News this Week

Science  27 Jul 2012:
Vol. 337, Issue 6093, pp. 394

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  1. Around the World

    1 - Brussels
    European Commission Proposes Deep-Sea Protections
    2 - The Netherlands
    Europe Poised to Approve Gene Therapy
    3 - Washington, D.C.
    U.S. Science Board Green-Lights Telescope
    4 - Norwich, U.K.
    Police Close Climategate Investigation
    5 - Tokyo
    Scientists Spar Over Fukushima Radiation Effects


    European Commission Proposes Deep-Sea Protections


    The European Commission wants to tighten its oversight of deep-sea habitat in the Northeast Atlantic, proposing last week to phase out deep-sea trawling and implement scientific quotas for fishing. “This action is a complete turning point in potential protection of deep-sea bottom communities,” says marine biologist Les Watling of the University of Hawaii, Manoa.

    Only 1% of fish caught in the Northeast Atlantic come from the deep sea, but the methods used to catch them are particularly destructive of fragile habitats and can contain up to 20% “bycatch” of unwanted species, such as deepwater sharks. The proposal would phase out licenses for deep-sea trawling 2 years after the regulation is approved, require strict quotas for deep-sea species that lack solid scientific data on population size, and require impact assessments for opening new areas to deep-sea bottom fishing. The proposal will go to the European Parliament and Council of Ministers for review when they reconvene in early September.

    The Netherlands

    Europe Poised to Approve Gene Therapy

    For the first time, a gene therapy treatment appears to be headed for regulatory approval in a Western country. Last week, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) recommended that the European Commission approve Glybera, a drug for patients with a rare disorder that leads to a dangerous buildup of fat in the blood.

    Glybera, which is injected into leg muscles, uses a virus to deliver a gene for an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase (LPL) that breaks down fats. EMA turned down a Glybera application three times in the past 13 months because data on 27 patients failed to convincingly show that the drug resulted in fewer pancreatitis attacks, but EMA experts changed their minds after reviewing data on patients with the most severe symptoms. Only such patients will be allowed to receive the drug. The Dutch company developing the drug, uniQure, must submit monitoring data on treated patients.

    The European Commission usually follows the advice of EMA. Currently, only China and Russia have approved gene therapy treatments.

    Washington, D.C.

    U.S. Science Board Green-Lights Telescope


    The U.S. National Science Board (NSB), the policymaking body of the National Science Foundation (NSF), has given the go-ahead to the foundation's plan to construct the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST): an 8.36-meter-wide instrument to be built in Chile. The endorsement marks a significant milestone for the proposal.

    The telescope will survey the sky twice a week using a 3-billion-pixel camera, collecting images of billions of galaxies. The repeat observations will help astronomers detect changes in stars and galaxies in an unprecedented way, probe dark matter and dark energy, and discover transient phenomena such as stellar explosions.

    NSB's vote of approval allows NSF to include a line in its 2014 budget request to Congress for beginning construction. The estimated construction cost is $665 million. The bulk of the cost—70%—will be borne by NSF, while the Department of Energy has agreed to pay 24%. The remaining 6% is coming from private donors. If Congress approves funding, the project is expected to be completed in 5 years. Officials hope that it will be ready to collect data starting in 2022.

    Norwich, U.K.

    Police Close Climategate Investigation

    Police in the United Kingdom have ended their investigation into “Climategate,” the November 2009 theft of thousands of e-mails from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. The public release of the e-mails, many of which were written by prominent climate scientists, came just prior to a major meeting in Copenhagen on an international agreement to curb climate change. The often blunt and sometimes unflattering messages were seized by those who doubt climate science and used to argue that some researchers had manipulated data and violated ethical standards. Several investigations, however, cleared the scientists of wrongdoing. The Norfolk Constabulary announced on 18 July that it was ending Operation Cabin, its investigation into what detectives called a “sophisticated and carefully orchestrated attack.” Britain's Computer Misuse Act has a 3-year statute of limitations, noted Detective Chief Superintendent Julian Gregory, and “the complex nature of this investigation means that we do not have a realistic prospect of … launching criminal proceedings within the time constraints imposed by law.”


    Scientists Spar Over Fukushima Radiation Effects

    A new estimate of deaths likely to result from the Fukushima nuclear disaster has been challenged by radiation experts. John Ten Hoeve and Mark Jacobson of Stanford University produced a global map of fallout from the March 2011 reactor meltdowns and calculated cancer cases using the linear no-threshold (LNT) model, which holds that any increase in radiation exposure proportionally increases the cancer risk. Their results, published online at Energy & Environmental Science on 17 July, show the accident could cause between 15 and 1100 cancer deaths, primarily in Japan.

    The team “applied the LNT model inappropriately,” says University of Tokyo physicist Ryugo Hayano. He points to International Commission on Radiological Protection recommendations that the LNT model not be used this way with low radiation doses. And in an opinion appearing online with the paper, Nobel Prize–winning physicist Burton Richter argues that nuclear power is “better for your health” than other choices. He figured that a standard lifetime of power generation by the six Fukushima nuclear reactors would have caused fewer lost years of life (26,800) due to radiation and accidents than pollution from burning coal (124,000 years) or gas (38,000 years).

  2. Newsmakers

    Sally Ride Dead at 61



    Astronaut Sally Ride, the first American woman to travel to outer space, died this week of pancreatic cancer. The intensely private Ride, an astrophysicist, graduated from Stanford University in California in 1978; the same year, she joined NASA as an astronaut candidate, one of six women chosen as the first female candidates. She traveled into space for the first time in 1983 aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger and made a second space flight in 1984. After leaving NASA in 1987, Ride became a physics professor at the University of California, San Diego. She was also the president and CEO of Sally Ride Science, founded in 2001 to promote science and math careers for girls and young women.

