News this Week

Science  18 Mar 2011:
Vol. 331, Issue 6023, pp. 1370
  1. Around the World

    1 - Silver Spring, Maryland
    First Lupus Drug Approved in 50 years
    2 - South Africa
    Old Satellite Dishes Look to the Stars
    3 - Brussels, Belgium
    E.U. Patents for Embryonic Stem Cell Tech in Doubt
    4 - Torres Strait, Australia
    British Museum Returns Human Remains to Australian Aborigines
    5 - Washington, D.C.
    Flap Over Shipwreck Exhibit
    6 - Geneva, Switzerland
    WHO Gets Mixed Reviews for H1N1 Response
    7 - Washington, D.C.
    Overhaul of U.S. Patent System Advances
    8 - Fukushima Prefecture, Japan
    Earthquake-Shattered Japan Confronts Nuclear Crisis

    Silver Spring, Maryland

    First Lupus Drug Approved In 50 years

    The approval was as symbolic as it was scientific. Last week, for the first time since 1955, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave the green light to a treatment for lupus. The therapy, called belimumab and marketed as Benlysta, is one of the first to be developed based on human genome research. It is far from perfect: FDA estimated that about 11 people need to get the monoclonal antibody for them to benefit. (The company's estimate was more favorable.)

    Human Genome Sciences developed belimumab after it discovered a new protein in 1996 called BLyS, which helps regulate B cells. When BLyS levels rise in lupus patients, the disease often worsens.

    More than two dozen lupus patients and advocates testified at a November FDA advisory meeting to discuss the therapy, pleading for approval. “Benlysta may not be the magic to help Aiden,” said one woman, whose 17-year-old daughter has severe lupus, “but by approving it, you will be giving hope to those affected with lupus and their families.”

    South Africa

    Old Satellite Dishes Look to the Stars

    When radio astronomers map the world's arrays of dishes that work together to survey the skies, Africa is almost blank. Now astronomers in South Africa hope to fill that gap by converting old telecommunications dishes, which are being dismantled as fiber-optic cables are laid, into radio telescopes to produce a low-cost, continent-spanning array.


    The group, which includes scientists at South Africa's Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project office, whose telescopes are shown here, thinks that about 20 viable dishes are sprinkled over the continent. Once commandeered, the dishes will need new detectors and probably adjustments to their steering motors. South African astronomers are already competing with Australia to host the potentially gap-filling SKA, which will comprise thousands of receivers spread over thousands of kilometers. “We thought, why wait for SKA? Why not see what we can do now?” says Justin Jonas, an associate director in the project office.

    Brussels, Belgium

    E.U. Patents for Embryonic Stem Cell Tech in Doubt

    Inventions involving cells that are derived from human embryonic stem (hES) cells are not patentable, according to a preliminary opinion by the European Court of Justice. In the 10 March opinion, Advocate General M. Yves Bot said although hES cells are not embryos, because they are derived from human embryos, patents involving them are not allowed under E.U. law.

    The case involves a German patent granted to neuroscientist Oliver Brüstle in 1999 covering a method for turning mammalian ES cells into neurons. In 2004, Greenpeace challenged the patent on the grounds that a 1998 E.U. directive on biotechnology patents prohibits patents on “uses of human embryos for industrial or commercial purposes.”

    Bot's opinion is not binding on the court's judges, who are expected to issue their ruling in the coming months. One of Brustle's attorneys, Clara Sattler de Sousa e Brito, notes that four E.U. member countries and the European Commission submitted legal opinions that found that inventions involving already-derived hES cells should be patentable. The full court “would have a hard time completely ignoring them,” she says.

    Torres Strait, Australia

    British Museum Returns Human Remains to Australian Aborigines

    The decorated skulls, teeth, and other remains of 119 ancient humans will be returned to their homeland in the Torres Strait Islands between Australia and Papua New Guinea, according to an agreement signed by the trustees of the Natural History Museum in London last week. The remains were originally traded to missionaries, then to officers and naturalists aboard Naval Survey ships in the early to mid-19th century. During 18 months of negotiations with Aboriginal residents of the Torres islands and the Australian government, museum scientists explained the importance of the remains, which, as part of the museum's huge collection of human specimens, have helped trace patterns of migration between ancient populations.

    To ensure that the remains stay in good condition, and to keep the science going, the museum has offered to train an islander to handle and study the specimens in London before the move. The museum also reserved the right to retain the collection if it appears likely to be destroyed.

    Washington, D.C.

    Flap Over Shipwreck Exhibit

    Archaeologists are criticizing the ethics of a planned Smithsonian Institution exhibit, Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds, slated to open in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in 2012. The exhibit is based on artifacts salvaged in the late 1990s by a private company, Seabed Explorations GbR, from an Arab dhow that sank in the Java Sea in the 9th century C.E.


