News this Week

Science  22 Apr 2011:
Vol. 332, Issue 6028, pp. 402
  1. Around the World

    1 - Fukushima, Japan
    Nuclear Cleanup to Take Months
    2 - United States
    Rethinking Alzheimer's Diagnosis
    3 - British Virgin Islands
    Lemurs Headed to Private Island
    4 - Eastern Pacific Ocean
    Deep-Sea Drilling Turns 50
    5 - South Africa, Tanzania, and Kenya
    Promising HIV Strategy Falls Short
    6 - Vancouver, Canada
    Safe-Injection Facility Cuts Overdose Death Rate
    7 - Washington, D.C.
    Budget 2011 Opens Gap In U.S. Weather Data

    Fukushima, Japan

    Nuclear Cleanup to Take Months

    Robots, such as the one shown here surveying the plant, will help with cleanup.

    CREDIT: HO/AFP/GETTY IMAGES/NEWSCOM

    Officials with Tokyo Electric Power Co. have outlined plans to bring the stricken reactors at Fukushima Daiichi under complete control. They say it could take up to 9 months to end the threat of radioactive releases.

    In the first 3 months, crews will pump nitrogen into the pressure vessel at each reactor in an effort to avoid hydrogen explosions, which have already rocked three of the reactors. They then plan to build a new closed-circuit water cooling system, aiming for “cold shutdown” by reducing temperatures within the reactors below 100°C. An additional step will focus on preventing the leakage of radionuclides into the air by fixing the outer walls of the damaged reactor buildings or erecting temporary covers around them. But there is still no timetable for the return of people whose homes lie within the 20-kilometer evacuation radius.

    United States

    Rethinking Alzheimer's Diagnosis

    For the first time in 27 years, researchers have released new criteria for diagnosing Alzheimer's disease. With early-detection methods still in development, the guidelines will have little immediate impact in doctors' offices. Instead, they are meant to guide research and help prepare clinicians for when effective treatments become available.

    The guidelines, released this week by the Alzheimer's Association and the National Institute on Aging and published online in the journal Alzheimer's & Dementia, reflect the growing understanding that the neurological damage of Alzheimer's begins years, even decades, before symptoms appear, and that future treatments will probably work best when started as early as possible. They expand the definition of Alzheimer's to include two stages that precede full-blown dementia: a presymptomatic phase and a phase marked by mild cognitive impairment.

    Experts convened by the two groups recommended continued research on neuroimaging and other biomarkers that could help detect early stages of Alzheimer's and rule out other diagnoses (Science, 16 October 2009, p. 386). But these tests aren't yet ready for widespread clinical use, they concluded.

    British Virgin Islands

    Lemurs Headed to Private Island

    In the next few weeks, Richard Branson, the billionaire entrepreneur and adventurer, plans to move some 30 ring-tailed lemurs from zoos to a 125-hectare Caribbean island. “It's much nicer for the animals to be free and not in a zoo situation,” he says. Lemurs live only on Madagascar, where they are severely threatened by deforestation and hunting. Branson has official permission to release lemurs on his island, a planned ecoresort. If the population flourishes, some could be moved to Madagascar, he says.

    CREDIT: ISTOCKPHOTO

    But some scientists fear that the omnivorous lemurs will endanger native wildlife, such as the dwarf ground gecko. And Anne Yoder, director of the Duke Lemur Center in Durham, North Carolina, worries about the lemurs themselves. “It is not a simple task to keep lemurs healthy,” she says. But Branson is optimistic and hopes to bring in other species, such as the sifaka and red ruffed lemurs, as well. “They'll be the best-looked- after lemurs in the world,” he says.

    Eastern Pacific Ocean

    Deep-Sea Drilling Turns 50

    CREDIT: NSF

    An international team of scientists is marking the 50th anniversary of the first attempt to drill to Earth's mantle by drilling this month and next deep into the ocean crust off Costa Rica. If successful, the expedition could be another step toward penetrating the famed Mohorovičić discontinuity (Moho for short) to hit the mantle.

    Although quickly labeled “an administrative fiasco” in the News pages of Science (10 January 1964, p. 115), the National Science Foundation–funded Project Mohole led to the development of deep-sea drilling technology still in use today. Mohole drillers penetrated only a few hundred meters beneath the sea floor; this month's expedition aims to deepen an existing hole to nearly 2 kilometers, into the deepest crustal layer, and pry out samples. That would still leave them 3.5 kilometers short of the Moho and the mantle, but scientists are hopeful that new technology such as the Japanese drill ship Chikyu will bring the mantle within reach.

    South Africa, Tanzania, and Kenya

    Promising HIV Strategy Falls Short

    A large-scale study of a promising drug strategy to prevent HIV infection came to an abrupt end this week when an interim analysis revealed no difference between the experimental and control groups. The study, which began in July 2009 and involved nearly 2000 high-risk women in South Africa, Tanzania, and Kenya, tested whether daily use of Truvada, a pill that contains two anti-HIV drugs, could thwart transmission through heterosexual sex. Given last year's celebrated finding that such “pre-exposure prophylaxis” (PrEP) stymies the virus in men who have sex with men, many expected this so-called FEM-PrEP study to succeed.

