News this Week

Science  04 Mar 2011:
Vol. 331, Issue 6021, pp. 1118

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  1. Around the World

    1 - Libya
    Exodus of Fossil Hunters
    2 - Washington, D.C.
    Vaccine Maker Wins In High Court
    3 - Madre de Dios, Peru
    Government Cracks Down On Destructive Mining
    4 - Milton Keynes, United Kingdom
    Computing Pioneer's Papers To Stay in Public Collection


    Exodus of Fossil Hunters


    The sudden outbreak of violence in Libya has caught some foreign researchers by surprise. American paleoanthropologist Noel Boaz was among a half-dozen visiting academics hunkering down for several days in a house owned by the Libyan International Medical University in Benghazi, where they were teaching. Although they escaped over the Egyptian border at midnight on 23 February, Boaz (now back in the United States) worries about the fate of important animal fossils discovered during years of field work in Sahabi and currently stored in a fort in Tripoli. Archaeologist Barbara Barich of Sapienza University of Rome says Italian colleagues beat a similarly hasty retreat aboard an Italian military aircraft.

    Meanwhile, a French-American team searching for early anthropoids has abandoned plans to return to the field site of Dur At-Talah (pictured) in March, says paleontologist K. Christopher Beard of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And things are looking uncertain for dinosaur paleontologist Paul Sereno of the Field Museum in Chicago, who just signed an agreement in January for “large-scale exploration and research” across Libya. Sereno, who wasn't planning to go to the field until November, says he still hopes to work there in 2012.

    Washington, D.C.

    Vaccine Maker Wins In High Court

    The U.S. Supreme Court came down firmly on the side of a vaccine manufacturer last week, ruling 6-2 with one abstention that the parents of a teenager who was apparently seriously injured by a vaccine she was given as a baby aren't entitled to sue the maker, Wyeth.

    The parents of Hannah Bruesewitz argued that she had received a “scientifically outmoded” DTP (diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis) vaccine that Wyeth had decided not to update. But Antonin Scalia and five other justices concluded that the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986, which sought to protect manufacturers from excessive liability claims while preserving a family's right to be compensated for vaccine injuries, did not intend for companies to be liable for such so-called design defects.

    In a dissenting opinion, justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg accused the court of imposing “its own bare policy preferences” and said it was important for companies to be pushed, at times by litigation, to improve on existing vaccines. “Nothing in the text, structure, or legislative history remotely suggests that Congress intended” to prevent this, they wrote.

    Madre de Dios, Peru

    Government Cracks Down On Destructive Mining

    Peru is finally getting tough with the illegal gold-mining operations that are destroying thousands of hectares of rainforest near the headwaters of the Amazon River. To avert further environmental devastation, the government on 20 February dispatched members of its armed forces on a 6-week mission to Madre de Dios in southeastern Peru to eradicate illegal dredgers—heavy machines that scoop up sediments from river bottoms. As Science went to press, the government had so far burned and destroyed 19 dredgers.

    Scientists have dubbed Madre de Dios one of the world's biodiversity hotspots. It harbors important fish spawning grounds and the second-richest butterfly community ever documented in the world. But soaring gold prices have lured an estimated 64,000 migrants from other parts of Peru to work as individual miners or for larger operations, scouring riverbeds, stripping away rainforest and soil, and extracting gold from sediments with some 32 tons of toxic mercury annually. Today, 150,000 hectares of the region are virtual dead zones. “It looks like Mordor,” says Alex Chepstow-Lusty, a pollen scientist at the French Institute of Andean Studies in Lima.

    Milton Keynes, United Kingdom

    Computing Pioneer's Papers To Stay in Public Collection


    Rare offprints of the scientific papers of mathematician and World War II British codebreaker Alan Turing have, with the help of generous donations, been bought for the Bletchley Park Trust, the museum housed in the wartime codebreaking center where Turing helped crack the German Enigma code.

    Little remains of Turing's personal belongings and papers, so these offprints—given by Turing to friend and fellow codebreaker Max Newman and with notes in Turing's hand—were expected to fetch at least £300,000 at auction. But after donations from the U.K.'s National Heritage Memorial Fund, Google, and the public, Bletchley Park was able to buy them.

    Turing is considered one of the founders of modern computing, and at Bletchley he developed the initial design of the Bombe computer used to decrypt Enigma-encoded messages. The offprints, along with Newman's guest book containing the signatures of Turing and other Bletchley veterans, “represent a piece of our codebreaking heritage,” says Kelsey Griffin, director of the Bletchley museum.

  2. Newsmakers

    Three Q's

    Nathan Myhrvold has been a postdoc for physicist Stephen Hawking and chief technology officer at Microsoft, but these days he's turning heads with his innovations in the kitchen. On 14 March, he and two chefs will publish Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, a six-volume, 2438-page opus on a new style of cooking that uses hightech gadgetry and ingredients to concoct dishes as unlikely as geoduck noodles and deep-fried mayonnaise.


    Q:What's your favorite kitchen gadget?

    We love rotor-stator homogenizers. It's [a] piece of laboratory equipment that's fantastic for making very fine purees or very fine-grained emulsions.

    Q:Is cooking becoming more of a science these days?

    Inquisitive chefs have always been scientists … [and] there's a huge section of the book explaining how traditional cooking methods actually work. … Here's one thing that really surprises people. A lot of recipes have you plunge stuff into ice water to stop the cooking. … It's based on a mental fallacy that's very similar in spirit to the idea that Galileo disproved, that heavier objects fall faster. In fact, the peak temperatures will be almost exactly the same … if you put the food out on the counter versus plunging it in ice water.

    Q:If you had to compare the book to a scientific work, what would it be?

