News this Week

Science  25 Jan 2013:
Vol. 339, Issue 6118, pp. 378

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  1. Around the World

    1 - Tokyo, Japan
    Stimulus Pushes Japan's Science Spending to Record Level
    2 - Culham, U.K.
    Fusion Road Map for Europe
    3 - Parma, Italy
    E.U. Watchdog: Pesticides Threaten Bees
    4 - Geneva, Switzerland
    Accord on Global Mercury Limits
    5 - Grenoble, France
    Mathematicians Eye Researcher-Run Publishing

    Tokyo, Japan

    Stimulus Pushes Japan's Science Spending to Record Level

    An economic stimulus package that includes $11 billion worth of science-related spending will—when combined with previously planned spending—bring Japan's national and local government support for research for the fiscal year through March to a record $57 billion. But there are high expectations of an economic payoff.

    The stimulus package includes $958 million to upgrade research infrastructure, $107 million for disaster prevention and mitigation studies, $238 million for research on induced pluripotent stem cells and other regenerative therapies, and $437 million for next-generation energy technologies.

    The largest item, however, is $2 billion to promote university-industry collaboration, including money to equip universities to conduct industrially relevant research as well as to support actual R&D. "Even though Japan is strong in basic research and funding is increasing, I think it's true that there is little connection to industry," says Kazuhito Hashimoto, a physical chemist at the University of Tokyo. Hashimoto helped take a self-cleaning photocatalytic material from a laboratory discovery to commercial use in building siding and other products.

    Culham, U.K.

    Fusion Road Map for Europe


    The European Fusion Development Agreement has published its road map to move fusion research forward from ITER—a giant international reactor under construction in France that will be the first to produce useful amounts of energy—to an industry-ready prototype fusion power plant by 2050. ITER is expected to produce the first net energy gain from fusion: 500 mega watts from a 50 MW input for a few minutes at a time.

    The next step will be a prototype power plant dubbed DEMO—but the road map notes a daunting list of technical hurdles to this. Those challenges include more work on how to extract exhaust heat—current designs wouldn't survive the high power and continuous operation of DEMO. Advanced materials able to withstand the intense neutron bombardment from DEMO's reactions will also be needed, along with new ways to use those neutrons to breed more tritium fuel for fusion in the lining of the reactor. With any luck, DEMO might start generating power in the early 2040s.

    Parma, Italy

    E.U. Watchdog: Pesticides Threaten Bees

    Osmia ribifloris, a blueberry pollinator.


    Three pesticides used by European farmers pose an "acute risk" to honey bees, according to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). In three studies published last week, EFSA assessed the risks posed to bees by three types of neonicotinoid insecticides: clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam. This family of pesticides has been used by European farmers since the early 1990s and is sold by Syngenta in Basel, Switzerland, and Bayer CropScience in Monheim, Germany. EFSA says none of the three should be used on crops that are attractive to bees, such as maize, rapeseed, or sunflower. Although the study does not link the pesticides to the collapse of whole bee colonies, the agency's advice could open the door to a neonicotinoid ban in the European Union.

    Geneva, Switzerland

    Accord on Global Mercury Limits


    After an all-night session that capped 4 years of negotiations, delegates from 140 countries agreed on 19 January to limit mercury pollution. The Minamata Convention—named for a Japanese city where mercury poisoning injured or killed thousands of people—mandates the phase-out of mercury in some batteries, fluorescent lamps, cosmetics, and medical devices by 2020. It sets limits on mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants, waste incineration, and cement factories. Countries with small-scale gold mining must devise strategies to reduce or eliminate mercury use. The treaty allows the use of mercury as a vaccine preservative.

    The Zero Mercury Working Group called the treaty a step forward but said controls on the two largest sources of pollution—coal-fired power plants and small-scale gold mining—were disappointingly weak. The treaty will be open for signatures at a meeting in Minamata in October.

    Grenoble, France

    Mathematicians Eye Researcher-Run Publishing

    Mathematicians aim to launch a slew of new open access peer-reviewed journals this spring utilizing the software of arXiv, a repository that holds more than half a million preprint articles in mathematics, physics, and other fields. The initiative, called the Episciences Project, is led by Jean-Pierre Demailly, a mathematician at the University of Grenoble in France. The aim is for the research community to run its own publishing system, financed by the French government via its Centre for Direct Scientific Communication.

