphere—thereby solving the mystery of Baker's missing Oceania whales. The study reveals that the Soviets hit this population in the Antarctic waters south of New Zealand particularly hard from 1959 to 1961, killing more than 25,000. Later, they took another 23,000, but they reported only 2710 total to IWC.

    Because of earlier whaling, “those humpbacks were already in decline,” says Baker, “and the Soviets took the rest. Their whaling cast a very long shadow.” Clapham's team says that the Oceania subpopulation today numbers between 3000 and 5000, 20% to 25% of its original size, and was categorized last year as endangered. “It will easily take them another 50 years to recover,” says Baker.

    The paper is timely because some IWC members are calling for modifying the current moratorium on commercial whaling, says whale biologist Sidney Holt, who played a key role at IWC for 49 years. Two years ago, citing the worldwide recovery of humpbacks, Japan announced that it would begin hunting the humpbacks of the Southern Ocean as part of its scientific whaling, although that plan is now on hold.

    IWC, then as now, relies on self-reporting of results and has no enforcement provisions. To Holt, the Soviet catch data “show how essential it must be to put in place a watertight international system to ensure compliance with regulations.” But Lars Walløe, a whale scientist at the University of Oslo, Norway, says that “it is quite a different story today.” Nowadays, whales are hunted for meat, not oil, and so there “isn't the same incentive for such deception.”

    The moratorium will be at the heart of discussions next month at the IWC annual meeting in Madeira. Mikhalev plans to attend—a living reminder, says Clapham, that “self-regulation in environmental matters doesn't work.”

  12. Fisheries

    Protecting the Last Great Tuna Stocks

    1. Christopher Pala*

    Ships called purse seiners can scoop up entire schools of tuna.


    Representatives of Western Pacific island nations put the finishing touches last week on a series of bold, new measures aimed at saving the world's last great tuna stocks.

    Last May, the group decided to bar fishing in two huge pockets of international waters, creating the largest ever no-fishing zone. Fishing in the rest of the Western Pacific is regulated by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, a treaty-based organization that includes 15 island nations and 10 countries that pay them for the right to fish in their so-called Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), which stretch 200 nautical miles from land. Meeting last week in Niue, a tiny island nation 4000 kilometers south of Hawaii, the ministers decided to add two smaller pockets of international waters.

    The result: four no-take areas totaling 1.2 million square kilometers stretching 7000 km from French Polynesia to Palau. Combined, the no-take zones are more than three times the size of California and dwarf the 360,000-km2 reserve in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, whose waters contain far fewer fish.

    “It's a big victory for us, because these pockets were being fished much more intensively than our own waters,” says Sylvester Pokajam, managing director of the National Fisheries Authority of Papua New Guinea. “They were also used as refuges by ships that poach in our waters.” Phil Kline of Greenpeace USA says the agreement “proves that an international process can actually achieve this” united front.

    The measures, which take effect in January, would reduce by 10% the number of fishing days in these EEZs for most of the 225-ship international fleet of purse seiners, says Pokajam. The ships, which use huge nets to take out entire schools of tuna, account for three-quarters of the catch. The new rules also oblige the ships to carry independent observers, restrict the use of floating platforms, called fish-aggregating devices, that disproportionately attract juveniles, and ban throwing dead fish overboard to make room for more valuable fish. All boats, even those that use hooks and lines, will be barred from fishing in the high-seas pockets.

    “These are the broadest and most effective measures of any tuna fishery in the world,” says James Joseph, a fisheries scientist who for decades managed the commission that regulates the eastern Pacific, and they come none too soon. He says most of the world's tuna stocks are being fished at an unsustainable rate. “Bluefin is a catastrophe, bigeye and yellowfin are in trouble in most places, and so are some albacore,” he says. “Only skipjack are still in good shape.”

    Tuna sanctuary.

    Four pockets of international waters (red) will be permanently closed to all fishing in January to protect tuna.