    FHI, a nonprofit organization based in Durham, North Carolina, that ran FEM-PrEP, pulled the plug after independent observers determined the trial would not have the statistical power to demonstrate Truvada's effectiveness even if completed. FHI's Timothy Mastro suspects the “surprising and disappointing” results could be a combination of the drug not reaching the vaginal tissue and women not taking the pills as instructed. Two other large studies of PrEP in women will continue.

    Vancouver, Canada

    Safe-Injection Facility Cuts Overdose Death Rate

    North America's only supervised injection facility (SIF) for injecting drug users cut the number of fatal overdoses by more than one-third over 2 years, reports a new study published online this week in The Lancet. The Vancouver facility's results constitute the first concrete evidence that providing sheltered injection rooms and medical expertise can reduce the number of deaths in this location. The rate of fatal overdose decreased from 254 to 165 per 100,000 people per year in areas within 500 meters of the facility after it opened in 2003. That's a 35% drop compared with a 9% decrease in the rest of the city during the same period, write Thomas Kerr of the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS in Canada and his colleagues. The team suggests that governments should consider establishing SIFs wherever injecting drug use is prevalent. The new finding should help protect the facility: Over the past 5 years, Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper has threatened repeatedly to close it.

    Washington, D.C.

    Budget 2011 Opens Gap In U.S. Weather Data

    Arriving 6 months into this fiscal year, the 2011 federal budget signed into law last week will create a key satellite data gap in 2017, say federal weather forecasters. The delay in passing a budget has held back construction of a weather satellite, the Joint Polar Satellite System-1. It was planned for launch in early 2016 to cover for a satellite that will have reached the end of its 5-year life by then, but it probably won't launch until 2018. And because Congress gave the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) about $800 million less for satellite development than it requested, even that goal may be optimistic.

    Meteorologists estimate that the missing data could increase errors in forecasted precipitation rates in the southern United States by 50%. NOAA was among the hardest hit among science agencies; the National Institutes of Health, Department of Energy, and National Science Foundation all received no cuts or only slight cuts relative to last year's totals (see p. 407).

    http://scim.ag/weather-gap

  2. Random Sample

    Panning Through Space and Time

    CREDITS (TOP TO BOTTOM): YU FENG, RUPERT CROFT, TIZIANA DI MATTEO/MCWILLIAMS COSMOLOGY CENTER, CMU

    Click the start button and watch cosmic structures evolve from faint ripples of matter 200 million years after the big bang (top) to filaments stretching between galaxies 7 billion years later. Zoom in, and what was just a pinprick on a dense knot of matter blooms into a cluster of galaxies haloed in gas. (Green circles indicate supermassive black holes.) Welcome to the latest digital wizardry from the team that brought you GigaPans, ultrahigh-resolution panoramas assembled from multiple images (Science, 5 November 2010, p. 748). This week, the team—a collaboration between Carnegie Mellon University, NASA, and Google Inc.—unveils the fourth dimension with gigapixel time-lapse movies, stitched together from GigaPans taken over a period of time (http://timemachine.gigapan.org). One shows mustard plants photographed every 15 minutes for 26 days, revealing minute details of plant development. The early universe time lapse, shown here, uses the technology to visualize the results of a supercomputer simulation.

    Dark Matter? Keep Looking

    CREDIT: XENON100 COLLABORATION

    Once again, physicists have not found particles of dark matter—the mysterious stuff whose gravity holds galaxies together. Researchers working with the XENON100 particle detector in the subterranean Gran Sasso National Laboratory in central Italy report that 100 days' worth of data taking turned up three events that could be dark-matter particles smacking nuclei in the 62 kilograms of liquid xenon in their detector. But the scientists expect roughly two false positives from ordinary particles, so the chances are that all three events are “background,” the team explains in a paper submitted to Physical Review Letters. The results show that other claimed dark-matter sightings—such as tantalizing results from the CoGeNT detector in the Soudan Underground Laboratory in northern Minnesota—were also spurious, the authors say. Physicists remain hopeful that bigger detectors will provide proof positive of dark-matter particles within the next few years.

    By the Numbers

    $65 million — Amount committed individually by King's College London and Imperial College London last week to the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation. The ambitious center, scheduled to open in 2015, has been pledged more than $1 billion.

    4 — Factor by which scientific publication by China-based researchers has grown since 2000, according to the China Association for Science and Technology.

    Fragile Habitat

    CREDIT: MIKE COHEA/BROWN UNIVERSITY

    This coral reef has sprung up in an unlikely environment: the marble foyer of the U.S. Department of Commerce in Washington, D.C. The 3-by-4.5-meter ceramic sculpture was made by Courtney Mattison, a graduate student in environmental studies at Brown University, to promote marine conservation.

    Mattison majored in marine biology and ceramics as an undergraduate at Skidmore College. “I understand scientific concepts better when I sculpt them,” she says. “I was hoping, by sculpting this, that people would become more curious about coral reefs.” Over the past year, Mattison hand-crafted several hundred pieces that depict species typical of a South Pacific reef. Some represent coral bleached white from rising temperatures or covered in green algae whose growth is stimulated by nutrient pollution.