    Critics say that the company did not observe professional archaeological standards while recovering the artifacts, which include glazed ceramics (pictured), lead ingots, and intricately worked vessels of silver and gold from the Tang dynasty. Many archaeologists also say that the later sale of the objects to another company for a reported $32 million contravenes their field's ethical guidelines.

    In recent weeks, three major American archaeological associations and three of the Smithsonian's own research organizations have written to Smithsonian Institution Secretary Wayne Clough to oppose the exhibition. But Julian Raby, director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, remains a firm supporter of the exhibit, noting that no laws were broken during the salvage operation.

    Geneva, Switzerland

    WHO Gets Mixed Reviews For H1N1 Response

    Eight months after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the swine flu pandemic officially over, an independent expert group has given the global health agency a decidedly mixed evaluation of how it handled the episode. The criticism comes in a draft report by a panel of 25 outside experts convened by WHO to review both the organization's response to the pandemic and its new International Health Regulations (IHR), which mandate that countries cooperate more closely with the agency during health threats that cross borders.

    The report, made public by WHO on 10 March, knocks WHO for causing confusion about the severity of the pandemic and for “numerous systemic difficulties” that slowed the production of the vaccine and delivery to poor countries.

    The panel praised the IHR—which only went into effect in 2007 and had never before had a real-world test—and WHO for rapidly kicking into action a global surveillance network, helping countries track the virus and contain its spread. But it warned that had this virus caused more severe disease, “the unavoidable reality is that tens of millions of people would be at risk.”

    Washington, D.C.

    Overhaul of U.S. Patent System Advances

    The U.S. Congress is moving toward a new patent standard that most of the world uses already. Senators Patrick Leahy (D–VT) and Orrin Hatch (R–UT) last week persuaded the Senate to vote overwhelmingly (95-5) for their Patent Reform Bill (S. 23), which would award patents to the first person to file a valid application on an invention, instead of the person who claims to have conceived it first.

    Advocates say the change would make the U.S. system more objective and predictable. The bill also would add a new procedure for challenging patents after they've been awarded and would create an independent fund backed by fees to pay for the work of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, with the goal of insulating the agency's budget from congressional politics. (Partly because of funding problems, the patent office has a backlog of more than 700,000 applications.) The action now moves to the House of Representatives, where Judiciary Committee Chair Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), who favors the first-to-file standard, says a reform bill will be introduced “this month.”

    Fukushima Prefecture, Japan

    Earthquake-Shattered Japan Confronts Nuclear Crisis


    As Japan reeled from the devastation wrought by last week's magnitude-9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami, the country faced another potential disaster: a nuclear fuel meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power plant 220 kilometers north of Tokyo. After generators powering the cooling systems were knocked out, probably by the tsunami, hydrogen explosions on 12 and 14 March destroyed the outer containment buildings of two reactors, while a third reactor lost coolant. This satellite photograph shows the stricken reactor complex shortly after the second explosion. On 15 March, as Science went to press, an explosion and fire in an area where highly radioactive used fuel rods are kept cool heightened fears of the massive release of radioactivity. Japanese media have reported that the Fukushima plants were built to withstand an earthquake of magnitude 8.2. For more on the earthquake, see p. 1375 and

  2. Random Sample

    They Said It

    “You have only got to look at the distress caused in these families to see the need for this.”

    —Douglass Turnbull of Newcastle University, welcoming last week's launch of a U.K. review of an IVF technique developed by his team. The technique would prevent severe inherited diseases by transferring parental DNA from a fertilized egg with defective mitochondria to another woman's healthy egg, resulting in an embryo with DNA from three different people.

    From Cells to Celluloid


    Five years ago, Australian screenwriter Eron Sheean spent several months at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany, as an artist in residence, “getting a sense of the place,” he says. Now he's back with a film crew and actors (including Perfume's Karoline Herfurth) to shoot a feature film there.

    Errors of the Human Body “is a little science fiction and a little science fact,” says Sheean. In the film, a Canadian geneticist named Geoffrey Burton moves to a Dresden lab determined to cure the rare disorder that took his child's life. Research is Burton's way of “solving his emotional problem,” Sheean says, and it eventually makes him paranoid. “I see it as a character drama with elements of a thriller,” he says. A “mood teaser” on the film's Web site ( shows scientists peering through microscopes in darkened labs; fluorescent lights blink on as a figure stalks the institute at night.

    Sheean hopes to debut the film at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. Shooting at the lab has gone smoothly, says producer Darryn Welch. “We're cheating in a few areas—we don't have access to the BSL-4 [biosafety level 4] rooms—but other than that we have access to the whole place.” One change: replacing the lab's mice with axolotls, eerie-looking white salamanders known for their ability to regenerate lost limbs. As for how the institute's scientists—and the film's de facto extras—have adjusted to life on set, says Welch, “I'm sure they've seen stranger things through a microscope.”

