This Week in Science

Science  13 Apr 2012:
Vol. 336, Issue 6078, pp. 127
  1. Mercury Inside and Out


    The MESSENGER spacecraft orbiting Mercury has been in a ∼12-hour eccentric, near-polar orbit since 18 March 2011 (see the Perspective by McKinnon). Smith et al. (p. 214, published online 21 March) present the most recent determination of Mercury's gravity field, based on radio tracking of the MESSENGER spacecraft between 18 March and 23 August 2011. The results point to an interior structure that differs from those of the other terrestrial planets: the density of the planet's solid outer shell suggests the existence of a deep reservoir of high-density material, possibly an Fe-S layer. Zuber et al. (p. 217, published online 21 March) used data obtained by the MESSENGER laser altimeter through to 24 October 2011 to build a topographic map of Mercury's northern hemisphere. The map shows less variation in elevation, compared with Mars or the Moon, and its features add to the body of evidence that Mercury has sustained geophysical activity for much of its history.

  2. Going Ape Over Genetic Maps

    Recombination is an important process in generating diversity and producing selectively advantageous genetic combinations. Thus, changes in recombination hotspots may influence speciation. To investigate the variation in recombination processes in humans and their closest existing relatives, Auton et al. (p. 193, published online 15 March) prepared a fine-scale genetic map of the Western chimpanzee and compared it with that of humans. While rates of recombination are comparable between humans and chimpanzees, the locations and genetic motifs associated with recombination differ between the species.

  3. Harnessing the Magnetoelectric Effect

    Some multiferroic materials exhibit the so-called magnetoelectric effect, in which an external magnetic field can cause electric polarization and an electric field can cause magnetic order. This is important because the manipulation of magnetic structures by electric means is technologically highly desirable. Seki et al. (p. 198) discovered spin whirlpools called skyrmions in the multiferroic material Cu2OSeO3 and observed a magnetoelectric coupling exerted by the skyrmions. The existence of skyrmions in an insulating magnetoelectric material holds promise for their future manipulation.

  4. Manipulating Optical Topology

    Phase transitions in solid-state systems are often associated with a drastic change in the properties of that system. For example, metal-to-insulator transition or magnetic-to-nonmagnetic states find wide application in memory storage technology. An exotic electronic phase transition is the Lifshitz transition, whereby the Fermi surface undergoes a change in topology and a drastic change in the electronic density of states. Krishnamoorthy et al. (p. 205) now show that the notion of such a phase transition can be carried over to the optical regime by the suitable design of a metamaterial structure. This effect could be used to control the interaction between light and matter.

  5. Finessing Ferroelectric Liquid Crystals


    For a material to show a ferroelectric response, it needs to have segments that can be polarized, with a net polarization that remains when the applied field is removed. However, the fluidity that allows liquid crystal molecules to easily move under an applied force also makes it hard to create a ferroelectric response. Miyajima et al. (p. 209) show that a set of columnar liquid crystal molecules, with polar cyano groups tethered to amide-capped nonpolar chains, can assemble into an umbrella-shaped core–shell architecture, in which hydrogen bonding among the amides keeps the cyano groups confined. With only subtle variations in the tether chemistry, the assemblies can be tuned from having a para-electric to a ferroelectric response, which requires only a small coercive field.

  6. To Cut or Not to Cut

    During animal cell division, the final separation of daughter cells requires ESCRT-III (endosomal sorting complex required for transport III), the core membrane scission machinery. Carlton et al. (p. 220, published online 15 March; see the Perspective by Petronczki and Uhlmann) report that ESCRT-III modulates abscission timing through one of its subunits, CHMP4C. Depletion of CHMP4C results in faster resolution of the midbody, the cytoplasmic bridge that connects the daughter cells at the end of cytokinesis. This phenotype correlates with a differential spatiotemporal distribution of CHMP4C at the midbody. As CHMP4C is essential for activating the Aurora B–mediated abscission checkpoint, consequently, depletion of CHMP4C results in the accumulation of genetic damage. Thus, the ESCRT machinery protects the cell against genetic damage by coordinating its cytokinetic activity with the abscission checkpoint.

