News this Week

Science  12 Feb 2010:
Vol. 327, Issue 5967, pp. 766
  1. Particle Physics

    New Delay of Large Hadron Collider Might Not Keep Its Rival on the Job

    1. Adrian Cho

    The news in particle physics last week wasn't as surprising as the reaction to it. The world's highest-energy atom smasher, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), will run at half its maximum energy through 2011 and not at all in 2012, officials at the European particle physics laboratory, CERN, near Geneva, Switzerland, announced. They had previously planned to run the beleaguered accelerator at 70% of maximum energy this year. The cut in energy reduces CERN physicists' chances of spying the long-sought Higgs boson—the hypothesized particle central to physicists' explanation of the origin of mass—before rivals at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois, might spot it.

    Curiously, though, Fermilab physicists did not immediately clamor to run their 27-year-old Tevatron collider for an extra year through 2012. That contrasts to last year, when in response to a delay to the LHC, Fermilab scientists pushed hard to run the Tevatron through 2011, a move the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) supports (Science, 20 February 2009, p. 993). This time, Fermilab physicists say an extra year's worth of data might not be worth the expense. “It's not like we're rushing out and saying ‘We want to run in 2012!’” says Fermilab's Dmitri Denisov, co-spokesperson for the 510-member team working with the D0 particle detector. “But we want to keep the possibility open.”

    CERN's new plan aims to further ensure the LHC's safety while amassing a useful amount of data, says Steve Myers, director of accelerators and technology at CERN. The $5.5 billion LHC is designed to blast protons into protons at an energy of 14 trillion electron-volts (TeV)—seven times the Tevatron's maximum. But CERN officials must keep the energy low to protect faulty electrical connections, or “interconnects,” between the thousands of superconducting magnets that guide particles around the 27-kilometer subterranean ring. In September 2008, just 9 days after it first circulated particles, the LHC broke down when an interconnect melted, and researchers spent 14 months repairing the damage. CERN officials had planned to start running soon at 7 TeV and ramp up to 10 TeV this year. They have now scaled back the energy to 7 TeV through next year.

    Leveling off.

    Throughout the past decade, Fermilab physicists doubled the rate at which Tevatron smashes particles roughly every 2 years. Now the machine's productivity has plateaued, so running another year would yield only marginally more data.


    The LHC will run until experimenters collect enough data—1 inverse femtobarn, in the units they use—to give them a shot at discovering new particles predicted by a theory called supersymmetry. It will then shut down for a year so workers can replace all of the roughly 10,000 interconnects, allowing the LHC to run at 14 TeV in 2013. “By doing it this way, we have the time needed to design the new interconnects in a thorough way and make sure it's done correctly,” Myers says.

    CERN physicists are pleased with the guarantee of 1 inverse femtobarn of data, says CERN's Guido Tonelli, spokesperson for the 3800-member team working the Compact Muon Solenoid particle detector. “Clearly, we would have preferred to run at a higher energy,” he says, “but this is a real physics run in which we will be able to tackle a large part of our research program.”

    Initially, CERN physicists said the LHC would start in 2007 and that it made little sense to keep the redundant Tevatron running past 2008 (Science, 2 June 2006, p. 1302). Mishaps and delays at the LHC have given the Tevatron one reprieve after another. But physicists working on the older machine say they will soon face a problem of diminishing returns.

    To continue to improve chances of spotting something new, Fermilab physicists need to steadily increase the accelerator's collision rate and double the size of their data set at regular intervals—about 2 years. But the Tevatron's collision rate has leveled off (see graph), and running in 2012 would likely add only another 25% to the 12 inverse femtobarns researchers expect to have by the end of 2011. It would also divert resources from neutrino experiments and other new projects, says Fermilab Director Pier Oddone.

    Still, Fermilab physicists aren't ready to write off the Tevatron just yet. Forging ahead might make sense if the data start to show hints of the Higgs boson or some other new particle, Denisov says. The Tevatron would also be an option if the LHC suffers another catastrophe, Oddone says. “The real decision would then be, do you run the Tevatron for 3 more years?” he says. “I hope we don't get to that point.” DOE won't have to make a decision on running the Tevatron in 2012 for several months.

  2. India

    After Acrimonious Debate, India Rejects GM Eggplant

    1. Pallava Bagla*

    NEW DELHI—The standard bearer of the next food revolution in India was supposed to be an eggplant. Instead, the unassuming vegetable is at the center of a raging controversy—with the future of agricultural biotechnology in India hanging in the balance.

    At a press conference here on 9 February, India's environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, announced a “moratorium” on commercial release of what would have been India's first genetically modified (GM) food crop: varieties of eggplant, called brinjal in India, equipped with a protein from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that's toxic to insect pests.

    The moratorium overturns a regulatory panel's decision last autumn to clear Bt brinjal for commercial planting. But with public sentiments running strongly against Bt brinjal, Ramesh said, “it is my duty to adopt a cautious, precautionary, and principle-based approach.” The moratorium will stay in place, he said, until studies establish “the safety of the product from the point of view of its long-term impact on human health and [the] environment.”

    Biotech boosters are reeling. “It could be a major setback for agricultural biotechnology in India,” says Maharaj Kishan Bhan, an immunologist and secretary of the department of biotechnology in New Delhi. But some prominent voices had been preaching caution. “Who will have access to the technology? Who will be responsible if something goes wrong? We must address public concerns before making a decision,” says agricultural scientist M. S. Swaminathan, chair of the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai. Others cite possible toxicity of the Bt protein and the potential that it could contaminate non-GM brinjal. Ramesh has taken a “courageous stand,” says molecular biologist Pushpa M. Bhargava, former director of the Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, who calls the moratorium “fair and good.”

    India is the center of diversity for brinjal, with more than 2500 native varieties. It is also the second-largest producer after China—but yields have been hit hard by an insect called the fruit and shoot borer. The pest has caused losses of up to 70% of commercial plantings, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications in New Delhi, a GM food advocacy organization. The group claims that farmers must apply pesticides to brinjal up to 40 times over the 120 days from sowing to harvest, and that pesticide use could be reduced with Bt plants.

    Turning point.

    Jairam Ramesh, India's environment minister, intervened in plans to release a genetically modified food crop, brinjal. His decision could have a big impact on biotechnology.


    Work on Bt brinjal in India began in 2000, when Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Ltd. (MAHYCO) in Mumbai inserted the Bt cry1Ac gene into eight hybrid brinjal varieties. (The Bt technology was licensed from Monsanto, which owns a minority stake in MAHYCO.) In compliance with Indian regulations, MAHYCO carried out toxicology and allergenicity studies, as well as field trials at 59 locations; of these, 42 were done independently in India's agriculture research system. An assessment of whether pollen from GM brinjal would contaminate native crops found “limited outcrossing” with Bt pollen traveling a maximum of 30 meters.

    Last October, India's top biotechnology regulatory body, the environment ministry's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), concluded that “Bt brinjal is safe for environmental release” but deferred a final decision due to the “major policy implications.” Ramesh withheld approval and announced a series of seven public hearings that wrapped up last week in Bangalore. The often-tumultuous hearings strengthened the hand of opponents: Even before Ramesh's decision, several Indian states announced that they would attempt to ban commercial planting of Bt brinjal. (On 9 February, he took a swipe at GEAC, announcing that he would rename it the Genetic Engineering Appraisals Committee.)

    Some influential scientists are thrilled by Ramesh's call for additional tests. “The safety assessment is not complete,” argues Bhargava, a special observer to GEAC appointed by India's Supreme Court. He says MAHYCO should undertake another 30 tests, including chronic toxicity studies and a comparison of all proteins in Bt brinjal and a representative native variety—tests that he claims could take 22 years to complete. A 9 February statement from MAHYCO said the company “respects” Ramesh's decision. “We have no hesitation in doing more tests,” Usha Barwale Zehr, a genetic engineer and MAHYCO's chief technology officer, told Science. “But it certainly can't be unending, and the new tests … need to have a scientific value.”

    Supporters of GM crops take comfort in the fact that the moratorium applies only to eight Bt brinjal varieties and that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government has not rejected all GM technology. Indeed, brinjal would not have been the first GM crop in India: In 2002, the government approved Bt cotton, which is now cultivated on more than 9 million hectares in India. Last month, Singh declared that “we should pursue all possible leads that biotechnology provides that might increase our food security.” But for now the country's first GM food has proved too hard to swallow.

    • * With reporting by Richard Stone.


    From Science's Online Daily News Site

    Better to React Than to Act Have you ever noticed that the first cowboy to draw his gun in a Hollywood Western is invariably the one to get shot? Nobel Prize–winning physicist Niels Bohr did, once arranging mock duels to test the validity of this cinematic curiosity. Following Bohr's example, researchers have now confirmed that people move faster if they are reacting to another person's movements than if they are taking the lead themselves. The findings may one day inspire new therapies for patients with brain damage, the team speculates.

    Australia, Antarctica Linked by Climate Researchers have found an intriguing climate link between southwestern Australia and eastern Antarctica. When the former suffers a drought, the latter is battered with snow. Even more provocative: Human activity seems to be driving the connection.


    Can Thin Mountain Air Make You Slim? Looking for a new weight loss plan? Try living on top of a mountain. Twenty obese men spent a week near the top of Germany's highest peak and saw their metabolism speed up, their appetite diminish, and more pounds melt off than they likely would have had they stayed at home, a new study reports. However, the study lacked a control group, so firm conclusions are tough to draw, other researchers say.

    How Cancer Wreaks Havoc on Bone An insulin-like hormone speeds the destruction of bone caused by malignant tumors, a team of clinical pathologists has found. If confirmed, the results could eventually point to drugs for slowing or stopping the damage to bones caused by cancers.

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  4. Newsmaker Interview

    IPCC Seeks 'Broader Community Engagement' to Correct Errors

    1. Eli Kintisch

    Amid mounting attacks on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a small number of its volunteer leadership has tried to respond to the horde of bloggers and reporters as well as explain themselves to colleagues. Prominent among them has been Christopher Field of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Palo Alto, California. For the 2014 edition he is co-chair of the report by Working Group 2, which will examine the impacts of a changing climate.

    Climate control.

    Chris Field is working to help IPCC improve its performance.


    A field ecologist who made his name examining the interrelationship of nitrogen, plants, and atmospheric carbon, the outdoorsy Field has become increasingly comfortable in a suit and tie. Be it in congressional testimony or addressing delegates at the Copenhagen talks last December, Field delivers his scientific message in a deliberate and understated tone, in sharp contrast to Rajendra Pachauri, IPCC's volatile chair. “He's one of the most unflappable people I've been around, and I think you need someone like that to steady the ship when it's rocking,” says biogeochemist Benjamin Houlton of the University of California, Davis.

    Field has spent the past few months responding to critics of what IPCC has done and also discussing where it is headed. He helped write a rare public acknowledgement of error in a statement in the 2007 report saying that Himalayan glaciers were “very likely” to melt away by 2035. Despite the criticism of the panel, he says he's had early success recruiting authors for the next report, whose teams should be finalized by this summer. Here are excerpts from a 5 February phone interview with Science.

    Q:You've said that the error about melting glaciers was a case of not following IPCC's own procedures. But you also say that the community should have pointed out the error during review opportunities.

    C.F.:It's clear there really wasn't a body of evidence required to assign that “very likely” term. So the procedures really weren't followed. But I think it's also clear that the procedures are set up so that had there been more review comments, had the level of expertise on the topic been recruited as a [chapter contributing author], there were a bunch of places where the error could've been avoided with a broader community engagement.

    Q:Critics say that IPCC should develop a means for formal corrections, like those used by scientific journals.

    C.F.:The reason that is tough is because the IPCC relies so heavily on this multiphase review and approval mechanism. … It's hard for me to figure out what might be a process that would sustain the credibility that should be associated with the IPCC process. Ideally, a correction would go back through an IPCC-type process. But that would take as long as producing the next report. … I must admit I don't really have a mature strategy for how we deal with [substantive] errors. One possibility might be if the IPCC were to write a “Special Report” to update each assessment. We have a well-established mechanism to do these.

    Q:Apart from the issue of the Himalayan glaciers, there have been recent criticisms of how the 2007 report dealt with disaster losses and the Amazonian rainforest, among a series of others that have cropped up.

    C.F.:[They] don't have any real substance. The report is standing up incredibly well to a blizzard of attacks.

    Q:Should the IPCC authors who fail to catch errors face official consequences?

    C.F.:Every scientist does their best with each paper or work that comes out of their group. … Having your work criticized in a public way is a difficult [enough] situation for a scientist. … With a mistake like the Himalayan glaciers one, there's plenty of blame to go around.

    Q:Are you happy with how the IPCC leadership has responded to an almost unprecedented amount of public criticism?

    C.F.:I think it's fair to say that nobody was expecting this, and nobody was prepared for it, including me. It's taking a long time for us to get our act together in terms of communicating who we are and what we do. … It would have been nice if we had a rapid-response way of checking out any challenges that arise, and having time to respond in kind. I think we're also struggling to explain what the IPCC is, its procedures.

    Q:Member governments pay for IPCC. What are they saying?

    C.F.:We haven't had a systematic set of responses from governments. I think it's fair to say there have been some expressions of concern.

    Q:Some have said that Pachauri has been too defensive or activist in his responses to the criticism. Do you think he's done a good job?

    C.F.:I think he's tried to do the best job he can do.

    Q:There is a growing community of critics and bloggers who are publishing information on climate change outside of the established community. Is there a place for this science along with the peer-reviewed literature?

    C.F.:In the long run, we should take advantage of the benefits of both and not suffer the weaknesses of either.

    Q:You were a co-leader of the chapter on North America in the 2007 report. Why did you seek to expand the role for the next report?

    C.F.:I feel a responsibility as a member of the scientific community. … While there have been a number of aspects of the last few months that have been frustrating, I'm really proud to be a member of an activity that has in the past provided so much value to the public on the issue of climate change, and I'm confident I can continue to do that.

  5. U.S. Science Policy

    Bement to Leave NSF Before Term Ends

    1. Jeffrey Mervis

    The last major science holdover in the Obama Administration is stepping down ahead of schedule this spring, leaving the president free to appoint a new director for the $7 billion National Science Foundation (NSF).

    Arden Bement.


    Arden Bement announced last week that he will be leaving NSF on 1 June to lead a new public policy institute at Purdue University, where he's been on leave since 2001. A nuclear engineer, Bement led the National Institute of Standards and Technology before being appointed acting NSF director in 2004 following the resignation of Rita Colwell. Several months later, President George W. Bush nominated him for a full, 6-year term that expires in November 2010.

