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THE yEAR IN ScIENcE


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DISCOVER
DISCOVER

100
Science, Technology, and The Future

KILLER
FLU
THE YEAR IN SCIENCE 2009 ASTRONOMY EVOLUTION MEDICINE BRAIN PHYSICS TECHNOLOGY

ToP STorieS
of 2oo9 EINSTEIN’S GENIUS

HUMAN ORIGINS
ASTRONOMY
Alien Super-Earths,
Dawn of the Galaxies
EVOLUTION
Dino-Mummy,
First Animal
on Land
MEDICINE
Vaccine Phobia,
Gene Therapy
Triumphant
BRAIN
Depression
Cure, Reading
the Mind
PHYSICS
Black Holes
in the Lab,
JANUARy/FEBRUARy 2O1O

Fixing Traffic
JANUARY/FebRUARY 2010

with Math
$5.99 U.S.

PLUS The biggest news


in energy, environment,
technology, and more. DiSplAY UNTil Feb 8, 2010
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contents J A N U A R Y/ F E B R U A R Y 2 0 1 0

YEAR IN
SCIENCE
2 0 0 9

THE TOP TEN STORIES Vaccine phobia becomes a


public-health threat 18, NASA braces for course
correction 20, Meet your new ancestor 22, Stem
cell science takes off 23, Interview: astronomer
Alan Dressler 24, Swine flu outbreak sweeps the
globe 26, The graphene revolution 27, Earth-like
worlds come into view 28, Experimental power
plant takes the CO2 out 30, Interview: economist
George Loewenstein 32.

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DV0110TOC3A_WC C2 11/13/09 8:41:39 PM


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The space shuttle
Endeavor, docked with
the International Space
Station, crosses the face
of the sun.

On the Cover
Corot-7b, a rocky
exoplanet, suggests
that Earth-like worlds
may be common around
other stars. Insets, from
left: Einstein cogitating,
humans evolving, a
swine flu virus lurking.

A special report on 100


astonishing discoveries from DISCOVER ON THE
WEB Videos, breaking
the past year—the news, and more
—the latest is online at
ideas and breakthroughs discovermagazine.com

that are reshaping our


understanding of the world.

AND AMONG THE REST BIOLOGY Cut calories and extend your life 39,
The smell of fear 66, Chimps plan ahead 70 SPACE Water on the moon
35, A space-junk collision 54, Venus’s secret past 66 EVOLUTION The ALSO IN THIS ISSUE
next stage in Darwin’s revolution 50, An ancient croc-eating super-
snake 62, The world’s oldest octopuses 77 ASTRONOMY Twin black Mail 6
holes 53, Titan: cloudy with a chance of storms 57, Jupiter takes a hit 72
ENVIRONMENT Arctic scientist Mark Serreze 60, Species relocation 80 Contributors 7
MEDICINE Hope for HIV vaccine 34, Craig Venter’s synthetic biology 40,
Cancer genes go to court 55 ENERGY Smart grid powers up 48, Editor’s Note 8
Building the sun in the lab 68, Microbial batteries 82 MIND Brain shock
therapy 38, Decoding the Jefferson cipher 64 ANTHROPOLOGY Ancient Vital Signs 10
flutes 54, Lake Huron hides Ancient civilization 82 PHYSICS Black hole An elderly couple visit
in a lab 70 TECHNOLOGY Theory-generating computer 39 EARTH Origins their doctor to find out
of oxygen 77 OBITUARIES 86 . . . and a complete index on page 88. which one of them has
Alzheimer’s.
By H. Lee Kagan

The Brain 14
Neuroscientists begin
to figure out how we
experience fear.
By Carl Zimmer

20 Things
You Didn’t Know About
Dwarf Planets 96
3
By Andrew Moseman

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DV0110TOC3A_WC 3 11/13/09 8:41:45 PM


‘‘
worldmags

From our home on Earth, we look out into the


distances and strive to imagine the sort of world
into which we were born…. The search will continue.
The urge is older than history. It is not satisfied
and it will not be suppressed.
‘‘
—Edwin P. Hubble

NASA/ESA. PREVIOUS PAGES: THIERRY LEGAULT/WWW.ASTROPHOTO.FR. ON THE COVER: ESO/L. CALCADA; IMAGNO/GETTY IMAGES; IAN TATTERSALL/MAX PLANCK INSTITUTE; ALFRED

A towering pillar of gas and dust enshrouds newborn stars in the Carina nebula,
captured by the Hubble Space Telescope’s new Wide Field Camera in July.

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DV0110TOC3A_WC 2 11/13/09 8:41:50 PM


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CHECK OUT

THE YEAR IN SCIENCE


SPECIAL YEAR-END FEATURES ON D I S C OV E R M AG A Z I N E . C O M
(DON’T PEEK BEFORE NEW YEAR’S EVE!)
BLOGS.DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM

Weirdest Science Stories of the Year RECENTLY ON


discovermagazine.com/web/disco2k9 80BEATS

Niftiest New Robots Solar Cars


discovermagazine.com/web/robo2k9 Race Across
the Australian
Outback
BAD ASTRONOMY’S Eliza Strickland brings you

Top Astronomy a remarkable slide show


of solar-powered vehicles
Pictures of 2009 competing on a 1,860-mile
course.

discovermagazine.com/web/astro2k9
RECENTLY ON
THE
WEB EXCLUSIVE The German Village That Went Off the Grid INTERSECTION
A small town in Saxony has figured out how to run entirely on biomass—creating an energy surplus.
discovermagazine.com/web/germanvillage Evangelicals
and Scientists
Team Up to
Humans vs. Animals: Our Fiercest Battles With Invasive Species
Save the Planet
From Burmese pythons to Galápagos goats, these animals are threatening a hostile takeover of the
Chris Mooney discusses
planet unless we can find ways to stop them.
the new book A Climate
discovermagazine.com/web/invasivesmackdown
for Change: Global Warm-
ing Facts for Faith-Based
PHOTO GALLERY Decisions.
Treating Disease With Nature’s
Deadliest Toxins RECENTLY ON
Drug companies and scientists are THE LOOM
turning biology’s weapons into lifesaving treatments.
discovermagazine.com/web/deadliestmedicines I Am Shiva,
Destroyer of
HENRY ROE (LOWELL OBSERVATORY) AND GEMINI OBSERVATORY; ISTOCK; JACK PERLMUTTER/NASA

Proteins
Carl Zimmer sheds light
Will Nanoparticle Drugs Change
WEB EXCLUSIVE on the science of autophagy,
the Way We Take Medicine? or how our cells destroy
Researchers are now using tiny, drug-carrying balls of sugar to deliver medication themselves to live again.
in novel—and highly useful—ways.
discovermagazine.com/web/nanoparticlemeds RECENTLY ON
BAD
ASTRONOMY
PHOTO GALLERY
The NASA School of Art
NASA
For 50 years, artists have had up-close, insider access to the
Launches an
space program. Here are the results.
iPhone App
discovermagazine.com/web/NASAartschool
Phil Plait examines NASA’s
official app, which contains
information on missions,
3
pictures, videos, and more.