    W. Timothy Gowers, a mathematician at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom who announced the plans on his blog last Wednesday, is planning to start a journal in additive combinatorics. The idea, he wrote, is that "the parts of the publication process that academics do voluntarily—editing and refereeing—are just as they are for traditional journals, and we do without the parts that cost money, such as copy-editing and typesetting." Gowers, who in January 2012 started a boycott of Amsterdam-based publishing-giant Elsevier that thousands of researchers joined, called for mathematicians to support the effort and suggested "it may later expand into other subjects."

  2. Newsmakers

    Three Q's



    U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Director Marcia McNutt—a geophysicist who was part of the Obama administration's scientific "dream team"—announced last week that she is leaving her post on 15 February.

    Q:What are you proudest of from your time at USGS?

    M.M.:On a national level, my involvement in Deepwater Horizon. [McNutt led the effort to estimate the volume of uncaptured oil from the 2010 spill.] On an institutional basis, it might be [remapping the structure of] USGS … from disciplines that operated like university departments … onto problems that matter, such as energy and minerals, water, climate change, and natural hazards.

    Q:And what's your biggest disappointment?

    M.M.:We are launching Landsat 8 [on 11 February], but there is still not a plan in place for the continuity of Landsat missions. I think it would just be tragic if what is now a 40-year record of land-use change and climate change were to end with Landsat 8.

    Q:Several members of Obama's "dream team" are leaving. What does that mean for the future of science in the administration?

    M.M.:It wasn't long until we were hit with things like the oil spill and the Haiti earthquake, and the fact that I already knew people like [Energy Secretary] Steve Chu and [NOAA Administrator] Jane Lubchenco … was such a leg up in getting things done. It wasn't just that it was a team of good scientists, it was a team of people who already had a basis for mutual trust and collaboration. I hope that there will be another dream team that will come in.

    Arthritis Detectives Earn Crafoord Prize

    A popular quarry for the modern biologist is the mixture of genes and environment that causes disease. For the discovery of a DNA sequence that, when combined with smoking, dramatically increases the risk of rheumatoid arthritis, three rheumatologists have won the Crafoord Prize in Polyarthritis, which includes SEK 4 million ($614,000).

    In the 1980s, Peter Gregersen, now at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, New York, worked with Robert Winchester of Columbia University (and molecular biologist Jack Silver) to sequence variants of human leukocyte antigen genes, which are now linked to autoimmune disease. They identified a stretch of five amino acids shared among HLA gene variants that increased the risk of rheumatoid arthritis.

    A team led by Lars Klareskog, of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, then found that Northern Europeans who have this shared sequence and who smoke are 20 to 40 times more likely to develop the disease, compared with four times more likely with just the DNA.

    "It's been a long story," Gregersen says. And many scientists hope to uncover others like it.

  3. Random Sample

    Sea Cow in Space


    A distant nebula 18,000 light-years away bears a startling resemblance to Earth's humble manatee—down to the "scars" on its back. Scientists already knew of the giant cloud, called the W50 nebula, which formed when a star went supernova 20,000 years ago. But a new image of it taken by the National Science Foundation's Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) has inspired a new name for the object: the Manatee Nebula. The nebula received its new name after someone at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory noticed its resemblance to a manatee floating on its back, flippers over tummy (inset). Bright arcs formed by powerful jets of charged particles in the massive cloud mirror the curved boat propeller scars that the endangered animals often bear. And like its namesake, the Manatee Nebula is a whopper: It's 700 light-years across, one of the biggest supernova remnants ever spotted by VLA.

    By the Numbers

    542 — Record low number of global guinea worm cases in 2012—good news for the Carter Center's campaign to eradicate the disease, although fighting in Mali might set this back, former President Jimmy Carter noted last week.

    14.5% — Increase in global measles deaths from 2010 to 2011, according to the World Health Organization, although total measles deaths decreased by 71% from 2000 to 2011.

    11 — Number of lab-acquired infections reported from 2004 to 2010, according to a first-of-its-kind Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study in Applied Biosafety. None were fatal or spread to others.

    Pilgrim's Profits

    Peaceful pose.

    An attendee at the 2013 Magh Mela festival.


    What's the cost-benefit balance of the world's largest gathering of humans, India's Kumbh Mela? The 3-month-long Hindu festival, held every 12 years, attracts as many as 100 million people to the confluence of the sacred rivers Ganges and Yamuna in Allahabad. On the one hand, there's the potential increase in well-being; for example, computer engineer Ramesh Misra says a ritual bath in the freezing cold water was a "highly fulfilling and blissful" experience that brought him "serenity amidst the seeming superficial chaos."