    By the Numbers

    80 million — Hectares of surface freshwater in Canada's boreal forest, the largest supply in the world, according to a report by the Pew Environment Group, which is calling for 50% of the forest to be protected.

    €153 billion — Estimated contribution of insect pollinators to global food production, according to a United Nations report examining threats to honeybees in different regions.

    10 — Number of last year's “hot papers” that were penned by genomicist Eric Lander, the most by any researcher, according to Thomson Reuters. About 0.1% of scientific papers are deemed “hot,” meaning they garner an exceptional slew of citations soon after publication.

  3. Newsmakers

    Nuclear Watchdog to Run For Egypt's Presidency


    Mohamed ElBaradei, former chief of the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency, has announced his bid for the presidency of Egypt. Speaking on Egyptian television last week, ElBaradei said, “When the door of presidential nominations opens, I intend to nominate myself.” He emphasized that he would run only if truly democratic elections were held, and urged that a scheduled 19 March referendum on constitutional amendments, set by military rulers, be postponed or canceled in favor of drafting a new constitution.

    ElBaradei emerged as a central figure among opposition leaders during the protests that led to the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak (Science, 11 February, p. 659). A lawyer by training, ElBaradei shared the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize with the International Atomic Energy Agency, for which he served as director general from 1997 to 2009, for contributions to nuclear security.

    New JAMA Editor-in-Chief


    A Boston pediatrician, Howard Bauchner, will be the next editor-in-chief of the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), taking the reins this summer from Catherine DeAngelis. DeAngelis, who may be best known for tackling conflicts of interest in scientific publishing, announced last fall that she would step down after 11 years.

    Bauchner has spent the bulk of his career at the Boston University School of Medicine, and his research has focused on improving the quality of health research and clinical trials. He has published on everything from discordance in how children are screened for developmental delays to how to prevent prescribing errors in a pediatric emergency department. Bauchner is currently the editor-in-chief of Archives of Disease in Childhood. In a statement, he said he wants “to make sure JAMA contributes to the discussions in American medicine,” including health care reform and genetics.

  4. Physics

    Quantum Mechanics Braces for the Ultimate Test

    1. Zeeya Merali*

    Most accept that the quantum world is a bizarre place, but this has yet to be proved beyond all doubt. Quantum cryptography is now providing the incentive for reality's toughest test.

    Long shot.

    Researchers beam a succession of entangled photons from a telescope in La Palma 144 kilometers to the neighboring island of Tenerife to test quantum mechanics.


    The 2010 Soccer World Cup in South Africa marked a milestone for Nicolas Gisin, although he is not a sportsman and his national team, Switzerland, did not win. A physicist by trade, Gisin views the championship with pride because it was the first international public event to employ an ultra-tight security system, devised by his Geneva-based company ID Quantique, that harnesses the weird workings of quantum physics to protect sensitive information. Now Gisin, of the University of Geneva, is on a quest to build the ultimate quantum cryptography system: one that users could trust implicitly, even if they had bought it from their worst enemy. First, however, Gisin and others have to plug a few stubborn holes in one of the bedrocks of modern physics.

    Quantum mechanics is one of physics' most resounding successes, accurately describing everything from the internal workings of the atom to the structure of DNA and the makeup of neutron stars. It's spawned a wealth of technology, too, including electronics, computers, lasers, fiber optics, and nuclear power. But there's a fly in the ointment: The microscopic world that quantum mechanics describes is a bizarre place where nothing is certain and the act of observation changes things. Some physicists over the past century, including Einstein, have refused to accept that this is the only possible description of reality. Over the past 40 years, that description has been put to the test in a series of elegant experiments that have shown it to be true. Although most physicists find the results convincing, these experiments did skirt around a few tiny loopholes by which reality could have fooled physicists into thinking that quantum mechanics paints a complete picture.

    It's these loopholes that Gisin's team and a number of other groups around the world are competing to close. The winners will have the satisfaction of settling one of the most stubborn problems in physics. As a bonus, they will also hold the key to the perfect quantum security system. “This race is on because the group that performs the first loophole-free test will have an experiment that stands in history,” Gisin says.

    Curiouser and curiouser

    Despite its near-ubiquity in physics, quantum mechanics retains its ability to make heads spin, says Antonio Acín, a collaborator of Gisin's at the Institute of Photonic Sciences in Barcelona, Spain. Two of its most mind-scrambling features lie at the heart of quantum cryptography. The first, known as superposition, tells you that before you look, an object such as an electron can exist in two different places at the same time, or simultaneously hold two mutually exclusive properties—such as having a high or a low energy state. Only when someone measures it are the electron's multiple personalities forced to snap into one identity, with a single location and a definite energy state. Before measurement, there's no way to predict with certainty which identity it will choose; the outcome is always random.

