News this Week

Science  30 Nov 2012:
Vol. 338, Issue 6111, pp. 1132

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  1. Around the World

    1 - Tucson, Arizona
    Biosphere 2 Launches Key Watershed Experiment
    2 - Madeira, Portugal
    Dengue Outbreak Strikes European Outpost
    3 - Yellowstone National Park
    Hunters Kill Research Wolves
    4 - Agadir, Morocco
    Prospects Brighten for Shark Conservation
    5 - Saudi Arabia and Qatar
    Four More Cases of New Coronavirus Confirmed
    6 - New York
    Neurologist Implicated in Insider Trading Case
    7 - Atacama, Chile
    New Director for ALMA
    8 - Brussels
    No Budget Set for E.U. Scientists

    Tucson, Arizona

    Biosphere 2 Launches Key Watershed Experiment


    An iconic glass ziggurat in the desert, Biosphere 2 has shed its turbulent past and undergone a scientific rebirth over the past few years (Science, 8 July 2011, p. 146). This week, researchers began experiments with massive artificial watersheds on which they are betting Biosphere's future.

    The 10-year experiment, called the Landscape Evolution Observatory, is designed to improve understanding of the interactions of ecology, hydrology, and soils under climate change. It consists of three hillslopes, each 33 meters long and made of 650 tons of crushed volcanic rock. Researchers will measure how water and nutrients flow through soil using 1800 sensors embedded in each hillslope. Because the hillslopes are inside the Biosphere 2 domes, researchers can control temperature, precipitation, and light (but not the composition of the atmosphere, as Biosphere 2 is no longer airtight). “What makes it stand out is that it's big enough for interesting things to happen,” says Gordon Grant, a hydrologist and geomorphologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Corvallis, Oregon, who is not involved in the project.

    Madeira, Portugal

    Dengue Outbreak Strikes European Outpost

    An outbreak of dengue fever on the Portuguese island of Madeira, some 700 kilo meters west of Morocco, has sickened more than 1300 people since 3 October. Dengue—which does not usually kill but causes crippling muscle and joint pains—occurs in many tropical and subtropical countries, but Europe has not seen sustained transmission since the 1920s, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control in Stockholm said last week. No deaths have been recorded, but 89 patients had to be hospitalized.

    The dengue virus can be transmitted by several mosquito species; Aedes aegypti, the most effective vector, invaded Madeira in 2004 and has been spreading since, says Francis Schaffner, a parasitologist at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. Authorities initially tried to control the insects, “but it didn't work and they stopped,” he says. A. aegypti does not occur in mainland Europe, but its cousin, A. albopictus—better known as the Asian tiger mosquito—is established in most Mediterranean countries and could act as a vector, albeit a weaker one, in the summer, Schaffner warns.

    Yellowstone National Park

    Hunters Kill Research Wolves


    Hunters have killed an estimated 10 wolves from Yellowstone National Park this month, adversely affecting a park research program that has tracked the animals since their reintroduction in 1995. At least 88 wolves remain in Yellowstone, but the killings have “been a big hit to us scientifically,” says project leader Douglas Smith. Particularly problematic, he says, is that seven of the animals were wearing radio-tracking collars. Two “were the only collared members of their packs, so now we can't track those packs.” Only one wolf wearing a specialized GPS collar is now left in the study. The killings, which were legal, occurred outside the park during the annual wolf hunting season that opened this fall in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. Some researchers fear hunters are targeting collared wolves (Science, 23 October 2009, p. 506), and have asked state officials to establish buffer zones around the park to protect the animals. Only Montana, however, has taken steps to protect wolves in one boundary region.

    Agadir, Morocco

    Prospects Brighten for Shark Conservation


    For the first time, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) agreed last week to consider explicitly including shark conservation in its mandate. “This is unprecedented,” says Elizabeth Wilson of the Pew Environment Group, an environmental advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.

    ICCAT, which was established in 1966, manages some 30 migratory species, including swordfish, marlin, and other tunalike species. But the commission does not set catch limits for sharks. Most kinds of sharks are caught accidentally by vessels hunting for tuna and tunalike species, although a few species, such as shortfin makos, are targeted directly for their meat and large fins.

    Although conservationists failed to win new protections for threatened sharks in the Atlantic Ocean at ICCAT's annual meeting, which concluded last week, they hope to make significant progress over the next few years as changes to the treaty are negotiated.

    Saudi Arabia and Qatar

    Four More Cases of New Coronavirus Confirmed

    Three new confirmed infections in Saudi Arabia—including a fatal one—and another in Qatar have prompted the World Health Organization (WHO) to urge countries to step up vigilance for a new coronavirus first reported in September. The four new cases bring the total to six, including two deaths, WHO said in a 23 November statement.

    The new, as yet unnamed, virus is related to SARS; where it came from or how it spreads is a mystery. Two of the Saudi cases, including the fatal one, were family members living in the same house. Lab tests are pending for another member of that household who also died and had similar symptoms; a fourth, nonfatal case in the same cluster tested negative. Countries should “consider testing” unexplained pneumonia cases for the new virus, WHO said, and thoroughly investigate such cases in doctors and nurses, who are at greater risk during disease outbreaks.

    New York

    Neurologist Implicated in Insider Trading Case

    Federal authorities filed charges last week in what they said is the most lucrative insider trading case in history. According to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Sidney Gilman, a neurology professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, fed secret information about clinical trials of an Alzheimer's drug to Mathew Martoma, a former portfolio manager at a division of the hedge fund SAC Capital Advisors, allowing Martoma to make more than $276 million in illicit profits and avoid losses with well-timed stock purchases and sales.

    The drug, bapineuzumab, was a once-promising Alzheimer's therapy originally developed by Elan and Wyeth. Based on information from Gilman, Martoma allegedly invested more than $700 million in the companies' stocks when the prospects for bapineuzumab looked good, and later unloaded more than $960 million worth of stock in just over a week when the news turned bad.

