News this Week

Science  09 May 2014:
Vol. 344, Issue 6184, pp. 562

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  1. Around the World

    1 - Munster, Indiana
    MERS Reaches United States
    2 - Geneva, Switzerland
    WHO: Polio an International Emergency
    3 - London
    Ax for Animal Research 'Secrecy Clause'?
    4 - Los Angeles, California
    UCLA Returns Sterling Foundation Gift
    5 - Washington, D.C.
    Climate Change Impacts Widespread in U.S.
    6 - Geneva, Switzerland
    Drug Resistance Overview Paints Grim Picture
    7 - Georgia
    New Orthopoxvirus Discovered
    8 - Tokyo
    RIKEN Pushes for Plagiarism Checks

    Munster, Indiana

    MERS Reaches United States

    MERS coronavirus CREDIT: NIAID

    A deadly new virus that emerged on the Arabian peninsula in 2012 has reached the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced on 2 May that an infection with Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) virus had been confirmed in a patient in Community Hospital in Munster, Indiana. The man is a health care worker and had been in Riyadh days before he started experiencing fever, coughing, and shortness of breath. He is in stable condition, according to hospital officials.

    Health authorities are tracing any people who may have had contact with the patient. The man took a flight from Riyadh to London on 24 April and then on to Chicago. From Chicago he traveled to Indiana by bus. Hospital staff members who cared for the patient before the MERS infection was identified have been quarantined at home as a precaution, but the virus does not transmit easily from one person to the next. Travelers have exported MERS to nine other countries, including Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and Malaysia. Most of these patients did not infect anyone else.

    Geneva, Switzerland

    WHO: Polio an International Emergency

    The World Health Organization (WHO) on 5 May declared the spread of wild poliovirus a public health emergency of international concern, saying the recent export of polio from three countries to adjoining areas could threaten global efforts to eradicate the disease. This is just the second time that such an emergency has been declared under the International Health Regulations adopted in 2005; the first was during the H1N1 swine flu pandemic in April 2009.

    WHO issued recommendations for travel—which are not legally binding but carry tremendous weight—for the three countries deemed to pose the greatest risk of further spread: Pakistan, Cameroon, and Syria. These countries must ensure that all residents and long-term visitors have proof of recent polio vaccination before leaving the country. WHO is encouraging seven other nations where polio is circulating to implement similar measures. These measures should continue until at least 6 months after any reported case of wild poliovirus.

    The Emergency Committee of the International Health Regulations will meet again in 3 months to reassess the situation and decide whether tougher measures are needed.


    Ax for Animal Research 'Secrecy Clause'?

    No secrets here.

    The U.K. is reconsidering its animal research confidentiality rules.


    The United Kingdom has proposed lifting outdated confidentiality rules that ban the release of information about animal research in the country, including about people or places applying for animal testing licenses and inspection visit reports. Section 24 of the 1986 Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act is "out of step with [government] policy on openness and transparency," said Home Office Minister Norman Baker in a public consultation launched on 1 May.

    Animal rights groups and researchers using animals have praised the proposal. Chris Magee, head of policy at the pressure group Understanding Animal Research in London, says that withholding information does not help scientists, because it leaves a "vacuum that activists can fill in with misleading information."

    The public consultation closes on 13 June; the government says it will then "work quickly" to analyze the comments and propose a final option.

    Los Angeles, California

    UCLA Returns Sterling Foundation Gift


    The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), has rejected a $3 million, 7-year pledge to support basic kidney research from a foundation founded by Donald Sterling, the disgraced owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team. The university also returned Sterling's initial $425,000 gift.

    The university's 29 April decision came the same day the National Basketball Association banned Sterling for life for making "deeply offensive" remarks about African-Americans.

    "Mr. Sterling's divisive and hurtful comments demonstrate that he does not share UCLA's core values as a public university that fosters diversity, inclusion and respect," said UCLA spokeswoman Carol Stogsdill in a statement.

    Washington, D.C.

    Climate Change Impacts Widespread in U.S.

    Dry heat.

    New report documents climate impacts.


