News this Week

Science  10 May 2013:
Vol. 340, Issue 6133, pp. 664
  1. Around the World

    1 - Puebla, Mexico
    Binational Telescope Begins Scientific Observations
    2 - Amsterdam
    Journals Adapt to U.S. Trade Sanctions on Iran
    3 - Bethesda, Maryland
    Seeking Sex Differences in Alzheimer's Disease

    Puebla, Mexico

    Binational Telescope Begins Scientific Observations

    Looking up.

    The LMT starts its first season next week.

    CREDIT: LUYTEN/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

    The Large Millimeter Telescope (LMT) in Puebla, Mexico, will begin its first scientific observation season next week. Perched on the summit of a 4600-meter dormant volcano called Sierra Negra, the LMT will study regions of star, galaxy, and planet formation that cannot be explored by optical telescopes.

    The LMT's 50-meter antenna makes it the largest single-dish, steerable millimeter-wavelength telescope in the world. Its wide field of view will complement the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA), a suite of 66 antennas inaugurated in March in Chile's northern desert. "To put what ALMA is seeing in context, it really helps to be able to image a much larger region in the same part of the sky" with the LMT, says Alison Peck, an astronomer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Virginia, who works on ALMA.

    The LMT is the result of a binational collaboration between the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in the United States and Mexico's National Institute of Astrophysics, Optics and Electronics, which provided about 70% of the telescope's approximately $180 million construction budget. The telescope's first observation season will last 10 weeks, with a second, longer season beginning in November. http://scim.ag/MexLMT

    Amsterdam

    Journals Adapt to U.S. Trade Sanctions on Iran

    Scientific journals are being asked to help tighten U.S. trade sanctions on Iran. On 30 April, the publishing behemoth Elsevier, based in the Netherlands, sent a note to its editorial network saying that U.S. editors and reviewers must "avoid" handling manuscripts if they include an author employed by the government of Iran. Under a policy that went into effect in March, even companies like Elsevier that are not based in the United States must prevent their U.S. personnel from interacting with the Iranian government.

    The sanctions, aimed at punishing Iran for its pursuit of nuclear technology, have been broadened from previous rules issued by the enforcement agency, the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), a division of the Treasury Department. According to a treasury official, OFAC still allows journals to publish articles authored by nongovernmental scientists from Iran and other sanctioned countries. But OFAC now insists that all U.S. citizens, no matter who employs them, comply with the sanctions. http://scim.ag/JournalsIran

    Bethesda, Maryland

    Seeking Sex Differences in Alzheimer's Disease

    Brain plan.

    A new challenge offers a prize for ideas to study gender differences in Alzheimer's.

    CREDIT: KBH/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

    The Foundation for the National Institutes of Health this week announced a $100,000 research challenge for proposals for research studies that reveal differences between males and females in the development of Alzheimer's disease. Women are twice as likely as men to develop Alzheimer's disease—at least in part because they live longer, says Meryl Comer, president of the Geoffrey Beene Foundation Alzheimer's Initiative, which is co-sponsoring the challenge. But other differences may contribute to that discrepancy, and "it's time to find out," she says. "To me this is the biggest women's issue since breast cancer."

    The challenge requires written proposals of hypotheses that include a "rationale supported by available data" and a detailed research plan. Half of the prize money will go to the winning hypothesis. The remaining $50,000 will be divided among up to five finalists whose hypotheses mined existing databases for potential clues (a particular goal of the challenge, Comer says). To receive the money, the awardees must also grant the initiative a nonexclusive license to move forward with the proposed research plans.

  2. Newsmakers

    Three Q's

    Gao

    CREDIT: COURTESY OF GEORGE F. GAO

    As deputy director-general of the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Beijing, microbiologist George F. Gao is in the trenches for the H7N9 avian influenza outbreak, which has killed 27 in China since March. Gao heads up a team of researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Key Laboratory of Pathogenic Microbiology and Immunology who have been studying the virus, with the goal of understanding how it compares to H5N1.

    Q:What are the challenges in controlling the virus's spread?

    G.G.:Because H7N9 has a low pathogenicity in domestic poultry and migratory birds, it's hard to identify which animals are carrying the virus—and difficult to implement prevention and control measures. And its real threat [in humans] has yet to be evaluated.

    Q:How will H7N9 affect other avian flu research?

    G.G.:The global scientific community has been talking about the potential threat avian influenza viruses pose to humans for a while, but no one ever even thought about anything like H7N9. This is the first time the N9 subtype has been seen to infect humans. That should remind us that everything is possible, and we need to stay open-minded. And with animal surveillance, we need to cover all the subtypes.

    Q:What should be done next?

    G.G.:First, scientists need to do transmissibility studies in ferrets or monkeys to confirm whether there is sustained mammal-to-mammal transmission of H7N9. Then we need to answer the question of how the virus binds to the human receptor. My lab is working on that now.

    Eugenie Scott to Step Down At Science Education Center

    Defender.

    Eugenie Scott stands outside the federal court where the Pennsylvania evolution case was heard.