    Gravitation by [Charles] Misner, [Kip] Thorne, and [John] Wheeler … was a huge inspiration to me with the cookbook. It was big and comprehensive and had historical sidebars. … I love that. … As an example, we have a sidebar on Joseph Fourier and the laws of heat conduction. And we have a little biography of James Watt, because everyone knows their appliances are rated in watts, so we explain what that means.

    Musical Chairs at DOE

    The top echelon at the Department of Energy seems to be in perpetual motion. Last week, Secretary Steven Chu gave Arun Majumdar, an engineer who heads the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, a second job: acting under secretary for energy. Majumdar will take over from departing Cathy Zoi until a permanent replacement is found. Zoi, like Majumdar, was filling in temporarily while pulling double-duty—she also ran the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Her deputy, Henry Kelly, former head of the Federation of American Scientists, will get that job.

  3. Random Sample

    Ötzi's New Look


    Nearly 20 years have passed since the 5300-year-old body of Ötzi the Iceman was discovered in a melting alpine glacier by two hikers just on the Italian side of the Austria-Italy border. In celebration, the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy, where the Iceman's mortal remains are on display, opened a massive Ötzi exhibit this week featuring a brand-new reconstruction by the Dutch master paleoartists Adrie and Alfons Kennis (Science, 10 July 2009, p. 136).

    The bearded Iceman appears particularly fit and trim, as he might have looked before an enemy arrow apparently brought him down. On 18 September, the night before the discovery's 20th anniversary, the museum will host a late-night birthday bash for Ötzi. But if you miss the party, you can still see the exhibit until 15 January 2012.

    By the Numbers

    21% — Percentage by which India is boosting science and technology spending in its new budget, announced this week.

    75% — Percentage of the world's coral reefs threatened by global warming, overfishing, and other factors, according to the World Resources Institute.

    30 per week — The rate at which results of clinical trials are being submitted to If a federal mandate were followed, the rate would be 100 records per week, according to a study in The New England Journal of Medicine.

    Geek coli


    Can two microbiologists win a cage match against tennis star Maria Sharapova? You can help decide.

    Google Demo Slam, a contest for videos that showcase Google features such as “translate” and “custom homepage” in creative ways, pits one video against another and lets users vote on a champ ( In the science corner is Edward Johnson of Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, whose homepage entrant is an Escherichia coli rendition of Google's logo.

    Johnson learned about the contest from his son, a film student, and decided to enter on a whim. After all, he says, “We use Google all the time to find out scientific things.” He and his graduate student Clayton Wright dyed lab bacteria different colors, streaked them onto an agar plate in the shape of the Google logo, and let them grow.

    Google loved the result, which users can now set as their homepage background. But even if voters deem one of the other entries, such as Sharapova's Russian language voice search, more infectiously charming, Johnson relished the experience. “It's great to see the comments on YouTube,” he says. “There are a lot of people out there who don't know much about science but have a genuine interest.” He says fans of the viral video have even contacted him personally to hear about his HIV and cancer research.

  4. Epidemiology

    Breaking the Chain in Bangladesh

    1. Richard Stone

    Nipah virus has struck again in western Bangladesh, as it has done almost every winter since 2001. Scientists believe they know why the killer stalks this region—and are testing a simple intervention.

    Risky business.

    A gachhi taps a date palm in western Bangladesh. Bamboo skirts (above) appear to prevent bats from contaminating collected sap.


    RAJBARI, BANGLADESH—When Anwara Begum came down with a high fever on 28 December, she and her husband thought it was a cold or the flu. As the hours passed, she grew too weak to eat or get out of bed, and she couldn't move her fingers. On the 30th, Begum's husband, Ramjan Ali, took her to a clinic, where doctors administered fluids for her diarrhea and discharged her. By the time she got home, she was unable to speak. “Both of us were very scared,” says Ali.

    Early in the morning on 1 January, Begum died. Three days later, her 2-year-old daughter, Dilruba, started running a fever. The toddler grew more and more lethargic, then could no longer move her limbs. Before doctors at Faridpur Medical College Hospital could move her to an isolation ward, Dilruba was dead. The hospital sent blood samples to the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR) in Dhaka, the capital. An antibody test confirmed the worst: Dilruba had succumbed to Nipah virus, a rare pathogen discovered in 1999. IEDCR dispatched a team to probe how she and her mother contracted the disease and to scour Rajbari here in western Bangladesh for more cases. The evidence uncovered heightens the mystery about why this region has become ground zero for Nipah.

    Nipah claims few lives, but in South Asia it is a dreaded malady. The virus kills almost three-quarters of those it infects in Bangladesh, where nearly all known cases in the past decade have occurred, and leaves many survivors with crippling neurological disorders. “This virus is a bad actor. It causes a striking degree of anxiety and panic,” says epidemiologist Stephen Luby of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who has been on assignment with the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (ICDDR,B) in Dhaka since late 2004. Nipah's hallmark symptom is brain inflammation, or encephalitis. “Previously healthy young people die and die in groups,” says Luby. “This really is a community crisis.”

    Nipah first emerged in Malaysia in 1998, but only in Bangladesh has it become a perennial scourge. Almost every winter since 2001, the virus has flared up in the world's most densely populated nation. It's more brushfire than inferno: All told, the virus has killed 111 people in Bangladesh during the past decade. Fifty people died in 2004, the worst year. This winter is shaping up to be bad, with the death toll at 27 as Science went to press—and 2 months to go in the Nipah season.

    Nipah is also a scientific puzzle. Disease hunters believe they have pinned down the virus's natural reservoir—fruit bats—and they have nailed a transmission route in Bangladesh: consumption of contaminated date palm sap. But some things don't add up. Fruit bats test positive for Nipah antibodies across southern Asia, and date palm sap is a delicacy throughout Bangladesh. Yet the virus mostly haunts only what investigators call “the Nipah belt,” a clutch of districts near the Ganges River in western Bangladesh. “There is something about this area, at this time of year, that puts people at particular risk,” says Luby.

