News this Week

Science  02 Mar 2012:
Vol. 335, Issue 6072, pp. 1024

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  1. Around the World

    1 - Melbourne, Australia
    Salvation in Sight for Synchrotron
    2 - Admiralty Bay, Antarctica
    Fire at Brazil's Antarctic Station
    3 - Cadarache, France
    ITER Dodges Trouble With Superconducting Cables
    4 - Southampton, U.K.
    Declassified Sub Data to Shed Light on Arctic
    5 - Washington, D.C.
    World Bank, NGOs Partner For Ocean Health
    6 - New Delhi
    Space Scientists Protest Colleagues' Blacklisting

    Melbourne, Australia

    Salvation in Sight for Synchrotron

    After months of uncertainty, a deal is taking shape to save the Australian Synchrotron, one of two such facilities in the Southern Hemisphere. The synchotron has given Australian scientists access to powerful beams of light to probe new materials, proteins, and other substances. But last May, the synchrotron's major backers—the federal government and the government of Victoria State, which hosts the facility—omitted funds for the synchrotron in their budgets beyond 30 June 2012.

    The Australian Synchotron


    Under a new agreement about to be inked, federal support for the synchrotron will be extended through the Australian Research Council's Special Research Initiative, which awards large grants to university consortia. Monash University will lead the bid for the funds, says Ian Smith, the university's pro vice-chancellor for research and research infrastructure. Smith says that the synchrotron will need at least AUS $100 million to operate over the next 4 years. The Special Research Initiative would provide a quarter of the funds; universities would match that amount, and the remainder would come from the Victorian government, the New Zealand government, and three Australian government agencies.

    Admiralty Bay, Antarctica

    Fire at Brazil's Antarctic Station

    Wrapped up.

    Superconductor for ITER's magnets.


    A fire sweeping through a generator room at Brazil's Comandante Ferraz Antarctic Station caused an explosion that killed two people, injured another, and destroyed about 70% of the station on 25 February. The Brazilian Air Force has evacuated 45 people from the base, including the injured man.

    The station is in the South Shetland Islands near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, where scientists studied coastal and shelf marine ecosystems and the impact of climate change. “The assessment is that we really lost virtually everything,” Brazilian Defense Minister Celso Amorim told reporters on 25 February, noting that the loss of the base—Brazil's only permanent research station on the continent—is a major blow to Brazil's scientific community. Amorim added that plans for reconstructing the base would begin almost immediately.

    Cadarache, France

    ITER Dodges Trouble With Superconducting Cables

    A potential problem that threatened to delay construction of the huge ITER fusion reactor looks like it has been resolved. Tests last year on samples of superconductor cable for the facility's magnets indicated the cable would last only one-tenth as long as required. That prompted a scramble to identify the cause and come up with a solution. Recent tests at a high-magnetic-field facility in Switzerland show that engineers have succeeded.

    The superconducting cables consist of multiple “triplets” of three strands. The cables that failed contained triplets made up of two niobium-tin strands and one of copper; the copper is a safeguard against “quenching,” when the niobium-tin material suddenly loses its superconducting ability. In normal operation, the two strands shoulder the large magnetic forces that the conductors experience. The new configuration would consist of three strands made of a combination of copper and niobium-tin, so that all three share the load of magnetic forces.

    This has delayed the start of conductor manufacture, but other delays—including last year's earthquake and tsunami in Japan—had already forced ITER managers to push back the scheduled start of the reactor by 1 year to late 2020.

    Southampton, U.K.

    Declassified Sub Data to Shed Light on Arctic

    The U.K. Minister of Defense is declassifying data collected by Royal Navy submarines in the Arctic and handing them over to scientists to help track the region's changing climate. The subs' data will include temperature and salinity measurements that may span time periods of anywhere from 10 to 20 years. Scientists are eager for information about how the Arctic has been changing over the past few decades, but the harsh conditions make it hard to collect traditional oceanographic measurements in the region, says John Allen, an oceanographer at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, which will receive the data.

    Because of the classified nature of the data, it's not yet clear how much there is, Allen says, or even exactly what will be made available. Before the scientists can begin to analyze the data, the ministry's Defense Science and Technology Laboratory will first remove the exact locations where the data were collected. But, even without precise locations, the data can provide a valuable, long-term series of snapshots of the changing chemistry of Arctic waters. In particular, Allen says, they will help scientists compare the time scales of temperature changes in ice-covered waters with those in ice-free waters.

    Washington, D.C.

    World Bank, NGOs Partner For Ocean Health

    Last gasp.

    Many stocks of Patagonian toothfish, also called Chilean sea bass, are depleted.


    The World Bank is teaming up with major environmental groups and international non-governmental organizations to raise $1.5 billion to improve ocean health. The Global Partnership for Oceans, announced 24 February, will attempt to speed progress on overfishing, marine pollution, and destruction of ocean habitats such as coral reefs.