    A nuclear engineer who came to Purdue in 1992 after a long career in industry, Bement gave the incoming president little reason to replace him at the helm of an agency that has traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support. The Obama Administration has pledged to continue a 2006 promise by Bush to double NSF's budget, although it extended the time frame from 7 to 10 years. Last week, President Barack Obama requested an 8% increase for NSF in his 2011 budget despite proposing a freeze on overall domestic discretionary spending.

    At an age when most people are already retired, Bement says, “I feel like 77 going on 45.” His return to West Lafayette, Indiana, will certainly be a homecoming for him. The Global Policy Research Institute that he will lead is part of a strategic plan hatched by Purdue's president, France Córdova, who is a member of the National Science Board, NSF's oversight body. And Richard Buckius, Purdue's vice president for research, served as head of NSF's engineering directorate under Bement before going to Purdue in 2008.

    Bement's immediate successor is expected to be Cora Marrett, who came to NSF in 2007 to head its education directorate and has served for the past year as acting deputy director. But Marrett may also be a short-termer unless she is chosen for the top job, giving the Obama Administration a chance to fill both positions.

  6. ScienceInsider

    From the Science Policy Blog

    A big winner in the recently proposed 2011 federal budget was the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, which received a $300 million boost—$75 million more than the entire Office of Science, the Energy Department's basic research arm. Energy Secretary Steven Chu explained that the boost was needed to provide a “quick hit” on advanced energy concepts.

    The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wants to fly DSCOVR, a controversial satellite first proposed by former Vice President Al Gore. The craft would sit 1.6 million kilometers from Earth, between our planet and the sun, and gather data on space weather. Earth scientists hoping to use the satellite for climate research are awaiting a NASA decision on whether to do so.

    A patent on creating induced pluripotent stem cells was granted to two Boston-area researchers, leading some to wonder if the rush for intellectual-property rights will slow clinical development of this promising technology.

    A court at The Hague last week dealt a blow to the Dutch government's controversial policy to exclude Iranian-born students and scientists from master's degrees involving nuclear technology and from nuclear research facilities in the Netherlands, calling the ban overly broad and a violation of an international civil rights treaty.

    The Obama Administration announced a new strategy for preventing an invasive species, the Asian carp, from entering the Great Lakes, where it could threaten a sportfishing industry worth $7 billion. The plan also includes money for research on how to battle the fish. However, the move appears unlikely to end a feud between midwestern states over what to do about the carp.

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  7. Psychiatry

    Proposed Revisions to Psychiatry's Canon Unveiled

    1. Greg Miller and
    2. Constance Holden

    This was a momentous week for psychiatry. After more than a decade of labor, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) has released draft proposals for the upcoming fifth version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), the most influential book in psychiatry. By classifying mental disorders and giving them names, DSM not only influences how doctors diagnose and treat their patients, but it also sways how insurance companies decide which conditions to cover, how pharmaceutical companies design clinical trials, and how funding agencies decide which research to fund. Making changes to such a widely used document was bound to be controversial, and it has been. “It's sort of like repairing an airplane while it's still flying,” says psychiatrist Steven Hyman, provost of Harvard University and a member of the committee leading the DSM-V revisions.

    Among a number of new proposals that seem likely to cause a stir are a diagnosis of “prepsychotic risk syndrome” applicable to young people and a redefinition of autism spectrum disorders that would eliminate Asperger's syndrome, which many consider a mild form of autism. (For highlights of the proposed changes, see DSM-V at a Glance; to view the proposals, go to After gathering comments on the draft criteria and conducting field trials to test them, APA plans to publish the finished edition in 2013.

    The researchers and clinicians working on DSM-V had several ambitious goals, including using new findings from neuroscience and genetics to shape diagnoses, minimizing vast diagnostic dead zones of abnormal behavior that fall in the cracks of current criteria, and introducing the idea of “dimensions” to reflect varying degrees of symptom severity and the overlap among disorders.

    The current fourth edition of DSM was originally published in 1994 and revised in 2000. By that time, some experts already envisaged a far grander revision based on rapidly advancing scientific knowledge: genetic findings that reveal commonalities between bipolar illness and schizophrenia, for example, and brain-imaging studies that differentiate the neural circuitry involved in compulsions and addictions (Science, 31 October 2003, p. 808).

    When the first planning conference for DSM-V was held in 1999, participants had high hopes for undergirding many diagnoses with specific biological indicators such as brain scans or genetic tests. In the end, the revision process, led by psychiatrists David Kupfer of the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania and the APA's Darrel Regier, found no such markers that could serve as reliable diagnostic guides. Instead, the work groups focusing on specific areas were asked to consider biological factors among 11 indicators of diagnostic validity. (Others include environmental risk factors, personality traits, and treatment responses.)

    The DSM-V work groups have attempted to close some of the gaps between diagnoses. Since the 1970s, DSM editions have sought to put diagnoses on a more empirical basis by describing and categorizing symptoms without recourse to theory or assumptions about causes. But as a result, many types of abnormal behavior didn't earn any clear diagnosis and were designated “not otherwise specified” (NOS). This category is widely used by clinicians, says Regier—and “when you have 40% of academic inpatient facilities discharging people with NOS diagnoses, you know you have a problem.”

    Another problem with DSM-IV was its all-or-nothing approach: Check five of nine symptoms for depression and the patient has it; check four of nine and he doesn't. Kupfer says a central innovation in DSM-V is the concept of “dimensions” intended to enable clinicians to gauge the severity of a patient's condition by rating factors such as subjective distress and degree of impairment in addition to symptoms. Dimensions also allow disorders to be deconstructed into components that can be addressed separately, such as the depression that accompanies many disorders. This approach acknowledges that “pure” disorders are rare, and comorbidity is the norm, Kupfer says.

    Twin mystery.

    Scans of identical twins, one with schizophrenia (right), reveal differences in the brain, but they're not reliable enough for a diagnosis.


    The revision process has drawn criticism from various quarters. Psychiatrists Robert Spitzer, guiding force behind DSM-III, and Allen Frances, who headed the DSM-IV, have complained that too much of the work has been done behind closed doors. Others have voiced concerns about having researchers with a history of financial ties to pharmaceutical companies (as do a majority of those in the work groups) write the manual.

    Work group members have had to confront both political pressure and scientific dilemmas. The transgender community has been worried about the stigmatizing effect of the current term “gender identity disorder,” because they believe they are just normal people caught in the wrong-sex body. Suggestions for a “prepsychotic syndrome” have some worried that many normal adolescents will be wrongly treated with powerful antipsychotic drugs. Similarly, there's concern that “hypersexuality,” championed by some as justified by the literature, is a diagnosis with no clear limits.

    Frances and other critics question the entire DSM-V enterprise, arguing that a major revision should have been put off until there are more hard data on biological causes of mental disorders. Adding “dimensions” is of dubious benefit, says psychiatrist Michael First, editor of the DSM-IV. Dimensions are what the working groups are “left with after etiology fell through.”

    “I've always been uncomfortable with the idea of producing one large book that changes everything,” adds psychiatrist Jane Costello of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who resigned last year from the work group on child and adolescent disorders. Costello says she'd rather see a Web site set up where changes to the diagnostic criteria could be made when—and only when—sufficient scientific evidence supports it. Kupfer says that's just what the framers of the DSM-V intend to happen in the future.

    Many questions remain, but time and money are limited. APA has pledged $25 million for the entire DSM-V project, a woefully inadequate sum, according to some critics. Clinicians and researchers will now have 3 months to weigh in on the proposed changes. Field trials, involving perhaps 5000 patients, are scheduled to start in July, Regier says. These will test major changes and new diagnoses in a variety of ways, such as comparing DSM-IV and DSM-V diagnoses on the same patients, or ascertaining whether two practitioners agree on a diagnosis for the same patient. New scales will also be tested. The work group on depression has devised a six-factor suicide-prediction scale, for example. Psychiatrist Jan Fawcett of the University of New Mexico, Santa Fe, says the trials should help determine “how many dimensions we can get away with” in view of the fact that clinicians average about 15 minutes per patient. Trials should also reveal whether critics' fears of “false epidemics” of mental illness caused by more expansive diagnostic criteria are justified.

    In the coming weeks, Science will explore several of the new proposals—and researchers' and clinicians' reactions to them—in more detail. First up, in next week's issue, a closer look at addictions.

  8. Psychiatry

    DSM-V at a Glance

    Psychotic Disorders

    Old subtypes for schizophrenia will be discarded. Diagnosis will be made based on common symptoms such as hallucinations and thought disorder, as well as their duration and severity.

    Newly proposed is “psychosis risk syndrome” for people showing warning signs such as delusions, hallucinations, or disorganized speech and experiencing distress. Critics say this could stigmatize many young people. Defenders say early identification could help them.

    Mood Disorders

    DSM-IV lists nine symptoms on which to base diagnosis of depression. The proposed one emphasizes three basic dimensions: depression with anxiety, with substance abuse, and with suicidality. A new diagnosis of “mixed anxiety depression” is proposed. The threshold for bipolar diagnosis is lowered slightly, to accommodate depression with only one or two episodes of mania. This change recognizes the fact that some antidepressants can trigger a manic episode in the vulnerable.

    Anxiety Disorders

    The main change is the expansion of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) spectrum, which now pulls in disorders from far-flung parts of DSM-IV. These include Tourette syndrome, body dysmorphic disorder (obsession with changing a normal body part), and trichotillomania (hair-pulling). “Hoarding disorder” has also been added to the spectrum. There is still debate over whether OCD should have a designation separate from anxiety disorders.

    Personality Disorders

    The old DSM laundry list of 12 personality disorders will be trimmed to five: borderline, schizotypal, avoidant, obsessive-compulsive, and antisocial/psychopathic. (“Psychopathic,” eschewed in earlier DSMs, is now back.) The other diagnoses will be superceded by a “mix and match” menu of symptoms that reflect two types of core pathologies: disturbances related to self-concept, and those related to interpersonal functioning such as cooperativeness and empathy.

    Addiction and Related Disorders

    Vocabulary is being overhauled. “Dependence” (which implies physical and not necessarily psychological dependence) is out. “Abuse” is also out as unsupported scientifically. Instead, varying degrees of “use disorder,” as in “alcohol use disorder,” are proposed.

    “Gambling disorder” has achieved the status of addiction, based on behavioral and biological similarities to substance addiction. “Internet addiction” is under consideration but hasn't yet made the grade.

    Eating Disorders

    New addition is “binge eating,” which has been moved from the DSM Appendix to become a full-fledged disorder.

    Sexual and Gender Identity Disorders

    “Gender identity disorder” has been retained despite pressure from transsexual advocates. Several new diagnoses, including “sexual interest/arousal disorder in women,” are proposed. The most controversial is a proposal for “hypersexual disorder,” involving recurrent and distressing sexual “fantasies, urges and behavior.”

    ADHD and Disruptive Behaviors

    Changes to attention disorder diagnoses are still under consideration. The group proposes a new subtype of conduct disorder that includes callous, unemotional traits (such as lack of guilt or remorse), citing recent evidence that this subset of children and adolescents may be more prone to chronic violent behavior and require different types of treatment.

    Childhood and Adolescent Disorders

    Additions include specific criteria for diagnosing post-traumatic stress disorder in preschool children and “temper dysregulation disorder with dysphoria,” characterized by severe temper outbursts alternating with negative mood states. Children with this problem are often diagnosed with juvenile bipolar disorder under DSM-IV.

    Neurocognitive Disorders

    This new category would subsume various DSM-IV diagnoses, dividing them into major and minor disorders. Major neurocognitive disorders (such as various forms of dementia) involve a decline that interferes with independent living. Minor disorders would include mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a suite of memory and other problems considered a possible prelude to Alzheimer's. Elevating MCI to a formal diagnosis could facilitate clinical trials aimed at preventing Alzheimer's.

    Neurodevelopmental Disorders

    Several DSM-IV diagnoses would be consolidated into a single, broader diagnosis of “autism spectrum disorders.” These include Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. The group says there is no scientific justification for the term, but the change has been strenuously resisted by Asperger's advocates. Also, the term “mental retardation” would be replaced with “intellectual disabilities.”

    Sleep-Wake Disorders

    DSM-IV distinguishes “primary insomnia” from insomnia caused by other conditions. These would be merged into a single diagnosis in DSM-V, with clinicians asked to note accompanying dimensions such as depression or heart disease. “Restless leg syndrome” would be elevated to a formal diagnosis.

    Somatic Distress Disorders

    Several diagnoses that deal with bodily complaints would be folded into a new umbrella diagnosis of “complex somatic symptom disorder” on the grounds that DSM-IV diagnoses such as somatization disorder and hypochondriasis have common features such as chronic physical complaints and distorted perceptions of symptoms.

  9. Immunology

    Replacing an Immune System Gone Haywire

    1. Jennifer Couzin-Frankel

    Bone marrow transplants are a last-ditch experiment for many autoimmune diseases. Assessing how and why they work, and whether they can help more patients, is an exercise in perseverance.

    Back in charge.

    There are hints that regulatory T cells tame the immune system after a transplant.


    In the fall of 1996, more than 200 immunologists and oncologists gathered in Basel, Switzerland, to discuss a drastic, life-threatening strategy to beat back autoimmune disease: Destroy a patient's immune system with a blitz of chemotherapy and radiation before providing them a bone marrow transplant. Then watch and wait and hope the immune system is reborn, pristine and free of disease.

    Bone marrow transplants, now called hematopoietic stem cell transplants, had been part of oncology's arsenal for many years to rid patients of blood cancers—and many patients have died from the intensity of the transplant or its aftermath. But that September more than 13 years ago, there was optimism, from animal studies and a handful of anecdotes in humans, that gentler transplants were possible and that they might reset a malfunctioning immune system as no other treatment could. The Basel group set out to test their hunch, launching a number of small clinical trials.

    In medicine, mainstream treatments often start as the therapy of last resort: toxic, risky, desperate strategies to save the sickest patients. Time refines them; science clarifies who will benefit and who won't. To date, roughly 1500 adults and children worldwide have received stem cell transplants for a host of autoimmune diseases, including multiple sclerosis (MS), scleroderma, lupus, diabetes, and juvenile arthritis. Nearly all have been carefully tracked and monitored, with many giving blood and other tissue so that scientists can parse the evolution of their new immune system over months and years.

