News this Week

Science  19 Mar 2010:
Vol. 327, Issue 5972, pp. 1434

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  1. Fusion

    Budget Red Tape in Europe Brings New Delay to ITER

    1. Daniel Clery

    The projected start of the ITER fusion reactor in France looks set to slip by another 10 months. Although the new completion date of November 2019 for construction may seem like a minor schedule alteration for the multibillion-dollar research reactor, it is the tip of a large iceberg of negotiations over management structures, design changes, cost increases, and risk mitigation that has gripped the project for the past 2 years (Science, 13 November 2009, p. 932).

    The latest proposed delay was revealed last week by William Brinkman, director of the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science, at a meeting of scientific advisers to the government's fusion research program. Science has learned that it stems in part from budgetary problems in approving contracts by the European Union. “Europe turned out [to be] a weak link. … [It] must fulfill its commitments,” Russian researcher Yevgeny Velikhov, who chairs the ITER Council, told Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in February, according to an official transcript of the meeting. Still, fusion researchers who spoke with Science say they are confident that this and other hurdles can be worked out in time for a meeting of the ITER Council in June, removing perhaps the final obstacles to starting ITER construction.

    ITER aims to harness fusion—the process that powers the sun and stars—to produce usable amounts of energy. Its site, in Cadarache, France, has been ready for about a year, and components are being built by all of the ITER partners—China, the European Union, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and the United States. But the partners still have not agreed to ITER's detailed design, schedule, and joint costs, together known as the project baseline.

    Most of the reactor components are manufactured by each partner's home industry and delivered to Cadarache as contributions in-kind. The manufacturing jobs were divvied up in an agreement drafted in 2005–06, but most partners found out later that they had underestimated the cost of what they had agreed to. The United States, which had estimated a $1 billion bill, is now looking at somewhere between $1.4 billion and $2.2 billion. The European Union, as host, will build 45% of the reactor, and so its cost increases are the largest.

    In June 2008, the ITER Council pushed back the date for the reactor's first plasma by 2 years, to 2018. Last November, the European Union requested further delays, but the other partners wanted to push ahead. Part of the problem lies in the European Union's desire to build prototypes of two key elements—its parts of the vacuum vessel that surrounds the plasma, and half of the toroidal field coils that hold the plasma in place—before making the final items. A 2018 start-up would require the European Union to begin building the manufacturing facility before the prototypes were finished and tested, running the risk of requiring expensive changes to a partly built facility.

    E.U. officials have insisted that they asked for more time to mitigate such risks. But fusion researchers who spoke with Science on the condition of anonymity say there is another reason. According to E.U. financial rules, officials cannot sign a deal with a contractor unless funding for the whole contract is available. Yet E.U. nuclear research funding is approved in 4-year chunks, and the current budget, which runs through 2011, doesn't cover the now-inflated costs. “The E.U. cannot promise money it doesn't have,” says one researcher.

    Some contracts for ITER's components may be worth hundreds of millions of euros over 7 or 8 years, and the European Union simply doesn't have enough money in its current coffer. Insiders say there was talk of a loan from the European Investment Bank—an E.U. institution—to guarantee the contracts, but some E.U. member states rejected that idea. The European Union would not confirm any budgetary problems, saying that the current schedule “would have entailed extraordinary measures to accelerate activities in the building phase … and would increase unnecessarily risk and associated costs.”

    Assembly required.

    Europe wants to make prototypes of its parts for the ITER reactor (above).


    The E.U.'s proposal to last November's ITER Council meeting was for a 2020 start, but the other partners refused. Last month in Paris, delegates provisionally compromised on November 2019. Velikhov's conversation with Putin is one of several signs that ITER partners are exasperated by the delays. The 2011 budget request to Congress by President Barack Obama would cut ITER spending next year by $55 million, to $80 million. The lower figure is “a reflection of the pace of ITER construction as of the end of 2009,” U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu told a Senate spending panel last month.

    The ITER organization is now adjusting the baseline document to the new schedule for review by two advisory panels before seeking final approval by the ITER Council in June. Researchers remain hopeful that agreement on the baseline will remove the logjam slowing ITER construction. “There's a sense that ITER is reaching a turning point, moving in a positive direction,” says Steward Prager, director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. Positive, yes; but it's not moving there fast enough for some.

  2. Anthrax Investigation

    Silicon Mystery Endures in Solved Anthrax Case

    1. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

    What about the silicon?

    That question has confounded investigators throughout the probe into the 2001 anthrax letter attacks, which the U.S. government formally concluded in February. Scientists inside and outside the government say there is clear evidence that the high levels of silicon found in the anthrax came not from anything added to “weaponize” the anthrax spores—as researchers had suggested early in the probe—but from the culture in which the spores were grown. That evidence may have settled the issue of whether the anthrax was weaponized, at least for scientists familiar with the case. But it raises a different question: Why did the mailed anthrax have such a high proportion of spores with a silicon signature in comparison to most other anthrax samples?

    The answer, according to academic scientists who helped with the case, probably would not change the FBI's conclusion that the attacks were the sole handiwork of now-deceased U.S. Army researcher Bruce Ivins. But it could help illuminate exactly how the attack material was prepared. Resolving the mystery might also pave the way for new techniques using trace elements in a bioterrorism agent to link it to its source.

    “There's tremendous interest in using metal signatures as a forensic tool,” says Adam Driks, an anthrax researcher at Loyola University Chicago in Illinois. But the science to do that is lacking: “We know very, very little about the diversity of elemental composition within spores when they are produced in different ways.”

    Closer look.

    Michael (above) saw silicon well inside individual spores, visible as the green lining in the top right image.


    The FBI's scientific case against Ivins rests on DNA tests showing that the mailed anthrax came from a flask under Ivins's control at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick, Maryland. Investigators also had the attack material chemically analyzed, first at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP) in Washington, D.C., within weeks of the attack. Examining the spores under a scanning electron microscope, AFIP scientists detected silicon and oxygen and concluded that the spores had been coated with silica to make them float easily, enhancing their power to kill.

    A more detailed analysis by Joseph Michael and Paul Kotula of Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, contradicted that conclusion. Studying individual spores with a transmission electron microscope, they found that the silicon was located within the spore coat, well inside the cell's exosporium (outermost covering). By contrast, when they looked at surrogate spores weaponized with silica, the silicon was clearly outside the exosporium.

    But the Sandia study, presented last September to a National Academies panel reviewing the science behind the investigation, still leaves questions. Out of 124 spores from a letter mailed to Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Michael found the silicon-and-oxygen signature in 97—78% of the sample. The signature was present in 66% of a sample from a letter to former Senator Tom Daschle and in 65% of spores from a letter sent to the New York Post.

    Out of nearly 200 other anthrax samples from different labs, none came close to displaying such a prominent silicon signature. The highest, in a sample from Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, was 29%. The researchers couldn't find silicon in the coat of a single spore out of some 300 taken from RMR-1029, the flask in Ivins's lab identified as the source of the bacteria used in the attacks; they concluded that all the silicon had come from the culture.

    The unusually high percentage of silicon-bearing spores in the attack material “is a bit of a strange thing,” says Michael. “We have no way of knowing how they were really grown.” An anthrax researcher who did not wish to be named calls it “awfully weird” and “a particularly inconvenient exception” because it leaves a gap in the case. However, neither scientist thinks the anomaly casts doubt on the broader investigation.

    The key to the mystery likely lies in the culture medium the perpetrator used to grow the anthrax spores, says Michael. In a recent study, Japanese researchers grew colonies of Bacillus cereus—a close relative of the anthrax bacterium, B. anthracis—in culture media with and without added silicate. Spores grown in the silicate-containing culture showed silicon within the spore coat. In the absence of silicate, there was no silicon, the group reported in January in the Journal of Bacteriology.

    One of the study's authors, microbiologist Akio Kuroda of Hiroshima University in Japan, says the precise amount of silicon in individual spores from the anthrax letters could offer clues about the medium. “If the anthrax spores contained a high amount, the suspect must have used a medium that was supplemented with silicon or that intrinsically contained a lot of silicon,” Kuroda says. “If a thorough testing of various media sold in the U.S. identifies a few that contain higher amounts of silicon, those could become an investigative clue.”

