News this Week

Science  26 Aug 2005:
Vol. 309, Issue 5739, pp. 1279

    WHO Probes Deadliness of China's Pig-Borne Disease

    1. Dennis Normile

    International experts fear that a new, more virulent form of the bacterium Streptococcus suis could be responsible for killing 38 humans and more than 600 pigs in China's central Sichuan Province over the past 2 months. But they are puzzled about how a rare—and rarely fatal—disease that usually appears in isolated cases among humans became so deadly and whether it might strike again.

    Answering those questions will depend on strengthening collaborations between Chinese researchers and the international community. Additional animal epidemiological studies will be needed in China to determine if and how widely the new strain may be circulating. Jeff Gilbert, a zoonotic disease expert with the World Health Organization (WHO) in Manila, says, “from the human health side, (cooperation) has been fairly impressive, but we're still missing the veterinary information” on the outbreak.

    A half-dozen experts on the disease joined technical staff from WHO and international animal health organizations in a private 9 August conference call to review information provided by China's Ministry of Health. The ministry reported that the outbreak peaked in mid-July and that no new cases were reported after 5 August. Of the 204 human cases, there were an unprecedently high 38 deaths. Nearly all patients were farmers or butchers who had slaughtered sick pigs or handled the meat.

    Tests on both human and animal samples confirmed the presence of Streptococcus suis serotype 2 and ruled out other bacterial and viral agents, including influenza and Nipah virus. The ministry found no evidence of human-to-human transmission. WHO reported publicly last week that experts now accept the ministry's conclusions.


    Questions remain about the swine disease that has killed 38 people in China.


    “We have no doubt the identification is correct; it is Streptococcus suis,” says Marcelo Gottschalk of the University of Montreal in Canada, who was initially skeptical because of the strange nature of the outbreak. The bacterium is endemic among domestic pigs worldwide but is usually asymptomatic. The Sichuan outbreak is by far the largest ever reported, surpassing a previous outbreak in China's eastern Jiangsu Province in 1998 that killed 14 of 25 human patients and caused the death or culling of 80,000 pigs. (Little is known of this outbreak outside of China because all scientific reports appeared in Chinese journals.)

    Gottschalk says the mortality rate far exceeds the 5% to 6% typically seen among sporadic human cases. In addition, most recent victims succumbed to toxic shock, an atypical symptom of the disease. “It is logical to think that this is a more virulent strain that acquired genetic material from other microorganisms,” Gottschalk concludes.

    Xu Jianguo, director of the National Institute for Communicable Disease Control and Prevention, a lab affiliated with China's Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Beijing, says that sequencing of Sichuan isolates has not turned up new genetic changes. He speculates that the outbreak arose because the type 2 serotype, known to be more virulent than other serotypes, may be becoming more widespread in pigs, increasing the chance of human infection.

    To determine whether the bacterium has changed, researchers need to compare both human and animal isolates from the Sichuan outbreak with those collected previously within China and in other countries. Xu says discussions on international collaborations are underway. “I think China will be very open about sharing samples, but you need to go through the proper procedures.”

    WHO's Gilbert hopes that additional human epidemiological and clinical information is included in a paper China's CDC is reportedly now readying for an international journal. He applauds the Ministry of Health for keeping the international community informed of human cases but says the Ministry of Agriculture has not been as forthcoming. Specifically, he says it has failed to clarify such basic epidemiological features as how many pigs have died or been culled and the nature of the affected livestock operations. He adds that surveillance of pig farms may be needed to restore consumer confidence in the safety of pork products.

    Meanwhile, officials in China's southern Guangdong Province recently reported four isolated human cases, including one death; all of the patients may have been exposed to infected meat. And experts are awaiting further details on the suspected infection of two butchers who died in early August in Jiangsu Province. Hong Kong also recently confirmed its tenth case this year, although it is not clear if there is a connection to the Sichuan outbreak.


    Princeton Resets Family-Friendly Tenure Clock

    1. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

    Princeton University wants to level the field for tenure-track faculty members starting a family. Starting this fall, both men and women who become parents will receive an automatic tenure extension. This first-of-its kind policy is seen as one way to help boost the number of tenured women in science and engineering departments. But some say the policy could provide an unfair advantage to scholars who are not the primary caregivers.

    Many universities, including Princeton, already allow new parents to request extra time for tenure decisions. But studies show that many women (and men) worry that asking might be seen as showing a lack of commitment to academic life (Science, 17 December 2004, p. 2031). “There is a feeling among assistant professors that stopping the clock could hurt your chances of getting tenure,” says Princeton psychologist Joan Girgus, who chaired a 2003 campus report that recommended changing the current policy. Assistant professors at the university will now automatically receive one additional year for every child born or adopted, although they can request an early tenure review.

    Lisa Wolf-Wendel, a sociologist at the University of Kansas in Lawrence who studies gender issues, says the impact of the new policy is hard to predict. “If going up early for tenure ends up becoming the norm, then you haven't solved the problem,” she says, adding that the policy could end up favoring men with stay-at-home wives or partners who do the actual work of childrearing. “An extension would allow them to be more academically productive,” she notes.

    One solution, in the works at the University of California, would give automatic extensions to those with “substantial care-giving responsibilities,” says Marc Goulden, an analyst at UC Berkeley's graduate division. The policy would require faculty members to submit a letter attesting to that status.


    Kashmir Workshop Aims to Break the Ice

    1. Jeffrey Mervis*
    1. With reporting by Pallava Bagla in New Delhi, India.

    Jack Shroder and Michael Bishop know that one scientific workshop next spring won't erase a half-century of rancor between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. But the two University of Nebraska geoscientists, just back from their latest expedition to the Himalayan region, believe that examining the scientific processes taking place at the rooftop of the world could not only ease tensions between these two bitter enemies but also advance science and benefit the people of South Asia. Thanks to $125,000 from two U.S. agencies and a private foundation, the two are preparing to take the first step toward turning the Karakoram mountain range and the nearby Siachen Glacier into a scientific peace park.

    “It makes no sense to have troops there at 20,000 feet,” says Shroder about the Siachen Glacier, the world's highest battlefield, where the harsh environment has claimed more lives than bullets have over 2 decades of sporadic warfare between the two countries. “If this could be turned into a peace park, then the military could leave and the scientists and mountain community could play.” Adds Pervez Hoodbhoy, a physicist at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan, “Bitter hatreds are giving way to a grudging acceptance of the other's existence. Suddenly everything has become possible.”

    The idea of turning the war-torn region into a peace park has been around for several years. But the concept began to gel 2 years ago after Harry Barnes, a former U.S. ambassador to India, contacted Shroder about organizing a workshop. Shroder used his 25-year scientific ties to the region to sign up Syed Hamidullah, director of the Centre of Excellence in Geology at the University of Peshawar in Pakistan, and Syed Iqbal Hasnain, vice chancellor of Calicut University in India.

    High hopes.

    Jack Shroder (left) and Mike Bishop envision the Karakoram mountains as a magnet for scientists.


    This month, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded a $70,000 grant to what Schroder and Bishop have labeled the Karakoram Science Project. Combined with $30,000 from the Office of Naval Research and $25,000 from the Lounsbery Foundation, the money will enable some 30 to 40 scientists from the United States, India, Pakistan, China, and elsewhere to meet next May in Lahore, Pakistan, to discuss an array of geological, climactic, and environmental questions. “NSF was particularly interested in including younger scientists,” says Shroder. “It's the first time they've ever given me more money than I've asked for.”

    In June, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made an unprecedented visit to the site and proclaimed his support for making Siachen, the largest midlatitude glacier in the world, a mountain of peace. “The NSF grant is a step in the right direction,” says Hasnain, “in building bridges that might lead to the ultimate demilitarization” of the glacier. Hoodbhoy believes that the workshop, if it leads to a peace park, is “proof that enmities are not forever.”

