News this Week

Science  09 Mar 2012:
Vol. 335, Issue 6073, pp. 1152
  1. Newsmakers

    Bioethicist Leaves Texas Stem Cell Bank

    Controversial bioethicist Glenn McGee resigned last week from a Texas company that banks adult stem cells for use in medical treatments.

    McGee drew attention last month for serving as editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Bioethics (AJOB) while working since December for CellTex Therapeutics in Houston. The company licenses technology from a South Korean company, RNL Bio, that treats people with various medical conditions with adult stem cells processed from the patients' own fat cells. Such treatments have not been approved for routine use by U.S. regulators. Critics suggested that McGee's employment with CellTex posed a conflict of interest with his AJOB duties.

    Last week, Nature reported that CellTex has allegedly been paying a physician in Texas to inject patients with stem cells prepared by CellTex, probably illegally. Later that day, McGee announced his departure from CellTex on Twitter. “Enough,” he wrote, adding: “I am preparing timely, lengthy, pointed comments on the whole matter.”

    They Said It

    “These are probably the two most famous unpublished manuscripts in life science history.”

    —Michael Osterholm, a member of the U.S. government's National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), referring to two controversial studies about H5N1 viruses submitted to Science and Nature. He said it at a 29 February meeting in Washington, D.C., organized by the American Society for Microbiology (see p. 1155).

    Skin Stem Cell Scientists Win March of Dimes Prize




    Two scientists who study the molecular workings of skin stem cells and have led the way to understanding the basis for many skin disorders have won the March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology. Cell biologist Howard Green of Harvard Medical School in Boston was the first to succeed in growing skin grafts for burn victims. Cell biologist Elaine Fuchs of the Rockefeller University in New York City, who began her career as a postdoctoral researcher under Green, has focused her research on the molecular biology of skin and other epithelial cells, and pioneered the field of reverse genetics.

    Fuchs says she is honored to share the award with her former mentor. “It illustrates a thread that began with [Green] developing the very first stem cells that could be maintained and propagated in culture,” she says. Green's work, which saved the lives of many burn victims, inspired her own research into how normal stem cells develop into tissues, and later into how cancer cells develop and propagate, work that is leading to the development of new gene therapies to treat skin cancer and other disorders.

    The winners, who will receive the prize 30 April, will share an award of $250,000.

  2. Marine Biology

    Light in the Deep

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi

    From fish to squid, marine creatures have evolved sophisticated ways to make, use, and perceive light, inspiring researchers interested in optics and animal ecology and behavior.

    Green sight.

    Light striking the lens of the fish Chlorophthalmus agassizi triggers fluorescence at green wavelengths to which its retina is particularly sensitive.


    When Alison Sweeney was collecting squid from the Gulf of California in 2006, a peculiar fish came up in the trawl net. Ten centimeters long, it had upward-pointing eyes that seemed to have a green tint. Sweeney, now a postdoc at the University of California, Santa Barbara, shone purple light on the fish's lens and was shocked to see that the lens converted the light to fluorescent green and formed green images. She didn't quite know what to make of this transformation, so she took a photograph, filed it away, and didn't give it much thought.

    Five years later, more green-eyed fish showed up in Sweeney's nets during another cruise. This time, Sweeney, along with Yakir Gagnon, a postdoc at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, took a closer look. In tests onboard and back in the lab, they confirmed that the light produced by the lens was transmitted to the back of the eye, where the photoreceptors are. “That should not be possible based on normal optics,” because fluorescence typically goes out in all directions, says Gagnon's adviser, Sönke Johnsen. Sweeney, Gagnon, and Johnsen think the fish transforms and directs the light to see better: “The lens is emitting light that is matched to the light the retina can [best] absorb,” Gagnon reported in January at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB) meeting in Charleston, South Carolina.

    Lighting up.

    In this octopus, Stauroteuthis syrtensis, suckers have evolved into light organs, possibly used to lure in prey.