    On the other hand, there are communicable diseases, terrorism, extreme cold, and noise pollution.

    For the past 3 years, a team of Indian and British social psychologists have studied the risks and rewards of what they call the "greatest show on Earth." Behavioral psychologist Shruti Tewari of the University of Allahabad teamed up with social psychologist Nick Hopkins of the University of Dundee in the United Kingdom to interview 416 pilgrims to the smaller "Magh Mela" annual festival, which drew about 11 million people to the same spot this year. As a control, the team also interviewed 127 people who live near the festival but did not attend.

    The researchers asked the subjects to assess their health and well-being at two times: a month before the festival, and just after it ended. They released their results at a seminar this week at the University of Allahabad. Their conclusion: "an increased sense of well-being" makes the health risks worthwhile.

    "Our research shows that people in crowds can form bonds with others, and that this sense of social connection can impact people's identity outside the event," Hopkins says. "It really is time to take crowds—and their positive effects—seriously."


    Join us on Thursday, 31 January, at 3 p.m. EST for a live chat on the science of gun violence.


    The London headquarters of the Royal Institution—one of the oldest scientific institutions in the world, where Michael Faraday once lectured on electricity—may be up for sale for about £60 million ($95 million). Facing financial peril, in 2008 the institution invested in refurbishments, including a restaurant and bar, but failed to recoup those investments.

  4. Shaking Up Science

    1. Jennifer Couzin-Frankel

    Two journal editors take a hard look at honesty in science and question the ethos of their profession.

    Ferric Fang and Arturo Casadevall are an unlikely duo. They live a continent apart and barely speak on the phone. ("There were a couple of times that I failed to immediately recognize his voice," Fang admits.) Fang grew up in Los Angeles, the son of a doctor, and attended Harvard University. Casadevall fled Cuba for the United States at 11, was reunited with his family in New York, and never left. He enrolled at Queens College of the City University of New York because the first year there was free and worked at McDonald's and as a bank teller to earn spending money. "I never thought about a career in science," Casadevall says. "I didn't know you could get paid to do research."

    Despite their differences, they rose on parallel tracks through the ranks of microbiology and immunology, running large labs and securing tenure and various accolades at the University of Washington, Seattle, (Fang) and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, New York (Casadevall). They were acquaintances, having bumped into each other a handful of times, but nothing more.


    Disenchantment brought them together almost 5 years ago. Their own achievements aside, the two had nagging worries about what they saw as an unwelcome transformation in academic science. Discovery for its own sake was being sidelined by a push to publish in high-impact journals. Funding was scarcer than ever. Scientists focused on narrow fields and often couldn't communicate their professional passions at a cocktail party.

    None of this is new. But Fang and Casadevall decided to try to do something about it—to recapture what brought them to science in the first place, the thrill of the chase, of being part of something bigger than oneself. They wanted to ask: Are we doing science the best way we can? And if not, what's in our power to change?

    The partnership

    "The 99%, the majority of scientists, are really driven by fear," Fang says. Wonkish and graying at the temples, he's sitting one November morning in a Philadelphia coffee shop with music blaring, steps from the University of Pennsylvania, where he's just given a talk on nitric oxide and bacteria. As often happens these days, the researchers with whom he met preferred to discuss something else: the toxic mix of pressure to score the next grant or the next publication, and high rates of bad scientific behavior, which Fang has been studying in depth.

    Fang and Casadevall came together in 2008. Fang was, and still is, editor-in-chief of Infection and Immunity, a journal published by the American Society for Microbiology (ASM). Casadevall was an editor there as well. (He was subsequently asked to head up a new ASM publication, mBio.) "I realized that I had this privilege of writing opinion pieces," Fang says. "I started badgering my editors for ideas" about the state of science. "The one who stepped forward was Arturo."

    The two quickly recognized a hunger for leadership in the area. One of their first commentaries, published in early 2009 and titled "NIH Peer Review Reform—Change We Need, or Lipstick on a Pig?" explored scientists' dependence on grants to pay their salaries and questioned whether proposed changes to peer review at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) would make much difference. "We started getting wonderful feedback about these essays," Fang says. "Very few people wanted to write a letter to the journal, but they were happy to write to [us]."