    The Western Pacific's catch has gone from 500,000 tons a year in 1970 to 2.4 million tons in 2008. That's 60% of the world tuna catch, worth $3.9 billion, with purse seiners accounting for most of the increase. As a result, in the past half-century, the Pacific stocks have shrunk by 50% to 80%, except for skipjack. In the past decade, the fleets that depleted the tuna stocks in the Atlantic and the Eastern Pacific moved in, aggravating the problem.The spike in fishing created a bonus for the region's microstates, which receive an average of 5% of the value of the landed catch. For Kiribati, for example, the windfall provides a third of the government's revenue.

    When fisheries scientists warned that these rates were not sustainable, the islands' leaders embraced their advice, including a recommendation for an immediate cut of at least 30% for bigeye and 10% for yellowfin. The fishing nations, including Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, resisted, and a compromise solution was designed to lower the take by 10% a year over 3 years.

    The United States has resisted even that reduction. Under a separate treaty that lumps together access fees and development aid, the U.S. government pays most of the access fees for the 40-ship U.S. fleet. The U.S. has agreed to abide by the new agreement but says that the treaty exempts it from the 10% reduction.

    The island nations are not happy. “The United States has expanded its fleet from 11 to 40 ships in the past few years, mostly by allowing Asian ships to take the American flag,” says Pokajam. “These ships, which don't even supply the American market, now f ish without limits in our waters. The U.S. talks about conservation but behaves differently.”

    Several fisheries experts warn that the new measures probably aren't sufficient to stop the big-eye's free-fall. “It's a great leap forward, for sure,” says Kelvin Passfield of the Pacif ic Ocean fisheries program of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. “But I'm afraid it's not going to be enough. If you don't cut 30% of the take when you need to, it usually means you'll have to cut 50% later.”

    Daniel Pauly, a fisheries scientist at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, says fish species have survived only because some of their ranges have been inaccessible to fishers. “Now that fishing methods are much more effective, we need to create no-take zones so that we don't exploit the whole range of any given species,” he explains. “In other words, a natural sustainability mechanism has to be replaced by a deliberate one to avoid species collapse.”

    • * Christopher Pala is a writer based in Hawaii.

  13. Ecology

    Biologists Struggle to Solve Bat Deaths

    1. Robert Zimmerman*

    An epidemic has stricken the northeastern United States for 3 years. As it spreads, researchers wonder whether a white fungus is the real killer.

    Ominous sign.

    Little brown bats are one of six species in trouble.


    CHALKHILL, PENNSYLVANIA—Leaning back against a grimy rock wall, wildlife biologist Greg Turner of the Pennsylvania Game Commission focuses his headlamp on a brown, furry clump of bats hanging in a cramped underground passageway. After a few seconds, he spies what he's looking for: the gleam of a tiny temperature sensor glued to the back of a bat. Gingerly, Turner plucks the hibernating bat with his gloved hands and stashes it in a cloth sample bag.

    Turner and two colleagues have spent the past 3 hours scouring this cave for instrumented bats that may provide clues to a pressing mystery. An unknown killer has been wiping out populations of six species of hibernating bats in the northeastern United States in what appears to be the biggest die-off on record. “We're stabbing in the dark in a lot of ways, just trying to understand what's going on,” Turner says.

    Scrambling out of the cave in the late afternoon, Turner is feeling upbeat. There were no dead or dying bats, and no sign of the telltale white fungus that may or may not be involved in the trouble. Moreover, he and his colleagues retrieved 17 bats with data loggers to reveal more about the hibernation patterns of healthy bats, which could shed light on what's going wrong elsewhere. Euthanized bats and soil samples will be shipped to researchers in other states for analysis.

    All told, the crew gathered data for six experiments involving dozens of scientists. Similar missions are under way throughout the eastern United States, as bat researchers on the East Coast have shifted gears from routine bat research in the past 2 years to investigate the malady. So far, there are more questions than answers. Efforts are ramping up farther west as well: Scientists are forming a Midwest Bat Working Group, which met for the first time earlier this month in Indiana to plan and coordinate future bat-research strategies.

    The task is urgent. The disappearance of these northeastern hibernating bats could have larger impacts on ecosystems, as these night flyers hunt insects that annoy humans and damage crops. And last October, a group of more than 100 participants from a science strategy meeting concluded that if the problem continues to expand at its current rate, entire species—including the endangered big-eared bat in Virginia and Indiana—could be in jeopardy.

