News this Week

Science  09 Dec 2011:
Vol. 334, Issue 6061, pp. 1328
  1. Around the World

    1 - Bethesda, Maryland
    New Round of U.S. Genome Centers
    2 - Cadarache, France
    European Farmers Pay For ITER Rescue
    3 - Washington, D.C.
    With Astrobiology Chair, Library Of Congress Heads for the Stars
    4 - Brussels
    An Elemental Process Nears Its End

    Bethesda, Maryland

    New Round of U.S. Genome Centers

    CREDIT: CHAD BAKER/RYAN MCVAY/GETTY IMAGES

    The U.S. government is renewing its push to move genomics towards the clinic. This week the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) announced its latest 4-year genome sequencing program, totaling $416 million.

    Most of the money, about $319 million, will go to three long-time sequencing centers: the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Washington University in St. Louis; and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. These huge centers will continue to explore how the human genome works and search for genes underlying heart disease, cancer, and other common diseases.

    Three new, smaller centers will hunt for mutations behind rare inherited diseases caused by a glitch in a single gene. Funded with $40 million over 4 years from NHGRI, these awardees include Yale University; the University of Washington, Seattle; and a joint center at Baylor and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

    Another $40 million will go for five multi disciplinary teams to explore using genome sequencing to treat patients. And around $20 million not yet awarded will fund software to handle the genome data deluge.

    Cadarache, France 2

    European Farmers Pay For ITER Rescue

    CREDIT: © ITER ORGANIZATION

    For more than 18 months, E.U. officials have been trying to find €1.3 billion to pay for its 2012–13 contribution to the €16 billion ITER fusion reactor project. On 1 December, they agreed to take most of the needed cash from agricultural subsidies.

    “I am relieved. … The E.U. could not afford to lose credibility vis-à-vis its international partners involved in the project,” said E.U. budget commissioner Janusz Lewandowski in a statement after a special meeting in Brussels.

    ITER has become a thorn in the side of its seven partners—China, the European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Russia, and the United States—because its estimated cost has almost tripled since the construction agreement was struck in 2006. The ballooning costs have hit the European Union hardest because it is footing 45% of the bill.

    ITER's funding after 2013 remains a bone of contention. The E.U. budget framework for 2014 through 2020 is currently under negotiation. Current plan: Remove ITER from the E.U. budget and let it become the responsibility of the member states, but some states have objected. The E.U. parties have 2 years to settle the issue. http://scim.ag/ITER_reactor

    Washington, D.C.

    With Astrobiology Chair, Library Of Congress Heads for the Stars

    Searcher.

    Blumberg helped pioneer astrobiology.

    CREDIT: NASA/TOM TROWER

    How has the search for life beyond Earth influenced art, culture, and even philosophy here at home? One lucky researcher will now have the chance to ponder those and other questions at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. On 1 December, the library and NASA announced the creation of a new Blumberg chair in astrobiology, a senior research position focused on how the science of astrobiology impacts—and is impacted by—society. The position, which pays $13,500 a month, is named for the late Baruch Blumberg, a founder of both NASA's Astrobiology Institute and the library's Scholars Council, an advisory group. New chairs will be selected annually; to be the first, you'll need to get an application or nomination in by 30 January (see www.loc.gov/loc/kluge/fellowships/NASA-astrobiology.html).

    Brussels

    An Elemental Process Nears Its End

    It's (almost) official: Elements 114 and 116 have been named. On 1 December, at the closing ceremony of the International Year of Chemistry in Brussels, the Inter national Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry announced that element 116 is to be dubbed livermorium (after the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory), and element 116 will be flerovium (after Russian physicist Georgy Flyorov). The researchers who discovered the elements got to propose the names, but it will be at least another 5 months before they are official. First, the public will get a chance to comment on the monikers, and experts will conduct further reviews. Then, the IUPAC Bureau will decide whether or not to add the pair to the periodic table. Barring the unexpected, however, look for Lv and Fl to show up in textbooks next year.

  2. Random Sample

    Noted

    >Here's a unique anniversary gift. A year after controversy erupted over the discovery of GFAJ-1, a bacterium that appeared to incorporate arsenic in its DNA, GenBank last week posted the microbe's genetic sequence for all the world to see. The sequence was decoded by a team of scientists from several institutions in Illinois.

    What the Dog Saw

    CREDIT: COLIN ALLEN

    Some dog owners swear that their pooches can read their minds. But the canine companions are actually just reading humans' subtle cues. To find out just how important visual cues are, U.S., Dutch, and Belgian researchers are building DogCam. Modeled after human eye-tracking devices, this dual-camera system can follow a dog's gaze to see if it's the eyes or hands or some other body part that's giving the human away.

    The goggles are modified off-the-shelf dog glasses: One wireless camera sits between the eyes for a dog's eye view of the world, and the other is mounted so that it points to the dog's eye. DogCam was tricky to design, says Alejandra Rossi, a graduate student in cognitive science at Indiana University, Bloomington. The device needs to be robust enough to collect good data, she says, but “you don't want your dog to wear a threatening and bulky laboratory-only system.” She plans to use DogCam to understand the visual dynamics of dog-human social interactions.

    The Sound of Stradivarius

    CREDIT: JULIAN NIEMAN/ALAMY

    For centuries, even the best violin-makers have copied Stradivarius violins, the archetypes of the instrument's form and function that were crafted in the 17th and 18th centuries . Scientists and musicians alike have studied the instruments' wood, shapes, and the chemicals composing their varnishes (Science, 18 June 2010, p. 1468). Now Steven Sirr, a radiologist at First Light Health System in Mora, Minnesota, and violinmakers Steve Rossow and John Waddle of St. Paul have teamed up to build neo-Strads based on computed tomography (CT) data fed into a computer-controlled wood mill.