    One note came from Hawley Montgomery-Downs, a sleep researcher at West Virginia University in Morgantown. At the time, her tenure was contingent on securing two major NIH grants. She had submitted 10 failed applications in 3 years and was subsisting on number 11, a modest research award. "I have great results … but no time to publish them," she wrote to Fang and Casadevall. "I am not an emotional person, but after reading your commentary I put my head down on my desk and cried. Your article confirmed all the rumors and affirmed that the situation is 'not just me.' "


    Montgomery-Downs, who allowed Science to quote from her letter, told Fang in November that although she was awarded tenure, none of her grant applications since then had been successful.

    Inspired by letters like this one, Casadevall and Fang kept pushing forward. As drafts of their editorials flew from coast to coast by e-mail, a deep friendship developed. "I found a great comrade in arms," Casadevall says over a recent brunch of eggs and toast at a diner near New York's Times Square. "Whenever there's a disagreement, I always defer to Ferric. He's always right."

    "We really see eye to eye, but Arturo is the poet and I'm the prose," Fang says. Casadevall massages the words, and Fang crunches the numbers. After several joint essays ruminating on peer review, basic science, and how research is characterized, Fang was working in his office early one evening when he received an unsettling e-mail that would send the two on a different path.

    "We are writing to inform you that in regard to the manuscript indicated below, which was published in the [sic] Infection and Immunity, we found repeated use of the same figures within the manuscript as well as the use of figures used in other manuscripts," wrote a dean at the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa, Japan. Unbeknownst to Fang, the university had been investigating dozens of papers by virologist Naoki Mori following a tip from another journal.

    Infection and Immunity had published six of Mori's papers. Three more appeared in ASM's Journal of Virology. Digital data experts at ASM performed a pixel by pixel analysis of the figures and came to the same unfortunate conclusion as the university. Mori agreed to retract the papers.

    Fang was shaken by the experience. The image manipulation was uncovered almost by chance—a peer reviewer for the journal Blood happened to recognize some figures as having been previously published, setting off an inquiry. Until then, Fang had operated under the assumption that science, as many like to say, is self-correcting. Suddenly he realized that probably wasn't the case. "There's a lot of science out there that hasn't been corrected," he now believes.

    Still, many journal editors encounter research misconduct during their tenure. Why did the Mori case drive Fang in an obsessive new direction? "So what's wrong with me?" he asks, echoing the question back. "It's not with me. The problem," he says tongue-in-cheek, "is with Arturo."

    The problem

    Casadevall's worldview is shaped by his experience as a Cuban exile and gratitude for his own good fortune. His father, an attorney who spent time in a Cuban prison camp and was deemed unqualified to practice law in the United States, encouraged Casadevall to develop a trade that could transfer across national borders. When New York University admitted him off the waitlist to its M.D./Ph.D. program in 1979, he was startled to learn that the stipend he would receive was greater than what he'd been earning at four jobs combined. He asked to enroll in June rather than September partly to start drawing that paycheck. The school agreed.

    Like Fang, Casadevall began his scientific career full of idealism. But as time passed, he grew troubled by the reluctance of scientists to study how they perform their craft—the science of science, as it were. "We don't look at our own belly button," he says. There's virtually no information about questions he considers critical to running an efficient research enterprise. Are prizes helpful or harmful to science in general? What's the optimal size of a lab? How common is research misconduct?

    Casadevall and Fang chose to tackle the last question first. And they hit upon a rich source of data to help them: the scientific literature, including a treasure trove of high-profile papers and retractions spanning decades.

    The two first explored whether there was any connection between a journal's impact factor—a ranking based on citations of papers published there—and its retraction rate. They speculated that the more prestigious a journal, the more likely scientists might be to cut corners, or even fudge data, to get their work published in it. They searched the biomedical literature database PubMed for retractions in journals with a range of impact factors and found a robust correlation. The pair published their "retraction index" in Infection and Immunity in August 2011.

    They weren't the first to uncover this connection, but the paper made a splash: The retraction index was republished in newspapers and magazines worldwide, including this one. In April 2012, The New York Times featured Fang and Casadevall's work on retractions, further elevating their profile.

    Their next project was more ambitious. The pair wanted to quantify scientific misconduct as best they could in the published literature. For assistance they recruited R. Grant Steen, a medical writer in North Carolina. Snatching time in airports, on airplanes, and after hours, they assembled an enormous Excel file of every retraction they could find in PubMed, more than 2000 dating back to 1977.

    They cross-referenced many retractions with other sources, such as reports from the U.S. Office of Research Integrity (ORI), which investigates misconduct. The three attributed about 67% of all the retractions to scientific misconduct, including fraud and plagiarism. The results were published in October 2012 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    "We never anticipated that the problem was going to be so widespread, ever," says Casadevall, who'd expected honest errors to explain the vast majority of retractions. "We need to clean up our act."

