Random Samples

Science  02 Jan 2004:
Vol. 303, Issue 5654, pp. 36

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  1. Cantata in Sea

    Luciano Pavarotti, eat your heart out: A homely singing fish can sustain a note—an A-flat—for more than an hour. And something fishy in the creature's sound-producing muscles could help explain a rare human disease.


    The male midshipman drums on its swim bladder with specially adapted muscles to generate a hum resembling the chant of a Tibetan monk. To figure out how the fish sings for so long, biologist Kuan Wang of the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland, and colleagues used x-ray and electron microscopy and magnetic resonance imaging to analyze the muscles. To their surprise they found that within the muscle cells, stripes of protein known as Z bands were extraordinarily wide, Wang reported 15 December at the annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology in San Francisco, California. In fact, the bands closely resemble those found in patients with nemaline myopathy, a congenital disorder characterized by weak and uncontrollable muscles.

    If researchers can figure out how the fish's Z bands got so chunky, they might gain insight into the disease, Wang says. But others are cautious. Studies of the fish should help explain how Z bands are put together, says H. Lee Sweeney, a physiologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, but “it's less clear whether it will help us understand the pathogenesis” of nemaline myopathy.

  2. Creepy

    A hypnotist may have made your uncle Stuart cluck like a chicken, but a physicist and a chemical engineer can make an inanimate blob of goo creep like a snail, inch along like an inchworm, or slither like a snake. The biomimetic booger might help explain all types of limbless locomotion.


    Creeping, inching, and slithering might be different manifestations of the same basic interaction between body and surface, says physicist Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan of Harvard University. To explore that idea, he and Manoj Chaudhury of Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, made a slug of polymer gel move across a rubberized plate of glass just by shaking the plate. They sliced the plate at an angle to make scales that would only let the blob slide one way. When the scales were parallel like railroad ties, the blob slid like a snail when the plate shook back and forth, they report in the 6 January issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. When the plate shook up and down at the same time, the blob bowed repeatedly to advance like an inchworm. And when the slices weren't parallel but fanned out, first to the right, then to the left, the blob spontaneously slithered across the jiggling glass like a snake.

    The experiment “suggests that you don't need to redesign an organism all over to change its manner of motion,” says Joseph Keller, a mathematician at Stanford University. “It may just be a matter of changing a parameter or two.”

  3. Brain Gain Explained?

    Here's a heady claim: A molecular biologist says that a gene that causes a rare deformity may also have spurred the vast expansion of hominid brains over the past 2 million years. But others are skeptical.

    Mutations in the ASPM gene cause autosomal recessive primary microcephaly (MCPH), a congenital reduction in the size of the head and brain. That suggests that the normal ASPM gene might have boosted brain expansion in human ancestors, reasoned Jianzhi Zhang of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. To test that hypothesis, he looked for evidence that the gene had provided an evolutionary advantage to humans by comparing the human version of ASPM to that of close cousins such as chimpanzees and orangutans. The human gene was notably different, Zhang reports in the December issue of Genetics: It had undergone a much higher proportion of mutations that changed the amino acid sequence of the protein the gene produces. That's a clear sign that the gene had responded to Darwinian natural selection and enabled the individuals who possessed it to get ahead, he says.

    However, other genes were likely involved in brain expansion, says neuroscientist Todd Preuss of Emory University in Atlanta: “Nobody should conclude that ASPM is the brain-size gene.”

  4. Veni, Vidi, Vivid


    At first glance, the sight is jarring: Roman emperors clad in turquoise and crimson robes, the Trojan prince Paris wearing clown-suit leggings. Could the ancient Greeks and Romans really have had such garish taste? Most certainly, say archaeologists Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann of the Glyptotek Museum in Munich and their colleagues. They have used ultraviolet and fluorescent photography and painstaking chemical analysis to piece together the azurite blues, malachite greens, and cinnabar reds in which classical Greek and Roman statues were originally painted, down to 2-millimeter-high feathers on Paris's tunic. Their full-color replicas stand next to the now-pallid originals in a special exhibit at the museum. Color was key to achieving a lifelike effect, Brinkmann says: “This is what Greek and Roman artists aimed for.” The exhibit will travel to the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen in March and to the Vatican museums in the fall.