    Sirr, an amateur violinist, has scanned hundreds of antique violins, violas, and guitars since 1989. Four years ago he scanned the Betts Stradivarius, made in 1704 and owned by the Library of Congress. “No one had ever seen the interior anatomy before,” he says. He sent digital data from the CT images to Rossow, who used a computer-aided design program to disassemble the scan and isolate the data representing different parts of the violin, including the front, back, and scroll. The software then converted thousands of lines of numbers into detailed 3D instructions for how the mill should carve the wood.

    CT scan of Betts Stradivarius.

    CREDIT: STEVE SIRR

    Professional violinists have played the resulting four replicas and praised their tones. But anyone expecting scads of inexpensive reproductions will be disappointed. Rossow says it took longer to build a computer-carved violin than it would to make one the traditional way because the computer-carved violins were reverse-engineered, and parts had to be hand-scraped and assembled. And, he says, variations in violins, due to user wear-and-tear, will always make the playing experience unique. “You can't mass-produce tension from the strings, which can cause violins to twist and deform.” So individual differences will prevail for centuries to come.

    By the Numbers

    £200 — million Amount that the United Kingdom included in its autumn budget statement for research infrastructure.

    9.1 billion tons — Total global carbon emissions in 2010, an all-time high, up from 8.6 billion tons in 2009, according to the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

  3. Newsmakers

    It's Official: Glover New E.U. Science Adviser

    CREDIT: SCOTTISH GOVERNMENT

    Two years after saying he would appoint the European Union's first chief science adviser, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso announced on 5 December that Scottish microbiologist Anne Glover will take up the job in January. She will act as an independent adviser to Barroso on scientific issues and controversies.

    Glover will “act as a bridge with the scientific community to ensure that innovation contributes to our growth,” Barroso said. “We must communicate better … on the benefits of scientific advances and also on their risks.”

    Glover, who has been the chief scientific adviser to the Scottish government since 2006, is not well known outside of Scotland. But those who know her say it is a terrific choice. “She has done an absolutely amazing job” as Scotland's first science adviser, says Ian Diamond, principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Aberdeen, where Glover worked for most of her career.

    Glover's own research has focused on microbiological diversity and the development of so-called biosensors, microbes that can report the presence of contaminants by glowing in the dark. http://scim.ag/a-glover

  4. HIV Prevention

    HALTING HIV/AIDS Epidemics

    1. Jon Cohen

    A slew of successes in clinical trials has elated the HIV prevention field, and models now suggest that combining them might virtually stop HIV's spread. But caveats abound.

    CREDIT: GEORGINA GOODWIN FOR VESTERGAARD FRANDSEN

    On 1 December, U.S. President Barack Obama headed a star-studded event, “The Beginning of the End of AIDS,” that attracted heavyweights such as former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, the president of Tanzania, the head of Coca-Cola, and the rock stars Bono and Alicia Keys. The cause for the occasion held at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., was World AIDS Day, but as Obama noted, this year's theme was far more ambitious than any in the past. Over the past 2 years, four large-scale studies of interventions to prevent HIV have worked, and for the first time, the goal of ending AIDS epidemics in some locales—and, in time, the world—seems like a possibility, provided, of course, that there's political will and money. To that end, the Obama Administration a few weeks earlier had declared a global priority of “creating an AIDS-free generation.”

    But there's a vast difference between a study having success and thwarting HIV in the real world. “This is truly an exciting time, but it's a complicated time,” says Anthony Fauci, who heads the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland. “If we implement a combination of known prevention modalities, we could probably have a significant impact on the epidemic even before we have a vaccine.” Yet he stresses that the impact of proven interventions might vary from place to place because the epidemics have different features.

    In sum.

    Different interventions together pack powerful punch.

    CREDIT: ÍDE CREMIN AND TIMOTHY HALLETT, IMPERIAL COLLEGE LONDON

    Daunting funding issues face any campaign to ramp up HIV prevention. Just 2 weeks ago, for instance, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, low on money, scuttled a round of new grants. But funding aside, it's a challenge to figure out how best to combine the available interventions. Many mathematical modelers and HIV/AIDS researchers have begun to explore and intensely debate a variety of strategies. “We're fortunate to have several prevention interventions that are efficacious, but the next step is to factor in the nuances of each of these local epidemics,” says Wafaa El-Sadr, an epidemiologist at Columbia University.

    Several large clinical trials under way or in the works should reveal which new prevention strategies best bring down incidence in a population versus simply protecting an individual (see map, p. 1340). El-Sadr suggests that, in parallel, countries begin to apply new combinations of proven strategies today with a trial-and-error mindset. “It has to be an iterative process of using the information at hand and being willing to adjust and modify,” she says.

    Eric Goosby, who heads the multibillion-dollar U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), says his group is closely analyzing models now. “We see it as a definite opportunity to change the way we do business and move us all toward higher impact interventions,” Goosby says. “We're taking this as seriously as you can.”

    Flood of success

    Nearly all of the earliest HIV prevention trials failed badly or yielded confusing results. For instance, efforts to reduce HIV transmission by treating other sexually transmitted infections worked in one large study and failed in others. The first clear success was the demonstration in 1994 that antiretroviral (ARV) drugs could prevent HIV-infected mothers from transmitting the virus to their babies if both received them. So-called harm-reduction strategies, including needle exchange, can protect injecting drug users from HIV. But neither of those interventions slows sexual transmission, the route of spread for most of the world's 34 million HIV-infected people.

