Random Samples

Science  28 Oct 2005:
Vol. 310, Issue 5748, pp. 616

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  1. New Guinea Back in Time


    This wooden female figure was carved by people in Papua New Guinea around the 16th century. Carbon-14 dating has revealed the vintages of this and other New Guinea carvings, surprising scientists who assumed that no wooden objects could survive that long in the tropical climate.

    The sculptures are part of a large collection donated by New York entrepreneur John Friede to the de Young Museum in San Francisco, California. When Friede asked scientists to date 145 artifacts—most collected around the turn of the last century—“nobody expected these things to be older than a few generations,” says Gregory W. L. Hodgins, an archaeologist and biochemist at the University of Arizona, Tucson. But dating at the National Science Foundation-Arizona Accelerator Mass Spectrometer Lab revealed 33 to have been created before 1670, and a mask was dated back to the 7th century C.E.

    The Neolithic revolution—when farming took hold, enabling society to diversify—did not occur in New Guinea until the 16th century, says Hodgins. “That is such a huge event…. To have artifacts from before that is breathtaking.”

  2. Big Fish

    Two dominant cichlids in a territorial confrontation. CREDIT: SABRINA BURMEISTER

    A new study of tropical fish shows that when given an opportunity for social advancement, a meek male can quickly turn into a macho one—and this transformation is triggered by a dramatic burst of gene expression in the brain.

    The study, by researchers at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, and Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, was published in the November issue of PLoS Biology and focused on mating behavior in the cichlid Astatotilapia burtoni. Dominant males, the only ones that reproduce, are marked by bright coloring, larger testes, and aggressive behavior. Subordinate males can “ascend” to dominant status, but it's not clear under what circumstances, says lead author Sabrina Burmeister, now at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

    To find out more, the team allowed small groups of male and female fish to interact over 2 weeks, then removed the dominant male. It took only minutes for some of the subordinates to change color and develop dominant behavior. Upon killing the fish, the team found that expression of egr-1, a brain gene related to reproductive maturation, more than doubled in the newly dominant males.

    Gregory Ball, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, says the study shows that social cues alone can have “powerful” effects on gene expression in the brain. “It is quite reasonable to speculate that other species, including humans, who regularly encounter complex social situations, … also exhibit such expression,” he says.

  3. Stem Cell Slide?

    Although many believe human embryonic stem (hES) cell research in the United States is suffering because of government restrictions, it's hard to come by data on the issue. But Aaron Levine, a Princeton University doctoral student in science and public policy, has given it a try. He compared the number of hES cell-related publications since such cells were first derived in 1998 with numbers of papers appearing in five other hot fields of biotech during the 6 years following their introduction. The proportion of papers from U.S. authors fell from 41% (of a total of 41 papers) in 1998 to 30% (of 193) in 2003.

    The U.S. combined percentages of papers in the other five fields, including DNA microarrays and RNA interference, were consistently higher, going from 74% in the first year to 51% in the sixth. Levine offers some possible explanations, including that more research may be conducted in the U.S. private sector, where there is “less incentive to publish.” However, his own conclusion is that for hES cell research, the U.S. “is indeed falling uncharacteristically behind.” The paper appeared in the 14 September issue of Politics and the Life Sciences.

  4. Acid Sketch


    Is it art? No, it's phenyl threonine, one of the amino acid building blocks of protein, magnified 20 times. It won sixth prize in Nikon's 2005 Small World exhibit unveiled this month.

  5. Awards

    Genomics pioneer. Robert H. Waterston received the $200,000 Peter Gruber Foundation Genetics Award last week at the American Society of Human Genetics meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah.

    Waterston, a geneticist at the University of Washington, Seattle, and his colleagues helped bring the human genome within reach by sequencing a nematode, showing that whole-genome projects were possible. While at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, his team helped complete the human genome as well as the chimp and mouse genomes. Waterston led the push to have sequence data released immediately on the Internet, helping usher in high-throughput biology while maintaining small-lab values.

    “He is genuinely a role model for how you can do big science in a very personal way,” says Jeffrey Murray, a geneticist at the University of Iowa, Iowa City. The prize has been awarded since 2001. Past winners include Nobel laureate Robert Horvitz.

  6. Jobs


    Back to academe. John Graham, the Bush Administration's controversial regulatory czar, is leaving in February to become dean of the Pardee RAND Graduate School, a public policy institution in Santa Monica, California.

    Graham, 49, came to the White House's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) in 2001 from Harvard, where he founded a risk-analysis think tank whose studies were often criticized as pro-industry (Science, 14 December 2001, p. 2277). Graham's efforts to bolster the role of OIRA in shaping agency regulations have drawn fire from public interest groups. And his new standards for peer review of agency documents drew criticism from many scientific groups before they were scaled back (Science, 23 April 2004, p. 496).

    But environmental policy expert Jonathan Wiener of Duke University School of Law in Durham, North Carolina, praises Graham for requiring agencies to review regulations more rigorously early in the process, resulting, for example, in a strong Environmental Protection Agency diesel-emissions rule. As for the peer-review standards, “it's too soon to tell what the impact will be,” Wiener says.


    Global solutions. Organic chemist Goverdhan Mehta is the new president of the International Council for Science (ICSU), an independent organization comprising national societies such as the United States's National Academy of Sciences, as well as international scientific unions.

    Mehta, a professor at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, began his 3-year term last week as ICSU rolled out plans for increasing the role of scientists in mitigating the effects of natural disasters such as the Kashmir earthquake and Hurricane Katrina. The organization also launched a polar research initiative that, among other goals, aims to increase understanding of climate change.

    “These are really mega-issues of international dimension,” says Mehta, 62, who succeeds zoologist Jane Lubchenco. “They require the involvement of a body which can access talent and expertise and cut across countries and disciplines.”

    Medicine monitor. A Food and Drug Administration (FDA) insider has been named the new director of the agency's Office of Drug Safety. Gerald J. Dal Pan, who currently oversees the Division of Surveillance, Research, and Communication Support in FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, will take on the high-profile post that's been vacant for 3 years.

    The drug safety office keeps an eye on approved medications and ensures that companies complete promised post-marketing studies. After Vioxx was pulled from the market by its maker last year and questions arose about the pediatric safety of antidepressants, FDA officials came under fire for giving insufficient funding and independence to the office. Although the appointment of a new director is welcome, “this doesn't change the fact that the FDA needs to be restructured so that the drug safety office is truly independent from the office that reviews new drugs,” Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), who has led FDA hearings, said in a statement.

  7. Nonprofit World


    Sharing a treatment. An experiment that uses stem cells from bone marrow to treat heart failure worked so well on Ian Rosenberg that the 70-year-old retired U.K. fashion businessman has launched a charity to test it on others. In the last year, his Heart Cells Foundation has raised more than $1.5 million and this fall is backing the first large-scale U.K. clinical trial at the Barts and The London NHS Trust hospital.

    As part of the trial, researchers aim to treat 700 cardiomyopathy patients over 4 years by taking stem cells from their hips and injecting them into the coronary arteries or heart—or by injecting growth factor drugs in an attempt to cause stem cells to spill out of the bone marrow and into the bloodstream. In smaller trials conducted over the past 5 years, the therapy has produced mixed results. But it worked for Rosenberg, who received the treatment 2 years ago at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University Hospital in Frankfurt, Germany. It “has given me years I never thought I would have,” he says.