    Bishop and Shroder plan to concentrate on the science and leave the peacemaking to others. But they readily acknowledge that the workshop could be the start of something much bigger. “If we can get people to work together, there's no telling what could come of it,” says Bishop. “We just want to get the ball rolling.”


    Boosting Gene Extends Mouse Life Span

    1. Jennifer Couzin

    A protein named after the Greek goddess who spins life's thread has joined the short list of ways to extend a mouse's natural life span. Whereas lab mice can live about 2 years, mice engineered to overproduce this protein, called Klotho, have celebrated third birthdays, Makoto Kuro-o of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and his colleagues report online in this week's Science Express ( The mutant rodents represent a rare case of a single gene substantially influencing life span in mammals.

    “I'm not a dreamer; I don't think we're going to find a master control gene for aging,” says Harry Dietz, a geneticist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, who studies Klotho's counterpart in humans. But, he says, “this is the next best thing. We have found something that perhaps has the ability to make old age richer.”

    But Kuro-o, who discovered the gene that encodes Klotho, worries that “too much Klotho might not be very good.” The mice he created with extra Klotho look like animals at risk of diabetes. There's also disagreement over how Klotho works.

    Mice lacking Klotho die young, after developing arteriosclerosis and other age-related conditions much earlier than normal (Science, 7 November 1997, p. 1013). Still, many doubted that extra Klotho would lengthen life span. With a short-lived mutant, “you always have to worry that it's just sick,” says Cynthia Kenyon, who studies aging at the University of California, San Francisco.

    Rare milestone.

    These mice, which overexpress the gene for Klotho, have celebrated their third birthdays.


    So, Kuro-o, his postdoctoral fellows Hiroshi Kurosu and Masaya Yamamoto, and colleagues at universities in the U.S. and Japan created mice overexpressing the gene for Klotho. While Klotho is produced only in the kidney and brain, a fragment of it slips into the blood and may act like a hormone. Males making extra Klotho lived up to 30% longer than normal males, and the mutant females survived 20% longer than normal counterparts. As with lab animals coaxed to have lengthy life spans, the altered rodents had fertility problems. They produced about half the expected number of offspring.

    Males appeared more affected by Klotho than females did. Their blood, unlike that of females, contained more insulin than normal mice. This suggested that the male mutants were somewhat resistant to insulin—a symptom, in extreme forms, of diabetes. The Klotho-boosted males and females had normal glucose levels, a surprise because untreated diabetes causes high glucose. These features don't appear in other long-lived mice, which are usually insulin-sensitive and have low glucose.

    Klotho's effects on insulin could connect the protein to a hot story in aging research. Suppression of signaling by insulin and the related hormone insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) is one of the most consistently successful ways to extend life span in many species. Long-lived mice that are sensitive to insulin also usually have dampened insulin and IGF-1 signaling.

    In rat cells, Klotho inhibited insulin signaling, making it tough for the hormone to do its job. Kuro-o's group also showed that some mice lacking Klotho survived somewhat longer and suffered fewer diseases when the team coaxed insulin and IGF-1 signaling back to normal. Klotho “ties in beautifully” with the IGF-1 story, says George Martin, a gerontologist at the University of Washington in Seattle.

    Others are less sure. The link is “tenuous,” says Luciano Rossetti, director of the diabetes research center at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. He points out that female mice with extra Klotho have normal insulin action but live substantially longer.

    Kenyon says the new work raises the possibility that life span can be extended alongside mild insulin resistance, a trait considered deleterious to longevity. Researchers would now like to know if Klotho levels in humans correlate with life span—for example, if the blood of centenarians is swimming with it.


    New Database to Track Protein Locations

    1. Robert F. Service

    Proteomics researchers in Sweden plan to release a database next week containing hundreds of thousands of images of where different proteins are located in human cells and tissues. The database, dubbed the Protein Atlas, is intended to help biochemists identify the function of newly discovered proteins. Although the new atlas currently contains data on only some 700 proteins, the Swedish team plans to tackle some 22,000 different proteins, one for each human gene.

    “That's great,” says Richard Smith, a proteomics expert at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington. “It's one of the most valuable data sets you can have,” adds Michael Snyder of Yale University, who pioneered a similar large-scale effort to localize proteins in yeast. The yeast data set, for example, has proven to be an essential tool in narrowing down whether proteins operate in the nucleus, the cell membrane, or elsewhere.

    As scientists began to sequence human genes in the 1990s, sorting out the cellular locations of each gene's proteins became a priority, says Mathias Uhlén, microbiologist at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, and director of the Protein Atlas effort. “This is something that has to be done to leverage the success of the human genome project,” he explains.

    I spy.

    Glycoprotein SV2A (brown) in cerebellum tissue.


    A pilot project 2 years ago convinced the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation of Sweden to bankroll a scaled-up Protein Atlas through September 2007. In April, it became one of six projects to be coordinated by the international Human Proteome Organisation (HUPO). Uhlén says he hopes HUPO member countries will finance the completion of the Atlas, which could take another 10 years.

    To track down the location of proteins inside human tissues, Uhlén's team breaks the problem into two parts—finding antibodies that target individual proteins, and then using those antibodies to hunt for proteins inside tissues. To streamline this process, Uhlén's team has created standardized arrays containing microscopic tissue samples from 48 different normal human tissues and 20 types of cancer tissue. The antibodies are tagged so they can be seen and incubated with the arrays to reveal which proteins are expressed in each of the different tissues. The tissues are then photographed at high resolution, providing for each antibody hundreds of detailed images revealing where it has bound to its target protein. For now, Uhlén says, his team of about 100 scientists is creating half a dozen antibodies a day, leading to about 30 gigabytes of data for each antibody studied (which is stored at

    Today's arsenal of drugs, Uhlén notes, targets only 500 or so different proteins. By providing clues to the function of other proteins, he says, the Atlas may accelerate their use as markers for disease or drug targets.

    The Protein Atlas still has wrinkles to be ironed out. If antibodies react with more than one protein, the tissue arrays may unwittingly spotlight unintended proteins. “There are huge issues of quality assurance,” Uhlén says. As a result, his team will count on outside experts to flag problems.


    Tool Study Supports Chimp Culture

    1. Greg Miller

    Chimpanzees may not have literature or ballet, but some researchers suspect that our close primate kin do have cultural traditions pertaining to behaviors such as tool use and grooming. Chimps in one forest might use a certain technique to scoop up tasty ants with a stick, for example, while those in another forest use a different method. But critics have argued that to qualify as culture, such local habits must be learned from fellow chimps—and that's been difficult to document in the wild.

    Now, a study with captive chimps provides the first direct evidence that chimps can learn traditions of tool use by observation. “I think it's fantastic,” says Carel van Schaik, a biological anthropologist at the University of Zürich in Switzerland who was not part of the research team. “This really nails down the social learning side of things.” The authors of the study, published online 21 August in Nature, say their work also reveals another trait previously seen only in humans: a tendency to conform to community standards.

    The view that chimps acquire the behavioral differences seen in the wild from imitating one another has been contentious (Science, 25 June 1999, p. 2070). The ideal field experiment—transplanting wild chimps from one population to another to see if they pick up new traits—is considered ethically untenable.

    Culture shock.

    Chimp tool use reveals signs of culture.


    Instead, Andrew Whiten and Victoria Horner at the University of St. Andrews in Fife, U.K., and Frans de Waal at Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, Georgia, selected a female of high social rank from each of two groups of 16 Yerkes chimps and gave the two private lessons on using a stick to obtain food from a specially designed dispenser. One female learned a “poke” technique; the other learned a “lift” technique. Back in their respective groups, each female's peers took notice of how she worked the dispenser, and the vast majority followed her example. Even when chimps stumbled on an alternative method, they tended to stick with what the rest of the group was doing, says Whiten.