    Bleak midwinter

    The first sign of trouble came in February 2006, while researchers in New York state were conducting a routine census of bats in four caves some 80 kilometers west of Albany. To their horror, they discovered either a precipitous drop in population or many dead bats in the four caves, located less than 13 kilometers from each other. At Hailes Cave, for example, the number had dropped by 43%, from 15,584 the year before to 6735.

    Many bats—both dead and alive—had a whitish fungus ringing their muzzles and dotting their ears and wings. Although fungi on bats are not unusual, there was far more than normal. The dead bats had no obvious diseases, toxins, or parasites. Instead, they lacked enough body fat to get through the winter. Apparently, they had come out of hibernation early and exited caves during daylight, perhaps to search for insects. With nothing to eat, they starved to death.

    The situation worsened over the next winter. Bat populations in these four caves fell by 50% to 100%. Even more alarming, researchers were finding emaciated or dead bats in other caves and mines in a widening area. Because the white fungus was seen in all these locations, the researchers dubbed the problem white-nose syndrome.

    Last winter, the syndrome continued to spread. By April, it had reached 10 caves and mines in eastern and central Pennsylvania. Several caves in Virginia and West Virginia also showed signs. Many caves visited by bat biologists in these newly affected areas remain free of white-nose, but the syndrome is clearly advancing across an ever-wider front.

    Early clues

    The same fungus, a new species of the coldloving genus Geomyces, is turning up everywhere. David Blehert of the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, identified the fungus in affected bats from multiple sites (Science, 9 January, p. 227). He and a dozen coauthors concluded that the fungus is “consistent with properties predicted for a causative agent.” But the central question remains: Is the white-nose fungus the primary cause of the deaths or simply an opportunistic infection?

    Further tests by Blehert's group may settle the issue. Since last fall, researchers and recreational cavers have been collecting soil samples from more than 200 sites in almost 30 states. If Geomyces spp. turns out to be present in unaffected sites distant from the syndrome's epicenter, the fungus may not be the primary pathogen. Blehert expects results by the fall.

    Blehert has also conducted trials to see if Geomyces spp.—and clinical signs of white-nose syndrome—can be spread among hibernating bats. Using little brown bats (Myotis lucifugus) in the lab, the researchers brushed spores onto bats, allowed infected bats to touch unaffected ones, and housed unaffected bats in mesh enclosures near separate enclosures containing infected bats. These experiments wrapped up last month, and it appears that bats can spread the fungus among themselves.

    On the march.

    Each winter, more bats have been found with white-nose syndrome. The impact has been severe and will likely keep spreading.


    Still, many researchers doubt that the fungus itself is to blame. “Fungal infections don't typically kill animals,” explains DeeAnn Reeder of Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. Instead, she says, fungi tend to be secondary infections that attack an animal already compromised by some other pathogen, such as a virus or bacteria.

    To find out more about what could be going wrong, researchers are probing the basics of bat biology. Reeder and her colleagues have put more than 300 temperature data loggers and transmitters on bats in six states. Hibernating bats will arouse and triple their body temperature for a few hours every 12 to 15 days. In bats with white-nose syndrome, however, the arousals seem to be more frequent. One hypothesis is that the bats do this to groom the fungus away or to reactivate their immune systems to fight off an unknown pathogen.

    A team led by Marianne Moore of Boston University is testing the latter idea. She and colleagues have been measuring the strength of the immune system in bats at various times during hibernation season, both in torpor and when aroused. They hope to find out if the immune systems of bats with white-nose syndrome have been compromised.

    Another question is whether the sick bats lose most of their body fat during hibernation or start out the winter already in trouble. Jonathan Reichard of Boston University measured the body fat of bats during the fall, when they fatten up, and followed them during hibernation. “We're hoping to narrow down when bats are being most affected,” he says. Preliminary results suggest that regardless of when white-nose initially attacks the bats, it worsens over time. Even if bats survive hibernation, many either die prematurely in the spring or enter the next hibernation scrawny.