    SEC alleges that Gilman, a former chair of the Michigan neurology department who served as chair of the trial's Safety and Monitoring Committee, received nearly $108,000 for his consultations with Martoma from a New York-based firm that connects investors with technical experts. Gilman is cooperating with authorities in exchange for nonprosecution.

    Atacama, Chile

    New Director for ALMA



    The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile has appointed French astronomer Pierre Cox as its new director. Cox, an expert in millimeter and infrared astronomy, will take over ALMA's stewardship in April 2013. More than half of the array's 66 antennas are already in place on a high plateau in northern Chile, and the telescope has been taking observations for about a year. The complete array is expected to start operations by March 2013, right before Cox begins his tenure. Cox currently heads the Institute of Millimeter Radioastronomy in Grenoble, France. His knowledge of Spanish should serve him well in his new position.


    No Budget Set for E.U. Scientists

    European researchers have to wait a bit longer to hear how much money they will have to spend in the coming years, but the outlook isn't bright. Last week, the leaders of all 27 E.U. member countries met in Brussels, yet failed to strike a deal for an overall budget agreement for 2014 through 2020. Still, the latest proposals for the “competitiveness for growth” budget, which includes research and education funding, call for up to 15% less than the €156 billion originally proposed by the European Commission, the European Union's executive branch. The downgrade stems primarily from E.U. countries lobbying for more agricultural and so-called cohesion funds. The state of negotiations “does not bode well” for the research budget, says Helga Nowotny, president of the European Research Council.

  2. Random Sample

    The Secret of the Black Dahlia


    Gardeners can choose from more than 20,000 varieties of dahlias, including whites, yellows, deep reds, and magentas. But especially alluring are the rarer black ones. Now, a team of researchers in Austria has turned the eye of science on what makes a dahlia black. The team collected 14 varieties of black dahlia—with names such as “Black Barbara,” “Arabian Night,” “Karma Choc” (left), and “Tisa” (right)—and five with tamer colors, then extensively analyzed their petals. They measured the activity of enzymes that make pigments, investigated gene expression, and measured the pigments themselves. Their conclusion: The black color comes from high levels of anthocyanins, the pigments that—at lower levels—also give orange and red dahlias their colors. The team reports in BMC Plant Biology that they think that most black dahlias raise their anthocyanin levels by blocking an enzyme in the pathway that makes flavones, another molecule that has the same precursor as anthocyanins. If scientists could figure out that trick, they might be able to engineer dahlias to make more black varieties.

    They Said It

    “Government at all levels must recognize [the Sasquatch] as an indigenous people and immediately protect their human and Constitutional rights.”

    —Melba S. Ketchum, director of DNA Diagnostics, in a press release on the firm's unpublished claim to have sequenced the genome of the long-sought creature commonly called Bigfoot.

    Art in Space


    The longest-lasting contribution that Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) graduate student Adam McCaughan will make in his promising career probably won't be a scientific paper or an invention. A message to aliens that he transcribed onto a metal disk last spring could outlast Earth itself.


    American artist Trevor Paglen connected with MIT scientists in 2009, hoping they would help him launch tiny images, including a Texas dust storm and refugees experiencing the sea for the first time, on a 5-centimeter-wide disk into perpetual orbit. Paglen envisioned hyperevolved beings from our world or others as future recipients. Some of his inspiration for the grandiose project came from the plaque and audio record affixed to NASA probes Pioneer and Voyager, respectively. Both cosmic messages were etched into gold.

    But MIT quantum nanostructures expert Karl Berggren noted that over the eons, grains in gold metal could shift and degrade the images. “We settled on [using] silicon with a layer of silicon oxide,” says McCaughan, who transcribed the images using lithographic techniques used for making microchips. “No one really knows what happens in billions of years,” Berggren told Paglen, “but this should work for a couple of hundred million.” The 100 images on the disk require a microscope to be seen clearly and include depictions of human industry, oppression, technology, and climate change. MIT aerospace engineer Brian Wardle and astrophysicist Joel Weisberg at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, designed a star chart as a protective cover.

    The art piece was successfully launched on 20 November bolted to communications satellite EchoStar XVI. Both will orbit Earth at 38,000 kilometers.


    Join us on Thursday, 6 December, at 3 p.m. EST for a chat on whether science can defeat influenza.

    By the Numbers

    20% — Drop in new HIV infections worldwide since 2001, according to figures released by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS.

    $100 million — Amount committed last week by AstraZeneca, Pfizer, and the Canadian province of Quebec to create the NEOMED Institute, a drug research facility in Montreal, Canada.

  3. Universities

    Raising Up a Fallen Ivory Tower

    1. Richard Stone

    Myanmar's universities, benighted after decades of isolation and neglect, are striving to make up lost ground and recover lost student bodies.

    Sprucing up.

    Yangon Tech prepares for its first crop of undergrads in a decade.


    YANGON, MYANMAR—When Ronald Daniels became one of the first Americans in many years to set foot on the campus of Yangon University in January, it should have been a moment to savor. Instead, says the president of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, the experience was “heart-wrenching.” Before Burma's military staged a coup d'état in 1962, Rangoon University, as it was then known, “was one of the storied institutions of higher education,” he says. But to the junta, the university was a recurring headache. After crushing protest after protest there, in 1996 the generals banished undergraduates to campuses in the countryside, where they could be kept under surveillance more easily. Higher education spiraled into an abyss.

    Today, Yangon University and its charming colonial-era buildings are “basically a ghost town,” Daniels says. “The university has become a powerful metaphor for what happened to the intellectual capacity of the country.”

    But Myanmar's political transformation is giving academics hope that their long, dark night is nearing an end. President Thein Sein, a former general who took office in March 2011, has reintroduced press freedoms, canceled a massive Chinese-led dam project, and released opposition leader and Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. Now, higher education is about to take center stage. Next week, the country's top engineering institutions—Yangon Technological University (YTU) and Mandalay Technological University—will admit their first undergrads in more than a decade. “This is a turning point,” says civil engineer Nyi Hla Nge, a former YTU rector. Other universities are slashing enrollment to boost faculty-student ratios and renovating threadbare labs. “We accept that we're at least 20 years behind our Southeast Asian neighbors,” says Tint Swe Latt, rector of University of Medicine 2 here.