    The study “very convincingly mimics a situation that would happen in the wild,” says van Schaik. One of the chimp culture skeptics, Bennett Galef, an animal behaviorist at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, says, “I've been looking for this [evidence] for 10 years.”

    Galef and others are less persuaded by the claim of social conformity. Van Schaik points out that chimps observe their group's favored technique more frequently, so their behavior could reflect what they've seen recently rather than a tendency to conform.

    Although many researchers say the new study bolsters the case for chimp culture, others insist that chimps do not have the cultural sophistication of humans. Michael Tomasello, a comparative psychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, suspects, based on recent work by his team, that the chimps in Whiten's study learned by watching the motions of the food dispenser rather than by imitating each other. Human culture is based very strongly on imitation, teaching, and language, he says. “What you have in chimps is different.”


    Global Fund Pulls Myanmar Grants

    1. Jon Cohen

    The Global Fund to Treat AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria has canceled nearly $100 million of grants that over 5 years would have helped Myanmar fight the three diseases. Citing concerns about Myanmar's new restrictions on travel and procurement of medical supplies, The Global Fund announced on 19 August that it made the unprecedented decision to retract grants, saying the ambitious effort to prevent and treat these diseases “cannot be managed in a way that ensures effective program implementation.”

    Myanmar receives scant international aid because of widespread distrust of the junta that runs the country, an impoverished Southeast Asian nation formerly known as Burma. The Global Fund, a Geneva-based nonprofit, thought it could prevent corruption by funneling money through the United Nations Development Programme, which would distribute the funds to nongovernmental organizations. The grants, awarded in April, also came with unusually stringent monitoring procedures. But last month, the junta announced new policies that nixed the deal, such as requiring 3-weeks' notice for any trips within the country, says The Global Fund spokesperson Jon Lidén. “You just can't run a program with conditions like that,” says Lidén. “You can do something on a limited scale, but not at the pace our grants are expected to move.”

    Down and out.

    Myanmar relies heavily on international groups to provide services like this crowded AIDS hospice outside Yangon.


    One foreign aid worker in Myanmar who asked not to be identified says “political realities” doomed the program from the start. “As projects, they were overfunded and set unrealistic targets,” he contends. Still, he urged other donors to “massively increase assistance” in a “more responsible package” that bolstered the private sector and selective government efforts.

    However, one vocal critic of the junta, epidemiologist Chris Beyrer from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, supported The Global Fund's approach and blames recent political turmoil within the junta for the program's demise. “It is just terrible for the people of Burma that the hardline faction of the junta now in power under General Than Shwe has again made it clear that political control remains so much more important to them than the well-being of the Burmese people,” says Beyrer.

    Although some in the U.S. government had initially expressed deep concerns about the grants to Myanmar, Lidén says no one from the Bush Administration or Congress pressured The Global Fund to scuttle the program. The Global Fund plans to wrap up all business by 1 December and recover much of the $11.8 million disbursed.


    Ontario to Mothball Two CANDU Reactors

    1. Paul Webster*
    1. Paul Webster is a freelance writer based in Toronto.

    TORONTO— Only months after Canadian-made reactors were rejected in U.S. and Chinese markets, Canada's 60-year-old civilian nuclear industry has suffered a potentially mortal blow at home. Facing a $1.6-billion repair bill, the government of Ontario decided this month to mothball two 540-megawatt Canada Deuterium-Uranium (CANDU) nuclear reactors more than a decade before their projected retirement date.

    “Ontario's decision to write off two reactors early could signal the end of the road for CANDU,” says Tom Adams, executive director of Energy Probe, a nonprofit nuclear watchdog group based in Toronto. In January, the reactor company's U.S. partner, Dominion Resources of Richmond, Virginia, decided to abandon plans to seek a U.S. license for its next-generation CANDU. And in May, Chinese authorities announced that they weren't interested in buying any units beyond the two 700-megawatt units already operating near Shanghai.

    Canadian officials have long touted the CANDU reactors, manufactured by the government-owned Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), as an example of the country's technological prowess. A descendant of the Manhattan project, CANDU's first forebear went on line at Chalk River, Ontario, in 1945. Since then some 34 large commercial versions have been built and installed around the world, including 20 in Ontario. But their complex cooling systems, which allow the reactor to be refueled without going off line, have proven very costly to maintain.

    The reactors to be mothballed are two of eight at the Pickering Nuclear Station in the Toronto area. Built in the 1970s, they've been idle since 1997 largely because of thinning in the hundreds of pipes carrying heavy water coolant from the reactor core. Two years ago, three other laid-up Ontario reactors were restarted after refurbishments costing billions of dollars, and their operators now say more repairs are not far off. Adams says that CANDU reactors of various vintages in Argentina, India, Pakistan, Romania, China, and Korea will require extensive repairs sooner than planned.

    Experts point to the corrosive effect of the heavy water coolant as a major culprit, with the reactor's design contributing to the large repair bills. “Just getting at the pipes is fantastically difficult, dangerous, and expensive,” says Frank Greening, former head of nuclear cooling systems analysis at Ontario Power Generation (OPG), the government utility that owns all of Ontario's CANDUs. Even for reactors in which the coolant feeder pipes haven't yet deteriorated, says John Luxat, president of the Canadian Nuclear Society and OPG's former head of nuclear safety, “the costs of demonstrating [their safety] are becoming a problem.”

    Ken Petrunik, AECL's chief operating officer, says the CANDUs, which cost about $1.5 billion new, “perform well in their early years” and that their ability to refuel on line has yielded “better performance results than any other reactor type in the world.” He downplays the impact of Ontario's decision to mothball two reactors by noting that AECL is only weeks away from launching a sales campaign for an advanced version of the CANDU reactor that will compete with new designs from other countries (Science, 19 August, p. 1168). Petrunik also discounted the recent bad news from the United States and China. “We remain confident we'll secure a reasonable share of the world market,” says Petrunik.


    Earth's Inner Core Is Running a Tad Faster Than the Rest of the Planet

    1. Richard A. Kerr

    The claim that Earth's inner core was getting ahead of itself seemed odd at first. Why should a 2440-kilometer solid iron ball spin faster than its 3000-kilometer-thick shell of mantle rock? Well, some computer simulations showed the molten-iron outer core dragging the inner core around by the magnetic field generated in the outer core. Still, seismologists had problems with measurements of the inner core's excess spin.

    Now, 9 years later, the original claimants are back with persuasive evidence that the inner core really is spinning faster than the rest of the planet. Not as fast as it first seemed, but possibly fast enough to help probe the nature of Earth's layered interior.

    On page 1357, four seismologists—Jian Zhang and Paul Richards of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York, and Xiaodong Song and Yingchun Li of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign—explain how they reduced the two sources of error bedeviling the original estimate of the inner core's rotation rate. One was the exact location of earthquakes near the South Sandwich Islands in the far South Atlantic Ocean. These moderate quakes send seismic waves down through the inner core and up to a seismograph in College, Alaska.

    Thanks to a woodlike grain to the crystalline iron of the inner core, waves passing through it may slow down or speed up, depending on where they pass through. If the inner core rotates faster than the rest of the planet, quakes striking the same place years or decades apart will send out waves that take slightly different paths through the core. Waves from South Sandwich quakes would arrive in Alaska a little sooner than they did the time before, revealing the inner core's “superrotation.”

    By a nose.

    Seismic waves from a later quake (white, bottom) follow the same path (top) but arrive later because the inner core has rotated more than the rest of the planet.


