News this Week

Science  20 Nov 2009:
Vol. 326, Issue 5956, pp. 1046

You are currently viewing the .

View Full Text

Log in to view the full text

Log in through your institution

Log in through your institution

  1. Planetary Science

    Yes, There's Ice on the Moon—But How Much, and What Use Is It?

    1. Richard A. Kerr

    When a spent rocket booster slammed into the frigid, inky shadow of a lunar crater last month, it sent up a slightly damp plume of dust, NASA scientists reported last week. “We found water, a significant amount of water,” Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) Principal Investigator Anthony Colaprete of NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, said at a press conference.

    After several decades of controversy, scientists now know that over billions of years, water can collect as ice in some of the coldest places in the solar system. Whether there's enough lunar water ice for future astronauts to drink or turn into rocket fuel, however, remains to be seen.

    The LCROSS mission worked to perfection, except for a disappointing view from Earth. Before the impact, NASA scientists had predicted that ground-based observers, even amateurs, would see the plume in the gap between two mountains. As it turned out, Colaprete said, the impact's plume of debris “was as bright as thought, but it was behind a hill” because the debris did not rise as high as impact modeling had suggested.

    The heavily instrumented LCROSS spacecraft, however, had a fine view of the rocket booster's impact and aftermath as it sped to its own impact 4 minutes later. LCROSS spectroscopic instruments delivered a “good, strong detection” of water, Colaprete said. The results show that even on the barren moon, traces of water vapor can freeze into the nooks and crannies of lunar soil in the 40-kelvin cold of permanently shadowed crater floors that never see the sun.

    A hit.

    LCROSS (right) detected an impact plume of sunlit dust (above, center of squares) containing water that had been buried for eons.


    LCROSS gives only an inkling of where the water might have come from. Colaprete reported that spectra hint at the presence of other volatile compounds, such as carbon dioxide, methane, and methanol, all found in comets and ice-rich asteroids. So the moon may have retained a tiny bit of the objects that have pummeled it for eons.

    Whether anything will ever be made of the moon's stores of ice depends on how much is actually there. All told, LCROSS detected at least 100 kilograms of water, Colaprete said, but he declined to guess how abundant water ice had been beneath the impact site. Team members must still calculate what portion of subsurface ice actually rose into view and could have been measured, Colaprete noted. “It would probably be safe to say it's wetter than the Atacama Desert,” the driest place on Earth, he said.

    Some remote sensing had suggested about 1% water ice by volume would be in the upper 3 meters within permanently shadowed craters—a figure scientists considered a substantial amount. The 1% estimate “is not inconsistent with what's been observed,” says impact modeler and LCROSS team member David Goldstein of the University of Texas, Austin. “I haven't convinced myself yet whether it's 0.1% or 10%. I think we'll work that out.”

    Both planetary scientists and NASA lunar exploration planners are rooting for the higher number. Scientists see a “treasure-trove of information” locked up in the ice deposits, said Gregory Delory of the University of California, Berkeley. Such deposits could preserve eons of impact history the way ice sheets on Earth preserve climate history. Exploration proponents see a resource for the next round of lunar astronauts to drink and perhaps split into hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel, assuming the Obama Administration sticks with NASA's plans to return to the moon (Science, 25 September, p. 1606). But both would have to figure out a way to operate at just 40 degrees above absolute zero. Good luck with that.

  2. Japan

    Belt-Tightening Could Claim Some Scientific Scalps

    1. Dennis Normile

    TOKYO—Attempting to rein in Japan's yawning budget deficit, a government task force last week recommended tens of millions of dollars in cuts in science spending in the fiscal year beginning next April that would hit everything from research grants to big-ticket items such as a next-generation supercomputer. Taking a bite out of one high-profile target—Japan's ocean drilling program—could have international repercussions.

    Not surprisingly, “scientists are extremely disappointed,” says Masahiro Kami, an internal medicine researcher at the University of Tokyo. But the cuts are not a foregone conclusion: In the coming weeks, the finance ministry will finalize the budget, which must then be approved by Japan's legislature.

    The recommendations are the work of the Government Revitalization Unit, set up by the Democratic Party administration to identify wasteful spending in budget requests prepared under the previous government of the Liberal Democratic Party, which governed Japan for most of the past 50 years. In daily reports on its investigations starting 11 November, the task force primarily laid into bloated construction programs. But on 13 November, it also zeroed in on the education ministry's portfolio.

    The biggest target in the crosshairs is the $1.3 billion Next-Generation Supercomputer project at RIKEN, a network of national labs headquartered in Wako, near Tokyo. The task force recommended freezing $290 million budgeted for the project next year pending a review. The government has already spent about $610 million on development and on a center in Kobe to house the computer, which researchers would use to simulate galaxy formation and model Earth's climate, among other things. Any delay would “have a very big impact on the infrastructure for research,” says project chief Tadashi Watanabe. “The cuts are very shortsighted.”

    Another potential casualty is the ocean drilling program. The task force suggests a 10% to 20% reduction in its operating budget. “With a 10% cut, we could drill maybe for 1 month; with a 20% cut, there would be no operations at all,” says Asahiko Taira, an executive director of the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, which operates the drilling ship Chikyu—Japan's contribution to the global Integrated Ocean Drilling Program. Idling Chikyu would lop off one segment of a worldwide effort to study sub–sea-floor geophysical processes.

    Also facing the ax are the education ministry's SPring-8 synchrotron, materials science research, various grant programs, and a major science museum in Tokyo. The task force also suggests abolishing a much-criticized scientific whaling program. More may be in the offing, as the panel will meet through the end of November.

    The task force's recommendations give the tightfisted finance ministry a strong hand in upcoming negotiations with other ministries as the government finalizes the fiscal 2010 budget, which is typically sent to the legislature in late December. That leaves affected researchers a window of opportunity to save their necks. But considering the state of the economy and government finances, says Kami, prospects for research funding are grim.

  3. Astrophysics

    Galactic Glare Reveals Birthplace of Cosmic Rays

    1. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

    Cosmic rays—charged particles that hurtle through space at nearly the speed of light—have long baffled scientists. How do they acquire such tremendous velocities? Two new astronomical results—one in this week's issue of Science and the other published online this month in Nature—suggest that the physicist Enrico Fermi nailed the answer 60 years ago: They get their oomph from exploding stars. The papers give “pioneering results on a subject that was only explored by theorists” until recently, says Avi Loeb, an astrophysicist at Harvard University who was not involved in either study.

    Like a tennis ball being slammed by two opponents running toward the net, Fermi theorized, charged particles inside a supernova bounce back and forth across the powerful blast wave from the explosion. A few of them are accelerated to very high energies and shoot into space as cosmic rays.

    If this picture is true, galaxies that harbor many supernova explosions ought to be generating a high concentration of cosmic rays. Because cosmic rays interact with the surrounding gas to produce gamma rays, the most energetic form of light, the hearts of such galaxies should glow brightly in the gamma ray spectrum. And that's exactly what astronomers have found in two galaxies with high supernova activity: NGC 253 and M82.

    Fabio Acero and colleagues looked for gamma rays from NGC 253, which lies 10 million light-years away, using the High Energy Stereoscopic System (HESS)—an array of ground-based telescopes in Namibia that can trace gamma radiation from the faint blue light produced when gamma rays strike Earth's atmosphere. On page 1080, the researchers report that they observed a concentration of high-energy gamma rays coming from the nucleus of the galaxy—a relatively small region of intense starburst activity, with a high rate of star formation and supernova explosions. Such a high density of cosmic rays in “a region with an outstanding supernovae explosion rate indicates that the cosmic ray acceleration is connected to supernovae,” says co-author Dalibor Nedbal, an astrophysicist at Charles University in Prague.

    Cosmic accelerator.

    Glowing gamma radiation (left) from a “starburst” region in galaxy NGC 253 (right) confirms that cosmic rays get boosted to near–light speed inside exploding stars.