    In 2005, a study finally proved unequivocally that a biomedical intervention could block sexual transmission: A large, randomized, controlled trial in South Africa found that male circumcision offered 60% protection to uninfected heterosexual men. But it was four subsequent triumphs during the past 18 months that made ending the epidemic seem an achievable goal.

    The first was a South African study of a strategy called topical pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), which showed in July 2010 that a vaginal gel laced with an anti-HIV drug could cut transmission to uninfected women by 39%. That November, another trial in six countries of an oral PrEP that combined two anti-HIV drugs taken daily showed 44% efficacy in uninfected men who have sex with men. In May, a nine-country trial known as HPTN 052 had a downright spectacular result. The study recruited “discordant” heterosexual couples. One long-term partner was uninfected at the start whereas the other had a known HIV infection and a relatively intact immune system with 350 to 550 CD4 cells per milliliter (600 to 1200 is normal; fewer than 200 is AIDS). Half of the infected people received treatment immediately; the other half waited until their CD4 counts fell below 250. Earlier treatment reduced the risk of transmitting HIV by 96%. Although observational studies had long suggested that reducing viral levels made a person less infectious, the ongoing HPTN 052 trial proved once and for all that “treatment as prevention” (TasP) works. A different study with discordant heterosexual couples in Kenya and Uganda reported 2 months later that if infected people remained untreated and their uninfected partners instead took the two-drug oral PrEP, transmission dropped by 73%.

    Homing in.

    Would targeting high-prevalence areas help prevent HIV's spread?

    CREDIT: MYONG-HYUN GO, BRIAN COBURN, JUSTIN OKANO, AND SALLY BLOWER, UCLA

    With these successes has come a dilemma. “We've got more things we could spend our money on than ever before but less to spend,” says epidemiologist Timothy Hallett, who has done extensive mathematical modeling of the epidemic with Geoffrey Garnett at Imperial College London (ICL). “It's a real crunch time.”

    Hallett and his ICL colleague Íde Cremin have taken a stab at modeling the impact of combining several proven biomedical interventions. They focused on KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, which has an annual HIV incidence of nearly 3%. The model assesses the drop in incidence that would occur by 2025 as various interventions are scaled up starting in 2013. First, putting 75% of infected people who have fewer than 200 CD4 cells on ARVs and increasing male circumcision to 65% reduces incidence in the model by 1%. If infected people start treatment an average of 2 years after testing positive instead of waiting for their CD4s to fall below 200, incidence decreases another 1%. If 60% of 15-to-24-year-olds—a particularly high-risk group there—uses PrEP, incidence drops another half-percent. In the final analysis, incidence plummets to almost 0.5% (see graph). “We can cut down the epidemic with 1000 cuts rather than one fatal blow,” Hallett says.

    Brian Williams and colleagues at the South African Centre for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis at the University of Stellenbosch looked at the same question but assessed a different outcome: reducing an individual's risk of infection. According to their calculations, if 60% of men in a given population were circumcised and 80% of infected men and women were taking ARVs, the risk of someone becoming infected would drop by 55%. Reducing risk by 85% would require 90% of infected people on ARVs, 10% on daily PrEP, 80% male circumcision, and 25% of uninfected women using a vaginal microbicide before and after sex. Williams emphasizes that every one of these interventions other than circumcision depends on the person properly using their medication. “The key to success is compliance,” Williams says.

    Limitations galore

    Variable compliance is but one of many reasons each of the recently proved biomedical prevention interventions may work better in clinical trials—and in models based on them—than when governments attempt to apply them in public health programs. Trained specialists who can run diagnostic tests and provide medicines are already in short supply in many low- and middle-income countries. Uninfected people could undermine the effectiveness of TasP, PrEP, or circumcision if they presume they are invulnerable and engage in riskier behaviors. Widespread use of ARVs could increase drug resistance, crippling both TasP and PrEP.

    Some say models are being used naïvely. “People need to get a more realistic view,” says Sally Blower, a mathematical modeler at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Too many think, ‘Treatment as prevention: good.’ It's just not right.”

    Loud debates about the limits of TasP have been raging since The Lancet published a model 3 years ago that proposed that testing and treating every infected person in the world could “eliminate” the epidemic in 10 years. In a paper published online 26 November 2008, World Health Organization epidemiologist Reuben Granich, Williams, and colleagues used data from South Africa, which has more HIV-infected people than any country, to create a scenario that involved testing the entire population for HIV once a year and treating every positive individual. Within 10 years, they concluded, the annual rate of new infections would drop from about 2% to below 0.1%.

    Critics said treating all of South Africa—let alone the world—was unrealistic, both technically and financially. Many questioned the testing scheme, too. Rochelle Walensky, an HIV/AIDS epidemiologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, said she found the Granich model “provocative and motivating” but worried that it set benchmarks that no country could meet. A study she led evaluated a pilot test-and-treat program in Washington, D.C. Although individuals benefited, “suggestions that a test and treat strategy might be sufficient to eradicate the HIV epidemic create public expectations that cannot be realized,” the study team wrote in the 15 August 2010 issue of Clinical Infectious Diseases.

    Walensky says it's extremely difficult to test an entire population, do so repeatedly, then start all positive people on treatment, and see that they take ARVs as prescribed. “We're nowhere near 100% coverage for testing once, let alone annually,” Walensky says. “When you offer tests, people don't necessarily take them, and when they get positive results, they don't necessarily start treatment.”