    Mattison hopes to pursue a career as an artist, but first she wants to learn how marine policy is shaped. She would like her work to be noticed by policymakers—the Department of Commerce includes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—as well as the public. “If people can appreciate how fragile and beautiful these reefs are, that could cause them to want to learn more about how to save them,” she says. The sculpture will be on view until 15 June.

  3. Newsmakers

    Father of 'New Archaeology' Dies

    CREDIT: SOUTHERN METHODIST UNIVERSITY

    Lewis R. Binford, who championed the use of the scientific method in archaeology, died 11 April of heart failure at his home in Missouri. He was 79.

    Binford, of Southern Methodist University, was a prime mover behind the inquiry-driven “New Archaeology” of the 1960s and '70s. In 1962, he startled the field with a paper arguing that archaeologists should focus on how ancient people lived and died rather than simply cataloging and describing artifacts. When analyzing stone tools from France, for example, Binford argued that different tools were crafted for different uses rather than by different tribes. He also lived with hunter-gatherers in Alaska and Australia in order to understand the record left by human activities, producing studies that are now classics.

    Although some later archaeologists chafed at what they saw as the limits of scientific inference, Binford's questions about how people adapted to their environments helped to transform the field, opening up new areas of research. “Binford was the most influential archaeologist of the past half-century,” said archaeologist Colin Renfrew of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. “He was an exuberant, expansive, larger-than-life individual.”

    Prize for Sex Chromosomes

    Discoveries about the X and Y chromosomes, which determine sex, have earned two researchers this year's March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology. The prize honors scientific research aimed at improving the health of babies.

    In 1959, Patricia Ann Jacobs, now at the University of Southampton School of Medicine and the Wessex Regional Genetics Laboratory in Salisbury, both in the United Kingdom, published a paper explaining Klinefelter syndrome, in which people have an extra X chromosome. Since then, “her contribution over the years has been fantastic in terms of understanding abnormal chromosomes,” says developmental biologist Robin Lovell-Badge, who studies sex determination at the National Institute for Medical Research in London.

    Jacobs

    Page

    CREDIT: COURTESY OF MARCH OF DIMES (2)

    Geneticist David Page of the Whitehead Institute, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shares the prize for his studies of the Y chromosome and its functions beyond simply determining male sex. “His work on the evolution of the Y is particularly interesting,” Lovell-Badge says. Jacobs and Page will share the $250,000 cash prize and will each receive a medal at a 2 May award ceremony.

  4. Civil Engineering

    A Remedy at Last for the Ailing Ganges?

    1. Richard Stone

    After decades of futility, a charismatic civil engineer's campaign to clean the polluted river is poised for a breakthrough.

    CREDIT: © DEEANN PEDERSON/NEWSCOM

    VARANASI, INDIA—Yellow and gold marigolds drift slowly down the languid Ganges. Remnants of garlands, the flower heads add splashes of color to the turbid river that Hindus call Mother Ganga. The overwhelming fragrance, however, is the stench of sewage.

    Downstream of this holiest of Hindu cities, Gopal Pandey dons a pair of rubber gloves and lowers a steel canister over the side of a motorboat. Methane bubbles rise to the surface of the murky water and burst silently. Nearly every week since 1992, Pandey, a technician here at Swatcha Ganga Research Laboratory, has sampled up and down Varanasi's famous ghats, the sets of broad stone steps along the riverbank that give pilgrims access to the water.

    Pandey's ritual has changed little through the years. He hoists up the canister and with an old-fashioned glass pipette adds manganese sulfate and alkaline potassium iodide with azide to fix dissolved oxygen. Back in the lab, he'll measure oxygen content, fecal coliform bacteria, and other water-quality indicators. He knows what to expect. Every day, more than 200 million liters of sewage and industrial waste—much of it untreated—ooze into the Ganges from Varanasi. “The pollution is getting worse,” Pandey says. As he takes another sample, a goat carcass floats by. It's not uncommon to see human corpses that had been consigned to the river as well.

    Although the Ganges is filthier than ever, a remedy for the ailing river may be at hand. This spring, India's central government is expected to give final approval for an innovative water-treatment scheme here. “If the project is successful, it would serve as a model for other cities and rivers in India,” says Steve Hamner, a microbiologist at Montana State University in Bozeman. “One single project is not going to solve all the problems of the Ganga River,” cautions A. K. Gosain, head of civil engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi. But the Varanasi solution will have an impact, he says, and as part of a $4 billion initiative to cleanse India's rivers by 2020, the government intends to replicate it in other cities on the Ganges.

    The project should make an inroad against one of India's biggest killers: water-borne diarrheal illnesses. In 2004, Hamner and colleagues detected a notorious bacterium—Escherichia coli O157:H7—in Varanasi froth. Pandey routinely records fecal coliform counts of 1 million to 2 million per 100 milliliters off Varanasi—light-years beyond the 2500 per 100 ml that India has set as the maximum limit for safe bathing. Chromium from leather tanneries, toxic dyes from silk factories, and pesticides and other runoff from farm fields are also taking a toll on the ecology of the Ganges Basin, home to some 500 million people.

    Spiritual quest.

    Veer Bhadra Mishra.