    Unfortunately, travel times to Alaska depend not only on the amount of inner core rotation but also on the quake's exact location. But seismologists can't tell precisely where such remote quakes are. So Zhang and colleagues hunted for a pair of quakes that have identical squiggles in their seismograms. For the wave shapes to match, the two quakes must take place less than a kilometer apart, says Song, and they probably overlap. Knowing that such doublets are so close to each other, the group could calculate that the travel time of the waves had changed 0.0090 second per year.

    The other source of error is the uneven grain of the inner core. Nine years ago, this grain variation wasn't known, but Zhang and colleagues have mapped it using a technique introduced by seismologist Kenneth Creager of the University of Washington, Seattle. That information enabled them to calculate a superrotation of 0.3° to 0.5° per year, or about 900 years for the inner core to gain one full revolution on the rest of the planet. That's about a third as fast as Song and Richards's initial estimate of 1996 and a tenth of some later estimates. Seismologists are generally impressed. “This paper removes any lingering doubt as to whether the inner core is rotating at a different rate than the mantle,” says Creager.

    Researchers also seem to be homing in on the size of the excess rotation. Seismologist Guy Masters of Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, has gauged inner core rotation at 0.1° per year, using an independent method that involves the quake-driven, bell-like ringing of the planet. “I'm happy with 0.2° [or] 0.3°” per year, he says, a range within the error of his estimate. Researchers can now consider what the observed superrotation says about Earth's interior or changes in the length of a day. It might help test computer simulations of how the outer core generates the magnetic field, says geophysicist Bruce Buffett of the University of Chicago, Illinois. That's a lot for a little extra spin.


    Sky-High Experiments

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi

    Using construction cranes to reach above towering treetops, scientists are achieving a better overview of forest ecology and how trees contribute to global climate change

    Plant ecologist Christian Körner of the University of Basel, Switzerland, goes to work by soaring into the sky on a construction crane. He and his colleagues squeeze into a four-person cage and, in 30 seconds, are carried up 30 meters. The crane operator guides the gondola to the end of the 45-meter-long boom and slowly lowers it, leaving Körner and his colleagues dangling just above the 30-meter-tall treetops of the Swiss forest they're studying.

    Körner's first ride more than a decade ago was an eyeopener. “The canopy was not the green carpet we thought, but highly structured, with peaks, gullies, canyons, and deep gorges among some crowns,” he recalls.

    Once a novelty, cranes have become essential for sorting out forest dynamics, say ecologists. Most of a tree's photosynthesis occurs in its canopy—the upper leaves, twigs, and branches—and 40% of the world's terrestrial species live there. From their lofty perches on cranes, researchers have been counting species and studying leaf and tree physiology for more than a decade. More are now turning their attention to global change. Körner, for example, wants to know how forests capture greenhouse gases. On page 1360, he and his colleagues report findings from the first phase of a long-term experiment looking at carbon dioxide's effects in established forests. “[This study] is our first real glimpse of how mature forests might respond to increasing concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide,” says Kurt Pregitzer, an ecologist at Michigan Technological University in Houghton.

    Körner is among several hundred ecologists, plant physiologists, taxonomists, and conservationists who have moved their studies off the forest floor to the more productive upper layers. These researchers work at about a dozen crane sites scattered around the world (see map, below). But if they can cobble together a relatively modest amount of money, these researchers have even more ambitious plans. In an effort called the Global Canopy Program (GCP), Körner and his colleagues are pushing to double the number of research cranes and train more students, scientists, community leaders, and educators in their use.

    Lofty goal.

    Placing cranes in new places will fill out the network of existing crane research plots and lead to better integration of canopy studies.


    From the top

    Linking the earth and sky, canopies harvest energy from the sun and create organic matter. They provide moist and dry spots, as well as warm and cold pockets, making possible a huge diversity of forest fauna. Canopies also play a role in global climate change, although researchers have yet to pin down exactly how. For example, trees suck in carbon dioxide for use during photosynthesis, whereas microbes release it by degrading fallen canopy leaves.

    Although forest researchers are often willing to don climbing equipment to scale tree trunks or build walkways that sway among the branches, these strategies afford only a partial view of the canopy. The tops of trees either can't be reached from below or can't support the weight of people. In contrast, cranes offer a top-down perspective that forest researchers have wanted. In the past 15 years, “cranes have become the symbol of canopy research,” says Kamal Bawa, head of the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment in Bangalore, India.

    In 1992, Alan Smith of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama was the first to get this bird's-eye view of a canopy, using a 40-meter-high crane set up among the trees in a Panama City park. The vista was breathtaking and the view of the greenery below, stupendous. By swinging the crane's boom around in a circle and shuttling the gondola along its length and lowering the cage to different heights, researchers could finally get the big picture of a canopy.

    A second crane was set up in 1997 in a different spot in Panama, a site where some 85 ecologists and taxonomists are now using a range of techniques designed to pin down the number and identities of arthropod species in the canopy. Established in 2003, the arthropod project now has 400,000 specimens and 1080 species in its archives. As it continues, researchers expect to find many thousands more specimens and large numbers of new species. Only with this many samples “can the many patterns of diversity, community organization, and functional roles of individual taxa [in the canopy] be understood,” says forest ecologist Andreas Floren of the University of Würzburg, Germany.

    Once Panama's cranes began proving their worth—typically the investment requires several hundred thousand dollars per site—other groups began procuring cranes for temperate sites. In 1999, Körner used a helicopter to deposit a crane in a century-old Swiss woodland, whose trees tower 30 or more meters above the ground. Despite the importance of biodiversity studies, Körner took another tack with his crane. “A logical next step [was] getting involved in the larger process studies,” including experiments related to greenhouse effects, he says.

    Until Körner's project, those studying the forest effects of increased carbon dioxide had limited their attention to young trees—no taller than 16 meters and primarily in single-species plantations of sweet gum or loblolly pine. In these younger forests, ecologists pumped carbon dioxide from towers to blanket the young trees. However, they could not apply this technique to taller, more mature trees.

    Körner overcame this drawback by placing 10 kilometers of drip irrigation tubing among the upper branches of a 500-square-meter plot. His team pumped carbon dioxide through the tubing, delivering 50% more than ambient concentrations to each tree. “My prime intention was to break the technological barrier that so far limited research to young, vigorously growing trees,” Körner explains.

    The carbon dioxide pumped through the tubing incorporated more than the usual amount of an unusual carbon isotope, distinguishing it from the gas absorbed normally from the atmosphere. In this way, Rolf Siegwolf and Sonja Keel of the Paul Scherrer Institute in Villigen, Switzerland, were able to track the fate of the extra carbon as it cycled through the forest ecosystem. At the same time, Körner's graduate student Roman Asshoff monitored tree growth. “This is certainly a much more realistic approach than studying potted plants or young trees in plantations,” says Yves Basset, an STRI entomologist.

    By focusing on mature trees and extending measurements to the ground, Körner was able to assess tree-soil interactions. Whereas young trees use extra carbon to speed up growth, mature ones don't, he and his colleagues report in this week's issue of Science. Instead, much of this carbon winds up in the roots, ultimately moving into the soil, where microscopic fungi take up much of it. Thanks to microbial activity, “this carbon is rapidly recycled to the atmosphere through the root zone,” says Körner.

    Different species of trees processed the extra carbon differently, but some trends were clear. Overall, carbon in the soil increased by 44%. Furthermore, the makeup of decomposing leaves changed. Lignin, a polymer that combines with cellulose to stiffen trees, dropped by 11%, whereas the amount of starches and sugars increased by 14%. As a result, decomposition sped up. The results highlight the critical connection between the canopy and the ground, says Pregitzer.

    Lift off.