  7. Disrupting Drug Memories

    In drug recovery programs, conditioned responses to drug cues can be inhibited by extinction protocols. However, extinguished behavioral responses can return after renewed exposure to the drug itself, or to drug-associated paraphernalia, and sometimes these responses reemerge spontaneously. Attempts have been made to disrupt cue-memory reconsolidation or to strengthen extinction learning, but these efforts have often relied on pharmacological agents that either are not approved for human use or cause problematic side effects. Xue et al. (p. 241; see the Perspective by Milton and Everitt) have tried to circumvent the limitations of pharmacological approaches in daily retrieval trials conducted in rats within the short timeframe of the “reconsolidation window” before the extinction sessions reduced drug-induced reinstatement, spontaneous recovery, and renewal of drug seeking. When translated to heroin-addicted humans, similar retrieval trials before extinction sessions impaired cue-induced heroin craving up to 6 months later. This retrieval-extinction procedure is thus a promising non-pharmacological treatment for addiction.

  8. Starvation and Autophagy


    Starvation stimulates withdrawal from the cell cycle, as well as stimulating autophagy. Are these two events connected? Lee et al. (p. 225) show a direct and nutrient-sensitive interaction between the tumor suppressor p53 and the essential autophagy gene Atg7. Further, in the absence of Atg7, the p53-dependent induction of the cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitor p21 is inhibited. This leads to Atg7-deficient cells being unable to properly withdraw from the cell cycle under starved conditions. While Atg7 deletion leads to an impairment of p53-mediated cell-cycle arrest, the Atg7-deficient cells hyperactivate p53-mediated cell-death pathways. The physiological importance of this hyperactivation is underscored by the observation that genetic blocking of p53-mediated cell death significantly extended neonatal survival of mice in which Atg7 had been deleted.

  9. Open and Shut Case

    Voltage-sensing domains (VSDs) control the activity of voltage-gated ion channels to regulate the ion flow that underlies nerve conduction. Structural and biophysical studies have provided insight into voltage gating; however, understanding has been hindered by the lack of a crystal structure of a fully closed state. Starting from a structure of an open conducting state, a voltage-gated K+ channel, Jensen et al. (p. 229) used all-atom molecular dynamics simulations to show the conformational changes involved in switching to the closed, nonconducting state. Additional simulations revealed the major steps of channel activation. The computational determination of a closed state may guide development of drugs to treat channelopathies associated with this resting state.

  10. Translation Block

    MicroRNAs (miRNAs) are small, noncoding RNA genes that are found in the genomes of most eukaryotes, where they play an important role in the regulation of gene expression. Although whether gene activity is repressed by blocking translation of messenger RNA (mRNA) targets, or by promoting their deadenylation and then degradation, has been open to debate. Bazzini et al. (p. 233, published online 15 March) and Djuranovic et al. (p. 237) looked at early points in the repression reaction in the zebrafish embryo or in Drosophila tissue culture cells, respectively, and found that translation was blocked before target mRNAs were significantly deadenylated and degraded. Thus, miRNAs appear to interfere with the initiation step of translation.

  11. Monkey See, Monkey Read

    An orthographic object such as a set of letters, and the ability to recognize such sets as words, is a key component of reading. The ability to develop these skills has often been attributed to the prior acquisition of a complex language. For example, we learn how letters sound and thus recognize when a particular letter makes up part of a word. However, orthographic processing is also a visual process, because we learn to recognize words as discrete objects, and the ability to read may thus be related to an ability to recognize and classify objects. Grainger et al. (p. 245; see the Perspective by Platt and Adams) tested orthographic skills in baboons. Captive, but freely ranging, baboons were trained to distinguish real English words from combinations of similar letters that are not words, and they were able to distinguish real words with remarkable accuracy. Thus, a basic ability to recognize words as objects does not require complex linguistic understanding.

  12. Entangling Qubits

    The basic building block of a quantum computer, a qubit, has been realized in many physical settings, each of which has its advantages and drawbacks. Solid-state spin qubits interact weakly with their environment and each other, leading not only to long coherence times but also to difficulties in performing multiqubit operations. Shulman et al. (p. 202) used a double quantum dot to produce a singlet-triplet qubit, where the two quantum states available are a singlet and a triplet formed by two spin-1/2 electrons. Two such qubits are then entangled by electrical gating, which affects the charge configuration of one qubit and that, in turn, influences the electric field experienced by the other. This type of two-qubit entanglement is essential for further development of quantum computing in these systems.