    The green-eyed fish (Chlorophthalmus agassizi) lives where most of the light comes from bioluminescent organisms that emit bluish flashes. By converting all that incoming light to one green wavelength, the fish can make its retina more sensitive than if it had to have photoreceptors devoted to a range of wavelengths. “The fluorescence may be used by the animal to enhance its visual sensitivity,” says Edith Widder, a marine biologist and head of the Ocean Research and Conservation Association in Fort Pierce, Florida. “It's a very intriguing idea.”

    Chlorophthalmus isn't the only undersea creature playing with light. Indeed, the sea is full of creatures with unusual eyes and innovative ways to manipulate light, traits that evolved out of necessity in a world where there's no place to hide and food and mates can be hard to find. A bottom-dwelling sea pen, when touched, sends a green glow shooting up its stem and out of its plume, but the glow turns from green to blue at the tips of the plume. One octopus has turned its suckers into light organs that emit bioluminescence. The tube-shouldered fish startles would-be attackers by discharging bioluminescent cells from its shoulder-mounted tube. To avoid being seen, organisms often play optical tricks. In some cases, they become transparent; in others they use illumination to distract potential predators or enlist help from predators of their attackers. “In the ocean, almost every animal you pull out is doing something clever with light,” Johnsen says.

    These twinkling organisms have fascinated humans for millennia, but only in the past decade have the instruments to understand optical systems become commonplace. With them, researchers have learned what light is where, what organisms are seeing, and what they are doing. They have documented visual arms races between predator and prey that have resulted in the evolution of visual systems very different and much more sophisticated than our own. Even though there's often not much of it in the deep, “light is very key,” Johnsen says.

    Seeing what's down there

    The visual world beneath the waves is remarkably different from the one terrestrial organisms experience. The deeper you go, the bluer the light becomes, and in open ocean, it dims 10-fold every 75 meters, seeming to fade out completely by 1000 meters. This low light has prompted the evolution of specialized bodies and eyes, and organisms often generate their own light to communicate and find food.

    Just as a darkening night sky reveals twinkling stars, a descent to the deep reveals a panoply of flashing bioluminescent organisms. They include most types of marine life, from bacteria to fish, with comb jellies having the highest proportion of glowing species. Above 1000 meters, an estimated 70% to 90% of the organisms are bioluminescent; below that, about 50% are. Flashes can be quick blinks, just tens of milliseconds long, or stretched out for several seconds or more. They can be intermittent or regular; up to 160 per minute have been recorded. And the fact that so many deep-sea organisms have eyes despite the total lack of sunlight attests to the importance of these points of pulsing light.

    Light shapes the world of marine creatures. From 150 to 650 meters deep, fish tend to be silvery with dark backs and light organs on their bellies to counter the effect of being backlit from above and, therefore, visible to predators below. Lower down, red and black are the colors of choice for both fish and crustaceans. Red light doesn't penetrate that deep and self-generated spotlights by fish are bluish, so those body colors render individuals virtually invisible.

    Researchers didn't begin to appreciate the extent of the lit world undersea until the 1950s, when they lowered a photomultiplier, which converts light energy into electrical current, into the depths. “It was shocking when they realized how much light was down there,” Widder says.

    The U.S. Navy became concerned that bursts of bioluminescence might reveal submarine locations and funded the development of tools to measure and observe it. Widder and her colleagues eventually used those tools to compile a dictionary of flash patterns that can be used to identify different plankton emitters and map plankton distribution. “There's a whole language of light down there, and we are barely beginning to understand it,” she says.

    Worried that submersibles, with their bright lights and loud noises, were scaring off animals she wanted to study, Widder and her colleagues came up with an ultrasensitive camera system that uses far-red light for illumination. As “bait,” they built an electronic jellyfish with LEDs that flash in the pattern of the burglar alarm jelly, which seems to use bioluminescence when attacked to call in predators of its attackers. Her team is now analyzing data from one of these “Eye-in-the-Sea” systems they installed on the bottom of Monterey Bay for a year.

    Help! Help!

    In the dark deep, the burglar alarm jellyfish lights up blue (far left) to call in predators of its attackers; researchers copied this pattern with LEDs (near left) to lure organisms to an underwater camera.