    Three Q's

    Earlier this month, University of Oxford neuroscientist Stephen Emmott, who also heads Microsoft's Computational Science Lab in Cambridge, stepped out onto the stage of the Royal Court Theatre in London to give an hourlong “performance” on the subject of population. Entitled Ten Billion, after the estimated world population at the end of this century, it is somewhere between a lecture and a theatrical monologue, and has won positive reviews. “This is one of the most disturbing evenings I have ever spent in a theatre,” wrote The Guardian's drama critic Michael Billington. Ten Billion runs at the Royal Court until 11 August.



    Q:What sort of a show is it?

    I struggle to define it. It's an experiment: a nonscientific talk about science to a nonscientific audience in a theatre. It's about population, resource depletion, energy, water, species extinction … how they all interlink.

    Q:Why population as a topic?

    The Earth could carry 20 billion people, but not with our current way of living. So what is the carrying capacity of the Earth? Is it 7 billion or 10 billion or 20 billion? I think we're already past it with the way we consume now, so if there are going to be another 3 billion people this century, what are the consequences? Is there a solution?

    Q:What was the audience's reaction?

    I found it very difficult to judge their reaction because I couldn't see them. But people who stayed on afterwards came up to me and said “it was absolutely life-changing,” and “it made me think completely differently.” So the experiment looks successful.

  3. Random Sample

    A Touching Tribute


    Hoping to cover a lot of ground, computer researchers are helping viewers take in the world's largest piece of community folk art. The AIDS Memorial Quilt is composed of some 49,000 hand-sewn panels commemorating more than 93,000 people who died from AIDS. It would cover more than 12 hectares if fully displayed, but small portions are typically shown at events, such as this week's International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C. To make the quilt more accessible, Anne Balsamo of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles is creating a virtual version together with Microsoft Research, the NAMES Project Foundation, and several universities. AIDS Quilt Interactive, a touchscreen exhibit, lets viewers search for panels and view them close up. Stitching together the 500,000 images has been “a profound experience for me as a designer and technologist” says Balsamo, and “a dream come true.” The exhibit will be on display at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles in California from 7 August to 14 October.

    Facing the Genetic Future


    Sitting in a therapist's office, New York City artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg discovered a hair lodged in a crack in the glass covering a painting on the wall. “I stared at it for an hour,” she says. “I couldn't stop wondering who it belonged to, and what I could find out about that person.”

    After reading a story in Science about the new field of forensic DNA phenotyping (18 February 2011, p. 838), Dewey-Hagborg decided to turn her fascination into an art project. She collected 11 hairs left around the city by strangers and learned how to test their DNA at a genetics lab. Now, she's printing three-dimensional masks, or approximations, of those people's faces, which will be on display—along with her own—in a January exhibition called Stranger Visions. The masks reflect eye color, geographical roots, sex, and other traits, but not exact facial features because forensic phenotyping can't fill in all the details. But it might one day, and with ever cheaper sequencing, an era of “genetic surveillance” is looming, says Dewey-Hagborg. “As a society, we need to have a discussion about that.”


    By the Numbers

    $424 million — Total amount of two grant agreements signed 19 July by the Ethiopian government and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The agreements aim for universal coverage of HIV treatment and to eliminate malaria deaths in Ethiopia by 2015.

    34 billion — Tonnes of global emissions of carbon dioxide in 2011, an increase of 3% compared with last year—and an all-time high, according to a study by the European Commission's Joint Research Centre.


    Join us on Thursday, 2 August, at 3 p.m. EDT for a live chat on the future of exploration on Mars.

  4. Solar System Exploration

    Planetary Science Is Busting Budgets

    1. Richard A. Kerr

    A predictable escalation of the exploration of Mars has collided with limited funding, pushing Mars science into the arms of the astronauts.

    Better and better.

    Successive spacecraft have returned increasingly sharp views of Mars.


    Exploration of the solar system over the past 50 years has been a natural progression: First, swiftly fly by your favorite planetary body, then give it its first spacecraft in orbit to map it globally, put its first rover on the surface, and then return the first rock and soil for exquisitely detailed analysis back on Earth. However natural, though, each first step of the process comes with a bigger price tag.

    Mars, with its tantalizing hints of life, has been a favorite target of spacefaring nations, so it has all its firsts but one. After a barrage of flybys, orbiters, landers, and rovers, a U.S. consensus committee has recommended the return of rock and soil samples as the next logical step for Mars and indeed the highest—and by far the most expensive—priority in solar system science. Sample return also neatly answers NASA's long-standing call for new missions to be “aspirational” (read: bigger and better by an order of magnitude and going where no one has gone before).

    But with budget cutting at a fever pitch in Washington, even Mars sample return is no shoo-in. Next month a NASA committee will report on how the cash-strapped space agency might proceed with the exploration of Mars. Ominously, all the options will involve hitching planetary science to human spaceflight—a chancy proposition. The outcome could determine whether Mars, or any planetary body, will rate one of NASA's multibillion-dollar “flagship” missions in the next decade.

    Next step, please

    Mars has certainly been done to death, at least up to a point. The first flyby of Mars came with Mariner 4 in 1965, an $83 million spacecraft ($231 million adjusted for inflation). Mariner 4's 21 images revealed not the crisscrossing canals imagined by earthbound astronomers, but a moonscape of desolate-looking craters. In 1971, Mariner 9 became the first Mars orbiter at a price of $137 million, revealing yawning chasms, giant volcanoes, and river channels.