    The impacts of climate change are appearing from sea to shining sea, says a major new report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program. The third official National Climate Assessment (NCA), released 6 May, says t hat Americans face "wide-ranging impacts in every region of our country and throughout our economy."

    The report's 30 chapters cover a variety of regions, sectors, and industries. On adapting to a changing climate, the report says: "[P]lanning is occurring in the public and private sectors and at all levels of government; however, few measures have been implemented." Previous iterations of the NCA have received little fanfare in Washington, but the White House has embraced this report, including giving a series of television interviews with President Barack Obama to TV meteorologists in hopes of advancing his climate agenda.

    Geneva, Switzerland

    Drug Resistance Overview Paints Grim Picture

    The World Health Organization (WHO) presented its first-ever global attempt to assess the spread of drug resistance on 30 April—and the results are sobering. "Without urgent, coordinated action by many stakeholders, the world is headed for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades can once again kill," wrote Keiji Fukuda, WHO's assistant director-general for health security, in a press statement.

    The study presents some data on drugs against influenza, HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria, but it focuses on seven common bacteria and nine classes of drugs used to treat them—for instance, fluoroquinolones to treat Escherichia coli, which can cause urinary tract or bloodstream infections. The report finds high rates of resistance for some of the bacteria almost everywhere.

    The new report confirms what doctors around the world are experiencing daily. "We see horrendous rates of antibiotic resistance wherever we look in our field operations," said Jennifer Cohn, medical director of the Access Campaign at Doctors Without Borders, in a written statement issued on 30 April. "Ultimately, WHO's report should be a wake-up call to governments to introduce incentives for industry to develop new, affordable antibiotics."


    New Orthopoxvirus Discovered


    Cattle herdsmen in Georgia were infected with a yet-unnamed orthopoxvirus.


    Scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta have found a distant cousin of the smallpox virus in two cattle herdsmen in northeast Georgia. The new pathogen—which hasn't been named yet—was presented on 1 May at a conference of the CDC's Epidemic Intelligence Service.

    The men had appeared at a local clinic with skin lesions and were initially suspected to have a cowpox infection. But researchers at CDC—which has a country office in Georgia—found a new virus in a skin swab from one of the patients, says disease ecologist Darin Carroll, who led the study. Blood tests later showed that several other herdsmen had antibodies to an orthopoxvirus—presumably the same one. Wood mice and voles are the virus's most likely animal hosts, Carroll says.

    The smallpox vaccine offers protection against related viruses as well, and researchers have long thought they might see an uptick in human orthopoxvirus infections after smallpox was eradicated and vaccination worldwide was halted in 1980; so far, there is little evidence of that happening.


    RIKEN Pushes for Plagiarism Checks

    Shock waves emanating from allegations of image manipulation and plagiarism in two stem cell papers published in Nature this past January continue to ripple through RIKEN, the Japanese institute at the center of the on going controversy. Last week, local media reported that questions have arisen about images in research papers published by three more members of a RIKEN committee charged with investigating the Nature papers. The news came a week after RIKEN announced it would investigate allegations of image manipulation in papers published by Shunsuke Ishii, who resigned as chair of the investigating committee on 25 April (Science, 2 May, p. 454).

    Now, the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper is reporting that RIKEN President Ryoji Noyori has asked all laboratory and research group leaders to check all of their previous publications for doctored images and plagiarism. The newspaper quotes an unnamed RIKEN official as saying the directive covers at least 20,000 publications. There was no indication of a deadline for completing the reviews.

  2. Random Sample

    Nosing Out a Long-Snouted Tyrannosaur


    In the 1970s, a relatively small, long-nosed dinosaur was discovered in Mongolia. Some paleontologists claimed it was an unusual member of the tyrannosaurid family (which includes the mighty Tyrannosaurus rex). Others were skeptical.

    Then, in 2009, paleontologists published details of a similar specimen, also found in Mongolia. As both specimens were juveniles, researchers speculated that the long noses might just be a growth phase the animals passed through on their way to becoming typical tyrannosaurids, with tall, deep skulls and crushing jaws and teeth.

