News this Week

Science  23 Dec 2011:
Vol. 334, Issue 6063, pp. 1610
  1. Around the World

    1 - Washington, D.C.
    U.S. Panel: Human Research Needs Closer Tracking
    2 - Belitung Island, Indonesia
    Smithsonian Scuppers Indonesian Shipwreck Exhibit
    3 - Dublin
    Edgy Gallery Going Global
    4 - Washington, D.C.
    U.S. Grows Program For High-tech Start-Ups
    5 - Rome
    Funding Snag Delays Italy's SuperB Collider

    Washington, D.C.

    U.S. Panel: Human Research Needs Closer Tracking

    A presidential ethics panel last week found that people who volunteer for federally funded research both in this country and abroad are well-protected by federal ethics rules. But there is room for improvement. The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues examined the rules protecting research subjects in response to the revelation last year that in the late 1940s, U.S. researchers deliberately exposed more than 1300 Guatemalans to sexually transmitted diseases ( It found that in the decades since, strong rules protecting human research subjects have been developed. “The commission is confident that what happened in Guatemala in the 1940s could not happen today,” said commission chair Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania.

    However, the commission's report makes 14 recommendations for strengthening these protections. One is that the 18 U.S. agencies that conduct most human studies—more than 55,000 in 2010—should post basic details online to improve transparency. The United States should also study whether there is a need for a national compensation system for injured research subjects.

    Belitung Island, Indonesia

    Smithsonian Scuppers Indonesian Shipwreck Exhibit

    Smithsonian Institution officials have taken a 180-degree turn and decided to cancel a controversial exhibit of shipwreck artifacts due to ethical concerns about how the artifacts were salvaged. The institution is now strongly backing re-excavation of the original shipwreck, which lies off the coast of Indonesia, according to a 14 December press release from the Smithsonian.


    Artifacts from a 9th century shipwreck off Indonesia won't be displayed at the Smithsonian.


    Originally scheduled to open in 2012, Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds contains imperial-quality silver, gold, and ceramic artifacts salvaged from a 9th century ship. The exhibit has been dogged by controversy since last February. At the time several major American archaeological associations wrote to Smithsonian Institution Secretary Wayne Clough, charging that the excavator, a private German company called Seabed Explorations GbR, failed to meet crucial scientific standards while excavating a ship of international significance.

    For many nautical archaeologists who have been fighting to preserve the world's shipwrecks from treasure hunters and looters, the real importance of the Smithsonian decision this week is the message it sends to the international community. “I think it shows everyone that nations shouldn't allow treasure hunting,” says Johnston. “You really can't put a price on underwater cultural heritage.”


    Edgy Gallery Going Global

    The Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin, an Irish center that seeks to merge art and science and is aimed at visitors aged 15 to 25, is going global. The center, which opened in 2008, has received a €1 million gift from—the software giant's philanthropic arm—to kick-start a network of eight similar centers around the globe.

    Dublin's Science Gallery runs free, temporary exhibitions and draws in artists and designers to explore scientific concepts. A group of 50 scientists, artists, engineers, technologists, and entrepreneurs brainstorms twice a year to come up with themes and ideas, which have included contagion, water, and the future of fashion. The 18 exhibitions so far have drawn 800,000 visitors.

    Art and science.

    An image from “Hydrogeny,” an exhibit at the Dublin Science Gallery about hydrogen.


    With Google's seed money, the plan is to launch two spinoffs by 2014; negotiations are underway with venues in London and Moscow, says Michael John Gorman, the founding director of the Dublin Science Gallery. The ultimate goal is eight galleries worldwide by 2020, each of which should function as a “porous membrane” between a university and a city; urban locations are vital, Gorman says. And, he adds, the centers should seek to bridge science and the world of art and design.

    Washington, D.C.

    U.S. Grows Program For High-Tech Start-Ups

    Congress has increased how much 11 federal research agencies must contribute to two long-running, competitive grants programs for science entrepreneurs. University lobbyists don't like the bigger set-aside, however, saying that the money would be better spent on funding more basic research.

    This year, the agencies will spend $2.3 billion on the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, which provides companies with nearly $1 million in two phases to get their technology ready for the marketplace. A smaller relative aimed at university start-ups, the Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program will disburse $275 million.

    The new law, 5 years in the making, gradually raises the SBIR tax from its current level of 2.5% of an agency's research budget to 3.2% by 2017, and the STTR allocation from 0.3% to 0.45%. By 2017, agencies would be spending an additional $750 million on the two programs. The changes are part of a massive annual reauthorization of programs at the Department of Defense, which contributes about half of the overall SBIR-STTR funding. The 6-year bill stabilizes activities that have received numerous short-term extensions since its last reauthorization in 2001.


    Funding Snag Delays Italy's SuperB Collider

    The start of construction of the €650 million SuperB particle collider in Italy has been delayed at least a year following difficulties in releasing project funding. Work on the tunnels for the facility's circular accelerator has been put back from the end of this year to the beginning of 2013, but project scientists say they are confident this will not impact plans to carry out its first collisions in 2016.

    Some have expressed skepticism that SuperB will ever get built, with Italy remaining close to bankruptcy. But Marcello Giorgi of the University of Pisa, who is leading the project's technical design team, says that the government has given no signs it will cut research funding.

    The Italian government has promised to provide €250 million to build the SuperB accelerator, with additional funding to come from Italy's Institute of Technology and National Institute for Nuclear Physics, as well as the United States, France, and Russia. The first tranche of government money, worth €19 million, was expected to be available early this year. But prolonged negotiations involved in setting up the Cabibbo laboratory, which will house the collider, and a time-consuming bank transfer meant that the funds are only now ready to use, Giorgi says.

  2. Random Sample

    They Said It

    “Jules Hoffman was not very supportive of the genetics approach I had undertaken. … [He] never provided any ideas for my project, being very far from the realities of experimental bench work.”

    —Fruit fly geneticist Bruno LeMaitre, who set up a Web site to claim that he did most of the work for which Hoffman, his former supervisor, received this year's Nobel Prize for medicine or physiology.

    “I cannot feel any guilt at all.”

    —Jules Hoffman, when asked about LeMaitre's complaint.

    Archaeology: So Punk Rock


    The word “archaeology” may conjure images of ages-old ruins and excavations, but the research of two British archaeologists paints a different picture. The scientists have been investigating a more modern kind of relic: graffiti drawn on the walls of a London apartment in the mid-1970s by members of the band the Sex Pistols. Those images, the researchers say in an article published this month in Antiquity, pictorially preserve the band's iconic punk ethos during its seminal years.

    While renting the flat at 6 Denmark Street, the band recorded a bootleg demo album, 1977's Spunk, which became the prototype for their studio album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols. The band members drew crude, rambunctious pictures and remarks on the apartment's walls: a snaggletoothed drawing of Johnny Rotten captioned “Rotten Bastard”; a nude Nancy Spungen (“Nanny Spunger”) smoking a cigarette and waving.

    The line drawings and obscenities were unknown to academia, but were no secret to the artists and shop owners who later occupied the flat, including members of pop band Bananarama, who lived in the building in the early 1980s and added graffiti of their own. The building now houses a guitar shop.

    There aren't any plans to formally preserve the site, says Paul Graves-Brown, an unaffiliated researcher who conducted the research with University of York archaeologist John Schofield. But the graffiti has undergone a sort of “informal process of preservation,” with the building's occupants realizing and respecting its historical importance, he says. “It's a snapshot of the social relationships that existed between the members of the group.”

  3. The Top 10 ScienceNOWs of 2011

    At the end of every year, we take a look back at some of our favorite and most popular stories. Here are the top 10, including our most read story of all time. Visit to read the full stories and view multi media, including our year in pictures.

    Graphic Scientists Play World's Oldest Commercial Record


    No one's found a way to time travel (as far as we know), but this study comes close. Using a 3D optical scanning technique, researchers have played what may be the first record intended for sale to the general public. Check out the audio clip to hear a haunting voice singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”—a recording made 123 years ago.

    Graphic How Humans Got Spineless Penises and Big Brains

    CREDIT: C. MCLEAN ET AL., NATURE 471 (10 MARCH 2011)

    Some questions you probably didn't even think to ask. Like, why does the human penis lack spines? This study has the answer, and it gives clues to the evolution of our big brains as well.

    Graphic The Physics of Wine Swirling


    Here's one you can impress your friends with at a cocktail party: As you swirl your merlot, tell your companions that physicists have figured out the forces at play when we slosh our wine. (You can even show them a video.) And if you spill your drink, take comfort in the fact that the scientists have figured out why that happens, too.

    Graphic Carnivorous Plant Feasts on Bat Dung


    The Raffles' pitcher plant has evolved into a curious object: a toilet for bats. The carnivorous plant is bad at catching insects, so it has developed a narrow pitcher that bats sleep in—and which they also use as a bathroom, leaving nutritious excrement behind.

    Graphic Hubble Confirms Nature of Mysterious Green Blob


    In 2007, a Dutch school teacher spotted something strange in the night sky: a glowing green smudge of light approximately 650 million light-years away. The object, which became known as Hanny's Voorwerp, is one of the most mysterious in the universe. Scientists say they may have finally figured out what it is.

    Graphic Diver Snaps First Photo of Fish Using Tools


    Humans and chimps use tools, sure. But fish? Yes, say researchers, who, after analyzing a video shot by a professional diver, have concluded that the blackspot tuskfish uses a rock as a tool to smash up clams. Not everyone agrees, including some of our readers. Check out the spirited discussion in the comments section.

    Graphic Sex-Crazed Astrologer Was a Stellar Records Keeper


    The headline alone is one of our favorites of the year. But if you dig deeper, you'll discover the fascinating story of a 17th century astrologer who, though considered a quack by his fellow physicians, has provided modern-day researchers with the most extensive and systematic set of known medical records from his era.

    Graphic Convince Your Friends You're a Genius With Two Cans and Some Sand


    Feel free to try this one at home. Take two tin cans, one with the top removed and the other with both ends cut out to form a tube, and shove them into some sand, top first. Surprisingly, the can with the closed bottom sinks faster as you push it, exactly the opposite of what happens in water. Now physicists have figured out what's going on.

    Graphic Sex After a Field Trip Yields Scientific First


    Sometimes scientists bring their work home with them. After returning from a field trip to Senegal, a biologist appears to have transmitted the Zika virus to his wife by having sex with her. If true, the researcher inadvertently wrote virological history, providing the first documented case of sexual transmission of an insect-borne disease.

    Graphic And the number one story is …

    Perhaps it was the Britney Spears reference. Or maybe we just highlighted a curious phenomenon that people couldn't quite put their finger on. Either way, this article really struck a nerve, becoming our most popular of all time. To find out what it is, visit

  4. Archaeology

    America's Lost City

    1. Andrew Lawler

    New excavations reveal surprising dimensions to North America's oldest city and its great earthen monuments.

