Random Samples

Science  11 Dec 2009:
Vol. 326, Issue 5959, pp. 1463

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  1. Retro Science


    In the early days of blood transfusion, a colleague of British scientist Robert Boyle transferred blood from a lamb to a man (left). Such practices were banned in the 1670s because of often-fatal immune reactions. This image is included in a new online exhibit of pathbreaking papers published by Britain's Royal Society, which turns 350 years old in 2010.

    At the society's new Web site, trailblazing.royalsociety.org, history buffs can browse 60 papers along with brief introductions by experts. The oldest is a 1666 paper by Boyle suggesting experiments transfusing blood—which was thought to have properties now ascribed to genes—among dogs. The most recent paper, from 2005, analyzes techniques for geoengineering: altering Earth on a massive scale to curb climate change. Other works include Newton's revelation that white light is a blend of other colors, van Leeuwenhoek's discovery of bacteria in rainwater, a test of Einstein's theory of general relativity during the 1919 eclipse, and musical examinations of the 8-year-old Mozart.

  2. Magic Mushroom

    EcoCradle chunk.

    A micrograph of mycelium (inset).


    Yum yum. Looks like a marshmallow bar with pistachios and coconut. Actually, although not as tasty as it looks, it wouldn't hurt you to eat it. It's a new invention called EcoCradle: packing material based on the roots—mycelium—of mushrooms. The stuff sprouted from the brains of two Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute graduates, Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre. Noting how mushroom roots bind bits of forest detritus together, they have perfected a method of getting mycelium to grow around rice, cottonseed, hazelnut, and buckwheat hulls. The resulting material is popped into an oven to firm up. A cubic centimeter of the stuff contains about 700 meters of mycelium, which gives it its strength. The inventors say it's totally biodegradable and no more costly than polystyrene, which now occupies about 25% of landfill space in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

  3. Nation of Flab

    Obesity is edging ahead of smoking as a health hazard in the United States, say researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

    A team led by Susan Stewart, a researcher who studies aging, has come up with some hard numbers on the skyrocketing problem: In the past 15 years, smoking has decreased by 20%, but the number of fat Americans has increased by 48%. By 2020, the team calculates that obesity will rob an 18-year-old of 0.7 years of life on average and 0.9 years of “quality of life.”

    The average gain for an individual from not smoking—0.3 years—is more than offset by the loss of more than a year from weight gain, the authors reported last week in The New England Journal of Medicine. Even if obesity increases level off to as little as 0.15% per year, they'll swamp overall gains from nonsmoking by 2020.

  4. Three Q'S


    Last week, Nobelist Eric Kandel, a neuroscientist at Columbia University, was interviewed on stage at Rockefeller University after a screening of a documentary on his life, In Search of Memory, as part of his 80th birthday celebration. Following is a condensed version of some of his remarks.

    Q:You've said that the 20th century saw the merging of psychology and biology. What recent advances excite you?

    Until quite recently, there has been very little hard data [on the effectiveness of psychotherapy]. In the last 20 years, people have done … systematic studies that show that cognitive behavioral therapy is as good if not better than selective serotonin uptake inhibitors in moderate depression. Moreover, imagistic studies in obsessive-compulsive neurosis and depression have shown an abnormality in the brain. That's remarkable progress.

    Q:Synaptic plasticity is a central concept in your work on memory. You've been working with Aplysia since 1962. What else do you think we can learn from these lowly snails?

    With almost all kinds of synaptic changes, there is a parallel change in the excitability of nerve cells. For example, in Aplysia, a number of neurons fire spontaneously, in bursts. If you [stimulate] a bursting cell [synaptically], you can change its bursting activity for long periods of time [which implies plasticity not only in the synapse but the neuron itself]. This just blew me away. [But] I've never come back to it.

    Q:What should we think about the rise of biotech and the mingling of the private and public sectors?

    I was raised in an environment in which … having any connection to the commercial realm … was bad. And then, Genentech came along. My policy is that once a problem that I work on moves into a company I'm associated with, I don't work on it any more in the lab. It would be very awkward if the people in your lab felt that your approval of their research depended on the financial gain you would have from it.