    Now, a newly discovered adult specimen, described this week in Nature Communications (artist's reconstruction), might quiet the skeptics. Long-nosed Qianzhousaurus sinensis lived about 66 million years ago, at the same time as the much larger T. rex. Because the new dino was found in China's Jiangxi province—more than 3000 kilometers from the Mongolian specimens—the team concludes that long-nosed tyrannosaurids were not a fluke, but a major group of dinosaurs with a wide geographical distribution.

    NIH Disease Funding Scrutinized


    How the National Institutes of Health (NIH) sets priorities is getting new attention from Senate and House of Representatives appropriations committees—and a new report requested by the chair of the House panel that funds NIH is providing fodder for the claims of many patient advocacy groups that their disease is being shortchanged. For example, Alzheimer's disease killed more Americans than diabetes in 2011, but received only half the level of NIH funding.

    NIH officials defend their current practices by saying the funding levels reflect scientific opportunity, the burden of disease, and global as well as national public health needs. That is particularly illustrated by funding for AIDS, the sixth biggest cause of death globally but not in the top 10 domestically. Its NIH budget is nearly $3 billion, six times that of Alzheimer's even though Alzheimer's claims 10 times more lives in the United States.

    Wanted: A Bug Spit Robot


    A new malaria vaccine candidate looks promising in trials, but producing it is a nightmare because it grows in mosquito saliva. Now, the company behind it is crowd funding the development of a robot that can tease apart the insects and harvest their tiny salivary glands.

    The vaccine, named PfSPZ and produced by Sanaria in Rockville, Maryland, consists of sporozoites, a type of parasitic cell that develops in infected mosquitoes. Skilled humans can dissect the salivary glands of about 150 bugs an hour—not nearly enough for mass production (Science, 9 August 2013, p. 605). Now, Sanaria, working with Harvard University's Biorobotics Lab, is developing a "SporoBot" to automate the tedious task; it's asking for $250,000 on to assemble a prototype from several already working parts (shown). Rewards include mugs, T-shirts, lab tours, and—if you chip in $50,000—a trip to a trial site in Africa.

  3. Newsmakers

    Three Q's


    The immensely popular CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory revolves around a gang of physicists and an engineer who work at the California Institute of Technology. Science caught up with University of California, Los Angeles, astrophysicist David Saltzberg, who's been the show's one and only science consultant since it premiered, at last week's USA Science & Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C.


    Q:Science last spoke with you in 2008 (Science, 9 May 2008, p. 740). What's changed about the show's portrayal of science since you started?

    D.S.:The writers and I used to have to go back and forth a lot more for me to converge on what they wanted. But now … we're a little bit like an old married couple.

    The whiteboards the characters use for equations have changed into something where real scientists pitch me their latest results and ask if they can appear on them. It's sort of become a thing to get on the whiteboards. … The big discovery of gravitational waves, which indicated cosmological inflation, got a special place. It appeared on Stephen Hawking's board, which of course is a much higher level than our main characters' boards.

    Q:Why do you think it's important to throw in recent events?

    D.S.:It's the creative call of the writers. But these physicists live in our universe, so this would be something they would talk about.

    Q:Do you plan to see The Big Bang Theory through to the end?

    D.S.:Yup. Maybe like the universe, there will be no end though.

    Biotech Industry Vet Tapped to Head Stem Cell Institute

    Mills CREDIT: CIRM

    The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has revealed its choice for president: former biotech CEO Randy Mills. The 30 April announcement confirmed predictions that the $3 billion agency would turn to someone from the private sector as it tries to move research to the clinic and faces an uncertain financial future.

    During his 10 years at Columbia, Maryland–based Osiris Therapeutics, Mills oversaw a historic first: drug approval (from Canadian regulators) for a stem cell treatment for complications from bone marrow transplants. "We need something like that to happen with some of our projects," says Jeff Sheehy, a CIRM board member and HIV patient advocate.

    CIRM was created through a 2004 California ballot initiative and is funded through bond sales, but that funding is set to run out in 2017. Mills may help cultivate partnerships with potential industry funders, says Michael May, CEO of the Centre for Commercialization and Regenerative Medicine in Toronto, Canada, who served on a 2012 panel reviewing CIRM's structure and policies. Mills will replace Alan Trounson, who announced last October that he would step down to be closer to his family in Australia.

