News this Week

Science  29 Jan 2010:
Vol. 327, Issue 5965, pp. 508
  1. Paleontology

    Bird-Dinosaur Link Firmed Up, And in Brilliant Technicolor

    1. Richard Stone

    BEIJING—Which came first, the chicken or the dinosaur egg? That one's a cinch. Less obvious is the riddle of kinship. Most scientists think birds evolved from dinosaurs about 150 million years ago. But a sparse fossil record has provided ammunition to those who insist that birds arose independently. A stunning new fossil makes that idea virtually untenable. And a second paper this week brings dinosaur feathers vividly to life, offering new clues to why this instrument of flight first evolved in flightless creatures.

    On page 571, fossil-hunter extraordinaire Xu Xing of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) here and colleagues unveil Haplocheirus sollers, a new genus of alvarezsauroid—a group of dinosaurs once thought to be flightless birds. The nearly complete skeleton, unearthed from 160-million-year-old mudstone deposits in northwestern China's Junggar Basin, extends the fossil record of alvarezsauroids back in time by a whopping 63 million years—making it about 15 million years older than the earliest known bird, Archaeopteryx.

    In 2006, specimens from another theropod group—tyrannosauroids—challenged the so-called temporal paradox: the fact that irrefutable birdlike dinosaurs appear millions of years after Archaeopteryx in the fossil record. (Among other birdlike features, tyrannosauroids sport three-toed feet, hollow bones, and even wishbones.) Along with those and other recent finds, Haplocheirus “establishes once and for all that there is no temporal paradox,” asserts Hans-Dieter Sues, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

    Birds of a feather.

    A new avianlike alvarezsauroid (below) predates the first bird, Archaeopteryx—powerful evidence that birds arose from dinosaurs. Fossilized pigment organelles reveal the true colors of Sinosauropteryx (left).


    The newest, oldest alvarezsauroid dispels some of the group's mystique. “Alvarezsauroids were collected for the first time in the 1920s but were so enigmatic that they were never recognized and described until the 1990s,” says Philip Currie, a paleontologist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. As specimens turned up in Asia, Europe, and North America, debate raged over whether they represented dinosaurs or flightless birds. Haplocheirus “definitely settles this dispute,” Sues says. The exquisitely preserved specimen “is so primitive,” says IVPP's Zhou Zhonghe, that it lacks some birdlike features seen in later alvarezsauroids such as fused wrist bones, a backward-facing pubis, or a crest near the top of the shinbone.

    The controversy highlights how hard it can be to distinguish birds from dinosaurs. “Deep in evolutionary history, it's extremely difficult to draw the line,” Xu says. The discovery of feathered dinosaurs in the late 1990s turned classification upside down.

    Why feathers evolved in dinosaurs is a puzzle. One idea is that feathers provided insulation. Another is that they evolved as camouflage or to attract a mate. But evidence such as distinctive colors or patterns had eluded researchers—until now. This week in Nature, paleontologist Mike Benton of the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom and colleagues offer the first report of organelles bearing the pigment melanin in dinosaurs. They found melanosomes in the theropods Sinornithosaurus and Sinosauropteryx and in a bird, Confuciusornis, that lived roughly 125 million years ago.

    Although many scientists expected dinosaur feathers to contain melanosomes, finding them wasn't easy. In Benton's lab in Bristol, IVPP's Zhang Fucheng says he “spent day and night for more than a year” studying scanning electron microscope images of scores of fossil specimens. Zhang's diligence paid off—he uncovered melanosomes containing the two most common kinds of the pigment: eumelanin, which gives a gray or black tinge, and pheomelanin, which gives a chestnut to reddish-brown color. The find could settle a debate over whether bristles studding Sinosauropteryx were primitive feathers or collagen fibers. “Melanosomes prove that those structures are indeed feathers,” Benton asserts.

    The discovery also reveals the true colors of dinosaurs. Sinosauropteryx's protofeathers ran in alternating orange and white rings down its tail like a barbershop pole. To Benton, the vibrant pattern suggests that “feathers first arose as agents for color display and only later in their evolutionary history did they become useful for flight and insulation.” Others are not so sure. Zhou, a co-author of the Nature paper, still thinks feathers evolved for insulation.

    To Xu, the mystery has deepened. “Now we are realizing that feather evolution is more complex than we thought,” he says.

  2. Global Health

    Haiti's Quake Shifts Clinic's Focus From AIDS to Aid

    1. Jon Cohen

    On one and a quarter hectares in downtown Port-au-Prince, the AIDS clinic called GHESKIO has developed a reputation over the past 25 years as a place that, improbably, provides thousands of Haitians with free care and conducts world-class clinical research. Led by Jean “Bill” Pape, GHESKIO (the Haitian Group for the Study of Kaposi's Sarcoma and Opportunistic Infections) has continued to function since the 12 January earthquake. The clinic has now become one of the few places where locals can receive emergency care in that part of the devastated city and has converted itself into a hospital with a surgical unit and a makeshift outdoor home for thousands of refugees.

    GHESKIO collaborates with the Center for Global Health at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, and together they receive about $3 million a year from the U.S. National Institutes of Health to conduct HIV/AIDS clinical research and training. All of that has now been put on indefinite hold, as Pape and his staff of more than 300 people work to save the lives of those who have nowhere else to turn—while they still keep delivering HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis testing, counseling, and treatment to more than 100,000 others who each year regularly visit the clinic and its newer satellite near the airport. In many ways, GHESKIO is Port-au-Prince's equivalent of Partners in Health, the nonprofit program run by Harvard Medical School's Paul Farmer that serves rural Haiti.

    Helping hands.

    GHESKIO head Pape converted his downtown Port-au-Prince AIDS clinic into a refugee camp and emergency hospital complete with a surgical unit.


    Pape was in a meeting with the prime minister, minister of health, and officials from the World Health Organization and other international groups when the magnitude-7.0 earthquake hit. All escaped from the room, which collapsed, relatively unscathed. On 21 January, he responded to questions from Science in an e-mail; his responses have been edited and condensed.

    Q:What is the status of your staff?

    J.P.:The earthquake affected us a lot. We have documented the loss of 4 staff members including 1 MD and the head of the microbiology lab, and 12 injured staff. Twenty-one people have not reported to work.

    Q:What damage did your clinics suffer?

    J.P.:Three important buildings are severely damaged, two at one site and one at another. The other buildings can be repaired. [In an earlier e-mail to colleagues at Cornell, Pape noted that GHESKIO's tuberculosis lab had to be sealed until it is decontaminated, as tubes containing multidrug-resistant TB bacteria and other strains had broken.]

    Q:What stockpile do you have of antiretroviral drugs [ARVs] and are you in danger of running out?

    J.P.:Our AIDS care program is going well. We activated our contingency plan the morning after the earthquake. This was easy as we have been used to unstable political situations and hurricanes. Basically, all patients have an extra supply of 2 weeks of important drugs (ARVs and TB).

    Q:Are you able to distribute ARVs to the people most in need?

    J.P.:We are now seeing about 80% of all patients we were seeing before. PEPFAR [the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief] personnel were delivering ARV drugs even during the aftershocks.

    Q:What assistance are you receiving?

    J.P.:We have the full back-up of both U.S. Ambassador Eric Goosby, who even volunteered to come and help us, as well as Michel Kazatchkine, executive director of the Global Fund and his entire staff. They have found another way to help us through COPRESIDA, the agency in charge of the AIDS program in the Dominican Republic. This catastrophe has revealed that the DR is a true friend of Haiti. We are grateful for the world response and particularly that of DR and the personal involvement of President Leonel Fernández.

    Q:How do you restart the clinical trials and training you had under way?

    J.P.:We have stopped enrolling new volunteers in study projects, and we have stopped training activities. We have two new missions: Providing humanitarian aid relief to 5000 refugees who are on our premises after the earthquake—and need everything—and taking care of the injured.