    Then in 1976, NASA launched an all-out, $1 billion coordinated assault on the Red Planet with the two Viking pairs of orbiters and landers. The orbiters—sharper eyed than their predecessors—revealed delicate networks of stream valleys, clear signs that water flowed on the surface in ancient times. In the past decade, the sharper view and broader spectral range of orbiting spectrometers turned up a rainbow of water-altered minerals invisible to earlier orbiters. In the past decade, NASA's Opportunity and Spirit rovers have analyzed two such watery sites down to the atomic level.

    Following any planetary first, a decline in science return tends to push scientists toward the next stage. Mars orbiters, for example, are showing signs of diminishing returns. The HiRISE camera on NASA's still-active Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) returns images in which geologists can discern surface features as small as a meter across. Earlier orbiters had imaging resolutions of several tens of meters to a few meters. Mars geologist Michael Carr of the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California, who was a team leader on Viking, thinks MRO has been “an outstanding mission,” but HiRISE's “super-resolution hasn't grabbed me,” he says. HiRISE images have confirmed hypotheses generated by images from earlier missions and revealed year-to-year changes like new impact craters, but they haven't driven fundamental changes in the perception of Mars, he says.

    Limits are looming as well for spectral imaging of Mars in the search for water-altered minerals, says Mars spectroscopist Philip Christensen of Arizona State University, Tempe, the principal investigator on Surveyor's spectrometer. Christensen says he would love to fly a souped-up version of the instrument on a future mission. “But is that essential to our understanding of Mars? I think not,” he says. “It wouldn't be revolutionizing. You can do only so much from orbit, no matter how good your spectrometer. We're pretty darn close to doing what you can from orbit.”

    Despite the declining science return, hundreds of thousands of images and hundreds of terabytes of data returned by five flybys, nine orbiters, three landers, and three rovers have painted a rather clear though broad-brush picture of Mars. The search from orbit has revealed a half-dozen types of ancient watery environments, from river-fed crater lakes to hot-spring deposits. Every one of them could conceivably have harbored early martian life.

    Successful, or not.

    By one count, 39 missions have gone to Mars, but about half of the flybys, orbiters, landers, and rovers have failed.


    To “follow the water” this far, it took 20 increasingly ambitious missions, but it also took increasing amounts of funding. “The progression is up the budget curve,” observes Noel Hinners, a former NASA official and aerospace industry manager. “The price goes up with each stage” from first flyby to first orbiter to first lander or rover.

    The price also naturally goes up within a given stage of exploration. The first Mars rover, Sojourner (11 kilograms), ran $171 million (including a lander) in 1997. The Opportunity and Spirit rovers (185 kilograms each) sent to Mars in 2004 cost about $410 million each. Then the lone nuclear-powered Curiosity rover (900 kilograms) that will arrive at Mars on 5 August came to $2.5 billion.

    Decision time

    So with likely diminishing returns on mounting investments, what should the next big thing be at Mars, and indeed in planetary science? To decide, a committee of the National Research Council of the U.S. National Academies produced the Planetary Science Decadal Survey in March of last year (Science, 11 March 2011, p. 1254). Drawing on a broad polling of the few-thousand-strong U.S planetary science community, it recommended missions for the next decade in each of the three traditional price tiers: three to five small missions costing half a billion dollars or less each, two medium missions costing $1 billion or less each, and one multibillion-dollar flagship mission.

    The decadal survey's top-priority flagship mission—and thus the top priority for the solar system—was a rover mission to collect martian samples for eventual return to Earth. But outside cost evaluators gave it a $3.5 billion price tag. Top priority or not, the committee concluded, that would unduly burden planetary science. The mission cost must be whittled down to $2.5 billion, the committee stipulated; if not, it should be delayed or canceled.

    “The plan in the decadal survey was very ambitious,” says space physicist Frances Bagenal of the University of Colorado, Boulder, who has chaired NASA's Outer Planets Assessment Group. To get the samples it collects into the hands of scientists, the Mars rover recommended for the next decade would have to be followed by two more inevitably flagship-class missions, “each of which would require a considerable miracle,” Bagenal says. One would rocket the collected samples up to Mars orbit and the other would return them to Earth. All told, Mars sample return would run somewhere over $8 billion, according to the decadal survey. Even if that cost were split equally with international partners, the Mars community was shooting for a big slice of the planetary science pie in the next couple of decades, or nothing at all for Mars. The strategy for Mars exploration had no plan B.

    “My colleagues are constantly saying, ‘Phil, why did you do that?’” says Christensen, who chaired the Mars panel that recommended sample return to the full decadal committee. They chose the all-or-nothing plan, he says, because that was the only way they saw to keep Mars in the running. If Curiosity rover works, that would make 16 successful U.S. missions to Mars, he notes. “It's hard to argue we need a 17th or an 18th mission to Mars” if it's going to be just more orbiters or rovers.

    Not everyone agrees. John Grotzinger is not what you would call a dyed-in-the-wool “martian,” having come to Mars research in midcareer from the Precambrian geology of Earth. But he is now Curiosity's project scientist, and he has some ideas for less ambitious Mars exploration. Rather than going directly to sample return, he suggests two or three “boutique” rover missions in the next decade. Built on the same platform as the still-operating Opportunity rover, they would explore some of the places that were considered for Curiosity's landing but rejected. After a decade, he says, Mars scientists would have a far better idea of the one spot to pick up samples.

    Christensen doesn't see that option flying. “No one is going to let us keep sending rovers,” he says. “Mars would lose out to other parts of the solar system … [that] look more attractive. The small [Mars] missions aren't that compelling versus a comet sample return or a Uranus orbiter.” If they had suggested anything but sample return, he says, “we would have been ranked seventh.” With the decadal committee cool to the Mars panel's smaller, less ambitious options, Christensen's panel chose sample return. Concluding that it had the highest science return on investment of the contenders, the decadal committee ranked sample return as the highest priority among flagship missions.

