News this Week

Science  11 Sep 2009:
Vol. 325, Issue 5946, pp. 1324

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  1. Biomedical Research

    VA Pulls the Plug on Disputed Study of Gulf War Illness

    1. Eliot Marshall
    Toxic smoke?

    A $75 million study of toxicants and Gulf War illness has been canceled.


    A lavishly funded health study of veterans from the first Gulf War—favored by the U.S. Congress but viewed with skepticism by many scientists—hit a wall in August. Its funder, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), pulled out after 2 years of a 5-year, $75 million contract, alleging “severe performance deficiencies” by a research group at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center (UTSWMC) at Dallas.

    VA officials weren't available for comment. But in a 26 August statement announcing the decision, officials cited a scathing report by the VA inspector general (IG). Issued in July, the report says the Texas group missed contract deadlines, appealed to backers in Congress to get deadlines rescinded, and would not agree to share key data.

    The contract began in 2006, and the money began to flow in 2007. Although VA has “obligated” $32 million and paid $8 million to equip and support the Texas center, the IG report suggests that not much has come of its investment. At the time of the audit, the report notes, magnetic resonance imaging scans had been done on only 46 veterans and “no approved research projects have been completed.” A key point, the report says, concerns consent forms and access to data. A collaborative research agreement requires medical data to be shared with VA. But the report says UTSWMC “unilaterally” changed the consent form for study participants “to specifically bar VA from receiving identifiable data” but didn't inform VA of the change. This made clinical work after 2 October 2008, the date the change was made, unacceptable, the report says.

    “We are reeling,” says principal investigator and epidemiologist Robert Haley. He says UTSWMC learned from a press release that VA had pulled the plug, but he declines to discuss the allegations. Ongoing projects will be completed, Haley says, including analysis of a national survey that collected blood and epidemiological data from 2000 vets. He says the results—not yet published—validate previous small-scale studies. Haley says he also intends to publish a major neuroimaging study and present important results from a mouse model study in October. UTSWMC issued a statement contesting the government's charges, saying, “We were surprised to learn of [VA's] action, especially since we have been working diligently to resolve” issues.

    Haley's project has come under fire before—mainly from critics who consider its output to be slight. But it has been kept afloat for more than a decade by powerful friends, including Texas billionaire Ross Perot, its first backer, and Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison, the senior U.S. senator from Texas. Hutchison and others put an earmark in a 2005 appropriation bill that promised UTSWMC “at least $15 million” and up to $75 million over 5 years for “extensive research on Gulf War illness” (Science, 5 May 2006, p. 668).

    This diagnostic term refers to an array of symptoms—including dizziness, loss of concentration, headaches, fatigue, pains, and depression—reported by vets of the 1990–91 invasion of Iraq. This cluster of ailments has not turned up in veterans from the second war in Iraq or from fighting in Afghanistan.

    Many say there's no consensus on what caused these symptoms—or even on whether they have a biological cause. But since the early 1990s, Haley has focused on a thesis that Gulf War illness resulted from exposure to neurotoxic chemicals in fires, pesticides, antinerve agent pills—or, most likely, the nerve agent sarin. Some troops in the first Gulf War were stationed near a dump in Iraq where sarin gas canisters were destroyed. Haley has published a series of case-control studies based on a small group of intensively studied vets who may have been exposed to sarin. These studies show, he says, that the brains and neurochemistry of vets with Gulf War illness were altered. Recently, he has zeroed in on metabolic factors, particularly the level of enzymes that help eliminate organophosphates, and claims to have identified three variant syndromes. For example, he finds that arylesterase activity is lower in ill veterans than it is in controls.

    Others say this finding hasn't been replicated in a large sample. The puzzle has only grown more difficult with time, says psychiatrist Dan Blazer of Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, who chaired one of many Institute of Medicine reports on the topic. “It is extremely hard to go back and … determine exposures in the first Gulf War and to figure out where the troops were,” Blazer says. He adds that many of his colleagues have been concerned about “the amount of money being awarded outside the peer-review mechanisms” in pursuit of popular theories. “There has been a lot of talk, a lot of advocacy, … but I think that on balance the discussion far exceeds any real findings.”

    Haley's thesis has been sharply challenged by psychiatrist Simon Wessely, director of the King's Centre for Military Health Research at King's College London. He says the toxin-exposure theory was worth looking into but that Haley's findings have not been replicated. After all the effort and money put into this work, Wessely says, it's time to recognize that “we're not going to find the smoking gun that explains the cause of Gulf War illness.” Rather than focus on “unlikely hypotheses and improbable scenarios,” Wessely says money should be spent on “trying to improve the quality of life of Gulf War veterans.”

    In its official statement, VA said it hopes to recoup most of the UTSWMC contract money—tens of millions of dollars—and redirect it to related research on Gulf War veterans. Among the possibilities, VA says, it may step up work on chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia among Gulf War vets, development of new diagnostics tests, and unspecified “new treatments.”

  2. Newsmaker Interview

    Firefighters 'Worked Like Demons' to Save Observatory

    1. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

    Last week, as wildfires lit up the forests north of Los Angeles, scorching dozens of homes and killing two firefighters, a pall of smoke hung over the Mount Wilson Observatory. By 31 August, the fires were threatening to charge up the mountain slope and engulf the 105-year-old institution where Edwin Hubble discovered the expansion of the universe.

    But a heroic firefighting campaign that included hacking away the underbrush and low-lying limbs of trees around the observatory and spraying fire retardant from helicopters appears to have saved the facility and the three dozen broadcast transmission towers on the mountaintop. Harold McAlister, the director of the observatory, shared the panic and the relief in a phone conversation with Science on 4 September.

    Q:How did you react to news of the fire?

    H.M.:We got word of it on Wednesday, 26 August. It was spreading rapidly, and although we weren't told to evacuate, we were conservative. We couldn't work in that environment anyway, because if there's smoke and ash blowing over the mountain, the ash will erode the aluminum reflective coating on the telescope mirrors.

    Q:What's special about the observatory?

    H.M.:Modern astronomy and astrophysics were created here. The 60-inch and the 100-inch telescopes in the old part were once the most powerful instruments on the planet. But this is not just a museum: The new part of the observatory has two major facilities—the Infrared Spatial Interferometer and a six-telescope optical/infrared array—that are producing a lot of exciting science.

    Close call.

    Smoke from wildfire shrouds the dome of the Mount Wilson Observatory.


    Q:What was it like to experience this?

    H.M.:It was a manic-depressive kind of week. The troops started showing over the weekend. On Monday morning, however, they ordered all the firefighters to leave because things were looking very threatening. It looked like the observatory was being abandoned. That was the greatest moment of despair.