    Q:Who else is working with you?

    J.P.:This new mission has strengthened our collaboration with Quisqueya University to educate the population and avoid a major epidemic of waterborne infectious diseases. We're also collaborating with other new partners, such as World Water [Relief] to provide potable water and Action contre la Faim to setup latrines. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has supported us in setting up a complete hospital able to handle all medical and surgical emergencies.

    Q:How are you holding up?

    J.P.:We did not choose this situation and it's tough, but we are up to this new challenge.

  3. Newsmaker Interview

    Climate Science Leader Rajendra Pachauri Confronts the Critics

    1. Pallava Bagla
    In the hot seat.

    IPCC chair Rajendra K. Pachauri rebuts allegations of sloppy science and financial conflict.


    NEW DELHI—It has been a long, hot winter for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and its chair, Rajendra Kumar Pachauri. E-mails leaked last November cast doubt on the integrity of a few of the 4000 scientists who produce consensus reports for the U.N. body on climate change science (Science, 4 December 2009, p. 1329). Then IPCC earlier this month offered regret for having included an unsupported prediction in its fourth assessment in 2007 that Himalayan glaciers would melt away by 2035 (Science, 13 November 2009, p. 924).

    Pachauri, a 69-year-old industrial engineer and director general of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) here, has headed IPCC since 2002. He routinely puts in 18-hour days and is not known to have taken a vacation in 3 years. The workaholic has recently come under attack in the U.K. press for his lucrative stints as an adviser to companies including the Toyota Motor Corp. and Deutsche Bank—earnings that he insists go to TERI. On a cool, smoggy morning here earlier this week, Pachauri defended IPCC's work and shot back at critics who want to see him ousted as panel chair. (An extended version of this interview can be found here.)

    Q:The big issue dogging IPCC this winter is the inclusion of a prediction in the fourth assessment that Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035. IPCC has offered regret—but not an apology.

    R.K.P.:We have made a mistake and we have admitted that. Our job is essentially to bring the science into our assessments from the best sources that exist. Look at the extent of the glaciology work that has been done in this country. It is pathetic. I mean, that is really where we need to come up with an apology.

    Q:In a 20 January statement, IPCC still says that India's glaciers are melting away. Isn't that a tall claim?

    R.K.P.:Our glaciers are under the same influences, the same temperature changes as other glaciers in the world. So you know we cannot possibly assume if all the other glaciers are melting, that for some reason we are insulated from those influences. The lay public … can see with their eyes what is happening to our glaciers.

    Q:What is your stance on linking global warming with extreme events? Has IPCC made a blunder by suggesting the link?

    R.K.P.:No, we have not made a blunder, and we are going to issue a statement on that. We decided well over a year ago to do a special report on climate change and extreme events. We would like to assess all the new information and research now available.

    Q:Some critics contend that while IPCC was projecting that it was doing great science, it is turning out to have done some sloppy work.

    R.K.P.:While I am sure there are some people who believe that, I also can tell you that there is a large body of people who look at the entirety of what IPCC has done. We have placed before the world … a defining piece of work, which clearly tells you about the scientific reasons for climate change.

    The veracity, the honesty, the scrupulousness with which we carry out our assessment has been the hallmark of the IPCC, and we are never going to compromise on that.

    Q:What have you learned from these episodes?

    R.K.P.:We have got to ensure that all our procedures are followed in letter and spirit and with a huge amount of due diligence. I will personally make sure that all the lead author teams that are going to work on the fifth assessment report and our special reports observe this scrupulously, go the extra mile in making sure that we don't use any information that is questionable. What has happened only highlights the importance of the procedures that we have established. If they had been followed, we wouldn't have got into this unfortunate error.

    Q:The other issue that dogged IPCC is the leaked e-mails from the [Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia in Norwich, U.K.].

    R.K.P.:Those e-mails represent nothing more than private communications, private airing of anguish or anger or emotion. It was indiscreet.

    Q:Has all that has happened this winter dented the credibility of IPCC?

    R.K.P.:I don't think the credibility of the IPCC can be dented. If the IPCC wasn't there, why would anyone be worried about climate change?

    There are those who would wish to demolish the science of climate change. Our vindication will lie in our performance.

    Q:Are you being made a fall guy?

    R.K.P.:I am not a fall guy, but you know the buck stops here. I am the chairman; I am not going to shirk responsibility.

    Q:Is there a conflict of interest between your role as IPCC chair and your work advising companies?

    R.K.P.:I don't see any conflict at all. Science has to be used for decision-making. IPCC's work is supposed to be very clearly policy relevant. How can I establish policy relevance if I shut myself in an ivory tower and say I will not say anything about climate change? I feel totally comfortable in the role of adviser to anybody.

    Q:A statement from TERI lists the number of companies you are associated with, the money which has flowed back to you and the organization: €100,000 from Deutsche Bank, $80,000 from Toyota, and so forth. You don't think this is conflict of interest?

    R.K.P.:Where is the conflict of interest? I am a paid employee of my institute, not of the IPCC. I don't see why I shouldn't advise anybody anywhere in the world … as long as I am not making money out of it. [The money] is going to my institute.

    Q:Some people disagree; they believe that you have to be cleaner than Caesar's wife.

    R.K.P.:Yeah, but Caesar was also murdered by Brutus, wasn't he? Caesar was murdered by a group of people for their own interest, all right? So I cannot possibly be held accountable for all the lies that the media are writing about in a certain section of the U.K. press. I mean, if they are going to influence public opinion, I can assure you it is not going to last forever. I am absolutely convinced the truth will prevail in the end.

    Q:You put up a brave face, but some in the scientific community feel let down. They say that you are carrying too much baggage, that it's time for you to move on.

    R.K.P.:I certainly have no intention to quit. I will continue as the chairman of the IPCC till I have completed the fifth assessment report.

    Q:Are you becoming a thorn in the side of vested interests—a thorn they wish to eliminate?

    R.K.P.:No question about that. But I have no intentions of backing off. I am not going to tailor the truth to suit the vested interests of those who would like to continue with business as usual.

  4. Physics

    NRC Urges U.S. to Rethink Sale of Helium Reserve

    1. Adrian Cho

    In 1996, the U.S. Congress decided to sell the 1 billion cubic meters of gaseous helium—specifically the heavier isotope, helium-4—that the country had stockpiled. But conditions it imposed on the sales are keeping the price of helium artificially low and encouraging waste of a substance indispensable for numerous scientific and technological applications, says a National Research Council report released last week.

    “Helium is being sold at fire-sale prices, and low prices are not going to encourage the recycling, conservation, and substitution that might prolong the existing supply,” says Charles Groat, a geologist at the University of Texas, Austin, and co-chair of the committee that wrote the report.

    Produced in radioactive decay, helium collects in the same rock formations that trap other gases and is primarily a byproduct of the natural gas industry. It is the only element that remains a liquid at absolute zero, making it an unparalleled cooling agent, or “cryogen.” Without helium, the superconducting magnets in MRI machines won't work and myriad lines of physics research would grind to a halt. Helium is also essential to purge the tanks and lines in rockets that burn liquid hydrogen.

    In 1960, Congress told the now-defunct Bureau of Mines to stockpile helium piped from gas fields in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas in a rock formation called the Bush Dome Reservoir near Amarillo, Texas. By 1973, the dome held 1 billion cubic meters of gas. But the bureau's helium sales were weaker than expected, and the reserve was losing money. So 13 years ago, Congress told the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which had taken control of the helium, to sell almost all of it by 2015.

    Congress required BLM to sell the gas for enough money to pay off the reserve's debt—$1.66 per cubic meter with increases for inflation. At the time, BLM's price for crude helium was above the market price for refined helium. Since 1995, however, global demand for helium has increased by nearly 70%, and BLM's current price of $2.29 per cubic meter is below the price from private sources.