    Cahokia central.

    The majestic Monks Mound lay at the heart of the sprawling ancient city.


    EAST ST. LOUIS, ILLINOIS—Today, this city block is a vast, weedy lot next to a highway in a depressed industrial town. A century ago, it was a notorious red-light district catering to ranchers bringing cattle to a stockyard. But a millennium ago, this strategic spot along the Mississippi River was an affluent neighborhood of Native Americans, set amid the largest concentration of people and monumental architecture north of what is now Mexico.

    Back then, hundreds of well-thatched rectangular houses, carefully aligned along the cardinal directions, stood here, over-shadowed by dozens of enormous earthen mounds flanked by large ceremonial plazas. To the east was another concentration of mounds and people—the settlement called Cahokia by today's archaeologists—and to the west across the broad Mississippi was a third center of mounds and houses at what is modern St. Louis. Cahokia proper was the only pre-Columbian city north of the Rio Grande, and it was large even by European and Mesoamerican standards of the day, drawing immigrants from hundreds of kilometers around to live, work, and participate in mass ceremonies.

    Now the new excavations suggest a far larger, complex metropolis. “It's an early example of urban sprawl,” says archaeologist Patrick Durst of the Illinois Department of Transportation. He is coordinating more than 50 workers at the East St. Louis dig, who were busy shoveling, mapping, and conferring in the hot autumn sun one day this fall. Their work is urgent: A new highway and a bridge over the Mississippi will soon destroy the remnants of the site.

    The $2.5 million dig is yielding big surprises for researchers, who had thought that the 19th century industrial city here wiped out the ancient remains dating as far back as 1000 C.E. Researchers have long known about the monumental earthen mounds at Cahokia, the primary ceremonial center 10 kilometers to the east, but no one expected to find traces of a large settlement west of that site. Now Durst's team has uncovered not just house foundations, but incised pottery and exotic goods made of copper, lead, and basalt from distant sources, showing the wealth of the inhabitants. “It's phenomenal,” says archaeologist John Kelly of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, who has worked at Cahokia for more than 4 decades but is not involved in the East St. Louis dig. “We were caught totally off guard.”

    Mound man.

    John Kelly focuses on central Cahokia's complexity.


    The excavations to date suggest that Cahokia was part of a large urban complex, one organized differently from other cities. “This was a metropolitan area,” perhaps home to as many as 50,000 people, “and you were a day's walk or canoe ride from one end to the other,” says Thomas Emerson of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who directs the Illinois State Archaeological Survey (ISAS). The reach of this metropolis extended for hundreds of kilometers: Other researchers are finding settlements as far north as Wisconsin, apparently established by Cahokians.

    The nature of this society's organization and beliefs, as well as the reasons for its abrupt demise around 1300 C.E., remain hotly debated. A string of new finds from the bayous of Louisiana to the Great Lakes is prompting a mini-renaissance in the field, however, even as new development threatens to destroy ancient settlements (see sidebar, p. 1623). Scientists are also rethinking the evolution of mound-building societies, whose roots stretch back even earlier than the grand civilizations of Mesoamerica (see sidebar, p. 1620). “There's a growing realization that eastern Native American societies are more complicated and nuanced than previously imagined,” says Tristram R. Kidder, an archaeologist at Washington University in St. Louis. “It's a different way of thinking.”

    An urban phenomenon?

    At the core of this new thinking is Cahokia, which lies in the lush American Bottom, a 450-square-kilometer floodplain on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River, roughly halfway between the Mississippi's source and its delta (see map). In the 19th century, this fertile land drew white settlers, who dismissed the enormous earthen mounds as natural formations or the product of Vikings or the lost tribes of Israel. As recently as the 1950s, a popular scientific theory touted ancient Mayans rather than Native Americans as the mounds' creators. Mostly, the mounds were ignored and then destroyed.

    By the 1860s, all but one of the 20 mounds in booming St. Louis had been leveled. Just across the river, double that number in East St. Louis were razed as that city began to prosper. In Cahokia, further to the east, more than 100 mounds formed a ceremonial center measuring more than 7 square kilometers; thanks to their more rural location, many of these survived. The largest structure, Monks Mound, named for Trappist brothers who built a 19th century monastery on its side, was at the center of four great plazas and surrounded by ancillary mounds. The monument has a base as large as the Great Pyramid of Giza and a circumference greater than the Pyramid of the Sun at Mexico's Teotihuacan. Towering 30 meters above the flat landscape and built solely of soil, the rectangular structure was topped with a 30-meter-long by 15-meter-wide building that may have risen several stories above that.

    Mounds along the Mississippi.

    Cahokia flourished in Illinois's American Bottom (left inset), but northeastern Louisiana (right inset) is home to the earliest mounds (blue dots).

    Rich digs.

    Work in East St. Louis (above), led by Thomas Emerson and Joseph Galloy (below, left to right), has uncovered luxury items like this stone figure (inset).


    “If you found this in the Mayan lowlands, there would be no doubt this was a city,” says John Clark, a Mesoamerican specialist at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. “It would be a top 10 of all Mesoamerican cities.”

    People gathered at the ceremonial core of Cahokia for important ceremonies that researchers speculate transcended tribal differences. After a single feast that may have lasted weeks, participants left behind the remains of an astonishing 9000 deer. One Cahokia mound revealed huge quantities of bird bones and broken pots, along with fossilized flesh- and vegetation-eating beetles, blow fly larvae, and ants. These are “precisely the ones you would see today if you left a bunch of food in a hole at Cahokia,” says archaeologist Timothy Pauketat of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who published that find in 2002 in American Antiquity. The presence of pumpkins and other fall vegetables points to an autumnal festival, he adds. Because Cahokia appeared to lack vibrant trade, division of labor, and a clear hierarchy, and because there are no written records and few burials, many considered it an elaborate seasonal encampment rather than a true urban area.

    Urban planning?

    Cahokia, reconstructed here, was a complex community.


    But more recent excavations, such as Emerson's current project in East St. Louis and work in Cahokia by Kelly and archaeologist James Brown of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, show that the area was busy throughout the year, and that settlements were extensive and likely permanent. In the July issue of the Journal of Archaeological Sciences, Kelly, Brown, and colleagues describe eight copper nuggets found on one small Cahokia mound. They conclude that Cahokians crafted copper sheets by repeatedly heating the metal over an open wood fire and hammering it, then cutting it into shapes. Kelly says drinking cups found nearby, associated with hunter and warrior rituals, suggest this was a combination workshop and men's club.

    The big bang

    The gatherings at Cahokia began around 1000 C.E., when the American Bottom began to draw people from all over the region, according to radiocarbon and ceramic dating. Pauketat and Kelly both argue that mound alignments reinforce the idea of seasonal ceremonies as a key part of the draw. Some mounds line up with the position of the sun at the winter solstice dawn, while others are oriented to its position at the equinoxes. The researchers speculate that a rash of surprising astronomical events, such as Halley's Comet of 989 C.E. followed by the supernova of 1006 C.E., may have sparked a religious and political movement in a culture that kept close watch on the sky.

    Seeking clues to that spark, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, anthropologist Casey Barrier is excavating an 8.2-square-hectare cornfield close to the Mississippi River 64 kilometers south of Cahokia. Radiocarbon and ceramic dating put the complex between 1000 and 1050 C.E., after which it was completely abandoned. The short time span provides a rare window into the moment Mississippian culture began to organize in a more complex way. So far, Barrier's as-yet-unpublished work shows that rather than construct a traditional village of simple rectangular huts, the 100 to 200 inhabitants created a massive plaza and three mounds on virgin land. They also built 40 or so houses, some with courtyards. But they abandoned them all within a generation or two—possibly, he says, to join the growing crowds at Cahokia.

    Back at Monks Mound, scientists are reconsidering their old assumption that the massive project, which required moving 6 million baskets of dirt (assuming 1 cubic foot of earth per basket), took generations to complete. After 2007 excavations, Timothy Schilling, now an archaeologist at the University of Indiana, Bloomington, found little evidence of erosion or organic matter collection at the mound, as would be expected in long-term construction. Based on radiocarbon dating, he concludes that the mound took fewer than 20 years to complete and may have been built in as little as two-and-a-half years, with the most likely construction date around 1100 C.E. “The implication is that there is a large population in the area,” at least temporarily, he says. “A lot of people from the American Bottom came together here.”

    Casey at the mound.

    Casey Barrier probes a site that flourished south of Cahokia, then abruptly fell.


    Archaeologists dub this population influx and spurt of monumental building “the big bang,” and see it across the American Bottom and nearby uplands. “There's a magnet factor,” says archaeologist Robert Beck of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. By 1050 C.E., new arrivals from around the Midwest settled here and adopted Cahokian pottery and other goods, says Pauketat, who is excavating outside the city. By its heyday in the 12th century, central Cahokia around Monks Mound may have been home to 10,000 to 20,000 people, by far the largest concentration of people north of Mexico until the late 18th century, Kelly says. But he cautions that the estimate is based on guesswork, given the mounds' destruction and the few settlement excavations.

    The flurry of new digs, both salvage work and academic projects, provide welcome new data. In East St. Louis, excavators are examining nearly 60 hectares that will be affected by the new road and bridge. (State and local laws require and fund archaeological salvage work for highway projects.) Only a fraction of the site has been dug, and most of the finds have yet to be analyzed and published, but researchers have so far uncovered foundations for more than 500 rectangular wood-and-thatch houses, as well as pipestone, red jasper jewelry and evidence of workshops where raw materials were transformed into luxury goods.

    Emerson and his colleagues conclude that Cahokia proper may be just the eastern end of a sophisticated, sprawling metropolis stretching across 13 kilometers on both sides of the Mississippi. “One of the biggest misconceptions is that East St. Louis and Cahokia are separate entities,” Emerson says. Joseph Galloy, who is overseeing the overall East St. Louis work for the ISAS project, calls Greater Cahokia “a real urban phenomenon.” Settlement studies suggest that the entire American Bottom may have been home to as many as 75,000 people, Schilling adds.

    Some archaeologists like Kelly don't see firm evidence for a single continuous settlement, however, because much of the area between Cahokia and East St. Louis has never been excavated or has been badly disturbed. But there is little dispute that the area held an impressive concentration of people. Greater Cahokia, however, likely did not have the concentrated density of European or Mayan cities, Schilling says; it may have been more like the modern American urban sprawl that has obliterated many of the ancient remains.