    The results have been mixed, but there are startling success stories: About one-third of participants—many debilitated by their disease, in wheelchairs, or facing imminent death—go into remission and no longer need medication long-term, something that can't be achieved with existing treatments. Another third benefit, but only for a year or two, before relapsing. And a third don't respond at all, with about 1% to 5% dying from the treatment.

    Scientists can't yet explain why some do so well following transplant and others don't, partly because they don't understand how, exactly, the transplants are rewiring a faulty immune system. And they worry that even as the field matures and the number of trials expands, assessing how well transplants really work is growing ever more difficult. Roadblocks include paltry funding—the trials lack commercial support because they're not testing new drugs—and difficulty finding patients, because rheumatologists and neurologists are skeptical of transplants, and new, promising, and generally safer biologic therapies are competing for patients' attention.

    There's also growing evidence that stem cell transplants work best in healthier people whose disease hasn't damaged major organs. But for the most part, those aren't the patients receiving transplants: The toxicity of the treatment, uncertainty over how best to coax it to work, and tight restrictions from regulatory agencies over whom to transplant mean that many studies are restricted to the sickest of the sick—and that the therapy risks performing below its full potential.

    Pressing the reset button

    Physicians came to transplantation from different starting points. For Keith Sullivan, an oncologist and transplant physician at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, success in a disease outside his area drew him to autoimmune conditions. In the 1990s, he and his colleagues found that young adults with sickle cell disease, which causes excruciating pain and strokes, responded remarkably well to stem cell transplants. “We said, ‘Okay, … you can put a new blood-forming system in a patient with sickle cell disease and essentially cure’” that person, something not possible with existing treatments. So why not try “putting a new immune system in a patient with autoimmune disease?”

    In stem cell transplants for cancer, patients are generally bombarded with near-lethal doses of chemotherapy and often radiation, which wipe out blood-forming cells in the marrow—along with any lingering malignant cells—to make room for healthy cells infused from a donor. Over time the donor cells proliferate, spawning a new blood system of T cells, B cells, and other immune components.

    Most cancer patients undergoing transplants will die from their disease without one. Autoimmune diseases are less often fatal. Because of that, physicians focused on safer autologous transplants, which use cells from the patient, rather than allogeneic ones, in which cells are drawn from a donor, such as a sibling. In the late 1990s, when transplants for autoimmune diseases began in earnest, 3% to 5% of patients died from autologous transplants; 15% to 35% died from allogeneic ones.

    Transplant physicians worried, however, whether they would be trading safety for effectiveness. If their patients' cells were predisposed to attack their own tissue, wouldn't the disease come back after reinfusing them? “That's what we kind of thought going into this,” says Sullivan.

    He focused on one of the most vicious autoimmune diseases, a severe form of scleroderma called systemic sclerosis, for which there are few treatments and high rates of mortality. Like other transplant physicians working on autoimmune conditions, Sullivan also dialed down the toxicity of the treatment pretransplant because he didn't need to destroy cancer cells, too. First, he collected blood from his patients and singled out CD34 progenitor cells—primitive blood cells that differentiate into more mature blood and immune players. These are the cells his patients would receive in the transplant.


    Meanwhile, other physicians were experimenting as well. Paolo Muraro, a neuroimmunologist now at Imperial College London, was working at the U.S. National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, from 2001 to 2005, studying blood cells from patients with MS who had received stem cell transplants to treat their MS. “The first question we asked: Is there the so-called immune resetting” after transplant? “Does it actually take place?”

    Studying these cells, gathered over time, Muraro discerned a large number of T cells that had recently filtered out of the thymus—an indicator that they were newly formed. “It was not 100% renewal,” he says; some cells that were present pretransplant remained. But enough young T cells were flourishing that Muraro concluded that a new immune system had seeded. He published the work in 2005 in The Journal of Experimental Medicine.

    Weighing the alternatives.

    The option of new biologic therapies, which this little girl is receiving for her juvenile arthritis, make trial recruitment difficult.


    The lab findings matched what physicians were seeing in some patients. Sullivan's fear of a disease resurgence after a transplant did come true for certain individuals, but others stayed in remission for years. He attributes that to the particular set of circumstances that launched an autoimmune attack initially, some combination of environmental triggers, such as a viral infection, and unlucky genetics. Because the new immune system regenerates later in time, the environmental factors that originally triggered autoimmune attacks may be absent. “That may trump the fact that you have genetic predisposition,” Sullivan says.

    More recently, a number of studies have dug deeper, probing how the transplants are altering immunity. Last year, a German group described findings from five people with lupus who had been in remission for as long as 8 years since their transplants. All five had lost pathogenic antibodies linked to lupus, and the number of B cells in their blood had normalized. Other researchers are finding hints that in various diseases, regulatory T cells, which keep the immune system from acting out, flourish post-transplant.

    These are just pieces of a larger puzzle, and it has many gaping holes. “There's a huge black box here: Why is this working?” asks Ann Woolfrey, a pediatric hematologist-oncologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington. It's not clear which cells must be destroyed prior to transplant. Nor is it known which ones keep disease at bay afterward.

    Slow ahead

    In some, however, the transplants work wonders. In 2006, researchers reported that 50% with lupus remained in remission, along with about 30% who had either MS or scleroderma. A team of Europeans last year looked back over 12 years and 900 transplants and found that 59 patients had died from transplant-related complications, and about 40% had experienced no disease progression.

    But as hopeful as most of these numbers are, nearly everyone agrees that stem cell transplants will remain forever experimental unless they compare favorably to other treatments, particularly in their ability to induce lasting remission. Although most physicians agree that patients should try safer therapies first before resorting to a risky stem cell transplant, even the best biologic therapies hitting the market won't work for everyone—and when they do help, they must often be taken for life. Randomized trials to match transplants against standard therapy mean juggling stringent regulatory requirements, a constant need for funding, and sluggish patient recruitment. “It takes time and endurance” to pull this off, says Alan Tyndall, a rheumatologist at the University of Basel, and, with Basel transplant physician Alois Gratwohl, a pioneer in the field. “It's exhausting.”

    One of the biggest challenges has been finding patients. A European trial for MS closed in December after recruiting just 21 people out of the once-hoped-for 200. In pediatrics, Woolfrey and her colleague Carol Wallace, at Seattle Children's Hospital, have sought patients for more than 5 years for a trial in pediatric autoimmune disease and transplanted only four, all with juvenile arthritis. Another study of pediatric autoimmune disease, led by Mitchell Cairo, a pediatric hematologist-oncologist at Columbia University, shut down several years ago. “We couldn't get rheumatologists to [refer] patients,” says Cairo, who performed just two transplants for the study before giving up.

    The problem, physicians agree, is that transplant experts, accustomed to treating cancer patients in dire straits, eye risk through a fundamentally different prism than do the neurologists, rheumatologists, and other specialists who see autoimmune patients day in and day out. “From a transplant perspective, 5% mortality [from the treatment] is great,” says Camillo Ricordi, scientific director at the Diabetes Research Institute at the University of Miami in Florida. “In a diabetes treatment, 1% mortality will be unacceptable.”

    Death rates from the transplants have dropped in the past 10 years, although they vary depending on the approach. Some physicians are experimenting with riskier allogeneic transplants in small trials, collecting cells from donors that they believe make a cure more likely. Others are moving in the opposite direction, jettisoning radiation and lightening the chemotherapy load as much as possible.

    Physicians are also walking a tightrope in identifying which patients to transplant. “Transplantation is what you call a one-shot treatment,” which makes picking the right patients critical, says Riccardo Saccardi, who performs bone marrow transplants at the Careggi Hospital in Florence, Italy, and who also chairs the working party on autoimmune diseases of the European Group for Blood and Marrow Transplantation. Early trials in those with advanced MS generally failed to help; trials in scleroderma on people with severe lung disease had high mortality.

    In choosing patients for trials, many physicians are torn between instinct and reality. Their gut tells them that the therapy is most likely to help those early in disease, who don't yet have damage to their brain, their kidneys, or their lungs. But the risks of transplant, and uncertainty around whose disease will progress without it, makes transplanting such patients ethically questionable.

    Some have forged ahead regardless. In January 2004, clinical immunologist Júlio Voltarelli of the University of São Paulo in Brazil and Richard Burt, who oversees immunotherapy for autoimmune disease at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois, began transplanting teenagers and young adults with type 1 diabetes, after spending more than 2 years seeking, and achieving, approval from an ethics board in Brazil. Their rationale: Diabetes destroys insulin-producing cells in the pancreas soon after diagnosis, and the window to act is a narrow one. Voltarelli has done 24 transplants and published findings from most of them in 2007 and 2009 in The Journal of the American Medical Association. “We can induce remission in almost all patients,” he says, although about half later relapsed and resumed insulin therapy.

    Calm after the storm.

    A scleroderma patient suffered hardening of the skin (top), with collagen deposits in dense pink. One year after transplant (middle), skin was improving, and 5 years later, it was back to normal (bottom).

    CREDIT: R. A. NASH ET AL., BLOOD 110 (15 AUGUST 2007)

    The diabetes study startled the field. “There was a lot of concern, taking these otherwise healthy individuals and giving them high-dose chemotherapy,” says Richard Nash, a transplant physician at the Fred Hutchinson. In diabetes, many young patients don't develop major complications from the disease, such as kidney failure, for decades. Although none of the Brazilians died from the transplant, several suffered serious side effects, such as severe pneumonia and low sperm count that could affect fertility.

    Still, the work has intrigued those who treat diabetes. “They show that you can stop the clock of autoimmunity,” says Ricordi, who is interested in examining the treatment himself.

    Burt argues that the chemotherapy given was relatively mild compared with that used in other studies—and that “there is no need” for more toxic regimens that some transplant experts are promoting. Others dispute that, saying that killing more cells up front in the patient may help a new immune system take root. Two ongoing trials in scleroderma should go a long way toward answering this question. In Europe, researchers have randomized 156 patients with the disease, with half receiving chemotherapy and then a transplant; in the United States, a similar trial takes a much more aggressive approach, by adding high-dose radiation. Both are at least 2 years away from reporting results.

    That the scleroderma trials will even run their course is considered an enormous accomplishment. In the United States, insurance companies often decline to pay for the transplants, deeming them too experimental, thereby limiting trial enrollment; commercial funding is not an option because new drugs are not being tested. In Europe, government restrictions often control how many transplants can be performed at a given site. At University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands, for example, national insurance companies will pay for about 35 stem cell transplants a year, says Nico Wulffraat, a pediatric rheumatologist at the hospital. Most of those go to cancer patients.

    Clinical trials for new biologics also compete for the same participants, and that makes recruitment even harder, says Tyndall. Burt is running an MS trial and is recruiting in São Paulo and Prague, as well as Chicago and Calgary. Regulations around cell-therapy trials in the United States are so stringent as to virtually halt clinical research, many transplanters complain. “We're blocking this with incredible rules and requirements before you even do a pilot trial,” says Ricordi. He is working with centers in China and Argentina on other types of cell transplants for diabetes to get around the roadblocks.

    Tyndall hopes that the scleroderma trials will change the landscape. “If we can show with a disease like scleroderma, where there's nothing else to offer, that it actually does put people into long-term remission,” then transplants might shift toward mainstream medicine. The therapy's hazards are “pretty clear,” he says. The question is, “Which patients would justify that risk?”

  10. Newsmaker Interview

    Down-to-Earth Science Fiction

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi

    In his first—and, he says, last—novel, Anthill, Harvard University biologist Edward O. Wilson reaches into his ant drawer and his Alabama past to save an ecosystem.

    Harvard University biologist Edward O. Wilson has long attracted attention for his scientific studies of ants, his push to preserve biodiversity, and his controversial ideas on sociobiology. Now he's trying his hand at a different type of writing: fiction. His first—and, he says, last—novel, Anthill, combines a multigenerational saga based in rural southern Alabama, where Wilson grew up and still visits frequently, with an unusual novella about his favorite insect. In the novella, excerpted recently in The New Yorker, Anthill's protagonist, Raphael Semmes Cody, captures the workings of an ant colony in vivid detail. Those ants are symbolic of one of the area's last remaining tracts of longleaf pine savanna. In the forthcoming novel, Cody, who explored this tract as a child, grows up to be a lawyer and a naturalist whose central goal becomes saving the land from developers. Wilson spoke with Science about tackling a new literary genre.

    Q:How did this book come about?

    E.O.W.:I always had in the back of my mind the possibility of writing a novel because of the challenge. It's a totally different way of thinking, creatively. It's harder than nonfiction because with nonfiction you can have the literature and the basic data-base in place and then piece your work together, coming back to it and letting it go for a while. When you are writing a novel, you have to create that world in your head and carry it around in your head.


    I created a fictitious county, northeast of Mobile, called Nokobee County. There [was] a natural environment that I wanted to be central to the novel, which is the longleaf pine savanna. It once covered 60% of the southeastern United States. When the South was recovering from the Civil War, the landowners cut down almost all original savanna to build wealth again. I made that [savanna] the focus of the conflict to be developed in the novel.

    Q:Do you go back there a lot?

    E.O.W.:I go back frequently. I think that the critical issue facing the people in the South, although I don't think they yet quite see it this way, is land, how they are going to treat land and their natural resources. They have been gobbling them up fast. One novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, had substantial impact on the self-image of the South. I am trying to develop a new self-image by writing this particular book.

    Q:So how do you bring the ants in there?

    E.O.W.:What are the animals that dominate the environment: Ants! I have used them to represent in some detail the Nokobee Tract and therefore the natural environment of the South. Of course, that's not what most people think of as nature. They think of trees and bears and deer and snakes even, and so on.

    I use [ants], because I know them intimately. They go through battles, through tournaments, through the death of the queen, and through the death of the entire colony. There are parallels with cycles of human civilization.

    Q:How about the scientific accuracy? Did you take literary license with the Anthill Chronicles [the novella]?

    E.O.W.:Some, but not enough to outrage my colleagues.

    Q:How do you know it wasn't enough?

    E.O.W.:Because Bert Hölldobler [Wilson's co-author on the recent book The Super-organism] is a purist in writing about scientific subjects, including ants, but Bert told me he thinks it's marvelous. I was concerned. I take license, there is no question about it. Everything about the ants in there is based on fact, except I have mental activities occurring, and I stretch it pretty far.

    The chronicles will present to the reader for the first time ever what ants really do, what they experience, how they talk to one another, in pheromones, what happens through the life cycle of a colony, and how they conduct their wars. All of that is fact-based, and it's pretty close to the real thing.