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DV0110WEBTOC1A_WC 3 11/13/09 12:56:09 PM


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J A N U A R Y / F E B R U A R Y 2 0 1 0

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Kathleen McAuliffe, Kathleen McGowan,
Philip Plait, Karen Wright, Carl Zimmer
A RT
Erik B. Spooner ART DIRECTOR
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Hints: 1. These plates cover a shy, high-maintenance creature. 2. It hails from the Amazon, but you won’t
have much trouble finding it elsewhere. 3. It is flat and round—hence its name. For the answer, see the
March issue or visit discovermagazine.com/web/whatisthis. Last month’s answer: page 91.

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DV0110MAST1A_WC 4 11/2/09 7:44:24 PM


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DV21002.indd 1 11/10/09 5:48:29 PM


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Mail

Darwin and His Discontents thal mating? Given our present-day sexual
I have enjoyed the straightforward, clearly habits, I would think it highly likely that
written articles in DISCOVER for years, but such mating occurred whenever the two
never before have I laughed out loud while populations met. John Phoenix
being informed on an important scientific Fredericksburg, VA
topic. Bruno Maddox’s “Deconstructing
Darwin” [November, page 38] was fascinat- The editors respond:
ing in its attempt to show Charles Darwin Whether or not Neanderthals and humans
as a scientist of incredible vision and forti- were of the same species—a question that
tude but also as a man with human foibles. hinges partly on the definition of “species”
Informative writing is always welcome, but —closely related organisms, such as
to be able to enjoy some of the nimblest wolves, coyotes, and dogs, can often
prose I’ve read in a long time in the process produce fertile offspring. Differences in the
was an unexpected treat. It’s as if Dave number of chromosomes can lead to infer-
Barry suddenly jumped over to serious sci- tile progeny (like mules, the product of don-
ence. What a blast! Cathy Anderson keys and horses), but scientists are unsure
Tampa, FL whether Neanderthals had 23 chromosome
pairs like us or 24 like the great apes.
Maddox’s article substantially reduces the
quality of your magazine. Portions of the derthals because Neanderthal remains Give W Some Stem Cell Credit
article were demeaning to Darwin, spe- show scars made by human tools. But In “The Super Cell” [November, page
cifically the comments about his “dumb there may be other explanations. A Nean- 30], the author suggests that the Bush
beard” and “dumb theories.” I would also derthal could have gotten the short end of administration’s barring of federal funds for
like to know who keeps calling the theory the stick in a fight over territory or a kill, or embryonic stem cell research negatively
“Darwinism” instead of evolution. As an a trade meeting between nomadic groups impacted progress. Yet in the very next
anthropologist, I never used the term in could have gone bad. Brandon C. Nuttall paragraph she expounds on break-
my college classes. Maddox gets his his- Frankfort, KY throughs for obtaining stem cells without
tory wrong too. The concept of evolution human embryos involved—“even with the
was in the air for some time prior to the Given humans’ well-known propensity restrictions in place.” A fair article would
publication of On the Origin of Species; to view other, different-looking humans have acknowledged that the removal of
Darwin never “created” it. Maddox has with hatred and disgust, it would be federal funds for human embryonic stem
constructed a straw man that glorifies his utterly surprising if early humans reacted cell research might have spurred these
writing and so-called wit at the expense of to Neanderthals with anything other valuable advances. Scott Anderson
a great scientist. John L. Mori than fear and loathing. I think it’s highly Centennial, CO
Morton, IL probable that our ancestors exterminated
them, or at the very least outcompeted Send e-mail to editorial@discovermagazine.com.
Address letters to DISCOVER, 90 Fifth Avenue,
In “Deconstructing Darwin,” Charles them for resources, and felt no remorse at New York, NY 10011. Include your full name,
Darwin is brought “back down to earth” their disappearance. Steve Weston address, and daytime phone number.
in hopes of elevating his theory. However, Cottonwood, MN
Darwin was a man, and as such one can-
not expect perfection. Attempting to make History tells us that when cultures meet,
him more human just seems to degrade they both murder and marry each other, E R R ATA
his theory. Instead of focusing on the man, so probably the few Neanderthals got On page 33 of “The Super Cell” in
we should be focusing more on educating blended with the many humans. If they the November issue, we misstated
those who have yet to accept evolution. could mate, though, doesn’t that mean President Bush’s funding restrictions
for embryonic stem cell research.
If the proper facts were brought to the they were really the same species? Were Funding was permitted, but only for
people, it wouldn’t matter whether Darwin Neanderthals really just a race, a biological studying existing cell lines.
was cast as a simple person or the great variety of humans? Jim Heldberg
On page 59 of “Seeing the Forest
bearded man. Philip Hlasny Pacifica, CA for the Lichens” in the November
Mississauga, Ontario issue, we misstated the location
Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that of the Ozark Plateau. It stretches into
Human-Neanderthal Relations the lack of Neanderthal DNA in the current the eastern edge of Oklahoma,
not the western edge.
“Brothers in Arms” [November, page 46] gene pool implies only that there were no
suggests that humans cannibalized Nean- fertile offspring from any human/Neander-

6 | DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM
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DV0110MAIL1A_WC 6 11/5/09 8:32:30 PM


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contributors
MICHAEL ABRAMS, a freelance FRED GUTERL, former deputy
THE TOP 100 SCIENCE STORIES OF 2009

