Random Samples

Science  16 Oct 2009:
Vol. 326, Issue 5951, pp. 345
  1. Pretty Poison

      CREDIT: LUKE JERRAM

      Swine flu can be beautiful. Below is one of the large glass “viral sculptures” that were on show this month at a London gallery. Artist Luke Jerram has also rendered HIV, smallpox, SARS, and Escherichia coli in glass with advice from virologist Andrew Davidson of the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. The renditions are more faithful to the originals than most illustrations, Jerram says, because they are naturally transparent. More images are at http://www.lukejerram.com/projects/glass_microbiology.

    1. Bumper Crop

        Net-wielding entomologists have captured and named only a small fraction of the world's insects. Now researchers have come up with a new strategy: Drive through them and study the DNA stuck to your bumper.

        The “Galaxy Team,” a multiuniversity group of biologists and computer experts (http://galaxyproject.org) took two road trips, from Pennsylvania to Connecticut and then from Maine to New Brunswick, Canada. They attached sticky tape to their front bumper to collect everything airborne along the way. Back at the lab, they extracted DNA from the splatter and compared it with a database of DNA from known species.

        The exercise yielded more than 400,000 different DNA fragments from as many as 2000 insect species as well as innumerable species of bacteria. Only 8% of the fragments matched known sequences. Most of the rest were likely from microbes, plants, and animals poorly represented in the database, the team reported online last week in Genome Research. The identified sequences reflected the difference in biodiversity between two regions, one urbanized and the other heavily forested.

        The technique of analyzing DNA from the environment, known as metagenomics, has been used to study hard-to-culture microorganisms such as bacteria in seawater but never bug-sized creatures. The “radiator approach” is a quick-and-dirty method, says entomologist Donald Chandler of the University of New Hampshire, Durham, “but it seems to do the job.”

      1. Hoards and Hordes

          Pot of 10,000 coins found in Shrewsbury, U.K.

          CREDIT: THE PORTABLE ANTIQUITIES SCHEME

          Buried coins may provide clues about population fluctuations in the Roman Republic more than 2000 years ago, scholars say.

          Historians have long debated Rome's population in the first century B.C.E. when the republic fell. Censuses begun in 28 B.C.E. by the first Roman emperor, Augustus, pegged the empire's population at about 5 million—10 times as many as a century earlier.

          What happened? Social scientists Peter Turchin of the University of Connecticut, Storrs, and Walter Scheidel of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, took coin hoarding—which increases in times of peril—as a proxy for social instability. First they compared data on coin burials with population fluctuations between 250 B.C.E. and 100 B.C.E. and found that hoarding jumped during the Second Punic War, when the population dropped by 50,000. Then they inferred later population levels from data on coins hoarded between 100 B.C.E. and 50 C.E.

          They concluded that the population of adult males then was about half the Augustan census count. So these censuses must have been counting women and children, they reported online last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. True or not, “This paper has the great virtue of pushing the debate back toward actual evidence,” says historian Ian Morris of Stanford University.

        1. NIH Loses an Icon

            CREDIT: NIH

            Ruth Kirschstein, 82, former deputy director of the National Institutes of Health, died on 6 October at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Kirschstein's history is interwoven with that of NIH. She and her husband, Alan Rabson, now a deputy director at the National Cancer Institute, came to Bethesda in the 1950s to work as pathology researchers. In 1974, she became the first woman to direct an NIH institute, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Kirschstein served as NIH deputy director under Harold Varmus and held the fort for 29 months as acting director before Elias Zerhouni took over. “She knew everything, everybody, every rule and was an incredible resource,” says Varmus.

            Despite poor health, Kirschstein was still working until last week, NIH Director Francis Collins said in an e-mail to staff. “The world has lost one of its dearest, most dedicated public servants, one with a huge heart and brilliant mind,” Collins said.

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