Random Samples

Science  19 Mar 2004:
Vol. 303, Issue 5665, pp. 1761

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  1. Food Chip Separates the Pigs From the Geese

    Worried about what the cow in your hamburger was eating? Or want to see if that tiny $100 can of goose pâté actually holds a cheap substitute?

    Last month a French company, bioMérieux, launched a new gene expression test that can identify those mystery meats. Called FoodExpert-ID, it contains 88,000 handpicked probes from 33 different vertebrates including ostrich, Mozambican eel, and—more disturbingly—cat. Human DNA is on there too, but mainly as a “control,” according to bioMérieux.

    Confident it's not cat.


    The chip is made by Affymetrix, whose GeneChip technology is already used in genomics labs the world over. It is meant to be used by manufacturers as sort of a seal of quality. Once evaluated, a product will receive an “identity card” listing all the species detected. “Unknown vertebrates” will also get picked up. Besides revealing cheap substitutes, such as the use of pork liver in the pâté de foie gras, it can be used to reassure those with strict food preferences and to test animal feed for vertebrate byproducts—a growing concern because of bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

    “Food purity is an important global issue,” says Michael Hansen, a researcher at Consumers Union, which is pushing for a U.S. ban on mammalian or poultry parts in ruminant feed. “I expect many of these sorts of tests will start coming out.” Affymetrix's Dirk Lammerts says other possible applications abound, including testing for gene expression patterns indicative of illegal drugs in thoroughbreds, cheap and fast paternity tests, and soil evaluation for oil exploration.

  2. Disappointing News From Ohio

    Turning a deaf ear to testimony from more than two dozen scientists, the Ohio school board voted 13-5 on 9 March to approve a creationist-promoted biology lesson plan called “Critical Analysis of Evolution.”

    Defenders insist that the guide does not discuss intelligent design and simply exposes students to “scientific” debates over questions such as “whether microevolutionary processes are sufficient to explain macroevolution.” But scientists say the plan is creationist-inspired, and it has been condemned by groups ranging from the Ohio and National academies of science to the faculty senate at Case Western Reserve University (Science, 27 February, p. 1268).

    The Discovery Institute of Seattle, Washington, creationism's main think tank, hailed the vote as “a significant victory for students and their academic freedom.” But Patricia Princehouse, a Case Western philosophy professor, says a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union is inevitable: “We've got people pushing and shoving to be the plaintiff on this.”

    The lesson plan is designed to satisfy an Ohio education benchmark: “Students should describe how scientists investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory.” Princehouse says other lesson plans—on fancy fish and wolves—already cover legitimate questions in evolution such as how species are defined. This one, she says, is “simple creationist activism.”

  3. Face Transplants: Next Step in Plastic Surgery?

    Are face transplants an idea whose time has come? Not yet, according to the French National Ethics Advisory Committee. On 2 March that body prohibited a French plastic surgeon from performing the world's first human face transplant, ruling that the procedure is too risky. Laurent Lantieri of Hôpital Henri Mondor near Paris has five patients badly disfigured from burns or injuries to whom he wants to give new faces from cadavers.

    Computer model shows (a) female face, (b) male face, and (c) female face transplanted onto male skull.


    Meanwhile, surgeons elsewhere are champing at the bit to save faces. Last November the Royal College of Surgeons of England stopped plastic surgeon Peter Butler from conducting a transplant. And in Spain, plastic surgeon Francisco Gómez-Bravo of Madrid's Clinica Ruber is waiting for an answer to a 3 March request.

    The U.K. surgeons' group, noting that the psychological impact of face graft rejection would be “immense,” said that more research is needed on other risks ranging from infections to lymphomas from the long-term use of immunosuppressive drugs.

    But some surgeons believe it will only be a matter of time before face transplants are accepted. “Of all the physical handicaps, none is more socially devastating than facial disfigurement,” says plastic surgeon John Barker of the University of Louisville in Kentucky, who has experimented with transferring faces from one corpse onto another. He says the procedure offers new hope to severely injured people who have been little helped by dozens of surgeries. A normal face from a corpse can establish significant nerve connections with the new host within a couple of years after transplant, he says.

  4. Here, Boy!

    “Beagles are notoriously difficult to control when let off the leash. … Perhaps Beagle 2 will surface when he is hungry.”