  3. Psychiatry

    Beyond DSM: Seeking a Brain-Based Classification of Mental Illness

    1. Greg Miller

    If a fright or despondency lasts for a long time, it is a melancholic affection.
    , Aphorisms, 400 B.C.E.

    Since the time of the ancient Greeks, mental disorders have been classified according to their outward signs. But even in Hippocrates' day, attention was paid to the underlying causes. The word “melancholy” derives from the Greek word for black bile, an excess of which was thought to cause prolonged sadness.

    Modern research in neuroscience and genetics has provided a more sophisticated understanding of mental illness, and harnessing this knowledge to improve the diagnosis of psychiatric disorders was a major impetus for undertaking a revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) (Science, 12 February, p. 770). But even some of those leading the revision say there's still too little known about the biological basis of mental illness, and as a result DSM continues to be based on symptoms rather than causes. “We just don't know enough to do a lot better,” says psychiatrist Steven Hyman, the provost of Harvard University and a member of the committee in charge of the new edition, DSM-V.

    A new initiative by the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) aims to foster the research needed to close this knowledge gap. “What we are doing is trying to develop new ways to classify disorders that are based on identifiable neural circuits,” says Bruce Cuthbert, an NIMH psychophysiologist leading the effort, called Research Domain Criteria (RDoC). NIMH expects to start rolling out the project in earnest next month, beginning with a draft document that sketches out five “domains” of mental function that correspond—with varying degrees of confidence—to specific brain regions or neurochemical signaling pathways or both. This new classification isn't intended to compete with DSM anytime soon, Cuthbert says, but it is intended to change the way researchers study mental disorders.

    The impetus for RDoC dates back to Hyman's tenure as NIMH director in the late 1990s. Hyman says he became concerned that the DSM classification of mental disorders was hampering research. Investigators used DSM criteria to frame their research questions, study sections used them to evaluate grant applications, journal editors used them to judge papers, and pharmaceutical companies used them to design clinical trials. At the same time, Hyman says, “it was clear that DSM was a poor mirror of nature.”

    By way of illustration, he notes in a recent review article that the DSM-IV diagnosis of major depression requires that a patient have at least five of nine possible symptoms. In this scenario, it's possible for two patients to receive the same diagnosis with only one symptom in common. Their inner turmoil and its biological roots might differ substantially, but they could easily be lumped together in a study on “major depression.” “We needed some way to break out of the cognitive box and encourage scientists to do research that disregards the current disease boundaries,” Hyman says.

    Hyman's successor at NIMH, Thomas Insel, made this a priority for the institute, and RDoC is the product. The draft document, to be posted on the RDoC Web site* next month, describes five broad mental domains that are present in everyone but whose extremes correspond to mental illness: negative emotionality, positive emotionality, cognitive processes, social processes, and arousal/regulatory systems. It further divides each of these domains into individual entries linked to particular neural circuits. Under negative emotionality, for example, are entries for three specific subtypes: fear (hypothesized to result from dysfunction in the amygdala and connected brain regions), stress and anxiety (linked to abnormalities in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system and stress hormones), and aggression (involving the amygdala and hypothalamus, as well as hormones such as testosterone and vasopressin).

    Faulty circuit.

    The amydgala (red), the hub of the brain's fear circuitry, could feature prominently in a brain-based system to classify mental disorders.


    The current DSM diagnoses don't necessarily map neatly onto the RDoC entries, Cuthbert says, and that's partly the point. “Exactly the problem with the DSM disorders is that they're very heterogeneous and may involve multiple brain systems,” he says.

    Beginning this summer, workshops will bring together groups of experts to refine the RDoC entries and to identify gaps in the current understanding of the genetic risks, neural dysfunction, and behavioral problems associated with each one. Over the next 2 to 3 years, NIMH will encourage researchers to shift from using DSM criteria in their grant proposals to using the RDoC categories.

    One goal of RDoC is to change the current practice of selecting research subjects based on their DSM diagnosis and to encourage studies that use biological indicators instead. A study on anxiety disorders, for example, might examine people who show a heightened amygdala response to frightening pictures, regardless of whether their DSM diagnosis is panic disorder or social phobia. Another study might enroll people with a particular variation of the DISC1 gene, regardless of whether they have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder or schizophrenia (both of which have been linked to DISC1). Such studies are essential for connecting the dots between biological abnormalities and the symptoms of mental illness, Cuthbert says.

    Ultimately, NIMH hopes RDoC will inform clinical practice. In the future, a psychiatrist might examine Hyman's two hypothetical depression patients and diagnose one with anhedonia resulting from a glitch in the mesolimbic dopamine system, and diagnose the other with a disruption in serotonin signaling, coupled with anxiety caused by dysregulation of corticotropin-releasing factor in the hypothalamus. And then, with luck, the psychiatrist would know just what treatment each one requires.

  4. National Science Foundation

    Budget Shortfall Could Derail Plans for Underground Lab

    1. Adrian Cho and
    2. Lauren Schenkman

    A tight budget and unanticipated safety problems are threatening to kill plans to convert an abandoned gold mine in South Dakota into a $750 million deep underground science and engineering laboratory (DUSEL).

    Since 2007, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) has been supporting a team of scientists and engineers developing plans to convert the Homestake mine near the town of Lead into an enormous lab for experiments in fields including particle and nuclear physics and geology and microbiology. Although NSF has not yet agreed to build DUSEL—scientists are hoping for final approval as early as spring 2011 and the start of construction in 2013—NSF is spending $36 million this year on the effort. But its 2011 budget, released last month, requests only $19 million to continue design work, half of what scientists and NSF program staff say is needed to keep the project on track.

    Depth of field.

    DUSEL would carry out experiments by several disciplines at varying depths.


    To make matters worse, a recent review concluded that an additional $73 million is needed in the next 3 years to shore up aging mine shafts and make the space usable for research. That leaves the 2011 request some $40 million short of what's needed next year, Joseph Dehmer, director of NSF's division of physics, said at a meeting last week of the federal government's High-Energy Physics Advisory Panel. Without a significant boost in funding, Dehmer warned the panel, “the project will be phased down in 2011 and 2012.”

    Edward Seidel, acting assistant director of NSF's mathematical and physical sciences directorate, declined to say how the projected shortfall came about. But it does not signify a lack of enthusiasm for the lab, he emphasized: “No one should interpret this as a sign that we're not committed to the project. We understand its fantastic scientific potential.”

    Although $40 million is a drop in the bucket compared with the project's total cost, the money is critical to keeping people together, says Kevin Lesko, a physicist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who heads the design team. “What's in the budget is nowhere near adequate to support that team through 2011,” Lesko says. “To dismantle that team and say, ‘Come back next year,’ that's no way to treat professionals.”

    Part of the problem, according to Dehmer, is that much of the $19 million is already committed to private contractors and DUSEL-related science projects at different universities. As a result, he told panel members, “the amount left for the project office to do the planning does not allow for a viable project.”

    The death of DUSEL, or a serious delay, would have effects that would ripple across the scientific community, says Milind Diwan, a physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York. The blow would fall particularly hard on particle physicists at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois, which hopes in 2018 to begin shooting a beam of particles called neutrinos through Earth to an enormous particle detector hunkered deep within DUSEL.

    Researchers at Fermilab currently shoot a neutrino beam to a detector in the Soudan mine in Minnesota. But the next generation of experiments requires a much longer baseline to accentuate the effects physicists hope to see. The distance from Fermilab to Homestake is twice that to Soudan, and Homestake is also twice as deep, which means that background radiation would be extremely low. “If we didn't open DUSEL, we would be in trouble,” says Pier Oddone, director of Fermilab.

    However, Oddone is optimistic that NSF will remedy the problem before work grinds to a halt. “From what I understand, people in the administration are working very hard to fix this,” he says.

  5. U.S. Science Policy

    MIT Engineering Dean Tapped to Head NSF

    1. Jeffrey Mervis

    The dean of engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge is in line to become the next director of the National Science Foundation (NSF).

    Science has learned that Subra Suresh, 53, has been tapped to succeed Arden Bement, who announced last month that he would be stepping down before his 6-year term ends in November. The National Science Board, NSF's oversight body, was informed last month that Suresh was the White House's pick. He is currently undergoing vetting, a process that could take weeks or longer, and if nominated he would need to be approved by the Senate.

