Random Samples

Science  21 Feb 2003:
Vol. 299, Issue 5610, pp. 1179

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  1. I'll Trade You a Virus for Two Parasites

    Mark Peppler admits that the idea for MicrobeCards came from watching his son swap hockey cards with his friends. “It reminded me of how much fun I had with baseball cards and how much information was on them,” says Peppler, an associate professor of medical microbiology and immunology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. So he decided to create his own edition.

    Hantavirus card, front and back.


    Working with graphic designer John Driedger, Peppler developed a set of 106 cards intended as a “serious learning tool that's fun and friendly.” Each one shows a disease organism and its vital statistics. A purple border connotes a Gram-positive bacteria; red is for the Gram-negative bacteria. Viruses are in yellow, fungi green, and parasites appear on blue-bordered cards. It's hard to find all this information in one spot, he says.

    Although a sports card producer rejected the cards as being too educational, they were embraced by the American Society for Microbiology, which has already sold more than 1500 sets to medical and nursing students and health care professionals.

    A foreign-language edition is now in the works, ordered up by a medical publisher in Poland. And Peppler's not done: His next card collection will feature antimicrobial compounds.

  2. New Frog Album Released

    Male frog, Hyla leucophyllata, in full throat.


    By recording at night sounds emitted by frogs and then matching them to previously recorded ones, an international team of scientists is devising a new way to monitor amphibian biodiversity. Ecologist Rafael Márquez, who runs a bioacoustic lab at Madrid's National Museum of Natural Sciences, this month released two CDs with sounds from 130 Bolivian frog species, plus 36 frog choruses.

    Frogs are more likely to be heard than seen, notes Márquez, so sounds are useful as “species signatures.” The most common is the high-intensity male mating call, which helps females find mates of the same species. Males also have a territorial call and an alarm call. Finally, both sexes have a “release call” emitted when clasped by a male in an undesired sexual embrace.

    Museum herpetologist Ignacio De La Riva and other scientists around Bolivia spent nights in the wild recording frog sounds, then playing them back in the lab to see if they matched sounds already in their database. To date, researchers have collected sounds from at least 10 hitherto undescribed species, including two that have never been seen.

  3. Mongolian Big Daddy

    Genghis Khan was not only a great warrior, but he left a huge genetic footprint on the human race, according to an international group of scientists.

    A team of 23 researchers based in Europe and Asia has found a striking genetic similarity in the Y chromosome in 8% of the males throughout a large part of Asia. From the frequency and variation, the scientists have deduced that this particular version of Y first occurred in a man living in Central Asia about 1000 years ago. They speculate that Genghis Khan—the merciless Mongolian warrior who started his conquests in the steppes of Central Asia 800 years ago—was the prolific sire who 200 years later sent that chromosome on an unprecedented career of amplification.

    In a study published online this month by the American Journal of Human Genetics, Chris Tyler-Smith, a biochemist at Oxford University, U.K., and his colleagues looked at variation in the Y chromosome in 2123 men living in Central Asia today. Because that chromosome is passed only from father to son, it gives a good estimate of direct male lineage. The scientists found almost identical Y chromosomes in 8% of the group. The finding came as a “surprise,” says Tyler-Smith, because it suggests that some 16 million men living between Afghanistan and northeastern China—almost one in every 200 men alive—belong to a single patriarchal lineage.

    Neither natural selection nor chance can account for the chromosome's high frequency, says Tyler-Smith: “You need particular social and historical circumstances.” Genghis Khan (ca. 1162–1227) is the historical figure who fills the bill. He not only had numerous wives, but during his conquests, begun to unify the Mongols, the most beautiful women were reserved for the “Universal Ruler.” For generations, his sons and their descendants ruled a vast empire that in 1241 reached the outskirts of Vienna.

    “It is difficult to prove that a pattern has come about because of a specific historical event,” says Mark Jobling, a geneticist at the University of Leicester, U.K. But this study, he says, appears to be a “striking example of social history having a profound effect on genetic diversity.”