    Körner (right) and his team do their work dangling 30 meters above the ground.


    More labs with a view

    Körner now wants to help carry out larger-scale experiments with several cranes and to replicate the carbon dioxide work around the world in different forest types. About a decade ago, fellow forest ecologists created the International Canopy Network, which now includes more than 750 researchers from 62 countries. In the mid-1990s, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) funded a canopy-research database that has fostered better collection, storage, analytical, and visualization techniques, including three-dimensional representations of the data.

    The 4-year-old GCP, which is complementary to the International Canopy Network, is building on this momentum. It hopes to develop a more global view of biodiversity and climate change effects by doubling the number of existing cranes. Most of the new cranes proposed by GCP would be erected in tropical forests. Brazil, Ghana, Madagascar, India, and Malaysia have already signed on to host these so-called whole forest observatories.

    The key, of course, is finding the money. Over the past decade, only about $4.5 million a year has been spent on canopy work worldwide. Coming up with $17 million over the next 5 years would pay for five of the 10 new observatories called for by GCP. The goal is to have the whole program up and running by 2020. In March, the United Nations Environment Program endorsed GCP's proposal, although to date it has only given GCP $30,000.

    To qualify for the next level of United Nations support—about $500,000 for designing the sites—GCP must come up with $1 million. The five countries tabbed for whole-forest observatories have promised to help fund infrastructure and some of the research. The rest of the money must come from funding agencies of other governments or private foundations, says GCP head Andrew Mitchell.

    The only U.S.-based crane canopy site, in Wind River, Washington, is supported by the National Forest Service (NSF). NSF also provides grants to individual canopy scientists, who pay a “bucket fee” of $185 a day. And the U.S. Department of Energy has a big project on climate change at the Wind River site.

    The uncertain financial picture for GCP's plan isn't preventing some hosts of the new whole-forest observatories from forging ahead. The Indian government has provided the Ashoka Trust with seed money to start a canopy program in western India, and last week, researchers held a planning meeting. Canopy researchers elsewhere are tweaking their activities to conform with the whole-forest observatories protocols.

    Thanks to these efforts, “the focus on canopy research will change from the more-or-less isolated investigations to globally coordinated projects with comparable methods,” says Martin Unterseher of the University of Leipzig, Germany. This integration is essential, he adds, if scientists hope to ever understand the relationship between forest biodiversity and global change.


    New French Agency Tries Out 'Anglo-Saxon Style' Reviews

    1. Martin Enserink

    French researchers are debating the pros and cons of having a National Science Foundation of their own

    PARIS— “Une petite revolution” is how one French newspaper recently described the new National Research Agency (ANR) that in October will start handing out money to research groups across the country. Its modus operandi—selecting research projects based on scientific excellence—is standard elsewhere in the world. But in France, where funds are traditionally given in block grants to institutions and labs and then distributed to individuals, and where being a scientist often means having a lifetime government job, the notion is revolutionary.

    It's also controversial. Many researchers worry that ANR, with a starting annual budget of €350 million ($420 million) that's set to grow rapidly, will eventually cannibalize vaunted government strongholds of French science such as the much larger National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the similarly sized National Institute for Health and Medical Research (INSERM). Moreover, some say that the agency—modeled on long- established outfits like the U.S. National Science Foundation and the German Research Foundation—introduces a type of personal competition that simply isn't right for France. “We have a different organization,” says Edouard Brézin, president of the French Academy of Sciences. “One shouldn't simply copy models from abroad without thinking.” Even researchers who welcome the idea of spicing up research with a bit of competition fear that ANR, operating with a minuscule staff and zero tradition, won't measure up to the quality standards of the foreign examples it seeks to emulate.

    Those concerns don't seem to bother the agency's director, Gilles Bloch. What counts, says the 44-year-old biophysicist and physician, is that the research community has responded overwhelmingly. With almost all of ANR's first 35 calls for proposals now closed, some 5300 applications have poured in on topics such as biotechnology and CO2 capture and storage. More than 600 researchers volunteered to be reviewers. About a quarter of the proposals will receive awards. ANR, Bloch says, “is clearly going to be an important new factor in French science.”

    Grand strategy

    ANR, whose goal is to make research more dynamic, promote excellence, and give young people more opportunities, is part of a larger plan that's still in the works. In February, as debate flared up around a major reform bill, the government decided to go ahead and create the new agency under a temporary legal structure. Researchers are still waiting to see the bill, now promised for the fall (Science, 11 February, p. 829).

    The concept isn't really a break with tradition, Bloch insists: ANR takes the place of two funds, now dissolved, which doled out money on a project-by-project basis: the National Fund for Science and the Fund for Technological Research. They reported directly to the ministry of research, however, and both were widely suspected of being subservient to politics. Besides having a much more generous budget, ANR will be autonomous in selecting grantees.

    Bloch says he looked closely at examples in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany in planning ANR, which he joined early this year after 3 years at a high-level job at the research ministry. But the French agency has some key differences. Scientists receiving ANR money will have to be on the payroll of one of the research institutes or universities, for instance. ANR grants—some half a million euros on average—can be used to help hire a postdoc or technician and pay for instruments or supplies, but they don't pay a researcher's salary. In addition, ANR staff, currently just 30, will be kept well below 100 and will take care only of overall management and quality control. Running the funding programs, including the peer-review process, will be contracted out to research organizations and universities.

    Creative tension?

    ANR director Gilles Bloch hopes to give French science a competitive edge.


    Some researchers doubt whether such a small, central organization can judge so much science. The frantic handling of the first wave of proposals—necessary because rules dictated that the initial budget, resulting from privatizations, had to be spent this year—doesn't bode well, says cell biologist Bruno Goud of the Curie Institute in Paris. A member of one of ANR's scientific councils, he had to help recruit reviewers for stacks of proposals submitted in the large “nonthematic” program. “It was pretty messy,” says Goud. (Finding someone to review a proposal about the sexual life of oysters on short notice was a particular challenge, he recalls.) Still, the agency is a step in the right direction, he emphasizes: “Maybe it will work better next year.”

    Others have been less charitable. Brézin, who co-chaired a committee last year that organized a 6-month national debate about the future of French science, says he and many others in the research community “were never opposed to the principle” of awards based on merit. But the government seems intent on using the agency as a way to attack established research agencies such as CNRS and INSERM, he says.

    Many agree that these flagships of French science can be overly bureaucratic and unwelcoming to new ideas, and that it takes too long before young researchers are allowed to form their own research groups. (Former research minister Claude Allègre recently called them “Soviet-style” institutes.) Last fall, scientists reached a consensus at a meeting in Grenoble for stricter evaluations, fewer rules, and more money, among other reforms. Creating a large new agency, however, was not on the list, says Brézin.

    Brézin and others also fear that ANR may soon outgrow the other funding agencies: The government has promised a budget hike of €240 million next year, or 68%, and a copy of the reform bill leaked in January pegged ANR's budget at almost €1.5 billion—and its effect would be multiplied because it doesn't have to pay researchers' salaries. If this comes to pass, “we will have one giant and a lot of dwarfs,” says Alain Trautmann, the public face of Sauvons la Recherche, a protest movement that brought thousands of researchers onto the streets last year to protest cutbacks in research funding. Trautmann worries that the Anglo-Saxon-style focus on individual competition will put researchers under enormous pressure and isn't convinced that it will lead to more creativity.

    Bloch, who worked as a visiting scientist at Yale University in the early 1990s, says he admires the dynamism of American science but isn't a fan of the stress it creates, either. The French situation, he notes, is very different: Job security isn't at stake here, and INSERM and CNRS aren't under siege. But he believes that the country's scientists must learn to compete more at home if they want to remain competitive internationally. “We can stay as we are,” he says, “and say that the rest of the world should be more like France. But that won't help us.”