    The 60 million cubic meters pumped from the reserve each year make up half the crude helium brought to market in the United States and a third of the total worldwide. So, the report says, the low price, which BLM sticks to as a matter of policy, drives the market and spurs needless consumption, such as the 15 million cubic meters used annually by welders in the United States. (Europeans use argon.)

    Wise use?

    Helium is indispensable for chilling the superconducting magnets in the Large Hadron Collider (right) and manufacturing optical fibers, but not for welding and filling balloons.


    BLM should establish a higher market-based price, the report says, although that may be tricky, as only four refiners have access to the pipeline to the dome. To soften the blow to scientists, those with grants from agencies such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Energy should be allowed to buy BLM helium under terms currently reserved for big consumers such as NASA and the Department of Defense that would ensure a supply in times of shortage, the report says.

    The report even suggests that Congress rethink the sale of the reserve, as the world's resources could be depleted within 40 years and demand could exceed supply within a decade. “Probably 10 or 15 years ago it was heresy to say we need a reserve,” Groat says. “Now that the situation has changed, I think that may be revisited.” At the least, he says, Congress will have to tell BLM what to do after 2015, as the bureau will miss the deadline for selling the remaining 650 million cubic meters of gas by years.

    Will Congress heed the report? Maybe, says one congressional staffer. An acute shortage of the lighter isotope of helium, helium-3, has already grabbed legislators' attention, he says, because it may derail the Department of Homeland Security's plan to deploy thousands of helium-3–filled radiation detectors (Science, 6 November 2009, p. 778). “At least you can say to members, ‘You were working on this, and here's this other part of the problem you should be aware of.’”

  5. Fisheries

    In Central California, Coho Salmon Are on the Brink

    1. Greg Miller

    Lagunitas Creek starts high on the north flank of Mount Tamalpais, just north of San Francisco, California, and makes a short run to the Pacific Ocean, passing through a rural valley and a coastal redwood forest. It was once a thriving breeding ground for coho salmon. Local legends tell of streams so thick with fish returning from the sea to spawn that a person could walk from one side to the other on the fishes' backs. The state record coho, a 10-kilogram whopper, was caught on a tributary in 1959.

    Survival plan.

    A federal plan to save the central California coast coho salmon will focus on 28 watersheds where conservation measures can have the most impact.


    But those days are long gone. The subspecies of coho that lives along the central California coast is the most endangered of the many troubled salmon populations on the West Coast of North America, says Charlotte Ambrose, a recovery coordinator with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in Santa Rosa, California. Listed as an endangered species in 2006, the central coast coho's numbers have recently taken an even sharper turn for the worse. As this year's winter spawning season draws to an end, biologists who've been surveying streams and rivers throughout the fish's range are reporting dismal numbers. A federal species recovery plan to be released next month has morphed into a species survival plan, Ambrose says: “We truly are at the brink of extinction.”

    The recovery plan will focus on 28 watersheds where NMFS thinks habitat restoration efforts—such as restoring floodplains, preserving forested areas along creek sides, and placing woody debris in streams to provide shelter for fish—can have an immediate impact on the coho's survival. Lagunitas Creek, which has one of the strongest remaining runs of wild central coast coho, is one. A tour of the watershed last week illustrated why it may be one of the coho's last best hopes—and why success is far from guaranteed.

    In a soaking rain, Greg Andrew, a fishery program manager with the Marin Municipal Water District, unlocked a gate and piloted his hybrid SUV up a steep, unpaved road that parallels the creek. After a kilometer, what look like two giant concrete slides come into view: spillways for Peters Dam, the largest of seven dams built in the area between 1872 and 1979 to create drinking water reservoirs. The dams blocked off about half of the former coho habitat, Andrew says: “We're trying to make what's left as good as possible.”

    These efforts include periodic dips in the road and other drainage features added to reduce the amount of sediment that washes into the creek, where it can suffocate salmon eggs and clog nooks and crannies in the streambed that young fish use for shelter. Further downstream, Andrew points out a woody debris structure in the creek, one of about 60 built by the water district. These strategically placed piles of logs create slow eddies where fish can escape the raging flows created by winter storms.

    The final stretch of Lagunitas Creek passes through Point Reyes National Seashore before emptying into Tomales Bay. In a $6.2 million project completed in 2008, the National Park Service knocked down levees at the mouth of the creek and restored more than 100 hectares from cattle pasture into a tidal wetland. The project provides crucial floodplain habitat for coho and other wildlife, says park service hydrologist Brannon Ketcham. For coho, the wetlands provide another refuge from the rushing water in winter and a place for smolts to bulk up before heading out to sea in spring.

    If only there were more fish to take advantage of it. As of last week, biologists surveying the creek for the Marin water district had counted only 64 coho in Lagunitas Creek and its tributaries. In the already lean years prior to the coho's addition to the endangered species list, nearly 600 fish returned on average. Because the run usually peaks in early January, Andrew doesn't expect the count to rise substantially, if at all. Across the entire range, Ambrose estimates that only 500 fish have returned this year.

    In Lagunitas Creek and elsewhere, this marks the third straight year of abysmal returns for the coho, an especially ominous milestone, biologists say, because of the fish's 3-year life cycle. Salmon born in a given year migrate out to sea and return to their natal stream 3 years later to spawn and die. This creates three distinct “year classes,” each of which returns every 3 years. This year's feeble return suggests that all three classes are faring poorly across the coho's range.

    The precipitous decline is probably due to a combination of factors, beginning with a 150-year history of land and water use—including dams, mining, agriculture, and urbanization—that have degraded freshwater habitat throughout the central coast coho's range. More recently, the seasonal upwelling of nutrient-rich deep water off the California coast has been delayed, which may have reduced the availability of food for hungry smolts beginning their migration out to sea, says Brian Spence, a research fishery biologist with NMFS in Santa Cruz. Moreover, California's 3-year drought has dried up streams and delayed access to spawning grounds, he says: “When you stack all that on top of the already diminished freshwater capacity, I think that's why some of these populations are getting precariously close to blinking out altogether.”

    Conserving and improving what's left of the coho's freshwater habitat is the best hope for the fish's survival, says Ambrose. Lagunitas Creek illustrates the best case scenario, she adds. Everyone from the National Park Service to the county water district to local conservation groups has done work on the coho's behalf. “There is nothing like this kind of collaboration anywhere else in the range of the central coast coho,” Ambrose says.

    But even here there is some resistance. At an animated public meeting last week, some residents voiced opposition to a salmon conservation plan commissioned by the county government on the grounds that it could violate their property rights. More than 100 people braved the rain and packed into a room at a local school. As a woman from the environmental consulting firm that prepared the plan explained one of its main recommendations—preserving an undeveloped buffer zone of up to 30 meters along the sides of the creek—many in the audience groaned. In a narrow valley where many lots hew closely to the creek, the idea did not seem to sit well. One man yelled out: “Are you being realistic? Are you on planet Earth?” In the public comment session, residents' concerns seemed roughly split between preserving property rights and aiding the salmon.

    Aside from habitat restoration, the only remaining way for humans to help coho is to raise them in captivity and release them into the wild. Unfortunately, conservation hatcheries have at best a mixed success rate, says John Carlos Garza, an NMFS geneticist in Santa Cruz. “Historically, our best guess is that hatcheries have overall had a detrimental effect on salmon populations,” he says. One reason is inbreeding: When populations dwindle, the chances of breeding related individuals goes up, and the inbred offspring have poor survival rates in the wild, Garza explains. To mitigate this problem, Garza has helped the two coho hatcheries in central California implement a genetic matchmaking service. They now use DNA tests to select which pairs of fish to breed in order to maximize genetic diversity.