    Q:Are you worried about the critics in terms of having a novel that's out there and being evaluated as a literary piece?

    E.O.W.:I realize I'm in another ballpark. But I've already gone back to science. I'll survive if there are bad reviews.

    Q:Is Stephen Spielberg or Pixar vying for movie rights yet?

    E.O.W.:It could be a movie. It would make a very good movie, I think. You decide. You read it.

    Q:I immediately thought of A Bug's Life and Antz.

    E.O.W.:Those movies have nothing to do with the real life of ants. They are about the actors, and they are about what kids and adults think are funny about ants and other creatures. One good thing I hope will come from this book is that it will get the story straight and people will find out that ants are vastly more interesting than depicted in any movies that we have ever had or any television specials.

    Q:Do you think fiction is harder to write than nonfiction or scientific literature?

    E.O.W.:It certainly is for a scientist who spends all his time writing nonfiction. I had to completely retool my thinking: the way I created things in my mind and the way I found expressions for them. I have tried to create something really new. I think the scientists will really like it.


    Racing Crash-Happy Cockroaches

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi

    At the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting, roboticists described experiments with high-speed cameras that showed that cockroaches run up walls by crashing into them headfirst.

    No roach would ever make an Olympic gymnastics team. Although the American cockroach is lightning fast, traveling more than 1.5 meters per second and able to scale walls in the blink of an eye, it would win no awards for grace or flawless performance, says Kaushik Jayaram, a graduate student in biomechanics and robotics at the University of California, Berkeley (UCB). At the meeting, he described experiments with high-speed cameras that showed that these insects' locomotion is anything but perfect, a finding with implications for the design and control of tiny robots. “We see our results as a paradigm shift for under-standing effective performance,” says Jayaram's adviser, Robert Full. “A successful performance must include a greater emphasis on robustness, not necessarily the most elegant solution of motion without error or missteps.”

    Jayaram was trying to understand how the insects use their eyes and antennae to switch from running flat out on a horizontal surface to climbing a wall, a transition that looks smooth to watching humans. Working with fellow graduate student Jean-Michel Mongeau and undergraduate Brian McRae, Jayaram built an enclosed, 55-centimeter-long runway with a wall at one end. He startled the cockroaches and then filmed them as they raced down the runway and up the far wall. He tested the insects under low, ambient, and no light conditions on surfaces that included sand-paper and soft foam. Then he played the video back at slow speeds.


    Often, “instead of using their head and associated sensors for neural control, they used their head like a car bumper,” he reported at the meeting. “They run into the wall headfirst and run up [it] like nothing happened.” He analyzed 79 runs by nine animals, and about 77% of the time, the roaches hit the wall with their head first and pushed themselves up the wall by extending their hind legs. In the other trials, the insects slowed and angled their bodies upward as they approached the wall, taking the brunt of the collision on their front legs. When crashing headfirst, they ran faster—65 to 129 centimeters per second, compared with 54 to 78 centimeters per second when angling up the wall. Those speeds are “the equivalent of a human running 75 to 175 miles [120 to 280 kilometers] per hour into a wall,” Jayaram reported.

    A cockroach's hard outer skeleton protects its body and brain from injury, enabling it to be imprecise in gauging when to shift from running to climbing. “Small robots [or] animals have key advantages in terms of strength and collision limits,” says Andrew Biewener of Harvard University. There's “no need to be particularly careful about crashing one's head at such a small size.”


    “What we often perceive as perfection in the movements of animals is not always true when we can make detailed observations,” adds Frank Fish of West Chester University in Pennsylvania. “Mistakes are made all the time. … This study enhances our understanding of reaction time, kinematics, and nervous performance with regard to mistakes involved in collisions.”

    The results suggest that rather than try to control movements precisely, cockroaches—and possibly other small creatures—depend on the robustness of their bodies or limbs to absorb energy from crashes. “The immediate application of this work is in robotics,” says Fish. Robot experts are already taking note, says Full. In the lab of UCB's Ronald Fearing, one 10-centimeter-long robot, called DASH, has an “exoskeleton” that's rigid along some dimensions and flexible along others. It can fall 28 meters and land unscathed. And the École Polytechnique Fédérale du Lausanne has a 37-centimeter-long flying robot called AirBurr that seems a bit clumsy as it maneuvers through an obstacle course toward its target. But because it's covered in a sheath, it quickly recovers from any collisions and continues on its way. The idea is to “evolve a ‘smart’ body that can manage energy rather than putting all the control in the brain and neural sensors,” says Full. As robots get smaller, lighter, and more energy-efficient, “a robust design holds the key.”


    Rattan Stuck in a Growth Mode

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi

    At the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting, botanists reported that rattan palms must continue growing in order to remain attached to the trees they climb.

    Why would a vine grow 100 meters long if it can reach the top of its supporting tree in less than 25 meters? Follow Alice down the rabbit hole to find the answer, says Nick Rowe of the Botany and Computational Plant Architecture Laboratory at the University of Montpelier in France.

    Rowe studies how climbing plants attain and maintain their toeholds in the forest. In 2003, he and graduate student Sandrine Isnard decided to look into the world's tallest vines, the rattan palms. Rattans dwarf other floral giants: The biggest redwoods top out at 117 meters, but the record rattan palm was measured at 172 meters, says Rowe, with much of the extra stem coiled on the ground. The stems are widely harvested for cane furniture.

    He and Isnard wanted to compare the true rattans, found in Southeast Asia and Africa, with a tall South American vine called Desmoncus; the vines look alike and grow similarly although they are not closely related. The researchers also wanted to see how these climbing palms, which belong to a group of plants called monocots and don't lay down woody tissue, grew differently from woody vines, known as lianas.

    Climbing plants often undergo a radical change as they grow. When they first sprout, they need to be stiff to grow tall enough to reach the branches or trunk of the tree that will support them. But once they are entwined among the canopy or lie in coils on the ground, vines need to bend and twist without breaking. Lianas and other woody vines accomplish this transition by changing the type of wood they lay down in their stems. But because monocots don't have woody tissue, they can't adopt that stratagem.

    Both rattan palms and Desmoncus have modified leaves that bear hooks sometimes arranged around the stem like a grappling hook. Other rattans send out long, unbranched “flagella” with spines that can grab onto nearby vegetation. The stems are surrounded by tubular leaf sheaths from which the hooked leaves and flagella sprout.


    As rattans shed leaves and hooks, flexible lower stems slip away from the tree.


    Isnard went to China and French Guiana and mechanically tested these climbing plants to assess the strength of the spines and hooks and the flexibility of stems at different lengths from the ground. She also looked at the cross-sectional geometry of the stems and flagella and compared leaf sheaths across various species.

    Tests showed that the leaf sheaths, which can take up 30% to 40% of the stem diameter, are what make the vine stiff, contributing up to 90% of the rigidity.

    A climbing palm is stiffest near the top, its growing tip. But 3 to 8 meters below, the leaf sheath degrades and falls off so that the lower stem bends much more easily. In this way, the stem is pliable enough to survive swaying in the attached trees and, lower down, form loops without breaking as it piles up on the ground. “It's a cheap, throwaway method of making a stem flexible,” says Rowe. Thus, rattans do what woody plants do—vary the flexibility of their stem along its length—“though employing completely different ways of doing it.”

    There is a catch, however. As the sheath disintegrates, the hooks and spines are lost, too, so that portion of the stem becomes unhooked. At the meeting, Rowe proposed that this sets up a positive feedback loop, because only by continuing to grow can rattan palms stay attached. In Alice's wonderland, the Red Queen told Alice that she had to keep running just to stay in the same place. The rattans “must continue to grow to stay aloft,” says Patrick Martone of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. “Thus, rattans produce some of the longest stems in the world.”


    Koalas Calling

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi

    The bellows of male koalas are mating calls and not territorial calls as had been thought, ecologists reported at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting.

    It's hard to get a fix on the behavior of animals that sleep most of the time and, when they do wake up, move around primarily in the dead of night. Yet that's what researchers need to do to best protect Australia's cuddly koala, a national icon whose numbers have been dramatically declining in recent years. Fortunately, with a few cell phones and Global Positioning System (GPS) collars, the koala's secretive life is slowly being revealed. During mating season, females make midnight sojourns to visit bellowing males, William Ellis, a terrestrial ecologist at the University of Queensland in Australia, reported at the meeting.

    Koalas inhabit woodlands of southern and eastern Australia, often living in urban and agricultural landscapes. They specialize in eating eucalyptus, which tends to be toxic to most animals and barely digestible. Koalas spend about 5 hours a day munching on leaves and most of the rest of the time asleep, digesting their meals.

    Keeping tabs.

    The collar on this adult koala relays its GPS coordinates to researchers.


    Males sometimes bellow, emitting a deep groaning noise that lasts about a half a minute, and the conventional wisdom was that their vocalizations are communicating territory information to other males. “But there are no reports that have systematically recorded bellows from within a natural group,” says Ellis.

    Since 1998, he and his colleagues have been studying koalas at a remote island in the Whitsunday Islands, 1100 kilometers north of Brisbane. In one area, 25 animals wear GPS collars that track their movements, and three cell phones are powered by car batteries attached to solar chargers to listen in on koala conversations. With help from the Queensland University of Technology, the researchers program the phones via text messaging to turn on at specific times to record for certain lengths of time. “The way they have set up the cell phones is very innovative,” says Abraham Miller, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Tampa in Florida.

    To study bellowing, Ellis's team turned the phones on for 4 minutes every hour and recorded the night sounds. They found that “a lot of the conventional wisdom about koalas didn't stack up,” says Ellis.

    For one, males were supposed to have larger home ranges than females, but the GPS tracking revealed that the sexes actually had about the same size territories—important information for conservation planning, Ellis points out. The ranges overlap with a half-dozen other koalas and tend to shift in location over time; but no two koalas wind up in the same tree at the same time, Ellis reported. “This suggests koala behavior is much more complex than previously thought,” says Miller.

    Male and female activity was similar, except that sometimes during the mating season, a female would abruptly leave her tree, head off, and then usually return several hours later.

    The cell phones indicated that bellowing takes off right before the breeding season, October through February, and most often occurs at about midnight. When the researchers matched the GPS and sound data, they realized that males don't move in response to bellows. However, “unusually large movements from females occur when we also hear most bellows,” says Ellis, “so we think that the females are responding.” He is now comparing females' excursions with the timing of conception to see if indeed the bellow is a mating call. Miller would like to see more koalas included in the study. But he says Ellis is on the right track: “It is necessary to have an understanding of [koala] life history as well as behavior to effectively manage and protect the species.”

  14. Science and Society

    Lights! Camera! Science?

    1. Martin Enserink

    Science film festivals are popping up around the world. But does Avatar belong on the same screen as a documentary about stem cells?


    BORDEAUX, FRANCE—A slimy green ectoplasm gobbles up all the food and drink at a swanky hotel. A giant marshmallow dressed as a sailor lumbers through the streets of New York City. There's something weird, and it don't look good. Who ya gonna call?

    Ghostbusters! of course.

    Even a quarter-century after it filled cinemas, and its irresistible theme song hit number one, the zany film about three failed parapsychology students and their ghost extermination service is still fun. But the movie's 4 a.m. screening at a multiplex here in December did raise a question: Why was it part of a festival for science films? The organizers of Cinémascience, a festival now in its second year, admit they just didn't put the bar for scientific content all that high. Ghostbusters slipped into the program as part of an all-nighter of sci-fi classics.


    Cinémascience is part of a new wave of film festivals around the world that show nothing but science-related films and claim growing audiences every year. Bangkok, Athens, Paris, and New York City have all seen the birth of such festivals in the past 5 years. A few others—such as the Milan science film festival and Australia's Scinema, which runs on 200 screens across the country—have been around for a decade.

    But check out the programs of each, and you discover that they have radically different ideas about what constitutes a science film. “I've been asked that question over and over, and I still don't have a good answer,” says cell biologist–turned-filmmaker Alexis Gambis, director of the Imagine Science Film Festival in New York City, launched in 2008. Consequently, you can go to three different festivals and have three very different experiences.

    The organizers say the festivals exist in part because there's so little science on the big screen. Sure, a good portion of Hollywood's biggest moneymakers are science-fiction films, and there's no reason why record-smashing Avatar—whose alien world was shaped with advice from plant biologists and linguists—can't be called a science film, says Emory University physicist Sidney Perkowitz, author of Hollywood Science: Movies, Science, and the End of the World. But the movie industry is far less interested in films about the lives and work of scientists and in scientific documentaries, rare blockbusters such as A Beautiful Mind and March of the Penguins notwithstanding.


    And yet, with the advent of the digital camera and video-editing software, almost anyone can make a film, and many scientists, former scientists, and students are becoming part-time directors. Pariscience, an annual film festival in the French capital, now receives some 300 submissions, says director Jean-Pierre Gibrat. Festivals' main headache today is not to find films but to break even, especially because some don't charge admission. Most rely on sponsors; Scinema is underwritten and organized by CSIRO, Australia's national science agency, for instance, and Imagine has many sponsors, including Science.

    Some festivals clearly focus on education. The festival in Bangkok tries to spark Thai children's fascination for science by showing “family edutainment”—that is, short documentaries on science and nature made for youngsters. Most of the 45 films shown at the 2009 version were originally TV programs made elsewhere in the world and then dubbed in Thai. More than half were German and French; not a coincidence, because the festival was organized by the Goethe Institute—which tries to spread German culture—and the French Embassy in Bangkok.


    Other festivals cater to children as well, but not exclusively. The one in Milan, organized by the University of Milan's physics department, shows films for 11- to 18-year-olds in the mornings; afternoons are for documentaries for adults and the official competition; and evenings are given over mostly to historical films, with the occasional drama or science-fiction film thrown in. The 2009 edition featured Inherit the Wind, a 1960 court-room drama about the Scopes Monkey Trial, as well as 2001: A Space Odyssey.

    The festival in Bordeaux, organized by France's National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), is unique because it shows only feature-length fiction films. That's in part to avoid competing with Pariscience, which has only documentaries. “We don't want to step on anybody's toes,” says Cinémascience programmer Denise Anderson. But because science-based fiction films are quite rare, Cinémascience's program is thinner on actual science than most others. One of the two winners of a Jury Award was Skin, a gripping drama based on the life of Sandra Laing, a black woman born to white parents in South Africa in the 1950s. Except for the brief appearance of a geneticist who explained in a courtroom that “black” genes can lurk in white families, science played almost no role in the film.