    Subra Suresh


    The Indian-born Suresh is not well known in U.S. science-policy circles. But those who have worked with him rave about his scientific accomplishments in the emerging field of nanobiomechanics as well as his administrative talents. “Subra represents the new style of science and engineering,” says former MIT President Charles Vest, now president of the National Academy of Engineering, to which Suresh was elected in 2003. “He has done amazing work on the mechanics of individual cells, and he's used to working with interdisciplinary teams. As a dean, he has been a leader in helping create powerful interdisciplinary entities such as the new Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, the Center for Computational Engineering, and Transportation@MIT,” an initiative by the engineering, business, and architecture schools to examine the global environmental impact of an increasingly mobile society.

    Suresh declined to comment on whether he was under consideration. But there are indications he's already in step with the Obama Administration. In a January 2009 blog for Technology Review about a “dream stimulus package,” Suresh proposed highspeed railways as a way to “stimulate worker productivity and the economy while reducing our damage to the environment.” The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act included $8 billion for such purposes. Suresh also called on the new president to reverse Bush Administration policies that he said have undermined the nation's “ecosystem of scholarship and innovation … [bringing it] perilously close to a tipping point.”

    A graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai, Suresh received his doctoral degree from MIT in 1981 and taught at Brown University before joining the MIT faculty in 1991. He was chair of the department of materials science and engineering before becoming dean of engineering, the largest of MIT's five schools, in 2007.

    The choice of an active researcher would be a departure from the norm at NSF, which has traditionally been led by senior administrators whose days in the laboratory are mostly a memory. That trait is believed to have put him at the top of the list of candidates to succeed the 77-year-old Bement, who is stepping down on 1 June to lead a new global policy research institute at Purdue University, where he has been on leave.

    Suresh's colleague, Science Dean Marc Kastner, says that his departure “would leave a tremendous hole for MIT to fill. But the scientific community would be lucky to have him at NSF.”

  6. India

    Hardy Cotton-Munching Pests Are Latest Blow to GM Crops

    1. Pallava Bagla

    NEW DELHI—Monsanto has revealed that a common insect pest has developed resistance to its flagship genetically modified (GM) product in India. The agricultural biotechnology leader says it “detected unusual survival” of pink bollworms that fed on cotton containing the Cry1Ac gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which codes for a protein that's toxic to many insect pests. In a statement to Science, Monsanto claims that the finding from western India “is the first case of field-relevant resistance to Cry1Ac products, anywhere in the world.”

    The announcement hands GM critics a new cudgel. It “certainly results in the anti-GM lobby having extra ammunition,” says Fred Gould, an entomologist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. “This should be an eye opener,” says Pushpa M. Bhargava, former director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad and an archopponent of GM crops who helped disallow the Indian government to prohibit commercial planting of GM eggplant (Science, 12 February, p. 767). “India should immediately put a 10-year moratorium on the use and cultivation of GM organisms.”

    In a 5 March statement, Monsanto said that during field monitoring of the 2009 cotton crop in Gujarat state, its scientists collected “large numbers” of pink bollworms from Bollgard cotton, a first-generation GM hybrid expressing a single Bt protein. (Newer Bollgard II hybrids produce two Bt proteins.) Back in the lab, the insects were fed Bt toxins at normally lethal concentrations—and survived. The problem appears to be isolated, but Monsanto says it reported its findings “to key stakeholders so appropriate decisions can be made.” Some say the company aims to shift customers to the pricier Bollgard II.

    Bitter harvest.

    Monsanto claims that in Gujarat, large numbers of pink bollworms supped on Bt cotton—and survived.


    India is the second-largest cotton producer after China. Farmers first sowed GM cotton in India in 2002, and by last year they were cultivating it on 8.3 million hectares, or 83% of the country's total cotton crop, estimates the Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR) in Nagpur. Even before the resistance revelation, Indian farmers were adopting Bollgard II cotton. According to Monsanto, more than 65% of cotton farmers in Gujarat state chose Bollgard II in 2009, and bookings indicate that more than 90% are expected to plant it this year.

    Experts agree with Monsanto's statement that “resistance is natural and expected.” But some dispute Monsanto's claim that this is the first report of Cry1Ac resistance. Bruce Tabashnik, an entomologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, says that nonindustry scientists had earlier reported resistance to Bt crops in South Africa and the United States.

    One prominent researcher questions whether the Gujarat bollworms truly are resistant. Monsanto's conclusions and methodology are “flawed,” charges CICR Director Keshav Raj Kranthi, an entomologist. In 8 years of monitoring Bt cotton, he says, CICR has “not found any resistance.” Kranthi argues that Monsanto “should have analyzed tens of thousands of specimens before making this claim. … It's a mystery why Monsanto is trying to kill its own technology.” Monsanto disputes that charge; it says its resistance tests were “standard practice” but declined to elaborate on its methodology.

    Assuming the phenomenon is real, it's a wonder it took so long for substantial Bt resistance to evolve, some scientists say. “I hope that this episode will cut down on the belief … that Bt has some magical immunity to resistance,” says Gould. If as a result regulatory agencies promote better rules for managing resistance for a range of pests and crops, he says, Monsanto's findings “could be a blessing in disguise.”

  7. 2010 Budget

    China Amasses War Chest to Confront Its Environmental Nightmares

    1. Hao Xin* and
    2. Richard Stone*

    BEIJING—China's third-largest freshwater lake, Taihu, is a microcosm of what is going right—and wrong—in the world's economic dynamo. Buoyed by manufacturing, the two provinces surrounding the lake, Jiangsu and Zhejiang, are enjoying sizzling growth. And Taihu, which provides drinking water for more than 2 million people, sustains one of China's most important fisheries for crabs, carp, and eels. But it is ailing. Nutrient-rich sewage and industrial runoff have turned Taihu into a toxic soup and fueled vast algal blooms in recent summers.

    Taihu and other ecological wrecks are now squarely in the government's crosshairs. In a nod to rising public expectations, China's government work plan for 2010, rolled out last week at the country's two major annual political powwows, puts the environment front and center. At the National People's Congress (NPC), officials announced that science priorities include new energy sources, energy conservation, environmental protection, and marine technology. Plans call for $20.7 billion to be spent mostly on engineering solutions for environmental woes. New initiatives are planned in health and food safety as well (see sidebar).

    Green GDP?

    China plans aggressive measures to clean up messes like Taihu Lake.


    Cleaning up China's Augean stables is critical to the new strategy. At NPC and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), together known as Liang Hui, delegates outlined projects to transform cities and provinces into incubators of a “low-carbon economy.” “We will work hard to develop low-carbon technologies, promote application of highly efficient, energy-conserving technologies, and develop new and renewable energies,” Premier Wen Jiabao declared in a report to NPC.

    Some scientists hail this as a defining moment for China. “I'm optimistic that we can start to bring development and environmental protection into harmony,” says Lu Yonglong, an environmental management professor at the Research Center for Eco-Environmental Sciences of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Beijing.

    Public disaffection over China's myriad environmental ills is rising. One response, from the powerful National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), is a blueprint to clean up hot spots such as Taihu and other polluted sources for the South-to-North Water Diversion Project. This $75 billion plan would redirect water to the arid and heavily populated northeast. Meanwhile, 30 CPPCC proposals promote sustainable development of Poyang, China's largest freshwater lake (Science, 23 October 2009, p. 508). Unlike Taihu, Poyang is fairly clean and offers a testing ground for water-protection measures that are “win-win for ecology and economy,” NPC Vice Chair Hua Jianmin said on the eve of Liang Hui.

    In addition, as part of an effort to “comprehensively improve the rural environment,” NDRC said it would bring under control soil erosion on the Loess Plateau northwest of Beijing and protect the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau's fragile ecology. Toward those ends, Wen vowed in 2010 to “accelerate afforestation, increase forest carbon sinks, and expand our forests by at least 5.92 million hectares.” Tree planting last year hit a target set by the State Forestry Administration to have one-fifth of China's land area forested by 2010, up from 18.2% in 2006. Another program aims to improve “ecological zones around the sources of the Yangtze, Yellow, and Lancang rivers.”