  4. Maritime Ambitions

    1. Mara Hvistendahl

    As China builds a modern armada, it is pouring money into underwater archaeology and rewriting the history of its early exploits on the high seas.

    Rock the boat.

    China raised the Song dynasty–era Nanhai 1 from the sea floor intact. A lavish new museum houses the wreck.


    HAILING ISLAND, CHINA—Even as Marco Polo was making his epic journey to the Far East in the late 13th century, Chinese seafarers were striking out in the opposite direction along seaways that extended as far as the Middle East. China was entering a period of trade and naval power that culminated with the 15th century voyages of Zheng He, a eunuch admiral who sailed as far as Africa in a 250-ship armada featuring massive baochuan, or treasure ships, that dwarfed European vessels.

    Five hundred years later, China is again a naval power, building a modern armada while pressing territorial claims in the South China Sea and nearby waters. China casts its reemergence on the high seas as part and parcel of its "peaceful rise," and memories of the past—buttressed by archaeology—are a key element of that storyline. Government officials and scholars have resurrected the once-forgotten Zheng He, for example, as a symbol of benevolent engagement, asserting contrary to many scholars' views that the admiral's voyages were goodwill missions.

    And China is showering money on underwater archaeology, hoping to recover vestiges of its glorious maritime past. At a time when looting threatens many sites in the region, the outlay "is a question of protecting our heritage," says Cui Yong, an underwater archaeologist at the Guangdong Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology's Research Center of Underwater Archaeology in Guangzhou. Next month, the government will unveil a $60 million exploratory ship—China's first dedicated to archaeological research. It is lavishing money on countries in Africa and elsewhere that are eager to work with China to excavate submerged riches. China's program also stands out among those in Asia for not profiteering from artifacts.

    But critics contend that China has ulterior motives. The burgeoning underwater archaeology program is "related to [Chinese leaders'] view of themselves, and to their power projections in places," says Mark Staniforth, an archaeologist at Monash University, Clayton, in Australia. Several of the areas now targeted for research are the sites of international territorial disputes, and some archaeologists fear that China intends to use reclaimed patrimony to bolster its claims to disputed territories, Staniforth says: "The more cynical view would say that it is about territorial expansion." As China uncovers archaeological treasures that promise to illuminate a key period of history, how much will the political uses of the findings distort the science?

    Diving in

    In a hangarlike building here on Hailing Island, just off the coast of southern China's Guangdong province, Nanhai 1, or South China Sea 1, lies encased in silt and bathed in carefully calibrated water. The sea is a few hundred meters away, just visible through an enormous glass wall.

    The Song dynasty (960 to 1279 C.E.) merchant ship foundered 56 kilometers offshore, along what was once the Maritime Silk Road. From the 10th to the 15th century, Chinese ships plied routes pioneered by Arab, South Asian, and Southeast Asian traders. Sailing west across the South China Sea and Indian Ocean to the Persian Gulf, they carried porcelain, silk, and tea to the west and spices, ivory, and coral in the other direction—sometimes meeting their end in choppy waters or in one of Southeast Asia's narrow straits. Thanks to a thick blanket of silt, Nanhai 1 is one of the better preserved wrecks from the era.

    In what many consider the most ambitious foray into underwater archaeology yet, a Chinese team in 2007 lifted Nanhai 1 from the sea floor intact. The $16 million operation involved easing the vessel into a specially designed 530-ton steel container and then using Asia's largest marine salvage engineering ship to raise it to the surface (Science, 23 April 2010, p. 424). The endeavor coincided with the construction of the $24 million Guangdong Maritime Silk Road Museum, where the boat now rests, and a $1 million replica. Throw in at least $7.4 million more for excavations and infrastructure, and "the amount of money that [China] put in there is astronomical," Staniforth says.

    China has made big strides in underwater archaeology since dredgers off the coast of Quanzhou in Fujian province—once China's largest port—discovered a 13th century junk in 1973. The remains of the first Chinese shipwreck ever excavated promised to shed light on Song-era shipbuilding techniques. Technicians disassembled the ship, which lay under only a few meters of mud, and raised it piece by piece, along with coins, chunks of aromatic wood destined for incense production, and other bits of cargo. But China, then in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, didn't have a single underwater archaeologist to study the relics.