    The second property, known as nonlocality, is even stranger. It says that if, for example, two particles can be entangled—twinned together in the lab in such a way that when measured their properties correlate—then they will remain entangled even if vast distances separate them at the time of measurement. Because superposition dictates that properties don't take a fixed value until measured, one particle of the pair must somehow “know” the result of its twin's measurement. “It's as shocking as taking two dice to opposite ends of the universe and rolling them simultaneously, only to find that each time they always land on the same number,” Acín says.

    Toward the end of the 20th century, physicists realized that these mind-boggling properties could be harnessed to shore up the transmission of sensitive messages across the Internet. Standard cryptographic techniques work by scrambling transmissions with a secret “key”—a string of zeros and ones—that the sender and the receiver share. The key is generated by a computer algorithm, but if that is cracked, an eavesdropper can read the message.

    Throwing in entanglement makes the eavesdropper's task much tougher, however. Suppose you entangle several pairs of particles and give both the sender and the receiver one member of each pair. Just before transmitting a message, the sender can measure the energy levels of his or her particles and assign either a zero or a one depending on the value. The resulting string of ones and zeroes can serve as a cryptographic key. By performing similar measurements on the particles' counterparts, the receiver will get an identical key, even from halfway across the universe. Because the outcome of quantum measurements can't be predicted, the key will be truly random. What's more, because quantum superpositions are disrupted whenever you look at them, any eavesdroppers trying to read the key beforehand will leave telltale evidence of their presence.

    Gisin's ID Quantique is one of a handful of companies that already employ such quantum tricks in commercial applications. But Gisin and Acín want to beef up security further, producing a system so trustworthy users could buy it as a black box from a hacker and still be confident that the key it generated was secure thanks to its quantum origins. “Without that assurance, you cannot be certain that your black box isn't just spewing out a copy of a string of zeros and ones, preprogrammed by the hacker,” Acín says.

    Their work is based on the idea of device-independent quantum cryptography put forward in 1991 by physicist Artur Ekert, now at the Centre for Quantum Technologies in Singapore. Ekert realized that, in principle, the same tests that physicists used to prove nonlocality in the lab could be incorporated into a cryptographic system. In 2009, Gisin, Acín, and colleagues proposed a practical setup for “a box that certifies its quantum credentials at the push of a button, each time it produces a key,” Acín says. Last year, Acín and colleagues took a tantalizing step toward making such a box by demonstrating that the tests could be integrated into a machine that generates random numbers using entanglement.

    But the new security protocol is only as tight as the tests historically used to prove nonlocality—and that's where things get a little hairy. “Those were fantastic, beautiful experiments, but they had some shortcomings,” explains Anton Zeilinger, an expert on entanglement at the University of Vienna. The tests were originally inspired by a theoretical challenge that Einstein threw down against quantum mechanics—but it's a challenge that, technically, has not yet quite been met.


    Einstein's bugbear

    Nonlocality famously galled Einstein, who derided the idea that two particles could inexplicably and instantaneously coordinate their properties as “spooky action at a distance.” In 1935, along with Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen, Einstein described a thought experiment that sought to show that nonlocality was absurd and quantum mechanics could never provide the final word on how the world works. Instead, he argued, the behavior of entangled particles could be explained far less mysteriously if they were preprogrammed by a set of unseen blueprints—or “hidden variables.”

    Einstein's position is known as local realism: Particles can't communicate instantaneously over vast distances, and their properties are real and there all the time, irrespective of measurement. Thirty years after Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen posed their thought experiment, another physicist tried to turn it into a real one. In 1964, John Bell, a British physicist working at the CERN particle physics lab near Geneva, defined the maximum level of correlations between two entangled particles that hidden variables could explain. If a correlation exceeded Bell's limits, then local realism was violated and reality was far spookier than nonquantum physics allowed. “When I read John Bell's paper, it was like love at first sight,” says Alain Aspect of the Institute of Optics in Palaiseau, France.

    In the 1980s, Aspect and his colleagues set up an experiment in which pairs of photons—single particles of light—were entangled in such a way that no matter which direction they chose to measure their polarization (which could be either “parallel” or “perpendicular” to the direction of measurement), they always tallied.

    Just as a police officer interrogating two suspects must keep them separated so that they do not confer, Aspect had to close any “communication loopholes” in the test. This meant ensuring that the two photons were far enough apart and that his measurements were performed fast enough that the pair could not influence each other without exchanging information faster than the speed of light, the universe's speed limit. Aspect did this by using a fast generator that changed the direction in which to measure the photons' polarizations while the photons were flying away from each other, so that they were too distant to communicate their results when the choice was made. Even with this restriction in place, Aspect found that the polarizations of the particles matched up to a degree that violated Bell's inequalities and so contradicted local realism.