    When they came back on 1 September, it was like the cavalry coming to the rescue. They worked like demons. As they set backfires [to stop the wildfire in its tracks], the news media were saying Mount Wilson is on fire, which was not the case. My mind was telling me that this is fantastic because the firefighters were doing their job, but just seeing smoke come up next to the 100-inch telescope was unsettling.

    Q:Have instruments suffered smoke damage?

    H.M.:We don't know that yet. The smoke has been mildly unpleasant. There have been days when a staffer who stayed on site to help the firefighters has had to sleep with a blanket over his head.

    Q:What's the scene like now?

    H.M.:There is no imminent danger, but it is lurking. If you look out on the forest, there's smoke. At nighttime, it feels eerie to see flames at a distance and trees getting engulfed. This could go on for weeks.

    The fire had burned down miles of forest. It's a moonscape; like winter has lasted for 10 years. I can imagine what the fire would have done to the observatory.

  3. Physics

    Tests Show Moon Not Quite as Strange as Some Physicists Had Hoped

    1. Adrian Cho

    The moon isn't made of green cheese and almost certainly doesn't harbor hypothetical particles called “strangelets,” an analysis of lunar soil has shown. The result undermines a possible strangelet sighting a decade ago and strengthens the case that the bizarre particles, which protesters once feared might emerge from an atom smasher and consume Earth, don't exist.

    “I'm not surprised,” says Frank Wilczek, a theorist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. “It would be a great discovery to find strangelets, but the theoretical case for them is pretty shaky.” Still, he says, “it's not crazy” to look for them.

    A strangelet would be a weird, extra-heavy atomic nucleus. An ordinary nucleus consists of protons and neutrons, each of which contains three particles called quarks. A proton contains two “up” type quarks and one “down” type quark; a neutron contains one up and two downs. A strangelet would be a single clump of roughly equal numbers of up quarks, down quarks, and “strange” quarks—heavier cousins of down quarks that appear fleetingly in particle collisions.

    The existence of such “strange quark matter” would force a rethink of neutron stars, burned-out stellar cores made of pure neutrons. A neutron star would be able to reduce its energy by changing into strange quark matter, and all neutron stars would quickly become “strange stars.”

    If a strange star collided with an ordinary companion, strangelets would emerge as cosmic rays that would zip through space until they hit something, such as Earth. Earth's churning, however, would mix strangelets into the mantle, diluting them beyond measure. So Jack Sandweiss of Yale University looked for strangelets on the unstirred moon.

    Sandweiss obtained 15 grams of soil NASA collected during the first moon landing in 1969. That smidgen should have picked up traces of strangelets in the 500 million years it was on the surface, according to theoretical estimates. Sandweiss and his team fed the stuff into a mass spectrometer to measure the nuclei in it. They found no strangelets with masses from 42 to 70 atomic mass units (from the mass of calcium to that of gallium) and charges from 5 to 11 (from boron to sodium), they reported 27 August in Physical Review Letters.

    Shine on.

    Theorists say the moon wouldn't exist if strangelets did.


    That null result casts doubt on an observation made by the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), a $1.5 billion, 7-ton instrument designed to monitor cosmic rays in space. In a 1998 test flight aboard a NASA space shuttle, AMS spied one particle that looked like a strangelet with the charge of an oxygen nucleus and the mass of a manganese nucleus. “It's 95% certain that it's not a real event,” Sandweiss says. AMS is scheduled to fly to the International Space Station in September 2010.

    Strangelets caused a stir in 1999 when a private citizen named Walter Wagner unsuccessfully sued to stop physicists at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, from starting their Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC). Wagner argued that RHIC might create strangelets that would gobble up ordinary nuclei and convert Earth into strange quark matter.

    But to do that, strangelets would have to be negatively charged to attract positively charged nuclei, and that's exceedingly unlikely, physicists argued. Moreover, if particle collisions could make killer strangelets, then cosmic rays should have already turned the moon into a jumbo strangelet. “The existence of the moon was one of our strongest pieces of evidence that negatively charged strangelets don't exist,” recalls Robert Jaffe, a theorist at MIT. Now, the moon has nixed harmless strangelets, too.


    From Science's Online Daily News Site

    Watch the Clock to Lose Weight When we eat may be just as important as what we eat. A new study shows that mice that eat when they should be sleeping gain more weight than mice that eat at normal hours. Another study sheds light on why we pack on the pounds in the first place. Whether these studies translate into therapies that help humans beat obesity remains to be seen, but they give scientists clues about the myriad factors that they must take into account.


    Pigeon Wings Sound the Alarm When birds make noise, it's not always with their throats. In hummingbirds and manikins, for example, special feathers flutter and vibrate to produce tones and whistles, which impress potential mates and scare off competitors. Now researchers have found that pigeons use wing noise to warn the flock about approaching enemies—the first example of a nonvocalized alarm call in birds.

    Evolution's Little Helper: Copied Genes A long-standing question in biology is how evolution tinkers with genes without mucking things up. The prevailing theory is that the genome has copies of critical genes, so that if mutations spoil one, there's a backup. Now researchers have new proof that evolution can work this way.

    Mosquito May Complicate Malaria Control A newly discovered species of mosquito may complicate malaria-control efforts in parts of Africa. Researchers have identified an insect that looks nearly identical to a species that carries the disease yet may or may not transmit malaria. If ongoing studies find that the mosquito does not carry the malaria parasite, vector-control teams could waste valuable resources, including insecticides and bed nets, fighting a harmless insect.

    Read the full postings, comments, and more on

  5. Public Health

    A Race Against Time to Vaccinate Against Novel H1N1 Virus

    1. Jon Cohen
    Timing troubles.

    Novel H1N1 vaccine may arrive in the United States after the pandemic peak, as happened in 1957 (below).


    On 24 August, the White House released a report about the swine flu pandemic from a group of prominent scientists commissioned by U.S. President Barack Obama. The first report issued by the current President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), it made a stir because it high-lighted a “plausible scenario” that the novel H1N1 virus could infect up to half the U.S. population in the next 6 months and kill as many as 90,000 people, most of them young. Some flu experts thought PCAST exaggerated the doomsday possibilities, and in the hubbub that erupted, a less contentious—and equally alarming—point of the report received scant attention: By the time a vaccine arrives, it may be too late to stop this wave of disease.