    CREDIT: NCSE

    After 26 years, Eugenie Scott will let someone else shoulder the burden of defending evolution and climate change against the naysayers. The founding executive director and "public face" of the National Center for Science Education announced her retirement this week from a job that hasn't gotten any easier but perhaps has never been more important.

    "She's incomparable, irreplaceable, and indispensable," says Kenneth Miller, a biology professor at Brown University and a key figure in one of the center's most decisive victories, a 2005 court case that blunted an attack on evolution by the Dover, Pennsylvania, school district. He says that Scott was masterful at building the coalition needed to win the case.

    Trained as a physical anthropologist, Scott joined the fledgling organization based in Oakland, California, in 1987 and built it into a 15-person, $1.2 million-a-year operation. "I think all nonprofits hope someday to put themselves out of business," says Scott, now 67. "But these issues are like background radiation. Once you starting to look for the opponents, you'll find them."

    They Said It

    "The strength of … DSM has been 'reliability' – each edition has ensured that clinicians use the same terms in the same ways. The weakness is its lack of validity."

    —Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, in a 29 April blog on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). http://scim.ag/NIMHDSM

    Scientists Win for Low-Cost Innovations

    A pair of Rice University bioengineers who created a program in which students design low-cost health technologies for the developing world has earned the 2013 Lemelson-MIT Award for Global Innovation.

    Rebecca Richards-Kortum and Maria Oden established Beyond Traditional Borders in 2006. Students work with clinical partners to develop technologies and then field-test their ideas during an 8-week internship in Latin America or Africa. So far, the program's more than 3000 students have developed 58 health technologies that are in clinical trials or already in use, including a respiratory system based on aquarium pumps to help premature babies breathe and a portable field microscope that uses a battery-operated, LED-based flashlight as a light source. Richards-Kortum and Oden plan to donate the $100,000 prize money to renovate the neonatal ward of a partner hospital in Malawi.

  3. Random Sample

    Noted

    A proposed Nikola Tesla museum got a big boost last week: Thanks to a crowd-funding campaign by Tesla enthusiasts Friends of Science East Inc.—with big help from online comic Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal (Science, 31 August 2012, p. 1024)—the Friends have bought Wardenclyffe, Tesla's Shoreham, New York, laboratory. Next up: fundraisers to restore the lab and build a learning center.

    Jamestown Settlers Resorted to Cannibalism

    CREDIT: STUDIOEIS; PHOTO: DON HURLBERT, SMITHSONIAN (2)

    When settlers in the Jamestown, Virginia, colony ran out of food in the winter of 1609 to 1610, they ate horses, dogs, rats, snakes, shoes—and, some contemporary records suggested, each other. On 1 May, scientists revealed the first physical evidence of that survival cannibalism at the colonial fort: deep cuts carved into bones that once belonged to "Jane," a 14-year-old English girl. Her damaged skull and fragments of her tibia were found among the butchered remains of horses and dogs dated to the period, known as the "starving time." The extensive chop marks on the bones and their location among other food waste led anthropologists to conclude that Jane's facial muscles, tongue, and brain were eaten by the starving colonists after she died. Only 60 out of 300 Jamestown settlers survived the starving time, but the colony persisted to become the first permanent English settlement in North America. http://scim.ag/Jamescann

    Alien? Nope, Tiny Skeleton Is Human

    Otherworldly?

    X-rays show that Ata is no hoax. And its DNA shows it's no alien.

    CREDIT: COURTESY OF GARRY NOLAN (2)

    Ten years ago, a bizarre 6-inch-long skeleton was reportedly found in Chile's Atacama Desert. Rumors flew over what the skeleton was. (A mummified fetus? A deformed child?) Producers of a documentary called Sirius, which premiered last month, speculated that the mummy was evidence of alien life.

    Now, a Stanford University scientist has put to rest doubts about which species Ata belongs to: ours. Last fall, immunologist Garry Nolan, director of Stanford's National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute's Proteomics Center for Systems Immunology in California, heard about Ata from a friend and contacted the filmmakers, offering to give them a scientific readout. They asked him to give it a shot.

    Nolan sought clues in Ata's genome. Given the dryness of the Atacama Desert, he initially presumed the specimen was tens or hundreds of thousands of years old. But "the DNA was modern, abundant, and high quality," he says; Ata is probably a few decades old. And after mapping more than 500 million reads to a reference human genome, Nolan concluded that Ata "is human, there's no doubt about it." Moreover, the specimen's mitochondrial DNA reveals that its mother was from the west coast of South America: Chile, that is.

    X-rays revealed that Ata's skeletal development seems equivalent to that of a 6- to 8-year-old child. Genetic and bone marrow tests may determine whether Ata had dwarfism, or suffered from progeria, a rare, rapid aging disease. Once the analyses are complete, Nolan says, he'll submit his findings for peer review.