    Garza also oversees an experimental project in which captive-bred fish are raised in fresh water and released into streams as adults. This offers advantages over the standard approach of releasing young fish born in the hatchery: For one, the offspring of the adult-released fish imprint on the stream where they hatched rather than on the hatchery. Garza thinks this approach may be valuable for repopulating streams where salmon have been completely wiped out.

    These innovative methods may help make conservation hatcheries more successful, but they won't be enough to save the coho on their own, Garza and others say. “They're very expensive and intensive strategies that should be adopted only when there aren't a lot of other good strategies available,” Garza says. Unfortunately, the central coast coho are running out of options. “Let's be clear,” Garza says, “these are last-ditch efforts.”


    From Science's Online Daily News Site

    Colliding Particles Can Make Black Holes You've heard the controversy. Particle physicists predict that the world's new highest-energy atom smasher, the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland, might create tiny black holes. Curiously, though, nobody had ever shown that Einstein's theory of general relativity predicts that a black hole can be made this way. Now a computer model shows conclusively for the first time that a particle collision really can make a black hole.

    Bats and Whales Share Sonar Protein Bats and dolphins are about as different as mammals get. Yet, both home in on their prey by emitting sound waves and sensing the reflections, a process called echolocation. A new study shows that in both groups the same protein evolved in the same way to make that possible. Researchers say it's surprising to discover a molecular convergence in these very distantly related groups of animals.


    Cold War Split Birds, Too The Cold War divided the people of Europe for nearly half a century, and it turns out humans weren't the only ones stuck behind the Iron Curtain. Trade blockades led to vastly different numbers and types of invasive birds in Western and Eastern Europe, new research reveals. The findings, say experts, highlight the dramatic impact human activity can have on the success of alien species.

    Birdlike Dinosaur Was Adept Glider The fight over bird flight evolution is one of the longest-running and most heated debates in paleontology. Were the first flyers arboreal creatures that initially glided from treetops to the ground? Or were they bipedal ground runners with evolving wings that allowed them to take progressively longer jumps? The first flight tests of a foam model of a four-winged, feathered dinosaur lend credence to the former hypothesis.

    Read the full postings, comments, and more on

  7. Physics

    Test Shots Show Laser-Fusion Experiment Is on Target

    1. Daniel Clery

    As the managers of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN near Geneva, Switzerland, can testify, building your giant research facility is one thing, but getting it to work properly when you switch it on is definitely another. Perhaps with CERN's setbacks in mind, those in charge of the National Ignition Facility (NIF), a huge laser for nuclear fusion experiments at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, have been gingerly putting their huge machine through its paces since it was completed nearly a year ago.

    In a study published online this week by Science (, NIF researchers describe their first experiments using all 192 of the facility's beams on test targets empty of fuel. They were able to couple the laser's energy into the target efficiently and implode the target symmetrically—so far, so good. The scientists say they are on target to attempt ignition—a self-sustaining fusion reaction that produces excess energy—before the end of this year. “It's come up better than anyone thought. They're ahead of the curve predicted,” says Mike Dunne, director of the Central Laser Facility of Rutherford Appleton Laboratory near Oxford, U.K.

    Hot cell.

    To implode the central fuel capsule, NIF fires 192 beams into an eraser-sized gold cylinder, heating it to x-ray temperatures.


    NIF is the sledgehammer to crack a nut, writ huge (Science, 17 April 2009, p. 326). The sledgehammer is a laser that occupies a building the size of three football fields and 10 stories high. Inside it, hundreds of optical amplifiers, beam splitters, and other devices take a normal laser beam, split it 192 ways, and boost the combined energy of the beams to 1.8 megajoules.

    The nut is a tiny spherical capsule the size of a peppercorn made of beryllium, which in later experiments will encase a dash of deuterium and tritium (D-T)—isotopes of hydrogen. The aim is to use the power of the laser to heat the capsule so fast that it explodes, propelling the D-T fuel inward toward the center and crushing it to a temperature and pressure greater than those in the core of the sun. As nuclei in the very center begin to fuse, the energy produced will cause all the D-T fuel to burn in a flash of energy—with luck, more energy than was pumped into the capsule in the first place.

    Livermore has spent more than 10 years and $3.5 billion building NIF, and researchers hope successful ignition experiments will pay back that investment in future fusion power stations. But a main part of NIF's role is to test computer simulations of nuclear explosions to ensure that the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile is reliable.

    In the paper, Siegfried Glenzer of Livermore and his colleagues there, at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and at General Atomics in San Diego, California, describe shots using a beam energy of 0.7 megajoules, about 40% of NIF's maximum. “We're doing the real thing, and it's going better than expected,” Glenzer says.

    The team addressed the problem of getting the most laser power onto the capsule and doing so symmetrically so that it implodes evenly. The laser's output is in the ultraviolet, but for a better implosion you need x-rays. So instead of shining the beams directly onto the capsule, they put it in the center of a gold cylinder about the size of a pencil eraser, called a hohlraum. By shining the beams through holes in the ends of the hohlraum, they can make its inner surface hot enough to emit x-rays, which cause the capsule to implode. In the experiments described, the team produced a radiation temperature inside the hohlraum of 3.3 million kelvin, exactly in line with models. Robert McCrory, director of the Laboratory for Laser Energetics (LLE) at the University of Rochester in New York state, calls the feat a major achievement. “If you don't get the hohlraum temperature you're not going to get the implosion you need.”

    But the peril of this “indirect” approach is that gold atoms kicked off the inside wall of the hohlraum create a plasma that can interfere with the incoming beams in unpredictable ways. In the experiments, the NIF team managed to tune the many beams to keep these laser-plasma interactions to an acceptable level. “They were sufficiently benign at this energy, which is a huge success,” says Dunne.

    In fact, the team turned some of these interactions to their advantage. In the past few years, theorists had suggested that with so many beams converging into the narrow ends of the hohlraum, the beams could nudge the plasma into a regular repeating pattern, producing a sort of diffraction grating that might scatter the beams. It was potentially a “terminal problem,” says Dunne. But early last year, Livermore researchers suggested that they could use the gratings to steer the beams toward hard-to-reach parts of the hohlraum interior—in particular halfway down the inside wall, farthest from the entrance holes. The recent experiments have proved their theory right. “You can deposit energy where you need it,” Glenzer says. LLE's David Meyerhofer is impressed. “It's the first time laser-plasma interactions have been used in a beneficial manner. Usually, you try to avoid them,” he says. “There's no suggestion that this won't work at full energy.”

    The next major hurdle is ensuring that the implosion of the fuel is smooth and symmetrical. This remains “an open question,” Dunne says, because experiments so far have used empty capsules and the explosions “were not uniform on a microscopic scale, and that can cause problems later.” Even so, he says, he's “not too worried yet,” because the capsules used were not machined to the same precision used for ignition shots.

    Experiments at NIF are currently stopped, and the ignition campaign will begin in earnest in May, Glenzer says. If all goes well, Dunne says, a decision will be made in July on whether to push ahead with full D-T fusion experiments and an attempt at ignition in October. Successful ignition this year is “not out of the question,” McCrory says. “But I'd be surprised if it happens.”

  8. Planetary Science

    Did a Battering Rain of Comets Bring Ganymede to Geologic Life?

    1. Richard A. Kerr

    Scientists have come up with a promising explanation of a planetary odd couple: Jupiter's major moons Ganymede and Callisto. Much like the disparate pair of Earth and Venus, the two moons have similar sizes and similar compositions but have followed vastly different paths of development. Once formed, Ganymede separated into layers of ice, rock, and molten metal, and then something reshaped parts of its surface. Meanwhile, Callisto went almost nowhere. It has not moved much beyond the bland, newborn ball of mixed ice and rock it started out as.