MICHAEL D. LEMONICK, who ALINE REYNOLDS is a


writer in New York, is the author of editor of Newsweek International, was a science writer at Time for DISCOVER intern who also writes
Birdmen, Batmen and Skyflyers. recently joined DISCOVER as a more than 20 years, recently joined for Manhattan Media newspapers
senior editor. the staff of Climate Central. and Dan’s Papers.
MARCIA BARTUSIAK is a
professor of science writing at MIT ADAM HADHAZY is a science JEANNE LENZER is a frequent JOCELYN RICE is a science writer
and author of five books. Her latest writer whose work has also contributor to the British Medical in Kansas whose work also appears
is The Day We Found the Universe. appeared in Popular Mechanics and Journal who also writes for The in Technology Review, CR Magazine,
on Scientific American’s Web site. Atlantic, Slate, and The Scientist. and Popular Mechanics.
ALLISON BOND, a science and
medical writer living in New York, MONICA HEGER is a Brooklyn- HEATHER MAYER is a DISCOVER JESSICA RUVINSKY is a former
has also written for Scientific Ameri- based writer whose work has also intern who has reported on health, editor at DISCOVER who has also
can Mind and Popular Science. appeared in IEEE Spectrum and science, and other topics for written for Science, The Economist,
USA Today’s Science Fair blog. CNN.com, Health.com, and the and U.S. News & World Report.
JANE BOSVELD, a contributing Associated Press.
editor to DISCOVER, is studying for JEREMY JACQUOT, a graduate NAYANAH SIVA is a freelance
a certificate in botany from the New student at the University of Southern KATHLEEN MCGOWAN is a journalist based in London whose
York Botanical Garden. California, also writes for Popular former senior editor at Psychology work also appears in The Lancet,
Mechanics and The Huffington Post. Today and is a contributing editor Nature Medicine, and Science.
DARLENE F. CAVALIER is the to DISCOVER.
founder of ScienceCheerleader. SAM KISSINGER is a former ELIZABETH SVOBODA is a
com and an advocate for public DISCOVER intern who is now CYRUS MOULTON has also Popular Science contributing editor
engagement in science. fighting childhood illiteracy in written for the Island Journal and based in San Jose, California.
Central Arizona. The Huffington Post.
JANET FANG is a DISCOVER MEGAN TALKINGTON recently
intern who studies natural history LINDSEY KONKEL is a freelance JILL NEIMARK, who covers began her career in science
and uses marine geochemistry to journalist who has also written for science and medicine, received journalism after working as a
research the paleoclimate of Africa. Popular Science, Natural History, the Autism Society of America researcher studying ribosomes
and OnEarth. award in 2007. and viruses.
DOUGLAS FOX is a freelance
writer whose work has also JEREMY LABRECQUE is a STEPHEN ORNES is a CARL ZIMMER, a contributing
appeared in New Scientist, freelance science writer based Nashville-based writer who editor to DISCOVER, also writes
Popular Mechanics, and the 2009 in Montreal who also studies also writes for CR Magazine, for The New York Times. His latest
Best American Science and spatial patterns in rheumatic Technology Review, and book is The Tangled Bank: An
Nature Writing anthology. diseases. Science News for Kids. Introduction to Evolution.

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DV0110CONTRIB1B_WC 1 11/13/09 9:05:46 PM


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Editor’s Note

force is causing the expansion of the universe to acceler-


ate, controlling the fate of the entire cosmos. By current
reckoning, dark energy outweighs conventional matter (the
stuff that you and I are made of) by about 15 to 1. At the
other end of the scale, biologists had not yet sequenced
the human genome. Efforts to treat disease with gene
therapy had barely begun; the idea of creating synthetic life,
as Craig Venter is now preparing to do, back then seemed
more like something from the imagination of Mary Shelley.
All of this calls to mind Shakespeare’s oft-quoted words,
in which Hamlet addresses his friend Horatio: “There
are more things in heaven and earth,” he says, “than are
dreamt of in your philosophy.” Time and again we think we
have reached a near-final understanding of the world, but
then along comes an out-of-the-blue result that shakes
up our intellectual order all over again. Time and again we
think we have finally hit an unanswerable question, but then
along comes a clever new experiment that exposes the
hubris of thinking we are the ones who have finally reached
science’s outermost limits.
But there is also another kind of humility I feel looking
back through the old pages of DISCOVER. For every story

In
that makes me shake my head in amusement at how little
we knew in 1998, there are others—many others—that
highlight just how slow and incremental the discovery
process is. Efforts to find a cure for AIDS. Debates about
the shape and significance of the human evolutionary tree.
The quest to understand the deeper meaning of quantum
physics. The hunt for life on Mars.
As I kept reading I thought of another, very different
Shakespeare quote, this one from A Midsummer Night’s
Dream: “Lovers and madmen have such seething brains/
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/More than cool
the 12 years I reason ever comprehends.” In the popular stereotype, sci-
have been at DISCOVER, the scientific understanding of entists land solidly, solely on the side of cool reason. Their
the world has undergone staggering transformations. actions say otherwise. Anthropologists spend lifetimes
A look back through our annual top 100 lists richly illus- chipping away at African outcrops in hopes of gleaning
trates those changes. In January 1998 human embry- a little more information about the origin of our species.
onic stem cells had not yet been isolated. There are no Medical researchers invest years developing vaccines, and
stories about brain-scan studies in that issue, since the then years more proving that they are safe. The engineers
key technology—functional magnetic resonance imag- who labored on Apollo will most likely never live to see
ing, or fMRI—was still in its infancy. Also absent: news humans set foot on Mars, yet many of them continue to
about planets orbiting other stars, since only a handful work tirelessly toward that goal.
of them were known at the time. These are not acts of cool reason alone. They embody
love and, in truth, more than a bit of madness. And we are all
More sobering are the truly fundamental discoveries that the better off for it. Read on and I hope you will marvel—as
have taken place in the intervening dozen years. Just I constantly do—at what is possible when the world’s great
days after the 1998 issue hit newsstands, astronomers rational minds embrace a little of their fantastical side.
announced the first evidence of dark energy. This invisible Corey S. Powell

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DV0110EDNOTE1A_WC 8 11/13/09 9:03:31 PM


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ADVERTORIAL BROUGHT TO YOU BY SHELL & DISCOVER MAGAZINE

POWERING In October DISCOVER teamed up with Shell


and the Stevens Institute of Technology to

TOMORROW’S explore the future of energy. The resulting


panel discussion, titled “Fossil Fuels in the
Year 2050,” was moderated by DISCOVER’s

