News this Week

Science  03 Jul 2009:
Vol. 325, Issue 5936, pp. 16

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  1. Carbon Trading

    House Vote Seen as Big Step Toward Cooling the Greenhouse

    1. Richard A. Kerr

    Its praises have been sung as an energy security bill and a jobs bill. But the American Clean Energy and Security Act passed last Friday by the U.S. House of Representatives is in fact milestone greenhouse legislation.

    At the heart of the bill, cobbled together over several weeks by representatives Henry Waxman (D–CA) and Edward Markey (D–MA), is a so-called cap-and-trade system that assigns permits to pollute to those sectors of the economy that generate the bulk of the country's greenhouse gas emissions. The bill faces serious political challenges: After squeaking through the House on a vote of 219 to 212, with 44 Democrats opposing it and only eight Republicans supporting it, its future in the Senate is uncertain. If it becomes law, however, economists are optimistic that it will achieve significant reductions in carbon emissions.

    “I'd give it a B,” says economist Dallas Burtraw of Resources for the Future in Washington, D.C. “We know how cap-and-trade works. We can count on it to deliver” the promised emission reductions: 17% below 2005 levels in 2020, rising to 83% by 2050. Economists worry about the cost of those reductions in the wake of compromises struck to gain passage in the House. Still, assuming those add-ons are rigorously administered, “cap-and-trade will limit emissions as claimed,” says economist Richard Schmalensee of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge.


    The cap-and-trade provision in the House bill is aimed at reducing emissions from factories and agriculture and includes offsets to buffer the cost of such reductions.


    Tell that to the Europeans. Many opponents of cap-and-trade say that the European Union's experience with its Emissions Trading System, launched in 2005 under the Kyoto Protocol, should be enough to kill the idea in the United States.

    As in all cap-and-trade systems, the E.U. issued a set number of permits, or allowances, that let big polluters emit a specified amount of carbon dioxide per allowance. That's the cap, which would decrease over time. Over the first 3 years, companies that had paid to reduce their own emissions sold their spare allowances to companies emitting more than their initial allowances.

    That market trading set a price on carbon emissions. Coal consumers, for example, could choose to switch to natural gas—which yields less CO2 per unit of energy—or to remove CO2 from their stacks and bury it. “May the cheapest option win,” as Burtraw puts it.

    However, the first 3 years of the E.U.'s trading did not go smoothly. “If you look at the performance of the market, it was a fiasco,” says Burtraw. But he and others blame flaws in the E.U.'s trading system rather than the cap-and-trade concept itself. “It proved that stupid design features will get you stupid results,” says Schmalensee.

    One of the E.U.'s missteps, say economists, was to issue more allowances than actual emissions. It also gave away most allowances rather than selling them at auction, and it did not let polluters carry over allowances from the initial 3-year trading period to the next 5-year period. As a result, some companies made “windfall profits” off their allowances, and the market price of carbon swung wildly before ending up at zero at the end of 2007. Participating countries hope to meet their promised Kyoto emission reductions by 2012.

    Despite those start-up problems, “I judge it as a success,” says economist A. Denny Ellerman of MIT, who has analyzed the European experience with colleagues. Cap-and-trade neither destroyed the economy, as some had feared, he notes, nor did it drastically reduce emissions, as some had hoped. But it did manage to set a price on carbon, he says, which in the end reduced emissions by the small amount intended.

    Supporters of the House bill say they have learned some do's and don'ts of cap-and-trade from what happened in Europe. The House version lets emitters carry allowances over long periods, for example. And the number of U.S. allowances issued should be close to what is needed, says Ellerman.

    The most debated aspect of the Waxman-Markey bill has been its provision for auctioning only 20% of allowances, a share that grows to 70% by 2030. The rest are distributed free. Some Republican opponents see that as a massive corporate giveaway. But economists disagree. “Does the economics literature support auctioning 100% of allowances?” asks emeritus professor Thomas Tietenberg of Colby College in Waterville, Maine. “Yes. Does it destroy the system if allowances are given away? No. Does it make it a bit more expensive and less efficient? Yes.”

    Economist Robert Stavins of Harvard University sees the Waxman-Markey distribution of allowances as even more benign. The political wheeling and dealing that led to the allocation of free allowances to particular public activities built support for the legislation, Stavins says, without increasing costs or emissions.

    For example, he calculates that whereas 20% of the value of allocations in Waxman-Markey would go to private industry, 80% would end up benefiting consumers or society in general. The list includes a variety of public endeavors, from job training and cost protection for lower-income households to encouraging the preservation of overseas forests. The last, he notes, would lead to an overall reduction of CO2 emissions.

    Perhaps of greatest concern to economists and many environmentalists is the bill's use of so-called offsets to reduce the cost of cutting emissions. The concept of offsets—a polluter's payment to have someone else reduce emissions—is uncontroversial. A power plant operator might find it cheaper to pay another party who does not fall under cap-and-trade—say, a lumberer—to cut emissions by not clearing a forest. “It can be a win-win in terms of reducing costs,” says Nigel Purvis, president of Climate Advisers in Washington, D.C., and a former U.S. climate negotiator, who calls this offset approach “exactly right.”

    But offsets also entail risks, say Purvis and others, notably how to verify that a claimed emission would otherwise really have happened without the intervention. “We really don't know what the rules will be” governing the validation of offsets, notes Burtraw, “and therefore how rigorous the administration of offsets will be.” Doubts were heightened just days before passage when Waxman, at the insistence of Representative Collin Peterson (D–MN) and other farm-state advocates, agreed to shift responsibility for overseeing domestic offsets from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Department of Agriculture.

    “You have to worry about that,” says climate policy specialist Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton University. The agriculture department doesn't have EPA's monitoring experience, he notes, and it has a history of protecting the interests of farmers. Offsets are “the one place the bill could go south,” Oppenheimer cautions.

    Although the Obama Administration campaigned hard for passage of Waxman-Markey, it's been careful not to dictate the terms. That's just as well. Most observers expect the Senate to put its own stamp on the cap-and-trade provisions. Supporters can only hope that senators heed the words of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D–CA) when she urged her colleagues “not only to pass the bill but [to make sure] it does the job that it sets out to do.”

  2. Pandemic Influenza

    Ferrets Shed Light on New Virus's Severity and Spread

    1. Martin Enserink

    When scientists want to know how a new flu strain behaves, one of the first things they do is squirt it up the noses of ferrets. The small carnivores' responses often closely resemble those of humans, assuring them the unenviable status of flu virologists' favorite model animal.

    Now, two groups have infected ferrets with the new pandemic A(H1N1) influenza strain, and their papers, published online by Science this week, confirm what doctors around the world appear to be seeing: The new virus is a bit more pathogenic than seasonal influenza but nowhere near as dangerous as the 1918 pandemic virus or H5N1 avian influenza. The studies disagree, however, on how easily the virus spreads: One team concludes that it does so very well, but the other believes that it's only moderately adept at jumping from one animal to the next, or, for that matter, between humans.

    For the studies, Terrence Tumpey of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, inoculated 18 ferrets, six each with H1N1 viruses isolated from patients in California, Texas, and Mexico ( A team led by Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, infected six ferrets with a virus isolated from the first Dutch patient ( Both used a seasonal H1N1 strain as a control and both found that the pandemic virus caused more severe disease.

    Fouchier found that the pandemic virus descends deeper into the lungs, infecting not just the nasal cavity but also the trachea and the bronchi. Tumpey's team also found it in the intestinal tract, which is interesting, says swine flu expert Christopher Olsen of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, because vomiting and gastrointestinal disease are common in pandemic flu victims.

    By putting infected and healthy ferrets in cages next to one another, the teams discovered that the virus can be transmitted through the air, but whereas Fouchier's team found that the new virus spreads as well as the seasonal strain, Tumpey found that it's a less efficient transmitter: For all three of the pandemic strains tested, only two out of three animals in adjoining cages became infected.

    Going deeper.

    Both seasonal and pandemic H1H1 infect ferrets' nasal cavities (top), but only the pandemic virus penetrates into the lungs (bottom right).


    “I wouldn't make too much of that difference,” says flu expert Peter Palese of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, who believes that the numbers are too small to be significant. Fouchier adds that data from other researchers, presented at a meeting in Minneapolis, Minnesota, last week, also suggest that the new virus is highly transmissible. But Tumpey believes that it's genuinely handicapped compared with seasonal flu. “We have a lot of experience with this model,” he says. His team's findings jibe with unpublished epidemiological data from CDC suggesting that only 10% of patients' household contacts become infected, Tumpey adds, which is low for a pandemic virus.

    Both teams agree on one thing: The ferret is a good model to test vaccines or drugs against the new strain, and, as the pandemic unfolds, to test viral mutants suspected of higher virulence or easier transmission. “The whole world is coughing up new sequences and making them public in real time,” Fouchier says. “When we see something that's unusual, we can put it into ferrets immediately.”