    Aung San Suu Kyi and Johns Hopkins President Ronald Daniels want to see Yangon University restored to former glory.


    Myanmar's downtrodden academics got a boost last week from Barack Obama, whose brief stay here was the first by a U.S. president and a milestone on the Southeast Asian nation's rapid transformation from pariah to budding democracy. In a speech at Yangon University on 19 November, Obama urged the nation to revive what had once been one of Asia's premier centers of learning. Yangon University, he said, “must reclaim its greatness, because the future of this country will be determined by the education of its youth.”

    Under the junta's brutal reign, health care eroded, ethnic strife exploded, and civil liberties were curtailed. All of this left deep scars in the Burmese psyche. “There's been no incentive to study since 1962,” says petroleum geologist Soe Myint, president of the Myanmar Geosciences Society. After decades of repression, he says, “few people dare speak freely. That mindset is not something you can change overnight.” Adds Sayama,* a senior professor at the University of Medicine 1 here, “Our people have been closed up so long, they don't know what it's like outside.”

    Restoring Myanmar's higher education system “is only going to work if universities are seen as an indispensable asset to the country,” Daniels says. “Ultimately the real test is: Are undergraduates going to be welcomed back to Yangon University?” Aung San Suu Kyi, now a legislator in Myanmar's increasingly assertive parliament, has taken up that cause. “[O]ur education system has gone in the utterly wrong direction,” she declared in parliament earlier this month, according to The Myanmar Times. Overriding the education ministry's objections, legislators passed a proposal from her to form a panel to oversee Yangon University's revitalization, including the return of undergraduates. That momentous step may encounter resistance. With nearly 5000 graduate students at Yangon University, “we have no room for undergraduates,” insists physicist and vice rector Pho Kaung.

    A moment of truth for Burmese society has arrived. “Some of my colleagues think we are doing OK. But we're not OK, we're far behind,” Sayama says. “We need to catch up in a hurry.”

    Into the abyss

    Sayama was 10 years old when a thunderous explosion in the early morning on 7 July 1962 caved in the roof of her apartment. Security forces had just blown up Rangoon University's student union building. “It was terrifying,” she recalls. Her parents lived on campus; students had been vociferously denouncing the coup of the previous March. Tanks rolled onto the Rangoon University campus that day, and dozens of students died. It was the beginning of the slow strangulation of Burma's academic life.

    As Burmese society turned inward, Sayama was one of the lucky ones sent abroad by the government at that time. She won a scholarship to study at Royal Postgraduate Medical School in London. After earning a Ph.D. in 1990, she could have remained in London for postdoctoral research. “I was happy there,” she says. But a few decades earlier, her father, a Georgetown University graduate, had returned to Burma. Sayama couldn't abandon her parents or her country. “If I didn't come back,” she says, “I'd break their hearts.”

    While she was overseas, the atmosphere in Burma had grown even more toxic. In 1988, the military viciously cracked down on prodemocracy protesters, killing thousands, and declared martial law. Back at the University of Medicine 1 in 1990, Sayama was frustrated. The junta disdained foreign ideas; speaking English was frowned upon. “We were so out of date,” she says. But when she warned that the rest of the world was leaving Myanmar behind and suggested ways the university could modernize, colleagues complained that they didn't need “some highfalutin person telling them what to do.”

    Like their compatriots at Yangon University, medical students denounced the junta, and some died in clashes with soldiers. The country's four medical universities got to keep their undergrads, with the proviso that they could not live on campus. (They hope to reopen dorms “in the next few years,” Tint Swe Latt says.) The regime understood that disrupting the medical schools “could decrease teaching standards and cost a lot of lives,” says Than Cho, rector of University of Medicine 1.

    Although the medical universities enjoyed a measure of protection, they ended up in the same plight as Yangon University: impoverished and desperate. On campuses across Myanmar, Western-led sanctions and meager budgets have precluded properly outfitting labs. When universities managed to obtain an instrument, Than Cho says, “if it arrived damaged, there was nothing we could do,” as sanctions made it virtually impossible to obtain spare parts or get technical assistance. As part of a national 30-year education plan adopted in 2001, Yangon University acquired $2 million worth of instruments from Japan, including an x-ray diffraction spectrometer and a scanning electron microscope; now, five of the 15 machines are broken and several others are deteriorating fast. Nationwide, universities routinely download textbooks from the Internet and distribute bootleg copies. “The students are very poor, so we cannot comply with copyright law,” Nyi Hla Nge says. “We can't stand on our feet now. We need help.”

    The isolated campuses built in the boondocks for undergrads are also hurting. The biggest is Dagon University, 20 kilometers north of the city center. Some 24,000 students make the trek to the campus for classes. Another 40,000 take courses by computer and show up for exams. (The junta preferred distance learning, which constrains restive youth from mingling.) When Science visited on a Thursday morning earlier this month, Dagon's barren teaching labs and empty classrooms with barred windows were not nearly as inviting as its outdoor canteens thronged with students.

    Painful past.

    Yangon University's Pho Kaung (left) does not know when undergrads will return to his campus. Restoring Myanmar's higher education system “is a task for Superman,” Soe Myint says.


    Poorly equipped as its facilities are, Dagon does have an academic pulse. The university is the only one in Myanmar where students can major in disciplines such as anthropology and nuclear physics, says rector Hla Htay, a geophysicist. A few professors are involved in international projects. For example, zoology department chair Khin Maung Swe has co-authored peer-reviewed articles on the world's smallest mammal, the Kitti's hog-nosed bat. Also known as the bumblebee bat, the bantam creature—it weighs less than 2 grams—has been recorded in three caves in southeastern Myanmar since 2001.

