News this Week

Science  11 May 2012:
Vol. 336, Issue 6082, pp. 654

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  1. Around the World

    1 - San Diego, California
    A Battle Over Bones
    2 - Bethesda, Maryland
    Continuing Crossfire Over Flu Papers
    3 - Manila
    Philippine Scientists Defend Transgenic Crops
    4 - Bethesda, Maryland
    NIH Unveils Plan to Rescue Old Drugs
    5 - Friedrichshafen, Germany
    PEGASOS Prepares to Take Flight
    6 - London
    U.K. Enlists Wikipedia Founder for Open-Access Policy
    7 - Beijing
    Tobacco Research Project Out of National Competition

    San Diego, California

    A Battle Over Bones


    In the latest round of an unusual custody battle for two of the oldest human skeletons ever found in the Americas, attorneys for three University of California professors were in federal court in San Francisco this week to prevent the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), from handing over 9000-year-old bones to American Indians in San Diego County. The professors obtained a temporary restraining order on 27 April.

    Meanwhile, in anticipation of the professors' lawsuit, members of the Kumeyaay Native American tribes filed their own lawsuit in federal court in San Diego demanding the transfer of the skeletons under the auspices of the controversial Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. It requires museums to transfer remains or artifacts if they can be traced to a modern tribe or reservation.

    The bones were discovered in 1976 during an excavation at University House in San Diego. The Kumeyaay have been seeking the remains for reburial, claiming that they were found on traditional aboriginal lands. However, both a UCSD scientific advisory committee and a separate system-wide UC research committee found that the remains have no cultural or biological affinity with the Kumeyaay or any living Native American.

    Bethesda, Maryland

    Continuing Crossfire Over Flu Papers

    A senior U.S. health official has disputed charges that the government tried to prearrange an advisory panel's recommendation to publish two controversial studies that describe how to make the H5N1 avian influenza virus transmissible in mammals. In late March, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) said the two studies should see the light of day, essentially reversing an earlier decision (Science, 4 May, p. 529).

    But in a 12 April letter to Amy Patterson, the associate director for science policy at the National Institutes of Health, NSABB member Michael Osterholm, an influenza expert at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, detailed a number of complaints about the process. A classified briefing to the panel was “useless,” he wrote, and officials had prepared a “one-sided” agenda for the meeting that “was designed to produce the outcome that occurred.”

    Patterson fired back point-by-point in a letter dated 25 April and released last week. “You are of course entitled to your opinion,” she wrote, but “the agenda was not designed to produce any specific outcome other than a rigorous scientific discussion.”


    Philippine Scientists Defend Transgenic Crops


    The Philippines National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) last week blasted Greenpeace for trying to stop field trials of a genetically modified eggplant. Two weeks ago, the environmental group petitioned the country's supreme court claiming that crops modified with a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) are dangerous for humans and the environment and that approval procedures are flawed. NAST hit back on 2 May, calling the allegations “baseless” and the petition “not in the public interest.”

    NAST President Emil Javier, a plant scientist and former president of the University of the Philippines, says the country has 10 years of experience growing Bt corn without any documented adverse effects. Greenpeace campaigns with farmers and consumers are “not making headway, so they are trying something else,” Javier says. A year ago, Greenpeace activists uprooted a trial plot of Bt eggplant. To answer the petition, the scientists conducting the trials and several governmental departments will file briefs explaining the “stringent” precautions being taken to ensure safety.

    Bethesda, Maryland

    NIH Unveils Plan to Rescue Old Drugs


    The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has launched a pilot project with three major pharmaceutical companies to share abandoned drugs with academic researchers so that they can look for new uses.

    Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and Eli Lilly will provide 24 compounds that passed through safety studies but were later shelved either because they didn't work for a specific disease or because a business decision sidelined them. The new program will allow academics to “crowdsource” ways to use them, said NIH Director Francis Collins.

    It is the first major initiative from NIH's 4-month-old National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. NCATS plans to put $20 million of its 2013 budget into grants to study the drugs. Researchers will be able to browse basic information on the drugs online. Those receiving a grant will be given access to the compounds and detailed data. If the drug shows promise in animal models, they may receive funding for early clinical trials. The companies will retain ownership of the compound, but researchers will have rights to new intellectual property that they discover and can publish their results.

    Friedrichshafen, Germany

    PEGASOS Prepares to Take Flight

    The European Union's Pan-European Gas-Aerosols-Climate Interaction Study (PEGASOS), intended to study links between atmospheric chemistry and climate change, officially kicked off on 4 May. From an airship, which can hover 1 to 2 kilometers above the ground and ascend and descend vertically, the PEGASOS team plans to collect atmospheric chemistry data, including measurements of hydroxyl radicals and aerosols, across Europe during three flights over 20 weeks. The first flight is scheduled to launch 14 May from Friedrichshafen and travel to the Netherlands through 27 May. A June flight will collect data over Italy and France; an April 2013 flight will collect data over northern Europe.

    PEGASOS, which is funded by the European Commission under the auspices of the Seventh Framework Programme for Research, involves 26 partners from 15 countries and investigates the relationship between atmospheric chemistry and climate change.