    The now-celebrated Aspect experiment, along with similar ones, helped to write nonlocality into physics textbooks. But there is another loophole that those experiments did not close. The trouble is that photons are slippery customers: small, fast, and notoriously hard to detect. Typically, if five photons are hurled at a detector, it will register only one. That means that physicists can trust that Bell's bound has been violated only if they assume that the photons caught provide a fair representation of how all the photons in the experiment behaved—much the way exit polls at voting booths predict election results.

    Most physicists accept that the fair-sampling assumption is a good one. “It's unlikely that nature is so malicious that it conspires with the apparatus to hold back particular photons just to fool us into thinking that quantum mechanics works,” Gisin says.

    Nonetheless, physicists hate loose ends, so the chase to find a perfect, loophole-free test has continued over the past decade. “Until the test is done, we can't honestly say that hidden variables have been ruled out—even if the consensus is they don't make sense—because we haven't proved it,” says Harald Weinfurter of the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, Germany.

    The detection loophole is also bad news for cryptographers. While it remains open, a Bell test cannot certify that a black box is working according to quantum rules. “A hacker—by definition—is malicious enough to exploit the detection loophole to fool us into thinking that a quantum process has taken place,” Gisin says. As a result, Acín adds, “suddenly, this most philosophical of experiments, the loophole-free Bell test, has a practical purpose, with commercial rewards.” The first group to perform it will immediately be in place to make a device-independent quantum cryptographic system.

    Closing the loops

    With their eyes on the prize, a group led by Paul Kwiat of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, has been collaborating with engineers at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Boulder, Colorado, to develop photon detectors with near 100% efficiency. “Those are good enough to perform a loophole-free test,” says team member Joseph Altepeter of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. The struggle now is to chain these components together with optical fibers across a large enough distance to keep the communication loophole shut. “Essentially the pieces are all in place, but the devil is in the detail,” Altepeter says.

    Meanwhile, Weinfurter and his colleagues are tackling the problem from an entirely different angle. They were inspired by an experiment, carried out in 2001 by David Wineland's team at NIST, that successfully closed the detection loophole using atoms rather than photons. Because atoms are far more hefty than flighty photons, Wineland realized, they are less likely to escape the apparatus, so they provide a potentially perfect detection rate. The team performed a Bell test that compared how often the energy levels—high or low—of electrons in entangled pairs of atoms matched up. Once again, quantum mechanics was hailed victorious, as the level of correlations exceeded Bell's inequalities. But it was not a resounding win because the atoms were close enough together to have influenced each other. In other words, the researchers had closed the detection loophole but in the process were forced to leave the communication loophole open.

    Earlier quantum tests “had some shortcomings.”



    Building on Wineland's experiment, Weinfurter's group is attempting to tie up both loopholes at once, by weaving photons together with atoms to reap the benefits of both. The idea is to start with two initially unentangled atoms in separate laboratories—ideally more than 100 meters apart, so that the atoms cannot influence each other over the course of the test. Each atom emits a photon; the two photons are captured and transmitted along optical fibers to a third location, where they are entangled. “The magic is that as soon as the photons are entangled, their parent atoms automatically become entangled, too,” explains Weinfurter's collaborator Marek Zukowski at the University of Gdansk in Poland.

    These newly entangled atoms can then take the Bell test, with a perfect detection rate, while sitting far enough apart to keep the communication loophole closed. “The setup is being tried in two neighboring labs right now,” Zukowski says. “When we are happy that everything is working, we will try it in two distant labs.”

    If Weinfurter can simultaneously close the detection and communication loopholes, then the verification of Bell's tests of quantum mechanics will be complete. Or will it? In the most mind-bending possible loophole of all, Bell and others have raised the possibility that experimenters may not have the free will to carry out the experiments anyway. Hidden variables, Zeilinger explains, might also be either shackling the hands of experimenters or controlling their apparatus to somehow manipulate the choice of which photon properties are measured. This could distort the results, making it appear that quantum mechanics is valid when it is not.

    In a virtuoso display of long-distance entanglement, Zeilinger and colleagues ruled out this possibility. They generated entangled photon pairs at an observatory in La Palma in the Canary Islands and then fired one of them through the night sky to the neighboring island of Tenerife, where it was caught in a telescope belonging to the European Space Agency. They used random number generators to decide which measurements to make on the photons while they were in flight. But crucially, they placed a random number generator at a third, distant location on La Palma to ensure that its output could not have been influenced by hidden variables produced alongside the photons.

    “We confirmed that Bell's limit was violated, while closing both the communication and, for the first time, the freedom-of-choice loopholes,” Zeilinger says. Gisin commends the group for closing this little-known loophole. But he adds that it remains possible that hidden variables produced before the experiment began—perhaps even reaching as far back as the big bang—are predetermining all our actions. “It will be impossible to test against that type of superdeterminism,” he says.