    For scientists, Myanmar's remote forests are among the last remaining terra novae. In the January 2011 issue of the American Journal of Primatology, Burmese and foreign researchers unveiled a new primate, the Burmese snub-nosed monkey (Rhinopithecus strykeri), discovered in northeastern Myanmar. Cash-strapped academics here are eager to lead expeditions—if foreign colleagues foot the bill. “We have no money for fieldwork,” says Khin Maung Swe. Seizing the opportunity, the Chinese Academy of Sciences is funding a 2-week bilateral foray across Myanmar that is now in progress. They are collecting rocks for tectonic, paleoclimate, and sedimentary studies.

    Seizing the initiative

    In the early 1950s, Burma, emerging from decades of British rule, sent dozens of top students to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for graduate studies. Returning home, the elite scholars became assistant professors at Rangoon Technological University, later known as YTU. “They were pioneers of an American system of education,” Nyi Hla Nge recalls. “The intention was to create an MIT of the East.”

    YTU was poised for a revival in the late 1990s, when Nyi Hla Nge was rector. It launched Ph.D. programs in 1997 as the first step toward becoming a comprehensive S&T university. That plan foundered in 2000 when the junta appointed an army officer as science minister. YTU was stripped of undergrads in 2001 and “almost closed,” Nyi Hla Nge says. The new minister promptly went on a building spree, opening several universities and technical colleges that mirrored the education ministry's undergraduate universities. As enrollments soared in the new schools, teaching standards plummeted, Nyi Hla Nge says: “Professors taught long hours without rest.” In the last decade, Myanmar's 42 technological universities have churned out tens of thousands of engineers and technicians, most of whom are poorly qualified, according to the companies who hired them, Nyi Hla Nge says.

    When political reforms started to take root here last year, Nyi Hla Nge and industry minister Aye Myint, an electrical engineer by training and YTU alumnus, swung into action. “We tried many different paths” to persuade authorities to resurrect YTU, he says. Their persistence paid off late last summer, when Thein Sein gave YTU and Mandalay Tech the green light to bring back undergrads. Each will take in 250.

    YTU faculty members have been busy ginning up a curriculum that accounts for eroded education standards. Freshmen at YTU and Mandalay will take a required “foundation” course to remedy poor secondary schooling, then another 5 years of coursework to complete a 6-year bachelor degree in engineering: “maybe the longest in the world,” says Nyi Hla Nge, who has been busily writing lecture notes in five subjects. The goal, he says, is that by 2020, YTU's graduates will be as competent as those of Nanyang Technology University in Singapore and other top schools in the region. A wealthy YTU alumnus has donated materials for a physics teaching laboratory, and when Science visited, YTU's main building was getting a facelift to welcome its first crop of undergrads since 2001. “We're very proud,” Nyi Hla Nge says. “It's a golden chance.”

    Prospects are also improving at the University of Medicine 1. It's about to build a molecular biology lab thanks to a $300,000 grant from the China Medical Board, a foundation based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and health ministry funds. For the first time, Sayama says, “we can buy our own primers, our own gel electrophoresis machines.” The four medical universities together will boost the professor-student ratio next year by slashing freshman enrollment in half, to 1200 students. “This will make teaching more effective,” Than Cho says.

    A job for Superman?

    Not long ago, a normal academic life in Myanmar was unimaginable. Until this year, “we would have foreign visitors arrive at our gate, but we could not get permission from the government to let them in,” says Myo Win, rector of the University of Dental Medicine here. “For the past 50 years,” says Tint Swe Latt, “we had a closed-door policy.”

    Universities now have the right to host whomever they please, as long as they notify their respective ministries. (Thirteen ministries oversee Myanmar's 156 universities.) But any significant reforms still require approval from the capital, Naypyitaw. Parliament is drafting a law intended to grant academia more independence and open the door to private universities. Negotiations have been tricky. “Autonomy for universities is a dangerous concept for the government,” says David Maynard, deputy director of the British Council office here. Wrangling over the law's scope suggests it will not materialize until late 2013 at the earliest, observers say.

    Thinking big.

    Nyi Hla Nge dreams of establishing an “MIT of the East” in Yangon.


    Proceeding in parallel is a top-to-bottom review of the entire education system. Launched last month by the education ministry, the 2-year-long Myanmar Comprehensive Education Sector Review “is our own form of educational peace-building,” says Maurice Robson, CESR's international coordinator. Already, he says, “people have a well-developed sense of what is not working.” One systemic flaw is that young people here receive 11 years of primary and secondary schooling, 1 year less than in many other countries. “That's a significant problem,” Robson says. Another issue is the dropout rate. Only half of children in Myanmar enroll in middle school, and just 11% go on to university. Higher education, Robson says, “will be elitist for quite a while.”

    A crying need.

    Like other facilities at Dagon University, the chemistry teaching lab is mostly bare.


    Remedying the education system's many woes won't be easy. “After such a long period of atrophy, where do you start?” Maynard asks. Soe Myint puts it this way: “This is a task for Superman.” The government doubled the education ministry's budget in 2012 and has pledged to double it again, to 8% of GDP—as much as $1.5 billion—next year. One investment that would quickly pay dividends is a robust university cyber-network. Better hardware and more bandwidth would enable Burmese researchers “to document and publish more local data and publish more co-authored papers with other scientists,” says Steven Huter, director of the Network Startup Resource Center at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Huter met government officials and university scientists in Myanmar last May to discuss practical steps for building a national research and education network.

    Daniels returned from his trip to Myanmar with a sense of what it will take for Burmese academia to recover. “It's a long road back. The physical regeneration of the campuses will not be trivial.” Johns Hopkins is reviving a link with Yangon that dates to 1954, when it established the Rangoon-Hopkins Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Rangoon University. Johns Hopkins medical professors are making frequent trips to Myanmar “to engage them in health problems” such as HIV/AIDS, Daniels says. The university has also established graduate fellowships for Burmese students. Success of the overall enterprise of rehabilitating Myanmar's universities may depend on the deepening of political reforms. “It's up to the government to commit to the idea that a university is a core institution of Burmese society,” Daniels says.