    CREDIT: R. STONE/SCIENCE

    The water project will also mark a major milestone in a 30-year-long grassroots campaign to improve the river that began in Varanasi, one of the oldest inhabited cities on Earth. And it would be a personal triumph for the movement's charismatic 71-year-old leader, Veer Bhadra Mishra, an engineer and mahant, or spiritual head, of Varanasi's Sankat Mochan Temple.

    Ailing mother

    Dusk has fallen at a cluster of modest buildings at Tulsi Ghat, Mishra's home and office of the Sankat Mochan Foundation (SMF). As worshippers clang bells, the heady aroma of sandalwood incense wafts into the “throne room.” Mishra is relaxing after a long day presiding over a ceremony at his temple, dedicated to the Hindu deity Hanuman. Devotees approach, reverently greet their mahant, and mumble prayers as they touch the edge of his white dhoti.

    For 500 years, the mantle of mahant has passed from father to eldest son. When Mishra was 14, his father died. He embraced his fate—with a twist. At the time that he became Sankat Mochan's chief priest, Mishra was developing a fascination with physics and mathematics. “All the good students were going into engineering. I felt I should too,” he says. He earned a Ph.D. in hydraulic engineering from Banaras Hindu University here and joined its faculty while continuing to serve as the temple's spiritual leader.

    One day in 1966, the young professor became aware of the plight of the Ganges. At the confluence of the Ganges and the Assi River, Mishra observed thousands of dead fish sweeping into the Ganges. “I thought, ‘What is this?’” he says. “That's when I started worrying.” Authorities blamed industrial effluents. Little was done to rein in pollution, so Mishra began speaking out. In 1980, he visited the United States and met the folk singer Pete Seeger, who was then leading a campaign to clean up New York's Hudson River. The trip inspired Mishra and two colleagues to found SMF in 1982 “to raise awareness among the masses,” says one of the original trio, S. N. Upadhyay, a chemical engineer and director of the Institute of Technology at Banaras Hindu University.

    Partly in response to SMF's campaign, in April 1985 Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi launched the Ganga Action Plan (GAP). Its ambitious goal was to reduce Ganges pollution to levels safe for bathers. Over the next 15 years, GAP spent about $200 million improving sanitation in cities along the 2500-kilometer-long river and building facilities to pump wastewater into sludge-treatment ponds.

    “The more money GAP spent, the more government agencies claimed that pollution was decreasing,” Upadhyay says. He and his SMF colleagues believed otherwise. “They were simply fooling the people,” Upadhyay says. States dragged their feet in implementing GAP projects, which ended up processing only a fraction of the wastewater. To back their criticisms with hard data, SMF leaders, with help from friends in Sweden, opened Swatcha Ganga Laboratory in 1992. They quickly confirmed, Mishra says, that “GAP's conventional solutions weren't working.” In Varanasi, pumps stopped during frequent electricity outages and during summer monsoon flooding. Fecal coliform counts were higher than ever.

    “We became watchdogs,” Mishra says. SMF's advocacy brought him fame: Time recognized Mishra as a “Hero of the Planet” in 1999. Inside India, SMF's rising profile “put a lot of pressure on the government,” Mishra says. Soon after GAP funding wrapped up in 2000, a damning government audit concluded that the initiative “was not able to achieve its objectives.” Frazzled authorities challenged SMF: “They said, ‘Give us a solution,’” Mishra says. He responded that with a few homespun innovations, a wastewater treatment system pioneered in California in the 1960s could be adapted to the challenges of India—and Varanasi.

    A simple plan

    As dawn breaks, Mother Ganga comes to life. Standing on the submerged steps of a ghat, young men, their faces daubed with yellow powder, splash each other playfully. Nearby, a rail-thin elderly man dips his toothbrush into the Ganges and thrusts it into his mouth. At a “burning ghat,” flames lick from wooden biers. The oil-drenched legs of a corpse being cremated strike a pose eerily similar to someone splayed out on a poolside chaise longue. Half-burned bodies are not an uncommon sight in the river, Mishra says.

    Low tech, but it works.

    In Varanasi, treatment will start in a 7-meter-deep oxygen-free pool.

    CREDIT: ADAPTED FROM SUSTAINABLE SANITATION AND WATER MANAGEMENT/WWW.SSWM.INFO

    In Varanasi, approximately 60,000 pilgrims and residents bathe in the Ganges every day. In a recent health survey, Hamner and colleagues recorded high rates of cholera, dysentery, and other waterborne maladies in Varanasi. Poor sanitation in 2006 cost India about $53.8 billion in economic losses, or 6.4% of GDP.

    Mishra scoffs at the idea that devout Hindus are tainting the Ganges. Such nonpoint sources, he says, contribute about 5% of waterborne pollution here. As SMF has documented, most filth comes from 30 point sources—sewer outfalls, drainage channels, and the like—along the city's 7-kilometer-long riverbank.

    SMF's solution is the Advanced Integrated Wastewater Pond System, the brainchild of the University of California, Berkeley's, William Oswald, now deceased. In this “engineered natural system,” as Mishra calls it, waste spends 5 weeks passing through four kinds of pools (see diagram, above) that strip out organic matter and kill off parasite eggs and fecal coliform bacteria. Reclaimed water can be used for irrigation, and methane produced in the anaerobic pond would be used to generate energy to run the facility. SMF found a promising spot to build the plant at an oxbow depression several kilometers downstream of Varanasi.