    Regardless, Ata is not an elaborate hoax, Nolan says: The x-rays show that these are real bones. "You just couldn't fake it," he says, adding, with a laugh, "unless you were an alien." http://scim.ag/6inchskel

    ScienceLive

    Join us on Thursday, 16 May, at 3 p.m. EDT for a live chat on bees and pesticides. Are these important pollinators in danger? http://scim.ag/science-live

  4. Pesticides Under Fire for Risks to Pollinators

    1. Erik Stokstad

    As the European Union moves to ban a popular type of pesticide, researchers struggle to assess exactly how dangerous the chemicals are to honey bees and other pollinators.

    Tagged.

    Radio chips have helped reveal how many bees lose their way after pesticide exposure.

    CREDIT: JUERGEN TAUTZ/BEEGROUP BIOZENTRUM UNIVERSITAET WUERZBURG/HOBOS-TEAM

    In April 2008, something went terribly wrong with beehives in southern Bavaria and the Upper Rhine Valley of Germany. Confused honey bees huddled trembling outside their hives rather than taking off for their morning flights. Many dropped dead. Over the next 2 weeks, the bodies piled up and more than 11,500 colonies were hit by the mysterious affliction. "It was a catastrophe," recalls Peter Rosenkranz, who studies bee health at the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart.

    Researchers quickly discovered the culprit: dust from seed corn that had been treated with a pesticide called clothianidin, one of the most toxic agrochemicals for honey bees. A seed company had neglected to use an adhesive to bind the pesticide to the seeds, so the farmers' planting equipment had been spewing dust that was extremely toxic to bees. Even though it was a rare mishap, the German government banned companies from coating corn and certain other seeds with clothianidin and two related pesticides.

    Clearing the air.

    Planting pesticide-coated seeds can release toxic dust that kills bees. A collaboration is working to reduce the amount released.

    CREDIT: JIM PEARSON/AP

    The event brightened the spotlight on the potential dangers of a family of pesticides called neonicotinoids. In 1999, France had banned one neonicotinoid, barring the use of imidacloprid on sunflower seeds after beekeepers suspected that it had killed a third of their colonies. Now, citing evidence from laboratory and field studies that neonicotinoids threaten honey bees and other pollinators, the European Union is poised to ban the use of three of the most common neonicotinoids in several crops by the end of the year. In the United States, beekeepers and environmental advocates are demanding that the government suspend its approval of two of these pesticides, and recently they sued the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), alleging that the agency hasn't adequately evaluated the chemicals.

    Even as European regulators act, however, scientists are divided on whether pollinators are exposed to enough of the pesticides to pose a grave threat to their colonies, in part because of a paucity of data and the challenges of doing rigorous field trials. Pesticide and seed companies maintain that their products are safe when used properly. And many scientists remain unconvinced that chronic exposure to doses typically encountered in farm fields is a leading cause of pollinator declines. "The jury is still out," says Marla Spivak of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

    There's also debate about just how vital the seed treatments are for agriculture. The pesticide industry has warned that restricting neonicotinoids will jeopardize food security and farm incomes. Some researchers, however, are underwhelmed by that claim (see sidebar, p. 675) and note that some data suggest that neonicotinoid use may offer little boost to yields.

    Dust-up

    Developed in the 1980s, neonicotinoids are a major new class of insecticides. The compounds mimic the toxic effects of nicotine, which tobacco plants use as a natural insecticide. Neonicotinoids block receptors for the neurotransmitter acetylcholine; high doses cause paralysis and death in insects. Because neonicotinoids bind more tightly to the insect version of the receptor, low doses are relatively safe for other animals, including mammals.

    EPA approved the use of a neonicotinoid called imidacloprid in 1994, and it has since become the most widespread insecticide in the world. Approved for use in about 140 crops and numerous garden and horticultural products, sales topped $1 billion in 2009. Clothianidin and several other neonicotinoids have been commercialized over the past decade.

    The most common use in agriculture is to coat seeds to protect them from soil pests. As the seed grows, it readily incorporates the compounds so that tender young plants are guarded as well. That means less pesticide is applied than if it was sprayed onto the plants. "It's a much more environmentally friendly way to apply a chemical," says David Fischer, director of environmental toxicology and risk assessment at Bayer CropScience in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, a major manufacturer of neonicotinoids.

    As use of neonicotinoids has grown, however, researchers have become concerned about their potential to harm birds, earthworms, aquatic insects, and especially bees. They have found traces of clothianidin and other seed-based pesticides in a large fraction of samples of dead honey bees from commercial beekeeping operations. "That's pretty astonishing" and "suggestive that the pesticides are related to the deaths," says Reed Johnson, an entomologist at Ohio State University's Agricultural Research and Development Center, Wooster. Honey bees and other pollinators can pick up the chemicals by feeding on nectar and pollen, or sipping on drops of liquid, called guttation, exuded by corn and other plants. The compounds are eventually fed to young bees back at the hive.

    There's no debate that high doses of neonicotinoids kill pollinators, and studies suggest that chronic or intermittent exposure to low doses can also cause trouble. Over the past 5 years, for example, a host of findings have indicated that low doses can trigger behavioral effects in honey bees, such as memory and learning, which could affect foraging. The big question facing researchers is how to extrapolate from lab studies on individual bees to evaluate the impact on entire colonies, which are quite resilient. "You can lose a lot of bees and the colony is able to maintain itself," says Dennis vanEngelsdorp of the University of Maryland, College Park.