    Myron Cohen of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who heads HPTN 052, raises another caveat. Cohen contends that a disproportionate amount of transmission occurs from recently infected people who have high viral loads but do not yet produce the antibodies that standard HIV tests detect. Even if a program managed to start all HIV-positive people in a community on ARVs, it would miss the acute or recent infections. A model that Cohen and co-workers described in the 16 July issue of The Lancet—using behavioral and viral load data collected in Lilongwe, Malawi—calculated that acutely infected people were high transmitters for up to 5 months after becoming infected, accounting for 38% of the transmissions. “If the contribution of acutely infected people to incidence is very large, we might be very disappointed by the results of combination prevention,” Cohen says. Hallett and co-workers at ICL showed with a model in AIDS and Behavior in May that acute infection likely has a major impact on a community's prevalence if many people have overlapping, or “concurrent,” sexual partners, as is common in parts of sub-Saharan Africa and in communities of men who have sex with men. In their model, increasing concurrency from 10% of the population to 12% led HIV prevalence to jump from 3% to 11%.

    Testing limits.

    Mass campaigns like this one in Lesotho ambitiously hope to find all HIV-infected people in a locale.

    CREDIT: ADAPTED FROM SOMYA GUPTA AND REUBEN GRANICH, WHO

    In the past, some dismissed the Granich model because TasP had never proved its worth in a rigorous study. HPTN 052 has ended that argument. But Blower and others have now turned their sights on the limits of HPTN 052.

    Online on 11 October in the journal AIDS, Blower and Columbia's El-Sadr applied HPTN 052's design in a model, targeting discordant couples in Malawi, Lesotho, Ghana, and Rwanda. The number of infections prevented varied dramatically according to population size. Malawi, population of 15.3 million, benefited the most; Lesotho, with only 2 million, the least. The rate of new infections, a different measure of effectiveness, also varied considerably among countries. Because Lesotho had the highest HIV prevalence and the greatest percentage of discordant couples, it benefited the most. “One really needs to be very specific and look at the population at hand in order to figure out where does this strategy fit,” El-Sadr says.

    Blower says it does not make sense for countries to target discordant couples with TasP. She says the best strategy is to test and treat in geographic hot spots that have the highest prevalence (see Lesotho map).

    Scaling up use of oral PrEP, another part of the combination package, raises its own issues—the first being who has priority? Some 7.6 million HIV-infected people in the world need ARVs for survival but have no access to the drugs. Scientists and policymakers alike agree that infected people should receive the lifesaving drugs before the uninfected.

    It's also unclear how much oral PrEP protects women: Two studies have shown it reduces transmission, and two studies have shown no effect. “I really don't know whether it works in women,” Cohen says. Confusion similarly surrounds topical PrEP, or microbicide-laced gels: On 25 November, a large study reported that it had no effect, putting a question mark on earlier positive data from South Africa.

    Several potential flaws dogging PrEP and TasP—including compliance, repeated testing, and drug resistance—could be mitigated by male circumcision. But for it to work, men must first choose to be circumcised, and the procedure has to be properly done. A study published 29 November in PLoS ONE asked 241 applicants to the Lesotho Defence Force whether they were circumcised. Trained clinicians examined the 64 who said yes. Of these, 50% either were not circumcised or had portions of foreskin left—an HIV-infection risk. The men who misreported their status were seven times more likely to have been cut by a “traditional” circumciser as part of an initiation rite, which the researchers stress is common in sub-Saharan Africa.

    Blower says each country will ultimately have to figure out the best combination of interventions for its population. The “mantra” is that the more interventions we use, “the more synergy we get,” Blower says. “It isn't true.” If the measures are simply redundant, “synergy might not occur for decades, or you might not get it at all.”

    The road forward

    Whatever the limitations of the overall scheme, each component of combination prevention makes solid scientific sense. And the abundant enthusiasm on display at the World AIDS Day event in Washington shows that ending AIDS has become something of a movement. But as many speakers at that event stressed, the research successes being celebrated come in the midst of a financial crisis that has many countries worrying whether they can maintain, let alone expand, the HIV/AIDS programs they have in place.

    PEPFAR and other programs have begun to look for smart ways to transfer alreadyallocated funds to support the new opportunities, and they've turned to modelers such as South Africa's Williams to identify the most cost-effective interventions. Williams says male circumcision should be used as widely as possible. “It's a no-brainer,” he says. “It's very cheap, and you do it once and it's for life.” Giving uninfected people ARVs as oral PrEP, on the other hand, he says, would have the most bang for the buck with groups at the highest risk of infection. Treating infected people to prevent spread, he argues, would have the greatest impact: “If you want to stop transmission, the core of it has to be treatment as prevention.”

    Models only point out routes to ending AIDS, and many will surely differ from the one proposed by Williams. But for the first time since AIDS surfaced 31 years ago, many researchers believe the destination itself is no longer a mirage.

  5. Tsunami Research

    Tohoku Inundation Spurs Hunt for Ancient Tsunamis

    1. Dennis Normile

    Sand layers beneath Japan's Sendai Plain and other regions are evidence of massive tsunamis that struck eons ago and may augur future disaster risk.

    Mucking around.

    Bruce Jaffe (left) and James Goff probe a riverbank for old tsunami deposits.

    CREDIT: D. NORMILE/SCIENCE

    SENDAI, JAPAN—On a late summer day in a marshy rice paddy in sight of the Pacific shore, Daisuke Sugawara and Yuichi Nishimura prepare to unleash the Geoslicer. Sugawara, a Tohoku University sedimentologist, shoves the end of a 1.5-meter-long rectangular steel tube into the soil. He and Nishimura, of Hokkaido University in Sapporo, then use a heavy motor called a vibrohammer to wiggle it in the rest of the way. They position the tube's matching half and vibrate that in, trapping a 12-centimeter-wide, 3-centimeter-thick slice of earth. Using a pulley hung from a tripod, the team winches up the tube and lays it on the ground. They open it up to reveal layer upon layer of silt, sand, and volcanic ash going back several centuries. The researchers get down on their knees and pore over the time capsule.