    Shipboard instruments have also become far more sophisticated. When Duke's Johnsen came to study with Widder in 1997, their typical onboard equipment consisted of an $80,000 spectrometer the size of a small refrigerator with a liquid nitrogen tank to cool its components and a computer and monitor, all of which took up precious lab space. It was difficult to characterize the optical properties and do detailed physiological studies on live or even freshly dead specimens.

    Now a credit card–sized spectrometer costing just a few thousand dollars, more sensitive cameras, and portable, robust light sources make the research much easier. Researchers are also better at measuring underwater light. Jules Jaffe of the University of California, San Diego, has even built a glass sphere that contains six cameras, each facing a different direction, to capture what a squid experiences visually. “Having small, reliable optical equipment means we can do things that we could only dream of 10 years ago,” Johnsen says.

    Tracking the light fantastic

    Johnsen and others are using these instruments to piece together how light is used and perceived. On a cruise in 2009, Tamara Frank was at first puzzled to find that some cells in the eyes of crustaceans were sensitive to ultraviolet light, even though UV in sunlight doesn't reach the depths where the animals live. Frank, a biological oceanographer at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Johnsen surmise that the UV receptors help the animals discriminate between the bioluminescence of corals, sea pens, and echinoderms living on the sea floor and that of more palatable waterborne creatures. They knew from previous studies that benthic organisms give off a greener glow. The crustaceans “may be sorting out food from poison,” Johnsen says.

    See-through no more.

    Transparent organisms still reflect polarized light (lower right), possibly losing their camouflage.

    Master of disguise.

    Transparent organisms are invisible in downwelling light but can be seen by fish with bioluminescent searchlights; red-pigmented animals have the reverse problem. But a transparent squid and octopus (above, far right) turn red rapidly when hit with a searchlight, remaining invisible.


    As these researchers have delved into the details of other optical structures, they are finding out how organisms work their magic with light. Because cells can control the spacing and sizing of optical components on a scale that approximates the wavelength of light, “they can make structures with remarkably cool optical properties that make the optics and telecommunication industries drool,” Johnsen says.

    Consider the problem of trying to disappear in midocean. Many fish have silvery sides that reflect incoming light in such a way that predators don't see them. But the polarization of the reflected light is different from that of the incoming light, so predators with polarized vision should be able to spot their prey. Yet when Justin Marshall, a visual ecologist at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, and Johnsen filmed dozens of fish in the Great Barrier Reef with a camera with a filter for seeing polarized light, they found some species, such as herring, to be much less conspicuous than expected.

    Clam care.

    Computer simulations (above) show that the iridescent cells (blue) that make giant clams colorful form a layer that transmits light to columns of algae (green) deeper down.


    They turned to computer modeling to understand why. Under their scales, fish have stacks of guanine crystal plates. Because the plates vary in thickness and spacing, with some parallel and others tilted, they create a biological mirror. Using equations microscope designers depend on to optimize reflective coatings for lenses, the two researchers found that the thickness of the stacks affects the polarization of light reflected from the scales. When 50 plates were stacked up together, the polarization of the reflected light was virtually the same as that of the incoming light, preserving the camouflage, Johnsen reported at the SICB meeting in January.


    Some squid and octopi go to even greater lengths to hide from predators, alternating between transparent and opaque depending on the lighting conditions, Johnsen and a colleague reported in the 22 November 2011 issue of Current Biology. Organisms that live between 600 and 1000 meters tend to be transparent if they usually dwell in the upper part of that range or red and black if they hang out farther down. But deep-sea fish with spotlights can detect a transparent creature because the transparency is imperfect and will reflect that spotlight; and a red or black silhouette will stand out in any downwelling light (see diagram upper left). Johnsen and his postdoc Sarah Zylinski found that the transparent Japetella heathi, an 80-millimeter-long octopus, will expand red-pigmented cells when subjected to blue light such as the spotlight of a predatory fish. The blue light is not reflected by the red pigments, so the predator doesn't see its would-be prey. The octopus did not respond to a red light and remained transparent. Onychoteuthis banksii, a 140-millimeter-long squid, uses a similar camouflage tactic, turning red in blue light. “It's a moving game between the hiders and the seekers,” Johnsen says.