    Maya Archaeologists Turn to the Living to Help Save the Dead

    1. Michael Bawaya*
    1. Michael Bawaya is the editor of American Archaeology.

    To preserve ancient sites, pioneering archaeologists are trying to improve the lives of the Maya people now living near the ruins

    Archaeologist Jonathan Kaplan tries to spend as much time as possible exploring Chocolá, a huge Maya site in southern Guatemala dating from 1200 B.C.E. So far his team has mapped more than 60 mounds, identified dozens of monuments, and found signs of the emergence of Maya civilization, including large, sophisticated waterworks that likely required social organization to build.

    But today, instead of digging, Kaplan is lunching with the mayor of a municipality that includes the impoverished town of Chocolá. Kaplan, a research associate with the Museum of New Mexico's Office of Archaeological Studies in Santa Fe, is trying to enlist the mayor's support for a land swap that would give farmers land of no archaeological value in exchange for land that holds Maya ruins. The local people he's trying to help, many of them descended from the ancient Maya, are “clinging by their fingers to survival,” says Kaplan. So, working with a Guatemalan archaeologist, he has established a trash-removal service, hired an environmental scientist to help improve the drinking water, and developed plans for two museums to attract tourists.

    Kaplan and others are in the vanguard of a movement called community archaeology. From Africa to Uzbekistan, researchers are trying to boost local people's quality of life in order to preserve the relics of their ancestors. In the Maya region, the situation is urgent; the vestiges of the ancient Maya may be destroyed in 5 to 10 years unless something is done to curb looting, logging, poaching, and oil exploration, says Richard Hansen, president of the Foundation for Anthropological Research & Environmental Studies and an archaeologist at Idaho State University in Pocatello. Hansen, Kaplan, and others are using archaeology as an engine for development, driving associated tourism and education projects. The resultant intertwining of research and development is such that “I cannot accomplish the one without the other,” says Kaplan, “because poverty is preventing the people from attending to the ancient remains in a responsible fashion.”

    It wasn't always that way. Until fairly recently, Maya researchers were solely focused on the hunt for “stones and bones,” says Hansen. Archaeologist Arthur Demarest of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, says researchers often excavated a site with the help of local workers, only to abandon them when the project ended. Those who lost their income often resorted to looting and slash-and-burn agriculture to survive. “In the wake of every archaeological project is an economic and social disaster,” says Demarest.

    It takes a village.

    In Guatemala's Mirador Basin, Richard Hansen (in white cap and shirt, center) directs scores of trained local workers in restoring an ancient Maya city.


    He offers one of his own projects as an example of what not to do. After employing about 300 people in the early 1990s at several sites in the Petén, the vast tropical forest in northern Guatemala, Demarest left the government with a continuing development plan for the region, much of it federal land. But the federal government brought in outsiders to implement it. Desperate at having lost their jobs, the local people plundered the sites.

    “From that, I learned a lot of lessons,” Demarest says. “Archaeology transforms a region.” In his view, archaeologists themselves must take responsibility for helping the locals succeed. “The days of Indiana Jones, when archaeologists could go to a place, excavate, and then leave without concern about the impact that their actions are having on the people in the area, are gone,” he has said.

    Today, Demarest embraces this responsibility as he excavates part of the great trade route that ran through much of the Maya region, including along the Pasión River and through Cancuen, an ancient city in central Guatemala. He says his project is successful because it operates “bottom up—we're working through the village.” Using ethnographic studies of the Maya people and working with leaders from several villages, Demarest designed a research and community development plan that enables the local people, rather than outsiders, to serve as custodians of their own heritage. The communities choose projects—archaeology, restoration, ecotourism, etc.—and run them with the guidance of experts, earning more than they would by farming.

    One successful enterprise is a boat service, run by the Maya, that ferries tourists down the Pasión River from the village of La Union to Cancuen, now a national park. In addition to generating revenue, the service attracted a variety of agencies that provided potable water, electricity, and school improvements to La Union. The World Bank cited the boat service as one of the 10 most innovative rural development projects in the world in 2003.

    Demarest also helped establish a visitor center, an inn, a guide service, and a campground at the park's entrance. Three nearby villages collaboratively manage these operations, and the profits pay for water systems, school expansions, and medical supplies. “The only way these things are going to succeed is if it's theirs,” says Demarest, who has raised nearly $5 million for community development at Cancuen. Last year, he became the first U.S. citizen to be awarded the National Order of Cultural Patrimony by the Guatemalan government.

    Other archaeologists are trying to achieve similar results in their own field areas. Hansen is exploring the origins, the cultural and ecological dynamics, and the collapse of the Preclassic Maya (circa 2000 B.C.E. to 250 C.E.) in the Mirador Basin. His project has a budget of $1.2 million, with about $400,000 going to development and $800,000 to archaeology. He raised roughly half of the funds from the Global Heritage Fund, a nonprofit organization that helps preserve cultural heritage sites in developing countries. The project employs more than 200 people who earn above-average wages while getting training; Hansen's team has also installed a new water system and bought 40 computers to boost locals' computer skills.

    Looting in the basin has been devastating in the past, so Hansen has hired 27 guards—most of them former looters. They make good guards, he says, “because they know the tricks of the trade.” The project has instilled “a sense of identity” in some residents, although Hansen acknowledges that others continue to loot. “It is a long battle to win the hearts and minds of these people,” he says.

    Learning to lead.

    Guatemalans trained by Arthur Demarest (left) lead tours and carve stone miniatures of ancient monuments (right).


    Although both Demarest and Hansen have won generous grants for their work, they agree that finding funding for community archaeology is “horrific,” as Hansen puts it. Kaplan makes do with about $130,000 each year for his “terribly underfunded” project, although his ideal would be about $800,000. Traditional funders, such as the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), pay for research but not community development, says Demarest. NSF, with its modest budget of $5 million to $6 million, is most interested in the “intellectual merit” of a project, agrees archaeology program director John Yellen, although he adds that the foundation does consider “broader impacts,” including community development. Demarest, who is financed by some 20 organizations including the United States Agency for International Development and the Solar Foundation, says a big budget is a must for community projects: “You've got to have about $400,000 a season to do ethical archaeology.”

    But other researchers say it's possible to run such projects without big budgets. Archaeologist Anabel Ford of the University of California, Santa Barbara, who has been practicing small-scale community archaeology while studying land-use patterns at a large site called El Pilar on the Belize-Guatemala border since 1983, says that she can achieve her community development goals for as little as $12,000 a year. “I actually think it's not about tons of money,” she says. “It's about consistency.”

    Ford operates on an annual budget of $30,000 to $75,000, with funding sources ranging from the Ford and MacArthur Foundations to her own pocket. Within El Pilar's lush tropical forest are numerous temples and other buildings that stand as high as 22 meters. Over the years, Ford has built a cultural center and a caretaker house, and El Pilar now attracts hundreds of ecotourists annually. Ford started an annual festival to celebrate cultural traditions and foster community involvement, and she's organizing a women's collective to sell local crafts. “We've built the first infrastructure at El Pilar since 1000 [C.E.],” she says.

    Whether they operate with big money or on the cheap, community archaeologists face a delicate juggling act between development and research. Ford believes her academic career has suffered because of the time and effort she's invested in development projects. “I would have written much more substantive work on my research at El Pilar,” she says, lamenting that she has yet to finish a book about her work. Kaplan and Demarest say that they spend about half their time on community development, leaving only half for archaeology.