    And the Winners Are…

    A sampling of the films and directors that took the honors at science film festivals around the world in 2009.

    Scinema, Australia

    Best Director

    400 Years of the Telescope
    By Kris Koenig (U.S., 60 min.) Documentary about the history of the telescope since Galileo.

    Best Film

    Between the Folds
    By Vanessa Gould (U.S., 56 min.) Documentary exploring the art and science of origami.

    Science Film Festival, Thailand

    Jury Award

    There's Something About Species
    By Denis van Waerebeke (France, 82 min.) Documentary exploring the tree of life and the history of evolution.

    Imagine Science Film Festival, New York City

    Audience Award

    By Jim Capobianco (U.S., 9 min.) Animation in which Leonardo da Vinci tries to realize his dream of flying.

    Scientific Merit Award

    Magnetic Movie
    By Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt (U.K., 5 min.) Documentary that visualizes magnetic fields in bright colors.

    Cinémascience, Bordeaux

    Jury Awards

    By Anthony Fabian (U.K./South Africa, 107 min.) Biographical drama about a black girl born to white South Africans in the 1950s.
    Dirty Mind
    By Pieter Van Hees (Belgium, 102 min.) Comedy about a stuntman who undergoes a radical personality change after suffering brain damage.

    Audience Award

    The Stranger in Me
    By Emily Atef (Germany, 99 min.) Drama about a woman who suffers from severe postpartum depression.

    Cinémascience's philosophy is that each film serves as a springboard for a debate between filmmakers, the audience, and CNRS researchers, says Anderson. After Skin, anthropologist Gilles Boëtsch and director Anthony Fabian discussed racism and the lack of science behind the concept of race. With that criterion, however, it appeared that almost any film could be called a science film. The screening of Admiral, a lavishly produced $20 million Russian drama about the 1917 revolution, was followed by a debate with two CNRS experts on Russian history—but even director Andrei Kravchuk was surprised that his movie had been selected for a science film festival. The formula seems to work, however. Attendance rose from about 6000 last year to 8000 in 2009.

    New York City's Imagine festival is similar to Cinémascience, says Gambis, in that it “tends to encourage a story, a narrative,” while shunning straight-up documentaries. “The goal is not to teach or lecture people,” says Gambis. “We wouldn't show 2 hours about antibiotics or a film about how stem cells work.” Instead, Imagine in 2009 featured an animation about Leonardo da Vinci's dream of flying, a rap video about the polymerase chain reaction, and Skylight, a “mock animated documentary about the ecological plight of penguins in the Antarctic.” (For a review of the festival, see Science, 4 December 2009, p. 1348.) Gambis has plans for satellite events in London, Paris, and South America.

    Stressing narrative and showing fiction does raise a perennial question among science film buffs, however: Should the science be accurate? Yes, says Gambis—his festival even has a special award for scientific accuracy, sponsored by Nature. And scientists tend to agree. At Cinémascience, CNRS robotics researcher Agnès Guillot was taken aback by Surrogates, a sci-fi thriller in which people stay at home while robots resembling them and controlled by their minds go out in the real world.

    Perkowitz argues that accurate science often gets in the way of a good story. He says directors should be allowed “one major suspension of disbelief per film,” such as travel faster than the speed of light. At festivals especially, even imperfect science can make for great debates, Perkowitz says. Indeed, his ideal festival would consist of a couple of stunning documentaries, debates with scientists—and a good dose of razzle-dazzle sci-fi films, complete with laser guns and planets being blown up. “I have no doubt that some 12- or 14-year-old kids will become scientists because something in those films triggers their imagination,” he says. “It's what happened to me.”

  15. From One Farmer, Hope—and Reason for Worry

    1. Gaia Vince*

    In Uganda, agricultural research is improving food security for some, but not all farmers are prospering.


    OLAGARA, UGANDA—In this harsh, dry landscape, Winifred Omoding's fields are a welcome burst of color. Her neighbors' plots are pitifully brown, with shriveled maize and sorghum clinging to half-height stalks. Omoding's, however, are an embarrassment of green. Her sunflower, sesame, and cassava thrive amid the cacti and dust that surround this village of 500 people.

    Just a few years ago, Omoding's prospects looked bleak. Civil war had left her life in disarray, her crops were failing, and she was struggling to feed her family. Now, the 41-year-old farmer not only produces enough food for her husband and nine children but also makes a healthy profit selling the excess.

    “I enjoy farming very much,” Omoding says as she weeds sunflowers that tower over her head. “It's a very noble profession: the backbone of our country.”

    It's just the kind of success story that food-security experts say needs to be replicated if fast-growing populations in Uganda and other developing nations are to avoid widespread hunger. Already, analysts estimate that nearly 2 million of Uganda's 31 million people experience food insecurity due to supply problems or rising prices. Nearly 80% of the people in Omoding's region, for instance, depend on food aid to survive. Such problems could worsen as Uganda's population, which has been increasing at more than 3% per year, surges to an estimated 100 million by 2050. To keep pace, Uganda's farmers will need to at least triple current harvests.

    Omoding's story offers some cause for optimism that they can meet that challenge. And it highlights the important role that scientists can play in boosting yields by helping farmers get the most from fundamental resources, such as water (see p. 800), soil (see p. 801), and seeds (see p. 802). But her experience also underscores the complex social, economic, and psychological challenges raised by food insecurity; science alone didn't enable Omoding to transform her fields from brown to green—nor will it do so for her neighbors.

    Farming from need

    Reporter's Notebook

    Many of the Ugandan farmers that reporter Gaia Vince met were struggling to match Winifred Omoding’s success—in part because they have yet to benefit from the kind of expert assistance Omoding received. Here, Gaia recalls a sobering encounter near the town of Soroti:

    Byarindaba Robinah was sitting in her field, harvesting ground nuts under the full glare of the midday sun. “The rains have been very poor,” she told me. “In a good year, I can get 20 bags of ground nuts, but this year I think I will just get three or four.”

    Robinah, 35, is new to farming. She and her husband were teachers, but they couldn't make enough money to put their four children through school. Her fields should be big enough to provide for the family. But the rains have become unpredictable, and she has no irrigation. And she told me she can't afford better seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, or work animals.

    What about getting help from government scientists or a loan from an aid program? “It would be up to my husband,” she told me. Ugandan women are not allowed to own land, even though studies show that they do 75% of farm labor.

    Robinah can ill afford to lose 80% of her harvest, and she told me she'll be forced to abandon farming if the rains don’t improve. But she echoed a message I heard often: “I will persevere for as long as I can.” Will she last long enough, I wondered, to get the help she needs?

    Gaia Vince

    Like many developing-world farmers, Omoding fell into farming out of desperation. Her parents were schoolteachers and she had hoped to follow them into the classroom. But that dream ended with the political violence that enveloped her homeland for nearly 20 years starting in the 1980s. “Whenever we heard shootings, we would run into the bush and hide,” she recalls. “The rebels killed my older sister and my dad. They burnt our house, took our seven cows and goats and sheep, destroyed our crops.”

    After Omoding married, she and her husband, Ephrem, inherited about 3 hectares of land. That is a large farm by Ugandan standards, but the couple struggled through the 1990s. Traditional farming practices, which rarely allow fields to lie fallow, had reduced the fertility of their soil. Poor-quality seeds bought at local markets often failed to thrive. A parasitic weed called striga sapped their sorghum crop, reducing yields. With no animals to help plow the hard ground, the couple “appealed to some of the men in the village, who tied their hands to the harness of the plow,” recalls Omoding. “It was a terrible time. Many people went hungry and many children died.”

    The couple's fortunes changed with the return of political stability in the early 2000s. The men gave up soldiering and could help in the fields. And in 2003, aid groups helped Omoding and other Ologara women form an agricultural “microloan” cooperative. In exchange for making small deposits into the co-op, the women could get small loans. Omoding used her first one to hire oxen to plow and weed her fields.

    Such help didn't end the crop failures, however, so in 2006 Omoding traveled to the nearby town of Soroti to seek help from scientists at the government's new National Semi-Arid Resources Research Institute (NaSARRI), created as part of a 2005 overhaul of Uganda's agricultural research system. “She was in a terrible way with her harvest having just failed again,” recalls NaSARRI's Florence Olmaikorit-Oumo, an outreach worker who helps connect farmers to institute scientists.

    The timing was right. The scientists were developing new crop varieties customized to prosper in places like Ologara, which typically gets less than 800 millimeters of rain annually (and much less recently). They were also looking for local farmers to help field-test and multiply the seeds. Omoding was a prime candidate, says Olmaikorit-Oumo: “You could see that she really wanted to learn.”

    Looking up.

    Improved varieties of sunflower, cassava, and sesame (left to right) have helped Winifred Omoding (opposite page) feed her family and start building a new house (below).


    Institute staff began giving Omoding advice on which crops to grow. Maize was out (too thirsty); sorghum, cassava, and millet were in. They also showed her new ways to restore soil fertility, such as by plowing postharvest leftovers back into the soil. And Omoding got access to the institute's latest seeds, which she bought using a microloan.

    She saw immediate results. The first harvest was so successful that she had a surplus—and a few kilos of desirable new seed—to sell through a marketing network created by NaSARRI. Since then, farm profits have allowed her family to add land, send their children to boarding schools, and start building a brick house. “Before, I farmed to feed my children,” Omoding says. “Now, I think of it as a way to make our lives better and to become more rich.”

    Success has also given her the security to experiment with new crops. One is a drought-tolerant sunflower that yields a high-quality oil and a “cake” that farmers can feed to livestock. She's also planting a new drought-tolerant sesame. “It is ready to harvest in just 4 months rather than 6 months like the local variety,” she says as she wades through a ripe bumper crop.

    Duplication challenge

    To ensure food security in Uganda, however, many more farmers will soon need to duplicate Omoding's success. And that could be a problem if the many struggling farms around Olgara are any guide. Even as the Omodings and others have changed their practices and prospered, many neighboring farmers have not—and understanding why will be key to ensuring food security.

    Omoding herself believes one important difference is her willingness to take risks and embrace new ideas. “Whatever the scientists tell me, I try it and see if it works,” she says. “I am not happy with just planting the same seeds every year and hoping, like others in the village.”

    To overcome that mindset, NaSARRI officials have launched efforts to have innovative farmers teach their neighbors—a model that has worked well elsewhere. But progress has been slow, they say, perhaps in part because so many people here are still recovering from decades of traumatic violence and crop failures that sapped hope for the future. It can seem pointless to put in the hard work necessary to rebuild soil fertility or dig a well, for instance, if you fear being uprooted from your home or losing your crop to weather or pests you can't control.

    Omoding, however, is looking ahead with confidence. “I always ask how I can do better,” she says. “I want my crops to be bigger.” She wants to plant an orange grove, for instance, to supply a planned juice factory. To get the needed water, she's already gotten a loan for a treadle pump and is saving up to build a shallow hand-dug well. Eventually, she'd also like to start buying the fertilizers, pesticides, and tractors that farmers in industrialized nations take for granted.

    Those dreams, however, rest on a shaky foundation. Part of Omoding's income, for instance, still comes from aid groups that buy part of her sunflower harvest in order to help jump-start the industry. That income could disappear if the donors withdraw. Reliable water supplies also remain a major challenge, which could get worse with climate change. And experts say Uganda's government will need to spend much more to develop the infrastructure—from better roads and irrigation systems to reliable banks and markets—needed to give rural farmers incentives to increase yields and connect them to important urban markets.

    Still, those trying to ensure food security in Uganda and elsewhere take some hope from Winifred Omoding. If one woman from a small village can create food from the dust, they say, perhaps the challenge of feeding 9 billion of the planet's future inhabitants becomes a little less daunting.

    • * Gaia Vince is a freelance writer currently traveling in Africa.

  16. Getting More Drops to the Crops

    1. Gaia Vince*

    Getting more crop per drop, particularly in areas where water could become scarcer due to climate change, will be essential to achieving food security worldwide, scientists say.

    Wet wealth.

    Stored water has helped lift villagers out of poverty and into commerce.


    RAJ SAMADHILYIA, INDIA—The arid lands around this tiny village in Gujarat don't look promising for profitable farming. But even Raj Samadhilyia's poorest farmer routinely reaps generous harvests and owns a sturdy brick house with a flower-filled garden. The picture is quite different in nearby villages, however: Farmers struggle to produce just one harvest a year and rely on government handouts.

    The difference is water.

    Thanks to a little help from researchers equipped with satellite imagery, Raj Samadhilyia's farmers have been able to do a better job of capturing, managing, and using the precious water provided by scanty rains. As a result, they are achieving a goal that scientists say will be essential to achieving food security worldwide: getting more crop per drop, particularly in areas where water could become scarcer due to climate change.

    “Successful water management means never being satisfied—every drop is sacred,” says Hardevsingh Jadeja, the village chief who catalyzed Raj Samadhilyia's water-saving scheme. It's a rare achievement, however, as water management remains a major challenge in dry parts of India and elsewhere. In Africa, for instance, most farmers still depend on unpredictable rains. Just 10% of Africa's farmland is irrigated, compared with 26% in India and 44% in China.

    Eye in the sky

    Raj Samadhilyia shows how melding space-age tools with a few low-tech approaches can dramatically increase water availability.

    In 1984, while searching for a better map of his region, Jadeja ended up talking with specialists at the India Space Research Centre in Ahmedabad. They showed him satellite images and maps that revealed the geology underlying his village. The maps highlighted some hidden lineaments—joints or fractures—that run through the rocks. Those cracks, the scientists noted, probably channeled the annual monsoon runoffs to the aquifer beneath. With some careful planning, they added, the town could capture and store some of that water so that it provided a year-round supply to replenish both the aquifer and town wells.

    The chief mobilized his villagers. At one promising lineament, they dug down to expose the natural channel. Then they dug a 20 meter by 30 meter reservoir to capture the seasonal flow—high enough so that gravity would slowly channel the water down to the aquifer rather than running off. Perhaps most importantly, Jadeja used his political skills to pass some new community rules. Farmers adopted irrigation techniques that don't waste water, such as pipes that deliver tiny drips directly to plant roots. And nobody is allowed to draw directly from the precious reservoir, which is also used for watering cattle.

    It worked. Long after the annual monsoons ended, the stored water helped maintain groundwater levels during dry spells. Wind-, hand-, and oxen-driven pumps distributed the water through the drip tubes to about 100 hectares of fields. Ultimately, even the village's more than 100 households got piped water and toilets. And the government water tankers that once made routine deliveries during the dry season no longer stopped at the village.