    Not all innovations with respect to light are motivated by the need to hide. Sweeney has been studying the biophotonics of giant clams, which are iridescent because they have pigmented cells called iridocytes in their mantles. The function of iridocytes has been a mystery, but they tend to be colocated with brown algae that live in the clam. As with corals, clams get carbon from the algae in return for providing nitrogen. Sweeney wondered whether the iridocytes might be serving the algae somehow.

    Electron micrographs revealed that the iridocytes form a layer along the outer edge of the clam tissue, and the algae grew in pillars embedded in the iridocyte layer. Sweeney measured light reflection and transmission from the iridocytes and with postdoc Amanda Holt and other colleagues developed a computer model to assess the effect of the iridocytes on incoming light and how that light might affect the algae. (The model took advantage of algorithms designed to predict light scattering by dust particles in Saturn's rings.) They found that the arrangement of the iridocytes protects the algae from intense, potentially harmful light, but transmits lower energy light down to the lower part of the algal pillars, enabling those algae to thrive in limited sunlight, she reported at the SICB meeting. “The distribution and makeup of iridocytes is a precisely optimized optical solution,” she said.

    Eyeing applications

    The study of light in marine organisms is turning out to have potential practical applications. Most notable is green fluorescent protein, whose discovery in jellyfish in the 1960s and subsequent development as a tag to follow cellular processes garnered the 2008 Nobel Prize in chemistry. Today, researchers are scouting out other novel light-emitting chemistries—for example, the yellow bioluminescence of a polychaete worm called Tomopteris, for new tag technology.

    The tools developed to understand transparency in zooplankton are proving useful in shedding light on human cataracts, Johnsen says. With M. Joseph Costello of the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill, he has found that some unexpected age-related changes are involved in clouding the lens. “This could change the way we treat and prevent [cataracts],” Johnsen notes.

    Latest in GFP?

    Researchers hope one day to tap the unique yellow bioluminescence of this polychaete for cell-labeling studies.


    Widder is using bioluminescent bacteria as a biomarker for pollution. She collects sediment samples, mixes in the bacteria, and notes by the fading glow how toxic the samples are. The test is a good, cheap way to tell where in an estuary pollution has built up.

    Queensland's Marshall is working with electronic and optical engineers to redesign cameras. One project, called “Prawns in Space,” aims to make satellite sensors work more along the lines of a mantis shrimp eye (see sidebar).

    Even the green-eyed fish, with its directed fluorescence, may lead to better optics. Sweeney has found that when she and her colleagues grind up the lens and suspend it in water, the aqueous solution still retains the light-altering and transmitting properties of the intact lens, suggesting that a molecule rather than a higher order structure may be responsible for directed fluorescence. To track down that molecule, Sweeney needs to net more green-eyed fish on her next cruise. And who knows what other surprises will come up in her trawl nets.

  3. Japan Disaster

    One Year After the Devastation, Tohoku Designs Its Renewal

    1. Dennis Normile

    Taking stock of the 11 March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, experts are planning communities that should be more resilient the next time disaster strikes.


    Rikuzentakata must rebuild from scratch.


    RIKUZENTAKATA, JAPAN—Under a newly fallen snow are the remnants of a lost world: Jumbled concrete foundations, wooden debris piled neatly, hollow shells of shattered buildings. The only clue to the town center is the train station's GPS location; there is nothing left of the structure. Rikuzentakata and many of its 20,000 inhabitants were erased on 11 March 2011.

    In the year since the magnitude-9 Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami, Japan's leading experts in engineering, seismology, urban planning, emergency response, and economics have been laying the groundwork for the rebirth of Rikuzentakata and dozens of other obliterated villages. By studying the patterns of destruction, conducting simulations, and probing how well evacuation plans worked, they hope to make communities along Japan's northeast coast better able to withstand and recover from the next megatsunami.

    Lonesome pine.

    The tsunami wiped out all but one of 60,000 pine trees that formed a buffer between Rikuzentakata and the sea.