    Coliform heaven.

    Swatcha Ganga technician Gopal Pandey samples water off one of Varanasi's popular ghats.

    CREDIT: R. STONE/SCIENCE

    To adapt the system to Varanasi, SMF proposed a tunnel that would use gravity rather than pumps to move wastewater to the oxbow site. In 1997, SMF presented the concept to the central government—which opted to stick with the GAP approach. Although Vinod Tare, a civil engineer at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, says he has “no doubt” that the innovative system will work, a drawback is that it would require “as much or more land” as existing options and, he says, would not be any cheaper. Mishra insists it would cost less, although his arguments didn't cut ice with the government. “But we were persistent and resilient,” he says.

    Prospects brightened in November 2007, when Mishra met Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. “He said that cleaning the Ganga should be a priority,” Mishra says. Singh also championed a holistic basinwide approach—“a drastic change” from GAP's piecemeal approach, Gosain says. In response to a government request, SMF, working with GO2 Water, a Kensington, California–based company founded by Oswald and Berkeley colleague F. Bailey Green, drew up plans for a pilot plant in Varanasi able to process 37 million liters of sewage per day. If the pilot project proves its mettle, similar facilities would be built in Allahabad, Kanpur, and Patna.

    The National Ganga River Basin Authority, launched in 2009, has boldly pledged to stop the flow of untreated sewage and industrial waste into the Ganges, from beginning to end. “That will get rid of 95% of the river's pollution,” Mishra says. Time is not on their side. As India's population grows and its economy flourishes, the pressures on the Ganges are growing more intense. “If we will lose the battle against pollution, I don't know what will happen to the people of the Ganga Basin,” says Mishra, who believes that the next 5 years will be critical to the river's future.

    After decades of futile efforts to purify the Ganges, that's a tight deadline. Mishra insists he is not frustrated by the lack of progress to date. But even the patience of a mahant grows thin. The time has come, Mishra says sternly, “to stop disrespecting Mother Ganga.”

  5. Cell Biology

    Are Telomere Tests Ready for Prime Time?

    1. Mitch Leslie

    Companies are offering tests to gauge the length of telomeres, which they say may foretell our health. But some researchers question how useful they will be.

    Telltale tips.

    The glowing caps on these chromosomes are telomeres, which wear down as we get old.

    CREDIT: COURTESY OF JERRY W. SHAY/UT SOUTHWESTERN, DALLAS

    Can the length of our telomeres, the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes that wear down as we get old, predict how well our bodies will age and our vulnerability to chronic diseases? Two new companies, both with heavyweight academic backing, are betting on it and have started or are planning to start performing telomere tests for the general public this year. But other leading telomere scientists say such tests are premature, if not virtually useless. On opposite sides of the issue are former collaborators Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider, who, along with Jack Szostak of Harvard Medical School in Boston, shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their telomere discoveries.

    “Telomeres are an integrative indicator of health,” says Blackburn, a molecular biologist at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), who co-founded one of the companies, Telome Health in Menlo Park, California. Its Web site boasts that by knowing how long your telomeres are, you—and your doctor—might be able gauge your vulnerability to aging-related illnesses like heart disease and cancer and possibly tailor your lifestyle to improve the odds of staying healthy.

    Greider and other critics disagree. “Do I think it's useful to have a bunch of companies offering to measure telomere length so people can find out how old they are? No,” says Greider, who was a graduate student in Blackburn's lab in the mid-1980s and is now a molecular biologist at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland.

    Telomeres perform a vital cellular job: preventing chromosomes from sticking to each other. But their notoriety stems from their putative role in aging. Each time a cell divides, its telomeres typically shrink a little. Over many years and divisions, they can dwindle to nubs, spurring the cell to kill itself or stop dividing and enter a semi-retired state called replicative senescence. As more and more cells die or senesce, the skin, the lining of the intestines, and other tissues can gradually lose the capacity to replenish themselves. By curtailing tissue self-renewal, worn-down telomeres might promote the senescence of our bodies—although how much has been controversial. The length of our telomeres could serve as a life-span clock that reveals our biological age, providing a better indicator of our physical deterioration than does our chronological age. Telomeres are “the best biomarker of aging we have,” says Jerry Shay, a cell biologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

    Going public.

    Maria Blasco is a co-founder of one of two new companies offering tests of telomere length to patients.

    CREDIT: COURTESY OF LIFE LENGTH

    For some diseases, telomere measurements are already helping doctors tailor treatments and save lives, says cancer biologist and physician Mary Armanios of JHU School of Medicine. The beneficiaries are people who suffer from telomeropathies, inherited diseases that result in stumpy telomeres. Along with the rare dyskeratosis congenita, the telomeropathies include some cases of the blood disorder aplastic anemia and of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, progressive lung scarring that kills up to 40,000 people a year in the United States.