WORLD editor in chief, Corey S. Powell, and


held on the Stevens campus in Hoboken,
New Jersey.
MIT visiting scientist Richard Sears,
formerly a geophysicist with Shell, out-
lined the challenge ahead. “In the hour
that we’re sitting here tonight, the world
will go through about 150 million gallons
of crude oil, 14 billion cubic feet of natural
gas, and almost 2 billion pounds of coal,”
he said. “Anything that we talk about
moving to in 2050 is going to have to
replace energy use at that scale.”
The panel went on to discuss emerging
technologies such as carbon sequestra-
tion and an interactive, “smart” energy
distribution system. “The smart grid
and some related considerations—
perhaps the off-peak powering of electric
vehicles—give us an opportunity to
stabilize our power plants, how they
interact with the demand side, and
achieve higher efficiencies in power pro-
duction,” said Anthony Cugini, director
of the Office of Research and Devel-
opment at the National Energy and
Technology Laboratory. “It will have a
significant impact.”
Renewable energy sources will be
important, but “revolutionary devel-
opments do not happen overnight,”
cautioned Turgay Ertekin, a professor
of petroleum and natural gas engi-
neering at Penn State. “We have to look
at all of the possibilities—from nuclear
energy to hydroelectric power to solar
energy —and then make sure that they
take their proper places in the world’s
overall energy budget.”
And Paul Winstanley, director of
energy initiatives at Stevens, empha-
sized that the challenge ahead is not just
“We have to look at all of the one of finding the right technology. “How
do we sustain the availability of fuel while
possibilities, from nuclear we continue to search for credible alter-

to hydroelectric to solar, and natives?” he asked. “There’s a huge gap


that we’re facing in terms of education
make sure they take their and training and preparing the workforce
for the energy transition we’ve got to
proper places.” —TURGAY ERTEKIN go through.”

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DV0110ENERGYAD1A_WC 9 11/13/09 9:44:16 PM


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Vital Signs by H. Lee Kagan


After 50 years together, it should be easy to recognize signs
that your spouse has Alzheimer’s. But sometimes dementia
expresses itself in truly confounding ways.

I
t was near the end of a routine office visit when my patient, Sam, in at least one other area of intellectual functioning. Among those
told me he needed to talk to me about his wife. I closed his chart areas are language (breadth of vocabulary, complexity of sentences),
and gave him my full attention. “Ruth’s just not the same,” he said. calculation (balancing a checkbook, figuring a tip), judgment (Is this a
“She tells me the same thing three times. She forgets when we have legitimate bill or a mail scam?), and visual-spatial orientation (becom-
plans to go somewhere. I don’t know, but I think she might have that ing disoriented while walking or driving). Faulty memory alone is not
Alzheimer’s disease.” Concern and frustration were evident in his enough to diagnose dementia, and the cognitive impairment must be
a decline from a previously higher level of functioning.

Two weeks later as I entered the exam room and opened Ruth’s
chart, I found the note I had written to remind myself to check
her memory. Mindful of her husband’s concerns, I asked her
how things were going.
“Dr. Kagan,” she said, “I’m worried about Sam.”
I waited for more and watched as she frowned.
“I think he might have Alzheimer’s.”
I couldn’t help smiling to myself. After 50 years, is this where
marital bickering had brought them? “What makes you think
that?” I asked.
“Well, I say things and he keeps correcting me. And then he
gets angry. He’s so short-tempered lately. It’s not like him.”
I told her I would look into it the next time I saw her husband.
After reviewing her vital signs and performing a basic physical
exam, I proceeded to test her. Extensive formal testing tools exist
to evaluate memory, but most clinicians rely on the Mini-Mental
Status Exam (MMSE) in their offices to screen for dementia. The
test takes just a few minutes and is commonly used for detect-
ing cognitive impairment. It includes a series of questions that
test orientation to place and time, recall, calculation, reading,
and executive function—carrying out a complex task, such as
copying a drawing of two overlapping pentagons.
Amused through much of the testing, Ruth offered an excuse
or a dismissive laugh whenever she failed on some component
of the exam. She was unable to recall any of three named objects
voice. “Can you check her out the next time she’s in here?” I shook after three minutes. She struggled with simple math and was unable
his hand and promised I would. to spell the word world backward. When we were done, her score was
I had known Sam and Ruth, both in their late seventies, for more well below normal, placing her in the early dementia range. Depres-
than two decades, and apart from the usual infirmities of the golden sion in some cases may mimic dementia, especially when patients
years, they had managed to dodge serious illness. I saw them both become withdrawn and disengaged, but Ruth showed no evidence of
regularly, and neither one had struck me as having suffered a signifi- that melancholic state. A careful neurological examination disclosed
cant decline in intellectual functioning. But it wouldn’t be unusual for no abnormalities to suggest prior strokes or other disorders, such as
early dementia to sneak in under the radar. Its first symptoms may Parkinson’s disease, that may be associated with dementia.
be subtle and impossible to distinguish from the normal decline in I sent Ruth to have blood drawn and then walked over to my secre-
memory that occurs with aging. tary, Carina. I asked her to schedule Ruth for an MRI of the brain.
If you ask people over 60 what they dread most, dementia is almost “What’s the indication?” Carina asked. The radiologists would want
always in the top three on their list of health concerns. After all, it is to know what I was looking for.
memory that makes us who we are; without it we are forever trapped “Put ‘Evaluate dementia’ on the request.”
in the moment, with no window on the past or the future. She nodded and mumbled, “Oh, that explains her cookies.”
MILLENNIUM IMAGES, UK

There is some discussion among experts over what exactly consti- “Her cookies? What about her cookies?” I began to wonder if one
tutes early dementia, but they generally agree that it includes both a of us was in need of a dementia workup, too.
decline in memory (learning and recalling new information like “Where Carina reminded me that for years Ruth, a kindhearted woman, had
did I put those keys?” or “What did we do yesterday?”) and a decline been bringing home-baked cookies to every appointment. Known

10 | DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM
worldmags

DV0110VITAL2A_WC 10 11/13/09 1:31:10 PM


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DV21004.indd 1 11/11/09 11:22:48 AM


