Science  03 Jun 2011:
Vol. 332, Issue 6034, pp. 1133

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  1. Honey, I Shrunk the Test Subjects

    When Lemuel Gulliver landed on Lilliput, the protagonist in Jonathan Swift's satirical novel didn't think of himself as a giant. Everyone around him, he believed, was tiny. Now researchers have shown we're all a bit like Gulliver.


    Researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm had 198 volunteers wear virtual-reality headsets and lie on their backs, looking at their outstretched legs. Cognitive neuroscientist Björn van der Hoort touched each volunteer's leg while simultaneously touching the leg of a mannequin next to the subject; video of the mannequin was piped to each volunteer's headset. This combination of touch and sight duped the subjects into thinking the mannequin legs were their own.

    Then Van der Hoort replaced the mannequin legs with legs many times longer or shorter than the subjects'own, dangled a block in front of the camera, and asked subjects to estimate its size. If their new legs were tiny, they tended to overestimate; if they were large, they underestimated, the researchers reported 25 May in the journal PLoS ONE. The subjects, it seemed, used their bodies as fixed meter sticks and assumed that their environment had either grown or shrunk.

  2. More Good Cholesterol Doesn't Help

    The effects of good cholesterol are more nuanced than once thought. A clinical trial testing whether people do better when drugs increase their HDL, the cholesterol believed to help prevent heart disease, flopped last week.

    The U.S. National Institutes of Health study had enrolled more than 3400 people who had a history of heart disease and paltry levels of HDL. Everyone got a statin, which lowers LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol. But some participants also got a form of niacin, a drug that raises HDL. The study was supposed to run for 6 years, finishing in 2012, but it was halted after researchers discovered that people taking niacin were no less likely to suffer heart attacks and strokes.

    It's not yet clear why this is. Animal work has found that raising HDL can help, but genetics studies looking at people prone to high or low HDL have turned up mixed results. The drug company Pfizer abandoned an HDL-raising drug in 2006 after finding that people on it were 60% more likely to die than those on statins.

  3. Lost in Time, Found by Satellites

    Satellite data have revealed what may be buried pyramids and thousands of ancient settlements beneath Egypt's sands and farmlands.

    Infrared and other satellite imagery revealed a 3000-year-old city buried under sand.


    An American research team led by archaeologist Sarah Parcak of the University of Alabama, Birmingham, discovered the sites by analyzing data from visible as well as infrared satellite imagery. Parcak realized that winter rains soaking into buried mud-brick walls produced a subtle chemical signature in the overlying soil that showed up in high-resolution, infrared satellite images. Based on this clue and others, the team found traces of nearly 3000 ancient settlements and 1000 tombs. They also spotted 17 buried, pyramid-shaped structures; one at Saqqara, famed as a necropolis, was found to be an actual pyramid during a follow-up excavation.

    At a 3000-year-old site known as Tanis, the satellite data revealed a warren of mudbrick walls, mazelike streets, and large residences that may have housed the wealthy. A French team already digging there successfully used the American team's images to excavate a specific structure. “They found an almost 100% correlation between what we see on the imagery and what we see on the ground,” Parcak says.

    The satellite data are a major new contribution to Egyptian archaeology, says Egyptologist Peter Lacovara of the Michael C. Carlos Museum in Atlanta. They also provide a powerful new way for Egypt's government to monitor ancient sites.

  4. Final Farewell for Mouse Virus and Chronic Fatigue?

    The controversial hypothesis that links mouse retroviruses to chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) suffered yet another devastating blow this week. Two papers published online in Science make a strong case for contamination causing earlier studies—one published in Science—to find retroviruses, alternately known as XMRV or MLV-related, in CFS patients.

    One study examined blood from 61 CFS patients using sensitive polymerase chain reaction and antibody tests and found no evidence of mouse retroviruses. Others have reported similar negative results, but this study, led by retrovirologist Jay Levy of the University of California, San Francisco, stands out because 43 of the CFS patients had previously tested positive in labs that showed a connection between XMRV and the baffling disease. “They tried very carefully to find the virus and haven't got anything,” says Jonathan Stoye, a retrovirologist at the MRC National Institute for Medical Research in London. “That's because there is no virus there.” The researchers further showed how the mouse viruses frequently contaminate commonly used lab reagents.

    The second report contends that XMRV was born in the 1990s via an experiment that mixed mouse and human cells to create an immortalized line to study prostate cancer. The XMRV-contaminated cell line became widely used. “It's the end, isn't it?” asks Stoye.

    Not quite. Judy Mikovits, the corresponding author of the 2009 Science paper that found XMRV in CSF patients, refused a request from journal editors to retract the paper. Science in turn issued an Expression of Concern, noting that the paper's findings are “seriously in question” and that the journal “eagerly awaits the outcome” of multilab studies organized by the U.S. National Institutes of Health to address the question.