  3. SBIR Program

    Researchers Fight Against Bigger Slice to Small Business

    1. Jeffrey Mervis

    A coalition of U.S. scientific societies and university organizations is urging Congress not to expand a $2.3 billion research program for small businesses. To succeed, however, the coalition must overcome one of the most influential interest groups in Washington, D.C., and mend fences with legislators still smarting from a recent tweak to the program.

    The campaign involves changes to the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. Begun in 1983 and funded by taxing the research budgets of 11 federal agencies, the SBIR set-aside is meant to help a sector that many people agree will be key in pulling the country out of its economic doldrums.

    Last month, the Senate small business panel passed a bill (S.1233) that would increase the set-aside by 40%, from 2.5% to 3.5%, over 11 years. Under the same legislation, a smaller, younger effort to aid university start-ups, the Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program, would grow from 0.3% to 0.6%. “This is an important program that is working, and we believe that an increase is essential,” says Senator Mary Landrieu (D–LA), chair of the Senate panel and one of SBIR's biggest fans. Last year, the panel approved a doubling of the SBIR set-aside over 5 years, but the bill died.

    Nothing ventured.

    The number of SBIR applications dropped sharply following new rules on participation by venture capital firms, but the connection is not clear.


    Science lobbyists, however, argue that even the smaller, more gradual rise in play this year would take too big a bite out of the government's overall research budget. They are especially concerned about its impact on the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which runs the second-largest SBIR program after the Department of Defense. NIH has seen a sharp drop in the number of SBIR applications (see graph), and its officials are worried that expanding the program could force it to fund low-quality projects.

    The science community much prefers a proposal (H.R.2965) to maintain the current set-aside, passed separately last week by the science and small business committees in the House of Representatives. So does the president's science adviser, John Holdren, who on 2 June wrote Landrieu to say that “the current budget set-asides provide a sufficient floor for agencies to invest in innovation from small businesses.”

    The lobbying to contain the program is led by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), reflecting a heightened concern among life scientists that expanding the SBIR program will reduce federal funding for academic biomedical research. “Rather than increasing support for one area at the expense of all others, we urge you to increase funding for all research agencies,” says Richard Marchase, president of FASEB. On 23 June, the coalition sent letters to Landrieu and Senator Olympia Snowe (R–ME), the committee's ranking member, urging them to scrap the increase.

    But FASEB faces an uphill battle. The small business sector lost out when Congress added a last-minute provision to the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA)—known familiarly as the stimulus package—that excluded NIH's SBIR program from its share of the additional $8.2 billion that the agency will receive. That move could come back to haunt the research community.

    None of the key committees was consulted about the provision, says Representative David Wu (D–OR), chair of the technology panel for the House science committee and a co-sponsor of the House bill. “I feel strongly that ARRA funds should have been part of the set-aside,” he says. “Exempting them sets a bad precedent and is not a positive thing.” Adds a Senate aide, “We think small business should get its fair share, and, frankly, this seemed like dirty pool.”

    The exclusion has become a political hot potato. Wu says that “no one has claimed credit, but NIH has confessed to asking for it.” At a 23 April hearing on the program, Wu asked an NIH official about the apparent contradiction between the exclusion and a letter from acting NIH Director Raynard Kington to Landrieu and Snowe that Wu said “commits” NIH to preserving the set-aside in all appropriations. Sally Rockey, head of NIH's Office of Extramural Programs, acknowledged that NIH was concerned about a dearth of “scientifically meritorious projects” if the SBIR set-aside was applied to the stimulus funds. But in response to a follow-up question from Wu, Rockey wrote the committee that “I have no specific details of how this exemption was put into ARRA.”

    Science asked Kington to clarify his position. In response, an NIH spokesperson noted that NIH is not required to devote stimulus funds to the SBIR program but that “small businesses are able to, already have, and will receive NIH ARRA funds … through various [other] funding opportunity announcements” that are not reserved for small businesses. “NIH remains committed to the SBIR and STTR programs,” the spokesperson added.

    While science lobbyists are focused on the size of the set-aside, other groups are embroiled in a battle over a provision that affects venture capital firms. The Senate and House bills differ in how best to modify a restriction, in place since 2002, on the eligibility of companies in which venture capitalists hold a controlling interest (see, 22 June). In addition, although both bodies want to boost the size of the awards, now $750,000 for Phase II, the House would go up to $2 million, which is twice the Senate level. The House bill would continue the program for two more years, whereas the Senate bill would let it run until 2023.

    The clock is ticking on a compromise. The program expires on 31 July, and although all sides say they want to finish work by then, it's more likely that a short-term extension will be needed so legislators can keep plugging away.

  4. Budget Cuts

    Proposal to Slash Salaries Riles California Researchers

    1. Greg Miller

    Proposed salary cuts and/or furloughs for all faculty and staff members are causing consternation at the University of California (UC), one of the nation's largest public universities, with approximately 170,000 employees. The proposed cuts, outlined in a letter to all employees by UC President Mark Yudof on 17 June, would help reduce a projected $800 million shortfall in state funding for UC over the next 2 years, a result of the state's economic meltdown. “The University has never faced a funding deficit of this magnitude, and responding to it will require sacrifice from every member of the University community,” Yudof wrote.

    Nobody likes a pay cut, but many science faculty and staff members are particularly peeved because their salaries are at least partly paid by grants from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and other agencies. Cutting pay from these nonstate sources won't save UC any money, they argue, and could make matters worse.

    Yudof's letter outlines three proposals that combine salary cuts and furloughs to different extents. All amount to a roughly 8% reduction in pay (4% for those making less than $46,000 a year) for 1 year and would save UC roughly $195 million. Graduate student stipends would not be cut. The reductions would apply to all employees, regardless of where their salaries come from. “That's the approach he thinks is the fairest and makes the most sense,” says Paul Schwartz, a spokesperson for the UC office of the president.

    Bearer of bad news.

    UC President Mark Yudof has proposed pay cuts to help address the university's budget woes.


    But equity is in the eye of the beholder. “The fairness argument just doesn't hold water with people,” says Daniel Donoghue, a biochemist and chair of the academic senate at UC San Diego (UCSD). At UCSD, for example, only 25% of salary expenditures come from state funds; the rest come from federal grants, medical center income, and other sources, says Donoghue, citing UC's 2007–08 financial report. He and others question why people paid with nonstate funds should have to suffer, especially when it won't help UC's bottom line. “If I'm bringing in this research money from Washington … and I lose my grant, the rest of the university doesn't have to feel my pain, and I wouldn't expect them to,” says Andrea Bertozzi, director of applied mathematics at UC Los Angeles (UCLA).

    Across-the-board pay cuts may even deprive UC of income. “There's a net loss of income to the UC system that accompanies cutting [the salaries of] people who are not state-funded,” says Quentin Williams, a professor of earth sciences and chair of the academic senate at UC Santa Cruz. That's because the amount of money a university can charge grant-giving agencies for the indirect costs of research, such as building maintenance and utilities, is a fixed percentage of the direct costs of a grantee's research, including salaries and equipment purchases.

    If the university decides to dock salaries derived from outside grants—many of which have already been awarded—it's not clear what would happen with the leftover money. Many grants allow for enough flexibility in budgeting that the money could probably still be used to purchase equipment or to cover other expenses.

    UC scientists also worry about recruiting and retention. Despite having many distinguished departments, UC faculty members already earn 20% to 25% less on average than faculty at top private schools like Harvard and Stanford universities, according to the university's annual accountability report. “It presents an opportunity for private universities to raid the University of California,” says UCLA neuroscientist Arthur Toga.

    Yudof is taking these concerns into consideration, says Schwartz. But time is short. The UC Regents begin meeting in San Francisco on 14 July, and Yudof is expected to winnow down his three original proposals to one—including any modifications based on feedback from the faculty and staff—after the long 4 July weekend.


    From Science's Online Daily News Site

    Brain Recordings Take Flight Homing pigeons use landmarks to guide them safely home. But how do the birds track these familiar sites hundreds of meters below as they zip by at 65 km/h? Scientists are trying to answer that question with a new device that lets them record brain activity while pigeons fly.


    Icy Enceladus Getting Wetter The hottest topic in the frigid outer solar system is the water of Saturn's moon Enceladus. Is it all lifeless, deep-chilled ice, or is some of it liquid and thus capable of sustaining life? Two sets of observations reported in Nature—one made by touching ice spewing from the moon and the other made from Earth—again suggest that there could be liquid water beneath the surface of 500-km-diameter Enceladus. Even so, it's not gushing like a geyser directly from a deep ocean.

    Evolution Heats Up in the Tropics Time for a pop quiz. Which mammal evolves more rapidly? Is it the ringtail, a raccoonlike animal common in the southwestern United States, or the closely related cacomistle, which lives in tropical forests in southern Mexico and Central America? A surprising new study indicates that lower elevations and lower latitudes seem to speed up microevolution in mammals, giving the nod to the cacomistle.

    Stone-Age Europeans Led Rich Life Archaeologists have discovered what may be the oldest musical instruments ever found. They are bird-bone and ivory flutes that appear to be at least 35,000 years old. The flutes' design and studies of other artifacts from the site suggest that music was an integral part of human life far earlier than first thought.