    Intriguing clues are also emerging from the digestive system, according to microbiologist H. Kathleen Dannelly of Indiana State University in Terre Haute. Bats eat a lot of chitin, the hard exoskeleton of insects, and in summer they don't digest it. But they seem to do so in winter. Inside the digestive tract are bacteria that produce chitinase, an enzyme that breaks down chitin, and the bats might be extracting energy from the chitin, according to Dannelly.

    Bats with white-nose syndrome seem different. Compared with healthy hibernating bats, 18 affected bats from New York state had far fewer chitinase-producing bacteria. “In fact, in the majority of whitenosed bats, we couldn't isolate any chitinase producers,” Dannelly says. Her team has found “several predominant organisms” in the digestive systems of all 18, but she declines to elaborate, as the data are still preliminary. Still, she suspects a pathogen might be compromising the bats' ability to digest chitin, which is possibly their only winter fuel other than fat. This could explain their starvation.

    Stopgap measures

    As researchers struggle to identify the culprit behind white-nose syndrome, an even larger question looms. What, if anything, can be done to help the bats?

    One idea, proposed by Justin Boyles of Indiana State University and Craig Willis of the University of Winnipeg in Canada, is to put heated refuges in caves. They have found that when bats arouse during hibernation, they naturally go to the cave's warm spots in order to conserve energy. Because white-nose syndrome forces them to arouse more frequently, Boyles and Willis hope that heated areas could increase their chances of survival.

    In another effort, a partnership of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums is considering whether to place several dozen Virginia big-eared bats in captivity. Assuming that white-nose eventually hits this endangered species, the hope is that this captive population might prevent its extinction.

    Meanwhile, researchers are taking measures to prevent the accidental spread of pathogens; gear is either new or thoroughly washed and disinfected. And on 26 March, FWS recommended a voluntary moratorium on all recreational caving in any state where white-nose syndrome has been found within or adjacent to its borders. Then, on 24 April, the U.S. Forest Service closed all caves and mines for 1 year in all national forests in the northeastern United States. A similar closure for the southeastern United States is expected before the end of May.

    Because bats migrate, experts expect that the syndrome will keep moving west and south in the coming years. As the pathogen moves south, it might not be as damaging, because hibernation is shorter and the bats might make it through the milder winter. As for the prospects of bats in the Northeast, most bat specialists seem pessimistic. “The future does not look good,” says Craig Stihler of the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources.

    • * Robert Zimmerman is a writer in Greenbelt, Maryland.

  14. Profile: Ruth Ley

    Gut Reactions

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi

    A young microbial ecologist is helping to transform medical microbiology into a modern interdisciplinary science.

    Poop search.

    In barnyards and zoos, Ruth Ley seeks out interesting gut microbial communities


    When Ruth Ley arrived at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, 5 years ago, she didn't quite know what she was getting into. “As a microbial ecologist working in a medical lab, I was a little lost,” Ley recalls. She came to Jeffrey Gordon's lab because it was moving into large-scale studies of organisms inhabiting the human gut, yet she had no background in physiology or human biology. At one point, she says, a colleague in immunology asked her if she knew any biology at all.

    But she turned out to be the right person in the right place at the right time. Part of a new generation of microbiologists trained in genomics, ecology, and bioinformatics, she was in a good position to help pull medical microbiology out of a long-standing rut. In that field, most research had focused on the few pathogens that could be grown in the lab and disregarded the rest. “Ecology,” says David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, had “been ignored by a large subset of the more medically inclined microbiologists.” Into that gap stepped Ley.

    During her 4 years in St. Louis, Ley and her colleagues demonstrated that individuals vary in the repertoire of microorganisms they host—and that those variations can affect health and disease. They discovered a link between obesity and the gut flora of mice and humans, and they traced the evolution of gut communities, showing the effects of phylogeny, diet, and other factors on the makeup of those communities. “These were foundational studies,” says Martin Blaser, a physician and microbiologist at New York University, and they are helping to shape policy and scientific agendas. “She brought a very useful perspective to a group of workers who weren't thinking about [the gut] as an ecological question,” adds Norman Pace, an evolutionary microbial ecologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

    Microbial bias.

    Fat and lean mice—and people—have different proportions of these Bacteroides bacteria (background) in their guts.