    Now, Jadeja is moving to make the system even more efficient. Recently, as he showed off a drip-fed bean field planted with its third crop of the year, he discussed plans to reduce the reservoir's surface area by making it deeper, in order to cut losses from evaporation. “Saving those drops means the difference between a hungry child and one that is educated and ready to help improve the country,” he says.

    Drop by drop

    In other poorer or dryer parts of the world, farmers are also learning to make the most of meager rains. In arid eastern Uganda, for instance, government researchers are teaching ground nut (peanut) farmers to place their plants in raised ridges or earthen mounds so that the rainwater soaks into the roots rather than running off. Other approaches include piling rocks around crop plants to help hold in moisture and teaching farmers that they can withhold water from some crops during certain growth stages without harming yields.

    Some aid organizations, meanwhile, are drawing on their experience helping villages build simple drinking water systems to bring more water to farmers. In Kihonda, Uganda, for instance, last October the Busoga Trust, a U.K. nonprofit, helped villagers install a hand-powered pump. Some villagers are already watering their gardens, although it's an arduous process because they have to carry the water in plastic “jerrycans,” the ubiquitous 20-liter yellow canisters seen across Africa. In communities that don't have access to well-drilling machinery, villagers are hand-digging wells if the water table is high enough.

    Such approaches may be less effective than direct irrigation. But they reflect the reality that although larger-scale water diversion schemes have worked well in places like India, they are still out of reach for many African communities. “We can tell them to use channel irrigation,” says Patrick Rubaihayo, a crop scientist at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. “But irrigation systems are very expensive to maintain by an ordinary farmer.” Ultimately, he says farmers will need government help to expand irrigation, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. There, just 4% of land is irrigated, and scholars say irrigation has actually decreased over the past 30 years because projects built during the colonial era have fallen into disrepair.

    In Uganda, the government hopes to reverse that trend. It recently announced plans to rebuild dozens of crumbling “valley dams” that were built in several dry regions in the 1970s to trap rainwater for farmers raising cattle.

    • * Gaia Vince is a freelance writer currently traveling in Africa.

  17. China's Push to Add by Subtracting Fertilizer

    1. Mara Hvistendahl*

    Soil scientists are showing farmers that reducing fertilizer use can improve crop yields without adding to environmental problems.

    CUIDONGGOU, CHINA—In his first stab at growing tomatoes, Meng Heini hit the jackpot. Two months after transplanting an inaugural batch of seedlings, his greenhouse is packed with vines laden with small green globes. The tomatoes are thriving, Meng says, because he generously coats his soil with a mixture of manure and synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. “If you use a lot, you get high yield,” he says.

    That idea has become nearly gospel among China's 350 million farmers. Since 1977, they have nearly tripled fertilizer use, in part urged on by government subsidies and local officials who take kickbacks from fertilizer sales. Today, China is the world's largest user, consuming 36% of the global total of synthetic fertilizer.

    The increase has helped farmers nearly double grain harvests. But it also exceeded soil needs, causing nitrates to accumulate and create serious pollution problems. And the hunger for nitrogen has added to China's energy and greenhouse gas emissions: In the atmosphere, those nitrates form nitrous oxide, a potent warming gas.

    Now, as the country attempts to coax even bigger harvests from the land, soil scientists want to end China's fertilizer binge. Through several promising demonstration projects, they are showing farmers that reducing fertilizer use can improve crop yields without adding to environmental problems. The new maxim, say Chinese soil scientists, is “Less input, more output.”

    Surprisingly, that strategy—making less fertilizer go further—could also hold promise for farmers in nations with the opposite problem: too little fertilizer but a big need to increase soil fertility. The common solution? Helpingall farmers get “high yield and high efficiency” in fertilizer use, says Zhang Fusuo, a soil scientist at China Agricultural University (CAU) in Beijing.

    Early resistance

    That message initially proved a hard sell in Cuidonggou, a village near Meng's greenhouse. When Chinese and British scientists funded by the United Kingdom's Department for International Development arrived in 2007 looking to recruit farmers willing to cut fertilizer use on half of their land, “at first no one believed what they said,” recalls 61-year-old farmer Cui Tao. The scientists were calling for reducing fertilizer use by an average of 30% on winter wheat fields and 50% on maize fields. But farmers signed on after the scientists promised compensation, providing a cushion if yields fell.

    The next harvest proved researchers right. Yields from the 30 experimental plots were identical to or better than yields from higher-input fields. Farmers who adopted the low-nitrogen approach boosted profits by 1200 yuan ($176) per hectare, a sizable sum. Projects elsewhere produced similar results. Farmers in the Taihu and North China Plain regions have cut fertilizer use by 30% to 60% without reducing yields.

    Now, researchers want to encourage farmers to try other low-fertilizer tricks. For instance, by splitting applications into two smaller batches—one before planting and one when plants are growing fastest—farmers can deliver nutrients when the crops need them most.

    Shifts in China's rural economy may hinder the spread of such ideas, however. Many young farmers now head off to construction or factory jobs in the city after sowing their fields. That means they don't have time to apply nitrogen in multiple doses, and “increasing fertilizer efficiency takes time,” says Huang Jikun, director of the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy at the CAU.

    Cutting back.

    Soil scientists such as Tong Yanan (right) have persuaded many farmers to use less fertilizer, but some continue to pile on manure (inset).


    Other farmers are simply unwilling to risk cutting back. Tomato farmer Meng, for instance, pays a hefty rent for his greenhouse. So, “as much fertilizer as I have, that's how much I use,” he says proudly.

    Scientists also caution that the lessons learned here have limits. One reason some farmers aren't seeing lower yields, for instance, is because years of pollution and indiscriminate fertilizer use have left China's air, water, and soils overstocked with nitrogen. “At the moment, you can use up that stock in the camel's hump,” says David Powlson, a soil scientist at Rothamsted Research, an agricultural institute in Harpenden, U.K., and lead scientist in the Cuidonggou project.

    Still, researchers believe China can trim its fertilizer habit. Overuse has been a rite of passage for many industrialized countries, they note, including the United Kingdom, where use peaked in the mid-1980s; yields have since gone up despite cuts. China now has a chance to follow the same path, says David Norse, a professor emeritus in enviornmental management at University College London. “We want to help them get away from this fear that by reducing fertilizer they're going to be damaging food security,” he says.

    Abundance in scarcity?

    For other parts of the world, China's problems are a luxury. In sub-Saharan Africa, which uses a tiny fraction of the nitrogen China applies, chemical fertilizer is expensive and livestock manure scarce. But there, too, researchers are banking on the idea that less can mean more through an approach called “microdosing.”

    In recent trials in Zimbabwe, for instance, researchers from the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics in Malawi have shown that crops can thrive with as little as a thimble-full of fertilizer applied close to the roots at the time of sowing. Those microdoses boosted yields of maize, sorghum, and pearl millet by 30% to 100%.

    Scientists say African farmers may also be able to minimize fertilizer use by improving irrigation and using better seeds, and—eventually—through new approaches to promoting the growth of beneficial soil bacteria. The world's farmers “need fertilizer, but not only fertilizer,” says CAUs Zhang. “What they really need is integrated management.”

    That's a lesson China and other countries learned the hard way, Zhang says, adding that farmers elsewhere “do not need to repeat our mistakes.”

    • * Mara Hvistendahl is a writer in Shanghai, China.

  18. Sowing the Seeds for the Ideal Crop

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi

    Researchers' wish list includes traits that could boost plant productivity. New technologies are needed to make some of these advances possible.

    Listen to plant breeders talk about food security, and the message becomes loud and clear: Substantial improvements are needed in current crops to achieve higher yields and sustainable farming. To achieve those gains, agricultural companies have turned to robotics and other measures to streamline breeding programs. And researchers are finding creative ways to introduce and use genes. The point is to make a plant that's tough, productive, and healthful. Here's a quick look at just some of the most desired plant improvements—and the techniques that might make them possible.


    Lofty Goals

    1. Improve the nutrient content of seeds and edible plant parts. Vitamin A fortification is already here; soybeans with omega-3 fatty acids are on the way. More vitamins and higher protein content are other goals. For biofuels, the right mix of plant cell-wall components is needed to ease processing.

    2. No more sex. Hybrid seeds often produce more vigorous plants, but the seeds of those hybrids are often inferior. Farmers can't always afford to buy new hybrid seeds. One proposed solution is to get hybrids to reproduce asexually through a process called apomixis. Having apomixis in rice, for example, could save small farmers $4 billion a year. (An alternative to apomixis is to tweak the genetics of annual crop plants—which die each year—so that they become perennials.)

    3. Install warning lights. A pigment gene that turns on in times of stress could cause a crop's leaves or stems to change color—and alert farmers to take remedial action. Some think that sensors installed in soils or the air could also do this job.

    4. More crop per drop. Restructuring root and leaf architecture—and upgrading drought-response biochemical pathways—could increase water-use efficiency. Shallower roots, for instance, can better tap soil-surface moisture.

    5. Longer shelf life. Enhanced control of ripening and senescence could reduce the amount of spoiled harvest.

    6. Improve nitrogen efficiency. Fertilizers are costly to farmers and the environment. Improving a plant's uptake and use would be a big help. Better yet, build into the plant the genes necessary to carry out nitrogen fixation—a job that may one day fall on artificial chromosomes.

    7. Tougher pest defenses. Adding genes for toxins that kill only pest insects or nematodes can help, as can the addition of genes that attract the enemies of these pests.

    Technologies for a Better Farming Future

    Artificial Chromosomes

    If one gene is good, more genes are better. That's the mantra of plant biologists working to improve crops. Already, companies have engineered varieties that carry both herbicide and insect-resistance genes. Ultimately, researchers have set their sights on tweaking complex multigene processes, such as nitrogen fixation, which might involve 20 genes, or a special type of photosynthesis called C4 that works particularly well in tough conditions. Coordinating the expression of whole suites of genes, however, is an easier feat if the genes are grouped together. Here's where artificial chromosomes come into play.

    Such “minichromosomes” come in several flavors. A company called Chromatin, for instance, has developed a way to attach useful suites of genes to a “platform” made from a ring of maize DNA. It encodes the repetitive regions of the centromere, the region near the middle of chromosomes that is important during DNA replication. Once loaded with the desired genes, the ring is put into the target plant.


    The isolated green dot marks the centromere of a minichromosome.


    Several teams are also making use of a plant's own “extra” DNA—such as the B chromosome in maize, or extra chromosomes in tetraploid versions of barley, rice, or Arabidopsis. They insert DNA containing the desired genes and the repetitive sequence of a telomere, which caps off chromosomes. That DNA inserts into the plant's chromosome and truncates it, creating a new minichromosome.

    These techniques are promising, but it's not clear how stable the minichromosomes will be over multiple generations—or if the right amount of gene expression will be maintained over time.

    RNA Interference

    One innovative approach to helping plants fend off enemies is to have the plant make small RNA molecules that neutralize the pathogen or pest. Called RNA interference (RNAi), the strategy involves adding genes that generate RNA that disables target genes. These small RNAs can diffuse from the plant into a parasite or deactivate viruses in the plant itself.

    Researchers have already shown that they can use RNAi to make Arabidopsis plants resistant to the root-knot nematode and reduce the symptoms of cassava mosaic virus by interfering with genes for a protein essential for virus replication. RNAi also should work against other so-called single-stranded DNA viruses, such as the cassava brown streak. Other researchers have used RNAi to shut down a detoxification gene in bollworm, a cotton pest—making the insect more susceptible to gossypol, a toxin produced by cotton.

    Still, a National Research Council report from 2008 called RNAi's potential “preliminary,” particularly with respect to large-scale agriculture.

    Targeted Gene Replacement

    Researchers typically fly blind when they try to add or modify plant genes, because they can't be sure where the gene they are inserting will end up. They often have to laboriously screen thousands of mutants to find the right one. Now, however, researchers are perfecting ways to place new genes precisely where they want them. These techniques could ease the process of improving crops by allowing researchers to alter a particular gene's sequence or its regulatory DNA instead of depending on genes from other species.

    In one new approach, several groups are harnessing proteins called zinc fingers, which recognize and attach to specific DNA sequences. By joining the zinc finger to an enzyme that cuts DNA, researchers can slice through DNA at precise locations, providing ready places for new DNA to settle in.

    Other groups are taking a cue from a bacterial pathogen, Xanthomonas. Late last year, two teams discovered how this pathogen promotes infection by homing in on and controlling specific plant genes. The bacteria make a protein with an amino acid sequence that includes a series of “repeats.” Each repeat has a particular amino acid at positions 12 and 13 and thus recognizes a specific base, enabling the protein to latch onto its target DNA. Both teams have figured out how to customize these proteins to find specific DNA sequences, potentially providing another way to add new genes or make modifications to specific parts of a chromosome.

    A third approach involves endonucleases, which naturally cleave DNA at specific spots. These proteins recognize long stretches of DNA and can target unique spots along a genome.


    Automation is helping plant breeders trim years off the process of developing crop varieties tailored to local conditions. In automated greenhouses, seedlings travel along conveyor belts as they grow, passing through stations where they are exposed to drought, heat, or other conditions. The plants are then photographed and monitored, all without human help. The controlled conditions help breeders find individuals with the best traits without field testing.


    This “corn chipper” samples DNA from seeds.


    Automated systems are also helping breeders skip the time-consuming process of growing seedlings as they search for desirable genetic combinations. Monsanto, for example, has developed “chippers,” robots that take a slice off individual corn kernels or soybeans—sparing the germ that's the business end of the seed. The slice goes to the lab for DNA fingerprinting to determine its mix of genes; the rest of the seed is carefully stored. Later, if breeders are interested in that genetic variant, they can electronically request and automatically retrieve the stored seed. They no longer have to wait for seeds to sprout to see which ones have the traits they want.

  19. Armed and Dangerous

    Researchers are working hard on countermeasures to the fungi, weeds, and viruses that are among the more serious biological threats to food security.

    Wheat Stem Rust


    Pest: Puccinia graminis Ug99

    Crop: Wheat

    Whereabouts: Fifty years ago, stem rust led to the resistant wheat varieties that fueled the Green Revolution—leading many farmers to believe they were done with Puccinia graminis. But in 1998, a dangerous new strain named Ug99 appeared in Uganda (Science, 30 March 2007, p. 1786). By 2004, its spread prompted Green Revolution pioneer Norman Borlaug to launch a global research initiative to address the threat. Ug99 has since shown up in Yemen and Iran and threatens wheat crops throughout the Middle East and West Asia. The big fear: Ug99 could cause famine in Pakistan and India, where small farmers can't afford the fungicides used to control the disease.