    From colonies to collapse

    What drew people to this region, however, remains obscure. The urban area does not seem to have been based on trade, yet archaeologists have recently found increasing signs of long-distance networks. The Ozark Mountains, a few hundred kilometers to the west, “were the Walmart of Cahokia,” Emerson, says providing copper, hematite, and basalt for a region lacking stone. Teeth of great white sharks, likely from the Atlantic Coast, were found near Monks Mound. One of the most dramatic finds in East St. Louis is a pile of chips of pipestone from more than 500 kilometers away in Wisconsin, as well as unfinished ear spools—large round earrings—manufactured on the spot from this distinctive stone. Finished spools of the same design have been found in Aztalan, a town from the same era located 80 km west of Milwaukee. These appear to be imports of Cahokian finished goods, made with raw material from Wisconsin, Emerson says.

    Growing evidence suggests that Cahokia served not just as a magnet for goods and people but as a colonizing force. Throughout the American Bottom and along its edges, towns conform to a remarkably similar pattern of large central plazas, mounds, and houses with courtyards, which are repeated on a smaller scale at more distant settlements.

    More than 600 kilometers to the north, at Trempealeau, Wisconsin, for example, Pauketat and independent researcher Robert Boszhardt are excavating a settlement of as many as 300 people that includes Mississippian houses, chert, and pottery dating to the 11th century C.E. “It's pure Cahokia,” Pauketat says. They have found a particular type of sparkly sandstone that was carved into objects and which, along with the blue pipestone, may have been part of the allure of this northern region. Surveys hint at additional Cahokian-style villages nearby.

    However widespread Cahokia's influence, it was short-lived. Populations in the middle Mississippi region leveled off by 1100 C.E. Near the end of the 12th century, fires destroyed part of the East St. Louis settlement, and the site was abandoned. At about the same time, an impressive palisade was built at Cahokia, 3 kilometers in length and enclosing nearly 200 hectares, including Monks Mound and the Grand Plaza. Most larger Mississippian towns from then on were fortified. A century later, Cahokia itself was abandoned, and the number and size of settlements dwindle in much of the middle Mississippi Valley until after European contact.

    The nature of the traumatic events, separated by about 100 years, that eventually felled the city remains a mystery. Among the suspects are droughts, floods, deforestation, and an ideological crisis. Pauketat, hydrologist Larry Benson of the U.S. Geological Survey in Boulder, Colorado, and a colleague examined tree rings from the area dating back to 1000 C.E. They reported in 2009 in American Antiquities that the succeeding 3 centuries were climatically volatile. A wet phase in the 1st century—the period of the big bang—was followed by recurring droughts, including one in the 1160s and 1170s shortly before or during the first crisis, as well as a century later, when Cahokia was largely abandoned. Shortages of wood or food may have also been involved. Corn production was modest, and Cahokians at the height of their urban experiment were dependent on wild game and wild and semi-domesticated plants like amaranth, goosefoot, and canary grass, Pauketat says.

    Measuring mud.

    Tristram Kidder sees climate change as key to the mound builders' rise and fall.


    He believes that climate change, however, was only one factor. “We're likely looking at a political problem” exacerbated by drought, Pauketat says. Settlements to the south were also affected by drought but did not collapse. But how Cahokians governed themselves and what they believed remain speculation. Traditions of modern Native Americans, such as the Osage of the Plains, may offer hints. Some tribes' cosmic origin stories, for example, center on a lower, middle, and upper world, associated respectively with black, white, and red or yellow. The interior of many mounds includes carefully laid-out levels of black earth, white gravel, and red or yellow soil. Cardinal directions play an important role in many tribal rituals, as they did in the carefully aligned structures of Cahokia. Mississippian sites sometimes include images of a bird, similar to a sacred bird featured in many Native American beliefs as a messenger of the spirit world, Kelly says.

    Along with such ethnographic study, researchers at the University of Illinois and the University of Indiana are starting to conduct DNA and isotopic studies on the rare pieces of animal and human bone recovered from the region's acidic soil. Cahokia's mysteries are even drawing foreign interest: A team from Italy's University of Bologna intends to dig next spring with researchers from Washington University in St. Louis.

    The new archaeological, environmental, and ethnographic data at and around Cahokia are spurring researchers to revamp their old view of primitive eastern and midwestern North Americans who lived on the periphery of more dynamic societies to the south and west. In the new picture, Native Americans in the region were master builders, traveled widely as pilgrims and traders, and experimented with new technologies while confronting daunting environmental changes. They may even have played a key role in birthing the great Mesoamerican civilizations. Today, scholars are more confident they can begin to resolve some of the long-standing mysteries surrounding Cahokia and its environs. Given the flood of new data, Schilling says, “we are all pushing the edges.”

  5. Archaeology

    Does North America Hold the Roots of Mesoamerican Civilization?

    1. Andrew Lawler

    Ancient settlements in what is now Louisiana may have laid the foundation not only for the great city of Cahokia but perhaps also for Mesoamerican civilization.

    MONROE, LOUISIANA—High pyramids and great plazas are the hallmarks of ancient Mesoamerica, from the 3000-year-old Olmec cities along the Gulf of Mexico to the inland metropolis of Tenochtitlan encountered by the Spanish conquistadors. Yet the oldest examples that call to mind this familiar style are found nearly 1000 kilometers to the north in the muddy bayous of Louisiana. Five millennia ago, Native Americans here began to build high mounds of earth flanked by flat plazas that resemble Mesoamerica's classic architecture. A small band of archaeologists suspect that these ancient settlements laid the foundation not only for the North American mound-building tradition that eventually culminated in the great city of Cahokia (see main text, p. 1618), but perhaps also for Mesoamerican civilization.

    The conical mounds dotting the lower Mississippi Valley were long considered to be no older than 1000 years or so. But archaeologists in the 1970s and '80s were puzzled by radiocarbon dates from some sites matching the Middle Archaic period—which ended at about 3000 B.C.E. That's nearly 2 millennia before the first cities appeared in Mexico, before the Giza pyramids, and about the same time that the world's first major urban centers evolved in ancient Mesopotamia. Most researchers dismissed the dates as erroneous.

    Solo seeker.

    With little support, Joseph Saunders has pioneered work on Middle Archaic mounds.


    But in the 1990s, Louisiana state archaeologist Joseph Saunders began a careful study of the mounds, some of which still rise as high as 10 meters. On a wooded site beside a bayou west of Monroe, he examined a six-mound site called Hedgepeth that includes a conical earthen structure 8 meters high and some 33 meters in diameter—and was radiocarbon dated to approximately 3000 B.C.E. Another site called Frenchman's Bend, north of Monroe, proved to be of a similar age and boasted three layers of house floors and hearths as well as a half-dozen mounds. Radiocarbon dates put Watson Brake south of Monroe, with its vast complex of 11 mounds encircling 9 hectares, back to 3500 B.C.E. On the ridges at Watson Brake, Saunders uncovered huge amounts of fire-cracked rock used for cooking in this prepottery culture. “The abundance of food was unbelievable,” he says of the massive quantities of game and fish bones left behind.

    Saunders's 1997 paper (Science, 19 September, p. 1796) provided stunning evidence of a mound-building culture far earlier than previously suspected. “There were 2000 years of mound building in the southeastern U.S.” before the first monumental architecture appears in Mesoamerica, says archaeologist David Anderson of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Saunders argues that from about 3700 B.C.E. to 2700 B.C.E., Native Americans went on a building spree across the lower Mississippi Valley, leaving behind mysterious rectangular blocks of heated clay, thousands of spear points, and giant mounds. At Watson Brake, Saunders thinks periodic floods may have prompted inhabitants to create the mounds as platforms for living and ceremonial use. He and others have found little sign of extensive trade and suggest that the mounds were not part of a closely connected culture, but rather a feature that each group may have used and interpreted differently.

    In the decade and a half since that key paper, a dozen other Middle Archaic mounds have been identified. But Saunders and other archaeologists say that more excavation and precise redating are critical.

    Instead, however, the state of Louisiana is focusing its limited resources on winning World Heritage status for Poverty Point, the premier settlement during the second great burst of mound building, which began about 1600 B.C.E. and lasted for nearly 600 years. Located on a bayou east of Monroe, the site includes a giant mound second only to that at Cahokia in size. Shaped like a flying bird—an image repeated in the region for 3 millennia—the structure rises 22 meters high, is 200 meters long, and contains the equivalent of 27 million baskets of earth. The mound is at the apex of a remarkable C-shaped complex spanning three hectares and including six half-rings and a host of smaller conical and flat-topped earthworks (see image, p. 1620). Most radiocarbon dates put construction between 1400 and 1200 B.C.E.

    Land of plenty.

    Poverty Point residents valued exotic materials, like the imported stone in these figurines.


    Unlike the Middle Archaic sites, which show little sign of long-distance trade, Poverty Point was practically a trade fair. Along with more than 8000 spear points, archaeologists have found red jasper, quartz, and copper from as far as the Great Lakes, chert from near St. Louis, plus more than 130 clay figurines and innumerable bone awls likely used to puncture animal hides. “Poverty Point is vacuuming in materials in quantities that continue to stagger me,” says archaeologist Tristram R. Kidder of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. He has worked at the site since the 1990s and in 2009 published a report summarizing recent field seasons. What was exported from Poverty Point is a mystery, however. Only a few stone beads that may have been manufactured there have been found in elsewhere. Baskets, salt, and other possible exports may have left no trace.

    As at Cahokia, Kidder and Timothy Schilling of the University of Indiana, Bloomington, discovered that the Bird Mound may have been built quickly, perhaps in less than a year. The 2009 report on the mound notes that sediment on the bottom was squeezed up into upper layers, and there are no microscopic signs of worm burrows or raindrops, which would have left traces if the mound had been built in stages. The Bird Mound complex is not matched at other sites from the era; Mesoamerica at that period lacked monumental structures altogether. “It's unique,” says Kidder, noting that the mound predates Olmec pyramids and plazas by a couple of centuries.

    Did the Middle Archaic mounds and Poverty Point influence the rise of Mesoamerican civilization? The question tantalizes archaeologists. The proportions used at the Louisiana sites closely match those found in Mesoamerica, notes John Clark, a Mesoamerican specialist at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. By examining the alignments of Archaic mounds, retired civil engineer Robert Patten argued at a recent conference on archaeo-astronomy that the numbers associated with the sites are mirrored in later Mesoamerican calendars as well as in the design of structures. The origin of the Mesoamerican system “should be searched for in a vast area between the Mississippi River Basin and Mesoamerica,” he says. Clark agrees: “We need to look to Louisiana as a source.”

