Random Samples

Science  12 Nov 2010:
Vol. 330, Issue 6006, pp. 895

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  1. They Said It


      “What else are you going to do with them but eat them?”

      —Jake Vander Zanden, an ecologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, tells The Wall Street Journal about the tasty benefits of a project that has trapped and removed about 100,000 invasive rusty crayfish from Sparkling Lake in northern Wisconsin.

    1. Saving the City

        In 1999, Yahoo bought GeoCities, then the world's third most popular Web site, for an estimated $2.87 billion. Ten years later, Yahoo quietly prepared to dismantle the site. When Internet archivist-cum-activist and self-described loudmouth Jason Scott found hints of the impending “push-button mass destruction” buried in a Yahoo FAQ page, he was outraged—and knew he had to save it.

        “The classic response is, ‘Who cares; it's GeoCities,’” he says. “But it's not. It's hundreds of thousands of people's lives portrayed online.”

        GeoCities linked up sci-fi fans, boating aficionados, and history buffs in communities called “neighborhoods.” “At a time when color photocopies cost $1.25 a page,” Scott says, it equipped people with “a full color and sound publishing ability to a larger audience than anyone in their genetic line may have ever had.”

        So over 6 months, Scott and about 25 volunteers designed bots to track down GeoCities addresses and “scrape” the pages from the Web. On 31 October, a year after the shutdown, the team released the resulting 909 gigabytes as a compressed 652-gig download (http://scim.ag/Geo-Cities).

        The massive file isn't meant primarily for “strolls down memory lane,” Scott says. It's a treasure trove for academic researchers who want to work with large, real-world data sets, and a vital record for historians.

        Marc Weber, founding curator of the Internet History Program at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, agrees. “It's a reflection of our time,” he says. “This is prime source material for future historians that shows what people were thinking.”

      1. UFO Sightings


          Scientists at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) in Gloucester Point are used to the phone ringing. When locals see odd objects in nearby lakes or on the seashore, “they typically turn to us,” says David Malmquist, the institute's director of communications.

          In late October, VIMS got what could be its strangest call yet: reports of a giant “alien pod” lurking in a drainage pond in the middle of Newport News, Virginia. A photo of the approximately 1.2-meter-wide organism (pictured) followed, and the scientists of VIMS got to work scrutinizing this latest “unidentified fishy organism,” as Malmquist terms these cases (http://www.vims.edu/bayinfo/ufos/).

          “This is the kind of thing people love to do while they're taking a coffee break,” says VIMS marine ecologist J. Emmett Duffy. E-mails flew until a few researchers recognized the blob as a freshwater bryozoan colony.

          Bryozoans could give aliens a run for their money: The millimeter-long, wormlike creatures feed on algae and reproduce asexually, clustering in floating colonies held together by slime they excrete. The surface, as marine invertebrate biologist Jonathan Allen of the College of William and Mary (which VIMS is part of) in Williamsburg, Virginia, puts it, is “really a wall of mouths, … thousands and thousands of individual mouths that have tentacles on them … capturing food for the colony.”

          The colony probably benefits the lake by filtering algae and other particles, Duffy says. “In a way it's a hopeful sign that interesting diversity is still surviving, even in these urban places where you wouldn't expect it.”

        1. The Selfish Gene


            It's the ultimate self-portrait: Send off your DNA, and get back a work of art based on your unique genetic sequence.

            As a molecular biologist working in industry, Andy Bass knew “how beautiful genetic images are in the lab” and wanted to “aesthetically connect people to DNA.” So he started Yonder Biology (www.yonderbiology.com), a California-based company that creates personalized gifts inspired by genes. Technicians extract DNA from mailed-in cheek swabs and sequence them using common techniques: polymerase chain reaction and gel electrophoresis. Bass says he spends a lot of time “optimizing these standard laboratory procedures for aesthetic value.” The resulting unique pattern is stained with ultraviolet dye and photographed; then designers tweak it into a painting worthy of any stylish pad.

            Now Spanish company GeneticPhotos (www.geneticphotos.com) takes things further by matching your fragments to a library of human genes that researchers have linked to certain traits, such as being a math whiz or a great lover. You can wear your DNA on a T-shirt, hang it up as Lichtenstein-esque pop art, merge it with another person's DNA photo, or have it laser-engraved into a crystal cube.

            GeneticPhotos is the newest venture on the scene, but Yonder Biology may still win best in show—just ask about their doggy DNA portraits.