    The report reflects a 6–7 August meeting of PCAST's 2009-H1N1 working group, which included an elite cast of flu virologists, epidemiologists, vaccine makers, and public health specialists. They projected that the epidemic would accelerate as schools restart and peak in mid-October—just as the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) expects to receive the first batches of novel H1N1 vaccine. Because it takes a few weeks after vaccination for a robust immune response to develop—and even longer if, as some anticipate, a second dose is needed—the vaccine may arrive too late to do much good. “If this model is approximately correct with respect to timing, a vaccination campaign would not begin to protect vaccinees until well after the epidemic had peaked,” the report says.

    Harold Varmus, a co-chair of PCAST and its 2009-H1N1 working group, emphasizes that the projections on deaths and the peak of the epidemic are based on many assumptions. “It's conceivable that the peak will be in November and that there will be plenty of vaccine available,” says Varmus, a Nobel laureate who heads the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. And, as a modeling study by Ira Longini of the University of Washington, Seattle, and colleagues published online 10 September in Science ( shows, if a vaccine arrives in time and is given to children first, it could substantially reduce the virus's spread.


    Still, Varmus notes that PCAST's model is far from a worst-case scenario, and several influenza and vaccine specialists agree that spread of the virus may well outpace the immunization campaign. “My biggest concern is the race against time,” says Howard Markel, a historian of medicine and pediatrician at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Markel and others who have studied past influenza pandemics—as well as the kinetics of the novel H1N1's spread in the Southern Hemisphere over the past few months—note that influenza waves often peak in about 7 weeks, which matches PCAST's mid-October prediction.

    Bioterrorism expert D. A. Henderson of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in Pennsylvania says the United States may see a repeat of the failed vaccine effort against the 1957 flu pandemic. Henderson, who ran the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC's) influenza surveillance program during that pandemic, explains in a paper he co-authored that was published online last month in Biosecurity and Bioterrorism that the vaccine was “too little and too late,” with only 17 million doses available by October, the month that pandemic peaked. All told, 25% of the U.S. population became ill, with mortality estimates ranging from 20,000 to 80,000. Henderson says the vaccination situation may be even bleaker this time around. “It seems to me, frankly, that the virus now is moving much faster than it did in 1957,” he says.

    Markel commends public health officials for moving aggressively. HHS recognized the value of a vaccine from the time CDC scientists first isolated the novel H1N1 virus in April and began purchasing vaccine in June. To date, it has paid five companies about $1 billion for 195 million doses, assuming that a dose is 15 micrograms of influenza protein. The U.S. National Institutes of Health has launched several clinical trials to determine the best dosing of the new vaccine and its safety profile, while CDC has been preparing state and local health officials for a massive vaccination campaign.

    To protect the highest risk groups, the National Biodefense Science Board (NBSB), which advises HHS, in a 17 July meeting urged HHS to ask vaccine manufacturers to “fill and finish” some product even before the clinical trials determine the optimal dose in mid-to-late September. The PCAST report strongly backed that “hedged” strategy, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has indicated that it will grant approval without the clinical data, just as it does each year when there's a “strain change” in the seasonal vaccine. “We took the NBSB very seriously, and we did make a decision to go ahead and fill and finish at 15 micrograms,” says Nicole Lurie, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at HHS. At the time, NBSB had anticipated that this strategy would save 1 month, providing as many as 60 million doses by 15 September. But Lurie says manufacturing snafus with a potency assay delayed production lines. Today, HHS does not expect any vaccine before the end of September, though Lurie is confident that manufacturers will deliver about 20 million doses a week beginning on 15 October.

    Even if the pandemic peaks in mid-October, Lurie, Henderson, and others note that the virus surfaces in different communities at different times, so a vaccine delivered before the end of the year may still protect many people next winter. “What you're doing is providing the vaccine for the January-to-March period,” says Henderson.

    Once a product exists, another problem surfaces: quickly delivering it to a few hundred million people, some of whom intensely distrust vaccines. “What we're talking about is potentially the largest mass vaccination over the shortest period of time ever attempted in human history,” says Markel. “Such an enormous undertaking boggles the mind.”

  6. Archaeology

    Clothes Make the (Hu) Man

    1. Michael Balter

    The first clothes, worn at least 70,000 years ago and perhaps much earlier, were probably made of animal skins and helped protect early humans from the ice ages. Then at some point people learned to weave plant fibers into textiles. But when? The answer is not certain, because cloth is rarely preserved at archaeological sites. Now discoveries at a cave in the Republic of Georgia suggest that this skill was acquired more than 30,000 years ago.

    On page 1359 of this issue of Science, researchers from Georgia, Israel, and the United States, led by archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef of Harvard University, report more than 1000 fibers of the flax plant from Dzudzuana Cave in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. The microscopic fibers were found in layers radiocarbon dated to as early as 36,000 years ago, about the time when modern humans migrated into the area from Africa. A small number of fibers are colored black, gray, turquoise, and pink, and the team concludes that they were dyed.

    “The finds are extremely important,” says archaeologist Dani Nadel of the University of Haifa in Israel, who is not a member of the team and agrees that the fibers are likely traces of woven material. “They provide the oldest example of their kind ever found at an archaeological site.” Olga Soffer, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, says that although other European sites nearly as old have produced apparent impressions of textile remains, “we can't be sure what plants were used. In Georgia, we have actual identifiable plant fiber remains, which is great.”

    Textile traces.

    Excavations at Dzudzuana Cave turned up fibers of flax and wool (inset) possibly used to make clothes.


    The human occupants of the cave left behind stone tools and animal bones as well as flax. The team thinks the flax was used to make garments as well as woven baskets, because it was associated with skin beetles and moth larvae that infest decaying textiles, as well as spores of a fungus known to grow on clothes. The team also found a few twisted and colored fibers of wool from a goat species whose bones were found in the cave.

    Nadel questions whether the fibers were dyed, saying that they may have taken on color from other materials through natural processes. “Flax is notoriously difficult to dye,” agrees Willeke Wendrich, a textile expert at the University of California, Los Angeles. But archaeologist Elizabeth Barber of Occidental College in Los Angeles points out that “the variety of colors … suggests this was intentional, not accidental. You wouldn't get the local soil staining them in so many different colors.” Whatever the case, Wendrich says, the discoveries at Dzudzuana Cave and other early sites suggest that “plant fibers were used in a very sophisticated way, very early on.”

  7. ScienceInsider

    From the Science Policy Blog

    A prominent prostate cancer researcher has been sued for allegedly making false claims about a prostate cancer biomarker. In 2001, Robert Getzenberg, now at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, claimed to have found a biomarker called EPCA-2. Now Onconome Inc., based in Redmond, Washington, has sued Getzenberg in federal court for presenting scientific results over 6 years that “were and are imaginary,” the lawsuit states.