    “According to the European Environment Agency, the health and environmental cost of air pollutants released every year in Europe exceeds €100 billion,” said European Commissioner for Research, Innovation, and Science Máire Geoghegan-Quinn in a press release. Data from PEGASOS, she said, will likely contribute to a review of E.U. air policies due in 2013.


    U.K. Enlists Wikipedia Founder for Open-Access Policy



    The British government has enlisted the help of Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, a vocal supporter of open access to information on the Web, to figure out how to make research information more easily accessible. U.K. science minister David Willetts announced Wales's role as an unpaid adviser 2 May in a speech at the annual meeting of the Publishers Association in London.

    Wales will initially advise the government on how to set up a new £2 million “Gateway to Research” portal, a database of British researchers that links to their funding sources, information about their findings, and publications. The database should offer entrepreneurs and others the opportunity to find information and even seek collaboration with scientists, Willett said today.

    Later, Wales will also advise on the next generation of open-access publication systems, which would include improved peer review and tools to give postpublication feedback.


    Tobacco Research Project Out of National Competition

    A tobacco research project nominated for a prestigious Chinese science prize (Science, 20 April, p. 280) has been withdrawn from further consideration, according to a 4 May story in Science and Technology Daily. The Chinese newspaper reported that during a 40-day public comment period, the office managing this year's National Science and Technology Progress Award competition received 58 objections to the 19 candidate projects—33 objections of which were lodged against the tobacco project, which claims to have improved the quality and marketability and boosted sales of Chinese cigarettes. After the office forwarded the objections to the nominating agencies for their responses, the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration withdrew its candidate.

  2. Random Sample

    Students See the Light


    Students from five schools in rural Montana captured $15,000 in prize money in the inaugural America's Home Education Energy Challenge, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and administered by the National Science Teachers Association. Some 120,000 students in grades 3 through 8 participated in a 3-month effort to become smarter consumers. Sixth grader Kennedy Tooke (second from left) gained a measure of notoriety for calculating the savings from pulling the plug on her grandmother's Christmas tree lights.

    That Age-Old Question: What to Wear on Mars?

    Deep inside a mountain cave in Dachstein, Austria, on 28 April, an international team of researchers sought to answer this question, showing off a new suit that simulates the challenges that await human visitors to Mars.

    Most Mars simulations have taken place in rocky deserts or Antarctica to mimic the planet's cold, arid surface. But martian life could also exist in caves that formed long ago through volcanic activity. “[Caves] provide excellent shielding from cosmic radiation,” says Gernot Grömer, Austrian Space Forum (ASF) president and head of the design team, and they also allow for a higher atmospheric water content and a more stable temperature regime. “So if life ever arose on Mars, these would be a natural retreat.”


    The sartorial challenges of the Red Planet are serious. The atmosphere is a near vacuum, and moving the limbs of a pressurized suit requires constant exertion. A Mars astronaut may need to both eat and use the bathroom inside the suit. And, as radio waves take up to 1 hour roundtrip between Earth and Mars, the suit should be able to provide real-time information on the wearer's health and environment.

    To help prepare for these challenges, ASF offers the Aouda.X, its Mars space suit simulator. The 45-kilogram garment includes a computer that monitors the wearer's vital signs and a weighty exoskeleton to mimic the exhausting martian environment. “You really feel like a turtle in a high-tech shell,” says Grömer. The suit can also be sterilized and cleaned well enough to not contaminate Martian samples with Earthly biomolecules. “We'd like to break the spell that humans are too dirty for Mars,” Grömer says.

    The next test of Aouda.X is a field mission in a desert in Morocco in February 2013.

    By the Numbers

    10,000 Number of signatures a group called Forecast the Facts gathered to protest the Discovery Channel's self-censorship of climate change issues in their Frozen Planet series.

    25% Percentage of current Earth-observing capacity that the United States will have by 2020 if aging satellites continue to be replaced by new satellites at the current rate, according to a National Research Council report released 2 May.

    12% Rate of premature births in the United States, according to a new World Health Organization report. Most European countries, Canada, and Australia are in the 7% to 9% range.

    What's on a Dog's Mind


    Dogs may appear to be pleading for a bit of steak, but what are they really thinking? A team at Emory University is starting to crack that nut by taking brain scans of two nonsedated dogs using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

    Training the dogs—a 3-year-old border collie named McKenzie and a 2-year-old mutt named Callie (pictured practicing)—to stay still within an fMRI scanner was the first step. The team then studied the dogs' neural responses to different hand gestures that indicated whether a treat was forthcoming.

    The dogs did have rewards on their minds: An area of the brain associated with reward pathways, the ventral caudate, activated when the pooches anticipated a treat, the researchers confirmed in a paper in press at PLoS ONE.

    Now that they've shown canine fMRIs are possible, the authors noted, scientists can also begin to explore how dogs process human language, how they distinguish between different people, and how they represent human facial cues and gestures.


    Join us on Thursday, 17 May, at 3 p.m. EDT for a live chat on the roots of war and conflict among humans.

  3. Newsmakers

    German Research Minister Faces Plagiarism Allegations

    German Education and Research Minister Annette Schavan is facing allegations that she plagiarized parts of her dissertation, published in 1980. A Web site called schavanplag has listed 56 incidents in which the anonymous accuser says Schavan copied phrasing from improperly cited sources.