    A gnawing fear is that Nipah virus will break out of its geographic box. IEDCR Director Mahmudur Rahman is optimistic that won't happen. “I believe that we will be able to keep the disease under control,” he says. “But if we fail, it will be a real disaster for the country.”

    Out of hiding

    Nipah first garnered attention in September 1998, when pigs on farms in Malaysia started getting sick in droves. Public health authorities assumed it was swine fever: The pigs had classic symptoms, such as high fever, muscle spasms, and abnormal gait. But it differed in one way: Many pigs developed loud barking coughs. Piglets readily succumbed to the disease, but most grown pigs recovered.

    Caught in the act.

    Pteropus fruit bats (top) are the natural reservoir for Nipah virus. Infrared cameras have observed Pteropus and other bats licking sap from tapped date palms.


    Then farmers started getting ill—and dying. Their symptoms included high fever, muscle pain, and severe encephalitis. Malaysian health authorities assumed the killer was Japanese encephalitis (JE), a mosquito-borne virus—pigs are a reservoir—and ordered widespread pesticide fogging. Pig handlers were vaccinated and told it was safe to go back to work. But some of them came down with encephalitis and died, too. Still convinced that they were dealing with JE, health officials assumed that batches of the inactivated vaccine were ineffective and turned to a live-attenuated JE vaccine. Another red herring was that some victims tested positive for JE antibodies. These may have been false positives, says Kaw Bing “Paul” Chua, a virologist at Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory in Singapore, or else pig farmers had been exposed to JE in the past without becoming ill.

    In February 1999, Chua, then at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, joined the investigation when a patient with acute encephalitis was admitted to the university's medical center. His serum also tested positive for JE antibodies. But anti-JE interventions appeared to be having little or no effect, so Chua suspected an unusual or novel pathogen—and went fishing. He inoculated cell lines with cerebrospinal fluid and serum from their patient and five others. The pathogen ravaged Vero cells from African green monkey kidney tissue, making them fuse and form syncytial cells. That's the calling card of paramyxoviruses, a diverse family that includes measles virus, mumps virus, and respiratory syncytial virus. Chua bombarded the Vero cells with monoclonal antibodies against several paramyxoviruses. Nothing stuck, which suggested that the virus might be new to science.

    The University of Malaya's aging electron microscope produced only blurred images of the viral particles. On 12 March, Chua packed samples in dry ice and flew to the United States. At CDC's laboratory in Fort Collins, Colorado, microbiologist C. Bruce Cropp put the samples under their electron microscope, and when the image appeared, Chua immediately recognized the ringlike structures of paramyxovirus nucleocapsids. “Great fear overwhelmed me,” he says. Paramyxoviruses, he knew, are spread by close contact, via saliva or sputum. No wonder the JE control measures had failed. A few weeks later, Chua and CDC collaborators identified a novel paramyxovirus.

    Malaysian authorities quickly changed tack. They ordered a mass cull of some 1 million pigs and sought to limit human contact with pigs to break the transmission chain. The measures worked. Through June 1999 the virus—named Nipah, after the village where it was first isolated—had infected 265 people in Malaysia and 11 pig slaughterhouse workers in Singapore, killing 106. The tally does not include several encephalitis victims in 1997 whose stored sera were later found to have anti-Nipah antibodies, says Chua.

    Terra of terror.

    Since its emergence in 1998, Nipah virus (electron micrograph, inset) has become a recurring nightmare only in western districts of Bangladesh.


    The virus was no longer infecting pigs or humans—but it had to be hiding somewhere. During the outbreak, Nipah virus had also been isolated from other livestock and domestic animals like cats and dogs. But its natural reservoir was unknown.

    Scientists had a good lead though. Nipah's closest kin is Hendra virus, which emerged in the mid-1990s in Australia. That virus had infected several horses and their handlers, causing an illness marked by severe encephalitis that killed two people. Scientists in Australia found live Hendra virus in Pteropus fruit bats, commonly called flying foxes, and concluded that this species is the virus's natural reservoir. In Malaysia, researchers uncovered Nipah antibodies in scores of fruit bats roosting in trees near the pig farms where the outbreak had occurred. The bats would eat durian flowers and mangoes and other fruits in groves near pig farms; presumably their Nipah-tainted urine or saliva infected the pigs, says Chua. After months of searching, in early 2000 they found live virus in one bat from a large colony on Tioman Island, off peninsular Malaysia's east coast. The team declared that it had uncovered Nipah's reservoir; some experts were dubious. “There was skepticism about the single isolation from Tioman,” says Luby.

    For 2 years, Nipah virus laid low before reemerging far from the original epicenter—and with a whole new modus operandi. Western Bangladesh, 2500 kilometers northwest of Malaysia, experienced its first outbreak in early 2001. This time, pigs had nothing to do with disease transmission. Victims were contracting Nipah from an unknown source, and it was spreading from person to person—something that rarely occurred in the Malaysia outbreak. In addition, the mortality rate was higher in Bangladesh. The likely explanation is inferior health care. In Malaysia, many acutely ill patients who were put on ventilators pulled through. Bangladesh has only a handful of ventilators, and to date, only one patient has been put on one, Luby says. “This is a terrible virus,” he says, “but I don't think there's something qualitatively more virulent about the strains we're seeing here compared to the strain that was seen in Malaysia.”

    Taking their cue from Malaysia, researchers zeroed in on Pteropus fruit bats, which are common across Bangladesh. Hendra virus and Nipah virus are now classified as Henipaviruses. Antibodies to Henipaviruses have been found in Pteropus bats across Southeast Asia and from as far away as Madagascar and the African continent. A few years ago, live Nipah virus was isolated from a fruit bat in Thailand, which has never reported a human case. In Bangladesh, scientists haven't been so lucky. Working with colleagues from the nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance, Luby says, “We have identified an awful lot of bats that are antibody-positive. It's just a matter of time until we find live virus.”