    To the consternation of U.S. environmental groups, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has allowed a plan for offshore aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico to go into effect. The agency also announced that it would create a national policy for offshore aquaculture within the next few months. Environmentalists are urging Congress to give the agency the ability to enforce that policy, a power it does not possess.

    The Obama Administration announced that it will retain Thomas D'Agostino as head of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex. The decision was met with dismay by many in the arms-control and nonproliferation community, who fear that it will be harder to implement the soaring vision for the nuclear-free future that President Barack Obama has articulated while retaining key figures from the Bush Administration who supported expansion of the country's nuclear arsenal.

    Presidential science adviser John Holdren appeared for his second time on the Late Show with David Letterman on 3 September. Asked how often he talked with the president, Holdren said “sometimes a couple of times a week, sometimes not for a few weeks,” adding that “it's catch as catch can.”

    The Indian Space Research Organisation announced 31 August that it has the technical capability for a crewless mission to Mars and is asking scientists to suggest experiments.

    For more science policy news, visit

  8. Evolutionary Biology

    How Beach Life Favors Blond Mice

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi

    Hopi Hoekstra, a young evolutionary biologist at Harvard University, has been tackling the genetic complexity of a classic case of adaptation in mice.

    Lighten up.

    Several genes transformed mainland mice (left) into paler beach mice that blend in better with their environment.


    FREEPORT, FLORIDA—It's a hot, sticky July night here in western Florida, but to Hopi Hoekstra, it feels like Christmas Eve. Hoekstra, a Harvard University evolutionary biologist, and her field crew have set out more than 400 small metal boxes, throwing a handful of sunflower seeds into each box before setting it on the ground, usually next to a mound of sand representing the debris from a mouse burrow. When she inspects these live animal traps the following morning, she says it will be like “unwrapping presents.” Her eagerness is palpable.

    “You're going to be blown away by this field,” graduate student Jesse Weber had told Hoekstra when they first drove down a sand road into the Lafayette Creek Wildlife Management Area, a 13-square-kilometer expanse of overgrown fields kept open in part by controlled burns. Never before had Weber and Harvard postdoc Vera Domingues seen such a dense concentration of burrows dug by the oldfield mice, Peromyscus polionotus, that they study.

    By 7:30 the next morning, Hoekstra, Domingues, Weber, and Harvard undergraduate Diane Brimmer are making their way from trap to trap, sidestepping fire ant hills, prickly pear, and thorny vines while keeping an eye out for pygmy rattlers. Typically, the trapdoors are still ajar, and at most a grasshopper or two jumps out into Hoekstra's face as she empties the sunflower seeds. But three traps down the line, the door is closed and Hoekstra senses something inside. At past field sites, she's had to worry about lethal spiders crawling in, positioned to nab any unsuspecting hand. And while working in Arizona, she says she picked up far too many “presents” bulging with an angry rattlesnake. Fortunately, this trap weighs too little to have a snake inside, and no deadly spiders are expected.

    In a line of about 100 traps, Hoekstra retrieves eight mice; her companions turn up four more, not a bad take for a full-moon night, when mice tend to be less active.

    The mice are part of a project started 6 years ago to figure out the genetic changes that underlie adaptations these animals make to the world around them. Biologists have long marveled at how oldfield mice living on beaches are much paler than those living inland, and Hoekstra is searching for pigment genes responsible for the color variation. She's combining molecular, developmental, genetic, and ecological approaches, including putting thousands of clay decoys on beaches to test the effects of coat color on predation risk and mapping genes and testing pigment protein function in cell cultures. “We're attacking the system from all sides,” says Hoekstra.

    On this trip, Hoekstra and her team are looking not just at coat-color variation but also at variation in burrow-building. Most deer mice build short, shallow burrows; old-field mice go for deeper, longer ones. Back in the lab, Harvard graduate student Evan Kingsley is trying to pin down the genetics of tail length: Mice in forests have longer tails. Recently, Hoekstra postdoc Catherine Linnen described a genetic change underlying light-colored deer mice that match the Sand Hills of Nebraska (Science, 28 August, p. 1095). “We're finally at the point where we can start to identify the genes responsible for phenotypic variation,” says Hoekstra.

    In June, at a meeting in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, Hoekstra described the third of the three genes responsible for coat-color variation in Peromyscus mice and laid out her view of the order in which mutations leading to paler mice occurred. “We're trying to reconstruct the evolutionary path, genetic step by genetic step,” she says. “Understanding how characters evolve is a critical question, and she is bringing a significant contribution,” says developmental geneticist Claude Desplan of New York University. He adds that her work demonstrates that “one can really identify evolving traits.”

    Hoekstra and her team are part of a genomics explosion in natural history studies. “This is an example of work … merging the ‘green’ and ‘white’ side of biology, in which we learn about trait evolution from the biochemical levels within cells to how those traits are selected for or against in natural populations,” says Hans Ellegren, an evolutionary biologist at Uppsala University in Sweden. Mark McKone, a biologist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, agrees: The work “could be a model for how to approach evolution in the postgenomic period,” when genetic information and tools are more readily available.

    New tools, classic model

    Hoekstra's team represents the latest generation of researchers tracking down genes that underlie so-called quantitative traits such as height or body mass, which—unlike, say, eye color—vary by degree and are influenced by multiple genes. It is painstaking work.

    Researchers home in on such genes through intensive breeding studies combined with careful analysis of trait characteristics: spots, stripes, and so on for coat color; depth, length, and angle for burrowing behavior. They correlate the traits with specific markers in genetic maps to pinpoint stretches of DNA known as quantitative trait loci (QTLs) that contain the genes of interest. “This is done well in insects but is much more difficult in mammals,” says Desplan. Over the past 20 years, several studies have identified QTLs in mammals, but few have managed to narrow the search to specific genes, let alone identify mutations that result in changes such as coat color.

    Mouse of a different color.

    Mice from different locales have evolved site-specific coat colors, except those at Lafayette Creek, which have a variety of pelt patterns.


    The discovery in 2005 by David Kingsley of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, and colleagues that a change in the ectodysplasin gene led to the loss of armor in freshwater sticklebacks (Science, 25 March 2005, p. 1928) “got the field excited,” says Hoekstra. It was the first QTL study using natural populations to come up with a gene that was not already suspected to be involved and, later, to pin down its mutation. Hoekstra hopes to go into more detail with her mouse studies. Whereas Kingsley focused on the gene with the biggest effect, she is searching for several genes. “If we identify multiple genes and understand the interactions between those genes, we can also learn something new about evolutionary processes,” she explains.