    Read the full postings, comments, and more on

  6. NSF Antarctic Logistics

    A Hot Competition for a Cold Contract

    1. Jeffrey Mervis

    The five billboards lining the tracks inside the Ballston Metro station outside Washington, D.C., aren't selling anything that the 25,000 daily commuters could ever buy. But that's okay with the company that purchased the advertisements. Their message—“The toughest team for the toughest environment”—is aimed at the National Science Foundation, the federal agency located directly above the station.

    This fall, the National Science Foundation (NSF) will award a contract worth nearly $2 billion to provide logistical support for its $300-million-a-year Antarctic research program. And officials from Antarctic Research Support (ARS), a joint venture formed 4 months ago by two large systems-engineering companies for the express purpose of winning that contract, hope that the billboards demonstrate that they can be good stewards of science on the frozen continent.

    ARS is one of a half-dozen companies bidding for the 12-year contract, the biggest award made by the $6.5-billion-a-year federal agency. Such competitions are typically very low-key, partly because the work isn't sexy and partly because the rules governing such competitions don't allow for much boasting. But ARS's high-profile approach—it's also running ads in Metro cars and on this magazine's Web site—is part of a broader strategy to raise the visibility of its parent companies, CSC and EG&G, and tout the scientific expertise of its team, led by two scientists who held major science posts in the last Administration. And ARS isn't the only bidder trying to grab the public spotlight. Lockheed Martin has also taken out a billboard at the Ballston station, although its message is even more cryptic: “Between supporting science everywhere and anywhere, there is one important word: How.”

    “When I tell people what I'm doing, they ask me if Antarctica is an ocean or a continent,” says retired Vice Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher, the former head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who's leading the ARS team. “So I think people need to learn more about what's going on there. In addition, CSC is a $17 billion company, but it doesn't have a signature product. So the idea [behind the advertisements] is to gain some recognition of the fact that we have the necessary skills and should be given the chance to perform them.”

    Frozen treat.

    Several bidders for the logistics contract have also decided to tout the science being done in Antarctica.


    Kenneth Asbury, president of the civil division within the integrated systems and solutions program at Lockheed Martin, says that the aerospace giant was attracted by NSF's desire “to extract the most science possible from the facilities down there. It requires getting the right thing to the right place at the right time in what's probably the most hostile environment imaginable.” Asbury said the billboard is meant to publicize “the extent of the government's commitment to Antarctica.” A third bidder, Houston, Texas–based KBR, has also taken out a Metro ad promoting polar science. Its spokesperson, Heather Browne, says the company, if it wins the contract, hopes to make changes in the program that would “significantly increase the efficiency of science support.”

    Some companies in the hunt, including the incumbent, Raytheon Polar Services Co., were reticent to discuss their bids. “We have a policy not to discuss open procurements,” explains Jennifer Thompson, a communications manager for the Antarctic team at CH2MHill, a Fortune 500 company based in Englewood, Colorado, citing the need to adhere to government rules. “But I can say that I've gotten more questions about it from folks in the halls than on any other project. It's an exciting opportunity.”

    NSF is expected to choose a winner this fall. The contract would begin in April 2010 and, with extensions, could run until 2023.

  7. 2010 Budget

    House Panel Cuts DOE Education Program

    1. Jeffrey Mervis

    A House spending panel has rejected a comprehensive $115 million science education initiative from the Department of Energy (DOE) to train a new cadre of scientists pursuing basic and applied research on clean energy.

    President Barack Obama unveiled the effort, dubbed RE-ENERGYSE, in a 27 April speech to the National Academy of Sciences, and it is part of the department's 2010 budget request now before Congress. The program spans the education spectrum, from elementary and high schools through postdoctoral study, and includes technical training at community colleges as well as public outreach. DOE officials say that they are still working out the details and hope to involve the National Science Foundation and other federal agencies.

    But legislators feel that the idea is still half-baked. “Everybody is for more science and math education. And a lot of other agencies are already very active,” says Representative Ed Pastor (D–AZ), acting chair of the energy and water appropriations subcommittee, speaking last week after the panel marked up DOE's overall budget request. “We don't want to curb their enthusiasm. But we want to make sure that DOE integrates its plans with other, ongoing programs within the department and across the rest of the government.” Pastor said the subcommittee has included $7 million for RE-ENERGYSE (REgaining our ENERGY Science and Engineering Edge) in the bill as a way to “get things moving.”

    The panel provided DOE's Office of Science with its full request of $4.9 billion as part of a $26.9 billion budget that includes the department's responsibilities for nuclear weapons and environmental cleanup. The panel cut the entire $1.5 billion request for a loan-guarantee program to support innovative energy technologies, noting that the program has sufficient money from this year's stimulus package to operate for 2 years. The bill now goes to the full committee before heading to the House floor later this month.

  8. Pharmaceuticals

    Betting on Biotech to Transform Guangdong, China's Export Hub

    1. Richard Stone

    GUANGZHOU, CHINA—The timing could not have been worse, or so it seemed: Last November, as the global financial crisis was deepening, Yan Guangmei opened a $100 million drug R&D center here in the capital of Guangdong, the southern province that churns out the lion's share of goods bearing the “Made in China” label. Since then, tens of thousands of Guangdong companies have gone bankrupt. But Yan, a neuropharmacologist and vice president of Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, is still smiling. He has already hired 50 staff members, half from overseas, for his Southern China Center for Innovative Pharmaceuticals (SCCIP). The center will team up with companies to move drug candidates into clinical trials and will conduct its own exploratory research.

    Yan has good reason to be upbeat. Local officials are betting that biotech will help wean the province off its heavy dependence on cheap exports. “Companies that don't have core technology are the ones who are now suffering,” says Li Xinghua, director general of the Guangdong Science and Technology Department. Last year, he says, Guangdong spent more than $1 billion, mostly on infrastructure, to induce high-tech companies to set up shop in the province; the pace of such spending has increased by 5% or so this year.

    Officials acknowledge that Guangdong is slow off the blocks. Shanghai is the undisputed center of gravity for biopharma in China, and ambitious high-tech parks have taken root in Suzhou, Tianjin, and elsewhere. “Guangdong has shown that it is great at doing business,” says Larry Zhang, a medicinal chemist at the Guangzhou Institutes of Biomedicine and Health. “But in science, we have a lot of catching up to do.”

    Among the new initiatives, Guangdong is developing a “Biotech Island” off Guangzhou and is about to launch a program to reel in at least 100 overseas scientists to commercial labs, universities, and state research institutes. Benefits will include free housing and $1.3 million lab start-up packages. “We see the financial crisis as an unprecedented opportunity to attract top scientists,” Guangdong's vice governor, Wan Qingliang, told Science. Such an infusion of talent is “desperately needed,” says Zhai Yifan, president of the Chinese Biopharmaceutical Association, which brokered connections between U.S.-based Chinese scientists and Guangdong enterprises at its annual meeting in Guangzhou last week. “It is urgent for Guangdong to move away from its labor-based economy,” says Zhai.

    According to Yan, a recent returnee, Guangdong offers advantages over other regions. Drug R&D costs are a fraction of those in the West, says Yan, who says SCCIP will team up with a private primate center in nearby Zhaoqing and will create its own dog facility for preclinical testing. And for scientists seeking a Western lifestyle, Hong Kong is a 1-hour commute.

    Come hither.

    Guangdong vice governor Wang Qingliang hopes SSCIP (inset) and other investments will lure scientific talent to his province.


    Guangdong officials have bought into that vision. The province has plunked down half of SCCIP's start-up funds, with the other half coming from Guangzhou municipality, a special economic zone, the central government, and Chinese pharmaceutical companies. In about 5 years, SCCIP will relocate from temporary digs to Biotech Island. Guangzhou has already resettled thousands of people from the 1.8-square-kilometer island in the Pearl River, near Sun Yat-sen University, to convert the island into an R&D center.

    As high-tech moves in, low-cost production will shift to “the hinterlands”—China's western and central provinces—predicts Ivan Tselichtchev, an expert on Asian economies at the Japan Center for Economic Research in Tokyo. “Yes, many companies collapsed,” he says. “But the economy is still growing. It's an amazing phenomenon.”

  9. ScienceInsider

    From the Science Policy Blog

    Congress picked up the pace last week in meeting its obligation to pass annual spending bills. Senate appropriators approved a 5% boost in 2010 for both NASA and NOAA as part of a bill that's more generous than what the U.S. House of Representatives has adopted.

    The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is urging cities and states to start planning a massive vaccination campaign against swine flu. Citing modeling, CDC estimated last week that more than 1 million people in the United States are already infected.

    When French President Nicolas Sarkozy reshuffled his Cabinet, the new deck did not include geochemist Claude Allègre, a global warming skeptic and former science minister. Rumor had it that Allègre, 72, might head a new superministry of innovation and international trade.

    Also in flux is the $3 billion California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Marie Csete, the operation's chief scientific officer, resigned without explanation after a little more than a year on the job. Board Chair Robert Klein recently announced that he plans to leave next year.