  5. Jobs

    Roots. Salk Institute professor Juan Carlos Izpisúa Belmonte is a wanted man in his native land. The Spanish health minister and Catalonian officials want the 42-year-old Belmonte to return home to lead a new national bank of embryonic stem cells scheduled to open in 2005 in Catalonia's capital, Barcelona.


    Belmonte, whose vertebrate development lab has recently identified genes that control how an embryo distinguishes left from right and how it determines where to place a limb, turned down an offer last year to lead a group at the Barcelona Scientific Park. But last month provincial president Jordi Pujol announced boldly that “Izpisúa will come to work in Catalonia.”

    Belmonte intends to retain ties to Salk as a visiting scientist after moving back to Spain next year. And he's hoping his current employer will help train scientists at the new stem cell bank.

    A grand time. Call it a GUT feeling. Neuroscientist Wolf Singer and theoretical physicist Walter Greiner (below) are hoping that the new Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies will help a diverse group of scientists develop new insights into the self-organization of complex systems, including, perhaps, a Grand Unified Theory of the brain.


    “Neuroscientists are very good at taking the brain apart and examining the pieces in ever greater detail,” says Singer (below), whose work at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research has shed light on how neurons firing together create larger patterns of brain activity. But to understand the mind, he says, “we need a roof that unites people with biological know-how and theoretical expertise.”


    The new institute has already raised nearly $4 million from state and private foundations for its operations on the campus of Goethe University in Frankfurt, Greiner's home institution. This spring it plans to name its first set of staff scientists from more than 60 applicants.

    Diverse interests. Thomas Windham hopes that knowledge from a lifetime spent in the helping professions will help the National Science Foundation (NSF) hone its efforts to attract minorities into science. Last month the 59-year-old psychologist and educator was named senior adviser to NSF Director Rita Colwell for the science and engineering workforce, a position Colwell promised to create after Congress questioned the agency's commitment to diversity.


    Windham has been running an NSF-funded summer program based at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, that aims to take minorities through graduate school in the atmospheric sciences, a field in which minorities have a scant presence. That job, plus previous stints as a college teacher, local school board president, psychotherapist, and director of a community mental center, have taught Windham that “leadership is extraordinarily rewarding but extraordinarily difficult, too.” Although he's coming to NSF next month on a 2-year leave, Windham promises to stay for “as long as it takes” to align the agency's myriad programs to assist minorities.

  6. Awards

    Japan prizes.British ecologist John Lawton, New Zealand-born marine researcher Keith Sainsbury, and Japanese chemists Kenichi Honda and Akira Fujishima have won the 2003 Japan Prize.

    Lawton, who heads the U.K.'s Natural Environment Research Council, receives $415,000 for his work on understanding and conserving biodiversity. Sainsbury, a scientist at Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, wins the same amount for his research on marine-shelf ecosystems and their sustainable use. Honda, an electrochemist at Tokyo Polytechnic University, and Fujishima, an applied chemist at the University of Tokyo, share the award for developing a technique to derive hydrogen from water using sunlight. The annual prizes were announced last month by the Science and Technology Foundation of Japan.

  7. On Campus

    Bounce for life. Tyler Curiel is on the ball. For 24 hours, to be precise. Last month the chief of hematology and oncology at Tulane School of Medicine in New Orleans, Louisiana, dribbled a basketball nonstop from sunrise to sunrise, setting a world record for distance covered and raising money to combat a rare cancer that afflicts one of his students.


    Curiel logged 108 miles (174 kilometers), 11 miles farther than the previous record, in endless laps around the university's track. The distance wasn't a problem for Curiel, who ran his first 100-mile “ultramarathon” in 1996. But dribbling a basketball affected his concentration: “I'm a really lousy basketball player,” he admits.

    The stunt has raised roughly $20,000 to help Andy Martin, a third-year Tulane medical student in Curiel's lab who suffers from a sinonasal undifferentiated carcinoma. Martin has donated cells from his tumor for research on ways to control its growth.