    Her animal of choice is a textbook case of adaptation. Peromyscus mice are distant relatives of house mice. For more than a century, researchers had observed them in the wild, describing their looks and behaviors. In 1909, light-colored P. polionotus were discovered on Florida's barrier islands, a sharp contrast to dark-brown, gray-bellied mainland mice of the same species. Some 6000 years ago, dark oldfield mice moved into these newly formed beaches and islands. Today, eight subspecies of these light-colored P. polionotus exist on Florida's coasts.

    In the late 1920s, natural historian Francis Sumner guaranteed P. polionotus a place in the textbooks when he drove from Florida's Gulf Coast inland 150 kilometers collecting mice in eight places along the way, noting a correlation between soil and mouse color. When he started, he was convinced that humidity caused the variation in color. By the project's end, he was more convinced that genetics caused the differences, driven by selection for camouflage. “It's one of the best studies of intraspecific variation,” says Hoekstra.

    Giants in evolutionary biology, including Ernst Mayr, Theodosius Dobzhansky, John Maynard Smith, J. B. S. Haldane, and Sewall Wright, have cited the work as a classic example of adaptation. Others followed Sumner, looking at various aspects of beach mice ecology, but they were unable to pin down the genetics. Hoekstra saw an opportunity: “We now have the molecular tools to answer the questions that they were asking more than a half-century ago.”

    She and her colleagues bred dark and light mice, then generated 800 second-generation offspring. These hybrid mice differed in their stripes and splotches and the extent of dark or light areas of their bodies, traits duly noted for each individual. This variation indicated that more than one gene was involved, but because the second generation still contained some mice that looked like the parents, Hoekstra knew that relatively few genes were important. “It wasn't one, it wasn't 100,” Hoekstra recalls. So she decided to go after them all.

    Weber and Cynthia Steiner, now at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research in California, developed and applied a set of more than 100 microsatellite markers, small pieces of variable DNA located across the genome. They correlated the markers with the presence or absence of the various color pattern traits. That work yielded three hot spots—QTLs—that seemed to determine what the mice looked like.

    The researchers looked at the sequences of the house mouse and rat genomes for pigment-related genes at those locations and found promising candidates. One was Mc1r, which codes for a receptor protein in pigment-producing cells. Hoekstra was at first skeptical. In her studies of black pocket mice on volcanic rock in Arizona, one version of that gene was responsible for the black mice and another for light mice; it was not clear how the gene might play a role in determining fine details such as nose blazes and tail stripes.

    But not only did they prove that Mc1r was involved, they also found a single-base change that led to an amino acid mutation that dampened receptor activity (Science, 15 July 2005, p. 374; 7 July 2006, p. 101). A second candidate gene, Agouti, panned out as well. In this case, the versions of the gene in dark and light mice were identical; yet the gene in beach mice was much more active, leading to much more messenger RNA and presumably protein that reduced dark-pigment production, particularly in the cheeks, tail, and eyebrows, Hoekstra, Weber, and Steiner reported in 2007.

    They had a false start with the third region identified in the QTL studies. Harvard graduate student Emily Jacobs-Palmer eventually ruled out several pigmentation genes, including a promising one called Kit that turned out to lie outside the QTL. Then last year, Bruce Morgan of Harvard Medical School in Boston and his colleagues reported that mutating a gene called Corin, which was expressed in the hair follicles of laboratory mice, made for dirty-blond mice. Corin was also active in the hair follicles of oldfield mice, Hoekstra reported in June at “Evolution: The Molecular Landscape” in Cold Spring Harbor. The gene in light and dark mice was almost the same, but it was much more active in light mice. Thus, as with Agouti, a change in regulation may be key to the change in coat color.

    In the simplest scenario, the effect of these genes would be additive: Two “light” versions of the variable genes would lead to a paler mouse than one version would, and the palest mice would have “light” versions of all three. But that's not the case with Agouti, Corin, and Mc1r. These genes have epistatic interactions: A “dark” Agouti version counters any lightening effect of a “light” Corin or Mc1R, for example.

    These epistatic effects can dictate the order in which alleles in a population must pop up in order to be selected for and spread. “You need to have the agouti allele first,” says Hoekstra, because the “light” versions of Corin or Mc1r would be invisible to selection if only the “dark” agouti were present.

    By backcrossing the second-generation mice with their parents and figuring out which version of each of the three genes the offspring had, Hoekstra's team was able to tease out the interactions among the genes. The light-mouse version of Corin lightens the coat only when the light-mouse versions of both of the other genes are also present, Hoekstra reported. Thus, it is likely that genetic change in Corin occurred after the changes to Mc1r and Agouti.

    Meanwhile, Domingues and graduate student Lynne Mullen are trying to track down the exact base changes involved in the Agouti and Corin regulatory regions. Working with postdoc Brant Peterson, they are figuring out a way to sequence 200,000-base chunks surrounding each of these genes in multiple individuals. They plan to scan for differences that correlate with coat color patterns. “We will probably see lots of differences,” says Hoekstra. “The question is, ‘What are the important ones?’”

    The work Domingues is doing here might help answer that question. The landscape is dotted with spots of white sand sparsely broken up by vegetation amid fields solidly covered with low bush and plants, and in a few places, meter-tall trees have taken hold. When local fish and wildlife managers first directed her to this spot, Domingues expected the mice to be uniformly dark, but quite a few had beachlike features.

    Bagging burrows.

    The beach mice field crew measures a mouse burrow after making a cast of its tunnels.


    Hoekstra and Domingues eagerly discuss the pelage of each catch. How far a dark stripe extends down the tail, the expanse of white on the cheeks, the presence of a nose blaze all matter, as they signal something interesting going on in the genetics of these supposed-to-be-dark mainland mice. Domingues plans to try to pin down the genes—and mutations—involved in all the variation she sees, using the three genes implicated in beach mouse paleness as a jumping-off point.

    Burrowing in

    Weber has taken on an even more challenging project: using these mice to look at the genetics underlying burrowing behavior. “It's path-breaking work on the evolution of behavior in a natural environment,” says field biologist Peter Grant of Princeton University. “QTL studies are widespread in general but rare in behavior studies of organisms in nature.”

    Unlike coat color, almost nothing is known about genes that might guide burrowing. Yet oldfield mice and their sister species, deer mice, differ dramatically and, it seems, consistently in the burrows they build. The latter tend to knock off their digging less than 10 centimeters down. Oldfield mice shovel down 1 meter, even 2, hollow out a nest chamber, and then excavate an escape tunnel that tends to shoot directly back up to just below the surface. The mice plug up the burrow about 15 centimeters from the entrance, sealing themselves safely in underground.