    As impressive and well-intentioned as these and other community archaeology projects seem, at least a few researchers are concerned about unintended consequences. “If you don't understand the local politics, you can really do damage,” says Arlen Chase of the University of Central Florida in Orlando, who has investigated Caracol, a major Maya site in Belize, since 1984. It's difficult to determine just what archaeologists owe the community they work in, he adds. “This is a new endeavor, and we're learning how best to do it,” agrees archaeologist Anne Pyburn, outgoing chair of the Ethics Committee of the American Anthropological Association.

    Despite these concerns, Hansen and his colleagues seem convinced that they're making progress. Guatemalans who were “dedicated to looting and destroying these sites,” Hansen says, are “now dedicated to preserving them.”


    A 'Robin Hood' Declares War on Lucrative U.S. Patents

    1. Eli Kintisch

    A 30-year-old former corporate lawyer says that the U.S. patent system leaves the public with the short end of the stick

    “Did Pfizer get punked by a nonprofit?” That's what patent lawyer and blogger Stephen Albainy-Jenei asked in June after the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) ruled that a Pfizer patent for Lipitor, the $12-billion- a-year cholesterol drug, might be invalid.

    The decision was the latest in a string of successful initial rulings for Dan Ravicher, a 30-year-old attorney and crusader against those patents that he says are bad for the public welfare. He's also used PTO procedures to shoot holes in patents held by Microsoft and Columbia University. Part vigilante, part gadfly, Ravicher has quickly earned a reputation for being part of a new breed of patent attorneys, and one worth watching.

    “The system has been created in a way that makes it difficult to see how it impacts people,” Ravicher says. He believes patent busting could result in cheaper and better consumer products by removing barriers to innovation by the public, which he feels is left out of the equation. He hopes his efforts will inspire others to challenge the system by drawing attention to bad patents.

    Ravicher works through the Public Patent Foundation (PubPat), a nonprofit organization he created 2 years ago. Its actions have already received the attention of intellectual-property insiders. Hal Wegner of Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based Foley and Lardner calls him a “Robin Hood” for the patent world's have-nots. “What he's doing is important,” says healthcare analyst Les Funtleyder of Miller Tabak, a New York brokerage firm. “Nobody's really kept an eye on what pharma's doing from a patent perspective.”

    His corporate opponents won't comment on their plucky new adversary. But critics say the current patent system serves the U.S. economy well by rewarding innovation. They also warn that Ravicher's efforts could backfire by making it harder for makers of low-cost generic drugs to get their products to market.

    Ravicher didn't start out planning to be a burr in the side of corporate America. After graduating from the University of South Florida with a degree in materials science and then the University of Virginia School of Law, Ravicher became a New York patent attorney whose clients included the drug giant Johnson & Johnson. But as he watched small IT companies wage expensive battles against what seemed to him bad patents, he became convinced that the current system “more often than not treated the less-represented unfairly.” By living frugally off his six-figure income and winning a small foundation grant, he managed to put together $90,000 to start the foundation. He's still on a tight budget: Only by persuading his landlord to reduce the rent were he and his girlfriend able to hang on to their Manhattan apartment.

    As the foundation's executive director and only full-time employee, Ravicher supervises a handful of volunteer scientists, occasional grad students, and legal interns as they search for potential flaws in big-name patents. He targets them because he believes they “are causing the most harm.” For example, he says, Pfizer's patent on Lipitor, in force until 2017, precludes other companies from developing “a safer, less side-effect-causing Lipitor.” Spurious software patents, he adds, reduce competition and drive up prices.

    “The more technology becomes a part of life, the more likely the patent system's failings are going to affect daily life.”

    -Dan Ravicher


    Ravicher's tool of choice is PTO's reexamination request system. He claims three recent successes—“three for three [attempts],” crows PubPat director Eben Moglen of Columbia Law School—support his argument that PTO issues extremely lucrative patents based on ideas already in the public domain. His Columbia challenge involved a 2002 patent for the gene-inserting process called cotransformation used in making drugs. The university's fourth such patent, the technology has netted the school hundreds of millions of dollars.

    Ravicher argued that all subsequent claims were identical to the school's 1980 patent. In that patent, he wrote, Columbia had described a process for “generating … DNA molecules” that was identical to a claim in the 2002 request for a way of “producing the proteinaceous material.” Both would result in replicated DNA and translated proteins, he notes. (Facing lawsuits, Columbia later agreed not to assert the patent.)

    In 2003, Microsoft sought to license a file-storage system called FAT, crucial to the operation of Windows. Months later, Ravicher filed a reexamination request on the company's 1996 patent, pointing to two prior software patents that he said rendered the patent obvious. Neither one had been mentioned in paperwork by the examiner who granted Microsoft's patent. (The company says its patents' file system goes beyond its predecessors; after PTO issued its initial approval, attorneys hailed Ravicher's move in the trade press.)

    Last year, Pfizer used its 1999 patent (one of five involving Lipitor) to sue a series of Web sites selling a generic version, atorvastatin, made in Canada. Ravicher argued that the 1999 patent—for the crystalline form of the drug—was obvious in light of two previous Pfizer patents. PTO agreed, arguing that both were in fact crystalline atorvastatin, challenging Pfizer to show otherwise. Last week, Pfizer told PTO the previous forms of the molecule were amorphous, not crystalline, despite having used the word “recrystalized” to describe the process.

    The stakes are high: If successful with final rulings, Ravicher's moves could cost Microsoft millions in licensing revenue and bolster a campaign against Columbia's blockbuster patents. Investors expect generics to defeat the Lipitor patent before its 2017 expiration, says pharmaceutical analyst Jon LeCroy of Natexis Bleichroeder in New York. But Ravicher wants to speed up their progress.

    PubPat's method has been taken up by the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, California, and the Washington, D.C.-based Patients Not Profits is using similar tactics to scrutinize drug and software patents. But not everybody agrees with Ravicher's approach. Skeptics note that lawsuits, although more costly, are much more effective than reexaminations, in which patentees may argue back and forth with examiners and challengers are excluded. For its part, PTO resents the implication that it doesn't represent the public's interest. And attorney Steven Lee of Kenyon & Kenyon in New York City says reexamination requests such as Ravicher's can “screw it up” for other patent challengers, including makers of generic drugs, if the government reaffirms the validity of the patent. Ravicher has a simple answer to that last charge: Bad patents pollute the system, he says, and generics merely seek duopolies.

    Ravicher knows he's fighting an uphill battle. But he says that events such as the 2001 anthrax letter attacks, which spawned a debate over whether the government should break Bayer's patent on Cipro to prepare for bioterrorism, illustrate the flaws of the system. “The more technology becomes a part of life, the more likely the patent system's failings are going to affect daily life,” he says.


    Major Shifts in Climate and Life May Rest on Feats of Clay

    1. Oliver Morton*
    1. Oliver Morton is a writer based in the U.K.

    CALGARY, ALBERTA —From 8 to 11 August, an interdisciplinary meeting organized by the Geological Society of America and the Geological Association of Canada covered topics from life's origins to the future climate.

    When scientists look at the climates of the past, hydrology gets short shrift. What the atmosphere was actually made of—how much carbon dioxide, how much methane, how much oxygen—is the subject of heated debate. How much rain fell out of it is not. But perhaps it should be. Various researchers here explored the possibility that past hydrology matters a great deal because rain makes clays, and clays can play a crucial role in the carbon cycle. Clays, according to Martin Kennedy of the University of California, Riverside, represent “the most intimate relation of the mineralogical and the biological [parts of the earth system]”—and one he thinks has been badly overlooked.

    Take the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, a sudden climate shift 55 million years ago that has recently become a hot topic (Science, 28 February 1997, p. 1267). Billions of tons of carbon, probably in the form of methane, were somehow released into the atmosphere in a geological instant, raising the global temperature by as much as 8°C and radically reshaping the carbon cycle in the oceans. The total amount of carbon that poured into the atmosphere seems to have been similar to that which would be released if humanity burns its way through all the currently accessible fossil fuels.