    Thein Sein has signaled that he is ready to embrace that idea. He told United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Director-General Irina Bokova last August that Myanmar “badly needs support in higher education reform and strengthening universities,” says Sardar Umar Alam, project manager of UNESCO's Myanmar Education Recovery Programme in Yangon. He suggests that Myanmar start with pilot models and experiments: Reform a few departments in three or four universities.

    That's the approach the science ministry is taking with YTU and Mandalay Tech. The glasnost spreading through Myanmar has even rekindled Nyi Hla Nge's desire to establish, someday, an MIT of the East. “Our dream is to revive that,” he says. “I would like to dispatch our young teachers to the United States again.”

    • * Pseudonym

  4. Physiological Ecology

    Salt and the Sea Serpent

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi

    Despite millions of years living in the ocean, sea snakes still have to watch their salt intake.

    Are you thirsty?

    Harvey Lillywhite has tested hundreds of sea snakes to see if they will drink fresh water.


    In 2009, Harvey Lillywhite wanted to know if true sea snakes got thirsty. To catch some, his research team angled a small motorboat toward a distinctive band of water caused by two converging currents in the Papagayo Gulf in Costa Rica. Sneaking up on his quarry, a yellow-bellied sea snake floating on the surface, he gently slipped the venomous animal into a net and then into a bucket. After collecting a dozen or more snakes this way, the physiological ecologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville went back to a temporary lab to test each one. He laid the first one on a towel. After its skin had become dry to the touch, Lillywhite weighed the snake and dropped it into fresh water.

    Soon the snake opened its mouth and began gulping down water, increasing its body weight by 13% by the next morning, Lillywhite recalls. He has since observed the same behavior in scores of sea snakes collected over the past few years. But, contrary to decades of academic thinking that sea snakes can thrive on seawater, none would drink salt water that Lillywhite provided—no matter how dehydrated they got. When it comes to sea snakes, the textbooks are wrong, Lillywhite asserts.

    Although sea snakes seem exquisitely adapted to the marine environment, with a flattened body, paddle-shaped tail, and glands that secrete salt, salt still dictates where, how, and perhaps even if they live, Lillywhite and his colleagues have found. Their recent study of the global distribution of these reptiles, for example, has revealed that salinity has limited the abundance and distribution of these species. “People assumed that [sea snakes] have salt glands and drink seawater, and that's all there is to it,” says William Dunson, a retired physiologist in Englewood, Florida, who studied the reptiles. “But that's not the way it is.”

    Like marine birds and marine mammals, snakes in the sea evolved from terrestrial ancestors, and the transition required adjusting to a life of avoiding the intake of too much salt and the loss of too much water. Textbooks have long said that salt glands solved this problem for marine birds and reptiles by removing excess salt from ingested seawater.

    Yet Dunson notes that his surveys of sea snakes in the 1970s revealed that their salt glands were often very tiny compared with those in other marine animals. That and other observations led him to conclude that the snakes “probably didn't drink [seawater] except when salinity was very low.”

    Lillywhite himself began to seriously question the dogma in the 1990s after he discovered that a marine snake unrelated to sea snakes required fresh water for survival. He then took a look at sea kraits, which differ from true sea snakes in that they move to land to digest their food and lay their eggs. (True sea snakes never leave seawater and give birth to live young.) Even when dehydrated, the sea kraits refused to drink seawater but lapped up fresh water, Lillywhite and his colleagues reported in 2008. On Orchid Island in Taiwan, sea kraits were also far more abundant close to freshwater springs or rivers entering the oceans and in years when there was high rainfall.

    Others were also becoming suspicious that sea kraits couldn't survive on seawater. Xavier Bonnet and François Brischoux at the CNRS Chizé Centre for Biological Studies in Villiers en Bois, France, have observed that in dry periods, sea kraits cease to hunt in water and instead hide on land, waiting to emerge en masse to drink puddled rainwater on rocks when the dry spell breaks. “They just have not been able to adapt to the salinity, and they still depend on fresh water,” says John Murphy of The Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois, who studies snakes.

    The 60 or so species of true sea snakes live permanently in the ocean, and although there had been some suggestion that they can drink lenses of fresh water that pool on top of the denser salt water, it was unclear whether they needed this supply to survive. To resolve this issue, Lillywhite has been taking periodic trips to Costa Rica, with visits that span the dry and wet seasons. Yellow-bellied sea snakes, like sea kraits, dehydrate in seawater. When thirsty enough, they drink fresh water, never salt water, Lillywhite's team reported in the August issue of Integrative and Comparative Biology.

    The fieldwork also indicated that these sea snakes don't migrate to rivers or estuaries during the dry season. Instead, they likely take their chances that a good rain will leave fresh water on the sea surface. Yet, Lillywhite notes, “even in the wet season, the storms can be sporadic and spotty.”

    Thus, he suspects that sea snakes spend a good bit of their lives thirsty, which they seem to withstand quite well. Even with a more than 20% loss of body weight, yellow-bellied sea snakes are fine; just a 12% loss in humans due to dehydration could be lethal. Salt glands, impermeable skin, nasal valves that keep salt water out, and an ability to extract water from feces and possibly from ingested prey may help slow dehydration, he points out.

    Additional work by Brischoux and Lillywhite suggests that the overall distribution of sea snakes is influenced by salinity, and, by association, rainfall. With colleagues, they compared the ranges of four lineages of marine snakes—about 75 species in all—to satellite information about the water's salinity. There tend to be more sea snake species in areas with lower salinity or with higher variability in salinity (a likely indicator of heavy rainfall), the researchers reported this month in Ecography.

    “The whole idea of sea snakes not being completely adapted to the oceans as we thought they were is a very interesting revelation,” Murphy says. “Even though sea snakes have invaded the oceans, they are still very dependent on fresh water.”