    Retractions remain rare, at about one out of every 10,000 papers. But "even a single retracted paper for fraud can be very damaging to the credibility of science," Fang says. The actual problem rate is much higher." Backing him up is a 2009 paper in PLOS ONE that examined 21 surveys of research misconduct. Pooling the data, the author, an Italian researcher at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom named Daniele Fanelli, concluded that 14% of scientists said that they knew of a colleague who had falsified data. About 2% admitted committing misconduct themselves.

    The drivers

    Fang and Casadevall have given much thought to what's behind bad behavior. Both now detect signs of a system they consider flawed. For example, faculty applicants to their respective departments are invited for interviews only if they've been first authors on a publication in a high-profile journal. "We defer to the editors of Science and Nature to tell us what's good," Casadevall laments. These days, "you get a finding and the whole discussion is not about the finding, it's where you're going to publish."

    An underlying issue is funding. Fang's father, a physician-scientist working in the 1960s, told him that back then, half or more of grants were funded. "He always felt that the challenge in science was science itself," Fang says. "The level of competition has changed dramatically. … If you talk to any student or postdoc, they'll say the picture they're getting, the name of the game, is to get money." Sitting on promotion and tenure committees, Fang has watched colleagues pay "lip service" to teaching and quality of science, but the real yardstick is the applicant's funding levels. In part, this is because universities now depend heavily on "soft money"—grant funding—to support their own infrastructure.

    "The most productive scientists are still worried because they have a lot of mouths to feed," Fang says. Fear struck him a few years ago when his own funding situation grew dire and half a dozen individuals in his lab were at risk of losing their jobs. They were saved—for the moment—by support from the federal stimulus package. "It's all about money," Fang says. "How can you be sure that you get money?" The answer comes back to publications—and sometimes skirting the rules to get them.

    Fang began his journey with Casadevall thinking cheaters were inherently different from the rest of us. Now, he appreciates how a toxic environment can subtly encourage bad behavior. One influence has been the writings of Dan Ariely, a social scientist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who studies cheating. "We have a tendency to point fingers, we have a tendency to identify some people and say, 'These are bad people,' " Ariely says. But "it's unrealistic to create a system that tempts people and expect them to behave very well." Ariely cites an example from his own history: As a teenager, he was badly burned and spent years receiving treatment. One of his favorite physicians pressured him to tattoo the right side of his face to give the appearance of stubble, which had been erased by the burns. "And then I found out I was going to be the third patient in the paper," Ariely says, and that the doctor needed a critical mass of volunteers in order to publish his research. "This was an amazing physician who took great care of me for 3 years, … but at that moment, he wanted the paper out."

    This week, Fang and Casadevall published their latest missive in mBio: With Joan Bennett, a prominent microbiologist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, they analyzed ORI reports to determine whether men were found guilty of misconduct to a disproportionate degree. At the senior level, the gender imbalance was dramatic. The three reviewed the ORI files of 72 faculty members, and only nine of them were women. That's one-third of what one would predict based on female representation in the life sciences. Among trainees, the gap narrowed. Fang and Casadevall speculate that the inclination of male principal investigators to cheat tracks the increased likelihood of men to engage in risky behavior, well documented in the social science literature. Younger scientists—male and female—may cheat to please their boss, or because of pressure to arrive at certain results.

    "Scientists love to think that they are totally objective," when in fact they're often not, Bennett says. "I think it's very important to look at these questions."

    Fang and Casadevall admit that they're trapped in the system that troubles them. "I think it's crazy to focus so much on impact factors," Fang says. "But I have a postdoc right now who has a great story, and we're going to try to submit his paper to Nature. … I see the rules as they are, and I'm not going to sacrifice his career." At the same time, the two are trying to modulate how they run their labs and mentor their students. Casadevall, ever the broad thinker, urges lab members to read widely outside their field. Fang has postdocs working on multiple projects at once, with the hope that something will pan out and they'll be under less pressure. Fang's partnership with Casadevall has also changed how he'd react to fraud in his own lab. If a trainee faked data, Fang says, "I would question myself, that I had failed strategically and not created the right environment for them, and they felt afraid of failure."

    Despite the stresses they face, most scientists, of course, don't cheat. Even as Fang looks inward and contemplates sweeping changes to the system, he doesn't absolve individuals who succumb to its temptations. At ASM, Fang worried about trusting Mori's work in the future, and argued that he should be barred from publishing ever again in ASM journals. He was outvoted in favor of a 10-year ban.