    Schavan, 56, received her doctorate in educational science in 1980 from the University of Düsseldorf; her dissertation was entitled: “Person and conscience—Studies on conditions, need and requirements of today's consciences.”

    “The dissertation was written 32 years ago, and I will be happy to give my account to those who are looking into the work; but it is difficult to deal with anonymous allegations,” Schavan said at a press conference on 2 May. A ministry spokesperson told the German press agency dpa that the University of Düsseldorf will look into the allegations at Schavan's request.

    Schavan's case is the latest in a string of similar accusations against German politicians. Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg resigned last year after a blogger turned up evidence of extensive plagiarism in his dissertation. Since then, six other German politicians have had their Ph.D.s revoked because of similar offenses.

    CERN Physicist Gets 5 Years For Plotting Terror



    On 4 May, more than a month after his brief, 2-day trial, Franco-Algerian particle physicist Adlène Hicheur received a 5-year prison sentence on terrorism charges. But Hicheur, 35, may be released before the end of June, says his lawyer, Patrick Baudouin, because of possible sentence reductions and the time he has already spent in custody.

    Hicheur, a former CERN researcher, has been held in “preventive detention” in a high-security jail near Paris since October 2009. The court ruled that Hicheur was guilty of “participation in a criminal organization whose goal was to plan terrorist acts.” During the trial, Hicheur acknowledged exchanging e-mails with Mustafa Debchi, an alleged member of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, and discussing future terrorist actions. Baudouin admitted that words used by Hicheur in the e-mails were “disturbing” but argued that his client never took any concrete steps toward a terrorist act.

  4. Paleobotany

    Primeval Land Rises From the Ashes

    1. Mara Hvistendahl

    A "vegetational Pompeii" buried in a coal deposit is shedding light on ecosystem structure and climate during the Permian period.

    Tuff luck.

    Wang Jun scored a treasure trove of plant fossils in western China entombed by a volcanic eruption 298 million years ago.


    WUDA, CHINA—Black dust swirls across a gutted, wind-whipped land. Here at an open-pit coal mine in Inner Mongolia, sooty dogs skulking nearby cringe at the blasts as coal seams are opened up for extraction. Few landscapes are as bleak as this one, but to Wang Jun, these desolate pits in the Wuda basin are a lost paradise: Sandwiched between the coal layers is the imprint of a lush forest from the Early Permian period. Prowling the mine with a pickax, Wang, a paleobotanist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Nanjing Institute of Geology and Paleontology, is enchanted. “I call this a ‘vegetational Pompeii,’” he says.

    The forest, whose imprint spans an estimated 20 square kilometers, was preserved when a volcano erupted roughly 298 million years ago. Ash hardened into a 66-centimeter-thick band of chalklike tuff that entombed trunks, branches, and even whole trees. Wang chips away at tuff exposed by mining. In minutes, he and a graduate student have amassed about a dozen fossils—most of which they dismiss as too small and toss aside.

    Such selectivity is a luxury, says Wang, who holds that the preservation of Wuda's fossils is nonpareil. Around the world, just a few ancient forests are known to have been preserved under ash. The Wuda tuff flora—the first discovered in Asia—is remarkably accessible and thick, says Stanislav Opluštil, a geologist with the Institute of Geology and Paleontology in Prague. Analyzing three patches of forest that together measure 1000 square meters, Wang, University of Pennsylvania geologist Hermann Pfefferkorn, and two colleagues pieced together the forest's rough makeup last February in an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Their findings illuminate a puzzling group of extinct fernlike plants. Wuda's exquisite preservation enabled the team to “look at the ancient landscape in essentially the same way an ecologist examines a modern landscape,” says William DiMichele, curator of fossil plants at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., who has studied a fossilized forest from the Carboniferous period in an Illinois coal basin.

    Paleobotanical breakthrough.

    Among the newly discovered Permian denizens of the Wuda basin is a species of fern foliage.


    Wang and colleagues hope to refine their reconstruction of this Permian ecosystem through further field studies. But protecting the remaining tuff bed long enough to study it will be no small feat. This hardscrabble region's economy depends on coal. Mining has already claimed parts of the fossilized forest, while excavations to extinguish coal-seam fires have destroyed other swaths. Wang estimates that only about 10% of the original tuff bed is left. Unless he can convince local officials of the importance of the paleobotanical treasures beneath their feet, the last sliver of Wuda's primeval forest will soon be lost.

    Paradise lost and found

    In the Early Permian period, the land that is now the Wuda basin lay in the continent of North China, which was separated from South China and other continents by the Paleo-Tethys Ocean. The steamy Late Carboniferous period had just ended, and the supercontinent Euramerica, which encompassed modern-day North America and Europe, had become drier. But a warm, wet climate persisted in North China, and peat accumulated in its sandy soil. In the early Wuda forest, ferns dominated the lower canopy, while exotic, cattail-like Sigillaria trees stretched to a height of more than 20 meters.