    To study colony impacts, researchers have fed neonicotinoids to bees in colonies. But determining realistic doses experienced by bees is a sticky problem. Scientists don't know how much soil residue levels rise as fields are repeatedly planted with treated seeds. And homeowners can apply the pesticides at rates up to 120 times higher than farmers. "The actual exposure is likely higher than we think," Spivak says. New data could come soon: The United Kingdom's Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has funded David Goulson of the University of Stirling to measure pesticide concentrations more widely in the landscape, including soils, crops, flowers, and hedgerows.

    Smaller hives

    Some scientists have started to focus on bumblebees, suspecting that they may be more vulnerable than honey bees because their colonies are much smaller. "You can have quite a dramatic effect compared to honey bee colonies," Rosenkranz says. In a high-profile study, Goulson and colleagues fed bumblebees pollen and sugar water containing imidacloprid. After the bees foraged in the open for 6 weeks, the team found 85% fewer new queens in the colonies that had been exposed to the pesticide, they reported in Science (20 April 2012, p. 351). "To me, the evidence is pretty close to overwhelming" that exposure has big impacts, Goulson says.

    Scientists with DEFRA, however, objected. Goulson's doses were unrealistically high and thus "biased towards showing a deleterious effect," they wrote in a review paper posted on the DEFRA Web site in March. Helen Thompson of DEFRA and others tried to resolve the question with a field study of 20 bumblebee colonies, some placed in fields of canola planted from treated seeds and others in fields of untreated canola. Unfortunately, the control failed; the bumblebees put into untreated canola had collected just as much clothianidin or imidacloprid in their nests, probably by flying to other fields. Nevertheless, DEFRA concluded in March that the neonicotinoids did not have any major effect on the hives. To James Cresswell of the University of Exeter, the bottom line is that it's difficult to conduct a rigorous field trial.

    Diverse.

    Neonicotinoid-treated seeds are used in many crops, including soybeans, cotton, rice, and peanuts. Color serves as a warning.

    CREDIT: COURTESY OF SYNGENTA

    Still, others are trying. One of the largest field studies, a $950,000 effort funded by Bayer CropScience, started last summer in Ontario. A team led by Cynthia Scott-Dupree of the University of Guelph and Chris Cutler of Dalhousie University placed 20 colonies of honey bees in fields of blooming canola that had been planted with seed treated with the maximum approved dosage of clothianidin. Another 20 colonies were put in fields without treated seed, at least 10 km away. "This was our most complicated bee study to date," says Fischer, adding that, so far, there are no significant differences between the colonies.

    Complex mixtures

    These results are unlikely to exonerate neonicotinoids once and for all, others say. One limitation is that the farms of southern Ontario are smaller and more diverse than in places such as the midwestern United States, where bees have fewer alternatives to neonicotinoid-treated crops. Another complication is that the effect of neonicotinoids may be exacerbated by additional threats. For example, Jeffery Pettis of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Bee Research Laboratory and others have recently shown that neonicotinoids increase the risk that honey bees will contract viruses and a deadly microbial disease.

    In addition, honey bees are exposed to many other chemicals. In a report released last week, EPA and USDA noted that insecticides called pyrethroids may pose a threefold greater hazard than systemic neonicotinoids. And those aren't all. James Frazier of Pennsylvania State University, University Park, has studied commercial colonies that are trucked around the country to pollinate various crops. He found an average of more than six pesticides in pollen samples from the hives, with some containing as many as 30 chemicals. The situation may worsen over time because honey bee combs accumulate pesticides, which, according to a 2011 study, can hinder larval development. The highest concentrations were of pesticides called acaricides that beekeepers use to fight a parasitic mite called Varroa destructor, which scientists say is the biggest threat to honey bee colonies. The dilemma is that without acaricides, mites will usually destroy colonies.

    Not much is known about the impact of these pesticide mixtures, but they appear to spell trouble. A study online in Nature in October found a cumulative impact from a neonicotinoid and a pyrethroid. Ohio State's Johnson and colleagues reported in PLOS ONE in January that certain acaricides and fungicides were more toxic to adult worker bees in combination, probably because fungicides inhibit the detoxifying enzyme cytochrome P450.

    Another factor that may worsen the impact of pesticides is the way that people manage commercial beehives. Beekeepers often feed their insects high-fructose corn syrup to boost their activity. But that may hinder their ability to cope with pesticides, May Berenbaum of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and colleagues reported last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. She found that honey (but not sucrose or corn syrup) contains naturally occurring compounds that up-regulate genes for detoxification. Adding one such compound, p-coumaric acid, to the sugar water fed to bees increased the bee's breakdown of a common acaricide by about 60%.