    They sat largely untouched for 10 years until the Quanzhou Museum of Overseas Communication (now the Quanzhou Maritime Museum) invited Jeremy Green, a maritime archaeologist at the Western Australian Maritime Museum in Fremantle, to help determine the shape and dimensions of the hull. As far as Green knows, he was the first Westerner to lay eyes on the ship, which hinted at a wealth of wrecks from China's maritime Golden Age awaiting discovery. But China still lacked the knowledge and funds to dive in.

    Things began to change a few years later, when a British salvor in 1986 illegally exported $20 million of Ming dynasty porcelain found in the wreck of a 1752 Dutch East India Trading Company ship off Indonesia. The next year, another British salvor—this time with a legal concession—stumbled upon Nanhai 1. The back-to-back incidents were a wake-up call. Chinese authorities canceled the salvor's concession, and soon thereafter the National Museum of China (NMC) launched an Underwater Archaeological Research Center.

    Oceans to explore.

    China's underwater archaeology projects extend from the South China Sea to East African waters reached by Adm. Zheng He's 15th century fleet.


    The research center invited Green back to China in 1989 to lead an intensive underwater training program for Cui, then 27, and seven other curators and land archaeologists. The fledgling underwater archaeologists lacked the expertise to recover Nanhai 1, which lay buried under the sea floor beneath 23 meters of water. But 15 years later they finally had the expertise and funding for the risky operation.

    China's program "went very rapidly into overdrive because they discovered that they had sites all over the place," Staniforth says. In 2007, researchers from NMC began salvaging Huaguangjiao 1, a Song dynasty merchant ship discovered by fishers in 1996. Then in 2009, Cui and colleagues began work on Nan'ao 1, a late Ming-era smuggling ship excavated at a depth of 27 meters—a rare find from a period in the 16th and 17th centuries when the Chinese emperor banned maritime trade.

    Archaeologists weren't the only ones discovering those sites. The sophisticated remote-sensing equipment that has helped scientists uncover new and deeper wrecks has aided looters as well (Science, 17 May 2013, p. 802). Nowhere in the world is the pressure as intense as in Asia, says Jeffrey Adams, an independent heritage management specialist in Minneapolis: "The gold rush, such as it is, is in the South China Sea."

    Some of China's neighbors conduct underwater excavations in collaboration with commercial salvors, with duplicate relics from the expeditions then sold to fill government coffers. In cash-strapped countries like Indonesia and the Philippines, Green says, underwater archaeology programs are largely "run by the finance department." Many archaeologists respect China for embarking on a program focused on research and conservation, avoiding—as far as observers can tell—for-profit archaeology. But some say that the country has goals beyond rediscovering its heritage.

    Soft power on the high seas

    Wealth of a nation.

    Among the relics from the Nanhai 1 wreck uncovered by archaeologist Cui Yong's team are a pitcher and a celadon bowl from an imperial kiln.


    One pillar of China's program is research that sheds light on the Zheng He era. Roughly a decade ago, China marked the 600-year anniversary of Zheng He's first voyage with a slew of cultural events, including conferences, commemorative stamps, comics, and a musical stage show. Scientists took part as well. In 2003, archaeologists in Nanjing excavated the shipyard where Zheng He's boats were built. They unearthed two rudders that have shed light on Ming-era shipbuilding techniques. The knowledge is now being used to create a replica of one of the admiral's treasure ships, which later this year will set sail along an old Maritime Silk Road route.

    The holy grail would be the discovery of a wreck from Zheng He's fleet. To that end, China is looking farther a field and brokering partnerships with countries whose coastal waters the admiral's fleet reached. In 2012, researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Acoustics spent 2 weeks using side-scan sonar on a mostly fruitless search for wrecks in the Gulf of Oman. The first round of an even more ambitious project recently concluded in Kenya, where archaeologists from NMC and Peking University in Beijing worked with counterparts from the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) in Nairobi to excavate sites near the route traversed by Zheng He's fleet in 1418, some 80 years before Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope. The $3.2 million, 3-year project searched both underwater and on land. "We have found a lot of areas that have potential," says NMK's Caesar Bita, one of two underwater archaeologists in the country.

