Science  25 Feb 2011:
Vol. 331, Issue 6020, pp. 993

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  1. Cancer Diagnosis: An App for That


    Cancer researchers have come up with a small device that could allow physicians to find out within 60 minutes whether cells from a suspicious lump in a patient are cancerous or benign.

    Oncologists usually have to send suspected cancer cells to a pathology lab and wait days for the results, which are often inconclusive. But now Ralph Weissleder's team at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston has developed a miniature, portable version of a nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) machine—the workhorse tool that chemists use to identify molecular structures. The researchers used a needle to collect possible tumor cells from patients's abdomens, washed the cells with magnetic nanoparticles, and injected them into their miniature NMR. The device, which is about the size of a coffee mug and can be read with a smartphone, detected levels of nine protein markers for cancer cells.

    The method accurately diagnosed biopsies from 68 of 70 patients, the MGH team reports this week in Science Translational Medicine. They hope that doctors will one day use the device at the bedside to track the course of a patient's cancer and its response to drugs.

  2. Rising Temperatures Bringing Bigger Floods

    In October and November 2000, floods soaked large swaths of England and Wales, causing losses estimated to exceed $2 billion. Now new research suggests that human-caused climate change, brought about by past emissions of carbon dioxide, almost certainly boosted the risk of these floods.

    Pardeep Pall of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and his colleagues ran thousands of climate simulations. In roughly half of them, they reduced atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide to levels measured in 1900, and they adjusted ocean temperatures and the amount of Arctic sea ice—which affects high-latitude weather patterns—accordingly. In the other simulations, they modeled modern conditions. Then they compared the rainfall amounts generated in both types of simulations. Finally, they fed the rainfall values into a model that assesses the potential for flooding.

    In 90% of the simulations, results suggested that the flood risk in England and Wales in autumn 2000 was at least 20% higher than it would have been in 1900, the team reported online last week in Nature. In two-thirds of the cases, the flood risk was at least 90% higher.

  3. Cheers! Ancient Britons Made Skull Cups

    Humans have been using skulls as cups for thousands of years to toast friends—or enemies. Now a team analyzing bones from Gough Cave in Somerset, United Kingdom, has found what it claims to be the earliest evidence for the practice.


    Led by paleontologist Silvia Bello of the Natural History Museum in London, the team studied three skulls previously found in a cave layer radiocarbon dated to 14,700 years ago, during the Ice Age when the Magdalenian culture thrived there. The pattern of cutmarks and abrasions on the skulls suggests that the cranial vaults were carefully preserved while the rest of the faces were smashed off, the eyes gouged out, and the lower jaws carefully removed. Bello's team concluded online last week in PLoS ONE that the skulls were deliberately fashioned into cups or other containers, likely for a ceremony. Other bones from the cave show signs of cannibalism, and researchers suggest that the cups may even have been used to serve up the brains of an enemy.

  4. Longer Genes, Longer Flight

    Every year, some 50 billion birds take to the air for their seasonal migrations. They may go 500 kilometers in a day and a few even travel from pole to pole. But how do they know when, where, and how far to fly? Now ornithologists have pinned down one of the genes that influences migratory behavior. And strange as it may sound, the length of that gene influences the length of the flights.


    Jakob Mueller and Bart Kempenaers of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Starnberg, Germany, along with Francisco Pulido, now at the Complutense University of Madrid in Spain, evaluated 14 populations of blackcaps (pictured) ranging from western Russia, through Europe, south to Africa. These populations vary in their inclinations to migrate. Blackcaps in Cape Verde, for example, never leave home, whereas those in Russia travel more than 3500 kilometers.

    The researchers found that one gene, called ADCYAP1 is correlated with the birds' typical premigratory behavior. They reported online in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B that groups that stayed put tended to have a shorter version of the gene, whereas long-distance migrants tended to have longer versions. The gene specifies a peptide in the brain that influences daily rhythms and affects energy use—increasing body temperature, metabolic rate, and fat usage. These sorts of changes occur as a bird gets ready to migrate.