Random Samples

Science  17 Dec 2010:
Vol. 330, Issue 6011, pp. 1595
  1. Magic Mint

      Salvia divinorum may be this generation's answer to magic mushrooms. A hallucinogenic member of the mint family, it has been used for centuries by Mexican shamans for spiritual purposes. Within the past decade it's become popular as a legal high—at least where its use hasn't been outlawed. Now researchers at Johns Hopkins University have conducted the first human laboratory study on the plant, published online 4 December in Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

      Salvia's active ingredient, salvinorin A, binds to a different receptor than do drugs such as LSD or marijuana, which affect serotonin and endocannabinoid receptors. The effect is both much briefer and much more intense—enough to shake up the study subjects, who had all used other hallucinogenic drugs. “People were saying it was like opening a portal to another dimension,” says the study's lead author, Matthew Johnson. They also encountered the same hallucinated beings from session to session. Salvinorin A could potentially become a research tool for conditions such as schizophrenia and dementia, Johnson says. Meanwhile, given the intensity of its effects, the classic caveat still applies: Kids, don't try this at home.

    1. Faster, Better, Smaller

        CREDIT: ION TORRENT SYSTEMS INC.

        Jonathan Rothberg is betting that $3 million will get labs around the world working on how to speed up the already rapid ascent of his new DNA sequencing technology. On 14 December, Rothberg, founder of Ion Torrent, which uses semiconductor know-how to build miniature sequencing machines, announced three $1 million prizes for researchers who can make his chip technology “faster, more accurate, and even more scalable.”

        One way to earn a million: Cut sample preparation time in half so that, independent of whether the starting point is human spit or bacteria, sequences start rolling off the machine within 5 hours. A second million is for tweaking the chemical processes used to decode DNA so that the chip can churn through twice as much sequence at a time. The third rewards software that can identify bases more accurately from the Ion Torrent chip's raw data.

        The funds are the first committed from a $7 million program by Ion Torrent's parent company, Life Technologies Corp., to encourage outside involvement in improving the company's products. “It's an interesting and very innovative approach and is going to get the research community excited about this technology,” says Ulrich Broeckel, a complex-diseases geneticist at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. His lab is one of about a half-dozen to have an Ion Torrent machine, and he plans to go after a prize. Given the funding climate, $1 million “is a nice incentive,” he adds.

      1. Million-Dollar Bird

          CREDIT: THE BIRDS OF AMERICA, VOLS. I—IV, SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY LIBRARY SYSTEM, UNIVERSITY OF PITTSBURGH

          Last week, this hand-painted print and the 434 others in John James Audubon's mid–19th century book The Birds of America sold at Sotheby's in London for $11.6 million to an anonymous bidder. Just 120 copies are known to exist.

          Unlike other bird illustrators, Audubon “wanted to present them lifelike” and life-size, says curator Charles Aston of the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, who maintains that library's copy. So he shot birds—“he was an excellent marksman, and some of these are tiny birds”—posed them, and painted them in botanically accurate backgrounds. Audubon's field notes, published separately in Ornithological Biography, might shock a modern ornithologist, Aston says. “Often you get the startling comment such as, ‘They're very good roasted.’”

        1. Aqua Bot

            Scholin with the ESP.

            CREDIT: KIM FULTON-BENNETT © 2006 MBARI

            Anyone who has taken a marine biology course is familiar with wading into the muck to collect samples. Christopher Scholin, president of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, California, spent 20 years searching for a better way. He came up with the Environmental Sample Processor (ESP), a “lab in a can” that can gather, prepare, and test water samples for microorganism DNA all on its own. Scientists can place the device anywhere from a freshwater marsh to the deep ocean and view the results remotely over the Internet—no galoshes required.

            “It's a very promising and unique piece of equipment,” says Don Anderson of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, who is testing the first ESP commercial prototype. Instruments that measure salinity, temperature, and current are standard, he says, “but it's a rare and unique sensor that can give you information about individual species.”

            Anderson will use the ESP to collect data on “red tide” blooms of toxin-producing Alexandrium fundyense algae in New England coastal waters. Other applications for the ESP, which was partly funded by NASA, could include monitoring drinking water quality and detecting microbial life in space, Scholin says. “Now that we've created a device to do remote analysis, we would welcome partnerships.”