    At the top is a deposit several fingers thick from the 11 March tsunami that washed over the Sendai Plain, claiming 20,000 lives. Half a meter or so down are traces of a massive wave that struck in 869, during Japan's Jogan era. Deeper still are hints of a more ancient tsunami.

    Scientists knew of the Jogan tsunami but may have underestimated its extent and the power of the earthquake that caused it. Had they fully understood the magnitude of the long-ago disaster—and if their warnings that it could recur had been heeded—the toll of the March tsunami might have been far less. So experts are digging all over the Sendai Plain and elsewhere to compare deposits left in March with evidence of prehistoric events. “We need to collect modern samples to understand paleotsunami,” says Kazuhisa Goto, a tsunami geologist at Chiba Institute of Technology. One big surprise is that contrary to what was thought, sand deposits are not always reliable indicators of a tsunami's inland reach. Interpreting the evidence, by no means straightforward before, is getting more complex. And getting coastal communities to recognize tsunami threats is a continuing challenge. Although the Tohoku and 2004 Indian Ocean tsunamis revealed the danger of tsunamis far bigger than anything in recent experience, many vulnerable communities still base risk assessments on disasters described in local historical records, overlooking the possibility of bigger tsunamis striking in prehistoric times. And many localities, especially those far from the subduction zones that produce major earthquakes, still don't realize they lie in harm's way.

    Tsunamis, recent and ancient, were a headline topic at the American Geophysical Union's fall meeting earlier this week in San Francisco, California. It came on the heels of a paleotsunami workshop there that aimed to “define the state of the science and then also find avenues to improve awareness, preparedness, assessment, and mitigation,” says coorganizer Robert Weiss, a tsunami scientist at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg. The now-obvious tie between the Jogan and the 11 March disasters, says Joanne Bourgeois, a paleotsunami expert at the University of Washington, Seattle, has created an opportunity “for paleotsunami research to ramp up.”

    New wave

    Only in the past 2 decades have researchers recognized marine sand deposits on land as evidence of prehistoric tsunamis. Since first making that connection, scientists have learned to decipher clues to the characteristics of the waves that carry the sand. Typically, the farther inland a wave runs, the finer the sand grains are, as heavier material settles out sooner. Several coarse-to-fine layers indicate multiple waves. A jumble of grain sizes suggests turbulence during deposition.

    At first, researchers assumed that the distance a sand deposit ran inland indicates extent of inundation. That assumption fed models used to estimate a magnitude 8.4 for the Jogan earthquake. One recent study suggests that assumption generally hits close to the mark. After assembling data from 41 surveys of seven recent tsunamis that ran up to 2 kilometers inland, a team led by Bourgeois found that the ratio of sand deposits to tsunami inundation ranged from 53% to 100%. She says that sand deposits indicate at least the minimum reach of tsunami waves and in most cases mark about 90% of inundation. Therefore on sandy shorelines, deposit extent can be used as a proxy for tsunami run-up and inundation, her team concluded in a report in the November 2009 issue of Geology.

    But that correlation may not hold where tsunamis run farther than a couple of kilometers inland. On the Sendai Plain, Goto and colleagues found sand from the 11 March tsunami only 2.8 kilometers inland in an area where the water reached 4.5 kilometers from shore. “We were very surprised,” Goto says. This may indicate that the Jogan tsunami's reach was significantly underestimated and that the Jogan quake was more powerful than believed, the team reported online in Marine Geology on 31 October. The bottom line is that tsunami behavior can be quite complex, Goto says.

    Because sand doesn't tell the whole story, scientists have searched for other yardsticks of inundation. One is salt water, which leaves a signature of unusual concentrations of sodium, sulfur, and chlorine in the soil. Goto's team detected a chloride marker beyond the sand limit of the March tsunami. Catherine Chagué-Goff, a tsunami scientist at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney, Australia, is now searching for salinity signals in Jogan-era layers. Tsunami hunters are also looking for fossils of microscopic marine organisms such as diatoms, single-celled algae, and foraminifera.

    Geoslicing

    Daisuke Sugawara and Yuichi Nishimura vibrate two halves of a 1.5-meter-long tube into the ground (1), then winch it out (2). Opening the tube exposes centuries of accumulated sediment (3 and 4). To make a “peel,” they spread epoxy on a mesh fabric placed over the soil (5). When it hardens, they have a slice of earth (6) preserved for further study.

    CREDITS: D. NORMILE/SCIENCE

    Danger zones

    Scientists have a long list of sites where they would like to apply these investigative techniques. “Every large coastal metropolitan area should at least ask the question” of whether it faces a tsunami risk, Bourgeois says. That includes her hometown of Seattle. The possibility of a major tsunami hitting the Pacific coast of Washington state is well recognized, she says, but tsunami risk within Puget Sound is overlooked. “There is an active fault that runs right through Puget Sound that produced a tsunami 1100 years ago. If that happened again now, it would be a big disaster,” she says. Yet little is known about the recurrence interval of earthquakes along that fault—a knowledge gap that paleotsunami research might help fill.