    Another research group, led by Victor Acciari of the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory near Amado, Arizona, reported online this month in Nature that it had found a similar connection in the M82 galaxy using the observatory's Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System. Both findings are in line with gamma ray observations of M82 and NGC 253 by the Fermi Space Telescope, presented this month at a symposium in Washington, D.C.

    The importance of the two papers is that they “identify the ‘smoking gun’ signature of cosmic rays in a starburst galaxy, which is a much more violent and dense environment than the interstellar medium of the center of the Milky Way,” Loeb says. He says the results also signal hope for detecting neutrinos from starburst galaxies using upcoming detectors such as the IceCube telescope, which is being built at the South Pole. That's because cosmic ray particles smashing into the interstellar medium produce subatomic particles known as pions, which decay to produce gamma radiation and neutrinos. Now that the gamma rays have been observed, Loeb says, it's the neutrinos' turn.

  4. Oil Resources

    Splitting the Difference Between Oil Pessimists and Optimists

    1. Richard A. Kerr

    World production of conventional oil is likely to peak before 2030 and could reach its limits before 2020, a major report from a new voice in the debate over oil depletion warns. The report from the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) steers a middle course between oil pessimists—many of whom think production has already topped out—and optimists, who hold that oil supply will continue to meet demand well beyond 2030. In view of the daunting task of weaning the world's transportation off oil, the risk of a peak before 2030 “needs to be given serious consideration,” the report says.

    Not ever upward.

    A new report falls midway between pessimistic (left) and optimistic (right) forecasts of oil production.


    Many experts agree, although their reasons vary. The report's prospect of an uncomfortably close peak in easily extracted oil makes sense, says petroleum geologist Lucia van Geuns of the Clingendael International Energy Programme in The Hague, the Netherlands. The report, she says, reinforces the increasingly concerned tone of annual reports from the International Energy Agency (IEA), the most recent of which came out last week with a warning that time is short for action.

    The authors of the UKERC report aspired to produce an “independent, thorough, and systematic review of the evidence and arguments in the ‘peak oil’ debate,” as its press release put it. UKERC, an umbrella organization of energy researchers at U.K. universities, was founded 5 years ago and is funded by Research Councils UK. For UKERC's Global Oil Depletion report ( released last month, five researchers headed by energy analyst Steven Sorrell of the University of Sussex commissioned researchers in and out of UKERC to scour the oil depletion literature, both peer-reviewed and not. Synthesizing more than 500 publications, the authors compared 14 forecasts of world production of conventional oil—the sort that will flow up a drill pipe on its own, not the oil locked up in oil sands or shale. After standardizing the forecasts, the authors rated their plausibility in light of the world's past production performance.

    In the end, the UKERC report finds fault with both optimistic and pessimistic oil forecasts. Pessimistic forecasts that yield a world production peak today or within a few years often depend upon some estimate of the total amount of oil in the world that will ever be produced, the ultimate recoverable resource (URR). Some forecasters emulate the late geophysicist M. King Hubbert, who in 1956 accurately predicted that production in the continental United States would peak in 1970. They combine their favored URR with Hubbert's rule of thumb that production peaks when half the URR has been consumed. Such “peakists” tend to favor a URR of a little over 2000 billion barrels; the world has consumed 1228 billion barrels, so we're peaking about now, they conclude.

    The UKERC report sees a number of problems with the classic Hubbert approach. “We come out quite critical of the pessimists, in part because their methods underestimate the URR,” says lead author Sorrell. In 2000, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimated that URR is 3345 billion barrels—a 47% increase over their previous figure. Peakists pooh-pooh the USGS estimate as wildly optimistic, but the UKERC report finds that “large resources of conventional oil may be available.” Among other evidence, it says, the amount of oil still being discovered in and around known fields supports the USGS estimate. The peakists' unwarranted low URRs have “contributed to excessively pessimistic forecasts of future supply,” the report concludes.

    On the other hand, the UKERC report finds forecasts that have global oil production rising more or less steadily out to 2030 to be overly optimistic. These forecasts from IEA, the U.S. Energy Information Administration, OPEC, and Exxon typically start by predicting how much oil will be required each year, including the expected added demand from growing populations and growing economies. Then forecasters allot the required production to oil-producing countries in proportion to the amount of oil they still hold.

    Such demand-driven forecasts, the report says, require world oil production to outperform its already stunning record of doubling every decade for a century. That's unlikely, it finds, because industry is discovering fewer and fewer of the giant, highly productive fields that made such growth possible. “We consider that forecasts that delay the peak until after 2030 rest upon several assumptions that are at best optimistic and at worst implausible,” the authors write. The IEA forecast, for example, implies that newly discovered fields will produce oil at rates that “greatly exceed historical experience,” says Sorrell. “That may be possible, but the forecasters certainly haven't justified it.”

    An avowed moderate pessimist—Beijing-based petroleum analyst Michael Rodgers of consulting company PFC Energy—says the UKERC report gets things about right. The report reminds readers that “there are some real subsurface constraints” on production, he says. “You have to find a lot of new fields to offset declining ones and build production, [but] there's no way you can be that optimistic.”

    Van Geuns agrees that the increasing difficulty in finding and extracting oil will lead to a conventional peak before 2030, but she still sees an optimistic side. As the increasing scarcity of conventional oil pushes up prices, exploitation of more expensive unconventional fuels such as oil sands (see p. 1052) will expand, she says. Higher-cost oil will also make pricey oil in extremely deep waters or in the offshore Arctic more attractive. If unconventional oil can be developed fast enough, she notes, any looming peak in conventional oil could be blunted. The catch, the UKERC report notes, is that the conventional oil peak will not give a clear warning of its approach; studies like this one will likely have to spur early, strong action by themselves.

  5. Cell Therapies

    Clean Pigs Offer Alternative to Stem Cell Transplants

    1. Constance Holden

    They may be the cleanest pigs on Earth. About 100 swine at the University of Minnesota's Schulze Diabetes Institute in Minneapolis constitute the first herd in the country specially bred to supply insulin-secreting pancreatic islets for people with diabetes.

    A scientific team led by surgeon and endocrinologist Bernhard Hering hopes to start clinical trials using these cells within a couple of years. But in addition to immunological challenges, they face the difficulties of gaining U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for grafting living animal tissues into humans (as opposed to mechanical aids such as cartilage) as well as overcoming public aversion to the idea.

    Minnesota immunologist Henk-Jan Schuurman described these special pigs last week at a National Institutes of Health (NIH) meeting on “next-generation beta cell transplantation” to treat type 1 diabetes, in which pancreatic islets containing beta cells are destroyed by a patient's own immune system. Scientists have been working feverishly to develop insulin-producing cells from human embryonic stem (ES) cells and, more recently, induced pluripotent stem cells to substitute for hard-to-get cells from human cadavers. But many believe pigs offer the nearest hope for an abundant source of tissue.

    Immaculate conception.

    Second-generation piglets in their sterile nursery.


    At least two small pig islet transplant trials are already under way, conducted by Living Cell Technologies in Auckland, New Zealand, reported the company's medical director, Robert Elliott. One was begun in Russia in 2007; the other started last month in New Zealand after 14 years of delays and public consultations.

    Living Cell uses Auckland Island pigs, billed as “the world's only virus-free pigs.” But they now have some serious competitors in the Minnesota porkers. Schuurman says their facility, opened in 2007, features special air and water filtration, autoclaving for all entering materials, sterile garments for workers, and constant medical tests for the inmates, who are strictly vegetarian to avoid importation of alien mammalian proteins. Only second-generation pigs raised in the facility will be used as donors.