    Colin Pillinger, the scientist in charge of the Beagle 2 project, the lost British Mars probe, who said at a conference at the Royal Society in London last week that he had received letters from dog owners telling him the choice of the name was unfortunate.

  5. Awards

    The why questions. Physicist, philosopher, and antiapartheid activist George Ellis has won this year's Templeton Prize. Aimed at advancing humanity's quest for “spiritual information,” the $1.4 million award is the world's biggest annual prize for intellectual achievement.


    The 64-year-old Ellis is at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, where his work spans areas such as general relativity, cosmology, and epistemology. “He's very broad and very fair,” says Lee Smolin, a physicist at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario.

    Ellis's Quaker beliefs helped shape his strong criticism of the former apartheid South African government—and are now driving him to donate half of the prize money to charitable causes. The same beliefs also influence his scientific interests. “The philosophy of science has to go its own way, but faith leads to other philosophical questions,” says Ellis. “Physics itself cannot answer why the laws of physics are the way they are.”

    Common good. Russian biophysicist Dmitry Chernavsky has received many honors in his long research career. But this month he earned his biggest award not for doing science but for communicating science on television.

    On 1 March Chernavsky, 78, received $1.22 million for describing the origins of biological information on Russian television. Nearly 200 scholars—predominantly scientists—accepted an offer from a Moscow TV station to explain “the structure of the world” to viewers. The contestants themselves voted Chernavsky's talk the best of the bunch.

    A magnanimous winner, Chernavsky is dividing the prize—provided by the Central Moscow Depository (CMD), a stock registration company—equally among all the contestants. “One goal of the program was to integrate different sciences,” says Chernavsky, a professor at the Lebedev Physical Institute in Moscow. “Supporting just one discipline, even the one that is closest to me, would be unfair.” He hopes CMD's sponsorship of the program will motivate other Russian businesses to fund basic research in the country.

  6. Giving Back

    Basic thinking. For an industrialist, Fred Kavli is remarkably unconcerned with immediate results. On 10 March, the Santa Barbara-based philanthropist announced the creation of seven campus-based research institutions—dividing nearly $100 million—all of which will be promoting basic research rather than creating industrially useful ideas.


    The University of California (UC), San Diego, Yale University, and Columbia University will host neuroscience or cognition institutes. Cornell University, Caltech, and Delft University in the Netherlands will begin nanoscience institutes. The University of Chicago gets a cosmology center. The seven will join Kavli's existing institutes at UC Santa Barbara and Stanford.

    This is not the last that the scientific community will hear from Kavli, a Norwegian physicist who made a fortune by designing and building sensors for aerospace and other industries. David Auston, president of the Kavli Foundation in Oxnard, California, says more institutes may be in the works.

    The vision thing. Three decades after anticipating the enormous impact of the Internet, U.K. computer consultant and author James Martin has turned his attention to an even grander topic: the role of science in shaping the world's future. This week, he helped launch an institute at Oxford University for the study of science and technology issues.

    Housed in the Saïd Business School, the James Martin Institute for Science and Civilization will study new technologies such as genomics and nanotechnology so that they may “create a great world instead of a terrible world.” Martin, who received a physics degree from Oxford before founding Headstrong, a global software consulting firm, in 1981, has promised to fund the institute on an annual basis—starting with $1.2 million and rising to $2.4 million in 2 decades. Sociologist Stephen Rayner has been named director of the institute, which opens in October.

  7. Jobs

    A new breed. An outsider is sowing the seeds of change at three of the nation's most prominent agricultural science societies. Since taking over as chief executive of the Madison, Wisconsin-based Agronomy, Crop Science, and Soils Science societies 8 months ago, animal physiologist Ellen Bergfeld has moved to reinvigorate the Tri-Societies, proposing to do everything from pruning governing boards to forging unorthodox political alliances.

    Bergfeld is the first woman CEO of the 97-year-old group and, at 36, is substantially younger than many of its 25,000 members. She's also an animal scientist: “People ask, ‘What's a girl with a Ph.D. in reproductive physiology doing running this organization?’” she says.

    Her answer is an interest in science policy that led her to a stint tracking policy for Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND) and running a leading animal science group. One current goal: finding common ground with ag science critics, such as those who oppose crop biotechnologies. “A lot of scientists are leery” of such moves, she says. “But there are things we can agree on.”