    Life in the forest came to an abrupt end after a distant volcano blanketed the Wuda basin in ash. Reconstructing ancient ecosystems based on plant fossils in most locations has been devilishly complex. Plant materials can travel hundreds of meters by wind or water before lodging in sediment, confounding scientists with a jumble of puzzle pieces. But at Wuda, fossilization occurred in one fell stroke, capturing a snapshot of an ancient era much in the way the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E. froze the Roman city of Pompeii in time.

    Wang got his first glimpse of the hidden world of Wuda in 1999 as a postdoctoral researcher. An adviser had passed along a 2-centimeter-long fragment of a cone belonging to the poorly understood plant group Noeggerathiales, an order of small, spore-bearing trees related to ferns. The adviser had found the fossil at Wuda, and Wang visited the site hoping to find a complete cone. Instead, he came back with abundant fossils of Noeggerathiales leaves and branches.

    The next year, at the International Organization of Paleobotany's quadrennial meeting, Wang corralled Pfefferkorn, who had recently published a study on the mysterious plant group. Noeggerathiales plants had been identified in scattered sites in North America, but they remained so poorly understood that some textbooks omitted them altogether. Wuda offered a sudden wealth of material. In 2003, Pfefferkorn and Wang visited Wuda and unearthed fossilized trunks—the first indication that an entire forest lay buried under ash.

    Ancient snapshot.

    A reconstruction of Wuda's Permian forest includes towering cattail-like Sigillaria trees.


    The paleobotanists set out to unravel the forest's ecology. Their work became urgent in 2006, when a government coalfire-extinguishing initiative got under way. Intensive strip mining at Wuda had revealed the layer of tuff for geologists but also exposed coal seams to oxygen, leading to spontaneous combustion. Instead of injecting coolants to extinguish the flames, as is done elsewhere, project directors brought in hundreds of machines to rapidly excavate the remaining coal—and the tuff along with it. Wang and Pfefferkorn collected specimens as fast as they could, but the Permian forest was disappearing before their eyes.

    For any hope of protecting Wuda, Wang realized, he would have to make friends in the local government and mining company. In 2007, he had a stroke of luck when Zhang Haiwang, a coal official in the county governing Wuda, got word of the research. That year, Zhang, an ethnic Mongolian who has a passion for fossils, managed to delay the coal-fire project by 2 weeks, giving Wang and Pfefferkorn just enough time to sketch out the forest's basic structure.

    To guide their reconstruction, they turned to research on a tuff flora outcrop in the Radnice coal basin in the Czech Republic. The Czech forest is older by some 16 million years and shows little overlap with Wuda at the species level, but a similar diversity of plants colonized both forests. Of more practical use was a mapping method Opluštil pioneered at Radnice in 2002. Borrowing a technique from archaeology, Opluštil had divided the site with a grid that allowed him to catalog fossils' precise locations.

    Over 8 years of fieldwork, Wang and Pfefferkorn uncovered nearly complete Noeggerathiales specimens. Geologists working in the Illinois coal basin and other sites had hypothesized that it was an upland plant that grew in isolated patches. In contrast, at Wuda, Noeggerathiales was a dominant wetland tree that covered more than 60% of the forest. “The Wuda material is nothing short of spectacular,” DiMichele says. The discovery of whole Noeggerathiales specimens “solves all sorts of riddles.”

    The Wuda fossils will also help researchers reconstruct North China's climate in the Permian period. The fossils show that wetlands vegetation had evolved relatively little since the late Carboniferous period—and that some of the plants that occupied Euramerica in that earlier period continued to thrive in North China.

    With excavators bearing down on them, Wang and Pfefferkorn worked quickly. As a result, in the PNAS paper, they could only paint the lost forest in broad strokes. Last September, they returned to Wuda with Opluštil and other colleagues to scrutinize a small area in more detail. This time they cordoned off an 18-square-meter area of tuff to catalog species and probe aspects of forest ecology missed in the earlier study. Merging the fine-grained and wide-angle views will give a more complete picture, revealing the composition of plants as well as their positions in the forest, Opluštil says.

    It didn't take long for that tiny site to be ravaged. Returning to the Wuda basin in March, Wang finds only a broken piece of cord used to stake out the grid. The hills are strewn with garbage. He shakes his head at the pace of mining. “It's faster than I expected,” he says. “If we don't stop it soon, everything will be like this.”

    Running out of time

    Over a feast in a Mongolian yurt featuring a roasted lamb and vats of steaming milk tea, Wang appeals to local officials to protect the Wuda outcrop. Zhang, who helped secure research rights in 2007, chimes in. “It won't affect the GDP,” he assures the other officials, who nod. “Eventually there won't be any coal to mine,” one points out. “We have to think about what comes next.”

    Wang's proposal is modest. He wants the county government to give geologists a few weeks to work with the remaining tuff flora before gutting it, and to indefinitely protect a patch—roughly 1 square kilometer—for research. The Czech Republic and Germany have protected tuff flora for science. Wang has also urged the government to set up a museum showcasing the fossilized forest. The first specimens, he says, could be an impressive array of Permian trunks compressed in a band of tuff overlooking a power plant.