    “We are now in a position where we can actually think about going forward with a human clinical trial,” Hering announced at the meeting. He argues that adult pig islets will be safer and less likely than human cell grafts to induce the autoimmune reaction that causes type 1 diabetes. However, pig tissue still triggers a powerful immune response. The New Zealand team has tackled this by encapsulating the islets in material that will fend off immune attack while allowing insulin out. The Minnesota team is still working on an immunosuppression regimen that will allow the use of “naked islets,” says Schuurman, which the scientists think will have better access to nutrients. Further down the road, scientists at the University of Pittsburgh and elsewhere are working on techniques for shuffling pigs' genes or conditioning patients' immune systems to narrow the species gap.

    Opinions vary about whether porcine islets are the wave of the future. Immunologist and transplant surgeon Christian Larsen of Emory University in Atlanta bets they are because researchers have still not been able to resolve the main problem with human ES cells: that they can cause teratomas. He says pig islet transplant work with monkeys at Emory and elsewhere has so far shown that the cells can function effectively for up to a year.

    But Gordon C. Weir, who studies islets at Harvard's Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston, believes ES cells will be the way to go. He calls the pig work “really intriguing” but fears that the porcine enthusiasts may be too optimistic about prospects for conquering the immune problem.


    From Science's Online Daily News Site

    Meditation Halves Risk of Heart Attack Meditation can cut the risk of heart attack, stroke, and death by almost 50% in patients with existing coronary heart disease, according to a new clinical trial. The findings indicate that relaxation and mental focusing can be as effective as powerful new drugs in treating heart disease.


    Socially Awkward? Check Your Genes Some people can read your face and know that you've had a bad day. Others seem oblivious. Now researchers have pinpointed a genetic explanation for why some people are better empathizers than others.

    A Silent Killer in Bangladesh Wells Every day, millions of people in Bangladesh drink poisoned water. Wells all over the country tap into shallow aquifers with high concentrations of arsenic. Now researchers report that they've figured out the cause of this contamination.

    A Physics Paradox: Holes That Block Light The way that light moves, with its fixed speed and its ability to act like either a wave or a particle, often leads to some of the most curious paradoxes of physics. A new one has just been found: Make holes in a film of gold so thin that it's already semitransparent, and less light gets through.

    New Neurons Make Room for New Memories The discovery that new neurons are born in the adult brain overturned decades-old dogma in neuroscience. But it also raised a host of questions about what exactly these neurons do. Now the authors of a new study suggest that the newcomers clear away the remnants of old memories to make room for new ones.

    Read the full postings, comments, and more on

  7. Newsmaker Interview

    University Head Zhu Qingshi Challenges Old Academic Ways

    1. Richard Stone

    BEIJING—Every autumn when Nobel Prize winners are announced and the world's most populous nation misses out—yet again—the mass media and blogs here blame an education system that values rote memorization over creativity. Widespread disaffection is a factor, Chinese state media observed, behind the National People's Congress's decision earlier this month to sack Education Minister Zhou Ji.

    But true change may come only from the bottom up. In September, the government of Shenzhen, a city in southern China, appointed physical chemist Zhu Qingshi as president of the planned South University of Science and Technology (SUST). Zhu insisted on also being appointed the university's Communist Party secretary, making it clear he would be calling the shots.

    A Sichuan native, Zhu, 63, graduated from the University of Science and Technology of China here in 1968 (USTC later moved to Hefei) and has been a visiting fellow at several top overseas labs, including the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Zhu's pioneering research in laser spectroscopy won him election to the Chinese Academy of Sciences at the tender age of 45. He became known as a reformer during his tenure as USTC president from 1998 to 2008.


    Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, was the cradle of China's market economy 30 years ago. In its bid to become a paragon of education reform, the city paid nearly $1 billion for the land for SUST's campus, expected to open in 2012 with an enrolment of 1500 undergraduates and 500 graduate students in science and engineering—all on scholarships covering tuition and living expenses. (SUST will launch with a small group of students in temporary digs next year.) In an interview with Science, Zhu explained how he intends to shake up China's university system—whether the education ministry likes it or not.

    Q:What did you do in Hefei to earn your reputation as a reformer?

    Z.Q.:My most important contribution to USTC was not what I did but what I did not do. In the past several years, Chinese universities grew very quickly, buying up land and enlarging enrollments. But teaching staffs were not expanded. We wanted to maintain academic standards, so we rejected this approach. Secondly, the Ministry of Education evaluates teaching and research activities at all universities. Evaluation is a good thing. But the ministry's evaluation now is not a real evaluation; it's a formal exercise.

    Q:An exercise in wining and dining?

    Z.Q.:Exactly. The evaluators would come to our university, and we didn't prepare anything special; instead we asked them to observe the professors and students.

    Q:Did the education ministry appreciate your approach?

    Z.Q.:No, they did not appreciate it. We didn't get perfect marks, but around 70% of China's universities did. Everybody knows the evaluation has no meaning. Of course, it's connected to funding, and our university got less money from the central government. But we kept a very high level of education and research.

    Q:In what way will SUST be different from other Chinese universities?

    Z.Q.:We will abolish rank: what we call debureaucratization of the administration.

    Q:How will that help?

    Z.Q.:The main problem in higher education is bureaucratic power. Many professors now pursue bureaucratic rank instead of academic excellence. If you attain a high rank, you get money, a car, research funding. This is why Chinese universities have lost vitality.

    Q:How will you persuade people to work for SUST rather than top universities like Tsinghua or Beida [Peking University]?

    Z.Q.:First, the Shenzhen government promised that we can hire professors at the same salary as professors at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. That's higher than Beida, even higher than many U.S. universities. Also, SUST will be the first university in China with a significant budget for research. This is something I'm pursuing very hard. We don't want our professors to have to continuously apply for funding.

    Q:A lot of critics say that China's education system suppresses creativity. At the teaching level, what needs to change?

    Z.Q.:We feel that the whole year of grade three of high school [equivalent to senior year in the United States] is wasted just preparing for the Gao Kao [the national university entrance exam].

    At SUST, we will not enroll students based on Gao Kao results. We will enroll them directly from grade two of high school. Next year, we will take 50 students from grade two.

    Q:Does the education ministry see your rebel attitude as a threat to its authority?

    Z.Q.:They might not forbid us to carry out our plan, but they also might not encourage us. There is a danger that our students may not get a diploma issued by the education ministry. My goal is to ensure that my students are accepted by society and get good jobs after they graduate. If I accomplish that, this experiment will be a success.

    People are looking for a university to challenge the education system and show an effective path for reform. SUST is going to face many problems. I am prepared to be the first to try true education reform, but maybe someone after me will be the first to succeed.

  8. Intellectual Property

    Research Centers Promise a Break on Medical Patents in Developing Countries

    1. Sam Kean
    Patent power.

    Ashley Stevens, of Boston University, argues that universities must use “socially responsible principles.”


    More than a half-dozen major U.S. universities and institutes pledged last week to lean on biotech companies when licensing intellectual property to secure more favorable terms for countries in the developing world.

    Harvard, Yale, and Brown universities, the University of Pennsylvania, and the state universities of Oregon and Illinois, as well as the National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have signed the pledge, which is sponsored by the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM).

    As patent owners, the pledge notes, they can use many strategies to ensure access to new medical technologies. These include filing for but not enforcing patent rights in a poor country, requiring companies not to file for subsequent patents in certain places, and forbidding them to sue manufacturers of generic drugs. Universities can even forgo royalties to give companies an incentive to cooperate. But the pledge includes no specific legal language to use in future licenses.

    “It's not clear yet what the best option is,” says Ashley Stevens, president-elect of AUTM and executive director of the office of technology transfer at Boston University, a signatory. The impact on therapies such as new drugs and vaccines may be the most important, the pledge says, but it covers all medical technologies. As a practical matter, it will have little effect on the market for 10 to 15 years, roughly the time it takes to commercialize a technology.