    Four members of Congress have asked the U.S. National Academies for advice on keeping U.S. academic research strong. The letter asks for a thorough review of current federal policies affecting higher education, including an assessment of “the relationship, or lack of relationship,” between universities and national laboratories.

    A study last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences makes a case for the impact of federal funding of biomedical research. The analysis correlates declining U.S. death rates over the past half-century with funding for the National Institutes of Health. The authors argue that more money is needed so the longer-lived elderly can help meet demand for U.S. workers.

    You can keep up with the latest news at

  10. China

    Archaeologists Seek New Clues to the Riddle of Emperor Qin's Terra-Cotta Army

    1. Richard Stone

    XI'AN, CHINA—In life, he subdued China's warring states and became the country's first emperor. In death, he brought an army to heaven to perpetuate his rule. Since the stunning discovery of Emperor Qin Shihuang's tombs 35 years ago, archaeologists have unearthed about 1300 life-size terra-cotta soldiers and horses and a wealth of other artifacts that illuminate the brief but world-changing Qin Dynasty 2200 years ago. Last month at the renowned site, archaeologists began the latest round of excavation in a pit untouched for 2 decades. They hope to penetrate lingering puzzles about the Qin Dynasty, and they will test a new method of preserving the terra-cotta warriors' exquisitely perishable hues.

    Perhaps the biggest mystery is why Qin led an army into the afterlife. “We've never found anything like it in the tombs of earlier kings,” says the excavation's executive director, archaeologist Xu Weihong of the Museum of the Terracotta Warriors and Horses of Emperor Qin Shihuang here. There are several theories, including a popular one that Qin believed his army would awaken and empower him in the spirit world. Supporting that idea, archaeologists have uncovered only real weapons—no facsimiles—interred with the soldiers. But the evidence is not decisive. “The larger question of the significance and purpose of burying life-size replicas of Qin soldiers remains, in my opinion, largely unanswered,” says Jeffrey Riegel, an East Asia scholar at the University of Sydney in Australia.

    Searching for answers.

    Xu Weihong hopes to unearth artifacts more illuminating than yet more soldiers.


    Contemporary accounts paint a broad-brush view of Qin Shihuang's life. Born in 259 B.C.E., the future emperor, Ying Zheng, ascended to the throne of Qin State when he was 13. Nine years later a regent ceded him power, and the young monarch was soon tested by internal revolt.Ying pacified Qin and then proceeded to conquer China's other six states. He proclaimed himself emperor and took the name Qin Shihuang in 221 B.C.E.

    After unifying China, Qin Shihuang set out to modernize it. Annals recount how he abolished the feudal system, built roads to China's far corners, and standardized weights, measures, and handwriting. During his reign, hundreds of thousands of laborers erected much of the Great Wall and scores of palaces. Legend has it that in his 40s, the emperor grew obsessed with death and searched for an elixir of immortality. But he failed to even attain old age: Qin died when he was 50. In the power vacuum that followed, rival armies vied for control of the empire. The victor was Liu Bang, founder of the Han Dynasty.

    Soon after Qin took power, he began preparing for the afterlife. Construction of his mausoleum at Mount Li, 35 kilometers east of Xi'an, took 38 years. The mausoleum, once crowned with pavilions, was never a secret, and even today it is visible as a kilometer-long wooded mound that rises a gentle 75 meters above the surrounding land.

    Nearby, one of archaeology's greatest surprises lay hidden for centuries. In March 1974, farmers digging a well discovered pottery fragments about 1.5 kilometers east of the mausoleum. Excavations revealed the smashed-up remains of Qin's terra-cotta army—8000 clay soldiers and horses, researchers estimate—arrayed in three vast pits.

    Over the centuries, fire and floods bled many warriors of their original colors. Past excavations unearthed some figures with intact paint, but within minutes after exposure to air, the paint would peel off and reveal the dull-gray fired clay.The loss was more than aesthetic. For example, one warrior's face was different from the rest: Instead of the usual cream-colored pigments, it was painted a garish green. “We think he was a kind of wizard meant to terrify the enemy,” says Rong Bo, an analytical chemist and conservation scientist at the museum. Because such tantalizing clues flaked off before their eyes, archaeologists sharply limited further excavations.

    Everlasting army.

    Pieced-together terra-cotta warriors on display at Pit 1.


    In the meantime, Rong and others set out to crack the riddle of the brittle pigments. Working with experts from the Bavarian State Conservation Office in Germany, the museum researchers determined that Qin artisans ground up semiprecious stones, such as azurite and malachite, for the pigments. The much-admired “Han purple,” they found, is a mixture of barium copper silicate and a dash of cinnabar. Pigments were applied after fired figures were glazed with two layers of qi lacquer. The collaborators also figured out why the warriors have a bad case of peeling: Xi'an's bone-dry air shrinks the lacquer.

    Hoping to prevent shrinkage, scientists tried every off-the-shelf adhesive they could lay their hands on. Nothing worked. “It was so frustrating,” says Rong. Finally, they hit upon two solutions. One employs polyethylene glycol (PEG), used in everything from laxatives to skin creams. Short-chain PEGs penetrate the lacquer's tiny pores, replacing water that would have evaporated out, and a polymethacrylate dispersion helps keep the lacquer adhered to the clay. In a second technique, a compound called Plex 6801-3, a sealant for sewage pipes containing 2-hydroxy ethyl methacrylate, works its way into the lacquer and is hardened by electron beam irradiation. But preventing the terra-cotta warriors'colors from fading remains a major challenge, independent experts say.

    After reviewing the new methodology, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage certified the museum to resume excavations. The museum is going it alone, having ditched its earlier partner, the Shaanxi Institute of Archaeology. (A Qin expert formerly with the institute declined to speak with Science.) The new dig at the UNESCO World Heritage site is attracting intense scrutiny from authorities and the public. “We feel a heavy responsibility on our shoulders,” says Xu.

    Work is now under way at Pit 1, the biggest of the three and until last month undisturbed (apart from hosting millions of tourists) since 1986. By the end of the year, 200 square meters will be excavated; the plan is to complete 2000 square meters in 5 years. Workers frequently sprinkle water on the soil to protect relics. Xu's aim is not to raise the tally of disinterred warriors but to find artifacts that could help researchers understand Qin funerary practices. “Digging up more soldiers is not in the least bit interesting,” she insists. “They really provide little information about that time.”

    Soon after the Qin Dynasty fell, annals say, the king of Chu State raided the tombs and torched their wooden rafters. His forces also razed the palaces and pavilions around the mausoleum but evidently failed to penetrate the mausoleum's inner sanctums. Annals tell of treasures there that would make King Tutankhamen look like a pauper, including a ceiling studded with jewels representing celestial bodies and flowing “rivers of mercury” representing China's great rivers. Archaeologists have peered inside with equipment such as ground-penetrating radar and have measured intriguingly high mercury levels in the soil. But the heritage administration forbids any digging at the mausoleum, and Xu insists she's not curious. “Not in 100 years will it be opened,” she says. Rong, looking on, smiles. “I'm curious,” he says. “But we have to leave something for future generations.”

  11. Paleoanthropology

    Still Seeking Peking Man

    1. Richard Stone

    ZHOUKOUDIAN, CHINA—On a sweltering late June day, Zhang Xiaoling hunches under a makeshift canvas roof over one of Asia's most famous Stone Age sites. It's roasting in the shelter, but Zhang, a stone-tools specialist at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) in Beijing who just earned her Ph.D., is grinning from ear to ear. “I think we'll find something soon,” she says. “I'm so excited.”

    Perilous perch.

    The excavation will take place at the edge of an unstable 40-meter-high cliff.


    Last week, work commenced on a new excavation here in the cave-riddled hills of Zhoukoudian, 50 kilometers southwest of Beijing, where early last century scientists discovered Peking Man: a trove of Homo erectus fossils as well as rudimentary tools and the bones of woolly rhinos and other Ice Age fauna. The new dig aims to both stabilize the iconic site and unearth evidence that could influence simmering debates, such as whether Peking Man was a hunter or a scavenger and whether the hominin tamed fire. “I strongly support new excavations,” says paleoanthropologist Russell L. Ciochon of the University of Iowa in Iowa City. “For too many years, Zhoukoudian has been treated more as a shrine rather than a valuable paleoanthropological site.”

    Peking Man (now called Beijing Man in Chinese) has a storied history. European scientists discovered a few ancient teeth here at Dragon Bone Hill in the 1920s before archaeologist Pei Wenzhong made a stunning find in 1929: a nearly complete skull. Up until the Japanese invasion in 1937, Pei and others unearthed some 200 bones, including five more partial skulls—all of which vanished during World War II—and thousands of pieces of worked stone. In a paper last March in Nature, IVPP Vice-Director Gao Xing and colleagues used the ratio of aluminum-26 and beryllium-10 in quartz crystals to date the Peking Man strata to 680,000 to 780,000 years old, about 200,000 years older than previously thought.

    The new excavation is in a 20-square-meter meter section of the western end of Site 1, where remains of some 40 H. erectus individuals have been unearthed. One objective is to stabilize the site, perched on the edge of a cliff and at risk of collapse, says Gao, the project leader. The first 2 months will be spent removing a hazardous outcropping. Team members will be roped like mountain climbers. “It's very dangerous to work here,” Gao says.