    More uncertain is what value these tests will have for the general population—and whether doctors will be able to interpret the results. Right now, Telome Health is offering the service only to academic researchers, according to Calvin Harley, the company's president and chief scientific officer. He was formerly chief scientific officer at Geron Corp., a biotech company that has been trying to develop telomere-lengthening drugs since the early 1990s. Harley says that later this year, individuals will be able to find out how long their telomeres are, probably by having their doctors submit a blood sample to Telome Health for analysis. The second company, Life Length of Madrid, also measures telomeres for researchers and has already launched patient testing, says co-founder Maria Blasco, a molecular biologist at the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre in Madrid.

    What the measurements furnish, according to the companies, is a readout of a patient's overall risk of developing age-related chronic diseases. Studies have linked undersized telomeres to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, and cancer, among other chronic diseases. Although telomeres don't necessarily foretell when we'll die, Blackburn and colleagues reported in 2009 that their length correlates with the number of years elderly people remain healthy.

    Very short telomeres might signal a health problem, Blasco says. They can also suggest who would profit from treatment. As an example, Harley points to the West of Scotland Primary Prevention Study, which for 20 years has been investigating how to forestall heart disease in a group of middle-aged men with above-normal cholesterol levels. Men with the longest telomeres were half as likely to fall victim to heart disease as were men with punier telomeres. But the difference in susceptibility shrank after treatment with a cholesterol-lowering statin, researchers revealed in The Lancet in 2007, suggesting that the patients with the shortest telomeres gained the most. “Short telomeres are as or more predictive than conventional cardiovascular disease risk markers” such as cholesterol levels, Harley says.

    Telomere tests also deliver a verdict on a patient's lifestyle, Blasco says. A stack of studies suggests that not only age but also our habits and actions can affect telomere length. And unlike a gene variant that hikes disease risk, “telomeres are malleable,” Blackburn says.

    Predictive power.

    Elizabeth Blackburn (right) says telomere tests might reveal how well our bodies are aging. Longtime collaborator Carol Greider (left) is not so sure.

    CREDITS (LEFT TO RIGHT): KEITH WELLER/JOHNS HOPKINS MEDICINE; COURTESY UCSF NEWS SERVICES

    Among the enemies of our telomeres, these studies indicate, are smoking, heavy drinking, and obesity. Long-term psychological stress might also take a toll. In 2004, Blackburn, UCSF health psychologist Elissa Epel, and colleagues reported that telomeres were shorter in women who said they were under the most pressure. More recent studies have connected childhood trauma and prolonged depression to truncated telomeres.

    By contrast, telomeres tend to shrink more slowly with age in people who adopt healthy habits such as regular exercise. Longer telomeres are also associated with positive physiological measures like higher blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in fish and might protect against heart disease. Epel, Blackburn, and colleagues reported last year that meditation revs up telomerase, a cellular enzyme that stretches telomeres. If tests point to dwindling telomeres, “people need to assess the probable causes of telomere shortening” and consider changing their lifestyle, says Epel, who is another of Telome Health's co-founders.

    Researchers involved with the two companies acknowledge some gaps in the evidence on the health impact of telomere length. The link between short telomeres and chronic illnesses rests on association studies that tease out correlations between telomere length and disease incidence, not cause and effect. And the findings of these studies can be inconsistent, critics say. “At the moment, there are mixed results in some of these studies,” says cancer biologist Alan Meeker of JHU School of Medicine.

    “Today, it isn't clear how best to determine telomere length and exactly what it will tell you for 99% of people,” Greider says.

    Molecular cell biologist Peter Lansdorp of the British Columbia Cancer Agency in Canada seconds her skepticism. In 2005, he started his own company, Repeat Diagnostics, which has been measuring telomeres for research projects and for patients suspected of having conditions such as dyskeratosis congenita. The company is not marketing tests to the general public, he says: “I think we know too little to suggest that a person [with short telomeres] is at greater risk.”

    The notion that changing how we live can alter telomere length also relies mainly on association studies, Epel concedes. So far, there are no telomere-stretching drugs, and the placebo-controlled, blinded studies that could nail down whether lifestyle interventions work are just getting under way. For example, Blackburn and colleagues are collaborating with researchers in the UCSF urology department to determine whether they can protect the telomeres of a group of men who have early prostate cancer and are therefore under stress. The patients will follow a regimen, designed by diet guru and UCSF professor Dean Ornish, that includes regular exercise, a low-fat diet, and activities such as yoga.

    Measuring telomeres is tricky as well, experts say. Telome Health will use the quantitative polymerase chain reaction, or qPCR, which is fast and inexpensive, Harley says. Because most studies on telomere length in diseases opt for this technique, it should be easier to interpret patient results, he adds.

    But Shay describes qPCR as “marginally useful” because it provides only the average telomere length for a group of cells. He says that two of the telomere-measuring companies asked him to consult for them, but he is offering his expertise to Life Length because he feels that it uses superior techniques. One method, called Q-FISH, involves tagging telomeres with fluorescent labels and analyzing images of the chromosomes. Unlike qPCR, he says, Q-FISH can identify extremely short telomeres within a cell. These rundown telomeres are the ones that can nudge the cell into senescence or suicide. Other researchers laud a different version of FISH developed by Lansdorp and colleagues. Called Flow-FISH, it relies on a flow cytometer to measure fluorescence and gauges average telomere length within an individual cell.