    Bangladesh had a Nipah-free year in 2002. The virus returned in 2003 and struck with a vengeance in 2004. The outbreak that year in Faridpur “confirmed the substantial risk of person-to-person transmission,” Luby says. Meanwhile, Malaysia hasn't reported a case since 1999. The only other country where Nipah is known to have jumped into humans is India. It has reported several sporadic cases and one outbreak, when the virus killed four dozen people in Siliguri, a city just across the border from Bangladesh, in early 2001.

    “This virus … causes a striking degree of anxiety and panic.”



    That presented a riddle. The virus appeared to be endemic to a broad swath of Asia. “Fruit bats are everywhere,” Luby says, and have similar levels of Nipah antibodies wherever researchers have looked. It's possible that Nipah flies under the radar elsewhere. In more than half of encephalitis deaths in Asia, says Luby, the cause is unidentified. “It's plausible that sporadic cases are going unrecognized,” he says. Yet only western Bangladesh is hit with recurring outbreaks.

    Russian roulette

    When Badsha Shaikh was a child, he says he had a talent for climbing trees. Now he's nearing 50 and still spry. A curved dagger tied to his waist, Shaikh scampers up a 20-meter-tall date palm almost like he is dashing straight up the trunk. “It's like he's running up stairs,” anthropologist Rebeca Sultana of ICDDR,B says with a laugh. In several seconds, he's near the top and slings in place a leather harness. Shaikh is a gachhi, or date palm sap collector. During the winter months here in Ramchandrapur village, when the sap is running sweet, Shaikh tends a couple of dozen palms; the rest of the year, he makes a living as a rickshaw driver.

    Fruit bats once were common here, says Shaikh, but some locals enjoy eating them, so there are fewer now. In the afternoon, Shaikh shimmies up his date palms, slashing v-shaped cut marks in patches of trunk stripped of bark just below the fronds. The rest of the day and overnight, trees ooze sap through the wounds, which funnel the liquid into a clay jug slung below the bare patch. Just before dawn, Shaikh clambers back up to retrieve the jugs. Most sap will be boiled down to molasses in big kettles.

    The best stuff is quaffed raw. Gachhi identify one or two date palms—older, taller, female trees—that produce the tastiest sap. “It's sweet. We used to drink it often when we went in the field, before Nipah,” says Sultana. Children love it mixed with puffed rice. “You have to drink the sap by 9 or 10 in the morning,” Sultana says. After that, it begins to ferment. Approximately 90% of the population in Bangladesh is Muslim, so consuming alcohol is forbidden. Some villagers imbibe fermented sap on the sly.

    Drinking the stuff raw, it turns out, is a game of Russian roulette. During field investigations, IEDCR and ICDDR,B researchers discovered a common association with many Nipah cases not explained by human-to-human transmission: The victims, both adults and children, had drunk raw date palm sap before getting sick.

    Then the researchers caught bats in the act. In early 2008, a team led by ICDDR,B veterinarian Salah Uddin Khan trained motion sensor–tripped infrared cameras on tapped date palms. Over 20 nights, they made dozens of observations of Pteropus and other bats alighting on the shaved part of the date palms. Sometimes the bats would lick the sap running into the jug. Sap in the jugs, researchers surmise, can be contaminated with bat saliva and urine—and thus the virus. That may explain Nipah's seasonality in Bangladesh. Cases here have occurred only between December and April, roughly coinciding with the time that palm sap is collected.

    A second hypothesis is that seasonality is linked to the bat's biological rhythms. Nipah virus and Pteropus bats appear to have coevolved over centuries or millennia. “Bats don't seem to be bothered by it,” says Luby. “It's like E. coli in our guts.” Bats breed in cycles, and females give birth around the same time. “Presumably, the mother's antibodies protect newborn pups from Nipah. Then the antibody wanes and they become susceptible,” says Luby. During that period, more virus might be shed in the urine, heightening transmission risk.

    Coming to grips.

    Responding to an outbreak in Rajbari last January, a team led by Salah Uddin Khan (top right) draws blood from a calf to look for anti-Nipah antibodies. Rebeca Sultana (bottom right) and colleagues are going village to village warning about the risk of raw date palm sap.


    With strong evidence that date palm sap is an important transmission pathway, scientists and health experts are looking for ways to break the transmission chain. “Getting people to stop drinking raw date palm sap is the only answer,” argues IEDCR's Rahman. That will be devilishly hard to pull off: Drinking raw sap is a cherished Bengali custom, says Sultana.

    Scientists have hit upon a measure that may stem infections in the short term. Villagers told anthropologist Nazmun Nahar, now a consultant to ICDDR,B, that years ago gachhi would protect the part of the date palm trunk stripped of bark with a covering made from bamboo slats. These bamboo skirts had fallen out of use.

    In 2007, ICDDR,B persuaded gachhi to deploy bamboo skirts on a few trees. Infrared cameras indicated that the skirts are effective. “They keep the bats out, so the sap is cleaner,” says Luby. This year, with support from the U.S. Agency for International Development, they are scaling up the intervention and trying jute, which can be fashioned into skirts more cheaply and quickly, and plastic. ICDDR,B staffers have been going from village to village to hold community meetings to explain the risk of raw date palm sap and the importance of using skirts. They persuade village elders to put up warning posters. “This may not be a basic science question, but it's the cutting edge of emerging infections,” Luby says. “How do you come up with solutions that are scientifically sound, locally acceptable, and can be scaled up?” Crucially, date palm owners are warming to the concept. “I can stop drinking raw sap, but it's hard to stop my children from drinking it,” says Abdus Sobhan Shaikh, who is now using jute skirts on two of his 20 trees.