    Mesoamericans may have used the plaza-and-pyramid innovation to help create a more complex social organization and to jump-start urban life. But in the Mississippi River valley, this didn't happen. The second period of mound building came to a halt by 1000 B.C.E., when Kidder says abrupt changes in economy and society took place across eastern North America. Recent geoarchaeological research in northeast Louisiana suggests large-scale floods and river instability, along with cooler temperatures. Flooding may have rendered sites like Poverty Point uninhabitable. Coring in the Gulf of Mexico has lately confirmed that large floods, some episodes extending over decades, dumped enormous quantities of sediment into the gulf for half a millennium, Kidder adds.

    For several hundred years, there were no mounds built. Finally in the early centuries C.E., the third and final period of mound building began, this time centered in the Ohio River valley and culminating in Cahokia.

    Explaining the construction gaps is a daunting challenge. But archaeologists say the older mounds could provide a key to understanding New World development—if a new generation of researchers focuses on these largely obscure sites. “It's very exciting,” Anderson says. “This is changing our whole picture of the region across a vast time span.”

  6. Archaeology

    Preserving History, One Hill at a Time

    1. Andrew Lawler

    A handful of scientists are scrambling to preserve what they can of pre-Columbian North American mounds and prevent further destruction of structures that hold vital clues to ancient Native American society.

    On a hot fall day, golf carts trundle past one of the New World's oldest monuments. This ancient settlement at Frenchman's Bend in northeastern Louisiana is now an upscale housing development. “A residence of choice for over 6000 years” boasts one sign. The mounds dotting the edge of the golf course survive only because an archaeologist wooed the developer. “He told me, ‘If you hadn't been here, I would have leveled all these mounds for the green,’” says Joseph Saunders, who retired in October from his job as a state archaeologist.

    Saunders is one of a handful of scientists scrambling to preserve what they can of pre-Columbian North American mounds. Most are visible only as earthen hills and are not protected by state or federal laws because they are on private land. From the mean streets of East St. Louis to the insect-filled bayous of the lower Mississippi River, archaeologists find themselves acting as educators, diplomats, and, sometimes, real estate agents to prevent further destruction of structures that hold vital clues to ancient Native American society (see main text, p. 1618).

    In East St. Louis in Illinois, Washington University in St. Louis archaeologist John Kelly is buying up lots himself and selling them at cost to the state's archaeological conservancy. “You can't flinch; you just have to do it,” he says during a driving tour of the decaying neighborhoods. Land is cheap here now, and Kelly is a regular at house auctions. He has mapped a host of humanmade mounds and ridges that underlay old houses and hopes that one day the lots can be connected in a park.

    Going, going, gone.

    Workers destroyed the largest St. Louis mound in 1870.


    Nearby, in the most densely settled area of ancient East St. Louis, a highway and bridge project provides funding—$2.5 million in 2011—for digs but little time for publication. In nearby Wood River, thousands of samples and artifacts that will require years of analysis are piling up in a lab in a downtown basement. “We don't have time to do more than gather,” says Thomas Emerson, who directs the Illinois transportation archaeological program. “We need people to dig.”

    Meanwhile, in Louisiana, where North America's most ancient mounds date back to the Middle Archaic period around 3500 B.C.E., there is little funding for digs, and most mounds, such as at Frenchman's Bend near Monroe, are on private property. Saunders has spent the past 2 decades chatting up owners, encouraging them to feel a sense of pride that would prevent wanton—but legal—destruction of the sites. His strategy has paid off, for example at a Middle Archaic site called Hedgepeth, where a landowning family donated 4 hectares to the Archaeological Conservancy. But an unknown number of other mounds have been bulldozed. Saunders's “retirement is a huge blow,” says Washington University in St. Louis archaeologist Tristram R. Kidder.

    But Saunders has no intention of giving up his crusade to protect and study Middle Archaic sites. He lacks funding and laborpower, but at Frenchman's Bend he does have the goodwill of the developer. As he looks over the golfing green, he says with satisfaction, “I can dig any mound here at any time.”

  7. Higher Education

    Crunch Time for North Korea's Revolutionary New University

    1. Richard Stone

    The 2-year-old Pyongyang University of Science and Technology is struggling to raise funds and equip its laboratories.

    Higher-ed test bed.

    After years of delays, PUST opened to students last year.


    PYONGYANG—The sophomore's English is impressive, but something is missing. Decked out in a prep school-style jacket and tie like the rest of the students at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), Choi Joo Nam is explaining to his classmates how to use a glass electrode to measure pH. But there is no apparatus. Choi gestures at a sketch of an electrode on the whiteboard behind him. His teacher, PUST organic chemist Daniel Ko, sighs. “This is all theory,” he says. “We don't have a pH meter. We don't have any lab equipment.” Like a cooking class without food or even a kitchen, Ko's analytical chemistry course is all analysis and no chemistry.

    But the mere fact that Ko, a U.S. citizen, is here is a revelation. He and a small band of devout Christians founded North Korea's only private university 2 years ago in one of Communism's last bastions. More than half of the 29 foreign faculty members hold passports from the United States, the nation most demonized by North Korea. Yet the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), as the North is formally known, has sent 267 of its top students—all men—to this campus on Pyongyang's southern edge. Classes on everything from computer programming to international finance are taught in English. Most amazing, in a country where few have Internet access, starting this term PUST graduate students have been using Google for class assignments.

    But the daring young experiment is facing a moment of truth. While South Korean benefactors bankrolled much of PUST's $45 million in construction and start-up costs, donations began to taper off in 2008, when South Korean President Lee Myungbak took a hard line against the North after a tourist was shot and killed by a DPRK soldier at Kumgang Mountain. Then came the alleged North Korean sinking of the South's Cheonan warship in March 2010, followed by its shelling of Yongpyong Island, which killed four people. The one-two punch left many in the South disillusioned, and PUST in dire straits. “We're living week to week,” says Kim Chin-Kyung, the driving force behind PUST and its founding president.

    With PUST hanging by a thread, pressure is mounting on Kim to deliver on his promise to build a world-class institution. “We are frankly worried about how things are going,” says Ho Kwang Il, who serves alongside Kim as the DPRK-appointed president of PUST. Major concerns are a dearth of lab equipment and PUST's inability to attract “world-famous” faculty members, Ho says. But he and other officials who oversee PUST are willing to give it time to blossom. “Within 10 years, we will make this school worldclass,” Ho says.

    No one here wants to see PUST falter. Overcoming initial wariness, foreign professors and students have developed a remarkable camaraderie. And the young men are lucky to be hitting the books. Since June, all other universities in Pyongyang have been closed to free up students for work brigades erecting apartment blocks and beautifying the city for the 100th anniversary of the birth of DPRK's founder, Kim Il Sung, next April. In a sign of PUST's importance, its students are the only ones granted an exemption. “It's a big favor from the government,” Ho says.

    “Without world-class science, our country cannot advance,” says Pak Sang Ik, a PUST vice president appointed by the Education Ministry. “This is a test bed that the government is watching very carefully,” he says. The stakes are high for PUST's foreign leadership, too. “Our purpose is the globalization of North Korea through PUST. In that way, their economy can gradually develop, which will make it easier for reunification later,” says PUST Chancellor Park Chan-Mo, a U.S. citizen and former president of Pohang University of Science and Technology in South Korea.

    Splendid isolation

    In 2001, when DPRK education officials invited Kim to launch a university here, many anticipated a collision of values. Kim, a businessman who studied divinity and goes by his adopted English name, James, had founded a university in Yanji, China, just across the border with North Korea, a decade earlier. Evangelicals cherished the prospect of a Christian beachhead in North Korea.

    DPRK authorities made it clear that they would not tolerate proselytizing or overt displays of religion. Some wondered if Kim and his flock could obey. He'd already had one serious run-in. During a visit to North Korea in 1998 to deliver donations of food and clothing, Kim, a U.S. citizen, was accused of being a spy and imprisoned for several weeks (Science, 25 September 2009, p. 1610). He has staged a remarkable comeback; in August he was named the first honorary citizen of Pyongyang.

    PUST opened its doors in the fall of 2010. Now roughly a quarter of the 200 undergraduates and 67 graduate students come from outside Pyongyang. Before transferring to PUST, all undergraduates spent 2 years at other DPRK universities.

    Most students are firing on all pistons. “Students will ask for the hardest problem and solve it overnight,” says PUST vice president Yu-Taik Chon, a Korean-American electrical engineering professor who left North Korea when he was 10, during the Korean War. “Some students are brilliant. They could hold their own at MIT [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology],” says PUST computer science professor Wesley Brewer, who earned a master's degree in ocean engineering from MIT. But, he adds, many have trouble “thinking freely for themselves.”

    An intoxicating elixir may be at hand. Education Ministry officials are following through on a promise they made to Kim: that PUST would be the first North Korean university with full Internet access. Foreign faculty use e-mail and surf the Web; they can even visit sites banned in China, such as YouTube and Facebook. Second-year grad students may now ferret out information on the Web for class assignments, as long as they log the sites they visit. Internet access for first-year grads and undergrads will be permitted next year, says Pak, a biologist who trained at Kim Il Sung University, the North's most prestigious.

    Meeting of the minds.

    Founding President Kim Chin-Kyung chats with a student; his DPRK counterpart Ho Kwang Il hopes to make PUST a world-class university within 10 years.


    That fits with DPRK's avid interest in information technology. “North Korea has chosen IT as the core tool of its economic recovery,” says Park, who teaches a course on virtual reality at PUST. About 10 years ago the country began building Guang Myung, or “Bright Light,” a national Intranet not connected to the outside world. To acquire knowledge for Guang Myung, North Korea has dispatched about 500 IT specialists to the European Union and hundreds more to China. As a result, North Korea's software developers lag only a few years behind the state of the art in South Korea, says Nakju Lett Doh, an expert on control system theory at Korea University in Seoul. “They are developing their own algorithms,” he says.

    Because PUST's science courses are central to North Korea's national interests, both DPRK authorities and foreign officials have scrutinized its every move. For example, Education Ministry officials forbade PUST from launching a Master of Business Administration program—a degree in their eyes too tightly associated with U.S. imperialism. “We now call it international finance and management,” Park says.

    Hitting the books.

    Judith Mitchell's English class.


    In effect, PUST has a parallel faculty: A dozen DPRK professors on loan from Kim Il Sung University and elsewhere vet curricula but do not teach. They give the university mixed grades. A big gripe is the meager equipment: several dozen personal computers, a few oscilloscopes, and some other instruments. Students told Science that they are anxious about falling behind peers at other universities who are carrying out experiments for thesis work. “I worry that if we don't come up with lab equipment, they'll start sending us lower-grade students,” says Robert Shank, a plant breeding professor from Nebraska.