    Not that Mars sample return is without competitors. Nipping at its heels in the decadal survey ranking are five other flagship missions. The second choice would send an orbiter to Jupiter's moon Europa—the first outer-planets moon orbiter—to investigate its ice-covered ocean that may harbor life. No new mission to the big moons of Jupiter or Saturn has been initiated in a quarter-century. (An impractically grandiose nuclear-fission–powered mission to orbit three icy jovian moons died in the initial design phase in 2005.) Third was a Uranus orbiter—a first for the outermost planets—with a probe to send into the planet's atmosphere. The last ranked mission was an either-or: a mission to study the climate of Venus or one to orbit another astrobiological target, Saturn's moon Enceladus. An Enceladus orbiter was the cheapest of the bunch but still came in at $1.9 billion.

    An alluring target.

    Jupiter's icy moon Europa (inset) still calls to scientists, who once considered sending a grandly ambitious, 58-meter-long spacecraft there.


    The big whack

    The planetary science community may recommend, but it can't fund. After adjusting for inflation, Congress's funding of NASA has been flat the past dozen years. And that plateau is about a third lower than NASA funding in 1969, which was in turn well below 1960s funding as the Apollo program cranked up and the Viking program got started. So planetary scientists were stunned when “the planetary budget got whacked” in President Barack Obama's fiscal year 2013 budget request to Congress, as NASA Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate John Grunsfeld characterized it. Planetary science's FY 2012 budget of $1.5 billion took a 21% cut in the request, with three-quarters of that coming out of the Mars program for a 38.5% cut there.

    NASA Administrator Charles Bolden explained that “flagships are expensive (Science, 24 February, p. 900). We just could not afford to do another one.” Space policy analyst John Logsdon has a more nuanced explanation of how a big-ticket item can be the first to go. A professor emeritus at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., Logsdon says that in these tight budgetary times, the White House and its Office of Management and Budget (OMB) were looking to hold NASA's overall budget level. And within a level budget, the Administration had its own science priorities, including earth science missions and the infamously expensive replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope.

    So “something in planetary science had to give,” Logsdon says. Even though Obama had directed NASA to send astronauts to Mars by the mid-2030s, that something was going to be Mars science. The recommended 2018 sample-collection rover alone loomed large, he says, because OMB, despite independent cost estimates made for the decadal survey, remained leery of that mission's stated cost. And then there were the inevitable second and third flagship missions to complete sample return; they had no rigorous cost estimates whatsoever. So the ambitious and pricey sample return was just what the budget cutters at OMB were looking for. Or as one planetary scientist puts it, it was “the chicken with the long neck.”

    Playing to NASA's strong suit

    But NASA isn't giving up on Mars. It may have failed to sell the Administration on a big-ticket exploration of Mars in the fiscal year 2013 budget round, but NASA is now undertaking a “reformulation” of its Mars Exploration Program. Next month, the ad hoc Mars Program Planning Group (MPPG), chaired by one-time NASA official Orlando Figueroa, will report to NASA leadership on how robotic exploration of Mars might “remain responsive to the primary scientific goals” of the decadal survey while being “consistent with the President's [2010] challenge of sending humans to Mars orbit,” according to the MPPG Web site.

    In other words, planetary science would be riding human exploration's coattails to Mars in the FY 2014 budget request. “That is fraught with danger,” Christensen says. “If you attach yourselves to human exploration,” Bagenal says, “you end up tailoring your science to address the needs of human exploration. Then they change their mind. The lunar people have been down that road several times.”

    Apollo astronauts did bring back 382 kilograms of moon rocks before Congress changed its mind and cut the program off short of a thorough scientific sampling of the moon. And in the 2000s, President George W. Bush directed NASA to return astronauts to the moon as a way station to Mars. That got scientists a highly capable lunar orbiter, a spectacular “bombing” mission that found water ice, and a small mission to study dust lofted above the moon. Then Obama changed the executive exploration “Vision” to a new path to Mars—an asteroid as astronauts' way station. That ended NASA's separate lunar science program.

    And then there is the question of just what science would be both consistent with sending humans to Mars and responsive to the decadal survey. Not a lot, it turns out, at least not for putting astronauts in orbit by the 2030s. “The emphasis is mostly on safety and implementation,” says Carr, who co-chaired a group advising NASA's MPPG. “It's very different from scientific knowledge.” However, overlap of interests “is substantial” in the area of life, he says, whether it's potential martian life, the effects of martian dust on humans, or humans' microbial contamination of Mars. So scientists' best hope in their search for life in the solar system may well hang on the life we already know about.

  5. Transboundary Rivers

    For China and Kazakhstan, No Meeting of the Minds on Water

    1. Richard Stone

    Kazakh scientists warn that low river flows from China could harm agriculture and aquatic ecosystems; bilateral talks are only treading water.

    Low water mark.

    The Ili's spring flow was half that needed to maintain ecosystems, Kazakh scientists say.


    DOBYN STATION, KAZAKHSTAN—Along the Ili River's withering banks, slabs of mud bake under a searing midday sun. A few weeks earlier this muck, swarming with flies, was riverbed. “I've never seen the river so low,” says Vasili Gusev, chief of Dobyn Hydrological Station, 52 kilometers west of the Chinese border. The flow here in late spring—236 cubic meters per second—is five times lower than during the same period in 2005, when Gusev and his wife took up residence at this outpost run by Kazhydromet, the agency that manages Kazakhstan's water resources. Fish, once abundant on this languid stretch of river, are now scarce despite a spring fishing ban.

    Vulnerable watershed.

    Scientists predict that Balkhash will break up into several small lakes if inputs from the Ili River continue to decline.