    Top goals for the next decade include rebuilding more than half of the depleted fish stocks around the world and expanding marine protected areas from about 1% of the oceans to cover 5%. In addition, aqua culture should provide two-thirds of the global fish supply rather than half, and it should be made more sustainable by relying less on fish meal for feed, for example. “All these points are well thought out,” says ecologist Carl Safina of Blue Ocean Institute in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, who says he welcomes the announcement. “The biggest criticism of the World Bank is that it increases ability of people to exploit nature and does not emphasize the need for sustainability, but this does.”

    To help accomplish these goals, the partnership says it will raise $300 million for initial actions, such as ramping up efforts to fight government corruption. These efforts, they hope, will leverage another $1.2 billion from donors over 5 years. Details of the partnership will be worked out at a meeting next month.

    New Delhi

    Space Scientists Protest Colleagues' Blacklisting

    India's scientific community is turning up the heat on the government over its controversial sanctions of four former officials of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) for alleged missteps in a satellite deal. Last month the goverwnment banned four scientists—including former ISRO head G. Madhavan Nair, who oversaw India's successful Chandrayaan-1 lunar probe in 2008—from holding a government position for the rest of their lives. The punishment cited “procedural lapses” during negotiations to lease two communication satellites to a private company.

    Senior Indian scientists have blasted the ban. Roddam Narasimha, an aerospace scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bangalore, resigned on 24 February from the Space Commission, India's top space policy body. Narasimha wrote in a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that the “actions taken against the scientists could demoralize the Indian Space Research Organization's scientific community, and adversely affect its ability to take the kind of technological initiatives … that are the hallmark of an innovative organization.”

  2. Random Sample

    Double-Duty Dads


    In the primate world, owl monkeys are unusual because the dads play a big role in bringing up baby. Now, the unprecedented births of two sets of twins in a population of owl monkeys that researchers have been studying for 15 years in Argentina is offering a “rare, exciting, and fascinating” research opportunity, says behavioral primatologist Eduardo Fernandez-Duque of the University of Pennsylvania.

    “Few aspects of primate behavior are so intriguing, yet so poorly understood, as the intense care of infants by males,” he explains. And owl monkey fathers (like the one pictured at left) are especially unusual, in that they “do it all—carrying the infants, feeding them, playing with them.” Now, a recent grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation will enable Fernandez-Duque and colleagues to see how the dads handle double duty as the twins, born late last year, grow up. The study may offer insight into why this rare child-rearing arrangement evolved.

    A Cold July in Baghdad

    Researchers in Spain are tapping a new database in their search for historic climate patterns: medieval Arab history. Physicist Fernando Domínguez-Castro of the University of Extremadura in Badajoz, Spain, and his colleagues, including a historian of Arab culture, examined references to droughts, floods, and hail in ten Arab sources written between 816 C.E. and 1009 C.E.. One text told of nights during a Baghdad summer that were so cold that residents bundled up inside their homes rather than sleeping on roofs as was the custom, the team reported in Weather.

    The texts, the team concluded, suggest that 10th century Baghdad had more cold spells than it does now. That conclusion agrees with previous hemisphere-wide temperature reconstructions by climate scientists—but it's the first time this has been demonstrated for Baghdad.


    Understanding how global climate trends play out close to home is a priority for many climatologists. Yet extracting useful climate information from medieval records will require trust and cooperation between researchers with little in common. “People are reticent,” Domínguez-Castro says of the historians closest to medieval archives. “They think, ‘These crazy physicists are here to steal my job.’”

    Still, the large geographic and historic span of Arab record-keeping is attracting funding from Spanish and German research organizations. Comparing historical records from German monasteries with those from Andalusian courts might also generate fresh insights. “Most climate reconstructions are from the north of the Mediterranean,” Domínguez-Castro explains. “The southern Mediterranean is climatically very interesting but also very little studied.”

    By the Numbers

    149 Potential sources of human error in fingerprint analysis, according to a National Institute of Standards and Technology report.

    198 kg of CO2 The estimated carbon footprint—equivalent to burning 90 liters of gasoline—of a shrimp cocktail made with shrimp grown in former mangroves, according to ecologist Boone Kauffman of Oregon State University, Corvallis, reporting at February's AAAS meeting.

  3. Newsmakers

    They Said It

    "I suspect … that both Einstein's theory and my boxer shorts are safe."

    —Physicist Jim Al-Khalili of the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom, who had promised to eat his boxers on live TV if neutrinos were shown to travel faster than light (see p. 1027).

  4. Didier Raoult Profile

    Sound and Fury in the Microbiology Lab

    1. Catherine Mary*

    He's imaginative, rebellious, and often disdainful. Above all, France's most productive microbiologist loves a good fight.

    MARSEILLE, FRANCE—Didier Raoult has come a long way, even though he hasn't really strayed far from home. As an unruly, rebellious teenager in this port city with a reputation for toughness, Raoult was suspended from high school several times. But today, at 59, he's the most productive and influential microbiologist in France, leading a team of 200 scientists and students at the University of Aix-Marseille, here in the city where he came of age. He has discovered or co-discovered dozens of new bacteria, and in 2003, he stunned colleagues with a virus of record size, dubbed Mimivirus, the first member of a family that sheds an intriguing new light on the evolution of viruses and the tree of life.