    PUST is planning to enrich its academic offerings. In February, 20 graduate students will tour universities in Beijing and Tianjin, and others next year will participate in Europe's Erasmus exchange program. “We want to give them exposure to the world outside,” says Debbie Ko, who teaches computer programming. Next year, two computer experts from Liferay, a California-based company, and five electrical engineering professors from Baylor University are planning to visit and teach.

    Visitors may find the atmosphere here surreal. Foreigners are required to apply for permission to leave campus and may do so only with minders—for their own convenience and safety, authorities say. They'll occasionally dine out as a group and go shopping. But the restrictions are trying. “I miss being able to get in my car and go for a drive,” Brewer says. “If we wanted to go for a dinner to celebrate our wedding anniversary, it wouldn't be just the two of us,” Debbie Ko adds. “We miss freedom.” At the same time, they strive to set their hosts at ease. At PUST's first international conference in October, those who wished to say grace before meals were advised to pray with their eyes open and without moving their lips.

    To stymie corrosive thoughts, students take mandatory lessons on North Korea's two main ideologies—Songun, or “army first,” and Juche, or “self-reliance”—at the Kim Il Sung Studies Research Center, a building on campus run solely by the DPRK contingent. And earlier this year, authorities instructed undergrads to begin assembling before lunch and march to the cafeteria in cadres, singing patriotic songs.

    PUST's Panmunjom

    The cafeteria is a kind of peace village where most casual interactions between students and faculty take place. At lunch earlier this month, students four to a table chatted over spicy potatoes, bean sprout soup, and the two staples served at every meal, rice and kimchi. By custom, the DPRK professors do not fraternize with students. They, like the students, are not allowed to meet one-on-one with foreigners; in pairs is okay. One row of tables is occupied by PUST's glamorous guard corps: young women in gray overcoats with white fur trim and Russian-style white fur hats adorned with red stars. They don't fraternize either.

    Some Korea watchers fret that the DPRK government is biding its time before commandeering PUST and tossing Kim out. Kim is too busy to think about that possibility. He spends two-thirds of his time outside North Korea raising money for operating costs—as much as $120,000 a month in winter. Donors are scarce. To keep things going, Park donated his retirement pension, and one of Kim's sons chipped in after selling his apartment.

    On a frigid evening, construction workers huddle next to campfires outside the chain-link fence ringing the campus. Some may be students from other universities on work brigades. Meanwhile, says Simon Park, a Korean-American who teaches finance, “we're giving our students here a window to the outside world.” That thought conjures a cognitive dissonance summed up by a slogan in a corridor outside a classroom. In white Korean letters against a red background, it says, “Keep your feet planted here and see the world.”

  8. The Year in News

    The research results chosen as Breakthroughs of the Year aren't the only noteworthy scientific developments. Science sums up some other events that affected the global research community in 2011.

    The Year in News, 2011



    CAMBODIA: The World Health Organization seeks $175 million to combat growing resistance to antimalaria drugs in Southeast Asia.


    U.S. (Bethesda, MD): Proposed National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) at the National Institutes of Health spurs yearlong debate.



    EGYPT (Cairo): Revolutionaries oust Hosni Mubarak and vow to make science a cornerstone of a new, modern Arab state. But continued military rule clouds that vision.



    PERU: Yale University ends century-old conflict by agreeing to return Machu Picchu artifacts and help build museum.



    U.S. (Los Angeles): IBM's Watson computer vanquishes two human Jeopardy! champions.



    JAPAN (Tohoku-Oki): Massive earthquake and tsunami trigger meltdown of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.


    CHINA (Shenzhen): South University of Science and Technology of China opens, first school to bypass gao kao admissions test.



    HAITI: U.N. panel confirms that peacekeepers were the source of largestever cholera outbreak.



    FRANCE (Chauvet): Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a 3D documentary of the prehistoric art gallery, opens.



    U.S. (Florida): $2 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer attached to the International Space Station.



    U.S. (Washington, D.C.): First two members of new generation of hepatitis C drugs approved.



    SWITZERLAND (Geneva): The World Health Assembly defers debate about destroying smallpox stocks until 2014.



    GERMANY: State authorities shut controversial clinic offering stem cell treatments.



    SWITZERLAND: The World Health Organization announces that cell phones are “possibly carcinogenic.”



    U.S. (Washington, D.C.): Howard Hughes Medical Institute broadens its scope by adding 15 plant biologists to roster of elite investigators.


    BELGIUM: Scientists fired for taking part in destruction of field trials of transgenic potatoes.



    JAPAN (Kobe): New RIKEN supercomputer dethrones Chinese machine as world's fastest, reaching 10 petaflops.



    ITALY (Rome): United Nations declares that rinderpest, a cattle scourge, has been eradicated.



    GERMANY: Organic sprouts declared culprit in massive outbreak of deadly new Escherichia coli strain.


    U.S. (Washington, D.C.): Federal district court judge reverses his own injunction, clears obstacles to stem cell research.



    ASIA: Chinese crewed submersible Jiaolong reaches depth of 5000 meters in preparation for record dive.



    U.S. (Florida): NASA's space shuttle fleet makes its 135th—and last—flight.



    U.S. (Arizona): A $20 million gift revives iconic ecological lab Biosphere 2.



    U.S. (Boston): Cognitive psychologist Marc Hauser resigns from Harvard University after being found guilty of scientific misconduct.


    TURKEY (Ankara): Government takeover of Turkish science academy triggers mass resignations and formation of new academy.



    U.S. (Washington, D.C.): NIH finds African-American applicants have less success than white applicants in obtaining grants.


    U.S. (Washington, D.C.): Major change to U.S. patent laws replaces “first to invent” standard with “first to file” system used in most other nations.



    NETHERLANDS: Dutch psychologist Diederik Stapel is fired from Tilburg University because of massive fabrication of data.



    U.S. (Illinois): Fermilab shuts down its Tevatron proton accelerator.



    ITALY (Gran Sasso): Scientists claim to have detected faster-than-light neutrinos.



    U.S. (Washington, D.C.): The Obama Administration delays tightening air pollution limits for ozone.



    ITALY (L'Aquila): Seismologists go on trial for manslaughter in connection with 2009 earthquake.



    SWEDEN: U.S. immunologist Ralph Steinman becomes first Nobelist to die between his selection and the award's announcement.



    WORLD: Global population reaches an estimated 7 billion.


    GERMANY (Berlin): Science Europe is created to give national funding agencies more clout with the European Commission.


    U.S.: Biodefense effort questioned 10 years and $60 billion after anthrax mail attacks.



    SPACE: A 400-meter-wide asteroid (2005 YU55) comes within 350,000 kilometers of Earth, closest encounter for object its size since 1976.


    WORLD: Greenhouse gas emissions jump 6% in 2010, far more than IPCC projections.



    CHINA: Shenzhou 8 capsule and Tiangong 1 module “kiss” as China becomes the third country to achieve a crewless docking of spacecraft.



    CHILE: Astronomers test the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array for better glimpse into the universe of cold things.



    U.S. (Florida): Mars Science Laboratory heads to Mars for August 2012 landing of Curiosity rover. (In May, Spirit rover calls it quits after 7 years.)


    RUSSIA (Baikonur): Russia's Phobos-Grunt mission to Mars's moon is stuck in Earth orbit after an apparent software failure. It's the nation's 17th failure in 21 attempts since 1960 to explore the Red Planet.



    BELGIUM (Brussels): European Union finds additional $1.7 billion to sustain ITER fusion reactor project.



    U.S. (Washington, D.C.): HHS Secretary overturns FDA's decision to expand accessibility of Plan B contraceptive pill.


    CREDIT: © 2011 CERN

    SWITZERLAND: They can't confirm it yet, but CERN researchers find strong evidence that the Higgs boson exists.

  9. Breakthrough of the Year

    HIV Treatment as Prevention

    1. Jon Cohen

    Science has chosen the finding that antiretroviral drugs reduce the risk of heterosexual transmission of HIV as its Breakthrough of the Year.

    . . .

    On 1 December, George Washington University in Washington, D.C., hosted “The Beginning of the End of AIDS,” a splashy World AIDS Day event that featured three U.S. presidents, business magnates, and rock stars. The catalyst that brought them together was something Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. government HIV/AIDS scientist, told the crowd even 1 year ago would have seemed “wishful thinking”: a clinical trial dubbed HPTN 052 and its “astounding” result.

    HIV/AIDS researchers have long debated whether antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) used to treat HIV-infected people might have a double benefit and cut transmission rates. To some it was obvious: ARVs reduce HIV levels, so individuals should be less infectious. Skeptics contended that this was unproven. Indeed, a consensus statement issued by the Swiss Federal Commission for HIV/AIDS in 2008 that said effective ARV treatment could virtually stop heterosexual transmission was denounced as “appalling,” “inconclusive and irresponsible,” “dangerous,” and “misleading.” The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS and the World Health Organization also responded with alarm, urging people to continue using condoms and stressing that semen or vaginal secretions might harbor the virus even when blood tests showed no trace of it. “More research is needed to determine the degree to which the viral load in blood predicts the risk of HIV transmission,” they cautioned.

    Double duty.

    This year a study proved that anti-HIV drugs both treat and prevent HIV infections.


    Then in May of this year, the 052 clinical trial conducted by the HIV Prevention Trials Network reported that ARVs reduced the risk of heterosexual transmission by 96%. “Now we have absolute, confirmed data,” said Fauci at an AIDS conference this summer in Rome where researchers first presented the HPTN 052 data in detail. Fauci, who heads the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases—the main funder of the $73 million trial—said the challenge now was to apply the results. “We just need to take that data and run with it,” he said. “The idea of the tension between treatment and prevention, we should just forget about it and just put it behind us, because treatment is prevention.” Because of HPTN 052's profound implications for the future response to the AIDS epidemic, Science has chosen it as its Breakthrough of the Year.

    Myron Cohen, an HIV/AIDS researcher at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who heads the ongoing HPTN 052 trial, said the finding's impact surprised him. “People were interested in the idea of treatment as prevention, but it created a hurricane-force wind behind the strategy,” Cohen says. “The result was so unambiguous.”

    As Cohen and colleagues explained in the 11 August New England Journal of Medicine, HPTN 052 enrolled 1763 “discordant” couples in which one person at the study's start had a known HIV infection. The infected partner could not be taking ARVs and had to have between 350 and 550 CD4 cells per milliliter, which indicates that the person had some immune damage but had yet to develop AIDS (defined as fewer than 200 CD4s). Five countries in sub-Saharan Africa participated, as did Brazil, India, Thailand, and the United States. The study randomly assigned half the infected people to start ARVs immediately, while the other half delayed treatment until CD4 counts dropped below 250.