    Gao is downplaying expectations of what he describes as a salvage archaeology operation. The biggest prize, he says, would be a skull: It would be “sheer luck” to find one, he says. Only casts remain of the missing skulls. Gao says he would be happy with a jawbone, which could clarify evolutionary relationships with other hominin subspecies, or finger bones, which could shed light on Peking Man's dexterity for fashioning tools. Researchers also hope to examine stone tools in situ. A better understanding of the timeline of hominin occupation “may be more important than the discovery of isolated fossils,” Gao says.

    Under no illusions.

    Finding a skull would be sheer luck, says Gao Xing.


    Excavations will continue through October. Outside the glare of that spotlight, Gao and others are planning field surveys and excavations at localities across China under a 5-year, $2 million project funded by the science ministry. Gao is eyeing one site in particular: a cave in Jianshi in central China's Hubei Province, dating to more 1 million years ago. “It has great potential” to yield H. erectus fossils, he says. Of course, they would have to be especially dazzling to nudge Zhoukoudian and Peking Man off center stage.

  12. Origins

    On the Origin of The Nervous System

    1. Greg Miller

    What did the first neurons and nervous systems look like, and what advantages did they confer on the animals that possessed them? In the seventh essay in Science's series in honor of the Year of Darwin, Greg Miller discusses some tantalizing clues that scientists have recently gained about the evolutionary origins of nervous systems.

    The nervous systems of modern animals are amazingly diverse. A few hundred nerve cells are all a lowly nematode needs to find food and a mate. With about 100,000 neurons, a fruit fly can perform aerial acrobatics, dance to woo a mate, and throw kicks and punches to repel a rival. The sperm whale's 8-kilogram brain, the largest on the planet, is the navigation system for cross-ocean travel and 1000-meter dives and enables these highly social creatures to communicate. The human brain—one-sixth that size—is the wellspring of art, literature, and scientific inquiry.


    But how did they all get started? What did the first neurons and nervous systems look like, and what advantages did they confer on the animals that possessed them? These were questions the father of evolution, Charles Darwin, was ill-equipped to address. Although comparative neuroanatomy dates back to ancient Greece, the tools of the trade had not been refined much by the mid-19th century. In Darwin's day, anatomists were limited to gross observations of brains; they knew relatively little about the workings of nerves themselves. Only around the time Darwin died in 1882 were scientists beginning to develop stains to label individual cells for more detailed postmortem neuroanatomical studies. Methods for investigating the electrical properties of individual neurons in living brain tissue were still decades away, to say nothing of techniques for investigating genes and genomes.

    Using such modern tools, scientists have recently begun to gain some tantalizing clues about the evolutionary origins of nervous systems. They've found that some of the key molecular building blocks of neurons predate even the first multicellular organisms. By looking down the tree of life, they are concluding that assembling these components into a cell a modern neuroscientist would recognize as a neuron probably happened very early in animal evolution, more than 600 million years ago. Most scientists agree that circuits of interconnected neurons probably arose soon thereafter, first as diffuse webs and later as a centralized brain and nerves.

    But the resolution of this picture is fuzzy. The order in which early branches split off the animal tree of life is controversial, and different arrangements imply different story lines for the origins and early evolution of nervous systems. The phylogeny is “a bit of a rat's nest right now,” says Sally Leys of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. Scientists also disagree on which animals were the first to have a centralized nervous system and how many times neurons and nervous systems evolved independently. Peering back through the ages for a glimpse of the first nervous systems is no easy trick.

    In addition, there is some intellectual inertia that may need to be overcome, some researchers say. “If you look at any other organ or structure, people easily assume it could evolve multiple times, … but for some reason, people are stuck on [a single origin] of neurons,” says Leonid Moroz, an evolutionary neurobiologist at the Whitney Laboratory in St. Augustine, Florida.

    How to build a neuron

    Like nervous systems, nerve cells come in many varieties. Neurons are easy to recognize but somewhat slippery to define. They all share directionality—i.e., the ability to receive information at one end and transmit information at the other. Electrical excitability is another defining feature; a neuron can regulate the flow of ions across its outer membrane to conduct electrical impulses. Nearly all neurons form synapses, points of contact where chemical neurotransmitters convey messages between cells, and many neurons possess branches called dendrites for receiving synaptic inputs and long axons for conducting outgoing signals.

    Arranged in circuits, neurons open up new behavioral possibilities for an animal. Electrical conduction via axons is faster and more precise than the diffusion of chemical signals, enabling quick detection and a coordinated response to threats and opportunities. With a few upgrades, a nervous system can remember past experiences and anticipate the future.

    Although the advantages of going neural are clear, how it first happened is anything but. One hypothesis that still resonates today dates back to 1970. George Mackie of the University of Victoria in Canada envisioned something like the sheet of tissue that makes up the bell of a jellyfish as starting material. Cells in the sheet can both detect physical contact and contract in response. Mackie proposed that these multifunctional cells may have given rise to two new cell types: specialized sensory cells on the sheet's surface and muscle cells underneath. Initially, cells in the two layers touched, with ions passing through pores in the cells' membranes to conduct electrical impulses between them. With further specialization, the distance between the sensory and muscle cells grew and axons arose to bridge the gap. Eventually, “interneurons” appeared, forming synapses with sensory neurons at one end and with muscle cells at the other end.

    It's a plausible scenario, says Detlev Arendt, a developmental biologist at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany. But there are other possibilities, and they're not mutually exclusive, Arendt says. Moroz agrees: “Neurons may have appeared in multiple lineages in a relatively short time.”

    Consistent with this idea, some crucial components of neurons exist in many cell types that predate the first neurons. Voltagegated ion channels, tiny pores that control the flow of ions across a neuron's outer membrane to create electrical signals, can be found in bacteria and archaebacteria, notes Robert Meech, a neurophysiologist at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. And in the 1960s, researchers found that when the single-celled Paramecium caudatum bumps into an obstacle, a voltage change sweeps from one end to the other, much like the “action potentials” that convey a signal down the length of a neuron. In Paramecium, this electrical blip reverses the beat of its cilia, temporarily altering its course. Electrical excitability, it seems, evolved long before neurons made it their specialty.

    On the brink

    A thorny tree.

    Uncertainty about early animal evolution complicates any discussion of neural origins. This potential scenario is based on a recent genomics study.


    To hunt for additional clues about neuron evolution, researchers have turned to some of the most primitive animals alive on Earth today: sponges. Many scientists think these marine and freshwater filter feeders are the living creatures most similar to the common ancestor of all animals. And to many researchers, sponges look like animals on the verge of a nervous breakthrough. Sponges don't have a nervous system, or even neurons, but they do have a surprising number of the building blocks that would be needed to put a nervous system together.

    Researchers working to unravel the genome of the marine sponge Amphimedon queenslandica reported in PLoS ONE in 2007 that these animals contain the genetic blueprints for a set of proteins typically found on the receiving side of a synapse. In neurons, these proteins provide a scaffold that anchors neurotransmitter receptors into the cells' outer membrane. Yet electron microscope studies have failed to find synapses in sponges. And although their genomes contain genes for some neurotransmitter receptors, sponges appear to lack the type of receptors used for most excitatory neural communication in other animals. Thus, the function of these synaptic scaffolding proteins in a sponge is a mystery, says Kenneth Kosik, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who led the study.

    Last year, the Amphimedon genome yielded another surprising find. A team led by Bernard Degnan of the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, reported in Current Biology that cells in the sponge's larvae express a handful of genes that spur neural precursor cells to develop into full-fledged neurons in more complex animals. Inserting the sponge version of one of these genes into frog embryos and fruit fly larvae led to the birth of extra neurons. Degnan suspects that the cells that express them might be a type of protoneuron. These cells sit on the outer surface of the sponge larvae, and Degnan speculates that they may somehow help the free-floating larvae sense their environment and find a suitable place to settle down and metamorphose into their adult form.

    Physiological experiments with sponges have also turned up signs of neural foreshadowing. Some sponges, for example, generate action potentials. In a 1997 Nature paper, Leys and Mackie reported that when the glass sponge Rhabdocalyptus dawsoni gets bumped or detects sediment in the water it filters for food, a voltage change sweeps across its body, and the cilia that pump water through the sponge's body shut down. (The glass sponge is essentially one giant cell with a continuous, weblike intra cellular space.) This electrical blip lasts about 5 seconds, compared with a millisecond or so for most action potentials in neurons, but it seems to accomplish the same basic goal as a reflex mediated by neurons: generating a coordinated response to an external stimulus.

    All in all, says Leys, sponges provide a tantalizing picture of what an animal on the brink of evolving a nervous system might look like. Their cells have many of the right components, but some assembly is still required. And although they have a wider behavioral repertoire than most people realize, Leys says, their “reflexes” are far slower than those of animals with a nervous system.