    One of the biggest unknowns facing neonicotinoid researchers is the impact on solitary bees, hiveless insects which are the least well-known kind of bee. North America has some 4000 species, which typically nest in the ground and are therefore likely exposed to pesticide residues in soil as well as in nectar and pollen. The bees have short lives and many are impossible to breed in the lab. "It is incredibly difficult to do research on solitary bees," Rosenkranz says.

    Europe acts

    Despite such uncertainties, Europe is moving quickly to further tighten its regulations. After the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) released a report in January concluding that neonicotinoids posed "high acute risks" to pollinators, some governments proposed a partial ban in the European Union. The bid failed, however, in a vote of member nations. But as a result of parliamentary procedures, the European Commission was free to act on its own. It decreed that, starting in December, farmers won't be able to plant seeds treated with clothianidin, imidacloprid, or thiamethoxam, nor spray the chemicals on crops preferred by bees. There will be exceptions for use in greenhouses and on fields after flowering.

    The EFSA review underpinning that decision was "hurried, incomplete and failed to take into account years of field monitoring, mitigation efforts, real-life applications and sound scientific studies," complained Syngenta, which makes thiamethoxam, in a statement.

    In the United States, EPA is slowly changing its process for evaluating neonicotinoids based on recommendations from a scientific advisory panel. The agency says that it is asking companies for new field studies and toxicity tests of honey bee larvae; some studies must now include measurements of residues over several years. But the pace is measured. "While EPA's risk assessment framework for pollinators provides a roadmap that will eventually result in agency-approved guideline studies for pollinators, the work is very challenging," the agency said in a statement to Science. Another reason for patience: EPA won't complete its regular review of all the neonicotinoids until 2019.

    In the meantime, industry scientists and academics are working to reduce the amount of neonicotinoid dust released by planting coated seeds. Bayer CropScience has commissioned researchers at three universities to test a seed mixture with a better lubricant that appears to reduce planting dust by 90%, says William Hairston, a director of product development in Research Triangle Park. The new formulation should be available to farmers next year.

    And researchers continue to try to understand how the increasingly widespread chemicals are affecting ecosystems. "It's been likened to living in a house with asbestos or drinking water from lead pipes" says Christian Krupke of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. Neonicotinoids, he says, "deserve the scrutiny they're getting."

  5. How Big a Role Should Neonicotinoids Play in Food Security?

    1. Erik Stokstad

    Proponents of neonicotinoid-treated seeds claim that the chemicals offer many benefits, but how important are they for agriculture?

    Steady.

    Farmers kept yields after France banned neonicotinoid-treated seeds.

    GRAPH: ADAPTED FROM: L. MAXIM, J. VAN DER SLUIJS, IN "LATE LESSONS FROM EARLY WARNINGS: SCIENCE, PRECAUTION, INNOVATION," EUROPEAN ENVIRONMENT AGENCY, ED. (EUROPEAN ENVIRONMENT AGENCY, REPORT NO 1/2013, COPENHAGEN, 2013), CH. 16, P. 417; PHOTO: M. HENRY ET AL., SCIENCE 336, (20 APRIL 2012)

    Proponents of neonicotinoid-treated seeds claim that the chemicals offer many benefits besides killing pests, including improved plant vigor and higher yields. The business itself has certainly boomed. Almost all the corn and about one-half of the soybeans in the United States are grown from insecticide-treated seeds. "The companies are marketing them aggressively," says Paul Mitchell, an agricultural economist who studies pest management at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

    But how important are neonicotinoid seed treatments for agriculture? Agronomist Palle Pedersen, technology manager for seed care at Syngenta, says that treated corn seed produces an extra 9 bushels an acre above a national average of about 160. "We've seen a dramatic yield increase," he says. But researchers studying soybeans and other major crops have found treated seeds can come up short.

    A 2-year trial of treated soybeans in South Dakota, for example, found no yield benefit. Insecticide concentration in the plants was too low by the time the major pest, aphids, arrived, according to a study published last year in the Journal of Pest Science by Jonathan Lundgren of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Brookings, South Dakota. He says that his findings mirror those of other trials. A worrying postscript: The neonicotinoids also harmed predators of the aphids, such as omnivorous pirate bugs (which feed on the soybean plant itself as well as aphids). Pedersen isn't convinced. "It's such a small data set, we can't draw a conclusion out of that."

    Companies say that they have copious data to prove the efficacy of treated seeds. "Admittedly, they do not increase yield all of the time, but the larger body of data says that they do provide an increase in yield a high percentage of time," says William Hairston, director of product development for seed growth at Bayer CropScience in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. Few of these data are peer-reviewed, however, and some scientists are skeptical, saying that the trials often combine insecticide with fungicides, which are known to help prevent losses from disease.

    Another reason that some scientists debate the overall value of the seed treatments is that the pests they target—such as wireworms, Japanese beetles, and seed corn maggots—are rarely major problems, or are already resisted by genetically modified crops. Still, with sky-high commodity prices, farmers don't want to risk lower yields, and want to guard against any potential pests. "The price of corn is so high, it's peace of mind," says entomologist Reed Johnson of Ohio State University's Agricultural Research and Development Center, Wooster.