    But Raoult hasn't lost his edge. Long-haired and tall, his piercing eaglelike eyes sometimes cloud over in an expression of apparent fear, and he has a sense of provocation that many find irritating. Controversial and outspoken, Raoult last year published a popular science book that flat-out declares that Darwin's theory of evolution is wrong. And in an episode reminiscent of his teenage days, he was temporarily banned from publishing in a dozen leading microbiology journals in 2006, an episode that still enrages him. Raoult likes to say that “life is full of sound and fury,” in a reference to the novel by William Faulkner—and in his case, it's true. “If my wife hadn't been a psychiatrist, I would be even crazier,” he says.


    Raoult's craziness may be a key element to his success. “He's very imaginative, a very hard worker, and very enthusiastic,” says Jérôme Etienne, dean of the medical faculty at the University of Lyon and a longtime collaborator and friend. Despite its mammoth size, scientists at Raoult's lab say they wouldn't want to work anywhere else. “He's my boss because he's one of the greatest microbiologists in the world,” says Philippe Brouqui, who has conducted research under Raoult for more than 20 years.

    Yet Raoult is also known for his enmities and his disdain for those who disagree with him. “People don't like to talk about him because he has a lot of influence. He can make life hard for you,” says one of several French researchers contacted by Science who would only talk about Raoult if they could remain anonymous. “Few of his science colleagues will find the thought of another profile story about him particularly appealing,” geneticist Jean-Michel Claverie of Aix-Marseille University—who severed ties with Raoult in 2006 after a 5-year collaboration—wrote in an e-mail to Science.

    A magical period

    Raoult's career has always been tightly linked to Marseille, a city where his family settled when he was 8 and whose rough-and-tumble reputation matches his character. He trained as a physician and obtained a Ph.D. in human biology here; in 2004, he would name a rickettsia species, Afipia quartiernordensis, in honor of Quartiers Nord, a local neighborhood of ill repute.

    Rickettsias, intracellular Gram-negative bacteria transmitted by ticks, fleas, lice, and acarids, have become Raoult's specialty. He worked on a disease called Mediterranean spotted fever, or Marseille fever, and studied typhus for 6 months at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. When he came back to Marseille in 1984, the university president offered him an assistant professorship. He combined his work as a physician with basic research and the development of new diagnostic methods. In 1987, Raoult's lab became France's national reference center for rickettsias, and in 1988, a collaborating center for the World Health Organization for arthropod-transmitted bacteria.

    He owes many of his discoveries to well-chosen collaborations. From heart valve samples provided by cardiologists in Lyon, for instance, he managed to isolate Coxiella burnetii, a bacterium already known to cause a zoonosis transmitted by cattle, goats, and sheep called Q fever. He showed that C. burnetii was also involved in endocarditis, an inflammation of the inner layer of the heart. He went on to discover several other microbes that cause endocarditis. “One of the keys to Raoult's success is his ability to make bacteria grow where others fail,” says Michel Drancourt, who has worked in Raoult's group since 1984.

    When the genomics revolution arrived, Raoult jumped to apply it in microbiology. In 1992, he bought his first DNA sequencing machine and started to fish for typical bacterial sequences in various samples with the aim of identifying new species. He sees “metagenomics,” the analysis of microbial DNA in environmental samples such as seawater or soil, as a window on entirely new worlds in microbiology. “We're in a magical scientific period, an era of discoverers,” he says.

    Fatherly spirit

    One afternoon in August, during the ritual Friday meeting, a young Ph.D. student in Raoult's genomics group delivers a 10-minute talk about the sequence of a newly isolated bacterium. Raoult listens intently and then, in a warm voice, tells her how to proceed with the research. The Asian woman nods shyly. The other students of the group—many of them non-French as well—appear to be listening with deference.

    “For foreign students, Raoult's lab is a springboard [to a career],” says microbiologist Patricia Renesto of Joseph Fourier University in Grenoble, who spent several years in Raoult's lab and admires him. “The flip side is that he controls everything. He can behave odiously,” she adds. “Raoult has that fatherly family spirit, which some people don't understand,” Brouqui says.

    After the meeting, back at his office, Raoult boasts that the newly isolated microbe was one of 225 different bacterial species found in a single stool sample from Dakar. “The world record was 80 species. We beat it by a factor of two and a half,” he says. “Half of those species have never been isolated from the gut before, and 21 are completely unknown.”

    Raoult's entire opus appears to be written in big numbers. A recent PubMed search showed him as an author on more than 1400 papers, including the description of more than 60 new bacterial species and one new bacterial genus, which Drancourt named Raoultella. But some scientists grumble that manuscripts out of Raoult's lab often contain errors, for instance, as a result of unchecked genetic sequences.

    Indeed, problems in a paper about a mouse model for typhus got his lab in hot water in 2006. A reviewer for Infection and Immunity, a journal published by the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), discovered that four figures in a revised manuscript were identical to figures in the original manuscript, even though they were supposed to describe a different experiment.