    But some researchers argue that sponges aren't the most primitive living animals. In one controversial study, published in the 10 April 2008 issue of Nature, a team of European and North American researchers reported that their analysis of 150 gene fragments from each of 77 animal taxa suggested that ctenophores, not sponges, are the lowest branch on the animal tree of life. Ctenophores, or comb jellies, are translucent, bloblike marine organisms that bear a passing resemblance to some jellyfish. Like true jellies, ctenophores have bona fide neurons and a simple netlike nervous system. Their position at the base of the animal family tree—if it stands up—would shake up many researchers' views on nervous system evolution.

    Among the unpalatable implications, in the eyes of some researchers, is that if ctenophores came before sponges, the assorted nervous system components that have turned up in sponges may not be foreshadowing after all but rather the remnants of a nervous system that was lost after the sponge lineage split off from that of ctenophores.

    What's new, jellyfish?

    One way to build a neuron.

    Neurons may have arisen from multifunctional cells—like those in a jelly fish's bell (far left)—that gradually became more specialized.


    Another contender for most primitive animals with a proper nervous system are cnidarians, agroup that includes the truejellyfish, corals, and sea anemones. As in ctenophores, the nervous system of cnidarians is often described as a “nerve net.” This description is apt for anemones, which have a diffuse web of neurons with no discernible concentration of neurons in any one place. But some jellyfish, such as the bell-shaped Aglantha digitale, are more organized, with clearly defined bundles of nerves running around the base of the bell.

    Cnidarian neurons generate action potentials and release neurotransmitters to communicate across synapses. The genome of the starlet sea anemone, Nematostella vectensis, reveals a surprisingly large array of genes encoding enzymes that synthesize or break down neurotransmitters, as well as receptors for these signaling molecules (Science, 6 July 2007, p. 86). The genome hints at a complexity of neural signaling similar to that seen in more complex animals, says Michel Anctil, a comparative neurobiologist at the University of Montreal in Canada: “The potential is there. How much they use it is what we have to figure out.”

    Getting a head

    Just as sponges, comb jellies, and sea anemones may hold clues to how the first nerves and nerve nets arose, other creatures may shed light on the evolution of more complex neural circuitry. “I think everybody agrees that nervous systems were at first diffuse and then evolved to be centralized,” with a concentration of neurons in the front end of the animal—that is, a brain—and a nerve cord connecting it to the rest of the body, says Arendt. “But there's no consensus yet on exactly when this happened.” Arendt and others have argued that a centralized nervous system existed in the ancestor of all bilaterally symmetrical animals, or bilaterians.

    Studies dating back to the early 1990s have found that several genes involved in shaping the central nervous system as it develops in fruit flies are expressed in a similar pattern and play a similar role in nervous system development in vertebrates and in distantly related invertebrates such as annelid worms. That implies that these genes were already present in the last common ancestor of all these creatures—the ancestor of all bilaterians—and suggests to Arendt and others that this ancestor had a centralized nervous system.

    But not everyone is so sure. Christopher Lowe of the University of Chicago in Illinois and colleagues have found that Saccoglossus kowalevskii, a wormlike creature that belongs to the group of invertebrates most closely related to vertebrates, the hemichordates, has many of the same neural development genes expressed in a similar pattern.Yet Saccoglossus has a mostly diffuse nervous system. If having the genes and expressing them in a given pattern isn't sufficient to establish a centralized nervous system, that leaves open the possibility that the bilaterian ancestor had a diffuse nervous system, Lowe says. “I would argue that we have a range of possibilities,” he says. Because most but not all modern bilaterians have a centralized nervous system, there will be awkward implications no matter what. If the bilaterian ancestor had a diffuse nervous system, centralized nervous systems must have originated multiple times in multiple bilaterian lineages—a far less parsimonious scenario than a single origin. On the other hand, if the ancestor had a centralized nervous system, several lineages, including that of Saccoglossus, must have later reverted to a diffuse nervous system—an apparent down-grade that's hard to explain.

    The puzzles don't end there. Fastforwarding a bit in evolutionary time raises a new set of questions. What is the origin of the myelin insulation that speeds conduction down axons and ensures the fidelity of neural signals? Or of the glial cells that are proving to have important roles in brain function and appear to be more numerous in complex nervous systems?

    For that matter, how many ways are there to build a complex brain? Aristotle's notion of a scala naturae, or natural ladder, influenced the thinking of researchers well into the 20th century, says R. Glenn Northcutt, an expert on vertebrate brain evolution at the University of California, San Diego. “It was assumed that all vertebrates and invertebrates could be arranged in a linear series, with man and the angels at the top,” Northcutt says, but “we now know that's just nonsense.” Most researchers now agree that equally complex—but anatomically different—brains have evolved in birds, mammals, and other animal lineages, Northcutt says: “At least four or five times independently, … major radiations of vertebrates have evolved complex brain structure.” But whether brains that are put together differently operate on similar principles is still an open question. And then there is the enduring question of what, if anything, is special about the human brain. Perhaps the emerging clues about the long evolutionary path we've taken will one day help us decide where we are.


    A. S. Denes et al., "Molecular Architecture of Annelid Nerve Cord Supports Common Origin of Nervous System Centralization in Bilateria." Cell 129, 277 (2007).

    C. W. Dunn et al., "Broad phylogenomic sampling improves resolution of the animal tree of life." Nature 452, 745 (2008).

    S. P. Leys and G. O. Mackie, "Electrical recording from a glass sponge." Nature 387, 29 (1997).

    C. J. Lowe et al., "Anteroposterior Patterning in Hemichordates and the Origins of the Chordate Nervous System." Cell 113, 853 (2003).

    C. J. Lowe et al., "Dorsoventral Patterning in Hemichordates: Insights into Early Chordate Evolution." PLoS Biology 4(9), e291 (2006).

    G. O. Mackie, "Neuroid Conduction and the Evolution of Conducting Tissues." The Quarterly Review of Biology 45, 319 (1970).

    R. W. Meech and G. O. Mackie, "Evolution of excitability in lower metazoans," in Invertebrate Neurobiology, G. North and R. Greenspan, Eds. (Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, New York, 2007).

    H. Philippe et al., "Phylogenomics Revives Traditional Views on Deep Animal Relationships." Current Biology 19, 706 (2009).

    N. H. Putnam et al., "Sea Anemone Genome Reveals Ancestral Eumetazoan Gene Repertoire and Genomic Organization." Science 317, 86 (2007).

    G. Richards et al., "Sponge Genes Provide New Insight into the Evolutionary Origin of the Neurogenic Circuit." Current Biology 18, 1156 (2008).

    O. Sakarya et al., "A Post-Synaptic Scaffold at the Origin of the Animal Kingdom." PLoS ONE 2(6), e506 (2007).

    K. Tessmar-Raible et al., "Conserved Sensory-Neurosecretory Cell Types in Annelid and Fish Forebrain: Insights into Hypothalamus Evolution." Cell 129, 1389 (2007).

  13. Newsmaker Interview

    Behavioral Geneticist Celebrates Twins, Scorns PC Science

    1. Constance Holden

    Twins researcher Thomas Bouchard spoke with Science at the Behavior Genetics Association meeting last month; his comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.

    Last month, the Behavior Genetics Association held its annual meeting in Minneapolis, home of the world-famous Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart. Attendees took the occasion to honor psychologist Thomas Bouchard, the man who started it all. Bouchard, 71, is retiring after 40 years at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and has moved to Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

    Bouchard spoke with Science at the meeting; his comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.

    Q:What got you into twin studies?

    TB:I was teaching the psychology of individual differences, and in 1979, two different people put a copy in my mailbox of a story about twins reared apart and their similarities when they met. [These were the “Jim twins,” Jim Springer and Jim Lewis, who had been separated at birth and reunited at age 39. Both married women named Linda, divorced, and remarried women named Betty. They named their sons James Allan and James Alan, respectively, and both had dogs named Toy.] They sounded interesting, so I asked a few of my colleagues to help me study them. We ended up studying twins reared apart—126 pairs including 74 pairs of identical twins—for 20 years. [The twin study wound down in 2000.] I found that I loved working with twins. They're still amazing and a major mystery to me.

    Q:What were attitudes toward behavioral genetics in the early years of your career?

    TB:In graduate school at UC [the University of California] Berkeley, I was reading a book edited by psychiatrist D. D. Jackson on the etiology of schizophrenia. The first chapter, by a geneticist, was on twin studies. Then Jackson refuted it all with just the kind of crap you hear now against twin studies. He said families are the cause of schizophrenia. I remember saying in a graduate seminar, “Most of this stuff [in Jackson's argument] is junk”—I crawled out of the seminar room a bloody pulp. The reaction [from seminar members] was my first absolutely clear-cut demonstration that psychologists believed correlation is causation, … and many still do.

    In the '70s, when I was teaching research by [IQ researcher Arthur] Jensen and [twin researcher Francis] Galton, people picketed me, called me a racist, tried to get me fired. The progressive student association sent members in to ask hostile questions. … So I put a tape recorder on the podium and said: “I'm going to tape my lectures.” I never heard from them again. They knew what they were saying was nonsense and I would be able to prove it.

    Twin pioneer.