    Entomologist Christian Krupke of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, says that neonicotinoids are good tools, but overused. "They do not need to be on virtually every annual crop seed, every year," he says. "Our pest pressures do not justify the practice in fields that I and others have examined."

  6. Genetic Disease

    China Heads Off Deadly Blood Disorder

    1. Mara Hvistendahl

    To combat the spread of thalassemia, a Chinese province screens millions.

    Fresh blood.

    Many thalassemia patients need monthly transfusions to stay alive.

    CREDIT: MARA HVISTENDAHL

    NANNING, CHINA—The boy calmly sits on his hospital bed, slurping down a bowl of noodles, as new blood courses into his veins. He is by all appearances a normal 7-year-old, more interested in the cartoon blaring on TV than in his food. But without monthly transfusions and other treatments, the boy's life would be vastly different. Iron would build up in his blood. "The face changes color, and the liver and spleen become enlarged," says Chen Ping, a hematologist here at Guangxi Medical University. "Only regular blood transfusions make him like a regular child," she says. The boy has β-thalassemia, a potentially fatal genetic disorder that hampers the body's ability to produce hemoglobin.

    To his parents, the boy's illness was initially confounding. Neither of his older siblings has the condition that locals call daduzai, or "big tummy child." The nickname belies the severity of the illness, which manifests soon after birth and claims its victims swiftly. Daduzai is found throughout southern China, but in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, which borders Vietnam, it is a particularly terrifying threat. Roughly one in five people in Guangxi carry a gene for one of the recessive thalassemia blood disorders; 5% of residents have a gene for a β-thalassemia disorder. Among that subset are the boy's parents. But they didn't realize that they are carriers, which meant that any child they conceived had a one in four chance of developing the disease.

    Worldwide, an estimated 63,000 children a year are born with β-thalassemia, most of them in Southeast Asia and the Mediterranean. The exact number of cases in China is not known. But it is clear that the disease strains health resources: In addition to monthly transfusions, patients may need regular iron chelation therapy through pills or a mechanical pump. Treating a baby costs up to $4900 a year, with fees increasing as the child grows. (Patients have been cured with stem cell transplantation, but the high cost and scarcity of suitable donors puts it out of reach for most people.) To avoid having a baby with thalassemia, couples in endemic areas may undergo prenatal screening and abort fetuses with two copies of the gene.

    To ease the disease burden, the Chinese government has embarked on a comprehensive prevention program featuring population screening, prenatal diagnosis, and genetic research funding. The goal is to do as well as a program in Cyprus that reduced β-thalassemia incidence from 1 per 158 births in the 1970s to close to zero today. "We want to reach every couple," says Zhang Xue, a medical geneticist at Peking Union Medical College and the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences (CAMS) in Beijing who is involved with the Chinese initiative.

    Combating the disease in Guangxi, one of China's poorest provinces, could prove challenging. The mountainous region is inhabited by nearly a dozen ethnic minorities spanning a range of cultures and languages. Thalassemia is a particular problem for the Zhuang, Guangxi's largest minority group. Their insularity contributes to the disease's persistence, says Chen Lili, director of maternal and child health for Guangxi provincial health department: "There is a lot of intermarriage."

    Researchers at Guangxi Medical University and CAMS first performed prenatal diagnosis here for α-thalassemia in 1983, and for β-thalassemia in 1987. Chen Lili, like most others in the health professions, was not familiar with the disorder in the 1980s when she was a young doctor. She was educated in an awful way: assisting on a birth in which thalassemia killed both the mother and baby.

    Back in the 1980s, attempting to combat a genetic disease like thalassemia was thought to be too costly. But by 2010, simple testing technologies available in the wake of the Human Genome Project made community genetics possible, Zhang says. That year, the Chinese government set three targets for Guangxi by 2015: Reduce the severe thalassemia birth rate by 50%, screen all newlyweds and pregnant women, and train more than 10,000 health professionals to recognize genetic diseases. The provincial and central governments have so far spent more than $80.7 million on the drive. Guangxi health officials say that from 2010 until now, they have screened 4.2 million people in a population of 46.1 million.

    Maintaining that momentum will be key. A similarly ambitious program in Thailand has faltered for lack of political will, says Suthat Fucharoen, a hematologist at Mahidol University in Bangkok. In 2006, Thailand screened all pregnant women for the disease. But then the health department changed hands and the program effectively ended. Today, Fucharoen says, "We have no data." Getting thalassemia under control in China, he adds, will require strong central government support after the allotted 5 years and an educational campaign reaching beyond Guangxi and neighboring provinces. "In 5 to 10 years they may have very good results in southern China," Fucharoen says.

    Cypriot model, Chinese characteristics

    In the late 1960s, chemist and Nobel laureate Linus Pauling suggested that carriers of genetic diseases like thalassemia refrain from marrying—and, to ward off genetically risky love affairs, tattoo their DNA status on their forehead. Taking on thalassemia in the 1970s, Cyprus didn't go quite that far. But the island introduced universal testing, intended to prevent marriage between carriers, along with prenatal screening once it became available. Because screening is often linked to abortion—and the island's influential Orthodox Christian church opposes abortion—some observers were surprised by the program's success. But the emphasis on avoiding rather than terminating pregnancy, as well as a significant cost reduction, earned the church's support, says anthropologist Stefan Beck at Humboldt University of Berlin: "The whole public health care system was nearly collapsing under the burden of treating patients."