    If local officials consent to another round of research, Wuda may yield more secrets. Wang hopes to find a fossilized cycad plant hidden in the tuff; he has already found the seeds. The site may ultimately divulge which ferns and seed plants covered the forest floor in Permian North China. “There are a lot of questions about what groundcover looked like before grasses had evolved,” DiMichele says. Wuda's flora predates grasses by millions of years. And since North China in the Early Permian had a similar climate and character to Euramerica during the Carboniferous, the Wuda fossils may also shed light on the supercontinent's ecology in an earlier era.

    More broadly, Wuda may have implications for our understanding of climate change today. “The relationships between plants and distances between trees can tell us a lot about the climatic changes of the past,” Opluštil says. As Wang notes, “This is also a period when the Earth was changing from an icehouse to a greenhouse.”

    The veteran paleobotanist leads a team to a corner of the basin untouched by scientific hands. He stops near the entrance to an abandoned mining tunnel and chips away at tuff. Wang tosses aside a few disappointing fossil fragments—and then stumbles on a specimen that makes him giggle. “Ah!” he cries. He connects two pieces to show a jagged, dark shape, joking that it is the imprint of a head of Chinese cabbage. “This is a new species,” he says.

    An explosion booms from just over the next hill.

  5. Invasive Species

    Researchers Set Course To Blockade Ballast Invaders

    1. Daniel Strain*

    As U.S. regulations loom, scientists are working to test new devices that can remove potentially invasive organisms from ships' ballast water.

    Barge ahead.

    A new research barge will screen ballast water treatment technologies.


    BALTIMORE, MARYLAND—Standing aboard one of the newest research vessels in the United States, Mario Tamburri looks more like a plumber than a marine ecologist. Blame it on the pipes: Bright red, blue, and green tubes twist and turn across the deck of the repurposed barge. Tamburri, who is based in Solomons and directs the Maritime Environmental Resource Center (MERC), part of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, points to a narrow outlet. It's here, he says, that researchers can tap into the barge's precious scientific cargo: its ballast water and the organisms that live in it.

    Ballast is crucial to balancing the weight of giant cargo ships as they ply the world's oceans. But as these ships pump millions of liters of ballast in and out of their hulls, they also help spread sometimes microscopic stowaways, including invasive shellfish and algae that have damaged marine ecosystems and local economies worldwide. Blocking these invasions is the goal of Tamburri's science barge, officially christened the Mobile Ballast Water Treatment Test Platform. Recently, he and his colleagues began using it to test ship-based technologies—including mechanical filters and chemical weapons—capable of removing most organisms from ballast water. The experiments are part of a larger international effort to prevent shipborne invasions. Earlier this year, for example, the United States adopted new rules that limit how many ballast organisms commercial ships can release into coastal waters and require ship owners to install proven water-treatment systems. It's not clear, however, which technologies will meet the new standards—or how researchers can validate the effectiveness of various devices. That's where MERC's barge, and several other floating laboratories like it, come in: “We're here to provide unbiased, independent data to regulators [and] shipbuilders,” Tamburri says.

    The stakes are high for ecosystems and shippers. Big cargo ships dock in U.S. waters an estimated 90,000 times each year and unload nearly 200 million tons of ballast. Even relatively isolated ports, such as those in the Great Lakes, “are connected to almost every other port on the planet through four or five ship voyages,” says David Lodge, an ecologist at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. Those linkages have enabled some organisms to travel far from home: Roughly one-half of the 59 invasive species known to have colonized the Great Lakes since the late 1950s, for instance, likely arrived in ballast tanks, according to a 2007 report to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences's Transportation Research Board. Those invaders include the now-pervasive zebra mussel (Dreissena polymorpha), which has clogged industrial pipes and displaced native animals. Overall, such invasions cost about $130 million annually in the Great Lakes alone, Lodge and colleagues estimated in a February 2011 study in the journal Ecosystems. And saltwater habitats haven't fared much better. Researchers suspect that ballast tanks carried troublesome Asian shore crabs (Hemigrapsus sanguineus) to the Northeast coast of the United States, and Asian clams (Potamocorbula amurensis) to San Francisco Bay—although it's possible that some invaders simply hitched a ride on the outer hulls of ships (see sidebar, p. 665).

    For the past decade, U.S. regulations required most ships entering U.S. waters to flush and refill ballast tanks far offshore, where waters are less likely to harbor organisms that might take hold in coastal seas. But many environmental groups are pressing the government to set tighter standards. In 2011, the U.S. National Research Council asked scientists to examine just how tight such standards would need to be: In other words, how many ballast organisms does it take to start an invasion? The answer, says panelist Gregory Ruiz, a zoologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) in Edgewater, Maryland, depends on a number of factors, from the saltiness of the water to the presence of predators. But one thing is certain: “The lower you go, the lower the risk.”

    That's the thinking behind new U.S. Coast Guard regulations published on 23 March. The rules—which echo standards proposed or adopted by the United Nations' International Maritime Organization and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—require most ships built after December 2013 and planning to enter U.S. waters to install an approved, onboard ballast-treatment system. The aim is to thin, but not necessarily eliminate, the aquatic herds living in ballast water. The rules require culling the biggest hitchhikers—such as most mussel larvae and crustaceans—down to nine living individuals or fewer per cubic meter of water.