    Thomas Bouchard launched the world-famous study with the “Jim twins.”


    Q:Do you think perceptions have changed dramatically since the '70s now that twin research has revealed genetic bases for many disorders, such as autism (which had been blamed on cold mothers) and ADHD (for which many blamed food dyes)?

    TB:Within the university—at least at U. Minnesota—the cumulative impact of behavioral genetics findings has had a lot of effect. There's a lot more tolerance for the idea of genetic influences in individual differences.

    But we still have whole domains we can't talk about. One of the great dangers in the psychology of individual differences is self-censorship. For example, when I was a student, it was widely accepted that black self-esteem was much lower than white self-esteem, and that was a cause of differences in achievement between the two groups. Now that's been completely overturned—there is virtually no racial difference in self-esteem. But people had enormous amounts of data [showing this] that they didn't publish because it did not fit the prevailing belief system. How much wasted effort was generated by the flawed self-esteem work as an explanation of the black-white IQ difference? Now a days, I'm sure there are people who are not publishing stuff on sex differences. Look what happened to Larry Summers [who resigned as president of Harvard University after suggesting that discrimina tion alone doesn't account for women's lower representation in math-based disciplines]. I talk about those things in my class all the time—that males and females have different interests; … in a sense, females have a broader and richer view of life. There are a lot of people who simply won't talk about those things. Academics, like teenagers, sometimes don't have any sense regarding the degree to which they are conformists.

    Q:What are you working on now?

    TB:I'm studying what I call the traditional-values triad: religiousness, conservatism, and authoritarianism. They correlate with each other. In our most recent paper [based on Minnesota twin data], we showed that the same genes affect all three traits. The superfactor [the underlying trait they share] is traditionalism; I think the underlying psychological process is the notion of obedience. It's exactly the same trait that Stanley Milgram studied in the '60s [when students willingly administered electric shocks to unseen victims]. Most researchers talk about obedience as being a bad thing. But it's also the glue that holds societies together.

    Q:Anything you would have done differently?

    TB:Bouchard has gotten everything he wanted from day one. … I've led a charmed life. … If I had it to do all over again, I would do almost exactly what I've done. I know there are people who really dislike what I do. … But look, I'm retired—they're not going to take my skis away.

  14. Ethics

    Private Money, Public Disclosure

    1. Jocelyn Kaiser

    A Senate investigation is forcing federally funded medical institutions to reveal exactly how much money their researchers receive from industry.

    Sunshine man.

    Senator Grassley says company payments to doctors should be made public.


    In the mid-1990s, psychiatrist Alan Schatzberg and colleagues wanted to test a new way of treating psychotic depression. Their aim was to suppress the brain's receptors for the hormone cortisol, which is elevated in patients with this disease. They decided to try a cortisol blocker called mifepristone, also known as RU-486, the abortion drug. Schatzberg, then at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, won funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for a small clinical study that showed that mifepristone appeared to help some patients overcome psychotic depression.

    Stanford then applied for a patent to use mifepristone for treating psychotic depression. When the pharmaceutical industry showed no interest in developing the drug, Schatzberg co-founded a company in 1998, Corcept Therapeutics, to license the technology and test it in larger clinical studies. For nearly 3 decades, federal law has encouraged such interactions so that taxpayer-funded discoveries can make their way into products.


    Last summer, the Stanford-Corcept arrangement came under fire. Senator Charles Grassley (R–IA) accused Schatzberg of concealing from his university that he held stock in Corcept worth $6 million. When Stanford informed Grassley it knew the stock's value and argued that Schatzberg was not directly involved with the clinical trial, the senator came back with new questions: Why did Schatzberg head a grant to study mifepristone? And why had he co-authored papers on the clinical results? At that point, Stanford removed Schatzberg from the NIH grant but said no rules were broken.

    Schatzberg and Stanford argue that, although their reading of U.S. regulations may surprise the public, it's for a good cause: developing a new drug for severely depressed patients. Grassley is skeptical: He has suggested that medical entrepreneurs at research universities who fail to properly disclose outside income are violating the law and may bias their work in a way that distorts medical care. Grassley's efforts to clean up what he sees as a corrupt enterprise have targeted about a dozen researchers like Schatzberg to date.

    As part of his probe, Grassley has homed in on an overlooked trouble spot: federal rules requiring that institutions track and “manage” faculty members' industry ties. NIH is now contemplating the first major overhaul of these rules in nearly 15 years. It has solicited public comments on a variety of issues—the deadline for responses is next week—as a prelude to proposing tighter regulations. The end result is expected to vastly expand the information that faculty—both basic and clinical—must report to their institutions and to NIH. And it will likely ask for more details on how institutions follow up on conflicts. In a related effort, Grassley has introduced a bill that would require drug and device companies to disclose their payments to doctors in an online database. It would inform the public about conflicts and help ensure that researchers report honestly.

    Grassley has blamed NIH for not keeping a close enough watch over conflicts; some academic observers agree that the government needs to take a stronger hand. But NIH leaders, echoing the views of the research community, say the primary burden of overseeing conflicts should remain with institutions because rigid rules would stifle innovation. The system has worked well, although it may have been tainted by some bad apples, they say. “A few cases are getting heavily covered in the press. And the implication is that the entire system is corrupt. That is not true. … That's why it's so important for the scientific community to own this, to see what's at stake here,” acting NIH Director Raynard Kington said in an interview earlier this year.

    When the final rules have been agreed upon, universities will need to show that they can follow through, says Eric Campbel of Harvard Medical School in Boston, an expert on industry-academic relations. University leaders have “staved off federal intervention for a long time” with the argument that only they can manage the problem, he says. “Over time, public scrutiny wears that argument away”—and right now it seems to have worn thin.

    Conflicting signals

    Relatively few academic researchers had ties to companies before 1980, when Congress passed the Bayh-Dole Act. That change in the law encouraged universities to patent and commercialize discoveries made by faculty members who received federal funds. It also led universities to create technology transfer off ices and spurred hundreds of start-up companies, industry-endowed chairs, private funding for clinical studies, and consulting deals.

    These changes also raised the potential for industry money to bias studies. To deal with that risk, the Public Health Service (which includes NIH), issued its first conflicts-of-interest regulation for PHS-funded investigators in 1995, after 6 years of debate. It requires grantees to report to their institution financial conflicts “related to the research” that are “significant”—defined as more than $10,000 per year from a given company, or 5% equity in a company. These cutoff points, says Susan Ehringhaus, an attorney at the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), were arbitrary. Institutions must review the information, reduce or manage any conflicts, and tell NIH if a grant involves a significant conflict.

    Concerns about gaps in this oversight system have been mounting ever since. After a volunteer died in 1999 in a gene therapy trial in which the lead investigator and university had a financial interest, two strong research lobbies—AAMC and the Association of American Universities (AAU)—came forward with plans for reform. Among other recommendations, in 2001 they urged members to adopt a policy barring clinical researchers from having significant conflicts except in compelling circumstances. But when AAMC surveyed members 2 years later, it found many were still lagging behind on the recommendations.

    In 2004, a congressional investigation of conflicts within NIH set off alarm bells again. It led NIH to ban industry consulting by inhouse scientists, making the rules for NIH researchers far more draconian than those covering their colleagues in academia. The spotlight, university officials realized, could soon swing back to extramural researchers and their industry ties. Last year, it did: The Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services slammed NIH for lax oversight of conflicts at grantee institutions.

    The issue exploded in the media a year ago thanks to Grassley, the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee. The 75-year-old Midwesterner, a longtime fraud buster, started out investigating defense contracts. In recent years, Grassley, citing his committee's oversight of Medicare and Medicaid, began probing conflicts of interest involving the approval of drugs such as Paxil and Vioxx.

    In 2007, these probes led Grassley's investigators to conflicts of interest at biomedical research institutions. Using a strategy that had worked well in an inquiry by the House of Representatives, they asked both companies and institutions about payments to a faculty member and looked for discrepancies. Grassley says they got leads from media reports and “whistleblowers” such as critical faculty members.

    Grassley's team made its first big splash with a front-page story in The New York Times last June. They alleged that three Harvard child psychiatrists had failed to report hundreds of thousands of dollars in income they received over several years from drug companies. Other psychiatrists and surgeons have since been accused of hiding similar payments, and some have been disciplined (see table, p. 30).

    Risky business

    Several of the universities targeted by Grassley's investigation are now tightening their conflicts policies, and several broad reform efforts are under way. Even before Grassley's campaign, some major medical schools had begun to restrict faculty participation in industry-funded medical education courses and promotional talks arranged by speakers' bureaus. An Institute of Medicine (IOM) panel this spring urged all schools to curb these activities, which some of Grassley's quarry said they didn't think they needed to report (Science, 1 May, p. 579).

    NIH also says it is taking action. It has suspended a $9 million grant to one university for failing to handle conflicts properly. This spring, the agency announced that it may strengthen the PHS conflict rule and asked for comment on questions such as whether researchers should be required to provide much more specific financial information. Many universities ask researchers to check a box if outside payments are above a certain threshold. If that threshold is, say, “above $50,000,” that means a payment of $57,000 or $2 million would look the same. “That's a huge problem,” because it doesn't distinguish between minor and major conflicts, says conflicts researcher Lisa Bero of the University of California, San Francisco, a member of the IOM panel.