    Another major worry is two sections of the subduction zone off the coast of Chile and Peru, where major quakes and accompanying tsunamis are presumably overdue, says Kerry Sieh, a seismologist at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Other threats are less obvious. In the South China Sea, the northern half of the Manila trench, a subduction zone that runs about 1000 kilometers off the west coast of Luzon Island in the Philippines up to southern Taiwan, hasn't seen a major earthquake in the past 500 years. “I suspect that it has accumulated a lot of strain,” Sieh says. If that stretch ruptures in one go, it could produce a magnitude-9 earthquake, he says. Such an event could send an 8-meter tsunami to Hong Kong and adjacent areas of the southern China coast, as well as walloping Luzon and hitting Taiwan, according to modeling Sieh and others reported in 2009 in the Journal of Asian Earth Sciences.

    Historical records tell of one tsunami swamping up to 500 kilometers of the southern China coast in 1076 and a second that inundated Kaohsiung, in southwestern Taiwan, in 1781. But there is no mention of shaking, suggesting that distant earthquakes, perhaps off the Philippines, could have triggered the tsunamis. Sieh's team stated that a better understanding of the risk of future tsunamis could come from unearthing paleotsunami deposits, scouring additional historical documents, and gathering better data on current crustal deformation. “The South China Sea megathrust presents the serious possibility of a catastrophic tsunami, and every effort must be made to refine our understanding of it,” the team concluded.

    Rim shot.

    Brown lines show tectonic plate boundaries; red dots, earthquakes since 1900; open circles, major quakes inferred from geologic evidence between 1700 and 1900. Blue lines show subduction zones where major tsunami-causing quakes could occur.

    CREDIT: ROBERT MCCAFFREY

    But it is hard to overcome complacency. Hong Kong Observatory monitors tsunamis, but it is not bracing for a big one. “Hong Kong has not been seriously affected by any tsunami in recorded history,” says a note on the observatory's Web site.

    Sieh notes that even less is known about past tectonic activity along the Ryukyu Arc, home to the islands of Japan's Okinawa Prefecture. But the available evidence is unsettling. Four times in the past 6000 years the islands appear to have suddenly and significantly been thrust upward. Sieh suspects the cause was movement along the subduction zone fault in this region, which could have also produced tsunamis. The Ryukyu Arc faces Shanghai, he notes, and a major earthquake there could send a wave in the direction of one of China's most vibrant regions. He is unaware of any modeling of such a tsunami.

    The biggest gap in the tsunami record may be the islands scattered across the middle of the Pacific. There the historical record is even sparser than it is for countries on the ocean's rim. The isles that make up the Cook Islands and French Polynesia are vulnerable to tsunamis generated both by faraway subduction zones and by local volcanic eruptions and submarine landslides. The typical Pacific island “doesn't understand its tsunami hazard,” says James Goff, a tsunami scientist at UNSW and the husband of Catherine Chagué-Goff.

    Goff and others who are trying to fill that gap have found telltale sand layers and other possible indicators of large prehistoric tsunamis. “The evidence is there; you just have to look,” he says. In remote regions, recent tsunamis are sometimes missed. Goff and colleagues discovered that a small tsunami struck an uninhabited coast of Mangaia, one of the Cook Islands, on 13 April 2010. It had a maximum inundation of 100 meters and was most likely caused by a submarine slope failure, the team reported earlier this year in Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences. Although that tsunami caused no harm, a similar-sized one striking a coastal community would be devastating, Goff says. Indeed, ancient tsunamis may have had a major impact on Polynesian settlement patterns and culture (see sidebar, p 1342).

    Piecing together a picture of ancient tsunamis in the Pacific could illuminate both the region's tectonic past and the risk of future tsunamis, Goff says. Although more-informed risk assessments are a laudable goal, Bourgeois says, she is skeptical about unraveling the tectonic history of the Pacific anytime soon. In the Pacific Northwest, she says, it has been difficult to correlate paleotsunami deposits from one bay to another, let alone link far-flung evidence.

    There is a meeting of the minds on one point: The Tohoku disaster should send a powerful message that better clues to current tsunami risk can be found in the geological—rather than the historical—record. Hard evidence of where tsunamis hit in the past, and where they are likely to hit again, are written in the sand.

  6. Tsunami Research

    Did Tsunamis Influence Polynesian History?

    1. Dennis Normile

    The hunt for ancient tsunamis in the Pacific is turning up evidence of prehistoric catastrophes that may have changed the settlement patterns of prehistoric Polynesians.

    The hunt for ancient tsunamis in the Pacific is turning up evidence of prehistoric catastrophes. In excavations on Futuna, the Cook Islands, and other Pacific isles over the past 15 years, researchers on several teams have found occupation layers—middens, cooking fire ash, animal bones, and shells—overlain by sand deposits left by tsunamis. They have also found signs that settlements moved inland and uphill, possibly returning to shore later. “You see [this pattern] time after time in the archaeological record,” says one team's leader, James Goff, a tsunami scientist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. “They were still living off coastal resources but in a safer location.”

    Radiating across the Pacific starting around 300 B.C.E., Polynesians were coastal dwellers who relied on oceangoing canoes for trade and fishing and grew crops just inland from the beach. If a tsunami were to strike, “their canoes, crops, any means of communicating with neighboring islands, could all have been knocked out,” Goff says. After a major tsunami, settlements on neighboring islands may have been hit hard, too, and been unable to help. In the worst case, a tsunami could have wiped out traditional knowledge about toolmaking and agriculture. “You end up with less sophisticated cultures,” says Goff, who presented findings on how tsunamis shaped prehistoric Polynesian culture at the American Geophysical Union meeting earlier this week. Tsunamis may have had a similar effect on Maori settlements in prehistoric New Zealand, Goff and Bruce McFadgen, an archaeologist at Victoria University of Wellington, argue in a series of papers and in Hostile Shores, a book that McFadgen published in 2007.