    The rules don't specify which treatment systems ship owners must use. But the best candidates rely on a combination of approaches, according to a 2011 EPA report. Many start with brute force, using mesh screens to filter out bigger organisms or even spinning the water to flush them out. Then the systems typically go for the kill, using a toxic chemical such as chlorine to poison survivors. Other systems bombard organisms with damaging ultraviolet rays (UV) or suffocate them by removing oxygen. Whatever the approach, ballast-cleaning equipment is expected to be expensive, costing from $1 million to $3 million per ship. As a result, shippers and regulators want to find out which technologies really work—a task that has fallen to scientists such as Tamburri. “There's going to be a real push” for rigorous testing, he says.

    The MERC team, for instance, plans to use funding from private and public sources to screen about three privately developed treatment systems per year aboard their barge. Last month, the researchers installed their first prototype, a system that pairs filtration with UV rays. Over the next month, the researchers will see how it cleans nearly 300 metric tons of ballast water that the barge can store in one of its dual deck tanks. The results may determine whether the equipment receives the Coast Guard's approval for wider use. And later this year, a tugboat is scheduled to push the barge around the Chesapeake Bay, where the scientists will test how the equipment treats water with a range of salinities, including brackish and fresh water. “The more sources you can pull water from, the more confident you are that water from around the world can be treated successfully,” says Nick Welschmeyer, who studies plankton at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in California. He also serves as chief scientist of the Golden Bear Facility, a similar testing platform based in San Francisco Bay. A third U.S. effort, called the Great Ships Initiative, operates in the Great Lakes.

    All three U.S. facilities and their European counterparts, however, face sizable technical obstacles. One of the most fundamental is that larvae and algae aren't easy to count. To get a sample representative of an entire ballast tank, for instance, technicians need to tally tiny organisms living in as much as 7 cubic meters of water (about the volume of seven average-sized hot tubs), Tamburri and colleagues reported in 2011 in Environmental Science & Technology. Welschmeyer says the process can be “so cumbersome it hurts.”

    That pain was on display recently aboard the MERC barge. Darrick Sparks, a member of the SERC team, sat in a cramped trailer peering at dozens of small animals called rotifers through a microscope. To determine if the creatures were alive or dead, he used an ice pick–like instrument to poke idle rotifers to see whether they moved.

    Scientists like Welschmeyer and Tamburri are working on tricks to make the process easier. For instance, measuring how much chlorophyll, a pigment common in many photosynthesizing organisms, is in a water sample can give officials a reasonable guess of the abundance of algae. It's the “whoa, that is way too green” to meet regulations approach, Tamburri says.

    Such techniques may be critical if the U.S. government follows some states in further tightening ballast standards. California, for example, has adopted tougher rules that are slated to enter into full force in 2020, and environmentalists want the U.S. and other nations to follow suit.

    But many in the shipping industry are pushing back, citing a 2011 EPA report that concluded that no current ship-based technology can meet California's tighter standards. The struggle highlights the need to think ahead, says Thom Cmar, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Chicago, which is pushing for tighter limits. The technologies shipbuilders choose could stay on vessels for decades, he notes, so “the time is really now, before the vessels have started installing those systems, to get it right.”

    • * Daniel Strain is a journalist in Washington, D.C.

  6. Invasive Species

    A Foul Problem

    1. Daniel Strain*

    From mussels to barnacles to algae, studies suggest that "hull-fouling" organisms could pose an invasion threat that is as great as if not greater than that from ballast creatures, researchers say.

    Not all potential invaders lurk inside cargo ships. Many live in plain sight, clinging to vessels' outer hulls. From mussels to barnacles to algae, studies suggest that such “hull-fouling” organisms could pose an invasion threat that is “equally strong if not stronger” than that from ballast creatures, says zoologist Gregory Ruiz of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Maryland.


    Divers survey marine organisms (inset) clinging to a vessel's hull.


    So far, however, regulators haven't addressed the hull-fouling issue, in part because it's not clear how boats can effectively get rid of their clinging hitchhikers. Researchers are also still trying to understand which hull organisms can withstand long sea journeys that are fraught with extreme swings in temperatures and salinities.

    To replicate such stresses, Louise McKenzie, a postdoctoral researcher in Ruiz's laboratory, has been subjecting small clutches of hull-fouling animals, including blue mussels (Mytilus edulis) and tunicates called sea grapes (Molgula manhattensis), to simulated voyages.

    First, she places the organisms in rows of tanks. Then over hours or days, she changes the temperature and salinity of the water, replicating the fluctuating conditions at sea. She recently took her passengers on a faux voyage from New York to Melbourne, Australia; to simulate passing through the Panama Canal, McKenzie plunged the animals into fresh water, then back again into a salty solution. Sometimes, McKenzie says, the toll of such shifts is obvious just by sniffing the air in her laboratory: “It can be a bit smelly if a few things have died.”

    Researchers hope that McKenzie's study and others like it will help them identify shipping routes with a high risk of carrying organisms overseas. Others, meanwhile, are developing new tools to keep creatures off hulls, such as nonstick surfaces and improved cleaning methods. But one thing is clear, says Mario Tamburri, director of the University of Maryland's Maritime Environmental Resource Center in Solomons: “We're only solving half of the problem with ballast-water treatment.”