    More widespread awareness of the threat might have saved Begum and her daughter. Ali told investigators that his wife had drunk raw date palm sap at least three times in December, before she became ill. Each time she shared the ambrosia with several other women—none of whom came down with the disease. That the virus infected only Begum and Dilruba, and spared their companions, makes theirs a classic case.

    Heaven sent?

    In Rajbari, ripe brown sapodilla fruits are hanging from the boughs of trees and rotting on the ground. “Fruit bats love it,” says Khan. In a village on the outskirts of town, three veterinarians wearing face masks soothe a calf tethered to a tree. It lows plaintively. One guy jabs a syringe into its jugular. The team is drawing blood from as many animals as they can lay hands on: livestock, dogs and cats, and, of course, fruit bats, which are captured with nets strung near rooks. A handful of Nipah cases in the past have been linked to sick cows and goats, and a cluster in 2003 was traced to a pack of nomadic pigs.

    Khan's team came here within a few days after Anwara Begum's death to draw animal blood. Then they were looking for immunoglobulin M (IgM) antibodies, which develop within a few days after exposure to an antigen. Results are not yet in. The researchers have come back in early February, a month after Begum's death, to prospect for immunoglobulin G antibodies, which show up in the blood after a few weeks.

    In contrast to the Malaysian outbreak, which was triggered by one or possibly two strains, Nipah outbreaks here have involved a number of strains. “We see quite a bit more variability,” says Luby. Not surprisingly, infected individuals in Bangladesh exhibit a range of symptoms, with mild cases called “Nipah fever” and, compared with Malaysia, more cases with pneumonia. If some strains are more apt to infect the lungs, Luby says, that could explain why many Nipah cases here are spread person to person. Epidemiology can't shine a bright enough light on such questions: The number of cases is too small, says Luby. “So we are aggressively seeking strains,” he says.

    In western Bangladesh, the scars from Nipah run deep. Some survivors are never the same. “People suffer personality changes and cognitive deficits. In a number of cases, these deficits have not gotten better,” says Luby. And because there is no vaccine or drug against Nipah, when an outbreak occurs, villagers feel helpless. “Many people think, ‘Medical care can't do anything; it must be supernatural.’ It looks like a curse from Allah,” Luby says. If his team is right, simply preventing date palm sap contamination may be all it takes to banish the curse.

  5. Epidemiology

    A Startling Villain

    1. Richard Stone

    The surprising culprit disease sleuths uncovered when villagers in northeastern Bangladesh began dying 3 years ago sends a chilling warning to regions facing food shortages.


    DHAKA—When villagers in northeastern Bangladesh began dying 3 years ago, disease sleuths were stumped. “Usually we have a good idea of what we're dealing with,” says Emily Gurley, an epidemiologist with the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh, here. “This was not one of those outbreaks.” The surprising culprit they uncovered sends a chilling warning to regions facing food shortages.

    Alarm bells rang on 4 November 2007, when a woman and her 3-year-old child were taken unconscious to a hospital in the Sylhet District, on the Indian border. Early that morning, relatives explained, an older daughter had died; all three had vomited and were restless. Within hours, the mother and younger girl were dead. More cases cropped up; because people were succumbing quickly and without a fever, says Gurley, “we suspected something toxic.”

    After a few days, a common thread began to emerge. Victims had eaten a plant that locals call gaghra shak. University of Dhaka botanist Mohammad Zashim Uddin determined that villagers had consumed seedlings of common cocklebur (Xanthium strumarium). Scouring the literature, the scientists learned that livestock have died after grazing on these seeds and seedlings; there was one report of three children in Turkey who died after eating seeds.

    Villagers in Sylhet said they commonly used leaves or stalks of mature cocklebur to flavor curries or for medicine. That's fine, as the toxin, carboxyatratyloside, is present in large amounts only in seeds and seedlings. But that summer, monsoon flooding had reduced rice yields. Impoverished villagers resorted to eating cocklebur seedlings. “As the flood waters receded, these were the only plants that were sprouting,” says Gurley, lead author of a report on the outbreak in the March 2010 issue of PLoS ONE.

    Scientists briefed villagers on the danger in town hall meetings; newspapers picked up the story, too. All told, 76 people took ill; of 19 deaths, 13 were children under age 10. The unforeseen consequence of food insecurity was a sobering lesson for Gurley. “I tried to imagine what it would be like to prepare a meal of weeds for my two young children because we had no food,” she says. “I was unable to imagine it.”

  6. Particle Physics

    Have Physicists Already Glimpsed Particles of Dark Matter?

    1. Adrian Cho

    The debate over that question suggests that the discovery of dark matter—whenever it comes—will be a murky affair.

    For decades, astronomers' observations have indicated that some elusive “dark matter” provides most of the gravity needed to keep the stars from flying out of the galaxies. In recent years, cosmologists' studies of the afterglow of the big bang, the cosmic microwave background, have indicated that dark matter makes up 80% of all matter in the universe. Now, many physicists expect that within 5 to 10 years they will finally discover particles of dark matter—that is, if they haven't already done so.

    Data from three experiments all suggest that physicists have glimpsed dark matter particles much less massive than they had expected, or so argue Dan Hooper, a theorist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, and his colleagues. Physicists working on other experiments say their results rule out such particles, but Hooper contends that a realistic look at the data and the uncertainties shows no fatal contradictions.

    The case isn't conclusive, Hooper emphasizes. “I think it's fairly compelling,” he says, “but we all agree that we're going to need something else to convince us that what we're seeing is dark matter.” Still, Hooper's work has some physicists nervously tugging at their collars. “When I saw Dan's … analysis I thought, ‘Oh God, I better go back and take a second look [at our data] and make sure I didn't miss anything,’” says Peter Sorensen of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, who worked on an experiment that didn't quite have the sensitivity to test the idea.