    A more slippery subject is China's aspirations for a “low-carbon economy.” That expression came up over and over in CPPCC meeting sessions and in proposals to the central government. “Low carbon is a hot topic nowadays,” says Chen Junwu, a chemist with China Petrochemical Corp. in Louyang. What those buzzwords mean is another question. “There is a lot of talk but not many specifics,” Chen says.

    On the horizon.

    Wind power and other renewable energy sources could be the key to reducing China's energy intensity.


    At Liang Hui, low carbon appeared to encompass any activity that reduces energy intensity, or the amount of energy consumed per unit of gross domestic product (GDP). In the run-up to the Copenhagen Climate Summit, China pledged that by 2020 it would reduce energy intensity 40% to 45% from 2005 levels. Meeting that goal will be a stretch. At an NPC news conference on 10 March, NDRC Deputy Director Xie Zhenhua noted that efforts to meet a previous goal cut energy intensity 14.38% from 2006 to 2009. But an analysis of GDP growth rates published by China's State Bureau of Statistics and total energy consumption data pegs the decrease at 8.2%, says Chen. The discrepancy may lie in how China's GDP is tallied. Several Liang Hui delegates questioned why the sum of provincial GDPs has been higher than the national GDP for years; in 2009, the difference was more than 8%.

    No matter the precise figure, “increasing energy efficiency by such a large amount is not technically feasible,” asserts He Zuoxiu, a physicist at CAS's Institute of Theoretical Physics in Beijing. Much of China's efficiency savings so far have come from shuttering energy-chugging, high-polluting factories. But China is running out of such soft targets, He says.

    Further gains could be achieved by moving from a manufacturing-driven to a service-driven economy, as developed nations have done. But the structure of China's economy has shifted little in recent years. A more promising approach could be to slash fossil fuel consumption and increase renewable and nuclear energy use. President Hu Jintao has said China would strive to increase nonfossil fuel use to about 15% of total energy consumption by 2020. (It now stands at about 8%.)

    Moving to a low-carbon economy and stemming pollution are immense challenges—and Taihu sums up the complexities. Lu's team recently completed a study for China's National Audit Office of the effectiveness of past cleanup efforts. Although municipalities have made strides in clamping down on industrial effluents into the lake, they have largely failed to tackle pollutants from homes and small businesses. Each province expects the other to take the lead. “It's a tragedy of the commons,” says Lu, president of the International Council for Science's Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment. “There's a long way to go.”

    To speed up progress, Lu advocates installing real-time monitoring systems to identify “who is doing the polluting.” A second idea is for the central government to appoint directors of provincial environmental offices; too many these days are beholden to local interests, including the paramount interest of raising GDP at any cost. “The central government needs to make such reforms,” Lu says. He and others believe the time for action has finally arrived.

    • * With reporting by Li Jiao.

  8. 2010 Budget

    Fresh Momentum for China's Science Juggernaut

    1. Richard Stone*

    BEIJING—Pressing social problems such as the rich-poor gap and the rights of migrant workers eclipsed science at China's annual exercise in socialist democracy: last week's meetings of the National People's Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), or Liang Hui. But science won high praise and a hefty budget boost. Central government spending on science and technology is slated to rise 8% to $24 billion in 2010. And science features prominently in several CPPCC proposals.

    “We need to emancipate our minds and boldly make breakthroughs and innovations,” Premier Wen Jiabao said in presenting the work plan at NPC. He said his government “will make farsighted arrangements” to support several research areas, including nanoscience, climate change, aerospace, and oceanography. Wen also pledged to “energetically attract high-caliber personnel from overseas.”

    According to figures released last month by the State Bureau of Statistics, China's total R&D spending in 2009—from central and local governments and industry—was $79 billion, including $4 billion for basic research. This year, the main basic research funding agency, the National Natural Science Foundation of China, is slated to receive a 30% budget increase to $1.2 billion.

    Although the public has little input into the workings of government, one forum that can effect change is CPPCC, an appointed body whose ranks include sports heroes and other glitterati, scientists, and Communist Party officials. At this year's CPPCC plenary session, 5430 proposals were submitted. Most are expected to be shelved. In recent years, for example, proposals to create better conditions for postdocs and a top scientific journal for China sank without a trace. But a few of this year's proposals have passed party vetting and are being taken seriously, including ideas for forging a low-carbon economy (see main text).

    Reflecting persistent concerns over food safety, several highly rated CPPCC proposals call for a regulatory overhaul and improved surveillance and risk assessment. These jibe with the plans of the government, which last month established a food security committee chaired by Vice Premier Li Keqiang. “It's difficult to change the regulatory system overnight,” says health minister Chen Zhu, a CPPCC delegate. But the new committee will improve coordination, he says. And increased capacity for surveillance and risk assessment, Chen says, “should be enhanced without any delay.”

    One CPPCC delegate has urged the government to pay more attention to rare diseases. The proposal from Li Ding-Guo of Shanghai Second Medical University urges the health ministry to improve tracking of rare diseases and establish an office to oversee orphan drug procurement and ensure insurance coverage. The proposal, which has also passed vetting, “is absolutely right,” says Chen. “Special policies will be made to ensure the availability of essential orphan drugs.”

    • * With reporting by Hao Xin.


    From Science's Online Daily News Site

    Psychopaths Keep Their Eyes on the Prize Whether it involves gambling away one's life savings or committing one murder after another, a psychopath inevitably leaves the rest of us wondering: What was going on in his head? Now researchers report that part of the answer may be hypersensitivity to rewards, which may create a pathological drive for money, sex, and status.

    Carbon-Capture Method Could Poison Oceans To help cool a warming world, some scientists have suggested fertilizing the oceans with iron. The idea is to stimulate vast blooms of phytoplankton, which sequester carbon dioxide. But such an approach could have deadly consequences. Experiments in the sub-Arctic show that phytoplankton in some regions of the Pacific produce domoic acid, a neurotoxin that has killed wildlife and people in coastal areas.


    CSI's Latest Clue—Bacteria Criminals already have to be careful not to leave fingerprints or DNA that could incriminate them. But they might want to carry hand sanitizer, too, ac-cording to a new study that suggests a new way to finger perpetrators from their skin bacteria.

    Pardon, Your Thoughts Are Showing Your thoughts leave a trace—and it's visible. Researchers have successfully identified the memory a person is recalling by analyzing their brain activity. The result offers new insights into how and where the brain records memories and may help scientists understand memory impairments caused by injuries, aging, and neuro-logical conditions such as a stroke.

    Read the full postings, comments, and more on

  10. Research Funding

    Polish Science Reforms Bring Fear and Hope

    1. Elisabeth Pain*

    If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. That's a good motto for those now seeking to reform how Poland funds science. In the 1990s, the country set up an independent agency that would hand out grants to individual scientists selected by peer review and would evaluate Poland's universities and research institutes. In 2002, Poland suddenly dissolved the body. “It was a step backwards,” apparently motivated by the government's desire to exert more control over who got money, says Maciej Zylicz, executive director of the Foundation for Polish Science (FNP) in Warsaw.

    Now it's back to the future. After lobbying by FNP, the Polish Parliament this month began voting on legislation creating a new national agency charged with distributing competitive grants for frontier research. The proposed National Center for Science (NCN), to be located in Krakow, is meant to be free from political pressures and would use an international peer-review system modeled on those of the European Research Council and the U.S. National Science Foundation. NCN would also earmark at least 20% of its budget to grants for scientists under age 35. Michal Kleiber, president of the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN), sees in NCN the type of reform the country's scientific community needs. “No doubt the system in Poland is, in spite of many attempts in the past, still not competitive enough,” he says.

    NCN is expected to soon be approved, but the agency and other science-related reforms under consideration have met with some resistance and skepticism. Money for research should first “be increased two, three, four times for 2 to 3 years, then you can regulate who can use those reasonable [amounts of] money in a good way,” says Julian Srebrny, a nuclear physicist at Warsaw University who is a member of the Committee for the Development of Science in Poland and the Polish trade union Solidarity.

    Twenty years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Poland is still grappling with economic problems stemming from its communist past. According to Eurostat, the Polish government's R&D budget in 2007 was 0.32% of its GDP, representing just 1.03% of the overall budget and placing Poland among the lowest science funders in the European Union. And most of what little money is available goes to research institutes and universities as block grants following an evaluation procedure that fails to adequately reflect differences in performance, says Zylicz. In 2008, less than 12% of the 4101 million zloty (about $1400 million) Poland spent on research was available to researchers submitting proposals outside of predetermined national research priorities, which is far from sufficient, adds Zylicz.