    But as planners try to turn idealized visions of a safe city into plans for reconstruction, nature—and human nature—is forcing compromises. Experts concur that building towering seawalls to resist a once-in-a-millennium tsunami, like the one that struck here last March, “is not pragmatic,” says Fumihiko Imamura, a tsunami engineer at Tohoku University in Sendai. And rearranging cities to make them safer—by moving houses to higher ground, for example—runs into logistical and political problems. “People agree on the concepts,” Tatsuo Hirano, Japan's minister for reconstruction, said at a recent press conference in Tokyo. “But for the specifics, where and what kind of city to rebuild, it is very difficult to come to an agreement.”

    The sheer scale of the task ahead complicates matters. Shaking from the enormous earthquake last March inflicted minor structural damage for the most part, because the epicenter was quite far—80 kilometers—off the coast. The ensuing tsunami, which pummeled more than 1300 kilometers of coastline, took a dreadful toll: 15,852 dead, 3287 missing, $210 billion in damage to buildings and infrastructure, and more than 300,000 left homeless. Over the next 10 years, the government expects to spend $285 billion on reconstruction of the devastated Tohoku region. As each day passes, fewer displaced residents plan to return—and restoring economic vitality grows that much harder.

    Extra protection

    In the wake of the disaster, the first priority across Tohoku was to provide temporary housing and shops for evacuees. Crews also began gathering up an estimated 22 million tons' worth of wrecked houses and other structures for eventual disposal. Cars and appliances are being recycled. Concrete will be reused in new seawalls built to withstand more modest—and more frequent—tsunamis. According to Hirano, getting rid of debris will take 2 to 3 years.

    The inevitable delay in reconstruction has given expert committees time to mull options and tailor proposed measures to local conditions. The starting point is coastal defenses. Of the region's 300 kilometers of seawalls, 180 kilometers were washed away. Tsunami erosion, earthquake-related subsidence, and the loss of seawalls means that many areas along the coast are now submerged, especially at high tide. Massive sandbag dikes erected since last March protect coastal highways and other critical infrastructure.

    In some areas, tsunami barriers fended off the big one. In Fudai, a village 190 kilometers north of the quake's epicenter, 15-meter-tall floodgates stretch 200 meters across a narrow river valley; a concrete-topped embankment spans a neighboring valley. Before the Tohoku quake, critics derided the $44 million structures as a waste of money. But they protected the heart of Fudai from the full brunt of the tsunami last March. Although 20-meter-high waves topped the barriers, the village tallied just one death among the 3000 residents and little damage.

    Replicating that approach all along the coast would be far too costly, Imamura says. For one thing, Fudai's topography gave it an advantage. Its floodgates were built at a point between the shore and the town where mountains pinch the valley to a narrow neck, providing an obvious and cost-effective location for a barrier. The tsunami there was half the 40-meter height recorded in other areas. Another issue, Imamura says, is that concrete structures in marine environments must be rebuilt every 50 to 100 years.

    A national committee on tsunami counter-measures has recommended rebuilding coastal walls or levees up to 12 meters tall—several meters taller than the old barriers. Their height would be designed to withstand the second or third biggest tsunamis to have hit a particular location, based on simulations and analyses of historical records. The committee also called for an important modification. Last year, water pouring over walls and embankments in some spots washed away supporting soil on the landward side, toppling the structures and leaving communities more exposed to the sea. To avoid such scouring, the committee recommended erosion-resistant foundations and sloping embankments on the landward side.

    Common sense.

    Moving homes, schools, and hospitals to higher ground (top) or behind a series of barriers (bottom) will make cities more tsunami-resistant.


    The need to rebuild scores of kilometers of barriers offers an opportunity for a more ecological approach. “Typically, these walls have been built as close as possible to the waterline,” says Yukihiro Shimatani, a watershed management expert at Kyushu University in Fukuoka. He headed a government committee that suggested moving the walls inland so that beaches could be more natural. Undisturbed shorelines typically have a beach with an intertidal zone backed by dunes, then often marshes with brackish water and a transition zone to the inland ecosystem. The committee's report notes that the interplay of waves, sand, wind, and vegetation creates a niche habitat for shore birds, insects, and marine life. Seawalls at the water's edge divide the shore ecosystem. Rebuilding barriers at the landward side of the transition zone would not only protect precious coastal habitat but also reduce the force from storm surges, Shimatani says.