    In letters to ASM, made available by Raoult, second author Christian Capo and last author Jean-Louis Mège, a group leader, accepted “full responsibility” for the problem, which they said involved only two figures. Capo, in his letter, wrote that he had made an innocent mistake; Mège wrote that Capo had subsequently failed to show the revised manuscript to other authors, who were on vacation, before resubmitting it. But after consulting its ethics panel, ASM banned all five authors, including Raoult, from publishing in its journals for a year. “We are not entirely comfortable with the explanation provided,” ASM officials wrote to Mège. “Misrepresentation of data … is an affront to the ethical conduct of scientific inquiry.”

    Big surprise.

    Raoult's team initially mistook the giant Mimivirus (illustration), discovered in a cooling tower, for a bacterium.


    Capo and Mège accepted the decision, but Raoult wrote ASM that he wasn't at fault and that the “collective punishment” was “very unfair.” He appealed the ban, also on behalf of two other co-authors, but lost. Furious, he resigned from the editorial board of two other ASM journals, canceled his membership in the American Academy of Microbiology, ASM's honorific leadership group, and banned his lab from submitting to ASM journals, in which he had published more than 230 studies. His name has been on only two ASM journal papers since, both published in 2010. To clear his name, Raoult sent his ASM correspondence to French colleagues in 2007, along with a letter defending himself. “If I had been in the United States, I would have sued,” he wrote.

    Still, the affair does not appear to have dented Raoult's career. From 2013 onward, he will head a new government-funded academic medical center of excellence that will combine the expertise of various research and medical agencies in infectious and tropical diseases in Marseille.


    Despite his long career in bacterial research, Raoult has become best known for the discovery of giant viruses. The story began in the late 1980s, when Timothy Rowbotham, a bacteriologist at the Public Health Laboratory in Leeds, U.K., isolated amoebae that had Legionella bacteria living inside them. In one amoeba, Rowbotham discovered another putative bacterium that he could not identify.

    He later sent the amoeba collection to Richard Birtles, a Ph.D. student in the United Kingdom. Always interested in new microbes, Raoult invited Birtles to come work in Marseille. Even there, the unknown amoeba resident initially defied identification—until the team looked at it using an electron microscope. It was not a bacterium at all but a novel virus bigger than any known virus. With a diameter of 700 nm—including its hairy crown—Mimivirus was also stuffed with a genome of 1.2 million DNA base pairs, six times bigger than any known DNA virus and bigger than some bacteria. Genetic comparisons showed that the unusual virus belonged to the group of nucleocytoplasmic large DNA viruses, which also includes the poxviruses. Raoult baptized it Mimivirus, short for “mimicking microbe,” and the new family Mimiviridae.

    Mimivirus turned out to have an interesting genome. An analysis performed with Claverie's team showed that it includes genes involved in DNA processing and protein production that were until then considered to be unique to living organisms. The finding revived the old debate about viruses' place in the tree of life, and Raoult has now staked out a strong position (see sidebar, p. 1035). But David Moreira of the University of Paris-Sud in Orsay says Raoult is out of his depth: “He has a tendency to throw himself into a field he doesn't know well.”

    Some scientists argue that the same is true for epidemic modeling, a field that has seen tremendous growth but which Raoult has repeatedly attacked as useless. Epidemic modelers are “charlatans,” he says. “There are zero examples in infectious diseases of something that has been predicted by a model.”

    And then there is his popular science book Dépasser Darwin (Beyond Darwin). “Darwin was a priest,” Raoult says, claiming that the image of the tree of life that Darwin proposed is inspired from the Bible. “It also is too simplistic.” Raoult questions several other tenets of modern evolutionary theory, including the importance of natural selection. He says recent discoveries in genetics show how frequently genes are exchanged not just between different microbial species but also between microbes and complex organisms, for instance, in the human gut. That means de novo creation of entirely new species is possible, Raoult argues, and Darwin's branching tree of life should be replaced by a network of interconnected species.

    “It's dangerous to say those things,” says Moreira, who worries that Raoult is providing creationist groups with ammunition. “He goes a bit too far,” says Eugene Koonin, an evolutionary biologist at the National Center for Biotechnology Information in Bethesda. “Darwin's theory is relevant but is incomplete. It does not apply to the evolution of microorganisms.”

    Raoult says he doesn't really care what other people think, and he relishes the constant storm around him. “An amazing thing I discovered when I arrived in Marseille was that the people there are fighters,” he recalls. It's why he feels at home here. For Raoult, the fights never stop.

    Message from the Author

    The profile of Didier Raoult contains paragraphs which may be inappropriately interpreted as questioning the quality of his work and the validity of his hypotheses. It was never my intention to be damaging in these statements. I apologize if these statements are misinterpreted in a manner harmful to Dr. Raoult.Catherine Mary

    • * Catherine Mary is a writer in Caluire, France.

  5. Didier Raoult Profile

    Giant Viruses Revive Old Questions About Viral Origins

    1. Catherine Mary

    University of Aix-Marseille microbiologist Didier Raoult's 2004 discovery of Mimivirus—and several other giant viruses identified since then—has challenged the view that viruses are not alive.

    Even bigger.

    Megavirus chilensis (left) strengthened the case that giant viruses share a common ancestor. Didier Raoult believes they form a fourth domain, pictured here in magenta in a drawing from his lab.