    Chinese officials and researchers made several trips to Cyprus beginning in 2002, culminating in a visit by Guangxi governor Ma Biao in 2010. "We learned from their experience," Chen Lili says. Today, those lessons are in evidence at the marriage registration center for Nanning's Xingning district, where a sign outside advertises a "one-stop service center." Before registering to marry, residents can visit a cheerily lit room decorated in pink for free thalassemia and HIV screening. A poster hanging on the wall shows cartoon figures of a man and woman in Zhuang traditional dress, depicting scenarios should they carry the thalassemia gene and conceive a child.

    Prenatal screening is done across town at First Affiliated Hospital of Guangxi Medical University, which is upgrading a lab dedicated to hemoglobin disorders. A next-generation DNA sequencer will help researchers there hunt for new mutations. Recent advances in prenatal diagnosis and gene therapy make this a promising time to conduct research, says Chen Ping, who heads up the lab. A successful gene therapy in a β-thalassemia patient in 2007 led to ongoing clinical trials in France and the United States (Science, 11 December 2009, p. 1468).

    Some cultural barriers that initially challenged the Cypriot program are absent in China. Decades of the one-child policy here have accustomed citizens to state involvement in marriage and childbearing, Beck notes. According to the provincial health department, Guangxi has slashed its rate of birth defects from 21.648 per 1000 births in 2008 to 12.79 in 2011—a drop Chen Lili attributes to the prevention program, under which 12,800 cases of severe thalassemia have been diagnosed in utero.

    Screening will ultimately be offered across southern China. And next year, Chinese researchers hope to start training doctors from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam with an eye toward replicating the program in Southeast Asia. Ultimately, scientists hope the effort will inspire screening programs targeting other genetic conditions, including sickle cell disease. "If we can develop a more robust, simpler, and cheaper method for carrier screening and prenatal diagnosis," Zhang says, "that will be a good public service."

  7. Tohoku Disaster

    Insistence on Gathering Real Data Confirms Low Radiation Exposures

    1. Dennis Normile

    The massive evacuation and strict monitoring of food appear to have successfully limited the amount of radiocesium ingested by Fukushima residents.

    Hard numbers.

    Instead of estimates based on plots of cesium deposition, University of Tokyo physicist Ryugo Hayano (inset) led an effort to measure internal exposures.

    CREDITS: ADAPTED FROM THE MINISTRY OF EDUCATION; (INSET) D. NORMILE/SCIENCE

    TOKYO—As the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant was unfolding in March 2011, Ryugo Hayano started posting Twitter observations about radioactive releases. Gradually, the University of Tokyo particle physicist found himself drawn deeper into a debate over the exposure of area residents. Disappointed that authorities were not providing hard facts, Hayano began testing school lunches for radiocesium, the most abundant radionuclide in the environment around Fukushima, and measuring how much of the radionuclide local residents might be absorbing by eating contaminated food. Last month, he and his colleagues reported finding no detectable radiocesium in recently tested children and minimal levels in adults, suggesting that efforts to keep the food supply safe are working.

    The findings are drawing both praise and criticism. Goshi Hosono, a politician who was the minister for the government's nuclear accident recovery efforts from mid-2011 until last fall, tweeted, "Thank you for writing the paper," to Hayano, and praised the team's objectivity. Skeptics are unimpressed. "They are missing the cesium level in the body because the detection limit [of the whole body counter] is high and we do not know how cesium in the body affects health," says Atsuhito Ennyu, a geochemist who has been active in citizen efforts to monitor Fukushima fallout throughout the country.

    Hayano takes compliments and complaints in stride. "I've asked myself many times, ‘Why am I doing this?’" he says with a wide grin. Others are happy to answer that question for him. "The government and the experts in this field lost people's trust due to their lackluster performance after the accident," says Nobuhiko Ban, a radiation protection specialist at Tokyo Healthcare University. By contrast, "Hayano has earned a reputation as an unbiased and conscientious scientist," Ban says. "Hayano recognized that what was important was to measure individual doses so residents personally understood their situation," adds Masaharu Tsubokura, a University of Tokyo medical doctor who works at a hospital near the Fukushima plant.

    Hayano is an unlikely hero. Since 1997, he has led the ASACUSA antimatter experiment at CERN, the European laboratory for particle physics. His work on antiprotonic helium atoms netted him the 2008 Nishina Memorial Prize, Japan's most prestigious physics award. He never expected to become an expert in radiation studies. Launching one initiative after another in Fukushima, Hayano says, "I kept thinking that someone better qualified to do this will show up and take over."

    On the road.

    Solar-powered monitors track radiation near Soma City schools.