  5. Archaeology

    Crusader Crisis: How Conquest Transformed Northern Europe

    1. Andrew Curry*

    A novel interdisciplinary project shows how medieval crusaders, with their new way of life, suddenly changed the ecology of northern Europe.

    Dark knights.

    The Crusaders who built Poland's grand Malbork Castle also helped drive native animals to extinction.


    Last summer, archaeologists working in the central courtyard of Estonia's Karksi Castle uncovered a 50-centimeter-thick layer of rich black dirt. As the researchers dug deeper, they realized they had discovered the remains of the castle's first garbage pit. Preserved inside was a snapshot of what the first inhabitants of Karksi Castle—dozens of German knights and their servants—had eaten and discarded more than 800 years before.

    The pit's wet soil had preserved a wide variety of objects, such as hazelnuts, fish scales, animal bones, and hemp seeds, says archaeologist Heiki Valk of the University of Tartu in Estonia. But what surprised Valk most was what wasn't in the garbage. “The early material is very strange—there's absolutely no local pottery,” he says. “The colonists came with a lifestyle that didn't fit the local environment at all. They were a little island, with everyday life just like it was in Germany.”

    The knights of Karksi Castle were part of the little-known “Northern Crusades,” an era of conflict that gripped northeastern Europe between about 1200 and 1400 C.E. when German Crusaders turned their attention from the Holy Land to pagan tribes on the fringe of Europe. Today, a team of researchers is documenting the ecological impact of this military conquest and the colonization that followed. The project, one of the first of its kind, combines traditional archaeology with close looks at animal and plant remains, geochemical analysis, and archival research. Similar approaches have been used to look at the impact of colonialism in New Zealand and elsewhere, but the Ecology of Crusading project is particularly ambitious in terms of the number of sites and the use of historical sources.

    The Northern Crusades involved not just religious conversion but also often the replacement of entire populations. “This pre-Christian society is conquered by external people who bring their own language and religion, Christianity, with them,” says Aleksander Pluskowski, an archaeologist at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom and director of the project ( “It's sort of an event horizon in northeastern Europe.” In large stretches of territory in an area from what is now Estonia to modern Poland, the locals were killed or fled; in others areas, the elites were replaced and the locals slowly assimilated.

    New arrivals from Germany brought with them new diets, lifestyles, and subsistence strategies—a process not unlike what happened as pioneers settled the American West. Colleagues say understanding the environmental signal of such a phenomenon can bring a new perspective to the archaeology of conquest elsewhere. “What they're doing is looking at the environmental data to understand how one group imposes itself on an indigenous population,” says Mark Brisbane, an archaeologist at Bournemouth University in the United Kingdom who is familiar with the project. “I certainly think it's an innovative approach.”

    Making war

    The crusading movement began in 1095, when Pope Urban II urged European Christians to free the Holy Land from Muslim rule. Warriors, knights, and adventurers from across Europe joined, many motivated by the church's promise that fighting would absolve their sins. The Teutonic Knights, an order of warrior-monks, were among the most powerful players. In 1228, the Teutonic Order turned to easier targets: pagan tribes living in an unruly stretch of northern Europe from Estonia to what is now Poland. These Northern Crusades didn't have the emotional appeal of seizing Jerusalem, but they still offered the hope of eternal salvation—and the chance to carve a new, resource-rich state into the map of Europe.

    Although the rest of Europe had converted to Christianity and organized into states and kingdoms by the turn of the millennium, these lands along the Baltic Sea had changed little in 1000 years. “There's no written culture that we're aware of,” Pluskowski says. “We're dealing, in effect, with prehistoric societies.” There were no real urban centers, just small, sedentary settlements organized on family or tribal lines. People farmed rye, wheat, barley, and millet in small plots, and wild game made up a substantial part of the diet.

    Almost immediately after conquering territory, the Northern Crusaders began building some of Europe's most imposing strongholds and towns. The edifices include Malbork Castle in Poland, which is a World Heritage site and one of the world's largest medieval fortresses. In Prussia, Crusaders killed or drove out most of the indigenous people, bringing in German settlers to repopulate the land.

    While working at Malbork in 2007, Pluskowski wondered whether the changes he saw in the local fauna could be seen at other Crusader sites. With funding from the European Research Council, he put together a multinational team of historians, archaeologists, zooarchaeologists, geoarchaeologists, and paleobotanists to look at a dozen sites in five countries.

    So far, their work shows that the Crusades brought tremendous ecological and cultural change. “What you have in the Baltic is the abandonment of tribal sites and the appearance of new structures dated to the 13th and 14th centuries,” Pluskowski says. “Castles, churches, towns—it's the replacement of one culture by another without a smooth transition. It all seems very sudden.”

    Fortresses served as bases for further fighting and as centers of trade where knights exported goods such as furs, timber, and grain from their new territories. The invaders had an immediate, dramatic effect on the landscape. “A castle in a landscape is a huge pull for resources,” says Krish Seetah, an archaeologist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, and one of the project's faunal experts.

    Trash n' treasure.

    Medieval refuse at Karksi Castle (left) in Estonia and a horse skeleton at Ceēsis Castle in Latvia show Crusaders' impact.


    Some of the changes are obvious in the archaeological record. Quarries show up, dug to meet the need for sprawling castles of stone, brick, and clay. The architecture looks as though entire villages were imported from Germany. Urban centers concentrated organic waste, along with remains of rats and cats.

    A lost world

    Other changes were more subtle. Ample beaver bones, for instance, show large-scale hunting and trapping for furs. “There's a distinct intensification in the exploitation of the natural world that continues to this day,” Pluskowski says. Large mammals like wolves and bison never really recovered; aurochs, forerunners to modern cows, were hunted to extinction within a few centuries.

    The team's work also illuminates cultural changes. Written sources like contracts and castle inventories give historians an idea of what was being stored in the castles, such as cows, goats, bison meat, and bags of grain. Analysis of animal bones fleshes out the record further, so to speak. By comparing bones found in digs at local settlements with remains at the newly built Crusader castles, zooarchaeologists can track shifts in diet and culture. For example, dog bones found at one indigenous settlement show evidence of cutting consistent with butchery for meat.