    Gabriel Bowen of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City has been looking at where all that carbon ended up. Although various measurements suggested that plants on land, encouraged by a climate that was suddenly not just warmer but also a lot wetter, had mopped up the lion's share of the stuff, there was no evidence that the carbon was permanently stored on the continents. Instead, Bowen is exploring the idea that carbon bearing the isotopic signature of land plants ended up in fine particles stuck to clay minerals buried in sediments on the continental shelves. The increased rainfall was creating more clays than usual. Those clays not only helped carbon move from the continents to the seas, but they also protected the carbon when it got there, by shielding it from the predations of organisms.

    Clear as mud?

    Clays washed from land into offshore waters could have altered the carbon cycle, with huge impacts on atmosphere and climate.


    Kennedy, a former petroleum geologist, thinks clays also had a crucial effect on a much earlier chapter in Earth's history: the rise of oxygen shortly before the first animals emerged some 600 million years ago. Some researchers think that such a change in the composition of the atmosphere helped make complex life possible (Science, 17 June, p. 1730).

    Clays, Kennedy argued in one talk, tend to form much more easily in soils where living organisms are around to help break down rock minerals. So before life reached the continents, the rate of clay production would have been far lower, and with it the capacity for clay-assisted carbon burial in shallow seas. After lichens colonized the land, the rate at which clays were formed by the rain and washed into the sea would have risen, boosting the burial of organic carbon offshore. Normally, creatures living in the ocean would have combined that carbon with oxygen from photosynthetic organisms, turning it into CO2. With more carbon buried out of harm's way, Kennedy argues, excess oxygen was free to escape into the atmosphere. Kennedy acknowledges that there is only very limited evidence for lichen at the time, and land plants didn't arise until millions of years later. But he says a variety of circumstantial evidence suggests that the continents were getting more weathered around then.

    Kennedy and Bowen are plowing new furrows in their field. Although soil scientists take for granted the key role clay plays in carbon burial today, most geologists studying the fossil record have yet to apply that lesson to the past. “We have only just realized that we have to think about [the role of clays],” says Thomas Wagner, who presented a paper on swings in the carbon cycle that caused the oceans to lose their oxygen during the Cretaceous period. Wagner has just left the University of Bremen, Germany, to join a soil science group at the University of Newcastle- upon-Tyne, U.K., hoping to adapt methods used to study contemporary soils for his geological work. “We're really at the beginning of something,” he says.

    Kennedy agrees—and thinks the change in the way geologists see sedimentary carbon burial and the connections between continents, continental shelves, and rainfall may challenge current ideas throughout the geological record. “When the pendulum swings, it will swing heavily,” he predicts.


    Specks of Evidence For Ancient Sunburn

    1. Oliver Morton*
    1. Oliver Morton is a writer based in the U.K.

    CALGARY, ALBERTA —From 8 to 11 August, an interdisciplinary meeting organized by the Geological Society of America and the Geological Association of Canada covered topics from life's origins to the future climate.

    The ozone hole that has afflicted high southern latitudes for the past couple of decades has little to recommend it. But it's been a useful calibration device for Barry Lomax and colleagues at the University of Sheffield, U.K. Ozone depletion may have played a role in various past extinctions, but ozone doesn't leave much of a fossil record. Now, by studying spores from club mosses on South Georgia, a small British island east and a little south of the Falklands, Lomax thinks he may have found a way to tease out fossil ozone levels.

    Spores and pollen need to protect their DNA while they blow around the world. Some plants impregnate the particles' coats with pigments that absorb ultraviolet light, especially DNA-damaging UV-B. Lomax told the Calgary meeting that the level of these pigments in South Georgia spores had increased as the ozone hole had deepened over the years. In the tropics, samples of the same species showed no change in protective pigment over the same time period—but the levels increased in mosses that grew at higher altitudes, where the UV is more intense.

    Connect the dots.

    Club-moss spores (right) may show whether today's hole in the ozone layer had a Permian precursor.


    Using this benchmark, Lomax and his colleagues hope to find evidence for ozone depletion in ancient spores that still bear the chemical traces of these pigments. To start with, they are studying the Permian period, at the end of which Earth suffered its greatest mass extinction. Oxygen levels are thought to have dropped considerably over the Permian, and fossil pollen studies may show whether ozone followed suit.

    Lee Kump, an earth scientist at Pennsylvania State University, University Park, has a theory that predicts massive ozone loss at the end of the Permian, so it's no surprise he was excited by the prospect of a new technique that might back up his ideas. But “there's no shortage of ways to destroy ozone at the end of the Permian,” he admits. “The guy sitting next to me had one, too.” Hydrogen sulfide escaping from an anoxic sea (Kump's choice), vast outbursts of methane (his neighbor's), ozone-destroying chemicals made by volcanoes, or even an asteroid or cometary impact could all have done in the ozone layer.

    David Beerling, a professor of paleoclimatology at Sheffield who has overseen Lomax's research, says the Permian is an ideal test case to start with: “It's the big one, because the signal is so strong and there are a lot of terrestrial [rock] sequences” with spores in them. If the technique works out, he hopes to extend it to other periods to see if there's a “bigger picture” in the history of ozone depletion throughout the time that plants have been around to record its effects.


    Storms Bow Out, But Boughs Remember

    1. Oliver Morton*
    1. Oliver Morton is a writer based in the U.K.

    CALGARY, ALBERTA —From 8 to 11 August, an interdisciplinary meeting organized by the Geological Society of America and the Geological Association of Canada covered topics from life's origins to the future climate.

    For a tree battered by its gusts, a hurricane is nothing but trouble. But it's just a welcome late summer downpour for those out of harm's way. That downpour carries with it an intriguing isotopic marker that seems to make tree rings a better repository of the hurricane record than meteorological measurements or historical records.

    Claudia Mora, a geochemist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is leading an interdisciplinary study of the isotope markers that hurricanes leave in tree rings. All evaporation and precipitation cycles have an effect on the oxygen isotopes in water, a process known as Rayleigh distillation. But in hurricanes the effect is particularly striking, with rainwater strongly depleted in oxygen-18. In plants with shallow roots, such as longleaf pine, this isotopic signature gets quickly incorporated into wood.

    Gone with the wind—not.

    Long after this hurricane fades, oxygen isotopes in tree rings will bear witness to its might.


    Mora and her colleagues have made detailed studies of the isotopes in the tree rings of longleaf pines from Lake Louise in Georgia. Over the past century, they found a strong oxygen-isotope signal in the wood laid down in the latter part of growing seasons marked by hurricanes. By studying dead trees preserved in water and swamps, they have extended the record back several centuries.

    Tree rings from the 18th century showed what seems to be the first mainland evidence of the “Great Hurricane of 1780” that ravaged Cuba. Mora also found 40 years in the late 16th and early 17th centuries with “no evidence of a single hurricane impacting the isotopic balance.” That coincides with a previously studied period of intense drought in the African Sahel. Hurricane frequency and Sahel rainfall are correlated, so that 40-year hurricane-free patch looks very plausible—and the technique quite robust.

    The challenge now is to extend the isotope technique to other sites and to tie it to other factors influencing hurricanes. The data seem to show ways of distinguishing different sorts of hurricanes, and also to tease apart different phases of climate oscillations that seem likely to be linked to the conditions that give rise to hurricanes, such as the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (Science, 1 July, p. 41).

    Climatologists “are still trying to work out what the decadal and multidecadal controls on hurricane frequency are,” Mora says. But even a century-long instrumental record may not be enough, she adds: “What we're trying to do is give them 500 years [in which] to see patterns.”

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