    A study published this week in Nature Geoscience offers a possible explanation for why Ganymede evolved so much more than Callisto did: Ganymede suffered a far worse beating 3.9 billion years ago when a rain of comets and asteroids battered much of the solar system. “An interesting idea, well argued,” says planetary physicist David Stevenson of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “I think it's promising.”

    No longer two peas in a pod.

    Some source of heat—possibly a storm of impacts eons ago—led to the resurfacing of Ganymede (left) but left Callisto (right) largely unchanged.


    For 30 years, researchers have wondered what process could have got enough heat into Ganymede to drive its geological evolution without setting off Callisto as well. In search of a heat source that could discriminate between the two moons, planetary scientists Amy Barr and Robin Canup of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, considered the late heavy bombardment (LHB). That's a hypothesized storm of comets and (in the inner solar system) asteroids that many planetary scientists think pummeled the solar system 3.9 billion years ago.

    When Barr and Canup simulated the effects of the LHB's impacts on Ganymede and Callisto, they found plenty of discrimination. Jupiter's powerful gravity would have accelerated incoming comets and drawn more of them near the planet, the researchers note. Ganymede, being closer to Jupiter, would have suffered twice as many impacts as Callisto and at higher velocities. So Ganymede would have received 3.5 times more energy than Callisto.

    In their modeling, that was more than enough heat to begin melting the ice in Ganymede's natal mixture of ice and rock. That thaw would have allowed the moon's rock to start sinking through the increasingly slushy interior. Then the sinking rock would have given up its gravitational energy as heat, accelerating the moon's separation into layers. Eventually, enough heat from radioactive decay would have built up to separate the rock's iron into a molten core, drive a magnetic field, and perhaps form Ganymede's grooved surface geology. Short-changed on impact energy, Callisto would not have melted enough to achieve “runaway” heating during separation, leaving it cold and without a core. With a negligible heat source below it, Callisto's surface would be geologically dead for eons.

    “It's a classic good-science paper,” says planetary geologist James Head of Brown University. “It's very exciting because it combines a couple of seemingly disparate problems.” The scenario offers a promising, testable explanation for the Ganymede-Callisto dichotomy, he says. And to the extent that it proves to be an attractive explanation of the dichotomy, it also lends support to the reality of the LHB. In particular, Barr says, LHB heating “fits nicely with the Nice model.” That model (named after the French city where it was developed) shows how Jupiter and Saturn could have stirred up an LHB while migrating outward through the solar system (Science, 17 July 2009, p. 262). But researchers agree that much analysis remains to be done, and another mission to the Jupiter system would be nice.

  9. ScienceInsider

    From the Science Policy Blog

    Writing in Der Spiegel, three prominent climate scientists have criticized the policies of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and its chair, Rajendra Kumar Pachauri. The Wall Street Journal reprinted the column, which says the panel should adopt conflict-of-interest policies, a mechanism for dealing with errors, and more transparent policies for selecting its leadership and authors.

    Director Peter Sawicki has been let go by the German Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care, and Fotis Kafatos is voluntarily stepping down from his position as president of the European Research Council.

    Budget woes have imperiled the dream of Alain Beaudet, president of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, to launch a massive initiative to combat Alzheimer's disease and dementia. A government deficit has scaled back the proposal from hundreds of millions of dollars to a far more modest $10 million.

    A new report says that far fewer people than believed have died in the Democratic Republic of the Congo from a decade-long civil war. The International Rescue Committee has cited a widely quoted figure of 5.4 million, but the new analysis, part of a publication called the Human Security Report 2009, faults the committee's methods and suggests that the number is closer to 900,000.

    A California physicist suggests that delivering food to Haiti by small, widely dispersed air drops would be more effective than delivering it to a few sites in large packages, which can be hard to distribute because of poor infrastructure or thieving thugs. Bill Wattenburg says the U.S. military has been wary of the technique, however, despite its successful use in Bosnia and Afghanistan.

    For the full postings and more, go to

  10. Faintest Thrum Heralds Quantum Machines

    1. Adrian Cho

    After years of trying, physicists are on the verge of making tiny vibrating devices that make the slightest possible movement. Far weirder mechanical devices could follow.


    A gizmo occupying two places at once would be an analog to Schrödinger's dead-and-alive cat.

    CREDITS: M. Twombly/Science

    If you want to be remembered, make a bad prediction. In 2003, Science reported that within 6 months physicists might create tiny machines whose movement obeyed the weird rules of quantum mechanics, which state that an object can absorb energy only in discrete “quanta” and can be in two places at once (Science, 3 January 2003, p. 36). That didn't happen, but Tobias Kippenberg, an experimenter at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne, still shows a slide of the article in his talks. “It's entertaining, and it also reminds people exactly how challenging the problems are in this field,” Kippenberg says.

    Those obstacles are not insurmountable, however. Kippenberg's team and several others have nearly entered the realm of quantum motion. Ironically, to get there, they're racing to make gizmos that make literally the slightest movement, vibrating widgets drained of every possible bit of energy and quivering with only an unquenchable “zero-point motion.” Recent progress toward that “ground state” of motion has come so fast that even Kippenberg is willing to prognosticate: “I expect in the next year there will be maybe a half-dozen groups observing this,” he says.

    If so, then the age of quantum machines will finally have arrived. Molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles all obey the mind-bending dictates of quantum theory. But physicists have never observed such odd behavior in the movement of a humanmade object. So their first goal has been to put the simplest machine—a vibrating beam or some other “oscillator”—into its ground state, which would be a crucial first step toward machines that oscillate around two different positions at once and other weird states of motion. Within the past 6 months, four different groups have come within a few dozen quanta of that goal, and researchers say one may have reached it.

    Curiously, as physicists have homed in on their objective, the field has grown more diverse. Seven years ago, a few groups of condensed matter physicists were pursuing a single strategy for reaching the ground state. Now, teams from optics and astrophysics have joined the chase. “The field has exploded in terms of the number of people working in it,” says Robert Knobel of Queen's University in Kingston, Canada. “They're bringing their toolboxes from all these different fields.”

    Quantum machines could lead to devices that blur the lines between electronics, optics, and mechanics—humming widgets that coax light into odd states or translate information encoded in quantum states of photons into electronic signals. They might even probe a fundamental mystery: Why don't human-scale objects behave quantum mechanically? Reaching the ground state of mechanical motion is “the kind of result that will create a new field in itself,” says Jack Harris, an experimenter at Yale University. “This will be a door opening—a big one.”

    High frequencies and low temperatures

    But first physicists must make machines that make the slightest movement. Twentieth century physicist Werner Heisenberg's famous uncertainty principle implies that, like a small child, no object can stand perfectly still. Even in its ground state, it must possess a last, inextricable half-quantum of energy and jiggle with zero-point motion. Physicists would like to see that minimal tremor in a mechanical widget. To spot it, they are tinkering with nanometer-sized beams of semiconductor, micrometer-sized bits of glass, and even mirrors weighing kilograms.

    Those objects all share a key property: When each is nudged away from its equilibrium position or shape, it oscillates at a well-defined frequency like a tuning fork. Quantum mechanically, such a “harmonic oscillator” can absorb energy only in quanta whose size is proportional to its frequency. So to reach the ground state, physicists need to extract all but the last, irretrievable half-quantum. That's easier said than done. Each quantum is so small that to remove them all, researchers must lower the oscillator's temperature—and hence its energy—nearly to absolute zero.

    Nevertheless, physicists tried the direct route to the ground state. To make the energy quanta as large as possible, they etched beams of semiconductor that vibrated at high frequencies—up to 1 billion cycles per second, or 1 gigahertz. To make the beams as cold as possible, they relied on so-called passive cooling: sticking them in the best liquid-helium refrigerators, which can reach a few millikelvin, or thousandths of a degree above absolute zero. To sense a beam's motion, they employed a scheme called “capacitive coupling,” applying a voltage between the beam and an electrode (see diagram). The beam's motion causes the voltage to vary.