    Now an assistant professor at Cornell University, Ley plans to be digging in cornfields, chasing down bacteria associated with maize roots to try to tease apart how a host's genotype affects the genetic makeup of its microbial partners. That will be yet another change of environment for a scientist who has spent her professional life so far tramping through snow after alpine bacteria, sweating under the hot sun sampling microbial mats in salt ponds, and scooping up feces in the cages of lions, tigers, and bears. “What it comes down to is I'm just interested in what microbes are, and why and what are they doing,” Ley explains.

    Macro to micro

    Ley began her scientific life as a plant community ecologist. For 3 years after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, she worked in Hawaii for UC Berkeley's Carla D'Antonio, looking at the role of fire in paving the way for grasses to take over dry tropical woodlands on the island of Hawaii. A change in the pattern and timing of wildfires altered the nitrogen content of the soil and resulted in “a tropical woodland that turned itself into an African savanna,” Ley says. Her work there sparked her interest in soils, and when she started her graduate program at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in 1995, she moved her field site from the tropics to the Rockies.

    At the time, Colorado's water authorities were scratching their heads because snowmelt—the key source of municipal water—was rich in nitrogen, despite the apparent lack of much life on those high, cold peaks. Ley set up remote monitoring stations to measure environmental parameters such as temperature and nitrogen under the snow. The work revealed that the snow provided enough insulation for nitrogen-producing microbes to thrive in the soil. “Just the mass of organisms in those kinds of soils and their activity were much more than predicted,” recalls her adviser, Steven Schmidt.

    “At the end of my Ph.D., I became interested in what the microbes were,” Ley recalls. Metagenomics was the new buzzword among microbiologists, who were using rapid sequencing technologies to decipher the DNA in entire samples of soil or water. By checking the results against databases of microbial genes, researchers can get a handle on the diversity of invisible life the sample contained. Ley teamed up with Pace, newly arrived at the University of Colorado, to apply metagenomics to what they thought would be a fairly simple system: salt flats. She spent 3 years traveling back and forth to Baja California, battling sun and wind scraping samples from 15-centimeter-thick mats growing in meter-deep salt-works ponds. She and her colleagues dug out 15 major groups of novel bacteria.

    Microbes matter

    The move east to Missouri brought her into contact with yet another ecosystem: the human gut. Gordon was surveying gut communities in mice and humans and wanted to know what determined which bacteria lived where. Was it diet? Host choice? Environmental factors? And were there differences that affected how efficiently an organism processed food? Ley's experience turned out to be a perfect fit. “She comes from the perspective of studying things as a system and how they are interrelated,” says Schmidt.

    Gordon put Ley in charge of assessing the microbial makeup of the gut of mice carrying mutations that predisposed them to obesity. Ley and Peter Turnbaugh, a graduate student, sequenced the 16S ribosomal genes—which are often used to distinguish microbial species—from bacteria inhabiting the gut of fat mice and lean siblings lacking the mutation and compared them with what was in the public databases. They discovered that in lean mice, a group called Bacteroidetes predominated, but in their plump peers, the Firmicutes held sway; the obese animals had 50% fewer Bacteroidetes.

    Turnbaugh transplanted microbes from both sets of mice into germ-free lean mice and watched how they grew. The ones that got microbes from obese mice “ate the same amount, had the same initial body weight and body fat, but gained more,” Ley says. Gut microbes were contributing to excess girth, they reported in the 21 December 2006 issue of Nature, making headlines across the globe.

    Once Ley started to get an inkling of the role microbes might play in obesity, she moved into the clinic, where she followed a dozen unrelated obese people on either a low-carbohydrate or a low-fat diet for a year. The exact species makeup varied from person to person, but like the obese mice, the study participants had fewer Bacteroidetes and more Firmicutes than people of regular girth; as they lost weight, the numbers shifted in favor of the Bacteroidetes, Ley and colleagues reported in the same issue of Nature. With these studies, “she has opened very important vistas in human metabolism,” says Blaser. Adds Jo Handelsman of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, the work “revolutionizes our understanding of [obesity]” and “is a model for determining [the] microbial contribution to other diseases and conditions.”