    That could change if NIH follows the advice of the academic community. Three heavyweight organizations—IOM and, in comments to NIH, AAMC and AAU—all say that investigators should disclose to their institutions specific payments, no matter how small, that are directly or indirectly related to their research. The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) recommends reporting income of $200 or more. AAMC and AAU say they'd like to see the “significant” threshold for reporting to NIH lowered to $5000 from the current $10,000, and 0.1% equity rather than 5%.

    AAMC and AAU also agree that NIH should collect more details from institutions on the conflicts they're managing. Under the current rules, institutions only have to tell NIH whether a conflict was managed, reduced, or eliminated. That's partly where the current problems stem from, suggests Julie Gottlieb, assistant dean for policy coordination at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. If NIH officials are serious, says Gottlieb, “they need to do more than they've been doing.”

    However, a prohibition on financial conflicts above a specific level remains unpopular, even for studies involving human subjects. Although AAMC and AAU have recommended to their members that significant conflicts should be prohibited in clinical research, they say institutions need flexibility, and in comments to NIH they oppose an “a priori prohibition.” One reason to avoid broad caps, notes Gottlieb, is that a great deal of human subjects research is low-risk—on human tissue samples, for example. AAU and AAMC also argue that it's premature to require policies for institutional-level conflicts. They warn that “imposing overzealous regulations could disrupt productive partnerships to the detriment of science and the public.”

    Grassley has applauded the AAMC and AAU statements, saying NIH “should consider everything” in the comment letter. At least one expert on academic-industry ties, however, thinks the regulation should prohibit any conflicts in clinical research. “I think there should be a zero threshold, or very small,” says Sheldon Krimsky of Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, because even a $100 payment could influence a researcher's objectivity.

    No rule is universally obeyed, of course, and scientists could still hide their income. Many of those Grassley has probed allegedly were not following existing rules. The remedy for that, many observers say, is a public database of payments reported by companies—such as one that would be created by the bill introduced by Grassley and Senator Herbert Kohl (D–WI), potentially by October 2011. University officials could use the database to audit their faculty members, say AAMC and AAU, which support the bill.

    The disclosure system would work much better, the IOM report says, if the research community developed a standard reporting format. Some major medical centers have begun discussing this with companies so that items they consider irrelevant—such as a research grant or reimbursement for travel expenses—don't get counted as income. AAMC's Ehringhaus says standardization is “a terrific idea,” but “I don't know yet” if her organization will move it forward. FASEB has suggested that PHS develop a “universal” form.

    Harvard's Campbell thinks institutions are making progress. “It's gone from the Wild West 15 years ago to a system that seems to be much more regulated. Over time, people will pay greater and greater attention,” says Campbell, who was also on the IOM panel.

    Even with stricter rules and full public disclosure, none of these steps will change the fundamental contradiction spurred by Bayh-Dole, says C. K. Gunsalus, special counsel at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, a longtime follower of integrity in science: “We tell people with one side of the mouth to be pure as the driven snow and with the other side say, ‘Take this money,’” says Gunsalus. Stanford's Schatzberg, for example, was following both commands when he came under fire for receiving compensation related to his NIH-funded research. But with the new reforms at least one thing will be clear: Right from the start, everyone will know about that private money.

  15. Ethics

    Senate Probe of Research Psychiatrists

    1. Jocelyn Kaiser

    Science has compiled a table of cases made public by Senator Charles Grassley (R–IA) involving NIH-funded researchers—all psychiatrists, many of whom allegedly received consulting income from companies whose drugs they were studying.

    Senator Charles Grassley (R–IA) has cast a wide net in search of physicians who failed to fully disclose payments they received from drug and device companies. One of his concerns, he said, is that biased research could be influencing treatment decisions. Starting with psychiatrists in 2007, Grassley's investigators moved on to orthopedic surgeons this year; he has also looked into fees paid to academic cardiologists, professional associations, and a radio show host. About 30 universities have now received queries from Grassley. This table includes cases made public by Grassley involving NIH-funded researchers—all psychiatrists, many of whom allegedly received consulting income from companies whose drugs they were studying. (Some researchers have said they didn't realize that certain types of payments had to be disclosed.) Dollar amounts are based on letters and statements from Grassley.

  16. Taxonomy

    China Searches for an 11th-Hour Lifesaver for a Dying Discipline

    1. Li Jiao*

    With hundreds of thousands of collected specimens unidentified and many more undiscovered, China hopes to prop up its taxonomists before vital skills slip away.

    BEIJING—Every week, Liu Quanru gives 18 lectures on taxonomy, the science of classifying life. It's not because he loves taxonomy—which he does. Rather, he is the only professor at Beijing Normal University qualified to teach the subject. “It's really very tiring,” Liu says, and ultimately deflating: Only a few of his students end up majoring in taxonomy.

    Such apathy could have grave consequences for the preservation of China's biological resources, Liu and others say. “If people don't know what they're dealing with, how can you identify anything,” says Lu Zhi, executive director of the Center for Nature and Society at Beijing University. “It is still not clear how many species of plants are in China,” or how many are endangered, explains Hong Deyuan, a former official at the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC). Of more than 2 million herbarium specimens at the Institute of Botany of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Beijing, at least 20% have not been identified. A similar lacuna exists for fauna. “After we retire, nobody in our museum will be able to do research on special animal species that have important economic significance,” such as termites or earwigs, says Qiao Gexia, curator of the National Animal Museum in Beijing.

    Taxonomy is in decline around the world. But although the situation is just as grim in China, the country's dwindling band of taxonomists has one of their own in a powerful position: NSFC President Chen Yiyu, a taxonomist who majored in systematics and biogeography. In 2002, NSFC, the country's basic research grants agency, set up a classic taxonomy fund, which has thrown a $500,000-a-year lifeline to established taxonomists. But that's not enough, Chen acknowledges. “If there are fewer and fewer young persons doing taxonomy, there will be a huge negative impact,” he says. To prevent Chinese taxonomy from slipping into oblivion, NSFC has invited applications for a pair of 4-year initiatives, to be launched in 2010, that aim to better integrate the field with molecular biology.

    Taxonomy in China wasn't always in such a parlous state. Until the late 1980s, it was the primary focus of many of the country's botanists. Some 312 plant taxonomists together edited the first edition of Flora of China, launched in 1959, says Hong, a vice chief editor of recent editions. But the field has been hemorrhaging talent for years. “Many of our generation have already transferred their main research fields away from taxonomy,” says Sun Hang, vice director of Kunming Institute of Botany, who studies plant taxonomy and geography.

    Endangered species?

    Liu Quanru, examining a bromegrass (top), is one of the few classical taxonomists left in China. NSFC President Chen Yiyu has urged the field to modernize.


    Sun and others blame the field's woes on China's evaluation system, which awards promotions and allots funds mainly according to a scientist's publication record: the number of papers they land in Science Citation Index journals and the number of citations the articles receive. Chen agrees that the evaluation system is unfair. “It is almost impossible for taxonomical articles to be published in high-impact-factor journals,” he says. Taxonomists, he argues, should be judged by a different standard.

    A few have managed to pull this off. For example, the National Animal Museum evaluates its taxonomists according to their expertise in identifying and handling specimens, says Qiao. And at the Institute of Botany, Hong founded a classical taxonomy research group whose members are evaluated according to the quality of articles and monographs they publish, not impact factors. But in Sun's view, the special evaluation systems allow the field to survive, not thrive; they cannot help taxonomists advance in rank or win grants in national competitions. NSFC's classical taxonomy fund has alleviated the problem and will continue for the foreseeable future, says Chen, who also hopes that universities will expand taxonomy curricula.

    For taxonomists to flourish, Chen argues, they must spread their scientific wings into molecular biology. He holds up as an example a former student, He Shunping, a taxonomist at CAS's Institute of Hydrobiology in Wuhan and curator of its Aquatic Organisms Museum. He uses DNA bar coding—a species-specific mitochondrial DNA sequence—to identify fish species. Unlike many of his peers, He doesn't complain about funding: His DNA-based taxonomy has earned him a wide network of foreign collaborators and steady grants.

    He's success rankles some classical taxonomists. “There are many problems to judge species by DNA,” says Liu, who says that classical taxonomical analysis is much more reliable for species identification. Chen, however, says it's time for classical taxonomy in China to move on: “The period of taxonomists simply identifying species is already past.”

    What's needed, says Sun, is a kind of Manhattan Project for taxonomy: a mega-project that would force taxonomists to work together and train the next generation. One possibility that the central government is contemplating, says Beijing University's Lu, is a comprehensive survey of China's biodiversity. Such a years-long project would require an army of taxonomists, perhaps working in tandem with molecular biologists. That would rejuvenate the field, says Sun. “Taxonomy,” he says, “would play an important role in China once again.”

    • * Li Jiao is a writer in Beijing.