Random Samples

Science  12 Mar 2010:
Vol. 327, Issue 5971, pp. 1307

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  1. People's Choice Mini-Grants

    Casting around for cash to pay for those extra chemicals or some DNA sequencing? Look no farther than Facebook, where BenchFly, in the name of “restoring science as a viable career path,” is staging a “microgrant” competition. Applications are limited to 100 words. “We're definitely a short-attention-span generation these days,” says Alan Marnett, a chemist who founded BenchFly.com, a Web site for lab researchers, last year after finishing his postdoc at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

    The 8-week competition will end on 7 May. Those who log on to Facebook can vote for the winners, who will be announced on 12 May. Scientists won't be named on Facebook but must allow BenchFly to verify their identities. BenchFly will dole out grants of at least $500.

    Marnett can't predict the number of winners or how much money they'll get: That depends on how many people have downloaded from BenchFly a “Search for Research” toolbar developed by a company named FreeCause. An undisclosed amount trickles in from FreeCause every time it's used for Internet searching; the money is matched by the life sciences company Sigma-Aldrich.

  2. Inheriting Mental Illness

    What are the odds of being mentally ill if both of your parents have bipolar illness or schizophrenia? The answer, from a long-term study of psychiatric admissions in Denmark: extremely high.

    Psychologist Irving Gottesman of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and colleagues analyzed all Danish psychiatric admissions from 1970 to 2007. They found 196 pairs of parents in which both had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Of the 270 offspring, 27% had been diagnosed with schizophrenia by the age of 52—and for all psychiatric admissions it was a whopping 67.5%. Among 8000 pairs with one schizophrenic member, only 7% of the offspring were schizophrenic. The rate in the general population is about 1%.

    Similar results held for 83 couples with bipolar disorder—36% of their offspring had major depression, and two-thirds of those were also bipolar. The authors report the findings in the March issue of Archives of General Psychiatry.

    David Goldman, chief of the lab of neurogenetics at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in Bethesda, Maryland, calls the study “a major advance.” The excess risk from two afflicted parents is “pretty remarkable,” he says. Ordinary “additive” gene effects can't explain it, Goldman says. “The most likely explanation [is] epistasis,” in which different genes interact nonadditively with one another.

    The authors say a better evaluation of the risks of transmitting mental illness should be helpful to genetic counselors advising people on family decisions.

  3. Song of the Shelf


    Shortly before he had planned to leave work on 11 February, Lars Kindermann heard a surprising crash. Kindermann, a biophysicist at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven, Germany, was listening to a live feed from underwater microphones beneath the Antarctic ice shelf. “I always have it on in the office,” he says. Usually he hears the calls of whales and seals. This time, the mics were feeding acoustic data from a rare event: an iceberg the size of a small city smashing into the shelf ice near the German research station Neumayer III.

    Kindermann's colleague Christine Wesche says those data, combined with seismic measurements and satellite photos, will offer scientists the most detailed look ever at such a collision and will provide new insights into the behavior of the shelf ice. Scientists monitoring global warming need to get the right physics of iceberg behavior plugged into their models so they'll know what it takes to break up the ice shelves that hold glaciers in place.

    Kindermann says he also plans to study marine mammals' reactions to the event, to get a baseline for measuring animals' responses to humanmade noise sources.

  4. Great Brains of Science


    The United Kingdom's Royal Society this year celebrates its anniversary—“350 years of scientific brilliance and fearless doubt”—with the help of the Royal Mail, which has issued 10 stamps featuring the achievements of some of the society's members.