    Kazakhstan blames China for the Ili's ebbing vitality. Since the mid-1980s, rain and snow have increased at the river's headwaters in the Tian Shan mountains in western China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, Chinese data show. Yet in the past several years, the Ili's flow has declined precipitously, says Murat Nurumbetov, a Kazhydromet engineer in Almaty. The “inescapable conclusion,” he asserts, is that Xinjiang is drawing more heavily for irrigation, industrial use, and drinking water.

    Although China is a party to many international treaties, it has avoided those that would restrict its use of transboundary waters, resource experts say. China “rejects the idea of national integrity, which asserts that states have the right not to be adversely affected in their development potential by activities of the upstream riparian countries,” Elizabeth Economy, Asia studies director at the Council on Foreign Relations, testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission in January.

    Transboundary watersheds have been fraught with squabbles. Some concern pollution but most are about water flow. For example, Chinese hydropower dams on the Lancang River—the Upper Mekong—rile Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. And after years of assuring India and Bangladesh that it had no plans to dam the Yarlung Tsangpo River in Tibet, known downstream as the Brahmaputra, 2 years ago China embarked on a hydropower project that it insists will not significantly impede the river's flow.

    Tensions are now running high on China's western flank. Under a “Go West” initiative launched in 2000, Chinese leaders have been encouraging citizens to move to Xinjiang. Since then, the arid province's population has shot up from 18.2 million to more than 22 million. China has not been forthcoming about how water resources will keep pace with Xinjiang's growth, asserts Igor Malkovsky, deputy director of the Institute of Geography in Almaty. “China doesn't inform us of the factual situation with the rivers on its side of the border. Nor does it inform us of its plans for the rivers,” he claims. But based on remote-sensing and classified data, he says, “we foresee a huge increase in water consumption in China.”

    The Ili's deterioration is only part of the problem. Another big concern is the diminished Irtysh River to the north. Asia's fifth longest river, the Irtysh wends 4248 kilometers from Mongolia through China then into Kazakhstan and Russia. Human activity is taking a heavy toll on the Irtysh's flow, leaving it and the Ili shadows of their former selves by the time they reach Kazakhstan. That's bad news for 7 million Kazakhs—nearly half of the country's population—who depend on those two rivers and 18 smaller ones that cross the China-Kazakh border, says Zhakyrbay Dostay, a water expert at the Institute of Geography.

    The scramble for water is starting to get international attention. “We are now witnessing an unfolding disaster,” says Struan Stevenson, a Scottish member of the European Parliament, who authored a report last year on Central Asia's environmental problems. “Desertification could be a direct consequence of China's actions.”

    The Ili's woes in particular could have severe ecological consequences. The river nourishes a delta that empties into one of the world's great lakes, Balkhash. In recent years, marshlands in the 8000-square-kilometer delta have been beating a rapid retreat. “The area is gradually turning to desert,” Nurumbetov says. Hydrologists forecast that in the coming decade, Balkhash—a shallow lake with an average depth of just under 6 meters—will shrink and grow saltier as inputs from the Ili, which supplies 80% of its water, dwindle. “We predict an ecological catastrophe on the scale of the Aral Sea,” says Malkovsky, referring to a once-vast inland lake on the Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan border. Ravaged by Soviet mismanagement, the Aral Sea has fissured into four smaller, fragile lakes. Worried that Balkhash could meet a similar fate, the Kazakh government is drafting a law that would declare the safeguarding of water resources a matter of national security.

    Despite growing apprehension about water scarcity, China and Kazakhstan have made little progress in a decade of talks over water rights, although they continue. At their latest meeting in Beijing earlier this month, Chinese officials asked for more time to come to terms on water-sharing agreements for the Ili and the Irtysh; the deadline has been shifted from the end of 2014 to the end of 2016, according to a Kazakh diplomat in Beijing. The two parties have divergent views on what is fair use. China asserts that water should be allocated by population. “They say, ‘We think it's fair, we have more people, so we need a bigger share,” Dostay says. The head of the Chinese delegation to the talks, Liu Weiping, director of the Water Resources and Hydropower Planning and Design General Institute in Beijing, declined to comment for this article, citing the sensitivity of the issue of transboundary rivers in China. Liu referred inquiries to China's Ministry of Water Resources, which did not respond to requests for comment.

    Kazakhstan argues that it is entitled to a share of river flow that at the minimum will sustain aquatic ecosystems and irrigation schemes. However, Malkovsky complains, in the bilateral talks “we don't have any leverage.”

    Ill omens

    Grim prognosis.

    As the Ili fades, Dobyn Station could lose its raison d'être, says Vasili Gusev.


    Shaped like a peapod, Balkhash is the 13th largest lake in the world. It covers 16,000 square kilometers, measuring 600 kilometers from east to west and only 5 to 70 kilometers wide. Located in a desert depression, its eastern half is salty. But the western end, where the Ili flows in, is fresh. How Balkhash maintains this split personality is a mystery, Malkovsky says.

    There's no mystery about what will happen if the 1400-kilometer-long Ili continues to shrivel. “Balkhash's level will soon begin to fall,” Nurumbetov says. Balkhash at present is stable—and in fact its level has risen in the past few years, says Pavel Propastin, a geographer at Georg August University in Göttingen, Germany, who has studied the Ili River basin. However, he says, Kazakhstan's concerns are “reasonable.” According to Propastin's modeling, in a worst-case scenario assuming heavy water use on both sides of the border, Balkhash in the next half-century would break up into several small lakes with a total surface area of less than 5000 square kilometers. That would imperil fisheries. And according to Dostay, enough windblown salt from the desiccated lakebed could melt glaciers in the mountains south of Almaty, possibly altering the climate regime of Kazakhstan's most populous city.

    A failing Ili “is a nightmare,” says Nurumbetov. “If things continue like this, the river and its ecosystem will die.”

