Random Samples

Science  01 Oct 2010:
Vol. 330, Issue 6000, pp. 17

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  1. Shell Game


      It's a common belief among English gardeners: Throw the snails over the wall, and they'll come sliming back to eat your delphiniums another day. But common knowledge wasn't good enough for Ruth Brooks, a 69-year-old gardening enthusiast in Devon whose study of the phenomenon won BBC Radio 4's “So You Want to Be a Scientist?” amateur science contest in mid-September.

      With guidance from David Hodgson, a population biologist at the University of Exeter whom the BBC assigned as her mentor, Brooks designed two experiments. First, she collected snails from two parts of her garden, marked them with nail polish, and set them down on a metal tray between the two spots. (When her family, she jokes, “saw me … sitting there with my bright-red nail varnish marking snail shells, … they did think I'd sort of flipped.”) As garden lore predicted, most snails found their way back to their patch.

      Then Brooks recruited people from around Britain to swap a bucket of marked snails from their own garden with a neighbor. Their reports showed that snails home reliably up to about 30 meters. So to be safe, Brooks recommends dropping them off more than 100 meters away.

      Brooks says she was “delighted” to win, although it's debatable whether the prize, which came with no money, is a reward at all: She has to write up her results for publication in a journal.

    1. Poop-Powered


        The fuel of the future might be something we produce every day: excrement.

        Last month at a park in Cambridge, Massachusetts, artist Matthew Mazzotta put the idea to the test with a methane digester fueled by dog dung. Passersby picked up after their pets using biodegradable bags and threw the waste into an oxygen-free tank. As the microbes inside the dung broke it down, they released methane, which then zipped out through a tiny pipe to light up a gas streetlamp.

        Machines like this aren't limited to animal droppings. “Anything that's organic you can use in these biodigesters,” says Ahmad Pourmovahed, a mechanical engineer at Kettering University in Flint, Michigan, who oversaw a much larger project to turn human waste into biogas. The real question is whether waste can compete against natural gas, a fuel whose price fluctuates constantly, he says.

        The microbes don't do so well in cold weather, so on 25 September, Mazzotta had to power down the digester until spring. In the meantime, he hopes locals will think of a more creative way to use the fuel: to light a shadow play, say, or to brew tea at an eco-friendly teahouse.

      1. Nobel Predictions

          Can analyzing citations predict Nobel Prize winners?

          As anticipation of the prize announcements (which begin on 4 October) mounted last week, Thomson Reuters released its annual list of “Citation Laureates,” a roster of 21 potential Nobelists chosen based on citations, awards won, and the impact of their research. The recipe has predicted at least one Nobel winner in 19 of the past 21 years, although in some cases long before the year the prize was awarded.

          Among those tipped in 2010: in chemistry, Patrick Brown of Stanford University for inventing the DNA microarray, and in physics, Thomas Ebbesen of the University of Strasbourg in France for research in surface plasmon photonics. (See http://science.thomsonreuters.com/nobel for the full list.)

          “I really do my best not to think about it,” says Jeffrey Friedman of Rockefeller University in New York City, who, besides making the list in physiology or medicine, also won a Lasker Award this year (see below). Like most scientists, he prefers not to delve into Nobel hopefulness.

        1. Lasker Awards

            Shown clockwise from the top left are: Coleman, Ferrara, Weatherall, and Friedman.


            Breakthroughs in the biology of appetite and blood vessel growth and a lifetime of work on a blood disease have earned four scientists this year's Lasker Awards, considered the most prestigious prizes for biomedical research in the United States. Since the Laskers were first given out 65 years ago, 79 winners have gone on to collect a Nobel Prize.

            Douglas Coleman, who is retired from the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, and Jeffrey Friedman of Rockefeller University in New York City share the basic research award for discovering the hormone leptin, which helps control appetite.

            Napoleone Ferrara of Genentech in South San Francisco, California, wins the clinical award for his discovery of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), a protein critical to blood vessel growth. Genentech has since developed two drugs that target VEGF, one for macular degeneration and the other for cancer.

            A third award, recognizing special achievement, goes to David Weatherall of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, for his decades of work on the inherited blood disease thalassemia. Each award comes with $250,000.