    Companies usually don't alter licenses already in place, although there are exceptions. In 1988, Yale University licensed an AIDS drug, soon called Zerit, to Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS). Zerit became part of a “triple cocktail” therapy in the 1990s that made AIDS manageable for the first time. BMS enforced patent rights for Zerit in South Africa, which was hit hard by AIDS and wanted to distribute a cheap generic copy. In 2001, activists and aid organizations asked Yale to press the company to relent. Yale said it had no power to do so.


    A fight over low-cost copies of this AIDS drug erupted in 2001.


    Only after a prolonged and noisy protest did BMS agree not to sue manufacturers of generic Zerit in South Africa. Stevens says the pledge has its roots in this incident, which helped to convince universities that they often ceded too much control over their technology.

    The biotech industry's reaction to the pledge has been mixed. The Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade group in Washington, D.C., has discussed principles similar to the pledge with universities such as the University of California system, says Tom DiLenge, general counsel at BIO. And he says Gilead and GlaxoSmithKline have already announced that they would not enforce intellectual-property rights for key drugs in developing countries. DiLenge adds that, from an industry perspective, “What's important is that [the pledge] is not a one-size-fits-all approach and that not all agreements contain certain clauses.”

    In licensing technologies at his school, Stevens has encountered resistance from companies about giving up some intellectual-property rights: “I wouldn't say the reaction has been, ‘What a wonderful idea.’” It has made some negotiations longer and “more difficult,” he says, but it hasn't decreased the values of licenses overall. And more biotech companies are coming around. “I think they've realized the developing world is only 3% to 4% of the world drug market.”

  9. ScienceInsider

    From the Science Policy Blog

    The American Physical Society's governing council has rejected a petition to revise a 2007 statement on global warming. That statement said warming was “incontrovertible” and could lead to “significant” ecological or social “disruptions.” The council turned back an effort to replace it with one that said, among other things, that recent warming is not “exceptional.”

    Brazil has announced a plan to cut carbon emissions from between 36% and 39% by 2020. Meanwhile, negotiators have acknowledged that a comprehensive climate deal won't be reached in Copenhagen next month.

    Spirit Rover may be about to die on the surface of Mars. Originally designed for a 90-day mission in early 2004, it has explored the planet for 5 years, but a wheel stuck in sand may prove its undoing.

    The European Union is lagging behind the United States in terms of total spending on research and development, but in 2008 it grew at a rate of 8.1%, two points higher than the United States. By comparison, China and India saw R&D growth of 40% and 27%, respectively.

    Asian scientists speaking at a conference questioned why cancer, which is rapidly overtaking AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria as a cause of premature mortality in the developing world, isn't mentioned in the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.

    A Florida circuit court ruled in favor of a Stanford University professor of the history of science who is trying to keep his unpublished book manuscript out of the hands of R.J. Reynolds. The tobacco company had subpoenaed it as evidence for an upcoming suit, but the judge said Robert Proctor had the right to withhold the manuscript.

    For more science policy news, visit

  10. Ecology

    Eco-Alchemy in Alberta

    1. Sam Kean

    The oil of the future—vast and largely untapped reserves of petroleum in the form of tarry deposits a few tens of meters beneath the surface—has serious reclamation challenges right now.


    A scarecrow in a “tailings pond” helps keep birds out of toxic mine water.


    FORT MCMURRAY, CANADA—I'd been poking around the oily lake for an hour when security arrived. A white pickup truck labeled Syncrude pulled onto the highway shoulder, near the lake's black dirt beach, and stopped. A short woman with spiky blonde hair, glasses, and an oversized security coat leaned across to the passenger window and demanded to know what I was doing.

    “What lake is this?” I called.

    “It's a tailings pond,” she answered. “And you're trespassing.”

    Ordering me over, she asked for my name and hometown. With a walkie-talkie, she radioed the information in to Syncrude headquarters. She probably figured me for an activist—environmentalists have staged numerous protests at oil mines, the most visible part of Canada's incredible oil boom. I had gone up in August to visit Alberta's infamous “tar sands,” vast and largely untapped reserves of petroleum in the form of tarry deposits a few tens of meters beneath the surface, and I'd been sidetracked looking for a herd of bison that I heard lived nearby. While someone unseen ran my name and decided my fate, I waited near the pickup. In the sudden quiet, cannons fired in the background.

    The interaction took a minute. In that time, the oil mines that stretch along Highway 63 in northern Alberta had produced 740,000 liters of wastewater slurry called “tailings,” which get dumped into standing pools called “tailings ponds.” The “ponds” already cover 130 km2 in Alberta—an area double the size of Manhattan—and are growing. Even oil executives such as Chris Fordham of Suncor Energy, a Canadian company, have said, “Let's be candid: These industrial ponds are not pretty to look at.” Different ponds have different colors—some aqua, some rainbow, some gray like skin under a bandage—but all have a sand bottom, a few meters of cloudy water, and a syrupy film of oil on top. Environmentalists swear (though it's hard to see how they know) that the vast pond complexes are visible from space.

    There's a roaring debate in Canada about whether tailings ponds, and oil mines in general, are ecologically salvageable—specifically, whether they can ever support the same flora and fauna as undisturbed land. No one knows because oil-mining companies have been reclaiming land for only a few decades, a short time ecologically, and on small scales. But one hint lies a kilometer down the road from the oily lake. There, right off the highway, a gravel road leads up to Wood Bison Viewpoint, a 690-hectare park owned by Syncrude, a conglomerate owned by seven oil companies in Canada. Like the oily lake, the park is artificial, but it supports a real if modest forest. Ducks fly by. Three hundred bison roam about, behind a fence. To all appearances, it's a thriving ecosystem—and it sits atop an exhausted oil-pit mine. Syncrude “reclaimed” this land by covering it with soil, planting trees, and introducing wildlife. It represents dozens of years of effort and millions of dollars of research. Oil companies proudly end tours at Wood Bison Viewpoint to reassure the public that they can indeed rehabilitate disturbed land.

    Don Thompson, president of the Oil Sands Developers Group, has no reservations: “I do not believe reclamation is a particular challenge at all.” Ecologists don't deny that, as long as companies commit money, they can recreate green landscapes. But ecologists see shades of green, and not all are equal. Northern Alberta is full of delicate areas such as wetlands, and the oil industry—despite sincere efforts—has a spotty history of recreating fully functioning ecosystems, they say. “There may be some positive outcomes” after oil companies leave, says Jennifer Grant, an analyst at Canada's Pembina Institute in Yellowknife, an environmental think tank. “But there has been no demonstrated long-term reclamation of tailings waste and no willingness by the government to slow down” mining operations until reclamation experts know for sure what's possible.

    Twenty years ago, oil companies in northern Alberta spoke with distant hope of producing 1 million barrels of crude oil per day by 2020; they exceeded that in 2004. They currently produce 1.3 million barrels daily, a number that is set to rise to 3 million by 2018, and some projects will last beyond 2060. The four major mining companies—Suncor, Syncrude, Shell Canada (a.k.a. Albian Sands), and Canadian Natural Resources (a.k.a. Horizon Oil Sands)—have already stripped away 530 km2 of forest and wetlands, slicing the top off of the earth and exposing the black gunk. Imperial Oil (with ExxonMobil) will open a fifth major mine in 2012, and other mines are in the works.

    Despite ongoing reclamation of the empty pits and lakes of waste, the percentage of reclaimed area—12% of the disturbed land—has shrunk recently. (Seventy percent of the reclaimed land belongs to Syncrude.) And because companies reclaim mines and ponds as they go, new forests and lakes will fight for survival right next to industrial sites.

    Ecologists and industry people disagree on a number of scientific points about reclamation. It's not clear what technologies, if any, can reclaim ponds and land on the scale needed. Oil mining also creates unique liquid waste that no one quite knows how to treat. Most contentious is the debate over what degree of ecological restoration is acceptable, and even how to measure that. New government regulations in 2009 put pressure on companies to find answers and solutions quickly. About the only thing industry and ecologists agree on is that this reclamation is unparalleled in ecological history. “The oil sands industry faces unique reclamation challenges for which there are no analogs,” Thompson has said. Adds Grant, “It's like one big experiment.”