    Aiming high

    Experts are also debating approaches to building behind the barriers, and a consensus is emerging. For starters, they agree that residential areas and critical facilities such as schools and hospitals should be moved inland and uphill wherever possible. Where that is impractical—if high ground is too distant, for instance—a sufficient number of new buildings should be tall and sturdy enough to serve as tsunami shelters. (In Rikuzentakata, waves reached the roof of the four-story city hall.) Low-lying land near the shore should be reserved for parks, forests, and fields. Ideally, a second ring of embankments supporting roads and railways would protect business districts from waves that top shoreline barriers. Many Tohoku coastal communities rely on marine products; tsunami refuges will have to be built for workers at processing plants near the sea.

    If much of that sounds like age-old common sense, it is. After last year's disaster, numerous news reports told of discoveries of ancient stone markers on hillsides warning future generations not to build nearer to the sea. “Before World War II, residential construction was not allowed in many areas in recognition of the tsunami danger,” Hirano explained. “But during the postwar period of high economic growth, there was tremendous demand for housing, and those restrictions were relaxed.”

    To some extent, Rikuzentakata's picturesque layout—on a plain facing Hirota Bay ringed by coastal mountains—embodied the old wisdom. Along the shore was a beach fringed by a dense pine forest and, inland from the trees, a 5.5-meter-tall embankment. Behind the barrier, a sliver of natural marsh buffered agricultural fields. The business district was farther inland, in the middle of the petite plain, and surrounded by residential areas. The Kesen River valley was protected by tsunami gates. But the 18-meter tsunami overwhelmed these defenses, submerging the entire plain. Rikuzentakata's planners got many things right but still failed to protect their town.

    Rikuzentakata is a prime example of the conundrum facing experts planning Tohoku's reconstruction. Survivors in this and other coastal communities initially wanted walls that would stand up to a rare tsunami like the one that ran ashore last March, says Setsuo Hirai, a civil engineer who is deputy director of Iwate Prefecture's reconstruction office. But building and maintaining such a huge structure “would be unreasonable,” he says, adding that officials quickly brought citizens around to that view. Instead, a new 12-meter-tall embankment will be built. Preliminary plans also envision a memorial park along the shore, with a museum that will double as a tsunami refuge. The main north-south highway and the rail line will be built atop new embankments to limit flooding and divert water that tops the coastal levee into fields and parks. The business district will be raised by 5 meters.

    New housing is a thornier problem. Because the displaced population is large and the terrain mountainous, “it's not possible to move everyone who was living [in Rikuzentakata] to high ground,” Hirai says. Tracts will be carved out of surrounding mountains, and some former residential areas near the town center will be rebuilt 5 meters higher. Many details must be worked out. Hirai says it is not clear if they will replant the coastal pine forest, a hallmark of Rikuzentakata. And leaving space for ecological beaches in front of the seawalls may be desirable, “but there is a question of [sufficient] land,” says Masaaki Minami, a disaster management specialist at Iwate University in Morioka.

    Such compromises must be made all along the coast, not just in bigger towns. There are innumerable coves that are home to just a few households. Property and livelihoods—typically fishing and seaweed cultivation—have been handed down for generations. “There are very strong ties to the land and the sea,” Minami says. Although many younger people have moved away, elders want to restore the life they knew, he says.

    Notwithstanding all the efforts to make the built environment safer, the most important aspect of protecting lives is what Minami calls “soft countermeasures”: raising awareness, developing evacuation plans and drills, and improving tsunami warning systems. Last March, many people delayed evacuating or ignored warnings because over the years too many tsunami alerts were never followed by actual waves. “We need research into making the warnings more reliable,” Minami says. Not just in Tohoku; massive tsunamis can strike anywhere along Japan's coasts, and much of the rest of the country is even less prepared. Another national committee is probing the issue. But implementing counter-measures in areas untouched by Tohoku may be even more difficult than in Rikuzentakata, which is starting with a clean slate.