    The effort in Kenya has its roots in unsubstantiated reports published by Western journalists in the 1990s, says Qin Dashu, who headed up the project's land excavations. Reporters visiting islands in the Lamu Archipelago, off the coast of Kenya, met locals who claimed to have Chinese heritage. One of Zheng He's ships had sunk nearby, the theory went, and sailors swam ashore, eventually marrying local women. Ming dynasty texts state that the admiral's fleet reached the kingdom of Malindi, in what is now Kenya, but they do not mention a shipwreck. In 2005, however, the Chinese government sponsored a young woman from Lamu claiming to be of Chinese descent to study in Nanjing. (Her DNA has not been tested to prove this claim, Qin notes.) The prospect of finding concrete evidence of Zheng He's voyages to Africa intrigued the wife of a member of China's vaunted State Council, Qin says, and the government greenlighted the archaeological project.

    The team uncovered intriguing material—though not entirely what officials had in mind. Searching the waters around Lamu, the archaeologists found a local shipwreck laden with pottery. Based on a preliminary analysis of a single shard of Chinese porcelain, the archaeologists believe the wreck to be from the 14th century, too early to say anything about the Zheng He era. At a second underwater site about 40 kilometers from Malindi, they unearthed another red herring: a remnant of a vessel with the telltale triangular sail shape common to local ships.

    The notion of a Zheng He shipwreck remains "just a tale," Qin says. But excavating onshore in Mambrui, a coastal site north of Malindi, his team found other evidence of China's influence in Africa: coins from the time of the Yongle Emperor Zhu Di, who was Zheng He's patron, along with shards of porcelain bearing the mark of Zhu Di's imperial kiln. Alone, the coins might simply have meant that smugglers had reached Malindi. But the porcelain suggested something more, Qin says: "It's very unusual to find an [imperial] shard in an African site. It proves that there was some official relationship" between the kingdom and China at the time.

    China hopes to broker a similar project with Sri Lanka, the site of the only known inscription referring to Zheng He outside of China. Several years ago, Sri Lanka's culture minister met with administrators from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of Archaeology to discuss collaborating in underwater archaeology. But the talks have apparently stalled. Officials on both sides may be wary of exploring a dark period for Sri Lanka. In 1411, Zheng He's armada invaded Sri Lanka and hauled a local ruler back to the Ming court, replacing him with a puppet ruler.

    Geoffrey Wade, a maritime historian at Australian National University in Canberra, notes that Chinese officials cast Zheng He's exploits as "nonexpansionist and nonaggressive, completely unlike the European colonialists." He and others demur, citing historical accounts of Zheng He's fleet using military force, meddling in civil wars, and imposing unequal trading terms. The armada's intervention in Sri Lanka, Wade says, is "one of the most obvious examples of nonpeace and nonfriendship" from the era.

    Political aims?

    At the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association Congress in Hanoi in 2009, Staniforth attended several presentations by Chinese researchers affiliated with mainland government institutions and museums. Some researchers reported on archaeological efforts in the Paracel and Spratly islands, contested archipelagos in the South China Sea. The Paracels are separately claimed by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam, and the Spratlys by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Chinese underwater archaeologists are now searching for wrecks in both areas—and the tone of their reports bothered Staniforth. The thrust of the argument in Hanoi, he says, was that "these are Chinese ships, therefore this is Chinese territory."

    China is open about that agenda. Archaeological research in the South China Sea, an area rich not just in wrecks but also in oil, gas, and fishing grounds, can aim to further "national territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests," according to materials published online by China's Center for Underwater Cultural Heritage, a division of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage set up in 2012. No less a figure than China's vice minister of culture, Li Xiaojie, has echoed that claim in comments published by state media. And at NMC, text for a display of artifacts from Huaguangjiao 1, discovered near the Paracel Islands, declared: "China's sovereignty over the islands of the South China Sea has been formed over a long period of historical development."