    Researchers ran into a few roadblocks, however. To push the frequencies of their vibrating beams higher, experimenters made them ever stiffer. But that meant that the size of the beam's already minuscule oscillations decreased even further, making them difficult to detect.

    The scheme for measuring the beam's motion actually jostled the beam as well. Physicists tracked the varying voltage by observing how it affected the current through a device called a single-electron transistor. But as the electrons hopped through one by one, they tugged on the beam, creating “back action.” “This back action is quite a bit bigger than you need for these quantum measurements,” Knobel says. “And I don't think we understood that theoretically or experimentally at the time.”

    Cool new ideas

    Even as the straight path to the ground state proved difficult, new avenues toward that goal began to open. In particular, experts in quantum optics began experimenting with techniques to control the motion of micrometer-sized objects with laser light. “It turns out that you can use the whole quantum-optics toolbox to prepare, manipulate, and read out a mechanical system,” says Markus Aspelmeyer, a physicist at the University of Vienna.

    Ironically, physicists can cool an oscillator by shining light on it. Conceptually, such active cooling works as follows: Researchers put a tiny mirror on an oscillating beam (see diagram). It and a larger, fixed mirror form an “optical cavity” that resonates with light of a frequency set by the mirrors' spacing, just as an organ pipe whistles at a pitch set by its length. If the little mirror could not move, then only light of this frequency could shine through the large mirror and into the cavity.

    But if the mirror oscillates at a definite frequency, then laser light whose frequency has been lowered by that amount can also enter the cavity. To do so, however, each photon must absorb a quantum of energy from the mirror to make up for the energy it is lacking. So that “detuned” light saps energy from the oscillator. The light wave reemerging from the cavity also reveals the mirror's motion through shifts in the alignment of its peaks and troughs, or “phase,” allowing researchers to detect the motion with greater sensitivity.

    Using such “resolved-sideband cooling,” three groups have reduced the energy of a micrometer-sized oscillator to between 32 and 67 quanta, as they reported in July 2009 in Nature Physics. The experiments varied in details. Aspelmeyer's team used a mirror on a beam; Kippenberg's shined light into a glass ring that served as both optical cavity and oscillator. Hailin Wang's team at the University of Oregon, Eugene, used a glass bead in a similar way. All three worked in fridges that reached a few kelvin; they think they can reach the ground state by starting at millikelvin temperatures. “It doesn't look like we are bumping into any fundamental issues” that prevent it, Aspelmeyer says.

    Physicists working with nanometer-sized oscillators have found better ways to chill and measure their devices, too. In fact, they've borrowed the concept of resolved-sideband cooling. For example, Keith Schwab of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena and colleagues have applied it to a silicon-nitride beam 30 micrometers long and about 150 nanometers thick and wide that thrums at 6.3 megahertz.

    The beam couples to a nearby microwave resonator—simply a long strip of superconducting niobium that can ring with microwaves of a particular frequency. As in the optical experiments, detuned microwaves can enter the niobium strip only by absorbing energy from the beam. Starting at millikelvin temperatures, the researchers reduced the beam's energy to a handful of quanta, as they reported this month in Nature. “We pushed the experiment as hard as we could, and in the end we came down to four,” Schwab says.


    In the old-school approach (left), physicists simply cool a vibrating beam in a helium refrigerator. In a new tack, laser light saps a beam's energy as it enters an optical cavity with the beam at one end.


    Brute force carries the day

    In the race to the ground state, however, the straightforward approach seems to have won out. Andrew Cleland, John Martinis, and colleagues at the University of California, Santa Barbara, have succeeded by using a “brute force” combination of passive cooling and a very high oscillator frequency, say several physicists who have seen preprints describing the work. The key to the experiment lies in a clever scheme to detect the oscillator's motion, they say.

    Cleland and Martinis's gizmo is a beam that vibrates at a whopping 6 gigahertz, researchers say. But rather than swinging up and down, it gets thinner and thicker. It also consists of so-called piezoelectric material that creates an oscillating electric field as it expands and contracts, making that motion easy to detect.

    To do that, Cleland and Martinis rely on a widget called a “phase qubit,” a strip of superconductor with a nonsuperconducting patch in it that acts a bit like a sandbar in a stream of free-flowing electrons. The details aside, the phase qubit is itself a highly controllable quantum-mechanical system with a ground state and one higher-energy state. Researchers can ease the qubit from one state to the other—or even put it into both states at once—by applying microwaves of a specific frequency. Moreover, they can change that frequency by adjusting the current flowing through the qubit.

    So Cleland and Martinis can feed energy quanta into the oscillating beam one by one. They first put the qubit into its energetic state and then adjust the qubit's frequency to match that of the oscillator to shuffle the quantum of energy over. They can also run the process backward to pull quanta out of the oscillator. And the team has pulled out every last one to reach the ground state, others say. “I would say that Andrew and John have achieved it,” Schwab says. “We've gotten damn close, but these guys are deep into it.”

    Cleland and Martinis had previously used a phase qubit to fiddle with a microwave cavity. They showed they could put the cavity into any delicate quantum state, including the ground state or one in which it contained two different numbers of microwave photons simultaneously, as they reported in May in Nature. Now, they have simply replaced the gigahertz microwave cavity with a gigahertz mechanical oscillator, others say.

    Not everyone is convinced that the Santa Barbara team has reached the desired goal. The researchers detect not the motion of the beam but the electric field the material produces, Kippenberg argues: “It's not a purely mechanical oscillator.” The experiment could be done with a different material that would produce such a field through internal stresses, without mechanical motion, he says. Others say that's a quibble, as the Santa Barbara device does move.

    Testing the limits of reality

    Just what quantum machines will be good for remains to be seen. Most immediately, they might have technical applications in basic research. A gigahertz nanomechanical oscillator in its ground state would make an exquisitely sensitive force detector, says physicist Konrad Lehnert of JILA, a laboratory run jointly by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the University of Colorado, Boulder. “That gives you a way to interrogate the nanoscale world in a very gentle, noninvasive way,” he says.

    Micrometer-sized widgets in quantum motion might prove particularly useful in quantum optics experiments, says Yale's Harris. They might serve as “nonlinear” optical elements that perform tasks such as splitting a single higher-energy photon into two lower-energy ones, he says. Currently, researchers do such things by passing light through certain crystals, which typically absorb a large fraction of the photons. Quantum machines might do the job without such high losses, Harris says.

    The tiny machines might also bridge the gaps between various technologies. Physicists can already control the quantum behavior of electrons and of electromagnetic waves such as light or microwaves. Quantum machines would enable them to control quantized vibrations, or “phonons,” and forge connections among all three, says Oskar Painter, an applied physicist at Caltech. “You've got phonons, photons, and electrons” working together, he says. “That's where the revolution is going to come from.”

    Many sizes.

    Physicist are experimenting with nanometer-sized beams (top), micrometer-sized rings (middle), and macroscopic mirrors.


    Painter is already pushing in that direction. His team recently fashioned a beam of silicon 30 micrometers long and 1.4 micrometers wide and patterned it with a ladderlike arrangement of holes. The pattern simultaneously traps light and vibrations. In fact, the pressure from trapped light can set the beam vibrating, and that motion reveals itself in microwaves emanating from the beam, the team reported in October 2009 in Nature. Such a structure could convert optical signals to microwaves and vice versa, Painter says.

    Quantum machines might ultimately probe the origins of everyday reality. Although the rules of quantum mechanics allow an object to be in two places at once, human-sized “classical” objects do not behave that way. “Systems either behave quantum mechanically or classically,” says Nergis Mavalvala, an astrophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “Is there something murky in between? I don't think anyone has an answer for that.”