    With quantum cryptography injecting momentum, Zukowski thinks the race to close all the loopholes simultaneously will soon be over. “Conservatively, it could take another 5 years to complete, but it could also be done tomorrow,” he says. “We're at the stage where everyone is scared to read their competitors' papers, in case they find they have been beaten. The only real question is: Who will win?”

    • * Zeeya Merali is a freelance writer based in London

  5. Conservation Ecology

    Embracing Invasives

    1. Gaia Vince*

    The Galápagos, one of biodiversity's hot spots, has become a test case for a controversial approach to ecosystem management.


    GALÁPAGOS, ECUADOR—Driving uphill on Santa Cruz, one of the four inhabited islands of the Galápagos, Mark Gardener pauses to let a lumbering giant tortoise heave its 400-kilogram bulk across the tarmac. Here in the cloud forest, Galápagos finches chatter in a pale-barked, evergreen scalesia tree, its branches laden with epiphytes and lichens. Below are coastal mangroves and the golden prickly pear of the arid lowlands; in the highlands above us, the fog-laden air is wetter and the undergrowth, denser. Among a waist-high tangle of brambles and ferns, a rare rusty-leafed miconia shrub fights through, holding up its lilac flowers like a flag of defiance against the introduced weeds that threaten its once-ubiquitous existence.

    Much of the fauna and flora of these islands is unique, but introduced species are taking over. These humid highlands are now a hodgepodge woodland of nonnatives, such as guava and passion fruit, and endemics, such as scalesia and guayabillo, all broken up and intruded on by agricultural plots.

    Gardener has spent the past 2 decades trying to “purify” the islands' ecosystems. But now he's changing tack. “As scientists and conservationists, we need to recognize that we've failed: Galápagos will never be pristine,” says Gardener, head of restoration at the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS), which coordinates most of the conservation and research on the Galápagos. “It's time to embrace the aliens.”

    The sun-aged Australian researcher, with his russet beard, open sandals, and shell-pendant necklace, holds up a thorny creeper with its small, sour fruit—a transplant from Asia—and smiles sadly: “Blackberries now cover more than 30,000 hectares here, and our studies show that island biodiversity is reduced by at least 50% when it's present. But as far as I am concerned, it's now a Galápagos native, and it's time we accepted it as such.”

    Charles Darwin noted 17 introduced species on his visit in 1835, just 3 years after humans first started permanently living on the islands. Today, humans have intentionally or unintentionally introduced about 900 plant species into the Galápagos.

    Rallying to the endemics' cause, conservationists, led by CDRS scientists, have spent the past 50 years attempting to remove introduced species and restore the islands' flora and fauna to prehuman days. There have been some successes: Goats have been eliminated from several islands.

    Shifting ecosystems.

    Given the loss of the Scalesia pedunculata cloud forest (above and top), Mark Gardener (left) favors accepting nonnative species.


    But in the battle for survival of the species, the aliens have been winning. The attempt by conservationists to eradicate blackberry, guava, and 34 other invasive plant species has cost more than $1 million and succeeded in eliminating just four. The most invasive and problematic of these aliens—blackberry and guava—have developed into forests where nothing else grows, birds cannot nest, and even insects are rare. As a result, the cloud forest's Scalesia pedunculata, for example, has been reduced by 97% on Santa Cruz alone.

    The main reason for this failure, Gardener says, is that invasive plants are far more competitive than native plants. Seeds of invasive species, such as blackberries (Rubus niveus, also known as the Mysore, or hill, raspberry) are long-lived and accumulate in high numbers in the soil. “Many restoration activities fail because the disturbance they create actually stimulates these seeds to germinate, so we are stuck in a vicious cycle,” he says.

    Now, Gardener is saying, enough. He points out that despite nonnative invasions, for example, the Galápagos remains one of the most pristine ecosystems left on our planet, boasting 95% of its original biodiversity. So he is joining forces with a group of maverick ecologists who for the past 5 years have promoted the idea that the addition of nonnative species to natives in a region leads to “novel” or “hybrid” ecosystems that have ecological value and may be worthy of conservation. “We need to find ways to optimize these new ecosystems,” Gardener says.

    In practice, this means accepting benign species, such as banana, as “new natives.” Instead of trying to get rid of blackberry, guava, and other invasives, the new goal is simply to limit their numbers and spread so they no longer overwhelm native vegetation, possibly through biological control.

    Several other places are trying to do likewise. In Panama and Puerto Rico, conservationists have decided not to fight teak and the African tulip tree, for example, but to value them as part of the changing world we live in. Next month, Hawaii joins their ranks, with a $1.6 million grant to look at preserving native species within a hybrid ecosystem on a military reservation. In addition, the U.S. Forest Service has concluded that restoring Hawaii's tropical forests to their historic state is “no longer financially or physically feasible.”