    • * Daniel Strain is a journalist in Washington, D.C.

  7. Chagas Disease

    With Novel Paint, Chemist Aims To Vanquish the Vinchuca

    1. Jean Friedman-Rudovsky*

    Spanish chemist Pilar Mateo invented a clever way to package insect-control agents in paint; after a decade of trying, she's persuaded Bolivia to give it a test.


    Mateo with a display of Triatoma infestans, the bug that carries the Chagas parasite.


    URUNDAYTI, BOLIVIA—The old woman walks slowly toward the car with a toothless smile. “Doctorita,” she says. Pilar Mateo jumps from the SUV, launching a hug so tight the frail elder looks like she might break in two. As they walk back toward the cluster of faded colorful mud homes, a crowd emerges to greet la Doctorita, a Spanish chemist who invented a remarkable insecticidal paint that covers the village's buildings. Mateo is one step away from sainthood for this region's indigenous Guarani people. “She made the bugs disappear,” the old woman whispers in my ear.

    Urundayti lies in the heart of the Gran Chaco—a vast dry forest region in Bolivia, Argentina, and Paraguay that's ground zero for Chagas disease, endemic in the Americas. Infection often begins with a bite from a large beak-nosed bug known as the vinchuca (Triatoma infestans) that emerges at night to feed. Through its feces, it transmits the Trypanosoma cruzi parasite that causes Chagas, a slow-developing illness that can lead to extreme lethargy and even organ failure.

    Thirty years ago, the vinchuca infestation covered 628 million hectares of South America. A continent-wide effort of massive and repetitive insecticide application has whittled that zone down to 12% of the initial area. (Worldwide, the disease affects more than 8 million people.) Bolivia has the globe's highest Chagas infection rates, and the Bolivian Chaco remains the epicenter of transmission, with more than 80% of homes still infested in many villages. Ranging between 150 and 300 meters above sea level, the Chaco is prime vinchuca terrain because of its warm, dry climate. Entrenched poverty is partly complicit: The vector makes its home in the walls of mud or adobe huts and feeds on farm animals like the ubiquitous goats and chickens.

    Research shows that shoddy and sporadic fumigation has resulted in a pesticide-tolerant bug population. “This region presents such deep challenges that traditional pesticide application methods don't seem capable of overcoming them,” says David Gorla, director of the Regional Center for Scientific Investigation and Technological Transfers of Anillaco, La Rioja (CRILAR) in Argentina and one of the continent's primary T. infestans experts.

    Hot zone.

    With a family in Bolivia's Chaco region.


    Mateo believes that her patented paint—Inesfly 5A IGR, sold through her company, Inesba in Valencia, Spain—is the solution. Studies published in 2008 and 2009 show it is effective for four to 20 times longer than traditional pesticide applications, and its microcapsule packaging of active agents reduces environmental and toxic risks.

    For the past decade, she's been trying to paint her way across the Gran Chaco region. But adoption of Inesfly has been slow, partly because it lacks the approval of the World Health Organization's Pesticide Evaluation Scheme (WHOPES), the gateway to biocide use in the developing world. Mateo's go-it-alone approach, some say, has been a factor, too. No large pharma company is helping escort Inesba through its trials; Mateo has ruled out such partnerships.

    But Inesfly now seems poised for a debut. A version that targets the malaria-carrying Anopheles gambiae mosquito has cleared two of the four WHOPES stages in Africa, where it will soon undergo a test of its ability to reduce malaria infections. And after a decade of obstacles, WHOPES evaluations of the anti-Chagas formula may begin here in Bolivia within the year.

    The invention

    Mateo's odyssey began in Spain 2 decades ago when she read about a local hospital being closed because of a bug infestation. The young Ph.D. in chemical engineering and daughter of a paint factory owner had a thought: If walls are homes for many common pests, then walls could also be a first line of defense. Her initial attempts at mixing pesticides and water-based paint were disastrous. Residual activity was null, and toxic chemicals leached. Mateo wondered whether coating the active ingredients in a nanocapsule would enable slow release and minimize health risks. In 1995, she patented the “microcapsule” packaging, and Inesfly was born. “I thought I'd make a fortune ridding wealthy people's homes of cockroaches and flies,” Mateo says.

    But that changed when, in 1998, a Bolivian doctor named Cleto Cáceres showed up on her doorstep in Spain. “My entire village is dying of a disease called Chagas. Can you help?” Mateo recalls him saying. She hesitated: “I didn't make the paint to save lives.” But Cáceres proved convincing. A year later, Mateo traveled to his Chaco homeland and was stunned to see that the Guarani were so tormented by the vinchuca in their homes that they slept outside to escape the nightly feeding frenzies. Mateo, now 53, remembers thinking, “My life has changed forever.”

    When Mateo arrived in Urundayti in 2006, she recalls, “the WHO had said it would be impossible to eliminate the vinchuca here.” The village had been fumigated for several years, but the vinchuca kept returning. Mateo and residents painted home walls, fences, and community buildings later that year. The bugs left, and Urundayti is still vinchuca-free. Since 1998, approximately 7000 houses in the region have been painted with Inesfly. According to evaluations by SEDES Santa Cruz, the local office of Bolivia's health ministry, areas formerly registering 90% infestation levels have gone to zero vector presence, often with one paint application. No painted communities have suffered reinfestation, the reports say.