    CREDITS (TOP TO BOTTOM): © 2010 M. BOYER ET AL., PLOS ONE, 5, 12 (2 DECEMBER 2010); D. ARSLAN ET AL., PNAS 108 (18 OCTOBER 2011)

    Where did viruses come from? And are they alive? Didier Raoult's 2004 discovery of the Mimivirus—and several other giant viruses identified since then—has brought those questions, debated for a century, back to the scientific fore.

    When viruses were discovered in the early 20th century, some scientists saw them as the missing link between the inanimate world and living organisms—a group that predated and perhaps gave rise to cells. But genetic data collected later supported an opposing view, in which viruses emerged from pieces of genetic material and other molecules broken out of cells; they would evolve further by stealing more genes from cellular organisms. This view suggests that viruses aren't part of the tree of life but are an ever-changing sideshow to its three domains: the Archaea, Bacteria, and Eukarya. In 2000, the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses officially declared that viruses are not alive.

    The genetic makeup of the Mimivirus has challenged this view. The viral giant is endowed with many genes encoding the enzymes that repair DNA, correct errors occurring during its replication, produce mRNA transcripts from genes, and translate those mRNAs into proteins. These so-called informational genes had so far been considered hallmarks of living things. Known viruses hijack the products of these genes from the cells they infect to replicate; the Mimivirus genes had never been found in viruses before. Based on the genome, Raoult and others have concluded that this class of virus has likely inherited its giant genome from an ancient viral ancestor endowed with the entire protein-translation machinery rather than picking up the genes piece by piece.

    Not everybody was convinced. In 2008, David Moreira of the University of Paris-Sud in Orsay and his colleagues published an analysis showing that 126 Mimivirus genes have counterparts in cellular organisms, which they said supported the view that, despite its extreme size, Mimivirus has evolved by picking up genes here and there.

    Raoult stuck to his guns, and in a paper published in 2010 proposed a theory that went further: Not only does Mimivirus belong in the tree of life, but nucleocytoplasmic large DNA viruses (NCLDVs), the class to which it belongs, trace their origin to the very beginning of life on Earth, forming a fourth domain alongside the three well-established ones. His view was based on a phylogenetic analysis of eight DNA-processing genes shared by NCLDVs and the three known branches of life, in which the NCLDVs' versions seemed to form a separate cluster.

    But constructing such phylogenies reaching back eons is tricky business, because similarities in genes don't always reflect shared ancestry; the same DNA sequence may have arisen independently in genes of different origins, a process called convergent evolution. In a paper published in June 2011, a team led by Eva Heinz of Newcastle University in the United Kingdom repeated Raoult's analysis but used different models of evolution that take this phenomenon into account. In their phylogenetic trees, the fourth domain evaporated, and the NCLDV genes were spread out over the other branches of life.

    For now, Raoult's position in this debate has few supporters. But the idea that giant viruses share ancient common ancestors was bolstered by a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last October by Jean-Michel Claverie of the University of Aix-Marseille—once Raoult's collaborator but no longer on speaking terms with him. Claverie recently isolated Megavirus chilensis, a virus distantly related to Mimivirus but even bigger, off the coast of Chile. In the paper, he reported that Megavirus shares 53% of its genes with Mimivirus; of seven genes encoding key steps in protein translation, four have a homolog in Mimivirus and had never been found in a virus before. “This rules out the scenario whereby those genes were acquired independently by both viruses,” Claverie says. Even Moreira says the paper won him over for a common viral ancestor between the two viruses.

    Edward Holmes, a virus evolution specialist at Pennsylvania State University, University Park, notes that ongoing fishing expeditions for new viruses—not just the giant ones—are likely to resolve the origins of these infectious agents. “It's naïve to say that we understand the history of the evolution of viruses based on current samples,” Holmes says. “There may be undiscovered viruses on our planet, some completely novel.”

  6. Animal Cognition

    'Killjoys' Challenge Claims of Clever Animals

    1. Michael Balter

    Despite recent claims of advanced intelligence in animals, researchers still debate how to test whether their abilities reflect humanlike cognition

    Sharing the wealth.

    Chimps aren't quick to help each other but may do so under some conditions.


    LONDON AND CHICHELEY—It seems that hardly a week goes by without a new report about animals performing marvelous feats we once thought only humans could do: Crows make tools, chimpanzees seem to mourn their dead, and rats supposedly empathize with one another's pain.

    Charles Darwin, were he alive today, might approve this trend. “The difference in mind between man and the higher animals,” he wrote in The Descent of Man, “… is one of degree and not kind.” For many researchers, the new evidence represents a welcome shift from behaviorist paradigms often associated with psychologist B. F. Skinner, which denied nonhuman species anything approaching advanced cognition (Science, 25 January 2008, p. 404). Yet recently, some researchers have been pushing back against attributing humanlike qualities to other animals without considering cognitively simpler explanations.