    Many physicists think that in principle a large object could be put into such a two-places-at-once state—if it were shielded from vibrations, radiation, and other environmental influences, which cause such delicate states to “collapse.” Others argue that as-yet-unknown factors may prevent large objects from behaving quantum mechanically. Famed British theorist Roger Penrose argues that if a large object were put into a here-and-there state, its own gravity would pull it to one place or the other, taking the quantum weirdness—and perhaps some of the fun—out of the everyday world.

    To test such ideas, many researchers would like to try to put a human-sized object in two places at once. “There's nothing better than an experiment that proves that it works or it doesn't,” Mavalvala says. Such experiments are a ways off, but physicists are surprisingly close to reaching the ground state of a jumbo oscillator. Using optical techniques, Mavalvala and colleagues cooled a 1-gram mirror to 100,000 quanta, as they reported in 2007 in Physical Review Letters.

    More recently, the group has cooled mirrors weighing 10.8 kilograms even further. The four mirrors form two crossed 4-kilometer optical cavities in the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) in Hanford, Washington, which is designed to detect ripples in spacetime. Using LIGO's electronic stabilization system in lieu of lasers, the team cooled the mirrors' relative motion to just 234 quanta, as they reported in July 2009 in the New Journal of Physics.

    Exactly where quantum machines will lead may be impossible to say. But once physicists can put gadgets into quantum motion, the possibilities may be limited only by researchers' ingenuity. Something new and wild seems sure to shake loose.

  11. Evolution

    In the Deep Blue Sea

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi

    A survey of corals and their kin is showing the surprising evolutionary potential of the ocean's deepest waters, where no sunlight penetrates.

    The deep sea may not seem like a crucible of evolution. But, to the surprise of biologists, a new construction of the coral family tree suggests that evolution proceeds at full bore in waters well below where sunlight penetrates. Moreover, some coral diversity may have bloomed there first, before spreading coastward—the reverse of what has long been thought. “As people look in the deep sea, they are finding much more diversity than they expected,” says Clifford Cunningham, an evolutionary biologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. “We're just at the very beginning of understanding deep-sea evolution.”

    Diversity in the dark.

    (left to right) A colony of bamboo coral, a solitary deep-sea coral, and a chrysogorgiid octocoral speak to the richness of the ocean depths.


    At a meeting* in Seattle earlier this month, a dozen experts celebrated progress in assembling an improved family tree showing the relatedness of jellyfish, corals, anemones, and hydra, which are collectively known as cnidarians. Relatively simple creatures characterized by their production of specialized stinging cells, cnidarians are important to the marine ecosystem. Some live in deep water; others in the shallows. Some, like reef-forming corals, live in large colonies and partner with algae; others go it alone.

    By comparing a variety of genes among cnidarians, Cunningham and the others gathered in Seattle have pieced together large swaths of their family tree. This Cnidarian Tree of Life project and other studies have unveiled where some of the species arose and where traits such as coloniality came from. The most paradigm-shaking result so far concerns certain corals. Researchers have long thought that deep-sea corals were derived from a few species of shallow-water reef dwellers that migrated out to sea over time. Those new-comers didn't diversify very much in their new environs, it was thought.

    But 40 years ago, marine biologists discovered quite a diversity of worms and other soft-bodied creatures in deep-sea sediments, with up to 100 species per shovelful of mud. Marveling over this surprising variety, Scott France of the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, wondered whether hard, rocky sea floors were also rich in coral species. Since 1992, he and his colleagues have been collecting specimens and data from submersible expeditions and from museum collections, focusing on black corals—named for their dark, flexible, treelike skeletons—and octocorals, all of which have eight tentacles as opposed to the black coral's six.

    To figure out who lived where, Eric Pante, one of his graduate students, charted the data on depths at which 3100 museum specimens were collected and incorporated specimens that he and France collected at sea. They found, for example, that most of 420 metallic-colored chrysogorgiid corals documented lived in the deep sea, but a few were confined to shallow water.

    France and his colleagues also sequenced parts of several genes from representatives of three families of octocorals, those commonly known as sea fans and sea whips. Comparisons of the DNA sequences allowed them to make a family tree, upon which they could overlay the depths of each species' home. The deep-sea species in the three octocoral families “all seem to be coming from a single common ancestor” that lived in deep water, France concluded at the meeting. Mercer Brugler, another of France's graduate students, looked at three families of black corals, which are valued for jewelry, and concluded that they too diversified in the deep ocean.

    This emerging story isn't limited to corals. Marymegan Daly, a systematist at Ohio State University, Columbus, and co-coordinator of the Cnidarian Tree of Life project, has found a similar pattern among the sea anemones she's analyzed. “We see lots of radiations of deep-sea forms,” she reported. In short, concludes France, “we can't say that the deep sea is a boring environment in terms of evolution.”

    And although the Cnidarian Tree of Life project has confirmed that other types of corals have shallow origins, those lineages may find refuge in the deep sea during tough times, says Marcos Barbeitos, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Kansas (KU), Lawrence. Barbeitos studies solitary corals, which are individual polyps, and some of their reef-forming counterparts, which are large colonies of polyps that tend to live in shallow water. Taxonomists have tended to group reef corals with each other, putting deep-water solitary corals in a separate group. They have also assumed that the colonial corals arose from an ancestor that was a solitary coral. But Barbeitos's study, based on DNA samples from 97 coral species, suggests that some solitary corals are closer kin to shallow-reef colonial species than to other deep-water solitary corals and that the evolutionary path to coloniality may equally well go the other way.

    A statistical analysis revealed that at least two of the solitary lineages from the deep sea evolved from colonial forms rather than the other way around. These colonial forms apparently “diversify in shallow water and give rise to [solitary] species that live in deeper water,” says Barbeitos. Furthermore, his data indicate that colonial forms are about as likely to arise from solitary forms as the other way around, suggesting that coloniality can be lost and gained over evolutionary time.

    Barbeitos suggests that as reefs waxed and waned over the planet's history, corals have managed to survive in part because deep-water lineages persist. They then expand and diversify into shallow-water, reef-forming corals when conditions are again favorable. As with the black and octocorals, deep water is critical to Cnidarian evolution, says KU's Paulyn Cartwright, co-coordinator of the Cnidarian Tree of Life project. Corals “may be more robust because of the connection to deep-water relatives.”

    • * The Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting took place 3–7 January in Seattle, Washington.

  12. Research Facilities

    Little Castle on the Prairie

    1. Sam Kean

    Can $400 million and a “Manhattan Project for diabetes” transform South Dakota into a research hub?

    Night lights.

    Sanford Health plans to build about 20 children's clinics worldwide, all shaped like castles.


    The flagship building for Sanford Health in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, really does fly flags, colored pennants over ramparts and turrets. Shields with pseudoheraldic symbols hang inside, and wooden thrones overlook the lobby. This children's hospital runs on what it calls the “Disney principle”: Just as children never see the Mickey Mouse mascot at Disneyland without his head on, Sanford never lets the fantasy lapse with a bare surface. CT scanners have twisting otters painted on them, and doors of tiny, Wonderland size appear in the hallway, opening onto dioramas of secret worlds. Had Alice fallen ill, she would have convalesced at something like the Sanford Castle.

    With so much invested in decoration, the castle is decidedly a patients' hospital. Indeed, the focus of Sanford Health (a cluster of clinics formerly known as Sioux Valley Hospital and Health) has always been patient care, not clinical science. But recently, the institution's stepsister of a research arm was transformed. T. Denny Sanford, a banking mogul, had already donated $16 million to build the castle in 2004, an astounding amount for South Dakota. To help push beyond caring for patients, in February 2007 Sanford donated $400 million more, largely for medical research—one of the largest gifts ever bestowed on any U.S. hospital. Rich Adcock, an executive vice president at Sanford, said the hospital had a vision for growth, “but we knew we needed an angel. Denny Sanford was that angel.”