    Ley didn't spend all her time in St. Louis working with mice and people. She became a regular visitor to the local zoo, collecting fecal samples from as many different animals as she could. She also got samples from the San Diego Zoo and from a field biologist who provided material from 29 wild animals, for a total of 106 samples from 60 species, including 17 nonhuman primates. She tried to pick a few with diets at odds with those of the rest of the group—such as leaf-eating colobus monkeys to contrast with their omnivore cousins, or vegetarian pandas as the outliers to fellow carnivores. She isolated and sequenced more than 20,000 16S ribosomal genes and compared those sequences with the known gut microbiota from humans, rats, cattle, and gorillas.

    The flora tended to be species-specific. Pandas from the two zoos had quite similar communities, despite the geographic separation, for example. Diet also seems to have an effect: The herbivore communities tended to be more similar to each other than to communities in carnivores, and the human microbial repertoire fell squarely in line with that of other omnivore primates. “Ruth showed that there are different signatures for different types of diets,” says Bryan White, a microbiologist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. When she built a family tree to see how the microbial communities were related, the branching pattern mirrored the family trees of the animals providing the samples. The flora of brown bears and polar bears were closely related and distantly related to that of their second cousin the dog, for example. “The ancestral bear microbial community of the gut has been passed along, and you can see it,” Ley explains.

    Genes perspective?

    Ley's work has helped drive home the close association between our microbes and ourselves. Studies of the full complement of microbial genes in and on the body—the microbiome—show that although there is quite a bit of variation from person to person, there is a core set of genes that provide essential services. In the gut, for example, those genes help break down food and make it available to the body.

    Widely traveled.

    Ley's studies have led her from tropical Hawaiian volcanoes to Rocky Mountain peaks to the dry valleys of Antarctica (top to bottom) and, ultimately, into the world of gut microbial ecology.


    Gordon thinks that because the microbes have evolved certain genes and functions, the host doesn't have to. But Ley wonders whether the reverse is also true. For example, people with high-starch diets have more copies of amylase genes than people who eat more protein have. These amylases break down starches in the gut, a function that might in certain circumstances be done by the microbes themselves. Thus variation in the numbers of copies of these genes “might have a direct impact on the genes in the microbiome or the [microbial] lineages in the gut,” she suggests.

    Ley plans to first attack these questions using maize stocks of known genotypes and root bacteria associated with them. Such studies should help scientists interpret results from the Human Microbiome Project, a $115 million, 5-year effort funded by the National Institutes of Health that will sequence hundreds of human-associated microbes and conduct surveys of the communities living in various parts of the body. The effort “needs to be more than just a description of parts,” Gordon warns. The microbiome is quite dynamic, with selective forces operating on many levels shaping the diversity and functionality of these gut communities.

    This push means that for microbiome researchers, “all of us are becoming ecologists,” says Blaser. And that's where people like Ley come in, he adds. “It's great that we have a card-carrying ecologist to teach us.”

  15. Environmental Restoration

    Obama Moves to Revitalize Chesapeake Bay Restoration

    1. Erik Stokstad

    With progress stalled for years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is taking the reins on cleaning up the largest estuary in the United States. It's not going to be easy.

    Teeming with crabs and oysters, the Chesapeake Bay was legendary for its biological richness. In the early 17th century, English explorer John Smith described fish so abundant, he tried to catch them in a frying pan. But by the 1960s, those days of plenty were long gone. As sewage and fertilizer ran into the bay, huge algal blooms had erupted from excess nitrogen and phosphorus. Fish and crabs were suffocating in oxygen-poor dead zones.

    For more than 25 years, the federal government and six states in the watershed have repeatedly promised to fix the problem—and repeatedly failed. They have poured billions of dollars into the effort, yet few measures of biological health have improved beyond the halfway mark to success. The challenge is daunting, because stresses on the bay continue to increase; population in the 165,000-square-kilometer watershed has doubled since 1950 to nearly 17 million, meaning more wastewater, concentrated animal farms, and nitrogen-rich air pollution. The costs involved in reducing nutrients are enormous, and a patch-work of local governments makes it difficult to restrict or guide development.