  4. Sidelines

    Human shield. A former seismologist for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) was en route to Iraq last week to try to prevent a U.S. invasion. Edward Cranswick, 51, spent many years at USGS in Menlo Park, California, and Golden, Colorado. He was an expert at deploying earthquake instrumentation, says Tom Holzer of USGS in Menlo Park, who traveled with him to Turkey after the 1999 quake there. Now Cranswick is part of a truck convey of some 65 antiwar activists traveling through the Middle East to Iraq, where they hope to form a “human shield” that will deter an attack.

    Human shields brief press in Ankara.


    One of Cranswick's erstwhile USGS colleagues, Ross Stein, says that the news “takes my breath away.” But Holzer says that Cranswick, who moved to Australia after retiring from USGS, “was always a character who marched to his own drummer … a man of passion. I could see Ed putting his life on the line.”

  5. Jobs

    NIH deputy. An internist with a doctorate in health policy and economics has been tapped by National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Elias Zerhouni as his deputy. Raynard S. Kington, who came to NIH in late 2000 to head its Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research, replaces Ruth Kirschstein, who is winding down a 47-year NIH career that included 2 years as acting director.


    “Affable and very able” is the way one biomedical lobbyist describes Kington; another welcomes his “outside perspective.” Kington, 42, says he hopes to help his boss “deal with a very different budget environment.” His research has explored the impact of race and socioeconomic status on health.

    Kind to humans. Maybe they figured that we're so much better at protecting animals than people, we might as well have a vet look out for human guinea pigs.

    That's the joke going around after veterinarian (and toxicologist) Bernard Schwetz was named acting head of the 2-year-old federal watchdog office for protecting volunteers in clinical trials, the Office for Human Research Protections.

    Schwetz brings to the job a wealth of experience at the Food and Drug Administration. But ethicists and patient advocates say his appointment suggests that the Bush Administration doesn't really care about reforming the patient protection system. The Department of Health and Human Services has yet to post an advertisement for the job, vacated more than 2 months ago by Greg Koski, and several seemingly natural candidates for the job haven't been approached, says bioethicist Mary Faith Marshall of the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City. “It seems obvious that they're not in a panic to do anything about it,” she says.

  6. Biopolitics

    Steves for Darwin. It's the latest volley by scientists in the ongoing war over the teaching of evolution. At last week's AAAS annual meeting in Denver, the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) unveiled “Project Steve,” a pro-evolution petition signed by 224 scientists named Steven, Stephen, Stephanie, or Stefan.


    “Creationists are fond of amassing lists of Ph.D.s who deny evolution to try to give the false impression that evolution is somehow on the verge of being rejected by the scientific community,” explains NCSE director Eugenie Scott, reacting to a recent document containing 100 names. Project Steve—a tribute to the late Stephen J. Gould (above)—demonstrates that the opposition can whip up far more support just among Steves.

    The people at the Discovery Institute, creationism's main think tank, aren't impressed. Says spokesperson Mark Edwards, “In science, truth isn't determined by majority vote.”

  7. Breakups

    Off Golden Pond. A proposed gender research center at Harvard University to be funded by Jane Fonda has collapsed, the victim of a weak stock market and a clash of academic philosophies.


    Two years ago, Fonda made a $12.5 million pledge inspired by her admiration for Harvard's Carol Gilligan, now at New York University, who has explored gender differences in moral reasoning (Science, 16 March 2001, p. 2081). But Harvard's inability to find a suitable director, combined with the plunging value of AOL Time Warner stock that Fonda planned to use to bankroll the center, caused both sides to pull the plug earlier this month.

    Provost Steven Hyman says that Fonda's “activist” vision was hard to reconcile with the scholarly goals of the Graduate School of Education. “It turned out to be very difficult to find someone who had substantial scholarly credentials … who also would fit in well,” he says. Anthropologist Sarah Hrdy, who was consulted by Harvard on how to proceed with the gift, says, “I was very sad to see this extraordinary opportunity unravel.”