    The solutions

    With every joint publication on the state of science—they have 14 so far—Fang and Casadevall see more hunger in the community to hash out these topics. Casadevall travels constantly. He spent parts of October and November in Michigan, London, Paris, and Chile. Everywhere, the conversation was the same.

    Scientists, especially younger ones, "feel powerless," he says. "The older group is worried, surprised" by the misconduct findings.

    Fang and Casadevall find themselves in increasing demand. Fang participated in a roundtable on scientific integrity last month at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. Together they're writing an article for Scientific American Mind on cheating.

    Fang and Casadevall have heard concerns from researchers that their work will be used to discredit science. It's been cited on antiscience blogs, like those questioning the safety of vaccines or the role of human activities in climate change. While they've considered the risks, "I think we need to have this conversation to try and make science better," Fang says.

    Casadevall favors a more generalized science education, rather than the extreme specialization that now occurs in graduate school. An enthusiastic reader of history, he points out that in the 19th century and before, scientists such as Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz were philosophers first and scientists second. He's in discussions with Albert Einstein College of Medicine about "putting the Ph"—philosophy—"back in Ph.D.," and launching a graduate track that includes training in epistemology and metaphysics—or as Casadevall puts it, "How do you know what you know?" and "How much can you push your lab?"

    He's also disillusioned by peer review, which he believes yields endless demands to add data to a paper without necessarily improving it. At the open access journal Casadevall runs, mBio, the rule is that papers are either accepted or rejected, period.

    Fang and Casadevall know that they can't come up with all of the answers. Rather, their goal is to start a conversation and hope others identify solutions. "We have to somehow change the incentives," says economist Paula Stephan of Georgia State University in Atlanta. Her book, How Economics Shapes Science, examines the ways in which scientists and institutions compete for resources and rewards. "Historically, a lot of the criticism [of the scientific enterprise] … comes from people outside science," says Stephan, who met Casadevall and Fang at a Health Research Alliance event in Washington, D.C., last year. Although she doesn't agree with them on everything, "it's very exciting when you see people like the two of them, who are editors of journals, really beginning to question the system."

    Casadevall and Fang are shifting gears now, moving away from misconduct and into other issues that may prove tougher to tackle quantitatively. Casadevall hypothesizes that prizes are detrimental to science, because they foster a "winner take all" system and reward cutthroat behavior, rather than cooperation that might better advance knowledge. He is currently cataloguing all the Nobel prizes and assessing which were said to have left out potential awardees. Fang is considering using data from ASM journals to ask how often peer review changes the substance of a paper. "We are going to continue to take on question after question," Casadevall says.

    Meanwhile, the two must stay abreast of their day jobs: Editing a journal each, running large labs, in Fang's case directing a bustling clinical laboratory, and in Casadevall's sitting on a national biodefense advisory post. When Casadevall worries that he's stretched too thin, his 89-year-old mother, who lives in Queens, urges him onward. "She assures me there will come a day when nobody's going to invite me anywhere. … She says to me, 'Don't turn down an invitation.' " He grins. "If my mom tells me to do it, I'll do it."

    Then Casadevall, his glasses folded neatly and hanging from his shirt collar, turns serious. "I really do think that what Ferric and I try to do may be the most important thing I do in my life," he says. Others, he knows, will keep building the edifice of science. These two want to shake its modern foundations.

  5. 2013 Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology Annual Meeting

    Eating Was Tough For Early Tetrapods

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi

    How did tetrapods swallow food after their transition from sea to land?

    What's for dinner?

    The extinct Acanthostega may have had trouble eating on land.


    While a fin-to-limb transition made possible the first steps on land for vertebrates 390 million years ago, it took a long time for ancient tetrapods to leave behind their aquatic ways and become true landlubbers. After that initial landfall, another 80 million years went by before tetrapods developed jaws adapted for terrestrial feeding, according to Philip Anderson, an evolutionary paleobiologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who presented a survey of fossils from this time period at the meeting.

    Those early tetrapods must have had a hard time figuring out how to swallow terrestrial food, if another study presented at the meeting is any guide. That work described the great lengths that some modern fish must go to catch and eat prey out of water. "That's something that paleontologists have not thought about too much," says Alice Gibb, a functional morphologist at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. The combination of paleontology and functional morphology evidence shows "that the switch [to eating on land] was awfully hard," concludes Richard Blob, an evolutionary biomechanist at Clemson University in South Carolina.