    Now, advocates see some signs of hope. On 12 May, President Barack Obama directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take charge of a new federal effort and to exercise its full authority under the Clean Water Act. The order also calls for better agricultural practices and the development of a strategy to deal with threats from climate change. “We're very happy to have an executive order, for the first time ever,” says William Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, an advocacy group in Annapolis. “It's saying, ‘Let's get on with this right now.’”

    At the same time, the leaders of six states and the District of Columbia announced a plan to institute a series of 2-year deadlines to increase political accountability and clean up the bay by 2025. Some states may have to double their existing efforts to meet that goal. Meanwhile, substantial sums of new money are flowing to restoration efforts, including $891 million from the Recovery and Reinvestment Act for upgrading wastewater treatment plants. EPA is nearing completion of a baywide pollution cap, as well as a clean-air rule for the East Coast that will reduce the amount of nitrogen from power plants. “I'm optimistic that substantial improvements are within reach,” says biological oceanographer Donald Boesch of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science in Cambridge.

    Long road

    The first restoration goals were set in 1987 when a state-federal partnership called the Chesapeake Bay Program agreed to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus entering the bay by 40% by the year 2000. The levels fluctuated but did not fall. The amount of chlorophyll a, which indicates algal blooms, rose, and water clarity worsened. Still, there was progress: More water had adequate dissolved oxygen (see charts).

    The effort required actions by farmers from Virginia to New York because agriculture is the single largest source of nutrients to the bay, providing 43% of the nitrogen. Financial incentives were provided to plant buffer strips along streams to reduce fertilizer and manure runoff, for example. Sewage treatment plants, which contribute 20% of the nitrogen that ends up in the bay, were upgraded. At the same time, more people moved into the area; during the 1990s, there was about a 41% increase in the amount of pavement and other impervious surfaces that send pulses of nutrient- and sediment-rich storm water to the bay. “The fact that [the Bay Program] pretty much held the line in the face of growth and development is not a minor accomplishment,” says Thomas Simpson, a soil scientist who leads Water Stewardship Inc., a nonprofit in Annapolis.

    Running in place.

    Despite many recovery actions, continued development has meant that many indicators of bay health are flat or declining.


    Despite having missed its first goal, in 2000, the Bay Program set another, even more ambitious, target. Officials pledged to reduce nutrients enough by 2010 to restore the bay to its 1950s state of health. They also set a target for reducing excess sediments flowing into the bay, which lower the clarity of the water, which in turn harms the submerged grasses needed by crabs and young fish. Even so, during this decade, many indicators have been on a downward trend. “I don't think anyone is happy with the progress or performance of the Bay Program,” says J. Charles Fox, who is EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson's special assistant on the Chesapeake.

    Poor health.

    This overall index combines the status of aquatic grasses, benthos, and phytoplankton with water quality. It has held roughly stable over the past decade.


    EPA has several options to flex more muscle under its existing authority, which it says it will discuss with the states. The agency could expand its reach over concentrated animal-feeding operations, for example, or give specific conditions for storm-water permits that local governments need for development. “There are plenty of sanctions EPA could apply that would be very attention-getting,” says Baker, such as withdrawing certain funding it provides to states if goals aren't met.

    But EPA has little clout over an even bigger problem: so-called nonpoint-source pollution, such as fertilizer seeping from farm fields into streams. Right now, farmers are encouraged to use “best management practices,” such as planting cover crops that reduce runoff, but few states have requirements, and penalties are minimal. The 2008 Farm Bill provides $188 million over 4 years for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative, the largest amount ever—but not nearly enough, says ecologist Carlton Hershner of the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences in Gloucester Point. The problem is that many of these practices have turned out to be much less effective than they seemed in experimental fields. “We're going to need to do more to get to the same end goal,” says Richard Batiuk, associate director of science for the Bay Program.

    The Bay Program hopes to encourage more action by providing local governments with more information about their impact on the bay. “If you provide numbers for the entire Eastern Shore of Maryland, no one feels accountable,” Batiuk says. But now, improved computer models of the watershed and bay have enough spatial resolution to predict how much nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment come from small watersheds. EPA is exploring possible enforcement actions to include in its baywide pollution cap, which is due by the end of next year. Adding more teeth to regulations is essential, says Boesch: “I don't know of any cases where these kinds of problems have been addressed simply by voluntary actions and payments.”