    Tar Island

    The reclamation challenge is unique because the tar sands industry in the Athabasca region of Canada is unique. Companies there don't pump oil out of the ground; they mine it in vast open pits gouged out of the landscape. Mining oil was long thought unprofitable, and in fact the tar sands had become a standing joke: It's been the oil of the future for 3 decades. But at least 1.7 trillion barrels of oil lie beneath the Athabasca region, and as traditional oil sources dry up worldwide, the tar sands have attracted $85 billion in investment in just the past decade. The frenzy centers on Fort McMurray, a boomtown 1000 kilometers north of nowhere, Montana.

    From the air, mining pits look flat, but that's only because they are so wide. The pits actually contain many cliffs and mesas, which mark the boundary of where huge mobile diggers (many the size of three-story houses) chew back the edge of the earth. Dump trucks putter up the kilometers of dirt roads that swirl up and out of the deepest ravines. The land looks like different colors, but most are variations of black and gray, a bruise on the formerly green boreal forest. Every day each pit stretches wider and reaches deeper.

    Before and after.

    Oil mines chew up vast tracts of land in northern Alberta (top). By law, companies must restore these lands to “nature” (bottom).


    At about 60 meters deep, miners first encounter the bitumen, grains of sand jacketed by oil and water. To shake the oil free, mines spray bitumen with scalding water, creating what looks like Marmite, except stickier. Through various processes, companies skim out 90% of the crude, which they ship to refineries. The leftover slurry of sand, water, oil, and some toxins, such as naphthenic acids, fills tailings ponds.

    By Canadian law, oil companies must convert those ponds back to “nature.” But before they can do so, the sand, oil, and water must settle into distinct layers in the pond, so engineers can pump the liquid out and build on a solid surface. When oil mining started in the 1960s, companies estimated that it would take ponds a few years to settle. It actually takes decades. And even after pumping off the water and oil, the tailings resemble quicksand, and you can't build an ecosystem on a shifting foundation, says Dave Sego, principal investigator at the Oil Sands Tailings Research Facility, an industry-funded group at the University of Alberta, Edmonton.

    Sego says tailings have to be stable enough so that “grandma can walk on it,” assuming she'd want to. “Dewatering” the ponds to stabilize them is straightforward in theory, and a few huge and strangely tropical white beaches of partly stabilized sand can be found on some mines. But with current technologies, this process remains slow and expensive. Nor have companies met stated goals for reducing the volume of waste fluid they produce, notes the government of Alberta's Energy Resources Conservation Board.

    Sego's facility is giving oil companies options, and Sego says scientists have seen success with new water-sand separation techniques, some mechanical, like centrifuges, some chemical, like gypsum and other absorbents. Other techniques take advantage of the winters in Fort McMurray, which has an average temperature of about −20°C in January. The mines produce oil 24 hours per day regardless of the conditions, but the seasonal freezing and thawing of water helps squeeze waste out. In addition, engineers at Suncor announced in October a promising new method using “flocculants” to drag particles out of liquid suspension. These technologies could also shorten recovery times for existing tailings ponds. But at least for the techniques at his facility, Sego cautions, “I wouldn't say that any one is field-ready. There are tremendous engineering challenges because of the sheer volumes of material.”


    The quickly growing oil industry is centered in Fort McMurray.


    The Alberta government estimates that, even with water-recycling and -reduction programs, the largest mines (Syncrude and Suncor, at 350,000 and 300,000 barrels of oil each day, respectively) will have a trillion liters of tailings to deal with by 2020.

    In the next few decades, the industry will likely shift more toward “in situ” recovery techniques, which mix bitumen and steam deep underground and produce no tailings. Companies already use in situ technology in Athabasca, but most on a very small scale.

    Only one reclamation project for tailings ponds is near completion—at the oldest and most notorious pond, Suncor's Tar Island, which sits next to the Athabasca River, a major water source. To get a better look at Tar Island, I chartered a tour down the river from Andrew Boucher on a drizzly August day. Boucher helped build the first mine in the Athabasca region in the 1960s, when he was 18, and then stayed to work at Syncrude and Suncor for almost 40 years. In the winters, he drove a dogsled down the river to work; in the summer, a motorboat.

    On our serpentine trip down the river, Boucher pointed out his uncles' cabins for trapping critters, now the property of the mines. Along the way, he identified intake pipes that draw water from the river and explained what various towers and buildings do. When asked the purpose of one alarming tower, crowned by a perpetually roaring fire, he smirked, “To keep reporters out.”

    After an hour, we arrived at the Tar Island dike, which separates the pond from the river. The pond opened in the 1960s and started leaking through the dike immediately. Earthen dams like the one that surrounds the pond are designed to leak a little: They're made of permeable sand and earth, materials that filter out harmful chemicals as water trickles through. Unfortunately, Tar Island leaked excessively. As a pool of sludgy water formed underground, Suncor scrambled to stanch the leak with more earth. A dike that started a dozen meters tall stands a steep 90 m tall today and stretches 3 km. Despite the continued leakage, Suncor added tailings to the pond until 1997. That year, the company said it hoped to reclaim Tar Island pond by 2002. Engineers now hope they can dewater and stabilize the surface by 2010. After it dewaters the land, Suncor will dump 50 cm or so of soil stripped from a different mine site over the sand, then plant crops like barley to firm up the soil. Soon after come saplings and trees. With luck, Tar Island will become the first reclaimed tailings pond in a few short decades.

    Unfortunately, the dike and the soil beneath the old pond have absorbed so much tailings water that they will continue to leak for years, reclaimed or not. And Tar Island is far from the biggest pond and dike system to reclaim. Until the Three Gorges Dam opened in China, one earthen dike on Syncrude land was the largest dam in the world, 18 km around and made of 540 million m3 of material. Hoover Dam is 2.6 million m3.

    The reclamation of ponds took on new urgency in February, when new government regulations ordered companies to reduce tailings volume by 50% and dewater existing ponds faster, so that they are ready for planting within 5 years of the last tailings dump. Leaving ponds open for too long threatens wildlife, especially migratory birds, which find the warm tailings ponds attractive during winter. When birds land in ponds, oil either weighs them down and they cannot take off, or it breaks down the insulation in their feathers and they freeze.

    One impetus for the regulations was an incident in May 2008, when 1600 ducks landed in a Syncrude pond and drowned. Syncrude said a late spring storm prevented it from installing deterrents—such as scarecrows, nicknamed “bitu-men,” that float on oil barrels and wear hazard-orange ponchos, and propane cannons, which fire all day like a Civil War battlefield. It's not clear how well either device works, however. In a May 2003 study, ecologists counted 107 groups of birds landing in tiny experimental tailings ponds in 100 hours, one-quarter of the groups that flew by, despite cannons and bitu-men.


    Environmental law says that tar sands companies must restore tailings ponds and pit mines back to “equivalent land capability,” but that phrase is contentious. Ecologists and environmentalists would prefer that every square meter of disturbed boreal forest or wetland be restored to its original state. In practice, companies can perform a sort of eco-alchemy: Pit mines can be converted to either new land, like a forest, or a lake, while tailings ponds can become either a lake or new land. Each transformation has its own challenges and controversies.

    In creating new land, Alberta allows companies to plant forests that, although similar to existing forests, are geared toward logging and timber. “The forests will be different from what was there,” acknowledges Sego. But he says the government wants to ensure economic development when mines leave. Planned forests struggle with one measure of recovery: diversity of native species. A 1998 report, jointly produced by Alberta Environmental Service, a government agency, and oil companies, remains the most comprehensive study of attempts to reclaim tailings waste. The report examined mature test plots of forest (14 to 24 years old) and compared them with untouched natural forest. “In general,” it stated, “there was little similarity in terms of species composition between any of the reclaimed areas with the natural stands.” In some cases, the sites showed just 10% species overlap.

