Random Samples

Science  29 May 2009:
Vol. 324, Issue 5931, pp. 1123
  1. Shockley Dilemma

    CREDIT: AP

    Some citizens in Auburn, California, are riled by plans to name a park after William Shockley. Shockley, who died in 1989, won the Nobel Prize for coinventing the transistor. However, he also proclaimed the intellectual inferiority of black people and favored voluntary sterilization for people with low IQs.

    This has put the board of Auburn's park district in a dilemma. On 28 April, it voted to accept a donation by Shockley's wife—who died in 2007—of an 11-hectare wooded area to be called “Nobel Laureate William B. Shockley and His Wife Emmy L. Shockley Memorial Park.” Environmentalists want the park, but social activists are up in arms. “I don't want to honor a despicable man,” says Karen Tajbl, chair of the social action committee of the Sierra Foothills Unitarian Universalist Church. Tajbl points out that last year in Sacramento, the citizens “cleansed” the name of Charles M. Goethe, a philanthropist but also founder of the Eugenics Society of Northern California, from several public places.

    If the name can't be removed, says district administrator Kahl Muscott, alternate suggestions include adding a sign that reads: “This park is dedicated to people of all races, ethnicities, beliefs, education levels, intelligences, and walks of life who wish to live together in peace & harmony. Dedicated in 2009, the year when Barack Obama, a man of Black African heritage, took office as President of the United States.”

  2. Deconstructing Halitosis

    “Even your best friends won't tell you,” a classic mouthwash ad warned. But OkayToKiss will bluntly let you know if your mouth is foul.

    The new, patent-pending saliva test, developed by microbiologist Mel Rosenberg of Tel Aviv University in Israel and colleagues, turns blue if it senses high quantities of certain enzymes. The research behind the product is reported in the latest Journal of Breath Research. In the past, Gram-negative bacteria have been held solely responsible for dragon breath. But Rosenberg and his team analyzed bacteria in incubated saliva samples and found that Gram-positive bacteria help out by producing enzymes that make it easier for Gram-negative bacteria to break proteins into stinky compounds.

    OkayToKiss is one byproduct of a boom in research on the microbiology of odors, says Rosenberg. At the first-ever symposium on the field, held last week at the meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in Philadelphia, he and about 150 other scientists discussed the tiny lives that underlie flatulence, manure, livestock, and pet odors.

    “You need to know who's living there first in order … to try and inhibit these bacteria, whether in the mouth, in manure, or in the intestinal tract,” says the symposium's co-organizer, Terence Whitehead, a microbiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Peoria, Illinois. Whitehead notes that when he and colleagues recently analyzed the bacteria in swine manure, they found that “probably 90% of them had never been seen before.”

  3. Wings of a Newly Emerged Dragonfly

    CREDIT: JASON SMALLEY/IGPOTY.COM

    This photograph, “Wings of newly emerged dragonfly,” is a finalist in the second annual competition for International Garden Photographer of the Year of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. It's by Lancashire resident Jason Smalley. See more stunning photos at www.igpoty.com.

  4. The Genes Behind the Beard

    CREDIT: H. N. HUTCHINSON, J. W. GREGORY, AND R. LYDEKKER, THE LIVING RACES OF MANKIND (1900)

    Julia Pastrana, history's most famous bearded lady, fascinated audiences in a 19th century traveling circus, for which she danced and sang in clothes that showed off her hairy limbs. Pastrana, a Mexican Indian, suffered from a rare but highly heritable disorder called congenital generalized hypertrichosis terminalis (CGHT). Now, Chinese scientists have begun to unravel the genetic story behind her condition.

    Sometimes called “wolfman syndrome,” the disorder causes excessive dark hair across the body and face as well as enlargement of the head and facial features. There are at least 30 cases in China, estimates geneticist Xue Zhang of Peking Union Medical College in Beijing. In a study reported 21 May in the American Journal of Human Genetics, Zhang found 16 cases in three families and analyzed DNA from them and from 19 unaffected family members. All of the CGHT sufferers had mutations—called copy number variations (CNVs)—in which chunks of DNA were deleted in four genes. In one case, DNA was also duplicated across the same region. No such mutations showed up in unaffected family members.

    Zhang speculates that the CNVs are “chang[ing] the local structure of the chromosome, interfering with the production of genes farther down.” One nearby gene that might be affected has been linked to hair production in mice. Although the mechanism is still unclear, the study marks “a first and important step” toward solving the puzzle of CGHT, says Eli Sprecher, a dermatologist at the Rappaport Institute in Haifa, Israel.

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