    To beat that drum even harder, a new $160 million National Museum of the South China Sea recently opened on Hainan Island. Nearby is a planned $48 million National Underwater Cultural Heritage South China Sea Protection Base. It will be used for research and restoration of damaged relics and will "strengthen South China Sea underwater heritage protection and law enforcement," according to the Center for Underwater Cultural Heritage's website.

    Arguments basing national sovereignty on the discovery of shipwrecks and artifacts baffle international scholars. "If the presence of Chinese ceramics were any indication of sovereignty, then the Victoria and Albert Museum in London would be part of China," Wade says.

    And they have irked China's neighbors, who increasingly see the country as an archaeological bully. On 30 March, the Philippines filed a 4000-page arbitration brief with the United Nations, claiming that China's so-called nine-dash line, a territorial claim that encompasses nearly all of the South China Sea, is forbidden by the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. "China's maritime territory policy is not conducive to interactions or cooperation on underwater cultural heritage between China and Southeast Asia as a whole," says Rujaya Abhakorn, director of the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization's Regional Centre for Archaeology and Fine Arts in Bangkok. Countries in the region, he says, are now worried by rumors that "China would claim ownership of all Chinese vessels and artifacts found in Southeast Asia."

    In 2012, a Chinese marine surveillance vessel reportedly confronted archaeologists in the Scarborough Shoal, a hotly contested area of the Spratly Islands off the coast of the Philippines. Franck Goddio, an underwater archaeologist and the founder of the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology in Paris, had been exploring a 13th century Chinese wreck with a team from the National Museum of the Philippines when the ship pulled up alongside the scientists and ordered them to vacate the area, according to The Wall Street Journal. Goddio declined to comment, citing political sensitivities.

    Dove or hawk?

    Officials have portrayed the 15th century admiral Zheng He as an ambassador of peace and a model for China's current policies.

    "Archaeology, especially maritime archaeology, is a common heritage of all of us," says Sheldon Clyde Jago-on, an underwater archaeologist with the National Museum of the Philippines in Manila. "Whether Filipino archaeologists discover it, or Vietnamese archaeologists discover it, or Chinese archaeologists discover it, it's part of a whole complex pattern of trade from so many years ago." While he declined to comment on the Scarborough Shoal incident, Jago-on says that "doing archaeology for the benefit of bolstering claims" is "not really science if you ask me." (China's cultural heritage administration did not reply to faxed questions before Science went to press.)

    Others defend China's program, saying the investment in underwater archaeology makes sense given the rampant looting in the region. It also comes at a time when interest in heritage is growing among the Chinese public. "I don't feel that there's anything sinister happening," says Adams, the independent heritage management specialist. "It's just happening."

    In rare cases, foreign archaeologists are getting in on the action. For example, Damien Leloup, an archaeologist with the Explorers Club based in Beijing, spearheaded an exploration last October in and around a river near the city of Jingdezhen, the site of China's most famous imperial kilns. Near where the river emptied into the Yangtze, he and colleagues found a wealth of well-preserved ceramics from the Song dynasty. "I am convinced there are several shipwrecks to be found within the area," he says.

    Cui, for one, has tried to insulate himself from the politics buffeting his work. Over dinner, younger archaeologists working on the Nanhai 1 excavation start a heated discussion about China's recent clashes with the Philippines. Cui quickly silences them. Instead, he prefers to talk about the payoff for archaeology.

    Just a short walk away, in 9000 square meters of pristine exhibition space, artifacts from preliminary excavations of Nanhai 1 rest in glass cases: anchors, bronze coins, and delicate ceramic pieces that were once precious cargo. Cui gestures to a paper-thin bowl impressed with an intricate floral design. "It's rare to find ceramics in this condition" from that era, he says. So far a total of 5000 relics have been removed from the ship. Thousands more are believed to be hidden in the silt.

    Nanhai 1 may be a teaser for even more splendid and illuminating relics waiting to be unearthed. Next month, China's dedicated underwater archaeology ship will set sail in search of other wrecks. The 56-meter, 500-ton vessel contains 20 sleeping berths and can store a month's worth of food. Cui can't wait: "I have dreamed of using a ship like that," he says.

    The vessel's maiden voyage: the disputed waters of the Paracel Islands.