    Those practices end abruptly after the Crusades begin. Cattle and other domesticated animals replace the aurochs, roe deer, elk, wild boar, and bison that local people once hunted. “It would seem as though something quite dramatic happens and a prohibition on eating wild dogs comes into effect, along with a reduction in the exploitation of wild animals,” Seetah says. Technology changed, too: Cut marks on bones suggest that the newcomers brought larger, heavier blades for processing meat. The Crusaders also quickly replaced the small local horses with massive warhorses capable of carrying the weight of a fully armored knight into battle.

    Another arm of the project aims to recreate the environment using bits of ancient plants, including pollen from lakes as well as seeds, burned wood, and other detritus from digs. Pollen—deposited in lakes and peat bogs each year and preserved by layers of silt—forms a rough record of the area's vegetation. So far, the dozens of cores University of Reading paleobotanist Alex Brown has collected in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland paint a picture of a dramatic shift. “In the Iron Age, you have woodland. When you get to the 14th or 15th centuries, a century after the arrival of the Teutonic Knights, you're dealing with significant cleared landscape,” Brown says. “You can see the impact of the appearance of the Order and the scale of resources required to construct castles and maintain them.”

    Colleagues say this is the first time that anyone has taken such a broad look at the environmental impact of a Crusade. Similar work is just beginning in the Holy Land, where Crusader archaeology has traditionally taken a back seat to biblical archaeology, says archaeologist Adrian Boas of the University of Haifa in Israel: “The Crusades in Israel haven't been studied in depth.”

    That may soon change. Boas recently began a long-term project at Israel's Montfort Castle, once the Teutonic Order's headquarters in the Holy Land, hoping to use similar techniques to explore the Crusaders' impact. “We're planning a lot more work in this field,” Boas says. There are already interesting connections—Crusaders apparently brought pigs to the Holy Land, for example.

    The project's approach could also help untangle the impact of colonization in other places. Pluskowski would like to look at Spain, where the Reconquista of the 1400s wrested control away from Muslim rulers, forming a sort of final coda to the Crusades. The Mongol invasions of Hungary and Romania may have also left impressions in the environmental record.

    It might even be possible to turn the clock 1000 years further back, to look at how the Northern Crusades compare to the expansion of the Roman Empire. Pluskowski says: “This project pushes us in a direction where we can compare more generally the impact of human colonization.”

    • * Andrew Curry is a freelance writer based in Berlin.

  6. Regulatory Science

    Amid Europe's Food Fights, EFSA Keeps Its Eyes on the Evidence

    1. Kai Kupferschmidt

    Europe's food-safety watchdog, celebrating its 10th anniversary this month, wins praise for sticking to the science—even when Europeans prefer not to hear it.

    Home of the ham.

    EFSA, headed by Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle (inset) since 2006, has its headquarters in Parma, Italy.


    PARMA, ITALY—This small town of quiet squares and historic churches in northern Italy has long been associated with food; it is, after all, the home of the world-famous Parma ham and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, also known as Parmesan. But today, Parma plays another big role in Europe's kitchens: It hosts the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the agency charged with a wide variety of tasks, such as assessing the safety of genetically modified (GM) plants for 500 million Europeans, preventing Salmonella outbreaks, and deciding whether probiotic drinks really boost the immune system.

    EFSA was founded in 2002 to help set food standards at the European level; earlier this month, 700 scientists attended its anniversary conference to help celebrate. But if European officials had hoped that Parma's calm atmosphere would rub off on EFSA, they were wrong. The agency has found itself at the center of some of the most ferocious food fights in Europe.

    EFSA has angered environmental and consumer groups by ruling again and again that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and artificial sweeteners pose no health risks—advice governments sometimes choose to ignore. It has come under fierce attack from advocacy groups and politicians for not being totally independent from industry—a charge that inquiries have found not entirely baseless. At the same time, EFSA has upset the food and supplement industry by pushing some of the most aggressive evidence-based policies in the world. Starting on 14 December, manufacturers will no longer be able to tout the health effects of thousands of their products on labels and in ads, because EFSA says they have not been proven.

    Amid all of these pressures, “somehow they have managed to doggedly stick to the scientific data no matter what was happening,” says nutrition scientist Martijn Katan of Free University Amsterdam. “I think they have succeeded beyond everybody's wildest expectations.” “It can be slow going at times, but they have done very thorough, good science,” says Hans-Georg Joost, a pharmacologist at the German Institute of Human Nutrition in Potsdam.

    Speak up, stand up, gang up

    EFSA was established in the wake of several European food scandals in the 1990s that had rocked consumer confidence, including “mad cow disease,” or BSE. “We are a child of the BSE crisis,” says Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle, the French food-safety scientist who has headed EFSA since July 2006. E.U. leaders hoped to marshal the best scientists from across Europe to review food risks and present a strong scientific consensus to guide decision-making. “Before the BSE crisis, it was a hodgepodge of politics and science,” says Andreas Hensel, who heads the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment. “No one was really responsible for the science on a European level.” EFSA has been a particular blessing for smaller member states that lack their own food-safety agency, he says.

    But the science hasn't always won out. EFSA prepares scientific opinions for the European Commission, which then drafts decisions based on them, which are approved or rejected by the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health, consisting of representatives of the member states. The final decision thus rests with politicians, and their opinions vary widely. EFSA has so far approved every GMO that it has reviewed; in the Standing Committee, Luxembourg and Austria have voted against EFSA's opinion on GMOs every single time, whereas Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic, and the Netherlands have never voted against them.

    In a talk at the conference here, Anne Glover, chief scientific adviser to the European Commission, urged scientists to “speak up, stand up, and gang up” to defend the science behind EFSA's assessments. “If we do not communicate, it is as if we never did the science,” she told the audience. Countries can vote against GMOs for other reasons, Glover argued, but they cannot reject the evidence just because it's politically inconvenient.