    For a decade, physicists with the DAMA/LIBRA detector (above) have claimed an observation. New results may bolster their case, one theorist says.


    Whether or not Hooper's claim stands up, the debate surrounding it underscores two characteristics of the search for dark matter. First, nailing down the particles' properties will likely require connecting many subtle and ambiguous clues. “To discover the nature of dark matter will take a village,” says Rocky Kolb, a cosmologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois. “I don't expect a eureka moment,” when one decisive observation makes everything clear. Second, it's a particularly contentious field. With several relatively small teams (by particle physics standards) competing for a piece of a huge prize, researchers are cagey about discussing their results. And accusations of spinning the data to bolster one claim or another fly this way and that.

    When seeking dark matter particles, physicists have three options. First, they can look for the particles floating by, as our galaxy supposedly lies embedded in a vast dark matter “halo.” Dark matter particles should barely interact with ordinary matter, so such “direct searches” require sensitive detectors housed deep underground, where levels of cosmic rays and ordinary radiation fall but dark matter can penetrate. If a dark matter particle strikes an atomic nucleus, then the recoiling nucleus can produce a tiny pulse of electricity, light, and heat.

    Second, scientists can turn their eyes to the skies. When two dark matter particles collide, they may annihilate each other, producing gamma rays or other familiar particles. “Indirect searches” might spot the annihilations by detecting excess gamma rays coming from places such as the center of our galaxy with instruments like the orbiting Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope or the ground-based High-Energy Stereoscopic System (HESS) in the Khomas Highland of Namibia. Finally, an atom smasher might blast dark matter particles into existence in what's called an “accelerator-based search.”

    All three methods may soon pay off, physicists say. That hope is bolstered by a notion called supersymmetry that solves conceptual problems in particle theorists' “standard model” and posits for every known particle a massive undiscovered partner. Some partners could be weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs) that would make ideal dark matter particles. And if supersymmetry is going to patch up the standard model, then those WIMPs should be observable, Kolb says: “Within the next 10 years, we'll either have very strong evidence of what WIMPs are or—because you can never kill an idea—we'll have given the idea a near-death experience.”

    But if Hooper is right, physicists may have already seen signs of such particles. In the past 6 months, he and his colleagues have laid out their case in four papers posted to the arXiv preprint server ( Their arguments rely on something old, something new, something borrowed, and something circling our blue planet.

    The old is a controversial result from the Dark Matter (DAMA) detector in Italy's subterranean Gran Sasso National Laboratory. In 2000, physicists reported signs of dark matter particles striking nuclei in a 100-kilogram array of sodium iodide crystals to produce flashes of light. The rate of flashes varied over the year, peaking in June and bottoming out in December. That's what should happen if the galaxy spins in a dark matter halo so that the solar system faces a “wind” of dark matter particles blowing at 230 kilometers per second. As Earth's orbit carries the planet into that wind, it should appear to blow 30 kilometers per second faster, increasing the rate of particle detections. The rate should fall as Earth swings away from the wind.

    The team has now traced that signal for 13 years, the last few with the enlarged DAMA/LIBRA detector, and nobody doubts it's there. DAMA researchers say they cannot identify anything other than dark matter particles that could produce a signal like the one they observed. “Nothing has been found or suggested by anyone in over a decade,” says the team's leader, Rita Bernabei of the University of Rome Tor Vergata. But other experiments have seen nothing, and other researchers say the DAMA team hasn't always explained its crosschecks. “In the past, they've been pretty tightlipped with the details,” says Livermore's Sorensen. “It's like they're saying, ‘We saw something. Now give us the Nobel Prize and go away.’”

    Hot spot.

    Fermi (inset) may be seeing gamma rays from dark matter in the galaxy's core.


    In a paper posted on 27 October, Hooper and colleagues argue that new data suggest DAMA may be seeing dark matter after all. The data were first presented at a conference in Marina Del Ray, California, in February 2010 by researchers working with the Coherent Germanium Neutrino Technology (CoGeNT) detector in the Soudan Underground Mine in northern Minnesota. The 440-gram cylinder of germanium produces an electrical signal when struck by a particle, and researchers saw a tantalizing excess of very low-energy events.

    At first, many physicists thought the DAMA and CoGeNT results might agree. Their enthusiasm waned, however, when on a graph of particle mass versus strength of interactions with ordinary matter, the DAMA and CoGeNT results pointed to different regions, suggesting that they could not be signs of the same particles. However, the results depend on so-called quenching factors to relate a signal's size to the energy of the recoiling nucleus, and Hooper realized that the DAMA team used an average value with a tiny uncertainty. So he took from the literature a less-certain low-energy estimate—that's the something borrowed. “You really should include all the uncertainties,” he says. “When you do, these regions get a lot bigger and overlap.”

    “I think [the case is] fairly compelling, but we all agree that we're going to need something else to convince us that what we're seeing is dark matter.”



    Then there are observations from the great blue beyond. In a paper posted on 31 December, Hooper and Lisa Goodenough of New York University examined publicly available data collected by the Fermi satellite, launched in June 2008, as it peered at the galactic center. The pair took into account emissions from the galactic disk and the broad bulge in its middle. They extrapolated from the higher-energy gamma ray spectrum measured by HESS to estimate the spectrum at lower energies expected from the galactic center. But the measured flux of gamma rays exceeded expectations for energies below 7 billion electron-volts (GeV). That excess could signal dark matter annihilations.

    Not everyone is convinced. In fact, Juan Collar of the University of Chicago, who leads the CoGeNT team, says the team isn't claiming a signal. “We're calling it a background,” says Collar, a coauthor on Hooper's October paper. Peter Michelson of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, says Fermi researchers' own analysis of gamma ray emission from the galactic center shows an excess around 3 GeV. But so far it's too small and uncertain to be significant, he says. “The bar must be very high for claimed detections of dark matter,” Michelson says. “We are not there yet.”