    With Sanford's blessing, officials announced what's known as the Sanford Project: a plan to cure one widespread disease within Sanford's lifetime. The deadline is a challenge; Sanford turns 75 this year. After interviewing experts, project directors selected type 1 diabetes (juvenile diabetes), a disorder in which immune cells destroy the body's beta cells, the insulin-secreting cells in the pancreas. Newt Gingrich, the former U.S. House of Representatives speaker and a health care–reform advocate, showed up to help announce what Sanford Health is calling a “Manhattan Project.”

    Conquering diabetes is ambitious enough, but then the project declared it had already settled on the approach it would take: harnessing the body's ability to regenerate beta cells. The choice startled some diabetes scientists who saw equal or more promise in other approaches—stem-cell therapy or beta-cell transplants. And the ultimate goal of the Sanford Project may be even more audacious: enticing enough scientific talent to create a permanent biomedical hub, a Boston or San Diego, in the 46th most populous state in the union.

    'Let's start tomorrow'

    Paul Burn, a biochemist and head of research for the Sanford Project, is exasperated that most clinical diabetes research focuses on preventing overactive immune cells from destroying beta cells. Doctors normally don't diagnose children with diabetes until they've lost 90% of their beta cells, so corralling their immune systems alone won't reverse the damage, he argues. He thinks it's essential to regenerate healthy beta cells to cure the disease.

    But if Burn merely wanted to realign research priorities, he could have stayed at his old job as vice president of research for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) in New York City. He came to Sioux Falls to run a different kind of clinic, one that, he says, “is making big bets.” His team won't be doing basic research, though: “Our focus will really be on proof-of-concept studies,” including clinical trials.

    Burn sees a gap between research and drug development for type 1 diabetes and wants Sanford to bridge it. Based on the years he worked for drug companies, Burn argues that they have little financial incentive to run trials for type 1 diabetes when there's a larger and far more lucrative market for the distinct problem of adult-onset, or type 2, diabetes. (Burn estimates that 90% of research dollars spent on diabetes fund type 2 work.) “Even beyond 2015, there's no cure in the pipeline” for type 1, Burn says. “It's the same old story of trying to deliver insulin in a new way.”

    Because Sanford does little basic research, Burn hopes that places like the Diabetes Center of Excellence at the University of Florida, Gainesville, or the Burnham Institute based in San Diego (and the recipient of its own $30 million gift from Sanford), will funnel promising lab results to him for clinical trials. Burn drew on his JDRF contacts to set up these partnerships, but the ties are loose, and no one will coordinate the direction of basic research among the clinics.

    Burn is now interviewing for six positions to run clinical trials at Sanford, and he already has his core research team in place. The project impressed many doubters in June 2009 by unveiling a surprisingly international group, including scientists from China and Russia. (Burn, who is Swiss, has a Ph.D. from the University of Basel.) One early recruit was Alexander Rabinovitch, a gaunt Canadian forced into retirement because of his age by the University of Alberta in Edmonton. His lab in Canada had significantly boosted the numbers of beta cells in mice by using two drugs already approved by the Food and Drug Administration for other purposes, and he was eager to expand into human trials. No one seemed likely to sponsor the work, however. When Burn heard this, he immediately dipped into the $400 million and offered to fund it. It will start this March or April, the first trial initiated at Sanford.

    It's an example of the flexibility that nine figures can buy. Sanford Health—which partners with the University of South Dakota School of Medicine—maintains that its annual research budget for diabetes will approach $100 million per year. Burn hopes his scientists can win grants to cover much of that, but he can also cut through bureaucratic tape himself. “If they have a good project, I tell them, ‘Here's the money, let's start tomorrow.’”

    Burn sees advantages even in the remoteness of Sioux Falls. With a dearth of competition from other research clinics, Sanford will have its pick of diabetes patients from the nearby population of 155,000. Sioux Falls does not support a deep scientific community like larger cities do, he admits, “but it's a paradise from the point of view of trying to set up a clinical trial.” What's more, Sanford Castle is just the first of 20-some castles planned. Another one financed by Sanford opened in August in Oklahoma, and administrators are scouting sites in Belize, Ireland, and elsewhere. Burn hopes to recruit diabetes patients through each castle.

    Creeping doubts

    Not everyone imagines a research utopia in Sioux Falls. “I think some people really share my concern that it's not an established scientific community,” says Gordon Weir, a Harvard University molecular biologist who works on regenerating beta cells.


    Harvard's Gordon Weir and others ask if the project can succeed.


    Hendrik-Jan Schuurman, a diabetes researcher at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, is more supportive but echoes Weir's concerns: “Everybody knows the university in South Dakota is not an institute with a reputation for biomedical research.” That's why he thought Sanford was prudent to establish ties with Burnham and the Florida diabetes center, places that can provide support and advice for Sanford while it builds up the long-term research infrastructure it will need.

    Scientists have also questioned putting so much money into just one option—beta-cell regeneration—when other ideas seem worth trying. Schuurman and colleagues in New Zealand have developed ways to transplant pig pancreatic cells into patients, by coating the cells to enable them to escape detection by the immune system. Schuurman acknowledges that pig cells are not a long-term solution—the donor pigs must be raised in supersterile bays at costs of $50 per day per pig—but feels they are the best short-term hope (Science, 20 November 2009, p. 1049).

    Big bets.

    Paul Burn wants to cure type 1 diabetes and build a research hub in Sioux Falls.


    Weir touts regenerating beta cells from embryonic stem cells or induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells): adult cells that have been reprogrammed to a stemlike state. Adult cells present challenges, such as the need to remove epigenetic imprinting, Weir says, “and we're still figuring out whether there are [other] differences that would not allow them to succeed.” For these reasons, he feels that generating beta cells from embryonic stem cells (ES) is the most attractive path.

    Burn argues that stem-cell therapies, adult or embryonic, are 20 or 30 years distant, and he's impatient. Yet there's another reason Sanford will not sponsor embryonic stem cell work: South Dakota has banned it. A local advocacy group, South Dakotans for Lifesaving Cures, calls the ban the most restrictive in the country, as it might prohibit citizens from receiving ES treatments developed elsewhere. The group plans to introduce a bill into the state legislature to lift the ban, partly to aid research, says spokesperson Nathan Peterson: “We have top-notch medical facilities, and there isn't any reason the scientists shouldn't have the option of conducting [ES] work in an ethical manner.” Sanford, however, refuses to take a public stand on lifting the ES ban.

    Room to grow

    While the Sanford Project still publicly proclaims it will oversee $100 million of research a year and cure diabetes through beta-cell regeneration alone, in private Burn backs off a bit. The project will spend about $30 million in 2010, and he diplomatically calls $100 million an “ambitious” number. He also says Sanford will explore areas beyond regeneration, perhaps dabbling in iPS or even immunological work.

    At the same time, Burn isn't shying away from the Sanford Project's vow to cure type 1 diabetes, soon. He's overseeing a move into a new headquarters, a 28,000-m2 building on the outskirts of Sioux Falls. Burn hopes to move 150 people into one of its two 5,600-m2 research bays by this summer and fill a second bay later. “At universities, you're often fighting over every square foot,” Burn notes from a snowy and truly capacious parking lot. “Here space should be no issue.”

    As for the future, Sanford Health plans to open a 75-hectare research campus south of town and keep the momentum of the Sanford Project going after it cures type 1 diabetes. Burn believes beta-cell regeneration holds great promise for curing type 2 as well. Indeed, Burn sees no reason Sanford can't build a green oasis of research in an otherwise barren scientific state. And even skeptics of the project admit that $400 million is a lot of green. “You can create a scientific environment in even Timbuktu,” says Harvard's Weir. “If you make it big enough and get enough people there, you can succeed.”

Log in to view full text