    But Gardener's decision to abandon the fight to preserve and restore indigenous-only species here has caused shock waves among the venerable members of the Charles Darwin Foundation, the 50-year-old organization that runs CDRS, with many of the old guard “very upset by the idea,” Gardener says. William Laurance, a conservation ecologist at James Cook University in Cairns, Australia, is also concerned: “If people want to resign themselves to managing novel ecosystems—and it sounds like that's the reality they face on the Galápagos—then what we're doing is homogenizing the world's biota; setting the world on a geological epoch: the Homogocene.”

    Alien invader.

    Blackberry's carpet of brambles has overwhelmed native ecosystems on the Galápagos.


    Conservation controversy

    Gardener is taking his cue from ecologist Richard Hobbs of the University of Western Australia in Crawley. In 2006, Hobbs and 17 colleagues argued in Global Ecology and Biogeography that novel ecosystems have value in promoting biodiversity and help with services such as providing flowers for pollinators or cycling nutrients. Thus, they should be studied scientifically.

    That same year, S. Joseph Wright and Helene Muller-Landau of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama compared the number of species in undisturbed old-growth forest and mixed, nonnative forests in Panama. They concluded that biodiversity levels in hybrid ecosystems may be the same or actually far exceed those in comparable native forests. The finding challenged the dogma that the conversion of pristine forests to novel ecosystems would necessarily lead to a swath of extinctions.

    The papers provided a new perspective on what others tended to call degraded or junk ecosystems. Nonetheless, those for whom conservation means returning a forest to its “natural,” prehuman Eden were horrified. “Dr. Wright's views have kicked off one of the most heated scientific controversies of the past decade,” Laurance says.

    “I have been scolded, yelled at, and abused by the ‘conservation priests,’” says Ariel Lugo, director of the International Institute of Tropical Forestry in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and a co-author of the Hobbs paper. “Whenever I talk at a conference and give our latest results, I'm met by absolute silence and then, often, hostility from the old guard.”

    Laurance, head of the critics' camp, says the biodiversity in primary and novel ecosystems is not equivalent because the latter have more “junk species,” which thrive in many places. “We need to protect the rare plants and animals that are found in primary forests,” he argues. In many comparative biodiversity studies, novel ecosystems do well only because of their proximity to pristine forests, he cautions: “The weedy exotics get a subsidy of immigrants from primary forest, which boosts their diversity figures.”

    The controversy came to a head in 2008 during what Lugo describes as a “highly volatile” meeting held at STRI. The outcome was a grudging acceptance that secondary forests do have conservation value. Nonnatives can help a heavily impacted area regain its diversity by creating canopy, stabilizing the soil, or retaining moisture. Thus endemic plants, which often take longer to reestablish themselves on former pasture or at the edges of agricultural land, can benefit from the shade offered by faster-growing, nonnative trees, like cedar.

    And in the Galápagos, Tobias Dittmann, a botanist at the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart, Germany, finds that this introduced tree has no negative effect on biodiversity. Dittmann looked at the biodiversity along a continuum of degraded habitats—from remnant scalesia forest to abandoned pasture—in Santa Cruz. He determined that a remnant scalesia forest has a biodiversity similar to a mixed introduced forest dominated by cedar.

    There are also economic considerations in favor of these hybrid ecosystems. Gardener argues that with 30,000 people now living in the Galápagos, ecosystem planning must address human needs, such as providing timber, grazing, or shade or limiting erosion, in addition to nurturing biodiversity. Cedar is a valuable timber, bringing more than $2 million annually to the local economy, for example. “Furthermore, coffee grown with an overstory of scalesia had an intermediate level of biodiversity,” Gardener says. “So, it seems that novel ecosystems, such as mixed introduced forest and coffee-scalesia, could be an alternative restoration objective.”

    It's still early days for this new ecology, and much is unknown. Ecosystems are naturally in a state of flux, and novel forests are just that, novel. “The oldest novel ecosystem we've studied in Puerto Rico is just 80 years old. That's the time since the agricultural land was abandoned and the plants took over,” Lugo says. “So we don't know what they will look like in 200 years' time.”

    A study in Puerto Rico suggests that although nonnatives initially dominate novel ecosystems, over time, native species establish themselves and cover a greater percentage. “Any tree that lives here has to be able to survive the once-every-60-years hurricanes that hit the islands. As a result, we see the well-adapted native trees prevailing over time,” Lugo says.