    The researchers planned to compare the groups until 2015. But on 28 April, an independent monitoring board that periodically reviewed the data stunned Cohen and his collaborators when it recommended that the results of the trial be made public as soon as possible. Of the 28 people who become infected with HIV that genetically matched the viruses in their long-term partners, only one was in the early treatment group—which also experienced 41% fewer serious health problems associated with HIV. Infected people in the delayed arm of the study were offered ARVs immediately.

    The HPTN 052 results and other recent successes have raised hopes that combining such interventions can now end AIDS epidemics in entire countries, if not the world. ARVs are not a vaccine: People must take them for decades, which is difficult to do and costly. But many call HPTN 052 a “game changer” because of its near 100% efficacy. “It has had an impact on our vision for the future,” says Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, a virologist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris who shared the Nobel Prize for helping to discover HIV. Researchers must continue—and even intensify—efforts to develop an effective AIDS vaccine and cure, Barré-Sinoussi stresses, but she notes that countries can apply treatment as prevention today.

    Julio Montaner, a prominent advocate of the strategy at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, in Canada says HPTN 052 has persuaded leaders such as U.S. President Barack Obama—whose administration recently announced a policy goal of creating “an AIDS-free generation”—to take action. “Clinicians and policymakers are always asking for the ultimate evidence,” Montaner says. “HPTN 052 was the unequivocal piece of the puzzle to close any doubts.”

    Given resource constraints and logistical hurdles, treatment as prevention isn't going to sweep the world anytime soon. But HPTN 052 has made imaginations race about the whatifs like never before, spotlighting the scientifically probable rather than the possible. And now a growing number of HIV/AIDS experts are insisting that the irresponsible and appalling thing to do is nothing.

  10. Breakthrough of the Year

    The Runners-Up

    This year's runners-up for Breakthrough of the Year include what makes asteroids red, ancient DNA in modern humans, the structure of photosystem II, pristine gas in the early universe, the microbiome, a new malaria vaccine, alien solar systems, zeolites, and senescent cells.

    . . .

    Asteroid Dust Solves Color Conundrum

    This year the first samples returned from another planetary body in 35 years settled a decades-old planetary mystery: why the most common meteorites that fall to Earth didn't seem to come from the most common asteroids in the asteroid belt. It turns out they do. By examining bits of asteroid Itokawa brought back by Japan's Hayabusa spacecraft, researchers discovered that the solar wind had been discoloring asteroids enough to cause a massive case of mistaken identity.

    Made it!

    Touchdown on Itokawa, as portrayed in the Japanese movie Hayabusa: Back to the Earth.


    Hayabusa's odyssey to and from the 535-meter-long Itokawa was as harrowing as anything in Homer. En route, the spacecraft lost two of its three gyroscopelike reaction wheels that controlled its attitude, so it had to fall back on small rockets normally used for course corrections. A tiny rover meant to explore Itokawa's surface instead wound up being launched into deep space. Before the return trip, the spacecraft's attitude-control thrusters sprang a fuel leak; the spacecraft lost its proper orientation, breaking off communications, losing solar power, short-circuiting its batteries, and sinking into a deep freeze.

    In a stunningly successful rescue mission, Hayabusa's controllers managed to pull the spacecraft back from the brink of disaster. It returned in June 2010, 3 years late and carrying only a dusting of Itokawa particles—but that was enough. Analyzing 52 particles, each less than 100 micrometers in diameter, Japanese researchers showed that the elements and minerals that make up Itokawa—a member of the largest class of asteroids, the S types—match the composition of the most abundant type of meteorite, ordinary chondrites. Researchers had long been inferring the composition of asteroids from their remotely recorded spectral colors. But the S types looked too red to be the source of the ordinary chondrites. Sophisticated spectroscopic analyses eventually showed that the tint was misleading and the link real. This year, Hayabusa's wispy cargo of asteroid dust closed the case for good.

    Probing further, researchers used scanning transmission electron microscopy to look beneath the surface of Itokawa particles. There they could see tiny “nanoblobs” of metallic iron small enough to scatter sunlight and redden the asteroid's surface. Most of the nanoblobs probably formed when charged particles such as protons blowing in the solar wind penetrated the particles on Itokawa's surface. Mission accomplished, Hayabusa.

    Related References and Web Sites

    Archaic Humans' DNA Lives On

    The past 100,000 years used to seem so simple: Homo sapiens arose in Africa, then swept out into Europe and Asia, replacing Neandertals and the other archaic peoples they met there. Fossils and stone tools, bolstered by mitochondrial DNA studies, suggested that the African newcomers did not mate with those ancient humans.

    In the past year, however, new analyses of the nuclear DNA of ancient and living humans—including whole genomes—suggests that our ancestors did indeed dally with the locals they supplanted. A flurry of papers has shown that most people alive today carry traces of archaic DNA from those unions.

    The new wave of studies started in May 2010, when the Neandertal genome suggested that Europeans and Asians have inherited 2% to 6% of their nuclear DNA from Neandertals. Then at the tail end of December 2010, researchers published the whole genome of a new kind of archaic human from Denisova Cave in Siberia. Follow-up studies found that a “patchwork quilt” of people living in Southeast Asia have inherited about 5% of their DNA from the Denisovans, as well as 4% to 6% from Neandertals. Two teams found Denisovan DNA in Australian aboriginals. One study found it in Negritos in the Philippines and on some islands of Southeast Asia, as well as in Melanesians.

    Bred in the bone.

    DNA from a Siberian finger bone showed mixing between Denisovans and Homo sapiens.


    This fall, researchers found that members of three relatively isolated groups of Africans also carried unusual DNA variants apparently inherited from archaic people in Africa in the past 35,000 years, long after modern humans arose. Paleoanthropologists—including one who once championed “complete replacement”—proposed that a 13,000-year-old partial skull from Nigeria represented a descendant of either modern-archaic mixing or a lingering archaic population.

    Faced with evidence that our African ancestors interbred with archaic humans at least three times in far-flung parts of Asia and Africa, many researchers now favor a “leaky replacement” scenario. Some of the archaic DNA we acquired may have been beneficial: Another study this year concluded that more than half of the gene variants that code for human leukocyte antigen system proteins, which help the immune system recognize pathogens, came from archaics.

    Also in 2011, remarkably complete fossils from South Africa opened a window into the still-murky period 2 million years ago when our genus, Homo, arose. The species Australopithecus sediba has traits found in early Homo. Still unsettled: whether Au. sediba is our direct ancestor, or one of the many extinct humans who once shared our world.

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    Plant Life's Boxy Heart

    There's not always more than one way to skin a cat. Take the way plants use sunlight, water, and CO2 to synthesize the sugars they need to grow and multiply. Early in the process, an essential protein called photo system II (PSII) uses solar energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen atoms, then pairs oxygens into the O2 molecules we breathe. Despite billions of years of evolution, PSII in all photo synthetic organisms shares almost the same catalytic core. Without it, a few ecosystems near undersea hydrothermal vents would be the only life on Earth.


    This molecular cube (above) in the center of a protein complex called photosystem II (left) splits water molecules and generates molecular oxygen, key steps in converting sunlight to chemical fuel.


    Researchers in Germany got the first closeup look at PSII in 2001 by making a crystal of millions of copies of the protein and bouncing x-rays off it to probe its structure. Such crystallography experiments can map complex proteins in near-perfect atomic detail. But the early maps of PSII were too fuzzy to show the exact arrangement of atoms in the core.

    The maps got better in 2009. And this year, researchers in Japan captured the protein in full, exquisite detail—including its heart of four manganese atoms, five oxygen atoms, and a calcium atom. The snapshot revealed that these core atoms form a cube with a short tail hanging off one end. That shape, it turns out, is critical for holding pairs of oxygen atoms close enough together to be knitted into O2.

    This structure isn't just essential for life; it may also hold the key to a source of clean energy. Today's societies rely almost exclusively on fossil fuels for energy because we can't match plants' ability to convert sunlight into chemical fuels. Yes, we can use solar cells to make electricity—but electricity is tough to store in mass quantities. Researchers around the globe are racing to come up with catalysts to do the job. One option is splitting water to generate O2 and molecular hydrogen (H2), which can be burned or run through a fuel cell to produce electricity. Researchers have created numerous catalysts to split water and generate O2. And so far the best ones have nearly the same cubic arrangement of atoms at their core as PSII. Knowing the structure of nature's catalyst may help scientists design better synthetic ones.

    Researchers nailed down crystal structures of several other important proteins this year. But PSII's structure offers a window into a catalyst that is essential not only for past and present life on Earth but also perhaps for the future of civilization.

    Related References and Web Sites

    Glimpses of a Simpler Time

    The universe was born thrashing and flailing. You'd think that exploding stars and other cataclysms would have roiled every corner of the cosmos within a couple of billion years. But it turns out that pockets of tranquility persisted. This new insight, based on two discoveries reported this year, is making astronomers rethink the details of star formation in the young universe.

    One discovery, reported in November, is the sighting of pristine clouds of hydrogen. The clouds match the chemistry of much older primordial gas from the first few hundred million years after the big bang, before stars formed. The other discovery is a small star in the Milky Way's halo whose concentration of “metals” (elements heavier than helium) is about 1/10,000 that of the sun. This star is practically devoid of metals, just like the universe's earliest stars, which are believed to have been hundreds of times as massive.


    Clouds of gas discovered this year—possibly trapped in filaments between galaxies, as shown in this computer simulation—may be surprisingly long-lasting leftovers from the big bang.


    The results add a twist to the story of the universe's chemical evolution. When the universe began, researchers believe, it was made up of gas containing light elements, mostly hydrogen and helium. The first stars formed from this material, some 300 million years after the big bang. As these early stars burned their fuel, they fused the lighter atoms to produce heavier elements like carbon and oxygen. These so-called metals spewed into interstellar space when the stars exploded as supernovae. The birth and death of later generations of stars, made from gas polluted with these heavier elements, added even more heavy elements into the mix, making the overall chemistry of the universe increasingly metal-rich. Today, the stars and planets and interstellar gas around us are laced with heavy elements.

    Astronomers used the Keck telescope to probe the faraway universe, dating back to a mere 2 billion years after the big bang, for relatively pristine gas clouds. To figure out the clouds' chemical composition, they studied the spectrum of a background quasar whose light had traveled through the gas on its way to the telescope. They searched for signs of oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, and silicon but saw only hydrogen and its heavier isotope deuterium.

    The star discovered by the other team was equally surprising because astronomers thought low-mass stars could form only from material with a certain concentration of metals. The reason is that metals are considered necessary for helping to cool a gas cloud enough to condense into a star.

    The two results suggest that the first few generations of exploding stars did not scatter heavy elements throughout the universe like a captive squid filling its tank with ink. Instead, pockets of pristine gas lingered for billions of years, and some may have seeded a late crop of small, metal-free stars.