    Reform movement.

    Maciej Zylicz lobbied for changes in Poland's science-funding system.


    The Budujemy na wiedzy (Building Upon Knowledge) reform package aims to change that. It pledges to distribute by 2015 about half of the national research budget to individual scientists via competitive awards made by NCN and the National Centre for Research and Development (NCBiR), a funding agency set up in 2007 to handle applied research proposals responding to national strategic priorities. Another significant change is the plan to regularly submit government-funded research institutions to a more efficient, independent, peer-review evaluation with an aim to promote the best. The reforms put underperforming institutions under “real threat … to be closed down,” Zylicz says. They will receive funding for another 6 months and then “get a limited time to restructure,” adds Poland's undersecretary of state, Jerzy Szwed, who has overseen the reform bills.

    For now, this threat applies mainly to Poland's 200 or so state-owned R&D units, most tracing back to the communist era, although the 70 or so generally well-regarded PAN research institutes will also be evaluated. As part of an even more controversial higher education bill currently under debate, underperforming universities would probably have funding withdrawn too, Zylicz says. Poland would also label the best-performing university departments, as selected by international experts, as centers of excellence. These National Leading Scientific Centers would for 5 years receive more than 10 million zloty (about $3.5 million) annually for research, faculty's salaries, and Ph.D. scholarships.

    Many in the Polish scientific community are concerned with how the reforms will be implemented. “Some careful attention must be paid to research which has a long-term nature and cannot be carried out without stable financing extending over many years,” Kleiber says. “It is important that the evaluation teams consist of independent, well-skilled, and objective experts,” adds Adam Hamrol, rector of Poznan University of Technology and vice-president of the Conference of Rectors of Academic Schools in Poland.

    A big part of getting the scientific community to welcome deep reforms was the Polish government's commitment in 2008 to increase science funding. The global financial crisis has slightly eroded this promise, however. Starting with 5202 million zloty (about $1800 million) this year, the government has pledged to increase funding for research by 13% every year through 2013, extra money that may now go to both NCN and NCBiR. Many scientists still find this too good to be true. It wouldn't be the first time the government promised new funds for science and “nothing happened,” Srebrny says. University of Warsaw plant biologist Stanisław Karpiński, a recently returned Polish scientist, adds that an insufficient increase in the science budget could delay and dilute necessary changes in the Polish science system.

    Many, including Zylicz and Kleiber, advocate implementing the reforms step by step. “There is a general fear of change,” Hamrol notes. But hopes, too, are running high. “We are sure that changes, if well introduced and accepted, will bring tremendous contribution to the further development of Polish science,” says Hamrol.

    • * Elisabeth Pain also profiles Polish scientist Agnieszka Chacinska at, for which she is a contributing editor.

  11. Evolution

    Male Rivalry Extends to Sperm in Female Reproductive Tract

    1. Elizabeth Pennisi

    For males of some species, mating is just the first step toward winning the battle to pass on their genes. Females sometimes mate more than once in quick succession, filling their reproductive tract with rival sperm that must compete for access to the unfertilized eggs. Two groups now show details of what life must be like for those sperm, with one offering unprecedented movies of this sperm competition. On page 1506, Susanne P. A. den Boer of the University of Copenhagen demonstrates that such rivalries in some ants and bees have led to the evolution of seminal fluids containing toxins that impede rival sperm and to female fluids that counter these toxins. Another team, reporting online in Science (, followed red- or green-glowing sperm as they jockeyed their way through the reproductive tracts of fruit flies. Both papers drive home the point that “the competition between males continues in a very fierce way” inside the female, says Tommaso Pizzari, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.

    The papers provide a glimpse of where evolutionary biology research is going: The female reproductive tract is “one of the great, unexplored frontiers for the fields of sexual selection and speciation,” says Scott Pitnick, an evolutionary biologist at Syracuse University in New York state.

    Close quarters.

    Rival sperm, labeled red and green, jostle one another in the Drosophila female's seminal receptacle.


    Pitnick's Syracuse colleague John Belote entered this frontier by developing two fruit fly lines that produce different fluorescent proteins in the sperm head, one green and the other red. After allowing female fruit flies to mate with one strain and then the other a few days later, Pitnick's postdoctoral fellow Mollie Manier videotaped the streams of red and green sperm, tracking their interactions in real time. The first sperm in the reproductive tract swim to the fly's sperm-storage organ, but many are displaced by the second wave of sperm, she found. However, once both males' sperm were settled, they all seemed to have an equal chance of fertilizing an egg.

    “This is one of the most exciting developments in evolutionary and reproductive biology—and will revolutionize the field,” says Tim Birkhead, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Sheffield, United Kingdom. “After seeing these videos, researchers will now think of sperm competition in a new way.”

    Den Boer, University of Copenhagen colleague Jacobus Boomsma, and Boris Baer, now at the University of Perth in Australia, find sperm in some bees and ants do more than physically displace rivals. The team compared sperm dynamics within ant and bee queens that mate only once with ones in which females mate multiple times during a single courtship flight and store sperm for years. For the multiple mating species studied, two leafcutter ants and the honey bee, seminal fluid from a given male enhanced the survival time of its own sperm in a lab dish but damaged unrelated sperm and even sperm from a brother. Adding spermathecal fluid that ant queens make within their reproductive tract countered these effects, says Boomsma. In contrast, seminal fluids from singly mated bumble bees and ants showed none of these negative effects.

    Sperm facing competition have evolved some as-yet-to-be-defined seminal fluid components that somehow recognize and thwart rivals, says Boomsma. But once the sperm reach their destination for long-term storage, the female apparently wants to keep all the sperm healthy and has evolved ways to counter the seminal fluid. This study “beautifully reveals just how nuanced reproduction can be,” says Pitnick. “There will be much to gain from combining our respective approaches.”

  12. ScienceInsider

    From the Science Policy Blog

    Congressional supporters of stem cell research have introduced legislation to codify President Barack Obama's 2009 executive order, which lifted restrictions on the number of human embryonic stem cell lines available to federally funded researchers.

    A University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, anthropologist has criticized the U.S. government for not making better use of social scientists in fighting terrorism.

    The InterAcademy Council, comprised of national science academies, will lead a 6-month review of procedures of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The review will look at transparency, conflicts of interest, and rules pertaining to the quality of data.

    The Israeli government has launched a $350 million effort to lure back Israeli scientists working abroad. The effort will involve 30 new centers of academic excellence, funded by the government, academic institutions, and charities.

    A veteran undersea robot operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution was lost during a research expedition off the Chilean coast. The Autonomous Benthic Explorer (ABE) had reached a depth of 3 kilometers in the first stages of its 222nd dive.

    A long-running battle between the U.S. government and a group of 29 scientists and engineers of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) over privacy rights has now reached the Supreme Court.

    The Royal Society has released a report on the future of scientific research in the United Kingdom that calls for broad funding increases in line with those of other countries that have included scientific research in their economic stimulus packages.

    For the full postings and more, go to

  13. Climate Change

    The Nile Delta's Sinking Future

    1. John Bohannon
    Fragile oases.

    Only 5% of Egypt's land area is inhabited, and some 50 million people pack into the delta north of Cairo that draws life from the waters of the Nile River.


    QALYUBIA, EGYPT—After fighting his way through Cairo's apocalyptic traffic to leave the city, Atef Abd El-Rahman's progress is stalled again, first by a donkey cart ambling slowly ahead and later by a shouting match among several men in the middle of the street. Finally reaching his destination, the engineer at Egypt's Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation (MWRI) leaves the car behind and walks down a path into the quilted fields of a farm. The owner of the land, sipping tea in the shade of a tree, introduces himself as Fathy Abdelaleem. Abd El-Rahman praises the farmer's irrigation system, a network of troughs as intricate as a computer circuit, delivering water to his plants from one of the many canals feeding off the Nile River. Abdelaleem says he dug it and connected it himself to the canal: “Now I have no problem with water.”