    The dark matter particles would not be exactly what many expected, either. The data point to particles weighing about 7 GeV, or seven times as much as a proton. Physicists expect WIMPs to weigh 10 times more. The W in WIMP stands for the weak nuclear force through which the things would interact with ordinary matter. So WIMPs should weigh about as much as the particles that convey that force, the W and Z bosons, which weigh 80 and 91 GeV. Still, in papers posted 2 September and 5 November, Hooper and colleagues argue that a 7-GeV particle f its into established theory and supersymmetry. “They don't have to violate anything sacred” to do it, Kolb says.

    Then there is the question of whether other experiments already skewer Hooper's claim. In September, results from a detector at Gran Sasso called XENON100, which contains 170 kilograms of liquid xenon, seemed to rule out such particles. But Sorensen, who worked on the earlier XENON10 experiment, and a colleague argue in a 31 January preprint that the XENON100 limits rely on an untenable extrapolation of a quenching factor.

    A more serious challenge comes from a preprint posted 10 November by physicists working with the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search II (CDMS II) experiment at Soudan. CDMS II detects pulses of electricity and heat when particles strike ultracold disks of silicon and germanium. Looking at just the heat signals to snare the lowest-energy events and analyzing the data conservatively, CDMS II rules out the particles' existence, says Blas Cabrera, the team leader from Stanford. “We believe it robustly rules it out,” he says. “It's not even close.” Hooper acknowledges that the CDMS II limit imposes a constraint but says “there's still wiggle room” for light dark matter particles.

    The debate over Hooper's claim reveals the contentious nature of the field, in which pretty much every team draws fire for overstating what its data show. For example, Collar isn't always as conservative as he professes to be about interpreting CoGeNT's excess, Sorensen says: “He may tell you that it's a background, but let me tell you, when he gives a talk he doesn't try to dissuade theorists from interpreting it as a signal.”

    What would clinch the case for a light dark matter particle? Little doubt could remain if CoGeNT saw an annual cycle that matches DAMA's, Hooper says. But Collar won't be convinced of any sighting until the purported particles also emerge in collisions at the world's largest atom smasher, the Large Hadron Collider at the European particle physics laboratory, CERN, near Geneva, Switzerland. “If people don't see it in accelerator experiments and other ways, I'm just not going to believe it,” he says.

    Even if his claim falls apart, Hooper says he won't regret having made it. “I enjoy taking something that might be true and exploring it rather than working all the time on something I know to be true,” he says. He's also had the pleasure of stirring up the community, which seems fairly easy to do with expectations running so high.

  7. Profile: Helga Nowotny

    Keeping Europe's Basic Research Agency on Track

    1. Martin Enserink

    Helga Nowotny played a key role in the successful start of the European Research Council. As its president, the Austrian sociologist still has two major tasks ahead of her.

    On the move.

    Nowotny has a busy travel schedule, but her office is in Vienna, where she was born.


    VIENNA—There were a few times when Helga Nowotny considered throwing in the towel and abandoning the fledgling European Research Council (ERC) she'd helped create. The thought would typically arise when she couldn't bear the weight of the Brussels bureaucracy anymore.

    In 2007, for example, the ERC's scientific council, of which she was then vice-chair, wanted to fly several hundred young applicants for the first round of grants to Brussels for interviews. Weeks before the invitations were to go out, the European Commission's (EC's) legal service said no: E.U. rules did not allow payment of E.U. travel money to grant applicants. “We never saw these lawyers,” Nowotny says. “We called them the secret legal service. It was maddening.”

    The lawyers eventually caved in—but not until Nowotny and her fellow council members arranged a meeting with EC President José Manuel Barroso. The incident was just one of many frustrating episodes. Throughout the birth and the 4-year existence of the ERC, scientists' ideas on how to run a funding agency for creative frontier science have clashed with the EC's rules for managing an international bureaucracy. For the scientific council—a group of 22 heavyweights from across Europe, which Nowotny now chairs—it has been a steep learning curve and a source of deep frustration. “We were naïve,” Nowotny says. “We got caught in this web of rules.”

    Nowotny, a petite, 73-year-old sociologist of science with the energy of someone half her age, hung in there, and in most cases, eventually got her way. The ERC, which has disbursed almost €3 billion since 2007, has become popular with scientists and is considered a success story in European research policy.

    But Nowotny—who works at an office close to the University of Vienna and Sigmund Freud's old apartment—still has two major tasks to accomplish before she steps down in 2013, at the end of the ERC's first 7-year mandate. One is an overhaul of the organizational structure that she hopes will put it on more solid ground and wrest power away from the officials and politicians of the EC. The other is a substantial hike in the ERC budget for the period from 2014 to 2020. Her opening gambit: a more than 200% increase from the current level.

    Those are tall orders, but insiders say few are better placed to accomplish them than Nowotny. “She's extremely capable and she has an excellent political sense,” says Dutch physicist and E.U. science policy expert Peter Tindemans. “She's very well networked and very effective. At meetings, she's always going from person to person, talking, talking, talking,” says Frank Gannon, a veteran of European science administration who now heads the Queensland Institute of Medical Research in Brisbane, Australia. Nowotny is “strong and powerful,” he adds.


    Helga Nowotny was born and raised here, except for a high school year spent in Wisconsin, where she fell in love with 1950s American youth culture and learned to play the saxophone. Back in Vienna, she studied law, found a job at a criminology institute, and obtained her law degree in 1959. Then her husband's career took her to New York, where she studied sociology at Columbia University. Giants of the field like Paul Lazarsfeld—an Austrian Jew who had left Vienna in the 1930s—and Robert Merton were her teachers.