    Related References and Web Sites

    Microbes R Us

    Over the past several years, studies have revealed an astonishing diversity in our so-called microbiome. Port-folios of resident microorganisms vary from individual to individual—even twin to twin—and from body part to body part. Researchers were left scratching their heads over whether they would ever make sense of the composition of these communities or show how they affect human health.

    In 2011, researchers discerned a pattern amid the complexity. A European consortium evaluated the gut microbial makeup of 22 Europeans using differences in a bacterial gene to distinguish the species within and between individuals. They compared these microbiomes with about a dozen previously characterized in Japan and the United States.

    Dinner guest?

    Bacteroides bacteria thrive inside people who eat a lot of meat.


    Far from being random, our internal microbial communities fell roughly into three enterotypes, which the researchers dubbed Bacteroides, Prevotella, and Ruminococcus after the dominant microbe in each. The gut microbiomes from larger samples of 154 Americans and 85 Danes also fit well into three groups, indicating that there are a limited number of well-balanced communities in the human gut. The classifications weren't correlated with people's age, weight, sex, or nationality. Each enterotype differed in how it processed energy and in which vitamins it produced, factors that could influence the health of the human host.

    More work is needed to confirm that enterotypes are real. Meanwhile, another team found that types seem to correlate with diet. For example, Bacteroides thrived on high-meat diets; Prevotella did well with vegetarian fare. Neither enterotype was affected by 10 days of dietary restrictions, suggesting that they are more influenced by long-term eating trends.

    This year, researchers also made other strides in understanding how diet affects the microbiome. They introduced 10 human gut bacteria into germ-free mice and monitored the composition of the bacterial community as the mice consumed different proportions of protein, fat, starch, and sugar. The results suggested rules for predicting how a change in food will alter the abundance of each species. The approach will help clarify the interplay between diet and microbes in nutrition and disease.

    Several other studies provided more clues about the microbiome's role in disease, development, and immune function. Going even smaller, researchers continued to characterize the virome: all the viruses of the body. Far from being alien invaders, our microbes are integral to who and what we are.

    Related References and Web Sites

    RTS,S—A Vaccine With Many Maybes

    Here's the glass-half-empty view: The biggest trial ever of a malaria vaccine showed that it reduced severe disease in young children by less than half—a poor performance compared with vaccines for many other diseases. Researchers don't know how long the children will be protected; immunity might wane in a matter of years. The price of the new vaccine isn't known yet, but it could be hefty. Nobody knows whether the vaccine will ever be used in Africa, where it is most needed, or who might foot the bill.


    And here's the opposite view: After decades of bitter disappointments in the malaria vaccine field, the results seen in smaller trials of this vaccine, called RTS,S, have held up. True, the vaccine by itself won't end malaria, and perhaps it will be used in only a small number of places—but at least researchers have shown that it's possible, and they can build on the modest success to design something better. Despite the uncertainties, this makes the first results of the phase III clinical trial of RTS,S, published in October, a runner-up for the Breakthrough of the Year.

    The trial is a massive, ongoing operation at 11 sites in seven African countries from Ghana to Mozambique. It has enrolled more than 15,000 children in two age groups: 6 to 12 weeks and 5 to 17 months. Produced by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) in collaboration with the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative, the RTS,S vaccine has received more than $200 million in development support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

    Just how frustrating the malaria vaccine field is was driven home by results of another trial published this year. Hopes were high for that candidate, developed by a U.S. company named Sanaria, but only two out of 44 participants were protected. Animal studies show that it might work better when injected intravenously rather than under the skin, as in the study, offering a new ray of hope. But the vaccine is produced by letting the parasites grow in mosquitoes, killing them with radiation, and then harvesting them by manually picking apart the mosquitoes' bodies—a fascinating but cumbersome approach.

    The results with RTS,S, which consists of a recombinant protein, leave plenty of questions as well. The vaccine could just delay the first episode of severe malaria, not prevent it. GSK has promised to keep the shots as cheap as possible but refuses to give even a ballpark price. A World Health Organization panel will issue recommendations for use in 2015, when all of the data are in. If the vaccine is introduced, it will surely complement other, low-tech measures that already exist but aren't terrific either, such as bed nets. Meanwhile, the modest success with RTS,S is inspiring a generation of follow-up candidates, but those will be years and many millions of dollars away. In malaria prevention, nothing seems to come easy.

    Related References and Web Sites

    Extrasolar? Extra Strange

    For planetary scientists, it has been like falling asleep in Kansas and waking up in Oz. For centuries they based their understanding of planetary systems on the only one they knew: our solar system. Now, with more than 700 extrasolar planets on record, researchers are grappling not only with planets unlike anything circling our sun but also with entire planetary systems whose weirdness is forcing scientists to rethink how planets form and settle into orbits.

    The first such system to make a splash this year was reported in February. Searching through data from NASA's Kepler observatory—which has been tracking 156,000 nearby stars for dips in brightness due to transiting planets—astronomers found six large planets, at least three of them gas giants like Jupiter, orbiting a star named Kepler 11 some 2000 light-years from Earth. Five of the six are bunched up very close to the star, closer in than Mercury is from the sun. The sixth planet lies only a bit farther out, as far as Venus is from the sun.

    Odd balls.

    Other stars' planets can be wildly different from those near us.


    Astrophysicists have two theories about how massive planets form within the whirling disk of gas and dust that extends out from a rotating star. One holds that large planets form relatively far from their parent star and move in over time; the other says that such planets remain where they form. The Kepler 11 system confounds them both. Modelers can't explain how five big planets could have all drifted in so close to the star, or how there could have been enough solid material to seed their formation right where they are now.

    Other oddities reported this year include HAT-P-6b, a gas giant orbiting in a direction opposite to the spin of the parent star. The discovery adds to a growing list of exo planets with such “retrograde” orbits. Because planets arise from a disk of material rotating around a star, their orbits are expected to follow the star's spin. But computer simulations reported this year showed that the gravitational pull of another planet or a brown dwarf farther out from the host star can yank a planet out of its original orbit and into a new one that slants across the star's equatorial plane. The orbit gets tilted farther and farther, until at some point it flips.

    This year, scientists also reported sighting an exoplanet orbiting a binary star system—another surprise that calls for new models of planetary formation. And other researchers used gravitational microlensing to find 10 planets floating freely in space with no host stars nearby, suggesting that they may have been kicked out of the planetary systems in which they formed.

    These discoveries are providing new clues about the chaos and violence that planetary systems likely undergo before settling down into an orderly routine. So far, at least, there really is no place quite like home.

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    Industrial Molecules, Tailor-Made

    If you ever doubt that chemistry is still a creative endeavor, just look at zeolites. This family of porous minerals was first discovered in 1756. They're formed from different arrangements of aluminum, silicon, and oxygen atoms that crystallize into holey structures pocked with a perfect arrangement of pores. Over the past 250 years, 40 natural zeolites have been discovered, and chemists have chipped in roughly 150 more synthetic versions.

    Assembly required.

    Porous zeolite crystals are widely used as filters and catalysts. This year, researchers found new ways to tailor the size of their pores and create thinner, cheaper membranes.

    CREDIT: K. VAROON ET AL., SCIENCE 334, 6052 (7 OCTOBER 2001)

    This abundance isn't just for show. Three million tons of zeolites are produced every year for use in laundry detergents, cat litter, and many other products. But zeolites really strut their stuff in two uses: as catalysts and molecular sieves. Oil refineries use zeolite catalysts to break down long hydrocarbon chains in oil into the shorter, volatile hydrocarbons in gasoline. And the minerals' small, regularly arranged pores make them ideal filters for purifying everything from the air on spaceships to the contaminated water around the nuclear reactors destroyed earlier this year in Fukushima, Japan.

    Zeolites have their limitations, though. Their pores are almost universally tiny, making it tough to use them as catalysts for large molecules. And they're difficult to form into ultrathin membranes, which researchers would like to do to enable cheaper separations. But progress by numerous teams on zeolite synthesis this year gave this “mature” area of chemistry new life.

    Researchers in South Korea crafted a family of zeolites in which the usual network of small pores is surrounded by walls holed with larger voids. That combination of large and small pores should lead to catalysts for numerous large organic molecules.

    Labs in Spain and China produced related large- and small-pore zeolites by using a combination of inorganic and organic materials to guide the structures as they formed.

    Meanwhile, researchers in France and Germany discovered that, by carefully controlling growth conditions, they could form a large-pore zeolite without the need for the expensive organic compounds typically used to guide their architecture as they grow. The advance opens the way for cheaper catalysts. In yet another lab, researchers in Minnesota came up with a new route for making ultrathin zeolite membranes, which are likely to be useful as a wide variety of chemically selective filters.

    This surge of molecular wizardry provides a vivid reminder that the creativity of chemists keeps their field ever young.

    Related References and Web Sites

    Removing Old Cells to Stay Young?

    Washed-up cells loitering in our tissues help make us old, scientists hypothesize. This year, researchers provided solid evidence that these cells promote aging and that culling them could keep us healthier longer.

    Certain cells in our bodies divide again and again, spawning replacements that help refurbish our tissues. But these cells can also become liabilities because they often accumulate genetic damage that fosters cancer. So after reproducing a limited number of times, the cells call it quits, undergoing what's termed cellular senescence. They remain alive but lose the ability to divide—and presumably to found tumors.

    Moldy oldie.

    Unlike its sickly sidekick, the youthful mouse on the right was purged of senescent cells (background).


    The hitch is that senescent cells aren't necessarily the self-sacrificing good citizens they appear to be. They have some bad habits, leaking growth-stimulating and tissue-dissolving chemicals that encourage tumors to grow and spread. Senescent cells' misdeeds might also promote aging in several ways, such as by damaging the surrounding tissue or by stoking the protracted inflammation characteristic of old age. But pinning down the details has been difficult.

    To find out more, researchers used genetic engineering and crossbreeding to create a line of mice with two features. The animals died young, developing age-related complications such as cataracts, feeble muscles, and stiff arteries early in life. And injections of a particular drug triggered the animals to kill off cells that manufacture the protein p16INK4a, which flags many senescent cells and helps curtail their division.

    Mice that received the drug didn't live longer than normal, but they did seem to live better. As the team reported in November, clearing out senescent cells delayed the onset of cataracts and muscle weakness. Compared with their brethren, treated mice could scurry for a longer time on a treadmill and perform more strenuous workouts. The injections also prevented the dwindling of body fat, another problem for the elderly. Some age-related complaints, such as stiff arteries, didn't appear to respond, probably because they don't result from accumulation of senescent cells that produce p16INK4a.