    Here in the Nile Delta, starting just a few miles north of Cairo, the world's longest river divides into a fractal pattern of ever smaller rivers, canals, and irrigation ditches. Before the Nile reaches the Mediterranean, every drop of water is put to work by ingenious delta farmers like Abdelaleem, collectively known as the fellahin. Like most, Abdelaleem may have skirted a few laws while constructing his irrigation masterpiece—but then, few fellahin are even aware of the dizzying array of water regulations issued by Cairo. Environmental policing is “more difficult than you might think,” says Essam Khalifa, a deputy director of MWRI. For example, he says, “two-thirds of the wells in the delta are illegal.” A new law will mandate stiff fines for unsanctioned pumping, though similar efforts have had little effect.

    The only aspect of the Nile Delta over which the government exercises firm control is the input of water. The Nile was first dammed by the British in 1902 at Aswan. The Egyptians began construction on the far more massive Aswan High Dam in 1960 with the help of the Soviet Union. The hydroelectric dam changed life dramatically in the delta. It provided electricity and flood control to one of the most densely populated areas in the world. “Most people agree that it was for the better,” says Farouk El-Baz, an Egyptian earth scientist based at Boston University.

    Reporter's Notebook

    Yet as Egypt celebrates the 50th anniversary of the start of the High Dam's construction—it took 10 years to complete—some scientists say that this wonder of engineering is contributing to an environmental catastrophe that could force millions of fellahin to abandon the lush, fertile delta. “It is now clear that [the High Dam] is having negative impacts,” says Wahid Moufaddal, a remote-sensing scientist at the National Institute of Oceanography & Fisheries in Alexandria, Egypt.

    The worst of these is coastal erosion and subsidence, the compacting of the delta soil. For millennia, the untamed Nile compensated for these natural processes by delivering fresh sediments along with its fresh water. The dam, however, now blocks the sediments far upstream of Cairo. As a result, the delta is sinking. Today, 30% of the land is less than a meter above sea level, and in some areas close to the Mediterranean coast, it is sinking by nearly a centimeter per year.

    At the same time, the Mediterranean Sea is expected to rise as a result of global warming. If the sea level increases by a meter by 2050, which is in the range of mainstream predictions, one-third of the delta could be lost. Meanwhile, the population here is growing by a million people per year—the delta is already home to 50 million, most crammed into an area no bigger than the state of Delaware. Because of these perfect storm conditions, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007 named the Nile Delta among the three areas most vulnerable to climate change. “If we continue with business as usual, the impact on the delta will be devastating,” says Mounir Tabet, director of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Egypt.

    Deciding on a course of action is easier said than done, because the rates at which the sea is rising and the delta is sinking are subjects of fierce debate. As a first, cautious step, Egypt and the United Nations are this year launching a 5-year study of the options for protecting the delta from the encroaching sea. “We do not have enough data to advise policy yet,” says Tabet. But as Egyptian scientists rush to provide those data, the government is steaming ahead with a series of “megaprojects” to boost the country's habitable area. In the most ambitious of these, the largest pump in the world is diverting 10% of the Nile into an uninhabited region of the desert to create a new delta.

    Taming the Nile

    Every drop used.

    By mapping the canal network of the Nile Delta (inset), geologist Jean-Daniel Stanley discovered how farmers use the water so efficiently that the river no longer reaches the sea.


    Because the river is fed by the variable rains of the vast eastern and central African highlands, the Nile's pulse varies with the seasons and even longer cycles. “The Bible describes a 7-year cycle of flood and drought,” says El-Baz. “And we now know that there really is a cycle that varies between 4 and 11 years.” That makes life on the delta a gamble. Before the High Dam, floods wiped out homes and farms, while droughts brought famine and disease. But with their hands firmly on the faucet, Egyptians have tamed the Nile. An entire generation has never seen a flood. Instead, steady irrigation is now possible throughout the year. Rather than just one crop, delta farms can grow as many as three. Abdelaleem says he rotates wheat, taro, and clover on his.

    At the time, the damming of the Nile raised few concerns. “There was no discussion” about the merits of such a potent source of pride for the newly independent nation, says Moufaddal. “It was a giant experiment,” yet, he notes, there was no plan for collecting environmental data.

    Moufaddal recalls that the first “whisperings” about a negative impact began in the 1980s. “Off the coast of the delta, our very important fishery for sardine and anchovy started dying.” Pointing to a graph of the annual fishery harvests, he says, “you can see that it later made a big recovery.” These fluctuations remain a riddle. “The best theory is that the fish crashed when the dam stopped the sediments and then recovered because of plankton blooming from sewage,” says Moufaddal. But the gathering of environmental data has been so scant, he adds, that it is difficult to know “what is a direct cause of the dam and what is natural variation. We have no baseline data from before 1964.” El-Baz puts it more bluntly: “No one gave a damn before the dam about science.”

    Master of water.

    Delta farmer Fathy Abdelaleem looks over his irrigation ditches.


    Complaints about the government's environmental research policies are a common refrain here. “What frustrates me as a scientist is that our government has blocked us from studying the problems,” says Moufaddal. “If I want to attend a conference abroad, or even to take my research ship out to do sampling, it is sometimes a year before I have permission.” Moufaddal concedes that some caution in doing fieldwork off the coast is reasonable, considering the animosity between Egypt and neighboring Israel. “But I am often not allowed even to take soil samples right here in the delta. How is that a security issue?”

    Now that climate change is considered a major threat to the country's security, attitudes may be changing. “The government is relying on Egyptian scientists,” says Tabet. The problem is that scientists do not have simple advice to give.

    Rising seas, sinking land

    “We used to relax all day on the beach right there,” says Moufaddal, pointing to a rough patch of surf. From his perch on Alexandria's new seawall, the coast of the Nile Delta stretches to the east as a seemingly endless row of hotels and apartment buildings. He scrambles down to the city's original seawall, now crumbled and licked by the Mediterranean waves. “Here it is obvious that we are losing our coast to erosion,” he says. “And if the water keeps rising, we have a problem.”

    The cost of control.

    Now that the Nile no longer floods the delta, pollution in connected canals (left) and coastal erosion (right) are growing problems.


    The scientific consensus is that the Mediterranean will indeed rise as part of a global increase in sea levels, but how far and how fast is another matter. “What we do know is that the temperature of the ocean is increasing,” says El-Baz, and water expands as it warms. “So this part is easy to predict.” More worrying to climate scientists than this thermal expansion is whether global warming will trigger the ice on top of Greenland and Antarctica to break up and slip into the water. That is why forecasts for sea-level rise by the end of this century have ranged between 0.2 and 2 meters (Science, 5 September 2008, p. 1340). The former would be a manageable nuisance for the delta, whereas the latter would be catastrophic, all agree.

    Predicting the future location of Egypt's coastline is especially complex because of the uneven sinking of the land. Yet while scientists may disagree about the rate of sinking, few are optimistic. “The Nile Delta is now in its destruction phase,” says Jean-Daniel Stanley, a geologist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

    Stanley became the original authority on this issue after he undertook the first comprehensive study of the delta's geologic history in the 1980s. The delta is defined by the Nile's two main branches, which split just north of Cairo—one heading northwest to Rosetta and the other northeast to Damietta. During his fieldwork, Stanley noticed marine barnacles thriving kilometers inland within the river's outlets. “I was shocked to realize that the Nile was no longer flowing into the sea,” he says. “Where was all that water going?”

    Stanley requested a detailed map of all the waterways between Cairo and the Mediterranean. To his surprise, no such map existed. So with the help of several colleagues, he made one himself. The picture that emerged was like the dense filigree of neurons in a brain, with more than 10,000 kilometers of canals and diversions branching into every corner of the delta. The reason the Nile no longer reaches the Mediterranean, he says, is the efficiency of the fellahin. With the flooding stopped, says Stanley, “they use every last drop.”

    The Nile's flooding may have been destructive, but it was also crucial for the health of the delta. Before 1960, the Nile delivered an average of 100 million tons of sediment each year to the Mediterranean. Although the prevailing eastward sea current constantly nibbles away at Egypt's coastline, the sediment from the Nile easily compensated for that loss. But by 1970, when the Nile had formed Lake Nasser upstream of the Aswan dams, “that process stopped completely,” says El-Baz. “The sediment enters the lake and it's like hitting a brick wall. The water slows and the sediment dumps.”