    The creation of Kapchagay reservoir 60 kilometers north of Almaty illustrates the exquisite sensitivity of Balkhash to reductions in the Ili's flow. In 1966, Soviet engineers dammed the Ili to fill Kapchagay. Over the next 20 years, Balkhash's level fell 1.9 meters, Dostay says, as water flowed into the reservoir, evaporated from its surface, or went to irrigate rice paddies. After Kapchagay reached full capacity in 1987 and most of the Ili's flow to Balkhash was restored, the lake's level rebounded by 1.5 meters in a few years, recovering most of the losses.

    Soviet authorities also launched massive schemes in the 1960s to divert water from the Irtysh River to irrigate wheat and cotton fields and hydrate military and industrial complexes in what is now northeastern Kazakhstan and southern Siberia. In 1971, Soviet engineers completed the Irtysh-Karaganda canal, which brings water 451 kilometers into the Kazakh heartland.

    In 1998, journalists revealed that China had begun excavating a 300-kilometer-long canal in northwestern Xinjiang, to divert water from the Irtysh. “Not only did [China] not notify Kazakhstan or Russia of its plans regarding the Irtysh,” it failed to acknowledge them until they were nearing completion, says Eric Sievers, an environmental lawyer who at that time was advising the Kazakh government on transboundary water issues. Completed in 1999, the Kara Irtysh-Karamay canal now diverts 800 million cubic meters of water per year to Ulungur Lake, from which water is doled out to farms and to Karamay oil field. (In China and Mongolia, the river is known as the Black, or Kara, Irtysh.) Plans call for raising the canal's capacity to 1 billion cubic meters per year by 2020, or about 15% of the Irtysh's flow.

    A climate change dividend will help offset some of that increased consumption. Climate models predict that higher average temperatures will result in more precipitation in the Kara Irtysh watershed, says Pang Zhonghe, a hydrogeologist at the Institute of Geology and Geophysics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. That's the case throughout northern Xinjiang, his team reports in the 20 April issue of the Journal of Hydrology.

    The Ili River basin in Xinjiang is a similar story. The terrain is ringed by mountains to the north, east, and south. They funnel in water from moisture-laden westerly winds, especially during the spring and early summer, says Chen Yaning, a hydrologist at Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography in Urumqi. The Ili basin gets more precipitation than any other part of Xinjiang, up to 550 millimeters per year. Data from seven meteorological stations accumulated from 1961 to 2007 show a clear increase in precipitation across the basin since the mid-1980s, Chen's team reported in the Journal of Geographical Sciences in October 2010. The Ili basin, Pang concurs, should get even wetter as temperatures rise.

    It's hard to pinpoint where all this precipitation ends up. “It is difficult to quantify the impact of natural factors on river flow” in Xinjiang, because data are sparse and glacier melting and runoff processes are not fully understood, says Shang Songhao, a hydrologist at Tsinghua University in Beijing. One impediment to independent assessments, says a Chinese hydrologist who works overseas, is that “because of the sensitivity of the negotiations with Kazakhstan, it's very hard to get discharge data now from Xinjiang Water Resources Bureau.” The bureau declined to comment for this article. Chen's team has found that across northern Xinjiang as a whole, runoff into rivers in recent years has increased.

    If there is indeed a surfeit of water at the Ili's headwaters, China appears to be the sole beneficiary. “We know that less and less water is coming into Kazakhstan, and the water is becoming more polluted,” Dostay says. The Kazakh government, he says, estimates that since 1985, the amount of arable land irrigated by the Ili in Xinjiang has tripled to 700,000 hectares. That may be a “considerable overestimate,” cautions Propastin, who says the more likely figure is 500,000 hectares.

    The long-term prognosis is grim. In the next couple of decades, Propastin warns, rapid melting of Tian Shan glaciers will sharply reduce discharge into the Ili. “The precipitation increase will not compensate for the rapid decrease of glacier water,” he predicts.

    Running out the clock?

    Inescapable conclusion?

    Murat Nurumbetov (top) is convinced that Xinjiang Province is drawing more heavily from transboundary rivers. Water flowing into Kazakhstan is becoming more polluted, says Zhakyrbay Dostay.


    A Chinese delegation came here to Dobyn in 2009 on a fact-finding mission under the bilateral water agreement. Gusev says he and other Kazhydromet personnel took them by motorboat to examine the river. A few kilometers upstream, the water level was too low for the boat to continue. They abandoned the rest of the inspection. After the Chinese returned home, the Kazakhs observed an uptick in Ili flow. “Maybe the Chinese were embarrassed and released more water,” Gusev says. Or it may have been a coincidence: The more robust flow lasted only a few months before tapering off, Gusev says.

    To the Kazakhs, the bilateral talks have largely been an exercise in frustration. In 2006, the two countries agreed to conduct research together and exchange data on transboundary water quality. There hasn't been any joint research, Malkovsky says, and “we have been going around and around on what data to share.” Since 2009, he says, Kazakhstan has been providing China with data on flow rate, pollutants, and other indicators of river health. “We still haven't received anything in return,” Malkovsky says.

    The talks haven't been a total washout. At the bilateral meeting earlier this month, officials assessed a joint water-diversion scheme serving both sides of the Khorgos River, which demarcates about 100 kilometers of the China-Kazakh border. Kazakhstan can also take solace from having coaxed China to the bargaining table in the first place. This “apparent relative success,” according to Economy, “may result from the country's value to China as a source of copper and oil.” Other downstream nations, she said, “might consider adopting a strategy of linking access to their commodities or energy to Chinese willingness to negotiate water-allocation issues.”

    China's willingness to negotiate on the critical issue of water usage will be put to the test in the coming months. The signs are discouraging. The two sides are bogged down on which methodology to use to calculate water flow, Dostay says. It's a ridiculous point of contention, he says, because both countries already use standard methodology. Delays work in China's favor, Dostay says: “The longer China postpones resolution of the issues, the more intensive infrastructure development we see on their side of the border,” says Malkovsky. Diminished flows then become the baseline for an accord, he notes.