    CREDIT: R. HAYANO

    When the Japanese government declared a nuclear emergency on 11 March 2011, about 5 hours after the earthquake, Hayano started keeping an eye on online radiation data streaming from a monitor near the Fukushima power plant. On 12 March, a hydrogen gas explosion rocked one of the reactor buildings. Early the next morning, Hayano tweeted a simple graph showing how radiation spiked at the time of the blast. He started posing questions to educate his Twitter followers: "Why does cesium emit gamma rays?" And, "How do you measure internal radiation?" He would note the correct answer and add a bit of explanation. Within less than a week, he went from 3000 to 150,000 followers.

    The education process worked both ways. From his followers, Hayano picked up on concerns about contamination in school lunches, despite government assurances that radioactivity in all food going to market was under 100 becquerels per kilogram, a more conservative threshold than most countries. With the cooperation of Minamisoma, a city straddling the evacuation zone north of the stricken plant, Hayano once a week since January 2012 has had everything from a lunch tray at a grade school and at a nursery school thrown into a blender and tested in a highly sensitive detector, rarely finding samples exceeding 1 becquerel per kilogram. At first, Hayano shelled out for the testing himself, spending about $3000 in 3 months until a government grant kicked in. Twitter followers started sending contributions, as much as $1000, which he has used to "cover everything I do in Fukushima."

    Even before his school lunch program, Hayano's tweets were attracting the attention of Fukushima area physicians. Since the disaster, Tsubokura has been volunteering twice a week at Minamisoma City General Hospital, which was left short-handed when doctors and nurses fled the region. In summer 2011, they started measuring radiation in concerned residents. But the results were strange, Tsubokura says. With Hayano's help, they figured out that the whole body counters the hospital was using were not shielded from background radiation.

    After getting testing programs in shape, Hayano and his collaborators gathered internal exposure data for more than 32,000 Fukushima residents. Their report, published online on 11 April in the Proceedings of the Japan Academy, Series B, indicates that none of the 10,200 children under age 15 who were given individual whole body scans at a hospital with the most advanced, shielded counters between May and November 2012 had detectable radiocesium in their bodies. (The tests focused on cesium-137, which has a half-life of 30 years. Another isotope also released from the Fukushima reactors, cesium-134, has a half-life of about 2 years.) Only four adults had levels that would cause worrisome annual radiation doses. The researchers traced the radiocesium in those adults to wild mushrooms and wild boar meat they had obtained themselves, bypassing mandatory testing of food sold in markets.

    "The result was not totally unexpected," Ban says. Internal exposure data gathered by Fukushima Prefecture authorities, for example, also suggest that radiocesium ingestion is low but do not provide individual doses in becquerels or note the number of subjects below the detection limit. "Data in Hayano's paper are given as a cesium concentration in the body, which is more straightforward and precisely interpreted," Ban says. Hayano's monitoring, adds Peter Hill, a radiation health expert at Forschungszentrum Jülich in Germany, "provides information on the real situation" that will help validate models and dose estimates. Indeed, they may influence a draft report on Fukushima for the U.N. Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation due later this month. Hayano's results provide "some necessary initial data that allowed me to assess public internal doses," says Mikhail Balonov, a radiation protection specialist at the Institute of Radiation Hygiene in St. Petersburg, Russia.

    Hayano's reassuring findings may be welcomed by governmental leaders, but he is still critical of their handling of the disaster's aftermath. Virtually every Fukushima resident now wears a personal dosimeter that measures external exposure to environmental radiation. But internal and external exposure data are not being combined to assess total individual doses because of incompatible databases and privacy concerns, Hayano says. Merging the data sets would not only give a more complete picture of individual exposures, he says, but it would also be useful for the international community in studying exposure risk and preparing for future accidents.

    Hayano would also like to see exposure data used to prioritize decontamination as authorities move toward allowing evacuees to return home. He has set an example here as well. Hayano and Soma City officials identified about 100 children with the highest external exposures, based on personal dosimeter data. They then placed in their homes custom-made radiation monitors that plug into wall sockets. Data are transmitted to a central station over mobile phone lines. They also set up solar-powered monitoring stations along the roads children take to school. With radioactive surveillance in place, they can measure the effectiveness of clean-up efforts such as washing buildings, trimming trees, and scraping off topsoil. Identifying individuals who receive elevated doses, and decontaminating their homes and surroundings, should lead to a step-by-step reduction in community exposures. At a talk here last month in Tokyo, Hayano called the current untargeted approach to decontamination "silly" and, turning to Hikariko Ono, a deputy chief cabinet secretary who was in the audience, told her "this is something the government has to work on." Ono later said she would take the matter up with aides to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

    In the meantime, Hayano is using his ingenuity to fill another data gap. Using tracking data from mobile phone companies, he is estimating acute exposure doses of people in areas subjected to radiation plumes before evacuations were carried out. And he has assembled a team to design a scanner for babies—to provide peace of mind for parents, he says. But Hayano is also looking to wrap up his involvement, so that he can concentrate once again on antimatter physics. After the baby scanner is finished, he says, "I can say I've done enough."

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