  4. Japan Disaster

    Nuclear Ambivalence No More?

    1. Dennis Normile*

    The crisis at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant that riveted the world last spring has had a potent effect on the industry's future.

    TOKYO—The crisis at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant that riveted the world last spring has had a potent effect on the industry's future. With one exception, it simultaneously strengthened opposition in nations already wary of nuclear power and made those committed to building—and exporting—nuclear reactors all the more determined to continue their programs.

    The exception, of course, is Japan, which has had a major change of heart. Japan's energy plans called for nine new reactors, which would raise its total to 63 by 2020. Critics had long questioned industry claims that nuclear power is the cheapest energy option. After Fukushima, politicians and even some industry insiders joined the chorus. “The costs of dealing with spent fuel and decommissioning plants were taken out” of official numbers provided by utilities, says Tatsuo Masuda, an energy markets expert at Nagoya University of Commerce and Business. The government has promised to use a more accurate accounting of nuclear power costs in a new energy policy due this summer. In the meantime, the Cabinet has indicated that the nation needs to reduce dependence on nuclear power. In another bleak sign for the industry's future in Japan, the long-hobbled Monju experimental fast breeder reactor could be terminated, local press report. Tokyo Electric Power Co., hit by huge losses at Fukushima, will likely scale back its support for nuclear research in academia.

    No thanks!

    Public opposition could kill the experimental Monju reactor.


    Sentiment against the industry has hardened in Germany, which announced last May that it would shut down all 17 of its nuclear reactors by 2022. Last June, Italian voters opted for a non-nuclear future, passing a referendum that overturns 2009 legislation calling for new nuclear power plants. Italy shuttered its last nuclear power plants in 1990.

    The European Union has been supporting a $400-million-a-year international effort to develop safer and more advanced Generation IV reactors. But with two of the largest E.U. members losing interest in nuclear power, a cloud hangs over related research. “Work on Generation IV reactors [in Germany] has almost totally stopped because the interest of the industry, and thus its financial support, has diminished significantly,” says Peter Fritz, a vice president at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany. Europe's nuclear research focus, he says, is shifting toward waste disposal.

    On the other side of the world, South Korea announced plans last November to become a nuclear export powerhouse, with a goal of capturing 20% of the global market by 2030. South Korea has 23 operating nuclear reactors and aims to have 40 by 2030. South Korean companies are preparing to build four reactors in the United Arab Emirates. Its plan includes support for R&D on next-generation reactors. China, meanwhile, suspended approvals for new reactor construction days after the disaster. It has 14 operating reactors and 27 under construction, and plans to increase the percentage of its electricity produced by nuclear power from the current 1% of the total to 6% by 2020. The status of these plans is unclear. “China is sending mixed signals” on its nuclear policy, says Jan Vande Putte, a nuclear energy specialist with Greenpeace International in Amsterdam.

    This year, at least five countries—Vietnam, Bangladesh, United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Belarus—plan to start building their first nuclear power plants. Most surprising may be Belarus, which absorbed about 80% of the radioactive fallout from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. More than 25 years after the accident, Belarus is spending $1 million per day on rehabilitating the region, screening foodstuffs for safety, performing medical exams for those exposed, and implementing other ongoing countermeasures, Vladimir Chernikov, chair of the Chernobyl Consequences Mitigation Agency in Minsk, said at a recent press conference in Tokyo. Despite that burden, Belarus decided in January 2011 to build its first nuclear power plant; the decision was not revisited after Fukushima. “The Belarus people understand there is no [economical] alternative at the moment,” Chernikov said.

    The United States may be on the cusp of a renaissance. Last month, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted the first construction permits for new nuclear reactors since 1978, the year before the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania. Back then, it cost about $2 billion in today's dollars to build a reactor. The price tag has since risen to as much as $9.4 billion. Without generous subsidies, that construction cost may end up pricing nuclear power out of the market.

    • * With reporting by Gretchen Vogel.