    Symptoms: The fungus infiltrates stems and plugs up vascular tissue. Of the three common rust diseases, stem rust is the worst because it causes the plant to fall over, so the entire harvest is lost.

    Losses: Heavy infections can reduce yields by 40% or more. If it reaches India's Punjab region, losses could reach $3 billion per year; if it reaches the United States, the toll could be $10 billion annually.

    Countermeasures: The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico has created 15 resistant wheat varieties, but Ug99 is infamous for quickly overcoming resistance.

    Potato Blight


    Pest: Phytophthora infestans

    Crops: Potatoes; also tomatoes and other solanaceous crops

    Whereabouts: This funguslike organism occurs wherever farmers grow potatoes.

    Symptoms: Most notorious for causing the Irish potato-famine of 1845 to 1851, late blight still ranks as the world's most dangerous potato disease. Spread by spores or by planting infected tubers, it first appears as gray splotches on leaves. In high humidity and moderate temperatures, it can destroy a whole field in a week.

    Losses: The International Potato Center in Peru reports that yield losses in developing countries are about $2.75 billion annually. Fungicide applications can total 10% of overall production costs.

    Countermeasures: Fungicides work but can be harmful to human health and too costly for poor farmers.

    Black Sigatoka


    Pest: Mycosphaerella fijiensis

    Crops: Bananas, plantains

    Whereabouts: This fungus, first detected in Fiji in 1964, is now found in 100 countries in the Americas, Africa and South Asia.

    Symptoms: The fungus starts as small flecks on the under-sides of the youngest leaves. They expand into brown streaks that can eventually destroy the leaf, decreasing photosynthesis. Fruit from diseased trees can ripen prematurely during shipping, causing further losses.

    Losses: Yields reduced up to 50%.

    Countermeasures: Commercial plantations frequently apply cocktails of fungicides, sometimes from airplanes, and remove leaves at a cost of 15% to 50% of the fruit's final retail price.



    Pest: Striga hermonthica

    Crops: Corn, sorghum, sugarcane, millet, native grasses

    Whereabouts: Striga originated in Africa and has since become widespread in the tropics.

    Symptoms: This parasitic plant attaches to the host's roots, where it siphons off nutrients and water, stunting the host's growth and causing it to wither. When Striga emerges aboveground, it makes a substance toxic to the host. One plant can produce 50,000 tiny seeds that stick to people and their tools or settle in the soil. Seeds can stay dormant for 15 years.

    Losses: In sub-Saharan Africa, Striga infects 20 million to 40 million hectares, reducing yields by 20% to 100%. Losses total about $1 billion per year and affect 100 million people.

    Countermeasures: Some Striga-tolerant maize can produce small ears despite being parasitized. But farmers must scramble to destroy plants before they produce seed and plant nonhost crops in affected soils. Another approach is to plant a legume called Desmodium, which secretes a chemical that kills Striga, but that requires using livestock to control the Desmodium. Researchers are looking into applying a fungus to kill the seeds.

    Rice Blast


    Pest: Magnaporthe oryzae

    Crops: Rice, 50 species of grasses and sedges

    Whereabouts: Worldwide

    Symptoms: Spores infect plants, particularly when humidity is high, often killing young plants. In older plants, the fungus can spread and prevent seed formation.

    Losses: Destruction can be extremely fast but variable, with up to 100% loss in some paddies. Some analysts estimate that each year blast destroys harvests that could feed 60 million people, at a cost of some $66 billion.

    Countermeasures: Rice blast is a formidable foe, persisting despite the best control efforts. Farmers can manage the disease by rotating crops, maintaining water levels (too little water promotes infection), and using fertilizers prudently. Resistant cultivars help, but no cultivar can withstand all races of the fungus, and blast tends to overcome resistance in two or three growing seasons. Farmers can also use fungicides.

    Asian Soybean Rust


    Pest: Phakopsora pachyrhizi

    Crops: At least 31 legume species, notably soybeans

    Whereabouts: Native to Asia, soybean rust spread to Australia in the 1980s and reached Africa a decade later. It hit South America in 2001, and Hurricane Ivan carried spores into the United States in 2004. It's now found throughout the Southeastern United States and Mexico (Science, 3 December 2004, p. 1672).

    Symptoms: Infected plants develop small pustules on the under-sides of leaves that spread throughout the plant. In the United States, the invasive vine kudzu is the primary host and vector for soybean rust.

    Losses: Yields reduced 10% to 80%.

    Countermeasures: Early detection and multiple applications of fungicide.

    Cassava Brown Streak Virus


    Pest: Virus

    Crops: Cassava, also called yucca, manioc, and mandioca

    Whereabouts: East and Central Africa

    Symptoms: This virus is emerging as a major threat to a crop already under siege from cassava mosaic virus. Spread by whiteflies and by cuttings, brown streak virus is more insidious than the mosaic virus because the plant can look healthy even as the disease destroys the edible root. Once confined to lowlands in East Africa, it appeared in Uganda in 2004 and has become a threat throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Disease often appears where farmers have planted cassava varieties resistant to mosaic virus.

    Losses: Yields drop by up to 100%. In 2003, economic losses totaled more than $100 million per year. This virus and cassava mosaic virus have been called Africa's biggest threat to food security.

    Countermeasures: The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, based in Nigeria, is developing tolerant varieties whose leaves become diseased but whose roots stay healthy. Early-warning monitoring programs and early harvesting can help reduce the impact of the diseases.

  20. Holding Back a Torrent of Rats

    1. Dennis Normile

    Rodent losses are a perennial problem worldwide. Agriculture agencies across Asia are now spreading the word about some relatively simple rat countermeasures.

    Sign of destruction.

    Brown swaths indicate the extent of rodent damage in rice terraces in the Philippines.


    A “rat flood.” That's what the tribes in Bangladesh's Chittagong Hill Tracts call it. Every 48 years, the bamboo forests that dominate the uplands of Bangladesh, Northeast India, and Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) simultaneously produce a feast of pear-sized fruit that allows rat populations to explode. After consuming the fruit, the rodents attack nearby fields, devouring 50% to 100% of the rice crop. Rat floods caused famine in 1863, 1911, and 1959, when the misery touched off a rebellion in what is now India's Mizoram State.

    Rat floods may be unusual, but rodent losses are a perennial problem worldwide. In Asia, for instance, rodents devour an estimated 6% of the annual rice harvest—roughly enough to feed Indonesia's 240 million people for a year. And they do damage in nearly every phase of farming, from munching on seedlings to eating stored grain.

    Many farmers and agricultural officials, however, shrug. “Philippines farmers say, ‘For every 10 rows of rice we plant, seven are for the family, two for the rats, and one for the birds,’ ” says Grant Singleton, a wildlife ecologist at the International Rice Research Institute in Los Baños, Philippines. Rat fatalism runs so deep that agricultural universities, which have courses in insect management, offer no training in defending against rodents. Thanks in part to growing concerns about food security, however, Singleton says rats are now “getting on the radar.”

    Rat race

    In the wake of that recognition, agriculture agencies across Asia have started spreading the word about some relatively simple rat countermeasures. Small-scale farmers, for instance, often store grain in open bins in their homes and “don't appreciate what [rats] are taking,” says Singleton. Steps such as raising the bin off the floor and installing metal flashing around bin legs can cut losses.

    Rat fighters are also urging all farmers within a community to plant their crops within 2 weeks of each other. If fields ripen together, grain is available for a shorter time and rodents curtail breeding. Communities can also maximize efforts to flush out, trap, and kill rats by launching campaigns before planting begins. When paddiesand fields are fallow, rodents tend to congregateinthethickets between fields and along roads and irrigation channels. “While they are aggregated, they are much easier to control,” says Singleton. Most important, he says, communities need to work together: “If you do everything we think should be done to manage rodents and your neighbor does not, you will inherit those rodents.”

    Some of the 200-plus species of rats that pester farmers, however, require carefully timed control strategies that reflect unique habits. For instance, Indonesia's rice field rat, Rattus argentiventer, does its worst damage just as grains start to form, because the rats must eat huge quantities of immature grain to get sufficient nutrition; as the grain ripens, they eat less. In contrast, Myanmar's Bandicota bengalensis rats cause little damage until just before harvest, when they grab all the grain they can to horde in burrows. “The dynamics of the damage differs by species,” Singleton says.

    Rodents also respond to unusual patterns of food availability. In May 2008, Cyclone Nargis devastated the rice crop in Myanmar's Ayeyarwady delta (Science, 8 May 2009, p. 715). To recover, farmers planted rice when and where they could. As a result, the rice ripened at different times in neighboring paddies—providing a steady food supply for rats. The rodents bred for longer than usual, leading to a surprise outbreak this year that further dented precarious food supplies.

    All together now

    Even recognized events such as bamboo fruiting, however, can be difficult to prepare for. One problem is that agricultural agencies are reluctant to fund the long-term studies needed to understand the connection between bamboo “masting,” where an entire population produces fruit simultaneously, and rodent explosions. Masting can occur at intervals ranging from several years to more than 100 years, depending on the species, so “there are few opportunities to study this,” says Steven Belmain, an ecologist at the Natural Resources Institute of the University of Greenwich in Chatham Maritime, U.K. Only over the last several years, for instance, have scientists unraveled what happens to rat populations when masting occurs in Melocanna baccifera, which makes up more than 80% of the bamboo in Bangladesh, India's Mizoram State, and Myanmar.

    Typically, rodents in that region start breeding inApril or May, after the dry season when the first monsoon rains allow food in the form of insects and plants to proliferate. Upland farmers plant their rain-fed crops at the same time. Rodent populations build through the summer and damage the harvest, but losses are usually manageable. Once every 48 years, however, the Melocanna bamboo starts dropping fruit in February. With food abundant, the rodents start breeding 2 to 3 months earlier than usual. This head start means that “multiple generations of rats are breeding, [producing] exponential growth in the population,” says Ken Aplin, a wildlife biologist at Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Canberra. By autumn, just as crops are ripening, the food in the bamboo forest is gone, leading to “a mass movement [of rodents] from the forest into the fields,” says Aplin, who advised the Mizoram state government on dealing with masting. But “there is no way to stop the ecological phenomenon,” says Belmain. “You can only manage the damage.”

    Cute but hungry.

    Researchers track rats fitted with transmitting collars to understand their movements and habits


    Anticipating the 2008 Melocanna masting event, for instance, the Mizoram government launched the 5-year Bamboo Flowering and Famine Combat Scheme that included upgrading roads to carry aid to remote communities, rat-proofing warehouses, and encouraging farmers to plant early-yield rice varieties and alternative crops less attractive to rodents. When the inevitable rat flood hit, the government and relief organizations provided food assistance. “In a broad sense, it worked,” says Aplin, though it will take several years for the area to completely recover.

    Now, researchers are pondering how the lessons learned could help other regions. If researchers can pin down when and where masting events will occur, “it might allow us to understand which communities will be hit so limited resources can be better targeted,” says Belmain. Rat flood control, it seems, is just getting started.

  21. Spoiling for a Fight With Mold

    1. Dennis Normile

    Mold spoils some 10% of the world's annual harvests, and many fungi produce poisonous chemicals that can accumulate in human tissues. Mycologists are studying possible solutions to drive out toxin-producing strains.

    It's tough getting people to worry about mold and its role in food security. “Everyone has seen mold on things in refrigerators and says, ‘It's just mold, it doesn't matter,’” says John Pitt, a fungus specialist at Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Sydney. But mold spoils some 10% of the world's annual harvests, he notes. And perhaps more significantly, fungal toxins in food “are certainly having a major impact on life spans in developing countries. It's an area which doesn't get anything like the publicity it should.”

    That is certainly not for lack of Pitt's efforts. He has focused virtually his entire 45-year career on understanding fungi and trying to reduce the losses they cause—and gained renown in the process.

    Pitt graduated from high school at 16 in 1953 and immediately got a job with CSIRO's Division of Food Preservation and Transport. He got hooked on fungi at a time when what he calls the “fascinating” organisms, which can leave crops putrid and inedible, got little attention from agricultural experts. Eventually, his work determining which fungi infected which crops, their origins, and developing techniques to measure infection levels practically established a new field. In 1985, along with long-time CSIRO colleague Ailsa Hocking, he distilled his findings into a thick tome—Fungi and Food Spoilage—“that was a milestone” in food safety, says Antonio Logrieco, a mycotoxicologist at the Institute of Sciences of Food Production in Bari, Italy. The third edition appeared last August.

    Fungi fighters' bible.

    Ailsa Hocking (left) and John Pitt co-wrote the standard reference book on fungi that spoil and contaminate food.


    Pitt has also helped raise the alarm about insidious health effects. Many fungi produce mycotoxins, poisonous chemicals that can accumulate in human tissues. The most dangerous is aflatoxin, which Pitt calls “by far the worst liver carcinogen known to man.” Two fungus species produce aflatoxin in peanuts, maize, and cotton seeds if the crop is stressed by drought or stored improperly. In advanced countries, inspection and testing weeds out infected material. But subsistence farmers in developing nations often aren't aware of the threat. The result, Pitt says, is that the toxin is elevating rates of liver cancer and likely stunting childhood growth in Africa, Southeast Asia, and China. Aflatoxin “probably has a much bigger effect on human health than has ever been fully documented,” Pitt says. He's now working with the World Health Organization's Foodborne Disease Burden Epidemiology Reference Group to quantify the toll.

    Pitt is also studying a possible solution. It's based on the concept of “competitive exclusion,” which involves introducing spores of a benign fungus into the soil in hopes it will out-compete and drive out the aflatoxin-producing strain. But these days, he's doing it on his own. As an Honorary Research Fellow at CSIRO he has lab space but no longer draws a salary; he even pays his own way to international meetings. It's expensive, but Pitt says he's still just trying to get fungi the attention they deserve.

  22. Dialing Up Knowledge—and Harvests

    1. Richard Stone

    Nothing is currently having a more profound effect on farmers in the developing world than telecommunications networks. Cell phones and expanding broadband Internet coverage are helping farmers boost yields by disseminating information.