    Unsafe shores?

    Digs on Pacific isles, like Futuna, may indicate tsunamis pushed settlements inland.

    CREDIT: BERNARD PELLETIER

    Their argument challenges mainstream archaeological thinking, which holds to a more gradual inland migration. “Movement inland occurred generally in Pacific islands and New Zealand settlement sequences as population density expanded and agricultural economies expanded,” Atholl Anderson, an archaeologist at the Australian National University in Canberra, wrote in an e-mail to Science. “There are no abrupt points of settlement movement as might have occurred in response to tsunamis, and coastal settlement remained predominant throughout prehistory.”

    Others find the idea that tsunamis shaped prehistoric Polynesia plausible. Eric Force, an archaeologist at the University of Arizona, Tucson, says Goff's and McFadgen's claims fit with his own findings that proximity to active faults had a clear impact on ancient civilizations in the Middle East and the Americas, influencing city planning, cultural and religious beliefs, and literature. More recently, anticipation of recurring earthquakes affected how Lisbon, San Francisco, and Mexico City were rebuilt after earthquakes in 1755, 1906, and 1985. “If we can see modern dynamics of tectonically driven cultural change, there seems little reason to doubt that these operated in antiquity,” Force says. “Archaeologists have a hard time with the idea that there is any cultural impact of tectonic activity.”

    The devastation wrought by the 11 March tsunami provides more evidence, Goff says. Many coastal villages lost entire fishing fleets. Hundreds of hectares of paddies were inundated and rendered too salty to grow rice this year. It took the Japanese government up to 10 days to reestablish communications and transportation links with some isolated towns. What happened in Japan could easily have brought prehistoric Polynesian settlements to their knees, Goff says.

    McFadgen acknowledges that the case for tsunami-driven migration is not ironclad. “We can see the movement of settlements inland, but the reasons for this are uncertain, and it is inference that the cause was tsunami inundation,” he says. It will remain a hypothesis, he says, “until other archaeologists get out and look in the field and see whether it stands up.” He hopes archaeologists will pay more attention to sand layers in digs that may verify—or unravel—what Goff calls “the tsunami story” in Polynesian archaeology.

  7. Citation Impact

    Saudi Universities Offer Cash in Exchange for Academic Prestige

    1. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

    Two Saudi institutions are aggressively acquiring the affiliations of overseas scientists with an eye to gaining visibility in research journals.

    Shiny.

    King Abdulaziz University's steps to gain visibility are controversial.

    CREDIT: AMMAR SHAKER/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

    At first glance, Robert Kirshner took the e-mail message for a scam. An astronomer at King Abdulaziz University (KAU) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, was offering him a contract for an adjunct professorship that would pay $72,000 a year. Kirshner, an astrophysicist at Harvard University, would be expected to supervise a research group at KAU and spend a week or two a year on KAU's campus, but that requirement was flexible, the person making the offer wrote in the e-mail. What Kirshner would be required to do, however, was add King Abdulaziz University as a second affiliation to his name on the Institute for Scientific Information's (ISI's) list of highly cited researchers.

    “I thought it was a joke,” says Kirshner, who forwarded the e-mail to his department chair, noting in jest that the money was a lot more attractive than the 2% annual raise professors typically get. Then he discovered that a highly cited colleague at another U.S. institution had accepted KAU's offer, adding KAU as a second affiliation on ISIhighlycited.com.

    Kirshner's colleague is not alone. Science has learned of more than 60 top-ranked researchers from different scientific disciplines—all on ISI's highly cited list—who have recently signed a part-time employment arrangement with the university that is structured along the lines of what Kirshner was offered. Meanwhile, a bigger, more prominent Saudi institution—King Saud University in Riyadh—has climbed several hundred places in international rankings in the past 4 years largely through initiatives specifically targeted toward attaching KSU's name to research publications, regardless of whether the work involved any meaningful collaboration with KSU researchers.

    Academics both inside and outside Saudi Arabia warn that such practices could detract from the genuine efforts that Saudi Arabia's universities are making to transform themselves into world-class research centers. For instance, the Saudi government has spent billions of dollars to build the new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Thuwal, which boasts state-of-the-art labs and dozens of prominent researchers as full-time faculty members (Science, 16 October 2009, p. 354).

    But the initiatives at KSU and KAU are aimed at getting speedier results. “They are simply buying names,” says Mohammed Al-Qunaibet, a professor of agricultural economics at KSU, who recently criticized the programs in an article he wrote for the leading Saudi newspaper, Al Hayat. Teddi Fishman, director of the Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University in South Carolina, says the programs deliberately create “a false impression that these universities are producing great research.”

    Academics who have accepted KAU's offer represent a wide variety of faculty from elite institutions in the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia, and Australia. All are men. Some are emeritus professors who have recently retired from their home institutions. All have changed their affiliation on ISI's highly cited list—as required by KAU's contract—and some have added KAU as an affiliation on research papers. Other requirements in the contract include devoting “the whole of your time, attention, skill and abilities to the performance of your duties” and doing “work equivalent to a total of 4 months per contract period.”

    Neil Robertson, a professor emeritus of mathematics at Ohio State University in Columbus who has signed on, says he has no concerns about the offer. “It's just capitalism,” he says. “They have the capital and they want to build something out of it.” Another KAU affiliate, astronomer Gerry Gilmore of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, notes that “universities buy people's reputations all the time. In principle, this is no different from Harvard hiring a prominent researcher.”