    The GMO issue flared up again in September, when a paper in Food and Chemical Toxicology concluded that a maize variety called NK603 and low levels of a herbicide could together cause tumors in rats. The study, by French biologist Gilles-Éric Séralini, was widely criticized by scientists for leaving out important information, using rats prone to spontaneous tumors, and looking at too few animals.

    Séralini was already well-known at EFSA. In 2007, a panel at the agency looked into his claims that MON 863 maize, which EFSA had given a clean bill of health, was toxic to the liver and kidney in rats. Then, a panel roundly rejected Séralini's analysis, and this time, too, EFSA made short work of his paper. An initial assessment published on 4 October concluded that the study was “of insufficient scientific quality for safety assessments.” (An in-depth analysis was in preparation as Science went to press.)

    EFSA critics seized on the report as a sign of double standards. Studies of similar quality had been accepted as evidence for the safety of GM food, they argued. But Elisabeth Waigmann, head of EFSA's GMO unit, says there is no comparison, as the studies on which risk assessments are based run hundreds of pages. Séralini's paper was missing too much information to be useful, she says: “We have asked Séralini for the full data, but so far we have not received anything.”

    If anything, the issues will only get thornier. Most GM crops approved so far had only a single new trait, usually resistance to a herbicide; in most cases, EFSA's risk analysis was based on comparing those GM crops with the non-GM version of the same variety. But GM plants now being developed often have more than one new gene. “The comparison could then lead to so many differences that need to be followed up individually, that it becomes a question whether this comparative approach is still practical,” Waigmann says. EFSA will also have to review GM animals when they are ready—not just those intended for human consumption, but also GM mosquitoes set free to curb the spread of a disease. The agency is still drawing up guidelines for that task.

    Claims and conflicts

    Conflicts about scientific evidence have also occurred with EFSA's biggest and most ambitious project so far. Starting next month, companies in the European Union will no longer be allowed to advertise food products with unsubstantiated promises about their effect on human health. Since 2008, EFSA panels have assessed thousands of such health claims, including cranberry juice supposedly reducing the risk of urinary tract infections and a type of chocolate that its producer says “helps children grow” (Science, 5 March 2010, p. 1189). Of more than 3000 claims, only some 200 were deemed sufficiently proven.

    The food industry has protested vigorously. “EFSA's methodology is almost identical to that for assessing medicine. It is based on randomized controlled trials, and that is not feasible for food,” says Patrick Coppens of the European Responsible Nutrition Alliance, an industry group. Such trials would be far too expensive, and the rules could stifle innovation, he warns.

    Industry representatives have also pointed out that there is no clear consensus on what a health claim is. Some national authorities have hinted that they will no longer accept the term “probiotics” in marketing, for instance, because the term itself suggests a health benefit; other countries say it's just a product category. Some people have joked that German candy manufacturer Haribo may have to submit evidence to prove its slogan that “Haribo makes children happy!”

    “Industry was surprised how much science was needed,” says Juliane Kleiner, head of EFSA's nutrition unit. “But these are no outrageous criteria.” Katan says the mass rejection of claims reflects the fact that the food industry has been unable to produce food that makes a real difference for health. By being so rigorous, EFSA has set a new standard, he says: “The FDA is doing an excellent job on the safety, but as to health claims, the world is now looking to Europe.”

    Seeds of conflict.

    Activists have taken aim at EFSA's assessments of GM crops.


    The process has produced new problems, however. For instance, the European Commission put EFSA's evaluation of botanical products on hold because it could lead to a paradox: Health claims of herbal foods could be dismissed on scientific grounds, but the same substances could still be sold as medicine because in many European countries, they can be marketed on so-called traditional use grounds with no need to prove efficacy. How this issue will be resolved is still unclear.

    Not convinced.

    EFSA rejected supposed health benefits of rapeseed oil, cranberry juice, coffee, and chocolate, along with thousands of other claims.


    But EFSA's long-term credibility will depend not just on the rigor of its reviews, but also on the trust it enjoys from the European public—and on that front, it has fared less well. In February, a report by two campaign groups, Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) and Earth Open Source, concluded that “[m]any EFSA panel members have ties with biotech, food, or pesticide companies.” EFSA's rules allowed blatant conflicts of interest to persist, the groups said.

    EFSA dismissed the report as biased and unfounded, but the criticism only increased in May, when Diána Bánáti, chair of the management board of EFSA, had to resign effective immediately because she had accepted a position at the International Life Sciences Institute, a nonprofit science organization based in Washington, D.C., and funded among others by Coca-Cola, McDonald's, and Monsanto. Members of the European Parliament have pounded on the issue, and the Parliament temporarily deferred approval of EFSA's 2010 budget report to put pressure on the agency.

    A long-delayed report by the European Court of Auditors, issued in October, showed that the accusations had some basis in fact. The report—which also looked at three other agencies—concluded that EFSA's management of conflict-of-interest situations was not adequate. It said there were either no clear criteria for assessing declarations of interest, or that they were not applied consistently.

    EFSA responded that it had addressed several of the critical points in the meantime with a new independence policy adopted in December 2011—the review finished in October 2011—and that it had assessed 8000 declarations of interest in 2011 and excluded experts totally or partially from EFSA activities on 356 occasions. Nina Holland of CEO agrees that there have been some improvements, but several forms of conflict of interest are still allowed, she argues.

    Geslain-Lanéelle says that dismissing everyone with any ties to industry would make it impossible to find good experts. If someone has worked with industry, that person will not be allowed to work with EFSA on the same subject, she says. Moreover, decisions are made by panels that usually have 21 members. “Even if you had one or two experts with a conflict of interest, they would have to convince another 20 experts. And believe me, they are not easy to convince.”

    Still, Geslain-Lanéelle acknowledges that EFSA needs to work on building trust. But the fact that science is now center stage in the decision-making process in the E.U. is new, she says, and reason to celebrate. “Don't forget: We are only 10 years old.”