    Hoping to pressure China, Stevenson has called on the European Union to hold a conference on transboundary water problems that could focus on the Irtysh and the Ili “as an example of where things can go badly wrong.” He also argues that the international community should urge China to sign transboundary water treaties, including the 1997 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses. But that could backfire. If China can demonstrate that Xinjiang residents depend on the Kara Irtysh-Karamay canal, then it could protect a higher share of Irtysh flow under the convention's “vital human needs” provision.

    Kazakh officials have shown no inclination to antagonize China. At the same time, they are weighing new actions at home. “We have options,” Malkovsky says. For instance, Kazakhstan is planning to build a Trans-Kazakhstan canal after 2020 that would wring the most usage out of its diminishing water resources.

    It's hard to predict how much longer the Ili will remain viable. “The river is nothing like it once was,” says Gusev, who was born and raised on the Ili. The minimum springtime flow necessary to maintain river health, he says, is about 600 cubic meters per second—more than double that measured this spring. Gusev foresees a day when the Ili's level is so low that it won't be worthwhile for Kazhydromet to maintain Dobyn Station. In that case, he will stay put—but instead of living off the river, Gusev says, “I'll make honey and hunt wild pigs.” But even that may not be possible if Kazakhstan and China fail to find a way to overcome their differences and maintain the pulse of the Ili.

  6. Joint Congress on Evolutionary Biology

    Insulin May Guarantee the Honesty of Beetle's Massive Horn

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi

    Work presented at the meeting shows that the nature of the developmental pathway that leads to sexually selected traits related to size may be what makes these traits reflect health and stature.

    Rhinoceros beetles put peacocks to shame when it comes to their sexually selected trait. The head of this apricot-sized insect sports a forked “horn” that can extend to two-thirds of its body length. Males size each other up based on their horns; those with the bigger ones gain access to the females.

    Horn size appears to be an honest indicator of male quality: Small male rhinoceros beetles never grow large horns to fool a rival. Biologists have long thought that's because the horns are too physiologically costly for small, undernourished males to build and support. “It's one of the central tenets of sexual-selection theory,” says Sara Lewis, an evolutionary biologist at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. But work presented at the meeting shows that, actually, horns are not a very big burden. Instead, the nature of the developmental pathway that leads to horns—and other sexually selected traits related to size—may be what guarantees that these traits are a true reflection of the rival's health and stature, says Douglas Emlen, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Montana in Missoula.

    Honest signal.

    A rhinoceros beetle horn may reflect how fit the beetle is because its growth is tied to the insulin pathway.


    Other researchers are intrigued. Emlen has “got a handle on the mechanistic gears behind the story of how these amazing horns developed in these beetles,” says Mark Kirkpatrick, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Texas, Austin.

    To find out how much of their bodily resources male beetles devote to their horns, Emlen's graduate student Erin McCullough weighed large and small horns, before and after drying them out. While the head and thorax of a male rhinoceros beetle are 65% water and the legs 55%, the horns were lightweight, only 25% water, she reported at the meeting. All told, a horn makes up less than 3% of the insect's body mass on average.

    Next, McCullough looked at how horn size affects flying ability. She positioned dead rhinoceros beetles with and without their horns in a wind tunnel to measure drag. She also clocked the speed of beetles with various sized horns in the wild with a radar gun and measured how far beetles go in a single flight. The beetles fly upright, creating so much drag that having a horn doesn't really make flying much harder, she reported. Flight speed and endurance were likewise unaffected by having a horn, leading McCullough to conclude that small males wouldn't obviously be disadvantaged if they produced a bigger horn in order to deceive rivals.

    Nor did the production of a big horn compromise the growth of other body parts: Males with big horns also had relatively large wings and eyes and developed just as quickly as their smaller peers, she noted. McCullough “did a thorough job of demonstrating clearly that the would-be costs of this enormous structure weren't there,” says Adam South, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University. “I think we might have to revise our theory,” McCullough concluded.

    Emlen is doing just that. He has long wondered what causes horns and other oversized, sexually selected structures to grow out of proportion with the rest of the body, as long as ample food supplies were available to the growing insect. The signaling pathway involving insulin seemed like a good bet. For 500 million years of evolution, insulin and its interacting proteins have helped cells respond to nutrients, stimulating cell division and tissue growth in good times and shutting down growth when food is scarce. These signals affect the entire body, but if an animal's sexually selected ornaments and weapons were more sensitive to these signals than the rest of the body, then they should grow disproportionately larger in good times and little to not at all in bad times. An insulin-mediated sensitivity would make the horn a clear indicator of male quality.

    Earlier research by Alex Shingleton of Michigan State University in East Lansing had shown that body parts can differ in how they respond to insulin or insulin-like growth factors. In fruit flies, sex organs grow to be the same size no matter how much food is available to the young. They are insensitive to the insulin pathway. In contrast, wings in these insects respond to this pathway such that well-fed individuals not only grow larger, but they also have proportionally larger wings.

    Emlen and his colleagues tested the insulin sensitivity of rhinoceros beetles by injecting RNA matching part of the insulin receptor gene into larvae just as they were about to transform into adults. This RNA interfered with the gene's activity, reducing the number of receptors produced and greatly diminishing insulin signaling in growing tissues. The sex organs were the same size in both the RNA-treated and untreated beetles, wings were 2% shorter in the treated beetles, and horns were 16% smaller. Thus horns were eight times more sensitive to insulin signaling than the rest of the body, Emlen reported at the meeting. (His group's work is also described today online in Science

    Because the insulin pathway directly links nutrition to cell growth, it becomes impossible for a malnourished beetle to fake its fitness by growing a big horn. “The insulin [pathway] keeps the signal honest,” says Luke Holman, an evolutionary ecologist at Australian National University in Canberra. “Females get what they expect.”