    Thompson acknowledges that the industry has made some mistakes and had some growing pains, partly because early reclamation efforts planted trees on top of hills of stripped soil, instead of contouring them first to mimic the land's natural shape. But he says companies can move massive amounts of soil nowadays (a single dump truck holds 400 tons of material), and once soil is in place, he argues that sites revert to nature with little further management. He dismissed the 1998 report as “10 years out of date.” Recent company test sites have grown forests and wetlands just as diverse as any natural site, he says.

    Home range.

    An exhausted pit mine was ecologically reclaimed by one company and converted into a reserve, complete with bison.


    Some ecologists agree with Thompson, to a degree. Bill Freedman of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, studies the environmental impact of mines. He says that oil sands ponds are vast but less toxic than ponds at metal or coal mines. And he thinks reclaimed areas can succeed: “They're not pristine ecosystems, but they can provide a habitat, an acceptable degree of restoration.”

    The end-pit lakes

    Most reclamation studies have focused on new land ecosystems, but oil companies plan to start using a cheaper solution soon: creating new lakes by putting a freshwater cap over tailings ponds and other mine sites. The lake is designed to prevent mixing between toxic materials below and freshwater on top, a stratification known as meromixis. Some two dozen lakes are slated to appear in the next 50 years.

    In theory, meromixis is stable because mining water is brackish and dense. If it starts at the bottom, it's apt to stay there, industry experts say. Both natural bodies of water and end-pit lakes at other mines have maintained such layers for years. But some groups question whether the planned lakes in Alberta, which would be shallow and contain chemicals that naturally rise to the surface, will stay stratified. The Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA), a nonprofit organization with representatives from industry, the government, and environmental groups located in Fort McMurray, said in one report that “meromixis will be a temporary solution.” A report by CEMA was also ambivalent about how well end-pit lakes could provide habitats for wildlife. Creatures low on the food chain (e.g., plankton and benthos) have trouble establishing themselves in the short term, it said, and “fish stocked in Syncrude's experimental ponds were found to survive but showed sign of chronic stress such as disease and morphological deformities.” Many problems can be traced to toxins that seep from tailings sand, especially naphthenic acids—a heterogeneous mix of light and heavy cyclic hydrocarbons.

    Oil companies, says Thompson, are confident that bacteria can break down naphthenic acids at a rate higher than the acids leech out. There is some evidence for this. Phillip Fedorak, a microbiologist at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, says that bacteria degrade naphthenic acids used in commercial applications such as wood preservation “very nicely.” Still, heavier molecules in tailings ponds “are not degraded very easily,” he adds. “There's been geological amounts of time [for bacteria to work], and they leave these recalcitrant compounds behind.” Fedorak's work has shown that ozone bubbled through tailings water can break down recalcitrant bits, but this process is not ready for commercial application. He's not aware of any other process that is, either.

    The first experimental end-pit lake will open in 2012—and it happens to be the body of water across from Wood Bison Viewpoint. To be sure, this nascent lake was not a full-fledged tailings pond: It merely contains tailings pumped in from other sites. But the industry is treating it as a full-scale rehearsal for future end-pit lakes to prove the process works.

    I had hiked down from the bison park to investigate the soon-to-be-natural lake. At the south end, ducks floated practically in the shade of bitu-men. A huge black pipe was dumping water nearby. Halfway down the lake, a black dirt beach appeared, and the water looked pale green. An immensely long black tube bisected the lake at this point, apparently to catch oil on the surface that was drifting toward the viewpoint. It was anchored, but a meter-wide gap between the tube and shore let oil slither by.

    Another kilometer down, at the north tip of the lake, a second black pipe disgorged water. Nearby, the water-oil mixture at the surface was so different from normal water that part of the green hilltop behind it didn't reflect in the lake, like a vampire.

    Minutes later, the white Syncrude pickup slowed down and busted me. After negotiations with headquarters—I was harmless, I guess—the security guard drove me back toward Wood Bison Viewpoint. Near the end of the short ride, an all-points bulletin went out for another person snooping around the mine somewhere. The guard took off down Highway 63 before I could even open the door of my rental car parked nearby. There are two worlds along 63, and she'd left me right where I'd started, on the cusp between them—between the reclaimed forest, the hoped-for future, and the oily, unfinished lake, still off-limits to the public, still waiting to be converted.

  11. Archaeology

    Better Homes and Hearths, Neandertal-Style

    1. Michael Balter

    Detailed studies of Neandertal hearths and living quarters suggest that, like modern humans, our extinct cousins had the knack for organization.

    Light my fire.

    Neandertals at Abric Romaní left nearly 200 hearths (inset).


    TARRAGONA AND CAPELLADES, SPAIN—To a passerby, the excited chatter of 100 researchers visiting the Abric Romaní rock shelter must have sounded more like a school trip than a serious scientific expedition. Grown men and women bounded like children up and down the metal steps leading into this huge cliff-side cavern overlooking the village of Capellades, 50 kilometers west of Barcelona. Snapping photos, they darted over wooden planks between blackened hearths looking so fresh that fires might have burned there just yesterday. The hearths had indeed been freshly excavated by archaeologists just 2 weeks before. But the hearthmakers were Neandertals, who visited the cave about 50,000 years ago.

    Abric Romaní is a special site: Excavations here have uncovered 14 layers of Neandertal occupation over 20,000 years. Rapid sediment accumulation has led to “near-Pompeii-like” preservation of hearths, stone tools, and other artifacts, permitting “exemplary and unusually high-resolution” research into Neandertal lifeways, says archaeologist Lawrence Guy Straus of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

    Last month, Neandertal specialists gathered here to discuss such high-resolution research at a meeting marking the 100th anniversary of Abric Romaní's discovery.* They explored how Neandertals lived and behaved based on detailed studies at individual sites. Although many aspects of Neandertal behavior were discussed, such as their use of stone tools and what they ate—including growing evidence that they sometimes ate each other (see sidebar, p. 1057)—the meeting turned repeatedly to how Neandertals used fire and organized their space as the most fine-grained indicators of what they did every day. Although some archaeologists have argued that Neandertals were less-sophisticated than modern humans in their use of space, that view found little sympathy in Tarragona. “The papers addressing this issue concluded that Neandertal behaviors differed little from those of modern humans,” says anthropologist Donald Henry of the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma.

    Some researchers see the latest research as a turning point in Neandertal studies. “We are seeing a fundamental change in how archaeologists are approaching hearths,” says archaeologist Harold Dibble of the University of Pennsylvania. “Before the 1980s or 1990s, many were simply content to note whether or not there were hearths, but there was no other real interest in them. Now there are many more questions looming about Neandertal use of fire,” such as whether it was used for cooking, warmth, light, or other functions; and whether Neandertals, like modern humans, socialized around the hearth.

    Getting organized.

    Like modern humans, Neandertals divided their living quarters into different task areas, as seen in this cave in Jordan.


    Many conferences compare the extinct Neandertals and modern humans, but at this meeting modern humans were not much in evidence, except in the audience and on the podium. “We have tended to use the Neandertals as foils,” Straus says. “The Neandertals are now coming into their own.”

    Around the hearth

    In his talk, Dibble pointed out that there were many possible reasons Neandertals might have made fires: to provide warmth and light, roast meat and vegetables, extract grease from bones, protect from predators, heat-treat tools, repel insects, process animal hides, smoke and dry food, and even get rid of accumulated garbage. Although distinguishing among these uses is difficult, archaeologists blessed with well-preserved sites have been trying to generate clues.