    Even if the mice didn't start receiving the drug until they showed signs of aging, it provided some benefits. That finding is heartening, implying that if scientists devise a compound to purge senescent cells from people, it would help more than just the young.

    That's a big if, of course, but the work raises the possibility that targeting senescent cells or countering their effects could burnish our golden years.

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  11. Breakthrough of the Year

    Areas to Watch

    In 2012, Science's editors will be watching the Large Hadron Collider (again), faster-than-light neutrinos, stem-cell metabolism, genomic epidemiology, efforts to treat intellectual disabilities, and Curiosity's mission to Mars.

    . . .

    The Higgs boson

    We've said this before (in 2008), but this time we're sure: Next year, particle physicists will either find the long-sought Higgs boson or prove that it does not exist, at least not with the properties ascribed by the standard theory. That's not so much a prediction as it is a matter of fact. The world's largest atom smasher, the Large Hadron Collider at the European particle physics laboratory, CERN, near Geneva, Switzerland, is cranking out data at such a stupendous rate that—barring breakdown—the Higgs must either make an undeniable appearance or be deemed an unequivocal no-show. It's all but a mathematical certainty.

    Related References and Web Sites

    Faster-than-light neutrinos

    This year, physicists with the OPERA particle detector rocked the world when they reported that subatomic particles called neutrinos made the 730-kilometer trip between CERN in Switzerland and Italy's subterranean Gran Sasso National Laboratory at slightly faster than light speed. Researchers with the MINOS experiment, which shoots neutrinos from Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, to the Soudan mine 735 kilometers away in Minnesota, say they will try to reproduce the result by early 2012. Don't be surprised if it takes a little longer—and if neutrinos do not really fly faster than light.

    Related References and Web Sites

    Stem-cell metabolism


    The way stem cells use energy and intermediate metabolites seems to help determine when they differentiate and what kinds of cells they become. In 2012, look for researchers to use large-scale studies of stem cell metabolism to gain new insights into how stem cells regulate themselves in the body—and how scientists might tweak the process in the lab or in patients.

    Related References and Web Sites

    Genomic epidemiology

    Not long ago, sequencing a single bacterium's genome took years; now the job takes less than a day. Scientists are beginning to harness that power to track pathogens' movements in more detail than ever before. Whole-genome sequences will help to determine quickly where newly emerging diseases come from, whether microbes are resistant to antibiotics, and how they are moving through a population; they will also shed light on historic epidemics.

    Related References and Web Sites

    Treating intellectual disability

    The cognitive deficits and behavioral problems caused by Rett, Fragile X, and Down syndromes have long been considered irreversible. In each syndrome, a genetic glitch causes brain development to go awry even before birth. But recent work with mouse models of these conditions suggests, remarkably, that some cognitive and behavioral symptoms may be reversible. Treatments that target growth factors or neurotransmitter receptors in the brain are now in human clinical trials, and preliminary results should start to emerge in 2012. Meanwhile, expect preclinical researchers to keep coming up with new targets.

    Related References and Web Sites

    Curiosity to Mars


    NASA will have more than the $2.6 billion cost of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission riding on a successful landing on the Red Planet next August. MSL's new “entry-descent-landing” system—designed to lower the 900-kilogram nuclear-powered Curiosity rover gently onto the martian surface—is essential to NASA's ambitious plans to return rock samples to Earth. It is engineered to achieve the pinpoint landings on Mars needed to collect specific samples and return them on a later mission. Failure of the landing system on its first voyage would be disastrous for much more than Curiosity.

    Related References and Web Sites

  12. Breakthrough of the Year


    Rating last year's Areas to Watch

    Science's editors foresaw this year's advances in developing a new malaria vaccine. But last year's other predictions were a mixed bag.

    The Large Hadron Collider


    This year, the world's largest atom smasher had its first real chance to reveal new particles and new phenomena. We predicted that the first big results would arrive not from the LHC's two biggest particle detectors, ATLAS and CMS, but from the smaller LHCb detector—which was expected to test previously seen hints of new physics in the behavior of particles called Bs mesons. Alas, it hasn't yet. And neither LHCb nor the other three LHC detectors have seen incontrovertible proof of new physics—a fact that makes some scientists nervous.

    Related References and Web Sites

    Adaptation genes

    In 2011, many ecologists and evolutionary biologists started using faster, cheaper sequencing technologies to search for genes and gene activity patterns that help organisms thrive in nature. Researchers discovered genes that underlie mimicry in butterflies, and several papers revealed how the plant Arabidopsis is adapting to climate change. But most of these efforts have not yielded the promised gene finds—yet.

    Related References and Web Sites

    Laser fusion

    Some things are hard to rush, and getting a self-sustaining fusion burn at the National Ignition Facility is turning out to be one of them. Researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California are still working to get the world's highest energy laser pulse to squeeze deuterium and tritium until their nuclei fuse. Some researchers fear it may never work, but Livermore's finest are working through the problems one at a time and remain confident of success.

    Related References and Web Sites

    Hammering viruses

    More and better immune-system generalists—so-called broadly neutralizing antibodies—came to light in 2011. These antibodies disable a wide range of flu and HIV variants instead of targeting just a specific one, providing hope for broad-ranging vaccines. After defining the structure of one such antibody that targets HIV, one group improved on its potency, a first step toward clinical value. Others have determined what these antibodies bind to on the virus. But no one has figured out which viral proteins or sugars prompt the formation of these antibodies in the body. That's what's needed for a vaccine.

    Related References and Web Sites

    Electric vehicles

    Change can be a tough sell. A year ago we suggested that sales of new mass-market plug-in electric vehicles could be sluggish due to concerns about the vehicles' limited range. And so they were. Nissan sold more than 20,000 copies of its new Leaf, while Mitsubishi, Chevy, and Tesla combined for about another 25,000. Not a bad start, but it's still paltry beside the roughly 17 million vehicles sold in just the United States every year. And the feds' new inquiry into the safety of the Chevy Volt's lithium-ion batteries won't help.

    Related References and Web Sites

    Malaria shots

    The results of the first phase III trial of a malaria vaccine came out in October. They met the modest expectations raised by phase II studies and were hailed as a milestone for this notoriously difficult research field, despite the vaccine's shortcomings (see p. 1633).

    . . .

  13. Breakthrough of the Year

    A Disaster and a Warning—But of What?

    1. Dennis Normile,
    2. Richard A. Kerr

    The great Tohoku earthquake has everyone, seismologists included, wondering where the next blow will come from.

    . . .

    When it struck on 11 March, the great Tohoku earthquake jolted seismologists as much as it did the Japanese mainland. Historical records and instrumental observations had painted a picture of frequent but tolerable seismicity. Earthquakes of magnitude 7.5 or so had recurred every 30 to 40 years on that part of the offshore fault. More of the same was presumably in store.

    There was, however, a hint of worse to come. Geologists digging in coastal areas had found a thin layer of sand washed 3 to 4 kilo meters inland by a tsunami in the year 869; they estimated that a magnitude-8.4 quake had produced the tsunami. But a decade after the initial discovery, researchers assessing the seismic risk of the region were only beginning to seriously consider that quakes much larger than any on record might be striking the coast at very long intervals.

    Japan is the most intensively monitored region in the world, but its vaunted geophysical network gave no clear warning of the impending catastrophe. Instruments detected only the barest hint of a slow buildup of crustal stress that might be released in an earthquake. That is understandable in hindsight: The segment of fault that was accumulating the strain that would power the magnitude-9.0 (M9) quake was 150 kilometers offshore, in effect beyond the reach of land-based instruments.

    The unforeseen cataclysm has everyone, seismologists included, wondering where the next blow will come from. Some seismologists are eyeing the next fault segment to the south, closer to Tokyo, which is now more highly stressed because of the March event. Japan's long historical record mentions no earthquakes in the region, and there is no offshore monitoring there, either.

    Indeed, in November, an official Japan earthquake assessment committee announced that it foresees a 30% chance of an M9 quake occurring along that stretch of the fault in the next 30 years. It was the first time the committee had ever recognized the possibility of an M9 event occurring near Japan, although some seismologists question the accuracy and utility of assigning percentages and years to the forecast events. It is worrying that this section of the fault is closer to shore than it is along the Tohoku region. That means more intense shaking for buildings and bridges and less time to escape a tsunami.

    Keeping the flame.

    Lanterns memorializing victims of Japan's March earthquake and tsunami float on a river near Minami-Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, on 11 August.


    Farther afield, seismologists are now wondering where else mega-quakes will strike. Clues could come from the suddenly energized study of paleotsunamis. By recognizing that buried sand layers were left by ancient tsunamis, geologists opened a new window on past tectonic activity. In Japan, by comparing deposits left by the March tsunami with those left in 869, scientists are coming to realize that the extent of the sand layer is not necessarily the same as the inland run of the waves, as previously thought. Investigations on the Sendai plain after the March tsunami found that sand extended only 62% of the distance the waves washed inland. This means the size of the 869 tsunami and the earthquake that caused it may have been grossly underestimated.

    Despite its magnitude, the focus of the March quake was so far offshore it caused surprisingly little damage to structures on land. Built to exacting codes, buildings and bridges generally stood up to the shaking while occupants and contents got tossed about. The experience at Tohoku University in Sendai was a lesson in earthquake preparedness: The chemistry department deliberately made hallways safe havens by insisting that no chemicals, heavy objects, or obstructions be stored there. Following disaster plans, researchers dashed to the halls when the first tremors hit and waited there while fume hoods, air conditioners, and chemicals rained down on lab benches. None of the buildings on the university's main Sendai campuses collapsed, although several suffered damage. Research resumed fairly quickly.

    But, as throughout the region, it was the tsunami that exacted a toll. The two buildings of Tohoku's Marine Science Laboratory were among the 80% of structures in the coastal town of Onagawa either washed away or rendered useless by the tsunami. Decades' worth of culture collections and research data—backed up within the center—disappeared.

    The tsunami also washed away Japan's faith in the safety of nuclear power as multiple backup safety systems at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant proved no match for the waves. The massive release of radiation resulting from core melting and hydrogen explosions necessitated the evacuation of over 100,000 area residents and required heroic efforts from thousands of emergency workers to bring the crippled reactors under control.

    The fallout reached Tokyo, both literally and figuratively. Japan is rethinking its nuclear-centric energy policy and its commitment to research projects such as the Monju fast breeder reactor, located in Japan, and the ITER fusion reactor, now being built in France.

    The disaster exposed another fault line in society: between the public and the scientific community. There is a gnawing feeling among scientists that they failed to provide the advice policymakers and the public needed and wanted, both in advance of the catastrophe and in the heat of the crisis. Japanese scientists are now mulling how to bridge the gap.

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