worldmags

Vital Signs

among my staff as the Cookie Lady, she always made sure everyone less. He had responded by becoming short-tempered and demand-
got his or her own little bag. But for the past year, whenever Ruth ing. But being short-tempered and demanding is not dementia.
came in the staff would politely wait for her to leave and then deposit Ruth had correctly observed a distinct change in her spouse, and
the cookies in the trash. “They’re terrible,” she said, “but no one wants with her limited capacities she had decided that the problem lay with
to say anything to her. Too bad. They used to be good.” him, speculating that he might have early dementia. “He keeps cor-
After Ruth left I tried one of her dry, tasteless cookies and agreed recting me,” she had complained, demonstrating no insight into her
that they would not have earned anyone the affectionate nickname own diminished mental faculties. Sam, in turn, was showing how
Cookie Lady. I saw it as one more example of how she had changed. Alzheimer’s disease affects more than the person who has it.
I made sure that her MRI got scheduled. In fact, Ruth’s marked lack of insight into her deficits is character-
Within a week I had all of Ruth’s results back. Her scan showed mild istic of true dementia. Patients forget what they don’t know and so
brain atrophy, or shrinkage, a common but very nonspecific finding in gain no self-awareness. The corollary is that patients who come to
older people. There was no tumor, no evidence of a past stroke, and me worried that they might have Alzheimer’s generally do not. (There
no fluid accumulation. Her lab tests showed no metabolic derange- are exceptions, of course.) Alzheimer’s is the illness that is most often
ments or any deficiencies, such as inadequate amounts of thyroid brought to a doctor’s attention by family members and friends rather
hormone or vitamin B12, that can cause symptoms of dementia. than by the patients themselves.
Based on her impaired cognitive functions and the absence of any There is currently no way to reverse Alzheimer’s disease. There are,
other explanation, I concluded that, unfortunately, Sam was right. however, drugs that can treat its symptoms. I prescribed these medi-
His wife had early Alzheimer’s disease. The diagnosis is a clinical cations for Ruth after having a lengthy discussion with her and her
one, meaning there is no specific test, either analyzing the blood or husband about the nature of the illness and what they could expect
imaging the brain, that can identify the disease. Indeed, the only way down the road. I also suggested an Alzheimer’s support group for
to confirm Alzheimer’s conclusively is to biopsy the brain. But this Sam to help him gain some understanding of how his wife’s disease
invasive and risky test is seldom done because the diagnosis can be was affecting him. There was no way to predict the tempo of Ruth’s ill-
reliably established on clinical grounds alone. ness, but her general health was good, and I told them that a program
That same week I saw Sam in my office and, as I had promised of physical activity and mental engagement would work in her favor.
Ruth, evaluated him. He had no problem with the MMSE, and there They left my office hand in hand. I was confident that after 50 years
were no neurological abnormalities. What he did have, however, was they would find a way through this, too.
a wife of more than half a century who had begun to slip away from H. Lee Kagan is an internist in Los Angeles. The cases described in Vital
him mentally. It frightened him and left him feeling frustrated and help- Signs are real, but patients’ names and other details have been changed.

DISCOVER & THE NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION




   :

Robotics
A roundtable discussion of the future of the machine:
How will robots transform industry, health care, and warfare?
And will they ever be our equals?

Carnegie Mellon University


January 28, 2010, at 7 

Moderated by  editor in chief Corey S. Powell


E-mail events@discovermagazine.com
for more information
Watch for full coverage online at discovermagazine.com

National Science Foundation


DISCOVER
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DV0110VITAL2A_WC 12 11/13/09 1:31:13 PM


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worldmags

DV90907.indd 1 6/30/09 4:34:47 PM


worldmags

The Brain by Carl Zimmer


Are you a man or a mouse? No matter how you answer, you
experience fear the same way in your brain.

F
ear: See also dread, panic, terror, fright, trepidation, anxiety, over on his left side, raised himself on all fours and began to crawl
worry, phobia, disquietude, angst, foreboding, the creeps, the away so rapidly that he was caught with difficulty before reaching
jitters, the heebie-jeebies, freaking out. the edge of the table.”
Any halfway decent thesaurus will provide a long list of syn- The “little Albert” study, besides being cruel, was badly
onyms for fear, and yet they are not very good substitutes. No designed. Watson did not control it carefully to rule out a wide
one would confuse having the creeps with being terrified. It is range of possible interpretations. In later decades, other scientists
strange that we have so many words for fear, when fear is such got much more rigorous in their study of fear, in many cases turn-
a unitary, primal feeling. Perhaps all those synonyms are just lin- ing to rats rather than people as their test subjects. In a typical
guistic inventions. Perhaps, if we looked inside our brains, we experiment, a rat was placed in a cage with a light. At first the light
would just find plain old fear. came on a few times so the animal could get accustomed to it.
That is certainly how things seemed in the early 1900s, when Later the scientists would turn on the light and then give the rats
scientists began studying how we come to be scared of things. a little electric shock. After a few rounds, the rats would respond
They built on Ivan Pavlov’s classic experiments on dogs, in which fearfully to the light, even if no shock came.
Pavlov would ring a bell before giving his dogs food. Eventually Further research revealed that the amygdala—an almond-shaped
they learned to associate the bell with food and began to salivate in cluster of neurons deep within the brain—plays a pivotal role in the
anticipation. Psychologists set up experiments to see if the same fear-association response in rats. Brain researchers discovered that
kind of learning could instill fear as well. The implicit assumption the amygdala orchestrates human fear as well. The sight of a loaded
was that fear, like hunger, was a simple provoked response. gun, for example, triggers activity in this part of the brain. People
In one of the most famous (and infamous) of these experiments, with an injured amygdala have dampened emotional responses and
American psychologist John Watson decided to see if he could so do not learn to fear new things through association. Science had
teach an 11-month-old baby named Albert to become scared of identified a nexus of fear, it seemed.
arbitrary things. He presented Albert with a rat, and every time the
baby reached out to touch it, Watson hit a steel bar with a ham- Although this line of research yielded some major insights, it had
mer, producing a horrendous clang. After several rounds with the an obvious shortcoming. In the real world, rats don’t spend their
rat and the bar, Watson then brought out the rat on its own. “The lives in cages waiting for lights to turn on; these experiments don’t
instant the rat was shown, the baby began to cry,” Watson wrote capture the complex role that fear plays in a wild rat’s life.
in a 1920 report. “Almost instantly he turned sharply to the left, fell In the 1980s Caroline and Robert Blanchard, working together

DIMITRI VERVITSIOTIS/GETTY IMAGES

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DV0110BRAIN2A_WC 14 11/2/09 7:45:43 PM


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DV21006.indd 1 11/9/09 4:42:27 PM