    At Abric Romaní, a team led by Eudald Carbonell of Rovira i Virgili University (RiV) in Tarragona has found nearly 200 beautifully preserved hearths since 1983. The hearths are easily identifiable as black, irregularly shaped but sharply outlined ovals on the rock-shelter floor. According to a talk by archaeologist Josep Vallverdú of RiV, the team has identified at least half a dozen hearth types. These include small, flat structures close to the rock shelter wall—which the team interprets as sources of light and warmth near sleeping areas—and larger, more centrally located structures dense with animal bones and lithics, which could represent activity centers for cooking and tool use. Statistical analysis of hearths in six consecutive archaeological levels showed that although their spatial arrangement varied somewhat over thousands of years, they clustered around a constant center point. These findings provide high-resolution evidence that “Neandertal groups established and organized their living space around hearths over and over, in regular fashion,” Straus says.

    Another high-resolution effort to figure out how Neandertals used fire puts hearths under the microscope both literally and figuratively. At two recently excavated Neandertal sites in southwest France, Roc de Marsal and Pech de l'Azé IV, two archaeologists collaborating with Dibble, Paul Goldberg and Francesco Berna of Boston University, have been thin-sectioning blocks of material taken from well-preserved hearths and using several techniques, including infrared spectroscopy, thermoluminescence, and x-ray diffraction, to determine the composition of the burnt material and the temperatures to which it was heated. At the microscopic level, Goldberg and Berna identified fragments of bone, flint, plant remains, wood, and cave sediments. The work is still in its early days, but some patterns are emerging. In both caves, the thin sections show a significant amount of charred fat, suggesting that meat cut from bone was cooked in the fires. Although many archaeologists have assumed that Neandertals cooked their food, there has been little direct evidence.

    Both caves also showed evidence that the hearths were regularly cleaned and raked out. And at Pech de l'Azé IV, some of the bone had been heated to such a high temperature that it, rather than wood, was probably used as fuel to keep the fire going, a pattern not seen at Roc de Marsal. “This kind of fine-grained work provides empirical evidence for human behavior,” says Lyn Wadley, an archaeologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. “We can get a huge amount of information” by capturing such “moments in time.”

    Nevertheless, Wadley adds, echoing a caution raised at the meeting by archaeologist Manuel Vaquero of RiV, it is still unclear how well such “moments in time” capture the big picture of Neandertal behavior over longer periods. In a much-discussed talk about Abric Romaní's stone tools, Vaquero pointed out that too narrow a focus can be misleading. For example, he reassembled stone-tool flakes that had been struck from larger stones to recreate the original cores and was able to establish the detailed tool-making techniques used around hearths in individual occupation levels. But only when he looked at the pattern over several occupation layers did it become clear that the earliest occupants had to search many kilometers away for chert and other stone-tool raw materials, whereas later occupants were able to use stones discarded by their predecessors, thus turning the site into a source of raw materials.

    Modern is as modern does?

    Although modern humans definitely played second fiddle at the meeting, a talk by Henry brought them back to mind. He concluded that when it came to the complex use of space, moderns had little on the Neandertals. Henry and his colleagues have been working at the Tor Faraj rock shelter in Jordan, which harbors typical Neandertal tools but no human fossils and is dated to between about 69,000 and 49,000 years ago. Thanks again to excellent preservation, the team was able to reconstruct activities on two superimposed “living floors.”

    From the spatial arrangement of lithics and other artifacts found on the floors, Henry and his co-workers conclude that living areas were well-differentiated into dedicated spaces for butchering animals, making stone tools, working with bone and antler, sleeping, and dumping rubbish. For example, fossil plant expert Arlene Rosen of University College London showed that although the remains of date palms and date seed husks clustered around Tor Faraj's central hearths, where they were probably prepared and eaten, the remains of grasses were restricted to areas along the rock shelter wall and were likely used for bedding. Such spatial patterns mirror those found in modern human occupation sites, Henry said. Wadley agrees: “Neandertals were doing pretty much the same things that the so-called moderns were doing; … they used space in an orderly way, although probably not yet in a symbolic way.”

    That makes them worthy of study “for their own sake,” says Dibble. Agrees Antonio Rosas, a paleoanthropologist at the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid: “To be Neandertal is a distinct way of being human. By understanding Neandertals, we enlarge the meaning of humanity.”

    • * The Neandertal Home: Spatial and Social Behaviors, Tarragona and Capellades, Spain, 6–9 October 2009.

  12. Archaeology

    Did Neandertals Dine In?

    1. Michael Balter

    Researchers have long debated whether the highly carnivorous Neandertals sometimes ate each other. In recent years, new evidence for this macabre hypothesis has emerged.

    Eating their own?

    Cut marks on a Neandertal jaw might be signs of cannibalism.


    Researchers have long debated whether the highly carnivorous Neandertals sometimes ate each other. And although some claims have not held up, in recent years new evidence for this macabre hypothesis has emerged (Science, 1 October 1999, p. 18). But few sites have enough complete Neandertal bones to tell for sure.

    In Tarragona, paleoanthropologist Antonio Rosas of the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid presented the latest evidence from the cave of El Sidrón in northwest Spain. There, his team has found 1700 Neandertal bones representing at least 11 children and adults dated to about 49,000 years ago. Many of the more complete bones, including those of the arms, legs, and skull, show cut marks, pitting, scarring, deliberate breaking of bones for marrow extraction, and other signs that the bodies were cut up in the same way that hominins butcher animals—the gold standard for signs of cannibalism.

    At this point, “there is very compelling evidence for cannibalism” at Neandertal sites, says archaeologist Mary Stiner of the University of Arizona, Tucson.

    Why eat each other? Teeth and bones show evidence, such as dental hypoplasia, that the El Sidrón Neandertals were stressed and possibly malnourished. But Rosas thinks there might also have been “a ritualistic side to it,” although he declines to give details until his team's ongoing study is published. Until then, the El Sidrón findings are “food for thought,” says Lawrence Guy Straus of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

  13. Ninth International Plant Molecular Biology Congress, 25–30 October 2009, St. Louis, Missouri

    Chloroplast Shuffle

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi

    Chloroplasts seem to rely on the polymerization of protein filaments to make their way across a cell, researchers reported at the 9th International Plant Molecular Biology Congress, and they can move quickly—or slowly—depending on the circumstances.

    Dodging light.

    (Left) The chloroplast's rim of actin (green) disappears in bright light (white circle) and (right) reforms just on the leading edge as chloroplasts move away from light.


    For more than a century, researchers have known that chloroplasts move. But it's taken 25 years for Masamitsu Wada to figure out how these photosynthesizing organelles make their way across a cell. His labeling and imaging experiments have revealed that they slide from one place to another, never turning, twisting, or rolling. They seem to rely on the polymerization of protein filaments to pull them along, he reported at the meeting, and they can move quickly—or slowly—depending on the circumstances. The work represents “an outstanding combination of genetics and cutting-edge cell biology,” says Eberhard Schäfer, a plant physiologist at the University of Freiburg, Germany.

    Chloroplasts have evolved to make the most out of the available light. Photoreceptors on the plant cell surface relay light-intensity information to chloroplasts, which move toward weak light and quickly scatter in strong light that might damage them. “This response is vital to plant survival,” says Christian Fankhauser of the University of Lausanne, Switzerland.

    Wada, a plant physiologist at Kyushu University in Japan, typically studies chloroplast movements in fern gametophytes, the tiny sexual phase of the plant, which at first grow as a single layer of highly photoreactive cells. He uses a microscope to direct a microbeam of light to specific parts of a cell and records the result with time-lapse videos.

    When he shined strong light at one end of a chloroplast, it took less than a minute for it to respond: It slid away from the light at about 1.5 micrometers per minute. When he gave another pulse of light on one side of the advancing chloroplast with another pulse of bright light, the chloroplast stopped and retreated, changing direction without reorienting itself in any way, he reported. “They don't have any head or tail,” says Wada. “They can move in any direction.”