    Before the Nile was dammed, the annual flood deposited a millimeter of fresh silt onto the delta's surface. Not only did it provide nutrients for the crops—now replaced by chemical fertilizers—but the annual thickening of the soil countered subsidence. “All river deltas subside,” says Stanley. “The sediment beneath the surface is supercharged with water.” As the water leaches out, the sediment compacts.

    Stanley was the first to measure how much the delta naturally subsides, and he used that measurement to extrapolate the delta's future topography. He and colleagues dug 87 cores across the northern delta and determined the age of the layers going back 7500 years with radioisotope dating. The results revealed that the subsidence rates across the delta have been far from uniform over the ages (Science, 22 April 1988, p. 497). Around the Nile's northeastern outlet, Stanley estimated that the delta has subsided at an astounding rate of half a meter per century; in other areas, the sediments have barely moved.

    “There's a hinge line that runs along the northern delta,” says Stanley. “Between that line and the sea, subsidence rates are the highest.” In a second paper in Science (30 April 1993, p. 628), Stanley warned that even a conservative forecast of the rising seas and subsiding land “augers poorly for the delta.” For example, a relative sea level increase of 1 meter would flood more than 30% of the region's land surface, he says. “But predicting exactly where it will flood is difficult,” says Moufaddal, because different parts of the delta are subsiding at different rates.

    Adding to the complexity, the historic subsidence rates Stanley calculated contain various uncertainties related to the radioisotope dating method. As a reality check on the rates, Stanley is now dating sediment layers with archaeological material such as pottery shards. But reliable traces of ancient human settlement are hard to come by here.

    Some scientists are trying a completely new approach to gauging how fast the delta sinks. Rather than averaging the subsidence rates over the past millennia, Richard Becker and Mohamed Sultan, geologists at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, calculated the current subsidence in the delta. They used satellite-based radar interferometry to measure the rate at which the surface sank between 1992 and 1999. The technique, which uses multiple radar images to measure changes in the altitude of thousands of landmarks such as buildings and utility poles, is sensitive enough to detect movement as small as 0.1 millimeter per year. The results, published in the September 2009 issue of The Holocene, found higher subsidence rates than Stanley calculated, suggesting that some areas could be submerged sooner than already feared. In particular, the fastest rates were in the youngest sediments, such as those beneath the coastal city of Damietta.

    Even if one accepts these current subsidence rates, predicting the future topography of the delta may be impossible, says Stanley. Besides the steady leaching of water from the top layers of sediments, he says, “there are things happening deep below.” Stanley suspects that sudden subsidence can be triggered when seismic jolts reorganize sediments laid down by the Nile long ago. “The delta we see is only the tip of a massive structure.”

    Going Dutch

    In spite of the uncertainty, Egyptians are already planning for the future. “There are many options on the table,” says Moufaddal. Some seem inevitable, such as the relocation of delta residents affected by coastal flooding. Others seem like science fiction. “One idea is to stop sea level rise by blocking the Mediterranean at Gibraltar,” Moufaddal says, shaking his head. Moufaddal does not support even moderate plans for flood prevention, such as tidal gates, sea walls, and sand dunes. “You can't stop the sea,” he says.

    However, stopping the sea, or at least hampering its landward thrust, is what the Egyptian government is now pursuing. A $16 million pilot project, launched this year by Egypt and UNDP, will test some strategies for climate change “adaptation” in the low-lying delta. The 5-year project includes “strengthening of sand dune systems, beach nourishment, [and the] establishment of engineered wetlands,” says Mohamed Bayoumi, the project's coordinator.

    According to Stanley, saving the delta will require far grander schemes. “The Netherlands faced exactly the same situation,” he says. One-fifth of the Netherlands is below sea level. After catastrophic flooding in 1953, the nation spent billions on the Delta Works, an elaborate system of dikes and storm-surge barriers designed to stop the North Sea from devastating the Dutch coast. “What Egypt needs is a Great Delta Works,” Stanley says. But considering the price tag, “there's no way Egypt can afford it.”

    Even if the sea can be stopped, notes Stanley, the delta is facing a crisis in water quality. Without the annual floods flushing the delta clean, sewage, fertilizers, and industrial waste “go nowhere.”

    Problems also lurk below the delta. The Nile water that does not evaporate seeps down through the delta soil where it heads gradually for the Mediterranean like a sluggish mirror image of the river above. Because the canals are polluted, the fellahin use this naturally filtered water for drinking. But if too much water is sucked up for consumption, saltwater from the Mediterranean intrudes into the aquifer. A “salt wedge” is now creeping in, rendering well water as far as 30 kilometers inland too salty to drink. Without potable water above or below ground, says Stanley, “how are people going to live there?” In an effort to push back the salt wedge, Khalifa says that his ministry is encouraging delta farmers along the coast to switch to rice cultivation. Rice paddies are hardly an efficient use of limited fresh water, but as it soaks down, the fresh water can help block the sea where it intrudes.


    Transporting water from the Nile to the Toshka megaproject requires the most powerful pump in the world.


    Returning the Nile Delta to its natural state could solve these water problems, but “removing the dam is not an option,” says Tarek Hussein, president of the Egyptian Academy of Scientific Research and Technology in Cairo. “One idea we are discussing is to divert sediments around the dam.” Moufaddal says even that is futile: “Building up sediment will never keep up with rising sea levels.”

    Although the Egyptian government has never publicly said that the Nile Delta is doomed, it is creating a new delta in the desert. Upstream of the dams, 10% of Egypt's share of the Nile—amounting to 5 billion cubic meters of water per year—is being diverted southwest of Aswan to a desolate area known as Toshka. Because the land rises 30 meters between the river and the water's final destination, the government built the largest pump in the world to lift the Nile's water up to canals leading to Toshka. Since the pump fired up in 2005, more than 2000 square kilometers of desert have been irrigated. According to Moufaddal, however, Egypt hasn't seriously thought about the environmental impact of the project, which he fears could destroy desert habitats and hasten the demise of the Nile Delta by siphoning away its water. “We are repeating the mistake of Aswan,” he says.

    Egyptian officials view things differently. “Bringing life to the desert” is the goal of the Toshka “megaproject,” says Khalifa. It is seen as crucial for meeting the government's goal of a 50% increase in the country's farmland by 2017. And by that date, according to a government brochure, 2 million people will be living at Toshka.

    “That's not going to happen,” warns El-Baz. Besides temperatures that can reach 50°C, he says, “no one wants to live out in the middle of nowhere.” The government is now promising free plots of land as an incentive for people to relocate to Toshka, but, says El-Baz, “no one is taking the offer.” To increase the area's lure, he has proposed a “development corridor” of highways and electrical lines from Toshka to Cairo and Alexandria. It would cost $24 billion over 10 years. “Connecting Toshka to civilization is the only way to convince people to move,” El-Baz says. Then again, if the worst predictions for the Nile Delta come true, millions of fellahin will be in need of a new home.

  14. Lunar and Planetary Science Conference

    Lucky Glimpses of a Weirdly Wetter Moon

    1. Richard A. Kerr
    Dry vs. wet?

    A radar signature confined to a lunar crater (right) suggests buried ice rather than rough terrain (left).


    Water is turning up on the moon in unexpected places and quantities, but scientists almost missed the big splash. Without a bit of good fortune when NASA blasted the moon last October, they would have gotten “zippo,” says Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) team member Peter Schultz of Brown University.

    LCROSS scientists and engineers aimed a spent rocket upper stage at the moon's frigid, shadowed Cabeus crater, hoping to blast some rock and buried water ice into view (Science, 20 November 2009, p. 1046). But when the impactor hit its target, scores of telescopic observers back on Earth saw no dusty debris. Luckily, the LCROSS spacecraft following close behind returned abundant evidence of long-sought water.

    The near-emptiness of the spent rocket stage made all the difference. To team members' surprise, being hollow allowed the impactor to splash debris not only low and to the sides—as modeling of solid impactors had predicted—but also nearly straight up, Schultz says. Earth-bound observers couldn't see the low-angle ejecta behind an intervening mountain, and viewed side-on the high-angle plume was too meager for them to detect so far.

    LCROSS, on the other hand, was looking straight down the high-angle plume, giving its sensors a strong water signal. At the meeting, LCROSS principal investigator Anthony Colaprete of NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, confirmed the team's estimate of at least 2% water by weight in the top couple of meters of Cabeus soil. He also reported the first detection of water ice in the plume, not just water vapor. The ice means the water is not simply locked up in minerals.