    This more skeptical contingent was present in force at two recent back-to-back meetings* sponsored by the Royal Society in London and Chicheley. At both, researchers explored what animals are really doing when they engage in seemingly complex behaviors, rather than reported still more discoveries of their impressive abilities. “There's an arms race to identify the most clever animals,” Lars Chittka, an animal psychologist at Queen Mary, University of London, said at the London meeting. “But what are we trying to demonstrate?”

    Attempts to measure the gap between human and nonhuman minds have become like a “party game,” said experimental psychologist Cecilia Heyes of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. Some researchers blamed the news media, and even some scientists, for exaggerated interpretations of animal behavior. “People in the field often gravitate into two camps,” Daniel Dennett, a philosopher at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, told Science. “There are the romantics,” those who are quick to see humanlike traits in animals, “and the killjoys,” who prefer more behaviorist explanations. “I think the truth is almost always in the middle.”

    Crinkly bananas

    In a talk at the London meeting titled “Simple Minds,” Heyes argued that many researchers discount associative learning—the expectation that two events, for example, a stimulus and reward, are connected. Heyes argued that this type of learning is ubiquitous among both animals and humans and remains a “contender” when interpreting animal experiments. As a case study, Heyes critiqued a paper on chimp altruism published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers have been hard put to show that chimps have much desire to help each other out; unlike humans, they seem to do so only when pressured or pleaded with rather than spontaneously.

    In the study, led by primatologists Victoria Horner and Frans de Waal of Emory University in Atlanta, chimps were given a choice between two different colored tokens. One color prompted the human experimenter to give a banana to both the subject chimp and another chimp in an adjacent enclosure whereas the other color resulted in food for the first chimp only. Chimps showed a significant preference for the token that led to a banana for both themselves and their partners. The team concluded that chimps are more altruistic than usually given credit for.

    But Heyes pointed out that the bananas were wrapped in crinkly paper, so chimps could both hear and see when the partner got a reward. She suggested that the chimps may have begun to like the sound of the crinkly paper, “just as Pavlov's dogs got to like the sound of a bell.” Thus they might have opted for the color choice that yielded a double shot of the noise.

    Psychologist Sara Shettleworth of the University of Toronto in Canada says she “totally agrees” with Heyes's reservations, and even Horner calls the arguments “thought-provoking.” But Horner argues that the chimps got only one reward no matter “how many rustling papers they heard.” Had associative learning been the primary mechanism operating, she says, the chimps would not have preferred one token color over another.

    Although researchers still debate what's behind the behavior of close human relatives such as chimpanzees, there was wide agreement with points made at the Chicheley meeting by cognitive scientist Derek Penn of the University of California, Los Angeles. His talk, titled “Animals Aren't People,” included a blistering critique of a 9 December 2011 Science paper (p. 1427) that claimed that rats are capable of empathy—or, as Science's online news coverage headlined the story, “Rats Feel Each Other's Pain.”

    In the study, neurobiologist Peggy Mason of the University of Chicago in Illinois and her colleagues trapped one rat in a small plastic restrainer that could be opened only from the outside; trapped rats gave alarm calls roughly 20% of the time. A second, free rat was placed nearby, and it soon learned to free its compatriot by opening the door. Free rats did not open the door when the trap was empty. The authors concluded that the helping rat reacted empathically to the distress of its fellow.

    But Penn argued that the team hadn't shown that either rat was truly in distress. The team didn't perform at least one other important control, he said: using trapped rats that were not distressed. Playing videos of the experiments to the meeting, he pointed out that once the door was open, the free rat entered the trap and explored it with the trapped rat, suggesting that being in the trap was not that stressful.

    Mason, who was not at the meeting, counters that once the trap was open, it became “an object to be explored, and in fact rats might prefer it to staying out in the open.” As for the lack of an unstressed control rat, Mason says the team now has an experiment under way suggesting that the more anxious the trapped rat, the more helping behavior is evoked. She agrees that rats probably are not aware of one another's mental states, as humans are, but says the behavior her team observed is the “rodent homolog of empathy.”

    Nevertheless, Penn argued that this and many other recent papers suffer from what is called “folk psychology”: interpreting animal and human behavior in “commonsense” rather than strictly scientific terms. Folk psychology, Penn said, gives animals humanlike reasons for what they do, such as “the rats helped free their cagemates because the caged rats were feeling scared.”

    Cache as catch can.

    Scrub jays hide food more often if they are aware that another bird has been watching them.

    Feeling his pain?

    A study concluding that rats have empathy for one another came under fire at the meeting.


    Penn's talk evoked murmurs of agreement in the meeting room. “Our folk psychological labels carry a lot of specifically human baggage,” Dennett says, “which can be gradually jettisoned as we come to understand other ways of accomplishing many of the same basic cognitive tasks.”

    Do birds have theory of mind?

    Are there alternative ways of explaining remarkable animal feats? A talk in Chicheley by cognitive scientist Rineke Verbrugge of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands explored that question in the case of birds such as rooks and jays. Recent findings suggest that these birds can make tools and understand the mental states of others, often called “theory of mind”—behavior once reserved for humans.