    For many, abandoning the pristine dream is an acceptance of defeat, but Hobbs cautions that there is no time for sentimentality. “The conservation fraternity is still in a grieving mode because they're seeing what's lost,” Hobbs says. “I'm focusing on what's there now. We have a huge opportunity to do better conservation with novel ecosystems, because whatever the future looks like, it will be very different from the past.”

    Here in the Galápagos, Gardener hopes to have a hand in deciding what that future looks like.

  6. Conservation Ecology

    Lost Causes Get New Hope

    1. Winifred Bird*

    A commitment to “zero extinction” shines a spotlight on the world's most endangered species.

    Zeroing in.

    Naturalist Masaru Notsu (top) has spent a lifetime observing the Oki salamander, found only on Dogo Island off Japan's west coast. The amphibian is a target of a “zero extinction” drive.


    DOGO ISLAND, JAPAN—For most of his life, Masaru Notsu has shared a small round island in the Sea of Japan with the Oki salamander (Hynobius okiensis), a critically endangered species found nowhere else on Earth. And for most of his life, the naturalist has watched plantations, erosion-control dams, and forestry roads chip away at the amphibian's 10-square-kilometer habitat. “This valley was their paradise,” says Notsu, standing at the bottom of a yawning gneiss quarry where a spawning stream once flowed. “In the space of 30 years, it's been destroyed.”

    Nobody knows how many Oki salamanders are left. Saving the palm-sized forest dweller from extinction could require habitat restoration, stricter conservation laws, and a revolution in how island residents approach development. Proponents of conservation triage might question the cost—but a new global commitment to zero extinction should give a major boost to the Oki salamander and other species in need of a lifeline.

    Last October, the 193 parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity drew up a new plan to stem biodiversity loss. In the plan's Target 12, countries pledged to prevent the extinction of known threatened species and improve their conservation status, especially those in steepest decline, by 2020. “It's the most ambitious thing to come out of the meeting,” says Conservation International President Russell Mittermeier, whose organization, based in Arlington, Virginia, pushed hard for the pledge. “Target 12 gives everyone in conservation an official mandate,” adds Jean-Christophe Vie of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Gland, Switzerland. “You don't have to argue with countries; you can point to the document they all agreed to.”

    Critics say Target 12 is misguided. “It's like spending all your money in the health system on 85-year-old people who smoked their whole life and need lots of multiple bypasses and none on preventative medicine,” says Hugh Possingham, a mathematical ecologist at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, who models how limited budgets can be used to save the most species. With resources for conservation in short supply, Possingham argues, planners must consider each project's cost and the likelihood of success or risk neglecting projects that could have a bigger long-term impact.

    Despite such qualms, the Target 12 mandate promises to shape funding decisions for years to come. The World Bank and the Global Environment Facility—which together provide about 60% of biodiversity-related aid—have signed on. They have pledged to support developing countries that wish to protect the sole remaining habitats of endangered plants and animals at sites compiled by the Alliance for Zero Extinction (AZE), a coalition working to identify IUCN Red List endangered and critically endangered species that are confined to one location. The Oki salamander is one of 920 species at 587 AZE sites. Brazil and several countries have begun using AZE's map to set conservation priorities.

    Backers insist that Target 12 will not bleed worthier causes. Preventing imminent extinction is “the most important thing you can spend biodiversity money on,” asserts AZE chair Michael Parr, vice president of the American Bird Conservancy in Washington, D.C. “It's also relatively inexpensive because the total land area for these [AZE] sites is comparatively small.”

    Target 12 does have its limits. Untold numbers of embattled species haven't made it onto the Red List—and are left out of zero-extinction efforts. “Focusing on imminent extinctions is necessary but not at all sufficient for biodiversity,” says Taylor Ricketts, head of WWF's Conservation Science Program and lead author of a 2005 paper introducing the AZE mapping project. “I worry that too much focus on AZE could distract us from the vast majority of species that haven't been assessed.”

    Still, AZE's imprimatur can give a species a shot in the arm. After the Oki salamander's AZE listing, the Shimane Prefecture government launched a formal survey last year of the poorly studied creature, and the town banned its collection and sale. The next question is whether the Japanese government will push adherence to Target 12 at the local level. Although authorities on job-strapped Dogo Island have begun to emphasize ecotourism over resource extraction, Notsu is skeptical they would turn down construction projects to protect salamander habitat. “Can we eat it or make money off it? That's the usual question,” he says.

    Such concerns are expected to crop up all over AZE's map. Conservationists must have a persuasive response. “It's not simply a matter of putting some money on the table and saying ‘don't destroy these areas,’ because that just doesn't work. It's really about protecting them as a part of a broader development and poverty-reduction plan,” says James Warren Evans, director of the World Bank's Environment Department. Target 12 is a call to arms against the extinction threat; it will be up to stakeholders to make sure treaty parties show up on the battlefield.

    • * Winifred Bird is a writer in Japan.

Log in to view full text