    With all these claims and counterclaims, pediatrician and telomere biologist Abraham Aviv of the New Jersey Medical School in Newark has proposed that an independent organization, perhaps the U.S. National Institutes of Health, do an impartial analysis of the different techniques.

    Whether patients will want the new tests depends in part on how much they cost and who will pay. Life Length charges €500 (about $700), Blasco says. Telome Health has yet to set a price for the service, Harley says. Both scientists agree that the early market will likely be private clinics and “concierge physicians,” whose patients can afford to foot their own medical bills. But if the tests do turn out to have predictive power, Blasco says she hopes the Spanish national health system will cover the costs. U.S. insurance companies might do the same, Harley says.

    But do we really want to know how long our telomeres are? Shay thinks many people do—but he's not one of them. “I have no interest in knowing how long my telomeres are,” he says. “I'm afraid to ask.”

  6. Society for American Archaeology 76th Annual Meeting

    Beneath a Barren Steppe, a Mongolian Surprise

    A massive settlement in the Orkhon Valley in central Mongolia and a host of others nearby have been found to date from the 8th and 9th centuries C.E., the time of the Uigher empire, which was not known to have built large settlements in this remote area, researchers reported at the Society for American Archaeology meeting.

    Ghost town.

    New imaging technology reveals a hidden city.

    CREDIT: JAN BEMMANN

    The Mongol Empire was one of the largest and richest in world history, covering a vast territory that centered on the steppes of Mongolia but stretched from Vietnam to Hungary; Genghis Khan threatened even Western Europe. So when University of Bonn archaeologist Jan Bemmann, who previously excavated the Mongol capital of Karakorum, recently found a massive settlement in the remote Orkhon Valley, he assumed it dated from the Mongols' heyday in the 13th century C.E. To his surprise, Bemmann discovered that this enormous site and a host of others nearby instead date from the 8th and 9th centuries C.E., the time of the Uigher empire, which was not known to have built large settlements in this remote area. “We expected to find lots of Mongol mounds, but we were totally wrong,” Bemmann said after his presentation.

    Much of Mongolia has remained off of archaeologists' radar because of its remote location and the dearth of surface remains. But Bemmann and a new generation are using advanced techniques to probe the now sparsely populated area. The German team launched an octocopter, a small instrument-laden robotic helicopter, to create digital surface models of the area. On the ground they used superconducting quantum interference devices for rapid, high-resolution imaging of the magnetic field. These can provide detailed maps of architecture that may lie just beneath the surface, because compacted construction material stands out against regular soil. “The Mongols were laughing at us,” Bemmann recalled. “They said, ‘There's nothing here!’”

    But the high-tech tools revealed that a rectangular walled city named Kharbalgas was approximately 30 square kilometers, or 10 times the size of Karakorum. It also had a series of oval walls around it, possibly for cattle. The site has yet to be precisely dated, but pottery and other artifacts uncovered during small excavations put it between 745 C.E. to 840 C.E., during the Uigher empire. The Uighers, a Turkic people, held sway in Mongolia and had great influence in China during this time; their script, language, and traditions strongly influenced the later Mongols. But no one had expected them to have built great cities here.

    Eye in the sky.

    This octocopter (inset) helped map remote areas of Mongolia.

    CREDIT: ASCENDING TECHNOLOGIES

    Other surveys show additional large sites in the valley. “This is incredible new information,” says archaeologist J. Dan Rogers of the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., an expert in the Uigher period who is not part of the team. “Unlike the Mongols, the Uighers used a different strategy and built the largest cities in Mongolia.” (The Mongols mostly eschewed city living in favor of their nomadic ways.) Joshua Wright of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who has worked extensively in Mongolia, adds that the finds show the value of applying new technology to the seemingly desolate steppes.

    Bemmann says that Hans-Georg Hüttel, also of Bonn, and his Mongolian colleague Ulambayar Erdenebat are now excavating the city for more information about its plan and the function of its buildings.

  7. Society for American Archaeology 76th Annual Meeting

    Early Farmers Went Heavy on the Starch

    A U.S.-German team is gathering the first comprehensive evidence that the earliest farmers in the Levant ate a wide variety of plants, including starchy tubers, which may have allowed them to experiment with grain cultivation without fear of starvation, the team reported at the Society for American Archaeology meeting.

    Cultivating and domesticating grains radically altered the way humans live. But the transformation was not smooth or quick. Recent evidence shows that agriculture began in fits and starts in the Near East, more than 10,000 years ago (Science, 22 January 2010, p. 404). Now a U.S.-German team is gathering the first comprehensive evidence that the earliest farmers in the Levant ate a wide variety of plants, including starchy tubers, which may have allowed them to experiment with grain cultivation without fear of starvation.