  7. Joint Congress on Evolutionary Biology

    Texas Wildflower's Red Keeps It a Species

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi

    An evolutionary biologist has unearthed evidence that differences in hue between phlox species persist because they help keep hybrids from forming between the annual and pointed phlox.

    It's tough to remain a separate species when close relatives live in the same place. That's apparently why a Texas wildflower, the annual phlox (Phlox drummondii), has light bluish purple blooms in the central part of the state but takes on a dramatically different hue in eastern Texas. There, it comes into contact with the blue-flowering pointed phlox (Phlox cuspidata), and the flowers of the annual phlox have evolved to become deep red. Evolutionary biologist Robin Hopkins, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Texas, Austin, has unearthed evidence that this red form persists because it helps keep hybrids from forming between the annual and pointed phlox, and at the meeting she reported that the eastern annual phlox is not as well adapted to its pollinators as the original variety.

    Colleagues say that Hopkins's series of results illustrates how two species stay apart through a process called reinforcement. “She went soup to nuts,” says Mohamed Noor, an evolutionary biologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Not only did she show how reinforcement operates, “she went and identified the individual genes that are responsible for it.”

    In 1889, Alfred Russel Wallace proposed that if hybrids resulting from the mating of two species were inferior, their lack of fitness would favor the evolution of traits in the two species that eliminate hybrids. (And when reinforcement occurs between two subspecies, it can help push them to become fully distinct species.) But documenting this reinforcement process has been difficult. Some researchers have found evidence of reinforcement in laboratory fruit flies, but few studies had been done in a natural setting. “[Hopkins] has identified a system in which she could study it in real time and in nature,” says Janette Boughman, an evolutionary biologist at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

    Phlox of a different color.

    Annual phlox (top) evolved a red variety (bottom) so as to keep its species separate from another phlox (inset).


    In 2011, seeking to understand why the eastern Texas annual phlox was red, Hopkins tracked down the genetic basis of the hue change. She found that the variety had mutations that altered the activity of two genes involved in producing the blue color. One genetic change makes the color more intense, leading to darker blooms, though still blue. The second mutation ramps down the production of the blue pigment, resulting in a reddish hue. Together, they produce the deep-red flower.

    Hopkins also found that the color change is recessive and the intensity gene is dominant, so any hybrids between any annual phlox and the pointed phlox are dark blue. Previous studies have shown that this dark blue is less attractive to butterflies that pollinate these flowers, so Hopkins looked more closely at how pollinators used these different-colored blossoms. She crossbred the central and eastern Texas annual phlox varieties to get plants with light or dark red or light or dark blue flowers and grew these plants under the same conditions in the field. Sometimes she grew pointed phlox with the annual phlox.

    When pointed phlox was present, about 40% of the offspring of the light-colored annual phlox were hybrids with the pointed phlox, while only 10% of the offspring of the dark-flowered forms were, indicating that color intensity, not color per se, was most important for reinforcement to occur. “There's been selection for a flower-color difference in order to reduce hybridization,” Boughman says (Science, 2 March, p. 1090).

    Hopkins has now tackled the question of why the red form hasn't spread beyond eastern Texas. When she grew red and blue annual phlox under the same conditions, the two varieties did equally well in terms of the number of fruits set, she reported at the meeting. But when she looked at pollinator preferences, butterflies favored the light blue over either the dark blue or dark or light red, suggesting an advantage to being light blue. “That may explain why the light blue stays” and why genetic variation is maintained in the annual phlox, she concluded. Although there is a cost for having a dark color, that cost is justified when two phlox species are present.

    “She's given us a level of insight into the process of reinforcement that few other studies have done,” Boughman says. The work “helps us to understand the process of speciation and the multiple ways in which speciation can happen.”

  8. Joint Congress on Evolutionary Biology

    By the Skin of Their Teeth

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi

    A catfish that lives in an underground stream in a cave in Ecuador relies on teeth to sense the water flow around it—teeth that stick out all over its body, a sensory neurobiologist reported at the meeting.


    In a fast-flowing underground stream in a cave in Ecuador, a 7-centimeter-long catfish holds its own thanks to an unusual sense organ. Astroblepus pholeter relies on teeth to sense the water flow around it. Not the teeth in its mouth, but ones sticking out all over the catfish's body, sensory neurobiologist Daphne Soares of the University of Maryland, College Park, reported at the meeting.

    Soares has long puzzled over this Ecuadorian fish, which has no functional eyes and doesn't even have a lateral line, a row of specialized hair cells along the sides of most fish that sense vibration and the movement of water. Scanning electron microscopy studies she recently conducted revealed that the catfish's body is covered with bumps that proved to be teeth—complete with enamel and dentine. The teeth protrude through the skin enough that they move back and forth as the animal swims, relaying the surrounding water's movement to the catfish's brain, Soares reported.

    When she scraped the teeth off such fish, they swam crookedly, didn't orient to the water flow, and failed to stick to rocks as they normally would. The teeth hook up to a large nerve that in other fish is connected to the lateral line. When Soares examined museum specimens of other catfish, she found that they too have these dermal teeth, but only around the mouth. She thinks that when surface-dwelling catfish first became cave-locked, their lateral line was ill-suited for the high flow and eventually gave way to these dermal teeth.

    Soares has looked in other caves in Ecuador but thus far has found no other fish with this adaptation. Worried that these teeth-wielding fish may be limited to just one cave, Soares has stopped studying this population and is instead trying to get some protection for it. “It's not listed as endangered, but I think it should be,” she said.