    Back in the lab, Weber has filled 10 boxes, each 122 cm by 152.5 cm by 92.5 cm tall, with 1.5 tons of premium playground sand. He has crossed oldfield with deer mice, then crossed their offspring back with either parent, and he's looking at what sorts of burrows these backcrossed progeny dig. The distribution of burrow sizes in this second generation will provide a rough indication of how many genes are involved in determining burrowing behavior. Weber squirts household insulating foam from a spray can down the burrows. The foam expands to fill the nest and passageways and hardens to provide a three-dimensional model of the burrow. So far he's tested 200 mice and has partially filled the attic of the Museum of Comparative Zoology with casts of their burrows.

    Here in Freeport, he's doing some ground-truthing. He catches the mice in the burrows so he can correlate their DNA with the tunnels' dimensions. He picks what looks like a freshly dug hole, shovels out some dirt, then drops to his knees to scoop the sand and clay away with his hands until he sees a round, light-colored spot in the wall of the hole. His finger easily pokes through it, revealing it to be a plug of sand blocking the burrow tunnel. Alternating between shoveling and scooping and probing the tunnel with a long, flexible, plastic tube (sprinkler tubing), he excavates the tunnel, eventually breaking into a widened area filled with nesting material. “This nest is gigantic,” he says.

    He confers with Hoekstra about where she should stand in anticipation of mice emerging from the invisible escape hatch. She shifts to the right a half-meter, then bends her legs slightly, hands on her knees. She looks like the volleyball player she used to be, expecting a serve, except she's looking down, not up.

    Weber pokes the tubing in a little farther. Suddenly, two heads pop up about 20 centimeters to Hoekstra's right. She dives to clamp her gloved hands over the heads. But as she peeks through her fingers, one dashes out between her legs, and the other heads full speed in the opposite direction. Both she and Weber pursue that one, darting from bush to bush after the mouse until finally Weber has it in hand. The other is long gone.

    While Weber measures the size and shape of the burrow, Hoekstra measures the sacrificed mouse, then dissects out its liver to save for DNA tests, removes the skin to mount the pelt for future studies of the color pattern, and saves the skeleton for the museum's collections. The sun sets bright red in front of her, and the full moon is a big white ball in the sky behind her.

    Weber and Hoekstra seem tired but content. The burrows they've dug up were deeper and longer than usual; shoveling heavy, wet sand was tough going. They've been up since before dawn and have an evening of setting traps ahead of them. “But once in a while, it's good if it's hard,” Hoekstra says. “Then you appreciate it when it's easy.”

  9. Evolutionary Biology

    Melding Mammals and Molecules to Track Evolution

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi

    Harvard University evolutionary biologist Hopi Hoekstra's first college summer job—as a tick target for researchers assessing where and when hikers were most susceptible to attacks by Lyme disease–transmitting ticks—made her itch for more fieldwork and, eventually, a life as a biologist.

    Mouse maven.

    Hopi Hoekstra combines molecular and field expertise to study the genetics of wild mice.


    Self-described as a bubbly California girl, Hopi Hoekstra entered the University of California, Berkeley (UCB), not thinking about being a scientist. Her goal was to become the U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands—both her parents are Dutch—and an accomplished collegiate volleyball player. Then she got her first summer job: Dressed in white, she hiked the Berkeley Hills just east of campus, a tick target for researchers assessing where and when hikers were most susceptible to attacks by Lyme disease–transmitting ticks. “It still makes me itch just to think about it,” she says.

    But the experience made Hoekstra itch for more fieldwork and, eventually, a life as a biologist. Two years ago, she moved from the University of California, San Diego, to Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a Harvard University evolutionary biologist. She is also currently curator of mammals at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology. Although only in her mid-30s, “Hopi has rapidly made herself a name in the evolutionary biology community,” says Hans Ellegren of Uppsala University in Sweden. Her honors include a young investigator award from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation and prizes from her professional societies and her universities. “She's just about one of the deepest thinkers in the area,” says Carlos Bustamante of Cornell University, who adds that her beach mice experiments “are beautifully thought out and designed.”

    She traces her professional roots back to her UCB experience, where she managed to do research almost year-round, even as an undergraduate. One summer, she analyzed pack rat middens in Yellowstone National Park. She studied the biomechanics of invertebrates throughout the school year. During that time, James Patton, curator of mammals at the Berkeley Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, got her hooked on four-legged furry creatures by taking her to trap gophers in Arizona. And before starting graduate school, she spent 3 months as shipboard mammalogist on a joint Japanese, Russian, and American expedition to collect animals in the Kuril Islands off Russia.

    Her Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Washington, Seattle, involved months of fieldwork in the Andes tracking down a sex chromosome polymorphism in mice. Some females seemed to have both a big and a small X, which later proved to be a Y chromosome, even though these females were completely fertile, producing more young than the typical female with two X chromosomes. “This was an oddball system,” Hoekstra recalls. Afterward, “I got interested in more general questions.”

    Fascinated by the genetics underlying adaptation, she spent her postdoc trapping black mice on ancient Arizona volcanoes and tracking down the gene responsible for the change. In these field studies, she developed a yen for her camp meal of choice: cold SpaghettiOs and mini meat balls straight from the can, with a Miller Light.

    She considers herself a molecular person: “We're interested in the molecules that are important to the organism,” she says. Yet she also knows just how much cornmeal it takes when skinning a mouse to ensure the pelt won't be greasy and that shrews have fragile skin that's hard to pull off.

    The breadth of projects include an analysis of shrew venom proteins and a collaboration on a genetic study of mice in Bulgaria that seem to cooperate to build large mounds that they coinhabit to get through harsh winters.

    “Being able to be a molecular biologist and be comfortable with the whole organism—few people do that as well as Hopi, and that's where progress [in the field] will be made,” says Mark McKone, a biologist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. “When you put [her research] together, it's more than the sum of its parts.”

    Hoekstra doesn't get out into the field much anymore. Instead, she lives vicariously through her students and postdocs, with the goal of spending time at least once with each of them in the field. “When they have a really good day, they call and leave a message,” she says, or send a photo from their phones, such as an image of 44 traps stacked up against a brick wall, signaling that their trapping yielded a bonanza. “They just send a picture [without words] because they know I know what it means.”

  10. Environmental Management

    Science Lags on Saving the Arctic From Oil Spills

    1. Michael Torrice

    The U.S. government is being accused of failing to design and carry out needed research.

    Hot spot.

    Oil from a 1986 test spill is burned off the Canadian coast of Nova Scotia as part of ongoing research on Arctic cleanup efforts.


    Global warming is raising the possibility of a devastating oil spill in the Arctic, as melting sea ice attracts more shipping and energy exploration. But the United States is ill-prepared to prevent and recover from spills in this ecologically fragile region, say scientists and policymakers. So they are asking the U.S. government to reinvigorate the national oil-spill research program with a focus on the Arctic.