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The Brain by Carl Zimmer

at the University of Hawaii, carried out a pioneering study on region. This area showed higher activity in the people who
the natural history of fear. They put wild rats in cages and then crashed into the walls more often, providing further evidence that
brought cats gradually closer to them. At each stage, they care- it plays an important role in panic. Researchers have explored the
fully observed how the rats reacted. The Blanchards found anatomy of fear more directly in rats; by manipulating different
that the rats responded to each kind of threat with a distinct areas of the rat brain, they are able to alter parts of the stan-
set of behaviors. dard fear-driven sequence of behavior. When neuroscientists put
The first kind of behavior is a reaction to a potential threat, in electrodes into the periaqueductal gray region of rat brains and
which a predator isn’t visible but there is good reason to worry stimulated the neurons there, the creatures immediately started
that it might be nearby. A rat might walk into a meadow that looks to run and jump uncontrollably.
free of predators, for example, but that reeks of fresh cat urine. In
such a case, a rat will generally explore the meadow cautiously, Fear, the new results suggest, is not a single thing after all. Rath-
assessing the risk of staying there. A second, more concrete type er, it is a complex, ever-changing strategy mammal brains deploy
of threat arises if a rat spots a cat at the other side of the meadow. in order to cope with danger. When a predator is off in the distance,
The rat will freeze and then make a choice about what to do next. its prey—whether rat or human—powers up a forebrain network.
It may slink away, or it may remain immobile in hopes that the cat The network primes the body, raising the heartbeat and preparing
will eventually wander away without noticing it. Finally, the most it for fast action. At the same time, the forebrain network sharpens
active threat: The cat glances over, notices something, and walks the brain’s attention to the outside world, evaluating threats, moni-
toward the rat to investigate. At this point, the rat will flee if it has toring subtle changes, and running through possible responses.
an escape route. If the cat gets close, the rat will choose either to Another important job it performs is keeping the midbrain network
fight or to run for its life.
Dean Mobbs, a neuroscientist
at the Medical Research Council in
Cambridge, England, wondered if
Fear, the new results suggest, is not a single thing
humans have similarly layered fear after all. It is a complex, ever-changing strategy
responses. He and his colleagues
were not about to send people into
mammal brains deploy in order to cope with danger.
tiger-infested meadows, so they
designed a clever alternative: They
programmed a survival-themed video game that subjects could shut down so that, instead of fleeing at top speed, a prey ani-
play while lying in an fMRI scanner. The game is similar to Pac- mal keeps very still at first. As the predator gets closer, however,
man. You see yourself as a triangle in a maze and press keys to the forebrain’s grip on the midbrain loosens. Now the midbrain
maneuver through it. At some point a circle appears. This is a becomes active, orchestrating a powerful, quick response: fight or
virtual predator being guided by an artificial intelligence program flight. At the same time it shuts down the slower, more deliberative
to seek you out. If the predator captures you, you receive a small forebrain. This is no time for thinking.
electric shock on the back of your hand. It may be unsettling to find that our brains work so much like a
This deceptively minimalist predator-prey game triggers some rat’s. But the amygdala and the periaqueductal gray are ancient
remarkably intense feelings. Mobbs measured the skin conduc- parts of the brain, dating back hundreds of millions of years. Our
tance of his players by rigging them up to a device similar to a lie small hominid ancestors probably faced the same kinds of threats
detector. He found that when the predator was bearing down on that baboons do today from leopards, eagles, and other predators.
players, they often experienced the same changes to their skin Even after we evolved the ability to use weapons and became
as those seen in people having panic attacks. Mobbs unleashed predators ourselves, this ancient brain circuit still offered a useful
two kinds of predators on his players, a less adept one that was defense against members of our own species.
easy to escape, and a smarter one that was more likely to capture Unfortunately, our exquisitely sophisticated brains may make
its victim. When people were chased by the better predator, they this predator-defense circuit vulnerable to misfiring. Instead of
showed a stronger panic response in their skin, and they also monitoring just the threats right in front of us, we can also imagine
crashed into the walls of the maze more often. threats that do not exist. Feeding this imagination into the early-
Meanwhile, striking changes were happening inside the brains warning system may lead to crippling chronic anxiety. In other
of the players. The predators would first appear on the far side cases, people may not be able to keep their periaqueductal gray
of the maze. While they remained at a distance, the same brain and other midbrain regions under control. As we perceive preda-
regions tended to become active in the players, a network that tors getting closer, our brains normally make the switch from the
included parts of the amygdala as well as some other structures in forebrain to the midbrain regions. People who suffer panic dis-
the front of the brain. But when the predator was closing in, those orders may misjudge threats, seeing them as far more imminent
brain regions shut down and a network of previously quiet regions than they really are.
farther back in the midbrain became active. To test these possibilities, Mobbs and his colleagues are begin-
Mobbs’s results mesh nicely not only with the work of the ning to study people who suffer from fear-related disorders as they
Blanchards but also with some other, more recent studies of rat play the predator game. Such work may not uncover a biological
neurology. For example, one of the midbrain regions that Mobbs distinction between angst and the heebie-jeebies, but it may show
and his colleagues observed becoming active in humans when how much better we can understand ourselves—and tame our inner
a “predator” was close is an area called the periaqueductal gray demons—once we appreciate the many dimensions of fear.

16 | DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM
worldmags

DV0110BRAIN2A_WC 16 11/2/09 7:45:46 PM


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5789s-ZEO DR Ad_2step v10 web_Discover.indd 1 11/13/09 3:01:26 PM


DV21008.indd 1 11/13/09 4:31:50 PM
worldmags

Y E A R IN S C I E N C E 2 0 0 9

1OO
THE

DISCOVERIES
THAT ARE
CHANGING
THE
WORLD 1
The question will not go away:
Do vaccines cause autism?
Some 1 million to 1.5 million
adults and children in the
United States have received
autism diagnoses, and there is
no clear insight into its causes.
What surprises many scientists
is that their findings against a
vaccine connection keep fail-
ing to quell the debate, giving
the antivaccine movement the
potential to become a genuine
public-health problem.
In February the U.S. Court
of Federal Claims attempted
to provide some clarity, ruling
that a widely used vaccine
and a vaccine preservative,
both targets of concern over
the past decade, do not cause
autism spectrum disorders.
That decision put a stamp
of approval on what multiple
peer-reviewed studies have
concluded for years: The MMR
(measles-mumps-rubella)
vaccine and the mercury
additive thimerosal (which
was removed from nearly all
vaccines by 2001) are not
responsible for the rise in
autism diagnoses. “I think
the tide clearly turned this
year, and the court decision,
more than anything else, was
responsible,” says Paul Offit,
a pediatrician at the Children’s
Hospital of Philadelphia and
a vocal vaccine advocate. “It
showed that good science
does win in the end.”
Environmental attor-
ney Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
responded to the ruling by