    After getting her Ph.D. in 1969, she specialized in the sociology of science, a field also known as science and technology studies, or STS. She has co-authored more than a dozen books but is best known for her contribution to The New Production of Knowledge, a 1994 book written with British science policy analyst Michael Gibbons and others. Its thesis was that traditional science was being replaced by what the authors called Mode 2: research driven by applications and societal questions, less organized by discipline and hierarchy, but based on collaborations in flexible teams.

    The book was controversial; critics said Mode 2 had always existed, or that it wasn't clear whether it was an empirical description of reality or rather a model to follow. But the book cemented Nowotny's reputation as the “grand lady of STS,” says sociologist Pieter Leroy of Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands—even though her sharp pen has made her a few enemies as well.

    After she retired as a professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich in 2002, Nowotny became one of the ERC's midwives. She was on the 2003 blue-ribbon panel that first concluded that Europe needed an agency for fundamental, curiosity-driven, bottom-up research. Until then, the E.U.'s Framework Programme (FP) primarily funded large collaborations, centering on applications and requiring groups from many E.U. countries. The ERC would be different because it would fund individual scientists and its sole criterion would be excellence.

    Between 2001 and 2006, Nowotny chaired the 45-member European Research Advisory Board (EURAB), which issued several ringing endorsements of the idea. She kept on board EURAB's industry representatives, who were lukewarm, and helped to win over Philippe Busquin, then Europe's commissioner for research. “She speaks everybody's language,” says French astronomer and former EURAB member Catherine Cesarsky. In 2005, Nowotny joined the embryonic ERC's scientific council as vice-chair; she took over as chair last year, when Imperial College London molecular biologist Fotis Kafatos stepped down. “She seems to be having her third youth,” says Leroy.

    Nowotny helped convince the council that the ERC should cover not just life sciences and physics but also the social sciences and humanities—an unusual concept in the Anglo-Saxon world. “We fund research in the 19th century, German conception of Wissenchaft, which includes everything,” she says. She had proposed that 18% of the budget be spent on social sciences and humanities; the council rounded it down to 15%.

    Poised for a boost?

    Nowotny hopes that after Framework Programme 7 ends in 2013, the ERC budget will double to at least €3.4 billion per year.


    Her passion for the ERC stems in part from her feeling as a true European. She has lived and worked as a scientist in Hungary, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland. She moved back to Vienna in 2004—this time, for good, she says. She's still ambivalent about her hometown, however; she loves Vienna's quality of life and the arts scene but abhors its provincial, xenophobic streak.

    A frenetic traveler, Nowotny says she often makes multipurpose trips, such as last month, when an old friend retired at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The university offered to organize an “ERC day,” during which grantees presented their work and the Weizmann Institute of Science organized a dinner for her. She flies to Brussels once or twice a month, because despite the ERC's initial success, Nowotny isn't finished.

    Tripling the budget

    Overhauling the ERC's awkward organizational structure is important because it hampers the mission, Nowotny says. The ban on inviting applicants was just one example. EC rules demanded that grant reviewers, some of them world-famous scientists, fax in a copy of their passports to prove their identity. The scientific council wanted to give grantees credit cards for expenses; EC lawyers said it couldn't be done. The basic problem, according to a 2009 panel: The scientific council sets the policy but is dependent on the EC to get it executed (Science, 31 July 2009, p. 523).

    The situation has definitely improved, Nowotny says. Since last year, day-to-day management rests with a so-called Executive Agency, a structure in Brussels that operates at arm's length from the EC and is more flexible. Nowotny praises its “highly professional” staff members and says working relationships are much better now. But a world-class funding agency can't be dependent on the goodwill of civil servants, she adds.

    That's why, at Nowotny's request, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, the current research commissioner, has set up a task force to devise a new structure within the E.U.'s tight constraints. Reforming the Executive Agency is one option, but lawyers are also studying a paragraph added to the E.U. Treaty last year stipulating that the union “shall establish the measures necessary for the implementation of the European research area.” It might allow abandoning the agency and starting something entirely new. The task force is chaired by Robert-Jan Smits, the EC's director general for research, whom Nowotny finds easy to work with and understanding of the ERC's needs.

    Her other big job is securing a permanent budget hike. The ERC was allotted just €7.5 billion out of the €51 billion total for FP7, which spans 2007–13. The amount actually spent is ramping up as the years go by and will reach €1.7 billion by 2013. Nowotny wants at least double that—€3.4 billion per year—from 2014 on. That would be €24 billion over the entire 7-year period of FP8, a tripling of the budget. Nowotny knows that's a lot to ask for from the EC, but she was delighted when Geoghegan-Quinn called herself “probably the ERC's greatest fan” in a recent interview with Science (18 February, p. 844).

    Still, given the economic downturn and the fiscal crises in several European countries, Gannon says he believes that such a drastic increase is unlikely to happen. He cautions that countries that fare less well in the ERC's competitions—which are mostly in eastern and southern Europe—may start wavering in their support. To keep them involved, he has suggested that the ERC create a special competition, still using excellence as a criterion but aimed at countries that spend less on science.

    That's anathema to Nowotny. Other parts of the Framework Programme address the needs of lagging countries, she says; besides, the ERC is a stimulus for countries to reform their universities and make them more competitive. “Behind closed doors, politicians and scientists in those countries tell me: Don't change the system,” she says.

    For similar reasons, she's adamantly against affirmative action for women, despite their embarrassing lack of success at the ERC. Of the latest round of Advanced Grants, for established scientists, 9.4% went to women—down from 15% in 2009. An ERC “gender equality plan,” published earlier this month, promises some mitigating steps, such as encouraging women to apply for grants and ensuring that review panels are balanced.

    But what Nowotny won't do—as much as the skewed sex ratio pains her—is lower the bar for women. “It would go against the ERC's core principles,” she says. “We can't do it.” And given her strength and power, that's likely to be the last word.