  5. Science Funding

    The Next Big(ger) Thing

    1. Robert F. Service

    Physicists, chemists, and materials scientists are looking to build on the success of nanoscale science by unraveling the mysteries at the mesoscale.

    Photo copy.

    Photosynthesis is one of many natural mesoscale processes researchers would love to imitate.


    BOSTON—The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is exploring plans to launch a major new research initiative in mesoscale science, where the quantum world of single atoms and small atomic clusters meets the bulk scale of classical physics. The mesoscale is a step up in size and complexity from the nanoscale, which has been the focus of more than $18 billion in U.S. research since the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) took shape in 2001.

    It's in this no-man's land between quantum and classical physics that a wide array of “emergent” phenomena reveal themselves. For example, superconductivity, in which electrons flow without resistance, arises only in large collections of atoms. Properties such as magnetism, rigidity, and melting are other collective behaviors that cannot be understood at the atomic level, says Robert Laughlin, a physicist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. Even life itself is considered an emergent phenomenon. “I know molecules and reactions are not alive. But I also know that collections of reacting molecules are alive. How does that happen? We have no clue,” says George Whitesides, a chemist at Harvard University.

    This summer, members of DOE's Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee (BESAC) expect to release a report on mesoscale science that's likely to serve on Capitol Hill as justification for research funding. Last week, BESAC members sought advice on the possible new research agenda from scientists gathered here at the American Physical Society (APS) meeting and were met largely with enthusiastic support.

    “I'm a big admirer of work in this area,” Whitesides says. “Progress in science often comes from looking at questions in new ways.” Other researchers agree. “I think it's a great thing to be doing,” says Yet-Ming Chiang, a materials scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and founder of A123 Systems, a company that manufactures advanced lithium ion batteries. Batteries and other energy-related devices such as solar cells, fuel cells, and supercapacitors are seen as quintessential mesoscale challenges. Although a battery's ability to store electricity is due to the nanoscale structure of individual components such as the anode, cathode, and electrolyte, the device's real-world performance depends on how all the components work together at the mesoscale.

    The mesoscale is a challenge to define because it isn't an exact size range. “We all have a good understanding of the nanoscale because we are familiar with the nanometer [1 billionth of a meter],” says Kate Kirby, a physicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and current APS executive officer. “But we don't have a ‘mesometer.’”

    Whatever this midrange length scale is, the mesoscale turns out to be one of the hardest areas to work in. Engineers have long had tools for modeling and probing bulk materials in structures such as bridges and buildings. And physicists now have good tools for characterizing materials at the atomic level. But bridging that gap isn't easy. “The complexity of going from one to the other is vast,” says Arun Majumdar, who heads DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy effort.

    Supporters say the potential payoff is worth the effort. A mesoscale initiative could lead to progress on a host of challenges, such as gaining control of how to assemble collections of nanoscale devices into functional materials and understanding just how materials fail, all the way from the level of the deformation of atoms in a crystal lattice to the propagation of cracks and ultimately the fracturing of a bulk material, says George Crabtree, a physicist at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois and co-leader of the upcoming BESAC mesoscale report. To gain such understanding across wide ranges of length and energy, researchers will need to develop new suites of tools capable of monitoring several electronic and optical properties of a material simultaneously and tracking how those properties change together over time, Crabtree adds.

    As part of NNI, DOE and other funding agencies sponsored a network of nanoscience centers to make new tools for synthesizing and characterizing materials widely available to researchers. It's too early to know whether funding agencies will push for dedicated mesoscale science centers, says Harriet Kung, who directs the Basic Energy Sciences (BES) office within DOE's Office of Science. Current plans are more modest. This year, DOE has set aside $12 million in funding for mesoscale work it's calling “materials by design.” The Obama Administration requested another $20 million in next year's budget to continue the effort within BES.

    For now, any would-be mesoscale initiative will be limited to DOE. However, because the challenges and opportunities at the mesoscale are common to many scientific arenas, including biomedicine and engineering, a mesoscale initiative may eventually spread to other federal funding agencies as well. Says Crabtree: “We hope to see it bloom.”

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