18 | DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM
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DV0110SECI11A1-5,7-11_WC 18 11/12/09 9:21:36 PM


worldmags

·M E D I C I N E

VACCINE PHOBIA BECOMES


A PUBLIC-HEALTH THREAT
comparing government-spon- in their inoculations. Many share a set of mutations that wastes resources and gives
sored vaccine safety studies to experts attribute the growing may regulate genes known false hope. “Parents are being
cigarette research conducted prevalence to new diagnosis to influence communication horribly misled by leaving the
by Big Tobacco. In the ruling’s guidelines and increased among brain cells. Many sci- door open,” he says.
wake, conspiracy theories awareness among doctors. entists say that environmental One positive side effect of
and false claims continued to Meanwhile, the reluctance exposures, perhaps even in the media frenzy is that autism
dominate some autism Internet of some parents to immunize the womb, may activate such science is finally getting its
forums, while television shows their children can lead to the genetic vulnerabilities. Over the due. In September the NIH
featured lengthy interviews return of vaccine-preventable past three years the NIH has committed nearly $100 million
with antivaccine stalwarts. diseases such as a measles, spent about $100 million annu- in additional funding from the
Fueling all this confusion which broke out this past ally on autism research. One stimulus package to study-
is the complicated nature summer in Brooklyn, New possible trigger it has studied ing autism. Scientists also
of autism, which encom- York. According to Christo- exhaustively and dismissed:
passes a range of neurologi- pher Zimmerman, medical vaccines. “Exploring the broad
cal disorders characterized director of the New York question of vaccines and
by “social impairments, City Health Department’s autism is not fruitful. The ques-
communication difficulties, Bureau of Immunization, the tions have been answered,”
and restricted, repetitive, virus spread quickly among says University of Utah pedia-
and stereotyped patterns of children who were not fully trician Andrew Pavia, chairman
behavior,” according to the vaccinated, including those of the vaccine-safety working
National Institutes of Health whose parents put off the group at HHS.
(NIH). Those symptoms shots because of concern Pavia nevertheless believes
usually appear at around about the autism-vaccine link. it would be worth further
18 months of age, precisely “Measles can be a serious investigating a link between For years some families of
when children receive many and life-threatening disease,” vaccines and autism once autistic adults and children have
of their vaccinations. he says. “Parents are putting specific biological pathways blamed a mercury preservative
in vaccines for the disorder.
their children at risk by not are identified. To that end,
In October Michael D. Kogan vaccinating on time.” Across his committee recommends
of the U.S. Department of the United States, reported researching whether some hope to gain crucial insights
Health and Human Ser- measles cases shot up from children, including those who into autism’s risk factors from
vices (HHS) and colleagues 43 in 2007 to 140 in 2008, may be genetically predis- several large new studies,
announced that about 1 of and more than 90 percent of posed to autism, are at higher including the federally funded
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/NEWSCOM. OPPOSITE: RUBBERBALL/GETTY IMAGES

every 91 American children those reported in 2008 were risk following certain vaccina- Early Autism Risk Longitudinal
has a disorder on the autism among children who were tions but in numbers too small Investigation, which will enroll
spectrum. A 2008 study unvaccinated or had unknown to have shown up in previously. 1,200 mothers of autistic
by the California Depart- vaccination status. “There are some who sug- children at the start of a sub-
ment of Public Health found In the midst of the ongoing gest that scientists shouldn’t sequent pregnancy and then
that the number of chil- controversy, scientists have bring up vaccines and autism track the newborn child’s first
dren receiving services for made notable progress in in the same breath, but I think three years of development.
autism in the state has risen understanding autism. A May we should keep an open mind “This issue will not go
steadily, despite a decrease study in Nature found that 65 until we understand the biol- away until there is a clear
to trace levels of mercury percent of autistic children ogy better,” Pavia says. Offit cause,” Offit says. “But the
disagrees. The evidence has important story you never
spoken, he argues, and pur- hear is that the research is
T E X T B Y A N D R E W G R A N T suing additional research only evolving very quickly.”

JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2010 | 19
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ÚS P A C E

2
Norman Augustine is a
well-known critic of wasteful
government programs. As for-
mer CEO of Lockheed Martin,
he is also a grizzled veteran
of the aerospace industry.
That explains why the Obama
NASA BRACES FOR
COURSE CORRECTION
always built the hardware, but
NASA has kept close watch
on each step in design and
construction. That method
worked for the Apollo program,
but it has been a disaster ever
since. For instance, the space
spaceship to get astronauts to
the station.) The agency has
given small grants to SpaceX,
the aerospace firm founded
by PayPal mogul Elon Musk,
and Orbital Sciences, a firm
that builds missile-defense
Ground test and
artist’s mock-up
(inset) of NASA’s
Ares I rocket,
which is five
years behind
schedule. It may
be replaced with
administration chose Augus- shuttle, originally intended to systems; each company is private rockets.
tine to head a commission on provide cheap and reliable developing its own launchers
the future of NASA’s human transport to low Earth orbit, and capsules.
spaceflight program—and has turned out to be roughly Pursuing this path would
why the space agency was so 1,000 times more dangerous mark a huge change in NASA’s
shaken by his conclusion. and 100 times more costly to way of doing business. It
NASA “appears to be on launch than first promised. would mean entrusting the
an unsustainable trajectory,” In classic bureaucratic style, safety of its crew to third
Augustine and company NASA diluted the original idea parties. In terms of hardware,
began their report. Its plan to by trying to make the shuttle though, it would be a cinch.
return to the moon by 2020 is all things to all people: a satel- SpaceX and Orbital rockets
out of the question. To keep lite launcher for the military could accommodate astro-
the International Space Station as well as a pickup truck to nauts with minor modifica-
aloft past 2016 (the program’s space for the civilian program. tions. And scrapping NASA’s
premature end date) and Private companies, the new Ares I booster program
maintain a viable human space panel’s reasoning goes, would could save billions of dollars
exploration program, NASA be better at reining in costs over the next few years. “We
will have to scrape up another and keeping their eye on the think this is the time to create
$3 billion per year—hard to ball. In addition, NASA would a market for commercial firms
imagine in a time of trillion- not have to pay the huge to transport both cargo and
dollar deficits. “The choice is up-front costs of development humans between the Earth
to lower aspirations or increase and construction. Instead, it and low Earth orbit,” Augustine
the budget,” says John Logs- would give seed money to said at a press conference
don, a space policy expert at private firms and guarantee accompanying the report’s
George Washington University. a market for their services. release. “NASA would be bet-
One way to cut costs, NASA has already begun to ter served to spend its money
cautiously endorsed by work this way in the develop- on going beyond Earth orbit
Augustine’s commission, is to ment of a cargo vessel for the rather than running a trucking
give private firms a bigger role space station. (When the shut- service to low Earth orbit.”
in providing launch services. tle is mothballed, currently set That would free the agency
Contractors like Lockheed for the end of 2010, NASA will to focus resources on the Ares
ATK. INSET: NASA/MSFC

Martin and Boeing have have to rely on Russia’s Soyuz V rocket—now on the drawing
board—or another heavy-lift
rocket that could carry crews
T E X T B Y F R E D G U T E R L into deep space. Mars is “the

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ultimate destination” for scheduled, would help gram is already providing a


human exploration, but the release NASA from its big bang for NASA’s buck,
commission recommends fiscal straitjacket, but it discovering hidden water
first tackling more attain- would “significantly impair on the moon, possible signs
able yet exciting intermedi- U.S. ability to develop and of life on Mars, and tropical
ate goals, such as visiting lead future international storms on Titan just in the
asteroids and the two small spaceflight partnerships” past year (see pages 35,
Martian moons. while wasting 25 years of 38, and 57, respectively).
If NASA cannot find a investment, Augustine’s Cutting future unmanned
way to squeeze more out group warns. Europe, in missions would cause
of its budget, it will have to particular, would not take a uproar among the scientific
deep-six some programs. cancellation kindly, having community while freeing up
A big question mark is the already committed billions only modest funds.
fate of the space station. of euros for the Columbus NASA is in a tough spot.
Terminating the program space-station module. And But from necessity, it is
early in 2016, as currently the robotic exploration pro- poised to reinvent itself.