    To get a better handle on what propels the chloroplast, Wada and his colleagues turned to a mutant of the model plant Arabidopsis, whose chloroplasts don't move. They homed in on the defective gene and figured out that it codes for a protein that sits in the chloroplast membrane and has the ability to latch on to actin protein fibers. Actin is often involved in the movement of organelles. Using genetically modified Arabidopsis plants that produced actin-binding proteins linked to green fluorescent protein, Wada and his colleagues made actin filaments visible and traced their whereabouts.

    Before the researchers turned on their strong light beam, the chloroplast was surrounded by actin filaments. But in the light, the filaments disappeared—likely depolymerizing—within 30 seconds. A minute later, they began to reappear but only on what became the leading edge of the moving chloroplast, Wada reported at the meeting and in the 4 August issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “I think actin might pull the cell along,” says Wada.

    Next, Wada wants to pin down the signal that travels from the photoreceptor and causes the actin filaments to dissolve and reform. “The speed of signal transduction is very slow, so it must not simply be a diffusible, small molecule,” he says.

  14. Ninth International Plant Molecular Biology Congress, 25–30 October 2009, St. Louis, Missouri

    Steak With a Side of Beta-Glucans

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi

    At the 9th International Plant Molecular Biology Congress, researchers described progress in manipulating the beta-glucan content of grains and other plant tissues, which could boost the fiber content of foods and enhance the value of the currently unusable parts of corn and wheat for biofuels.

    The quest for healthier food and better biofuels has taken one researcher deep into the plant cell wall. Plant cells are surrounded by a wall made up of molecules that are basically chains of sugars, so-called beta-glucans. Some, like cellulose, provide the scaffolding; others are gel-like, giving the cell wall some flexibility.

    Grasses, including commercially important crops such as wheat, barley, sorghum, and rice, have a special beta-glucan not found in other plants, with an unusual arrangement of its atoms. Over the past 3 years, Geoff Fincher, a biochemist at the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics at the University of Adelaide in Australia, and his colleagues have tracked down the genes involved in making this beta-glucan, and at the meeting he described progress in using those genes to increase the beta-glucan content of grains and other plant tissues. Those increases could translate into healthier foods by boosting fiber content. Moreover, “our ability to … manipulate beta-glucan content in plant cell walls can have a vast impact [on our ability] to fully utilize plant residue for many purposes” such as biofuels, says J. Perry Gustafson of the University of Missouri, Columbia.

    The optimal amount of beta-glucan varies, says Fincher. In some instances, less is preferred. In brewing, barley grain's naturally induced enzymes are often unable to break down all the beta-glucans in malt, and the excess clogs up filtration steps. Low levels are also better for animal feed because the beta-glucans found in grasses can slow the gut's absorption of starch.

    But for human health, more beta-glucan is better. Evidence suggests that this molecule, a component of dietary fiber, helps prevent colorectal cancer, high cholesterol, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. It passes intact through the small intestine and is fermented into short-chain fatty acids in the colon. Those fatty acids seem to improve the ability of the cells called colonocytes lining the gut to repair damaged DNA.

    To increase the beta-glucan content in grains, Fincher and his colleagues put into barley a piece of oat regulatory DNA, a standard genetic engineering tool, that turns on a gene for making the beta-glucan only in the developing grain. “It worked much better than we expected,” says Fincher. Beta-glucan levels in the grain increased 80%, and total dietary fiber climbed by more than 50%, Fincher reported. Fincher's ultimate goal is to enhance the beta-glucan content of wheat, which is low compared with barley.

    Increasing beta-glucan content could also enhance the value of the currently unusable parts of corn and wheat for biofuels. When Fincher and his colleagues added a different stretch of regulatory DNA, one that turned on genes in vegetative tissues, it caused a sevenfold increase in beta-glucan in young barley leaves. “I was blown away that he could manipulate a gene and get seven and eight times [the amount],” says Gustafson. Wheat plants, for example, don't look promising for biofuels, but the equation could change if beta-glucan content could be increased enough, he adds. That's because this beta-glucan is more easily fermented by the industrial enzymes used than are other cell-wall components.

    The process needs some refining, however: The beta-glucans gummed up the leaf vasculature, stopping nutrient flow and causing the leaf to die in some cases. So Fincher and his colleagues are evaluating other regulatory DNA.

  15. Ninth International Plant Molecular Biology Congress, 25–30 October 2009, St. Louis, Missouri

    A Question of Balance

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi

    Researchers have proposed that genes that code for proteins that are part of complexes are most likely to survive the purging that follows whole-genome duplications. Increasing evidence from the 9th International Plant Molecular Biology Congress and other meetings suggests that this so-called gene balance hypothesis may be correct.

    What's a genome to do when a molecular hiccup causes it to swell to twice its normal size? Somehow it has to get back to a reasonably sized, smoothly functioning genome, often by shedding genes. Once thought to be quite rare except in plants, whole-genome duplications—in which every chromosome winds up with an extra copy—are showing up in many animal lineages as well. These DNA windfalls pave the way for new proteins, traits, and species, depending on the patterns of gene loss and change that follow.

    James Birchler of the University of Missouri, Columbia, has proposed that genes that code for proteins that are part of complexes are most likely to survive purging. At the meeting, he discussed his latest experiments testing this idea, the so-called gene balance hypothesis. Increasing evidence from this and other meetings suggests that Birchler and colleagues may be right, says Yves Van de Peer, an evolutionary biologist at Ghent University in Gent, Belgium, who recently organized a conference on genome duplications. “So many people gave talks where they found support for the hypothesis,” he says. “It's definitely catching on.”

    According to the gene-balance hypothesis, proteins destined to be part of a macromolecular complex must be produced in the proper proportion relative to their partners in the complex. Those proportions are maintained in whole-genome duplications, but if the genes for some of those proteins were subsequently lost, the balance would be disrupted, perhaps leading to lower fitness. Thus those genes tend to stay put, while one of the duplicate genes for a protein that works alone can disappear without consequence.

    Out of whack.

    An extra chromosome arm in maize plants (second and fourth from left) disrupts gene balance and leads to shorter plants.


    Following that same logic, similar disruptions might arise when a piece of chromosome with a gene whose protein is part of a complex gets duplicated. The hypothesis predicts that those extra genes would be purged from the genome to restore the balance. Because transcription factors tend to be part of complexes, they would likely be retained in whole-genome duplications and purged in smaller duplications.

    In a series of experiments in maize, Birchler tracked the effect on protein production of adding extra chromosome arms. He started with maize that has one set of chromosomes instead of the usual two. He modified some of these haploid plants by adding a piece of a chromosome back to the genome. He also added an extra piece of chromosome to a normal diploid plant, making it trisomic, and took away a piece of chromosome from a diploid plant. He monitored the plants' growth and reproduction and took tissue samples to determine the amounts of individual proteins in the plant cells. He repeated the experiments, manipulating four different chromosome arms.

    He found that the extra arm in the haploid plants caused most of the proteins to decrease, some by as much as 50%; trisomics had reductions down to two-thirds the protein quantities of diploids. “By looking at these different ploidy levels and gene expression, we can document [that] the level of imbalance has a respective global impact on gene expression,” says Birchler. That imbalance translated into real effects: The greater the imbalance, the shorter the plants. He suspects that genes for regulatory protein subunits in the extra chromosome arms disrupt the balance of the complexes they belong to, negatively affecting gene expression.

    Other researchers have looked at the distribution of genes in organisms with whole-genome duplications. From the three whole-genome duplications in Arabidopsis, 59% of the duplicates have stuck around, and they include 99% of all transcription factors and signal transducers and 92% of the developmental genes, Patrick Edger and J. Chris Pires of the University of Missouri, Columbia, wrote in the July issue of Chromosome Research. Researchers have observed similar trends in Paramecium. “That evolutionary data fits in with what we f ind experimentally,” says Birchler.