    No side effects or environmental complications have been reported, says Abraham Gemio, a scientist who joined Mateo's company in 2006 and now manages its new paint projects and postpaint evaluations. “We can make history here in the Chaco,” says Gemio, arguably Bolivia's most knowledgeable T. infestans scientist, who helped established Bolivia's national Chagas program in 1980 and led it for 25 years before joining Mateo's firm.

    Mixing it up.

    Mateo and colleagues Franz Espejo (left) and Johny Bauda prepare paint for use against vinchuca (below).


    “The great advantage of this paint is that it solves the most important shortcomings in vector-control programs such as short residual activity,” says CRILAR's Gorla, who has published papers on the paint in Parasites & Vectors and in the journal of the Oswaldo Cruz Institute in Rio de Janeiro. In natural conditions, Inesfly has a kill rate of 100% for at least 6 months and 22% for 34 months after application, according to his research.

    A key to the paint's effectiveness, researchers say, is the microcapsules' inclusion of insect growth regulator (IGR) compounds such as pyriproxyfen and diflubenzuron, which prevent the insects from developing fully. These have no effect on humans but attack insects' young and eggs, which insecticides rarely reach. As a long-term agent, IGR is better than pesticides alone, because it does not select resistant organisms for survival, says Jorge Méndez Galván, former director of vector-transmitted diseases for the Mexican government. João Carlos Pinto Dias, a renowned Chagas researcher at the Oswaldo Cruz Institute with half a century of experience, adds that painted homes lead to “greater self-esteem among the poor and improved [living] conditions.”

    Into the labyrinth

    With so many fans, why is Inesfly still relatively unknown? “In international meetings of Chagas experts, there's a general feeling of skepticism,” says one expert who requested anonymity. “Everyone asks: If it works so well, then why hasn't she gotten [WHOPES] approval?”

    “The lack of approval is a commercial problem,” says Javier Lucientes Curdi of the University of Zaragoza in Spain, who's been studying Inesfly's potential for containment of insect-borne animal diseases for years.

    According to Mateo, the reasons are numerous. First, WHOPES is a complex labyrinth that requires rigorous testing of each formulation at specified centers. Without a host country's support—which Mateo lacked until recently—it is hard to launch a WHOPES review. And each evaluation can cost millions—a reach for Mateo's 12-person company, which operates with $1 million annually. Inesba rarely charges more than cost of production for the paint ($100 covers a standard Chaco house). The company earns most of its income from other products such as Inesba's joint venture with Dow Chemicals Spain to microencapsulate agricultural pesticides, and a lice shampoo.

    Revenues underwrite Inesfly, S.L. in Spain, an independent company that researches new uses for microcapsules. Inesba also supports Mateo's foundation, Science and Knowledge in Action, which funds women's empowerment and community-development projects worldwide. Though Mateo says she was apolitical earlier in life, she's now a born-again revolutionary. She readily lambastes what she calls the elite, profit-driven pharmaceutical world and says that “the real solution” for eradicating diseases of poverty such as Chagas is to end global inequality—not distribute paint.


    Chris Schofield, coordinator for the European Community–Latin America Network for Research on the Biology and Control of Triatominae (ECLAT) and honorary senior lecturer at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, praises Mateo as “an excellent formulation chemist who has developed a splendid technology.” Yet he sees a risk in her anticorporate stance: “It's like if you develop a new medicine that you know works. Unless you partner with a large company with the resources to make it available throughout the world, it's going to stay unknown.”

    Mateo has focused on proving the paint's safety, obtaining relatively benign toxicity ratings from laboratories in Latin American and Europe. But she says that for more than a decade, the Bolivian health ministry refused to expand the Inesfly painting test area. “We can't go skirting international guidelines just because the paint seems like a good idea,” says Max Enriquez, director of Bolivia's Chagas program, who says only WHOPES approval will lift his doubts.

    Mateo was incensed. Frustrated by what she calls “two-legged pests,” she took her case last year directly to President Evo Morales. Armed with stacks of scientific data, she convinced him within an hour of the paint's worth. He has now authorized every indigenous Guarani home in the Chaco to be painted—and has demanded that the health ministry facilitate the initiation of WHOPES trials.

    With this decision, the last piece of the WHOPES puzzle—a national sponsor for vinchuca control—has fallen into place. World Chagas experts and financial backing have been waiting in the wings: The trials, set to begin this year, will be led by Pedro Albajar Viñas, coordinator of the Chagas program of WHO's neglected tropical diseases unit, in collaboration with ECLAT, Barcelona's Hospital Vall d'Hebron, and Spain's development agency, AECID, Mateo says.

    Pinto Dias is deeply pleased: “I hope with all my heart that this product soon becomes available…. As a witness to its effectiveness, I truly wish that others have a chance to use this important tool.”

    • * Jean Friedman-Rudovsky is a journalist in La Paz, Bolivia.