    Vertebrates were among the last animals to crawl onto land. Which locomotor changes enabled this move "is pretty well resolved," says Michael Coates, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois. But understanding what and how the first four-legged vertebrates ate "is somewhat in its infancy," says Miriam Ashley-Ross, a functional morphologist at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

    Some researchers have argued that the first tetrapods were quick to exploit land-based food; others are not sure whether these animals were "surf" or "turf" eaters. Anderson began to wonder about the transition to terrestrial diets 2 years ago, after an initial survey of fossils confirmed that the lower jaws of early tetrapods were very fishlike. He and his colleagues have now extended that work, in all measuring jaws from 97 genera dating from the Devonian 416 million years ago through the early Permian, 295 million years ago. The fossils included classic early tetrapods such as Acanthostega and Tiktaalik, some closely related fish, ancestral amphibians, and some later evolving reptilelike and mammal-like species. Early tetrapods had elongated jaws, like those in their fish ancestors. But about 80 million years into their evolution, shorter, deeper jaws appeared, Anderson found. These stronger jaws would have been better able to munch on vegetation, he notes.

    Early on in tetrapod evolution, "big changes are going on elsewhere in anatomy and the jaws lurch into changing later on," Coates says. During that period, the researchers suggest, these animals may have made brief forays onto land but hunted in the water.

    With fishlike mouths, early tetrapods would have faced a difficult task eating on land. Underwater, fish usually rely on suction to draw food into their mouths and swallow. To generate enough inward force in less dense air, a fish—or early tetrapod—would have to expand its mouth 28 times faster, Sam Van Wassenbergh, a biomechanist at the University of Ghent in Belgium, reported at the meeting. And even then, because air is so much less viscous, the air flow might not be enough to draw in prey. Moreover, most fish mouths face forward to grab food items suspended straight ahead in water, not food laying below on the ground.

    Many modern terrestrial tetrapods have solved their swallowing problem by having tongues do the job. But Van Wassenbergh started thinking about how early tetrapods might have dined on land after he studied the eel catfish, which lives in the muddy swamps of tropical Africa. It has a tiny head and a long body with no paired fins. When he filmed this fish in 2006, he determined that the secret to its success to capturing insects on land was arching the front end of its body to position the mouth directly over the prey. Once the food is captured, the catfish quickly slips back into the water; only there, where it can take in water to wash down the prey, can it swallow, Van Wassenbergh said.

    More recently, he has turned to mudskippers, 15-centimeter-long fish commonly found in the mud in mangrove swamps. In contrast to the eel catfish, the mudskipper has big paired fins and doesn't have to go back into the water with each mouthful of prey.

    Mudskippers solve the swallowing problem by carrying water with them, Van Wassenbergh reported. His studies revealed that these fish fill their mouths with water before emerging onto land. They scoot along with their fins, then bend their head down to grab the food. As they do this, they compress the sides of the mouth, moving the water forward and, sometimes, forcing water out as they grab the prey. Instantly, the fish sucks the water back in. That mouthful of water enables them to swallow and keep hunting.

    Fossils rarely preserve evidence of the muscles and cartilage connecting bones, and the dearth of such soft tissue data makes it difficult to know how exactly early tetrapods could maneuver their jaws or swallow. But although these animals lacked the complex mouths of mudskippers, Van Wassenbergh "showed that it is possible for something to come up on land and still use the fish suction system," Anderson says. That's certainly food for thought for those trying to reconstruct the life of early tetrapods.

  6. 2013 Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology Annual Meeting

    Nervous System May Have Evolved Twice

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi

    A newly sequenced genome of a comb jelly threatens to upend the view that the neuron evolved only once in the history of life.

    Biologists have long assumed that the neuron—with its axon, synapses, long processes called dendrites, and a suite of nerve-specific proteins—is the epitome of a specialized cell and thus likely to have evolved only once in the history of life. But a newly sequenced genome of a comb jelly, an ocean-going predator sometimes confused with traditional jellyfish, threatens to upend this view.

    The DNA data put these invertebrates, also known as ctenophores, on a different, older branch of the tree of life from that of other organisms with complex nervous systems. This new placement will be controversial, but it suggests to some researchers that nervous systems arose twice. Indeed, the ctenophore's nervous system does appear to be different from those of other animals because its genome lacks genes for proteins that are considered essential to nervous system development and function. "All the things that are fundamental to [a nervous system] are missing in ctenophores," says Casey Dunn, an evolutionary biologist at Brown University.