    EMBALAM, INDIA—In the open-air hall of a Hindu temple in this village in southern India, five farmers in smart white cotton shirts sit cross-legged on a carpet and explain how cell phones have changed their lives. A few years ago, says Poonathan, who like many in Tamil Nadu State has only one name, “I would have to drive into town to check the price that rice was fetching or find out where to buy high-quality seed.” These days, like many other farmers across rural India, he instead stays home and dials a cell phone to get everything from the weather forecast to primers on how to use less seed, fuel, and fertilizer but still reap bigger harvests.

    “We now have money to spend on our children's education, and many of us don't need to borrow anymore to buy seed and fertilizer,” says a second farmer, Krishnaswamy, who with dusk falling swats at mosquitoes attacking his bare calves. Few of the 5000 or so inhabitants of Embalam miss out on three meals a day, he adds—an impressive accomplishment in light of India's 200 million or so malnourished people. Krishnaswamy nods to a group of worshippers lighting candles in front of a statue of the monkey god Hanuman, praying for good fortune. “We consider ourselves lucky,” he says.

    From paved roads that carry crops to market to modern grain silos that reduce postharvest losses, infrastructure is critical to achieving food security. But nothing is currently having a more profound effect on farmers in the developing world than telecommunications networks. “The future of food security in the developing world depends more on knowledge than on resource-intensive agriculture,” says Venkataraman Balaji of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics in Patancheru, India. In Tamil Nadu, for instance, the ubiquitous cell phone and expanding broadband Internet coverage are revving up an experiment called Village Knowledge Centers (VKCs), the template for an ambitious initiative to help farmers boost yields by disseminating information. A similar effort has just gotten under way in India's northern neighbor, Bhutan.

    “Cell phones are responsible for an amazing transformation,” says Anburaj Thiagarajan, a Puducherry-based adviser to the Jamsetji Tata National Virtual Academy for Rural Prosperity, a forum for honoring social workers, farmers, and others who have made a difference to their home villages. The transformation is going on speed dial: India's government intends to launch up to 100,000 new VKCs by the end of 2012. Pulling off that feat won't be easy, says Uma Lele, a former senior adviser to the World Bank. “It is a daunting challenge to get communities actively involved when scaling up a carefully nurtured pilot project,” she says. Meanwhile, Green Revolution pioneer M. S. Swaminathan is prodding the government and private companies to recruit tech-savvy volunteers in each of India's 600,000 villages who, he says, can “get science into the hands of more people.”

    Telecom revolution.

    In Bhutan, a new cell phone service should help farmers fetch better prices for produce. Cell phones have already transformed life for farmers in Embalam, India (inset).


    Getting the word out

    The M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) in Chennai opened the first VKCs in Tamil Nadu in 1998 to spread the fruits of agricultural research to farmers. The centers started off as spartan offices that distributed pamphlets and offered hands-on training. At the time, “nobody could see the applicability of mobile phones to rural life,” says Suchit Nanda, a Mumbai-based consultant. The couple of dozen VKCs here have since morphed into multimedia centers that communicate with each other via broadband and send dispatches on info such as commodity prices to farmers via cell phone.

    It's a model that's being emulated by Bhutan's new Market Information System. Last month, the Netherlands Development Organisation (SNV), Bhutan's agriculture ministry, and Bhutan Telecom established the network, which allows farmers to use cell phones to get daily price ranges of major crops in five market centers.

    The system aims to ameliorate a common problem in isolated farming communities, which in mountainous Bhutan means almost everyone: the temptation of middlemen to rip off farmers who are not aware of prevailing prices. “A lot of farmers are being caught like that,” says Rob Erskine-Smith, an SNV consultant based in Thimphu who helped develop the system. By dialing up timely prices, farmers will be able to negotiate better deals with middlemen and commission agents—and capture more of the cash needed to improve their operations. Unlike similar setups that use text messaging, the Bhutan system recites prices in the country's four main languages—a big advantage in a country with a high rate of illiteracy. The key to long-term success will be ensuring that prices collated by the agriculture ministry and Food Corporation of Bhutan are not manipulated to favor buyers or sellers.

    To provide wiser counsel to Indian farmers, Swaminathan is raising an army of village volunteers. In 2005, with support from the Tata family, prominent Indian industrialists, MSSRF created the Jamsetji virtual academy, whose 1000-and-counting members receive MSSRF-led training and share experiences at annual gatherings. “MSSRF has been able to identify ordinary people and enable them to do extraordinary things,” says Nanda.

    Swaminathan dreams that the academy will eventually tap at least one man and one woman from each village—some 1.2 million people. As villages acquire VKCs and get better connected thanks to cell phones and the Internet, information should flow easily from researchers to farmers and from farmer to farmer. It's the kind of infrastructure that Swaminathan hopes will help India build on the Green Revolution in the face of a growing population—and climate change.

  23. What It Takes to Make That Meal

    Researchers have been taking a close look at just how much energy it takes to produce even seemingly similar foods. The conclusion: Food choices can have a significant impact on energy use in agriculture.

    Food security and energy security. They are increasingly becoming two sides of the same coin. Many experts predict that, over the long term, one can't be achieved without the other. In part, that's because increasing yields has traditionally meant using more fossil fuels—for fertilizers, pesticides, mechanization, storage, and transport. Now, the push is on to find ways to produce food with as little energy—and greenhouse gas emissions—as possible. As a start, researchers have been taking a close look at just how much energy it takes to produce even seemingly similar foods. The conclusion: Food choices can have a significant impact on energy use in agriculture.

  24. Could Less Meat Mean More Food?

    1. Erik Stokstad

    If people in the developed world ate less meat, it would free up a lot of plants to feed billions of hungry people and gain a lot of good farmland. Some food-security researchers, however, are skeptical; they say the complexities of global markets and human food traditions could also produce some counterintuitive—and possibly counterproductive—results.

    Here's a simple idea you may have heard for improving food security: Eat less meat.

    The logic—articulated by groups that include the Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom and the United Nations Environment Programme—goes like this. From chicken cordon bleu to bacon double cheeseburgers, people in the developed world eat a huge amount of animal protein. And consumption of meat, eggs, and milk is already growing globally as people in poorer nations get richer and shift their diets. That's a problem because animals are eating a growing share of the world's grain harvests—and already directly or indirectly utilize up to 80% of the world's agricultural land. Yet they supply just 15% of all calories. So, the argument goes, if we just ate less meat, we could free up a lot of plants to feed billions of hungry people and gain a lot of good farmland.

    Some food-security researchers, however, are skeptical. Although cutting back on meat has many potential benefits, they say the complexities of global markets and human food traditions could also produce some counterintuitive—and possibly counterproductive—results. “It's not this panacea that people have put forward,” says Mark Rosegrant of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFRPI) in Washington, D.C. One provocative forecast: If people in industrialized nations gave up half their meat, more Asian children could become malnourished.


    Scholars on all sides of the meaty issue agree on one thing: Just as the rich use more energy than the poor, they also eat more meat. The United States, for instance, has just 4.5% of the world's population but accounts for about 15% of global meat consumption. Americans consume about 330 grams of meat a day on average—the equivalent of three quarter-pound hamburgers. In contrast, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that most people consume just 142 to 184 grams of meat and beans daily. In the developing world, daily meat consumption averages just 80 grams.

    Those numbers suggest that people living in the United States and other wealthy nations could increase world grain supplies simply by forgoing that extra burger or chop. But it's not that simple. Figuring out the full impact of meat consumption on global food security requires sophisticated computer models that can track how buying decisions ripple out across farming systems, global supply chains, and food markets.

    One of those models is called IMPACT, and in 1998 IFPRI's Rosegrant and colleagues used it to study what might happen in 2020 if rich nations cut their per capita demand for meat to half of what it was in 1993. First, the simulation found that as demand for meat fell, prices declined and meat became more affordable worldwide. As a result, in the developing world, per capita meat consumption actually increased by 13% as poorer consumers could buy more. That's good news for what could be called “meat equity,” because increasing animal-protein consumption among the very poor can provide substantial nutritional benefits, particularly for children.


    Livestock consume grain and resources that could be used to feed people. War rationing has inspired efforts to persuade people to eat less meat.


    Surprisingly, however, when the rich halved their meat habit, the poor didn't necessarily get that much more grain—their largest source of calories. According to the model, per capita cereal consumption in developing nations rose by just 1.5%. That's enough grain to ease hunger for 3.6 million malnourished children—but nowhere near the kinds of gains many expect from curbing meat consumption.

    One big reason is the mismatch between human and animal diets. In rich countries, farmers usually feed their livestock corn or soybeans. When the farmers produce less meat, demand for corn and soy drops and the grains become more affordable. That's good for people in the parts of Africa and Latin America where corn is a dietary staple. But people in many developing countries, particularly in Asia, don't eat much corn; they eat rice and wheat. So falling corn and soy prices don't directly help them. (It's true that as demand for corn drops, some farmers might start growing wheat instead. In general, however, climate, soil, or water availability often limit a farmer's ability to switch crops easily. Iowa soybean growers, for instance, can't start growing rice, which requires heavy irrigation.)

    Eating less meat could even backfire and make food insecurity worse, suggested the simulation, which was published in the Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. For instance, when consumers in developed countries replaced meat with pasta and bread, world wheat prices rose. That actually increased malnutrition slightly in developing countries such as India that rely on wheat. “It's a big deal when wheat prices go up,” Rosegrant says.

    When all the pluses and minuses are added up, Rosegrant is confident that cutting meat consumption could ultimately help improve global food security. But “it's a small contribution, like changing to fluorescent light bulbs” to fight global warming, he says.

    Changing appetites

    Given the world's voracious and growing appetite for animal products, however, how could people be persuaded to eat less? One approach, scholars say, is to raise the price to reduce demand. If meat prices reflected the true ecological and climate costs of raising farm animals, for instance, many people would buy less, suggests Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. He'd like to see taxes that are tied to meat's carbon footprint. Beef might get higher taxes than chicken or catfish, he says, predicting that such levies “would free up grain for those further down the food chain.”

    A similar approach calls for removing subsidies—both obvious and hidden—for meat producers. Beef exporter Brazil, for instance, indirectly subsidizes meat consumption by not charging consumers for the tropical forests destroyed by ranching, argues Sjur Kasa, a sociologist at the University of Oslo. Ending subsidies would be “the most powerful tool for curbing meat consumption,” Kasa says, but it would be “a very difficult battle.” So far, however, the battle hasn't been joined. “There are really no big victories when it comes to making people eat less meat for sustainability reasons,” he says.

    Campaigns directed at consumers, emphasizing the health benefits of reducing calories and animal fats, could prove a winner, says Danielle Nierenberg of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C. She notes that concerns about health care costs and a greater focus on preventing disease have helped spur a number of innovative efforts. In 2003, for instance, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health started “Meatless Mondays,” an initiative to reduce U.S. meat consumption by 15%. The organizers were inspired in part by government campaigns during World War I and II to ration meat for troops. In May 2009, the city council of Ghent, Belgium, proclaimed that its citizens should avoid eating meat on Thursdays. And last fall, Baltimore became the first city to serve only vegetarian meals 1 day a week in public schools.

    So far, it's hard to know if these small-scale efforts have had any significant impact. And Rosegrant has an overarching concern: “What worries me is that people will think that's all we need to do.” To truly ensure global food security, he says we'll also need much greater investment in agricultural research to boost yields and more economic development that increases incomes in poorer nations. “We have to go beyond personal responsibility,” he says, “to policy action.”

  25. For More Protein, Filet of Cricket

    1. Gretchen Vogel

    As the world diverts more of its grain harvests into producing meat, some scientists are pushing policymakers to take a closer look at insects as an environmentally friendlier source of protein.

    Crunchy delight.

    Grasshoppers known as chapulines in a Mexican market.


    Could an African caterpillar be the new beefsteak?

    As the world diverts more of its grain harvests into producing meat, some scientists are pushing policymakers to take a closer look at insects as an environmentally friendlier source of protein. Whereas a cow needs to eat roughly 8 grams of food to gain a gram in weight, for instance, insects need less than two. “If you are going to feed 9 billion people, we cannot ignore the efficiency of insects as protein producers,” says Paul Vantomme, senior forestry officer at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome.

    Consider, for instance, the mopane worm. These caterpillars of the emperor moth feed on the leaves of mopane (mo-PAN-ee) trees, which emerge in southern Africa's summer, a time when other staples can be in short supply. Dried, stewed, smoked, or fried, the insects are a popular delicacy. And they are just one of hundreds of insect species that play an important role in the diets of millions of people.

    “Nutritionally, it is excellent food,” says Arnold van Huis, an entomologist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. “It's the same or even better than conventional meat, fish, or poultry.” Just 100 grams of caterpillars can provide all of an adult's recommended daily protein, along with iron, B vitamins, and other essential nutrients, he says.

    Reporter's Notebook

    Science reporter Gretchen Vogel didn't just write about eating insects, she tried them herself:

    Inspired by my husband, an amateur insect enthusiast, my family and I tried grasshopper tacos twice last summer. The first meal was self-caught: We hunted grasshoppers around my parents' Iowa home. We froze them and then removed the legs, wings, and heads (which, we had read, are a bit hard to chew). Then we boiled them (to kill any possible nematodes) and sautéed them with garlic, onions, and lime juice. The final result was okay—grassy and, truth be told, a bit mushy. Not bad, but not necessarily worth the effort. A few weeks later in Washington, D.C., we ate more authentic chapulines at the Mexican restaurant Oyamel. There the crunchy critters, imported from Mexico, were dried in the sun, then salted, and sautéed in tequila. The effect was crunchy, savory, and delicious. We ordered seconds.—Gretchen Vogel

    Such eye-opening statistics have prompted FAO to develop new policy guidelines—expected later this year—that will encourage countries to include insects in their food-security plans. Vantomme hopes the guidelines will lead to more constructive discussions about managing insects. Currently, he says, “some [advisers] get their insecticides ready, and others get their chopsticks.”

    Currently, most edible insects are collected in the wild. In Mexico, for instance, farmers collect chapulines (young grasshoppers) from their maize and alfalfa fields, where they would otherwise do damage. FAO, however, is taking a closer look at experimental insect breeding to see whether it can be both ecologically and economically sustainable. Researchers are also studying whether they could use insect protein in livestock feed or even as a food additive.

    A scattering of enthusiasts think that entomophagy—the technical term for eating insects—could even catch on among Europeans and North Americans. In the Netherlands, a company called Bugs Organic Food markets mealworms and grasshoppers through two dozen outlets. The effort has had some success—even “the minister of agriculture held a grasshopper” at a press conference, van Huis says. She didn't eat the hopper but did approve subsidies for Bugs Organic Food to further develop their products.

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