    Research suggests that the western scrub jay is no “birdbrain” cognitively, for example. In work by Nicola Clayton of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom and colleagues, the jays appear to plan for the future by caching food where it is most likely to be needed later. And in an elegant 2006 Science paper (16 June, p. 1662), Clayton's team showed that these birds might even have theory of mind. The team found that the jays alter their caching behavior—for example, moving food, called recaching—if other birds are watching. Because jays routinely steal one another's caches, this raises the possibility that the birds are aware of one another's mental state.

    In her talk, Verbrugge described computational modeling work carried out by graduate student Elske van der Vaart, which was published online this week in PLoS ONE. Van der Vaart created “virtual scrub jays” whose behavior was governed by simple behavioral rules. In the model, the birds recached more when they were stressed, for example, by the presence of another bird, especially one more dominant in the pecking order. The model also took into account the scrub jays' superb memories.

    Van der Vaart's simulations closely duplicated the behavior of real scrub jays. “Their model fits some of the data really well,” says psychologist Amanda Seed of the University of St. Andrews in the United Kingdom. “Even better, it provides some testable predictions,” such as that boosting birds' stress levels should spark more recaching.

    Clayton agrees that the model “provides a powerful explanation for some of the studies,” but she argues that it leaves some data unexplained, a point Heyes also makes. For example, Clayton's team showed that “it takes a thief to know a thief”: Jays that have previously pilfered others' caches are more likely to recache themselves. Van der Vaart's model does not explain that result, but theory of mind could. Further experiments are needed, Clayton says, and she and the Groningen team are now discussing collaborating on them.

    Van der Vaart and colleagues emphasize that they haven't proved that scrub jays don't have theory of mind, only that theory of mind is not necessary to produce the findings. Indeed, meeting attendees discussed at length where the burden of proof should lie: on those who claim animals have more advanced, or less advanced, cognition. “Part of me hopes they will prove the model wrong,” Van der Vaart says. “But I think it's important to exclude as many simpler explanations as possible.”

    • * “Animal minds: from computation to evolution,” London, 16–17 January, and “Theories of minds: the theoretical bases of comparative cognition,” Chicheley, 18–19 January.

  7. Mineral Resources

    Is the World Tottering on the Precipice of Peak Gold?

    1. Richard A. Kerr

    Seventeen-hundred-dollar-an-ounce gold is driving a mining frenzy, but analysts are concerned that miners can't extract gold any faster than they have the past decade.

    Big mining.

    Part-per-million gold ores require large-scale operations (note people in red, center).


    Gold miners are worried. In the past 40 years, they've seen a slew of developments favoring their business. Gold's price has risen so that on average it's been worth several times what it was. Investment in the search for new gold deposits doubled and then doubled again, making gold more intensively sought after than any other metal or mineral group. Technologists have come up with better and cheaper ways to find and extract gold. And gold mining has spread throughout the planet.

    And yet worldwide, production of the glittering element has hardly budged in the past decade. It's not for lack of demand. Gold may not fuel economies the way oil does, but gold for jewelry—its primary use—has been much in demand, and that demand will likely increase. Investors' interest could be intense for years longer. But to judge by the mining industry's modest success of late in finding new deposits of gold, production will not be much higher in the next decade.

    Miners and analysts agree that most of the easy-to-find, easy-to-develop gold has been found. To discover still-hidden deposits and at least maintain production, let alone increase it, miners will need continued high or even higher gold prices, revolutionary new technology, and the cooperation of often reluctant host countries.

    “It's a huge amount of new [gold] deposits that has to be found,” says resource geochemist Stephen Kesler of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. “That is an issue of considerable concern” because no one wants to see the world's first mineral resource peak anytime soon.

    A golden age

    The times may be challenging in gold mining, but you don't have to go back to California's '49ers to find an exuberant heyday for gold. In a 2010 article, three experts—Tommy D. McKeith, vice president for exploration and development for Gold Fields Ltd. in Perth, Australia; Richard Schodde, managing director of MinEx Consulting Pty. Ltd. in Melbourne, Australia; and Ed Baltis of Gold Fields, Perth—pointed to a confluence of forces in the 1970s and '80s that drove an eventual doubling of production.

    Objects of desire.

    Demand for gold jewelry and for gold as an investment has driven up prices and fueled exploration.


    First of all, in 1971, governments stopped fixing their currencies to gold at a price of $35 an ounce ($185 in 2009 dollars). As the unleashed gold price rose through the 1970s toward a 1980 peak above $1500 an ounce, so too did investment in exploration for gold. Exploration expenditures soared in the 1980s by an order of magnitude, never again falling below double the spending of the 1970s.

    Technical and scientific breakthroughs fed gold mining fever as well. Recognition of new types of gold deposits—such as the Carlin deposits of Nevada, which have no visible gold grains—aided exploration. So did new technology, from more-sensitive sample analyses that detect low levels of gold to orbiting satellites that use spectra to map promising mineral terrains. New, cheaper gold-extraction techniques—such as leaching gold from heaps of ore with a cyanide solution—made ores worth mining even when they contained less than a gram of gold per ton of rock.

    By the 1980s and especially in the 1990s, those changes greatly broadened the gold mining club. They made the United States, Australia, and China major producers in a business previously dominated by South Africa. They also drew in more than a dozen new countries. And production soared. From a low of 1200 metric tons of gold in 1975, the industry's output more than doubled to 2600 tons in 2001.