    In 1986, the federal government set up the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to pay for cleaning up spills, putting a nickel tax on every barrel of crude oil produced domestically or imported into the country. In 1990—1 year after the Exxon Valdez spilled 250,000 barrels of crude into the sub-Arctic Prince William Sound in the Gulf of Alaska—Congress created a national research program funded by the trust fund to improve cleanup technologies and study spill effects on ecosystems in all regions, including the Arctic. A 13-agency coordinating committee led by the U.S. Coast Guard oversees the program.

    But the national oil-spill research plan hasn't been updated since 1997, and the federal agencies have spent only a fraction of the $28 million a year that was authorized—last year's total for all oil-spill research was $7 million. The Oil Spill Recovery Institute in Cordova, Alaska, which, under the 1990 Oil Pollution Act, was created to study spills in the Arctic, typically spends $800,000 a year. In contrast, Norway, for example, has invested $10 million since 2006 to study new oil-spill technologies in the Arctic.

    A 1993 U.S. National Research Council (NRC) report on the coordinating committee's original plan concluded that the “effectiveness of the plan is in doubt” because of the low level of funding, adding that public interest in oil spills wanes quickly after an accident occurs. Another problem, says Mead Treadwell, chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, which is charged with recommending national policy on Arctic research, is that the Coast Guard has been preoccupied with homeland security since the 2001 terrorist attacks.

    “It just isn't working,” Treadwell says about the 1990 law's research program. “We need to have the confidence that we can prevent and respond to spills in this frontier region.” The interagency committee needs to update its research plan to pay more attention to the Arctic, Treadwell said to a Senate spending panel last month at a field hearing in Alaska on the Arctic's strategic importance.

    Bills are pending in both houses of Congress that would beef up the Arctic research program. A Senate bill (S. 1564) would authorize $8 million annually in fiscal years 2010 through 2014 specifically for research on Arctic biology and improved cleanup technology. A House bill (H.R. 2693) would put the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in charge of a new interagency committee that would include grants to universities and research institutions and have research on Arctic spills as one of its priorities.

    Treadwell doesn't believe the 1990 law needs any significant changes. “Congress can rearrange the chairs in the room, but why don't we just use the legislation already available?” he says. Captain Anthony Lloyd, the Coast Guard official who chairs the coordinating committee, says the committee plans to start updating the research plan within the next year. More research is key, says Treadwell. “Right now, if a university researcher has a good idea for climate change, there is a way to get funding,” he says. “Not so for oil-spill research.”

    There are plenty of challenges for scientists to tackle. The logistics of Arctic oil spills is more difficult, as the Arctic has fewer locations from which to launch recovery missions. In addition, the icy waters require different cleanup techniques. The ice can also trap oil underneath it, making it difficult for crews to find. “When the oil gets under the ice, that's a different situation,” says Stanley Rice, a senior scientist at NOAA's Auke Bay Laboratories in Juneau. “That's what's scary to us.”

    Under ideal conditions, cleanup crews can recover 30% of spilled oil, according to a 1999 NRC report. But that figure would be much lower in the Arctic, says Rick Steiner, a marine biologist at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. “If … there is a spill, it's virtually certain that most of the oil will remain in the environment,” Steiner says. He and other scientists worry that this lost oil will disrupt an ecosystem already stressed by climate change. “We currently know enough [to predict] that it would be a big problem,” Rice says.

  11. Materials Science

    As China's Rare Earth R&D Becomes Ever More Rarefied, Others Tremble

    1. Richard Stone

    China owns a virtual monopoly on production of rare earth elements used in a wide range of high-tech devices, and it is catching up fast on applications.


    BAOTOU, CHINA—The clanging metal box, a meter long and studded with flashing diodes, looks something like a 1950s computer or the control panel of a vintage airplane. In fact, the noisy apparatus perched on a wooden desk here at the Baotou Research Institute of Rare Earths (BRIRE) is a prototype magnetic refrigerator. Inside the setup is a white cylinder—a set of neodymium magnets—that slides along a tube filled with an alloy of another rare earth element, gadolinium. As the magnet traverses the tube, it reorients atoms in the alloy, releasing heat. After the magnet passes, the atoms disorient and soak up heat from their surroundings. What looks like a bike chain ratchets the cylinder back to its starting position. With each cycle, a glass flask inside the box grows chillier. Within several minutes, the flask has cooled by about 20°C.

    BRIRE's clattering machine may seem like a throwback to the past, but refrigeration with magnets is the wave of the future—as long as there is a steady supply of rare earths. These elements are already essential constituents of everything from iPods to Patriot missiles. “Rare earths are playing a vital role in the development of high technology,” says BRIRE President Zhao Zengqi.

    China was late to join the race to develop novel rare earth materials. “We lag behind the world in applications,” says Xu Guangxian of Peking University, a chemist who was detained by the Red Guard in the late 1960s before becoming a pioneer in separating rare earths from other minerals. But Western observers agree that China is catching up fast in areas such as fuel cells and magnetic refrigeration, thanks in part to research efforts now happening here at BRIRE. “Absolutely, they are gaining ground,” says Clint Cox, an analyst at The Anchor House, a rare earths consulting firm in Chicago, Illinois. Today, about three-quarters of the world's neodymium magnets are made in China. Domestic industrial demand is rising: Last year, China consumed 60% of all processed rare earths.

    That unnerves some industry analysts and U.S. legislators, who have expressed concern about China's dominance of the rare earth supply. Last year, China satisfied 95% of global demand—now about 125,000 tons per year—and holds more than half of all proven reserves. In the 1990s, China's cheap production costs sent prices plummeting, driving many non-Chinese rare earth mines out of business. Prices started creeping up in 2005, however, when China began to limit production and slap export tariffs on some rare earths. In a policy paper last month, China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology floated the idea of prohibiting export of three scarcer rare earths—europium, terbium, and dysprosium—the last named, ironically, after the Greek word dysprositos, or “hard to get.” If the Chinese government were to implement such a policy, that “would be a big problem for other countries,” says Judith Chegwidden, managing director of Roskill Information Services Ltd., a mining analysis company in London. China has a “natural monopoly” over heavier rare earths, she says, simply because few mines elsewhere have ample reserves.

    China's position on these strategic elements is complex—and touchy. “On one hand, the Chinese government doesn't have a clear strategy on rare earths, and it takes Western concerns seriously,” says Luo Zhongwei, an economist at the Institute of Industrial Economics of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. On the other hand, he says, China considers rare earths, because of their critical civilian and military applications, a matter of national security. “It's very sensitive.”