    Elsewhere on the moon, water is showing up through less violent means. Planetary scientist Igor Mitrofanov of the Institute for Space Research in Moscow reported another find by the Lunar Exploration Neutron Detector (LEND) instrument on board NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which guided the LCROSS team to Cabeus's water. Now LEND is detecting signs of water—in the form of enhanced subsurface hydrogen—in two other areas near the south pole. That's remarkable, said Mitrofanov, because unlike the floor of Cabeus, these areas are not in permanent shadow. The sun shines on them and warms them. Scientists looking for water had ignored such areas, assuming they would be too warm to retain water ice.

    But Mitrofanov says that planetary scientist David Paige of the University of California, Los Angeles, a member of LRO's Diviner temperature-sensing instrument team, has calculated that buried ice can survive outside permanently shadowed craters. In the newly identified hydrogen-rich areas, Paige finds, some tens of centimeters of lunar soil are enough to insulate and preserve deeper water ice. That would be good news for astronauts; they could mine the key lunar resource without venturing into some of the coldest spots in the solar system, whenever they get to the moon again.

    Still, the real water bonanza may lie in the north. Planetary scientist Paul Spudis of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas, and colleagues recently flew a ground-penetrating radar on India's Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter. At the meeting, they reported a distinctive radar signature from the interiors but not the surroundings of more than 40 small craters in the north polar region. Almost all of the craters are permanently shadowed.

    That combination, Spudis argues, suggests ice, perhaps as much as 80% or 90% pure. But the Chandrayaan-1 radar is not confirming long-suspect reports of radar detection of massive ice in the south (Science, 13 March 1998, p. 1628), so most researchers are reserving judgment. They do agree on one thing: Someone, or something, needs to return to the moon to touch its water.

  15. Lunar and Planetary Science Conference

    Coaxing Out Another Taste of the Sun

    1. Richard A. Kerr

    Five years ago, the out-of-control Genesis sample-return capsule bored into the Utah desert at 360 kilometers per hour (Science, 17 September 2004, p. 1689). But things have been looking up for the space mission, which returned atomic bits of the sun and thus samples of the solar system's primordial material. “With that big splash at the end, it was an interesting little mission,” recalls cosmochemist Roger Wiens of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

    At the meeting, Genesis team members confirmed their measurement of the isotopic composition of the solar wind's oxygen (Science, 28 March 2008, p. 1756) and reported an isotopic composition for solar-wind nitrogen. Compared with the solar wind, “nitrogen on Earth is heavy,” pronounced cosmochemist Antti Kallio of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). By such threads will hang the story of how the stuff of stars became planets.

    The $264 million Genesis mission went swimmingly, up to its rough landing. The Genesis spacecraft cruised the solar system for 3 years, exposing collection plates to the onrushing solar wind. The sample capsule reentered Earth's atmosphere loaded with embedded atomic particles from the sun. Then, its parachute failed to open (Science, 22 October 2004, p. 587). But team members picked up the pieces—all 10,000 of them—and proceeded to clean and analyze them. At UCLA, a team led by cosmochemist Kevin McKeegan had built the 8-ton MegaSIMS, “a custom-made hybrid secondary ionization/accelerator mass spectrometer”—that is, an analytical instrument for extracting and “weighing” each isotope.

    Down, not out.

    Genesis had a hard landing but is yielding long-sought samples of primordial matter.


    Before the latest MegaSIMS results, measurements of the ratio of nitrogen's rare heavier isotope, nitrogen-15, to nitrogen-14 had been all over the map. The UCLA value for the sun (−470 ± 100 per mil) looks “fairly robust,” Kallio said, and roughly equals the isotopic ratio for Jupiter retrieved by spacecraft as well as the value for a primordial component of meteorites. If the number is correct, Earth's nitrogen has relatively more of nitrogen's rare heavy isotope than the solar system's starting material does.

    “How did it get that way?” asks Wiens. Drawing on the isotopic compositions of other elements, researchers will be testing some possibilities: an infall of comets, solar wind erosion of the early atmosphere, blasting of the primordial nebula by the sun, or some combination of these. In the meantime, Genesis analysts are taking up their next element, carbon.

  16. Lunar and Planetary Science Conference

    Spirit Is Willing, Though Weak

    1. Richard A. Kerr

    Spirit's roving days are over, right? Back in January, NASA announced that after 6 years on Mars, the plucky rover was being consigned to purely stationary duty right where it had become stuck in a sort of dry quicksand. Rover obituaries proliferated. But at the meeting, the talk was of Spirit's resurrection as a rover, or at least a realistic prospect of a return to limited mobility. NASA missions are indeed hard to kill (Science, 22 May 2009, p. 998).

    NASA retired Spirit after the rover became stuck last May and failed to extricate itself. Trundling toward its next target, a likely volcanic vent 200 meters away, Spirit broke through a surface crust and bogged down in fluffy sulfate sand. Repeated attempts to escape forward—guided by testing of a mockup in the Mars “sandbox” at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California—yielded millimeters of progress and not many of those, says Raymond Arvidson of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, deputy principal investigator of the Mars Exploration Rover mission. That's when NASA threw in the towel.

    But then Spirit's operators figured, what the heck, let's try reverse. They also threw in a little wiggling-the-wheels maneuver intended to move some soil out of the way before each attempt at driving. It worked, a bit. Instead of a millimeter or two of progress per driving session, Spirit made several centimeters. Before it had to be settled in for a long winter's nap as the available solar power dwindled, Spirit covered 34 centimeters backward, according to Arvidson. “I really think we can continue this kind of breaststroke and extricate it,” he says.

    First, Spirit must survive the winter. Its handlers are guardedly optimistic that its power levels will not drop so far that the rover's electronics freeze, but no one is making any promises. Next September or October, as spring returns to Mars, Spirit will likely serve 6 months' duty as an essentially stationary geodetic marker in a study of the planet's core.

    All the while, “there'll be a discussion of what Spirit becomes,” says Arvidson. “There's a lot to do,” even if Spirit—now down from six operable wheels to four—can only hobble along centimeter by centimeter. But in the end, it will be NASA headquarters that decides whether a rover with “limited mobility” is worth $27,000 a day in operating costs. If not, it will have to pull the plug.

  17. Lunar and Planetary Science Conference

    Snapshots From the Meeting

    1. Richard A. Kerr

    Tiny find. The Stardust mission announced the discovery of its first candidate bits of mineral born around distant stars. The Stardust spacecraft returned plenty of easily identified particles from its close pass by comet Wild 2 (Science, 25 January 2008, p. 401), but the rarer and smaller interstellar dust was harder to spot. An automatic microscope scanned 1.6 million different locations on the spacecraft's collector at 40 different depths at each location. But no one could teach a computer to recognize the tracks left by speeding stardust as it imbedded itself in the airy-light collector material.

    Enter the “dusters.” Humans, it turns out, are easier to train for this sort of thing than computers. Twenty-seven thousand people volunteered. After 71 million searches conducted on home computers, two micrometer-size particles along a single track—dubbed Orion (the mythical Hunter) and Sirius (his dog) by their duster discoverer—have researchers “cautiously excited” that stardust is in hand, says Stardust team member Andrew Westphal of the University of California, Berkeley. If the particles are the real McCoy, researchers estimate that scores more like them remain to be found.

    Striking it rich.

    A massive search of a Stardust collector turned up this micron-size bit of what seems to be the first pristine interstellar dust.


    Tilt-a-moon. Our nearest neighbor in space has always looked a little off, and now researchers think they may know why. At the meeting, planetary scientists Lissa Ong of the University of Arizona, Tucson, and Jay Melosh of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, reported considerable progress in making sense of the odd shape of the moon. Tidal forces should have left it more flattened side to side than it is now. But Ong and Melosh found that the huge impact billions of years ago that left the great South Pole–Aitken basin would have blanketed the moon with tens to hundreds of meters of rocky debris. If that impact were in the center of the moon's leading face—the most likely place for it—that redistribution of mass could have given the moon its present shape, they calculate. The reshaping would also have spun the moon around by as much as 90°. So, an early violent resurfacing may have turned the gaze of the Woman in the Moon from upward to forward.

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