    End of an age

    The exuberance of the 1980s and '90s has definitely cooled, and now it is tinged with anxiety. Production immediately began dropping from its 2001 record high to a low of 2260 tons in 2008. Miners have since clawed their way back to record-equaling production, spurred by gold prices rocketing to the (inflation-adjusted) levels of 1980.

    That resurgence isn't heartening gold miners much, though, because their best indicator of future production—the amount of gold discovered in the past 10 years or so—is showing no signs of life. As he reported at the 2011 NewGenGold Conference in Perth last November (, Schodde has compiled reports of the amounts of gold discovered per year from 1950 to 2010 (see figure). Using history as a guide, he increased the size of recent discoveries to account for the inevitable growth in the apparent size of a newly discovered deposit as geologists explore it.

    By Schodde's reckoning, gold discoveries peaked in the 1980s. That presumably led to the 2001 production peak. Since the 1980s, discoveries have been something like 20% lower. Is that enough to sustain production over the next decade or two? “Yes,” Schodde says, “but it's a struggle, it really is.” A bolstered exploration effort has been yielding meager returns; the average gold content of ore mined has steadily fallen by a factor of 4 since 1979. So to produce an ounce of gold, four times the tonnage of rock has to be moved and processed.

    The golden age seems to be over. “It's becoming harder and harder to find” gold, concludes minerals analyst Michael Chender, CEO of Metals Economics Group in Halifax, Canada. “There's a general sense that most of what's easily available has been found and picked up.” Andrew Lloyd agrees; the industry “has increased exploration, but they're not finding a lot of new deposits, especially the large ones,” says the spokesperson for the world's largest gold mining company, Barrick Gold Corp., headquartered in Toronto, Canada. “The industry as a whole is really struggling to keep up with demand.”

    Pause or peak?

    How the struggles of the gold mining industry will play out depends on whose crystal ball you are consulting. Those who have been predicting that the world's production of oil will shortly peak, if it hasn't already done so, are pessimistic about gold's prospects as well. Applying a standard peaking analysis to the history of gold production, retired oil geologist Jean Laherrère concluded in 2009 that 2001 was the peak and that production would soon plummet.

    Some analysts and explorationists are considerably more optimistic. They point to the three production peaks in the 20th century, each of which was followed by a higher peak. Each time, the gold price went up, new territory opened to mining, or new technology made it easier to find or process gold ore. “I'm sure we'll discover something in the next 10 years that will change the picture,” Kesler says. A can-do spirit goes with the turf, says resource geochemist Gavin Mudd of Monash University, Clayton, in Australia. “It's never say never” in the mining industry, he notes. “Part of this business is the business of hope.”

    Others come down on a middle ground. “Our view is that mine supply is not likely to increase from present levels,” Barrick's Lloyd says. Schodde, too, sees another decade, at least, of more or less unchanging gold production. That would be reminiscent of the “undulating plateau” of recent world oil production (Science, 3 February, p. 522). Shifts in price or demand or the politics in a producing country might swing annual production up or down for a few years, but over a decade or so the supply would be little changed.

    Up, up, and level.

    Record amounts of gold found in the 1980s let world production rise until 2001. Since then, production has been essentially flat. (“Unspecified” is an estimate.)


    Gold plateauists tend to see greater challenges in gold production now than ever before, but no good solutions in the offing. For example, all the exploration innovations of the past 50 years have not let geologists find deposits any deeper in Earth's crust. Hot, briny solutions deposited gold not at the surface but several kilometers below it. But Schodde finds that the depth to gold deposits discovered in virgin territory has averaged a mere 30 meters in each of the past 5 decades. In every decade, almost half of those discoveries were deposits now exposed at the surface by erosion. Even the generally optimistic Kesler “cannot think of any major processing, mining, or exploration method that is very recent in appearance” that could help out anytime soon.

    While these “belowground” issues loom large, the aboveground ones are looking equally daunting. Getting all the required permits for a new mine is taking longer, miners say. Resource economist Keith Long of the U.S. Geological Survey in Tucson, Arizona, has found that in the United States it has taken on average 7 years from requesting a permit to opening a mine. Remote sites in Alaska or deposits in a country new to large-scale mining can take much longer. And overseas, the big global mining companies must delicately, and slowly, navigate the tricky political and social waters of the countries holding the remaining gold.

    Litigation further stretches out the development process and increases costs. The gold mining industry produces hundreds of millions of tons of waste rock a year and uses tons of cyanide, Mudd notes. The mass of potential pollution is already increasing as the grade of gold ores has declined, he has found. “The big constraints [on gold production] will be environmental and social,” Mudd believes, “not so much discoveries.”

    Gold, mined as it has been for 6000 years, may be a harbinger of production challenges in other metal industries. Analysts often mention economically essential copper as another element encountering mining constraints. But trends in mineral discovery in general suggest to Kesler that “we are approaching some sort of wall in materials to support our way of life.” So watch gold's price and production figures for clues to how close the world may be to the first such wall.

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