    Leonid Moroz, a neurobiologist at the University of Florida's Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience in St. Augustine, and his colleagues study ctenophores and other invertebrates belonging to animal groups that arose early in the history of life. Comb jellies have an elementary brain and true nerve cells linked by complex synapses to muscles. In contrast, some of the other groups, like jellyfish and other cnidarians, simply have nets of nerve cells and no real brain—and sponges have no nerve cells to speak of.

    Some analyses have indicated that ctenophores branched off on the tree of life late, just before all the bilateral animals; other data have them branching off earlier, alongside jellyfish; and at least one controversial study has them arising even before sponges, considered by some to be the most basal multicellular animals.

    Moroz and his colleagues recently sequenced the genome of the comb jelly Pleurobrachia bachei. Comparing this genome with those of other organisms, Moroz's team concludes that ctenophores split off early, perhaps even before sponges and another odd group called placozoans, which also have no neurons. In this arrangement of the tree of life, if there were a single origin of the nervous system, sponges and placozoans would have had to discard nerve cells and other neural attributes, Moroz told the meeting. More likely, he argued, ctenophores evolved a nervous system after they split off from other animals and became predators, and then another nervous system arose separately, after the sponges and placozoans split off, in the branch leading to cnidarians and bilateral animals.

    Smart jelly.

    Ctenophores may have independently evolved a nervous system.


    Independently, researchers at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) in Bethesda, Maryland, have deciphered the genome of another ctenophore, and they made the data available to Moroz and others. At the meeting, NHGRI geneticist Andy Baxevanis said their analysis did not completely confirm Moroz's basal placement of ctenophores. However, other evidence suggests an independent origin of the ctenophorean nervous system. Both sequenced comb jellies lack Hox genes, which are considered crucial for patterning the developing nervous system in other animals. Also, the molecules in the P. bachei synapses are different from those in the nervous systems of other organisms, including jellyfish, Moroz reported. Ctenophores lack the neurotransmitter serotonin, for example. "There are many ways to skin a cat and there are many ways to make a neuron," he says.

    Chris Lowe, an evolutionary developmental biologist from Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, California, welcomes the new sequence data and Moroz's conclusion about the independent evolution of the nervous system. "It's great that he's bringing up these issues," Lowe says. Ctenophores are so different from other organisms in their genetic makeup that "they well may have a nervous system that is totally independent."

  7. 2013 Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology Annual Meeting

    Snapshots From the Meeting

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi

    Researchers wonder how moths were able to follow a flower in dim light and how coralline algae survive an aquatic battering.

    Shedding light on how moths track flowers blowing in the wind. Like hummingbirds, hawk-moths hover as they feed on nectar and pollen, so they must track a flower's motion in a breeze to stay with it. Simon Sponberg, a neuromechanist at the University of Washington, Seattle, wondered how moths were able to follow a flower in dim light, because these insects tend to forage at dusk and dawn. By studying the moths' aerial responses to robotic flowers swaying at different speeds in different light levels, he has determined that the moth brain can function even in dim conditions because it takes more time to gather light and produce an image. This adaptation becomes a liability when the flower oscillates more than twice per second, as the moth can't keep up, he reported at the meeting. But Sponberg's high-speed videos of actual flowers blowing in the wind show that blooms typically oscillate more slowly than that. "The moth was free to make this adaptation without having to make a trade-off," Sponberg said. "It tracks at relevant frequencies and doesn't care about what happens" at faster frequencies.

    Calcified seaweed bucks the waves with joints. Typically attached to rocks in the surf, coralline algae earned their name because their fronds are calcified, like a coral. Compared with other intertidal algae, such as Mazzaella flaccida with its rubbery fronds, these hand-sized seaweeds look quite fragile. Actually, the opposite is true, Mark Denny, a biomechanist of Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, California, reported at the meeting. His team had previously found that Mazzaella can withstand a very powerful single wave, but not repeated battering. In contrast, the coralline alga Calliarthron cheilosporioides is "indefatigable," Denny says. He simulated an aquatic battering by gluing the algae to a computer-operated device that repeatedly pulled and released tension on it. The algae often lasted a million cycles before tearing apart and one specimen didn't break after 51 million pulls on it. The algae's secret: The fronds periodically have one-cell-thick joints where the cells are like cables—attached at the top and bottom to the calcified parts but not to each other. Thus, if one cell in a joint fails, the fatigue doesn't spread to the rest, Denny reported. This property may explain why coralline algae dominate the most wave-swept shores, he notes.