    Although grains are often relatively easy to find at archaeological sites—they are hardy and even their charred remains can be identified—many other plants leave far fewer visible remnants and have been mostly ignored until recently. At a site in Jordan called el-Hemmeh, dating to agriculture's early days in 8500 B.C.E., the team microscopically analyzed tiny starch grains left behind in grindstones and grindstone implements. Such grains, which are found inside the cells of starchy plants, can be preserved for thousands of years, and many can now be identified to genus or species level (Science, 2 July 2010, p. 28), thus opening a new window into ancient plant use. “These [kind of plants] have been difficult to find in the macro-botanical record,” says Sadie Weber of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who presented initial findings on a project led by Cheryl Makarewicz of Germany's Christian-Albrechts University at Kiel.

    Invisible harvest.

    At el-Hemmeh in Jordan, archaeologists are looking for traces of rarely preserved foods.

    CREDIT: CHERYL MAKAREWICZ AND SADIE WEBER

    El-Hemmeh was a well-watered and perhaps seasonal village, where the people apparently cultivated grain: Makarewicz and colleagues found remains of wild barley with relatively fat grains. Researchers think such large grains are the result of many cycles of selecting and planting the largest seeds, indicating “loose cultivation,” a step on the road to domestication of a plant. They also found starch grains from water plants such as sedges, rushes, bulrushes, and thistles; these plants have large, starchy roots that can survive in hostile environments.

    Researchers suspect that these plants were gathered and eaten “as a safety net for cultivars,” Weber says. “These were lower-quality foods but were staples” that would have allowed the people of el-Hemmeh to experiment with agriculture without depending too much on it.

    Dorian Fuller of University College London agrees that the role of tubers and other such foods has “been overlooked because archaeologists are too focused on cereals.” In fact, he says, “cereals often don't look all that important on several sites” but are the focus of attention because they became so important later.

    Although archaeologists have found other examples of nongrain foods across the Near East, the team hopes to provide the first clear data on exactly what these protofarmers ate. The discoveries by Makarewicz's team, Fuller adds, fit well into “the new paradigm of decentralized and slow domestication.”

  8. Society for American Archaeology 76th Annual Meeting

    Searching for Syphilis's Origins

    1. Andrew Lawler

    Researchers reported at the Society for American Archaeology meeting that they have pinpointed the presence of bejel, a relative of syphilis, in the New World before Columbus—and that the wrecks of Japanese junks suggest a mechanism for its transmission from Asia to North America.

    In 1832, a lost Japanese junk wrecked on the rocky coast of Washington state, more than 5000 kilometers from home, and the local Native Americans promptly enslaved the surviving crew. Officials at the Hudson's Bay Company ordered the sailors rescued, and they were subsequently sent to Britain as pawns in the effort to open Japan to British trade. Nearly a century and a half later, two researchers argue that such wrecks, which occurred many times over the centuries, may have provided a possible route for the spread of bejel, a cousin to syphilis, from the Old World to the New.

    There has long been a hot debate over the origin of syphilis—transmitted primarily through sexual contact—and related bacterial illnesses like bejel, which can be spread by simple touch or sharing a cup. Some researchers argue that these diseases, all caused by treponemal bacteria, arose in the New World and were transmitted to the Old World via Columbus's crew and that of later ships, while others argue that they were already present in both arenas, or just in the Old World.

    Syphilis, bejel, and another variant called yaws cause inflammation of tissue around bone, leaving severe scars and cratering on bones that researchers can see in ancient skeletons. Determining exactly which condition afflicted the dead is tricky, however. But archaeologist Richard Rogers of the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Des Moines and Bruce Rothschild, a medical professor at Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine in Rootstown, say they have pinpointed the presence of bejel in the New World before Columbus—and that the wrecks of Japanese junks suggest a mechanism for its transmission from Asia to North America.

    Rothschild, who has pioneered work differentiating syphilis, bejel, and yaws in skeletons, examined 54 pre-Columbian skeletal populations throughout North America, South America, and the Caribbean. Ten showed evidence of bejel, and all of those were clustered on the West Coast of North America. Most sites date between 500 C.E. and the arrival of Europeans. At the meeting, Rogers said that the bacterium was unlikely to have come from Asians roaming south across Beringia, or, later, the Bering Strait, since it can't survive freezing temperatures and is rare in populations in cold climates.

    Brought by the current.

    Syphilis's cousin bejel may have been transmitted by sailors on Asian junks carried by the North Pacific current.

    CREDIT: ADAPTED FROM RICHARD A. ROGERS

    Looking for other transmission possibilities, Rogers found numerous accounts of wrecks by Asian junks such as the 1832 incident, including a Japanese ship that arrived in Acapulco, Mexico, in 1617 (see map). The North American current could carry a disabled or off-course ship from the coast of Japan to Washington state, he notes. Therefore, bejel could have been carried by Asian sailors to the New World in pre-Columbian times.

    The theory intrigues biologist Kristin Harper of Columbia University, who specializes in treponemal disease. She says the distribution of treponemal bacteria in wild nonhuman primates indeed suggests that the infections originated in the Old World. “That means it had to travel to the New World somehow,” she says. Rogers's and Rothschild's “novel hypothesis would make sense of these findings,” she says. But she adds that other conditions can cause bejel-like deformations in bone and notes that there's little sign of treponemal disease in pre-Columbian Old World skeletons, so their case is not airtight. Eventually, DNA comparisons of existing bejel strains in Native Americans with Old World strains could answer the question, Harper says.

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