    Rare talent

    Rare earths consist of the 15 elements known as lanthanoids and the chemically similar elements yttrium and scandium. Their nickname is a misnomer. Initially, chemists thought these elements, which occur in the same kinds of mineral deposits, were rare. Although they may not be as abundant as iron or nickel, for example, untold millions of tons of rare earths are scattered in Earth's crust. Just as some regions are blessed with a disproportionate wealth of diamonds or gold, four countries possess about three-quarters of all known rare earth reserves: Australia has 5%, Russia has 6%, the United States has 13%, and China has a whopping 52%.

    Touring southern China in 1992, Deng Xiaoping, then the leader of China's Communist Party, articulated the strategic value of the country's vast rare earth reserves when he declared, “There is oil in the Middle East and rare earth in China.” China's “proven reserves should last hundreds of years” at current consumption rates, says Zhao, who expects that many more reserves will be discovered around the world. On the whole, the heavier lanthanoids—elements 65 to 73 on the periodic table—are scarcer than the lighter ones, elements 57 to 64. Demand for heavy rare earths is higher, as they are more commonly used in high-tech applications, Zhao says.

    Early on, industrialists found that mixing rare earths with iron or aluminum made alloys that are harder and more resistant to heat and corrosion than are traditional alloys. Yttrium is one of the most widely used rare earths: It shows up in infrared lasers and superconductors, and in zeolites used to break down complex hydrocarbons in petroleum refining. Military uses of rare earths include samarium-cobalt magnets in missile-guidance systems. Rare earths have since become indispensable components in manifold consumer goods, including computer disk drives, fluorescent lights, hybrid-car fuel cells, and catalytic converters.

    As applications burgeoned in the 1960s and '70s, China largely sat on the sidelines. BRIRE had been set up in 1963 in Inner Mongolia, where most of the country's rare earths are mined. At the time, only a few countries were capable of separating most rare earths, which forced China to import processed rare earths at sky-high prices.

    China put one of its top chemists on the job. In the 1950s, Xu Guangxian had helped separate uranium isotopes for the nation's atomic program before joining Peking University's chemistry faculty—and briefly falling from grace. At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in the mid-1960s, Xu and about 1000 other university personnel were detained in a dormitory; Xu's time abroad during World War II, when he earned a Ph.D. from Columbia University, made him a suspected spy. Red Guards, fearing their captives might kill themselves, kept apartment lights blazing around the clock to watch them. “I wanted to die, but I lived on the second floor and thought if I jumped, I would only be injured,” Xu says. Several dozen colleagues on higher floors did commit suicide. After nearly 6 months of captivity, Xu was released and worked for 2 years on a farm in eastern China.

    Rare earth pioneer.

    Xu Guangxian and Premier Wen Jiabao share a light moment during the State Supreme Science and Technology Prize ceremony last January.


    In 1971, Xu returned to Peking University, and the next year the central government ordered him to work on an urgent problem: separation of the rare earths praseodymium and neodymium. “It was much more complicated than separating uranium,” says Xu. Ten or more rare earths are often found simultaneously in mineral formations. But after 4 years, his team developed a novel acid-extraction technique. Largely for this achievement, Xu was awarded China's highest science honor, the State Supreme Science and Technology Award, earlier this year.

    Rare dominance

    Xu's breakthrough energized Chinese industry. Thirty years later, BRIRE, with a 300-strong scientific staff and now part of Baotou Iron and Steel Co., is staking out new ground in rare earth research.

    One critical area is hydrogen storage in nickel-metal hydride batteries and fuel cells. So far, researchers worldwide have identified five rare earth alloys that absorb hydrogen gas. One has made it to the market: lanthanum nickel (LaNi5), used widely for rechargeable batteries and fuel cells of hybrid cars. The alloy with the highest current-discharge capacity is one that BRIRE's Yan Huizhong and colleagues discovered and filed international patents for last year: a lanthanum-iron-boron alloy that, gram for gram, discharges twice as much electricity as does LaNi5, Yan says. China is a big producer of LaNi5-based batteries and fuel cells but must license the technology from overseas patent holders. “If our new material is put into practical use, it would be the first of our own—Chinese,” Yan says.

    Rare earths are particularly prized for their magnetic properties. One category is materials that change shape when subjected to a magnetic field, thus converting magnetic energy to kinetic energy. Such magnetostrictive materials containing terbium, for example, are used in actuators and sonars.

    Other alloys are permanent magnets. Demand for the strongest known permanent magnet, neodymium iron boron, has been growing at about 15% per year and accounts for one-third of all rare earth metal consumed in industry, says BRIRE's Huang Jiaohong. Neodymium magnets are at the heart of magnetic resonance imaging machines, in the guts of cell phones and headphones to amplify sound, and in prototype magnetic refrigerators. Yet the element is increasingly scarce: Global inventories of the element were almost wiped out in 2007 and remain anemic.

    Competition is heating up to bring the first magnetic refrigerator to market. The selling points, says Huang, are that “you won't need chemical refrigerants, and they are energy-efficient”—twice as efficient as Freon-based devices, for example. Although the magnetocaloric effect of certain metals has been known for decades, only in 1997 did Karl Gschneidner, a metallurgist at the U.S. Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory in Iowa, and colleagues demonstrate a robust effect using a rare earth alloy, gadolinium silicon germanium. “Room-temperature magnetic refrigeration cannot be put into practical application without rare earths,” says Huang, whose lab discovered in 2005 that a lanthanum-based composite, doped with boron, has a powerful magnetocaloric effect.

    Labs in at least 10 countries have developed prototype refrigerators, and in several years, Huang predicts, the first models should come on the market. (Some other experts say that could take a decade or longer.) Unlike R&D on military applications, which not surprisingly is classified at BRIRE and elsewhere, refrigeration research “is fairly open,” Huang says. BRIRE and overseas companies have conducted joint research on such devices.

    Rare earth R&D may be largely collegial, but ill feelings are mounting over China's export policies. The central government has tried to reassure other nations that it does not intend to abuse its virtual monopoly. One pundit has even raised the specter of China using rare earths as a “21st century economic weapon.” Luo calls such concerns a “misunderstanding.” China's policy is merely disorganized, he says: “Now we are searching for methods to conquer these obstacles and devise a coherent policy.”

    Last month's industry ministry policy paper lays out a strategy for centralizing control over the domestic rare earth industry. That should make it easier for Beijing to reduce export quotas, warns Chegwidden. “People may find it more difficult to buy from China,” she predicts. If so, the rest of the world will have to redouble its efforts to ensure adequate supplies of rare earths—or someday face a reversal of fortune that leaves them playing technological catch-up to China.