    Officials at KAU did not respond to Science's request for an interview. But Surender Jain, a retired mathematics professor from Ohio University in Athens who is an adviser to KAU and has helped recruit several of the adjuncts, provided a list of 61 academics who have signed contracts similar to the one sent to Kirshner. The financial arrangements in the contracts vary, Jain says: For instance, some adjuncts will receive their compensation not as salary but as part of a research grant provided by KAU.

    Jain acknowledges that a primary goal of the program—funded by Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Higher Education—is to “improve the visibility and ranking of King Abdulaziz University.” But he says KAU also hopes the foreign academics will help it kick-start indigenous research programs. “We're not just giving away money,” he says. Most recruits will be expected to visit for a total of 4 weeks in a year to “give crash courses”; they will also be expected to supervise dissertations and help KAU's full-time faculty members develop research proposals. Even the “shadows” of such eminent scholars would inspire local students and faculty members, he says.

    The recruits Science spoke to say they have a genuine interest in promoting research at KAU, even though none of them knew how their individual research plans would match up with the interests and abilities of KAU's faculty members and students. Ray Carlberg, an astronomer at the University of Toronto in Canada who accepted the offer, says he had to Google the university after he received the e-mail. He admits that he was initially concerned that KAU might be simply buying his name but became convinced that the university was sincere about tapping his expertise in doing research. Carlberg has submitted a proposal to KAU to fund a telescope that he wants to build on an island in the Canadian Arctic; if that proposal is accepted, he says, there would be opportunities to involve faculty members and students from KAU in the project.

    “Yes, visibility is very important to them, but they also want to start a Ph.D. program in mathematics,” says Robertson, who says he hopes outside influence will help accelerate social reforms in the oil-rich kingdom. “I'm thinking this might be a breath of fresh air in a closed society.”

    Jain says KAU has taken a cue from KSU, which launched a major drive 3 years ago to boost its international ranking. The man behind it was Abdullah Al-Othman, who earned a Ph.D. in nutritional sciences from the University of Arizona in 1992 and was an undersecretary in the Saudi Ministry of Higher Education before he was appointed president of KSU in 2008.

    Al-Othman took over at a time when Saudi universities were being criticized in the Saudi media for their poor showing in international university rankings. Out of 3000 universities ranked by Webometrics in 2006, KSU ranked 2910th while KAU fared only slightly better at 2785th. King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM), another leading Saudi institution, was ranked 1681. None of these universities was in the top 500 list published by the Shanghai-based Academic Ranking of World Universities in 2008.

    Al-Othman launched two programs at KSU to turn things around. One was the Distinguished Scientist Fellowship Program (DSFP), whose Web site says it aims to “increase the number of highly cited researchers affiliated with KSU” and to “initiate joint research activities between International researcher [sic] who have the potential to publish in Nature and Science Journals.” The other initiative was a visiting professorship program, whose contract—a copy of which has been obtained by Science—stipulates that the visiting professor should publish five articles per year in ISI-indexed journals. The contract also offers to pay the visiting professor an amount for every paper co-authored with KSU's staffin an ISI-listed publication.

    Inviting.

    King Saud University has boosted rankings by overseas links.

    CREDIT: ALI JAREKJI/LANDOV

    Al-Othman wanted quick results, and he got them. KSU soon signed on several top-ranked scientists from Europe, Asia, and the United States, who sent the number of KSU-affiliated publications zooming to 1211 in 2010, nearly three times the figure for 2008. Little of the work these articles describe was done at KSU, says Abdulqader Alhaider, a pharmacology professor at KSU. As a result, in 2010, KSU broke into the 300-to-400 bracket of universities in the Shanghai rankings; the September 2011 Shanghai rankings placed it in the 200-to-300 bracket. On Webometrics's latest ranking, KSU is at 186th place—far ahead of where it was in 2006. (KFUPM—which has made a similar push for prestige—is now in the 300-to-400 bracket in the Shanghai rankings.)

    In their criticisms of Al-Othman's impact-raising strategy, Alhaider and Al-Qunaibet point to its effects on the publication record of Khaled Al-Rasheid, a zoologist who directs DSFP. Al-Rasheid started as a professor at KSU in 1992 after completing a Ph.D. at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom on the effect of heavy metals on ciliates. For the next 15 years at the university, he averaged about four research publications a year, many of them in Middle Eastern journals.

    Since 2008, however—when the university started DSFP under his leadership—Al-Rasheid has become amazingly prolific. He has been a co-author of 139 research papers, including 49 papers in 2010 and 36 to date this year. Most of these publications, co-authored with researchers around the world, acknowledge financial support from the Center of Excellence for Research in Biodiversity at KSU, which Al-Rasheid directs. Some of the papers have been co-authored with researchers hired by KSU under the distinguished scientist program. One paper, on the biochemistry of Venus flytraps—published in October in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences—listed seven co-authors in addition to Al-Rasheid, including Nobelist Erwin Neher of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen and Rainer Hedrich of the University of Würzberg, both in Germany. Neher and Hedrich are both distinguished fellows at KSU.

    Speaking to Science, Al-Rasheid acknowledged that the dramatic increase in his footprint in the scientific literature had come about as a result of money invested by KSU. But he denied that he had earned authorship on any paper by virtue of the university's providing financial support or direct compensation to foreign researchers. He said he'd simply been working hard, noting that he was calling this reporter from his office at close to midnight in Saudi Arabia, “and it's still early for me.” He also explained that in his field of taxonomy, “results are swift—even 70 to 80 papers a year is not unusual. I have been to so many conferences over the years. I have started so many collaborations. I am lucky that I could attract so many people to work with me.”

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