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LA N T H R O P O L O G Y

3
Anthropologists are suddenly
tearing up their long-held origin
tale—that modern humans
evolved from hunched, proto-
human apes roaming the
wide-open savannas of old.
MEET YOUR
NEW ANCESTOR
the open savanna, they were
walking upright.” The evi-
dence suggests Ardipithecus
is ancestral to the early homi-
nid Australopithecus, widely
considered a forerunner of our
own genus, Homo.
White’s findings, published
alongside related articles from
more than 40 researchers,
appeared in a special issue of
Science in October. Together
they present the picture of a
fantastical, mosaic hominid
—one with pelvis and feet
adapted for walking but with a
divergent big toe splayed out
The discovery of a 4.4-mil- like those of modern apes for
lion-year-old hominid named climbing and grasping. She
Ardipithecus ramidus (fondly had a small brain, about the
shortened to “Ardi”) suggests size of a chimp’s but posi-
that for a stretch during the tioned more like a human’s.
early Pliocene, our ancestors Most striking, Ardi’s upper
instead lived in lush wood- canine teeth were close in size
lands and walked on two feet. to those of modern humans.
In fact, Ardi’s unexpected traits Analysis of tooth enamel sug-
put to rest the whole idea of a gests Ardi ate nuts, fruits, and
chimplike missing link at the tubers, supplemented by small
root of the human family tree. mammals and bird eggs.
Ardi and fossil bones from “How does one account
at least 35 other children and for this strange creature?”
adults were uncovered in the White asks. In one of the
Afar desert in Ethiopia by other Science papers, noted
the Middle Awash research biological anthropologist C.
group. Toiling in volcanic ash, Owen Lovejoy of Kent State
the group collected fossil- University speculates that
ized remains of more than pair-bonding may have been
6,000 creatures ranging from the trigger. Perhaps females
antelopes to bats, as well as Ardi weighed began to prefer males who
seeds and geologic samples. about 110 could walk, gather food, and
“This gave us a series of pounds and carry it home, he suggests.
stood four
fantastic, high-resolution feet high. Her
Of course, given the conten-
snapshots across an ancient hand was tious nature of the field, some
T. WHITE 2009, FROM SCIENCE OCT. 2 ISSUE

landscape—a true picture of longer than experts insist the jury is still
a human’s,
what Ardi’s habitat was like,” out on Ardi’s evolutionary role.
but her gait
says University of California probably But to White, the evidence
at Berkeley paleoanthropolo- resembled overwhelmingly places her
gist Tim White, a codirector of our own. at “the first phase of human
the team. “It tells us that long evolution.” Move over, Lucy.
before hominids developed Ardi may just be the hominid
CREDIT

tools or big brains or ranged T E X T B Y J I L L N E I M A R K find of this century.

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BIOLOGY q

4 For eight years, stem


cell researchers chafed at
restrictions limiting govern-
ment funding to a handful of
preexisting cell lines. Then
on March 9, 2009, President
STEM CELL SCIENCE TAKES OFF
scientist Hans Keirstead,
who enabled paralyzed rats
to walk again by coaxing
embryonic stem cells to dif-
ferentiate into the spinal cord
cells that the rats had lost
Obama signed an executive during injury.
order freeing federal funds for • In March, a University of
work on any type of stem cell, Wisconsin team repro-
including cells derived from grammed skin fibroblasts
unused embryos at in vitro into embryonic stem cells
fertilization clinics. Stem cell without incorporating the viral
PHOTO COURTESY OF JUAN CARLOS IZPISUA BELMONTE, SALK INSTITUTE FOR BIOLOGICAL STUDIES AND CENTER OF REGENERATIVE MEDICINE, BARCELONA

research, already in high gear, or other foreign DNA that can


has taken off since then. lead to complications like
The first clinical trial using cancer. Instead of manipulat-
embryonic stem cells to treat ing the cells with a virus, as
paralysis was approved by other researchers had done,
the Food and Drug Admin- the Wisconsin team used so-
istration even before the called circular DNA, loops of
new order. At the same DNA that exist outside of the A colony of
induced pluripotent
time, other researchers have primary genome. “When the stem cells used
found ways to bypass the cells proliferate, they lose the to treat Fanconi
embryo, spurred in part by circular DNA naturally because anemia.
the earlier restrictions. Recent it’s not very stable,” says Jun-
studies have shown how to ying Yu of Cellular Dynamics,
treat X-linked adrenoleuko- defective gene was eradi-
reprogram adult cells into coauthor of the study.
dystrophy (ALD), a fatal brain cated with chemotherapy,
non-embryonic stem cell • This summer, three separate
disease caused by a mutation stem cells with the healthy
lines called induced pluripo- teams of researchers—two
of the gene coding for the gene were transplanted back
tent stem cells—“pluripotent” in China, one in California—
ALD protein. As reported into the patients, and the
meaning that they could reported the birth of healthy
in Science in November, progression of the disease
give rise to almost any cat- mice generated solely from
the researchers removed was stopped.
egory of cell. induced pluripotent cells. The
patients’ bone marrow (which The ultimate goal is to
• In January, the FDA gave most prolific cell line, made at
contained stem cells with the produce pluripotent cells
the biotech company Geron a the Scripps Research Institute
damaged gene) and repaired by purely chemical means
green light for the first human in La Jolla, produced live baby
the cells with healthy genes within the body to regenerate
clinical trial of a paralysis mice 13 percent of the time.
delivered by a retrovirus. After damaged parts and to treat
treatment using embryonic • Combining stem cells with
bone marrow containing the disease.
stem cells. The trial is based gene therapy, an international
on work from University of collaboration announced the
California at Irvine neuro- success of a pilot study to T E X T B Y M O N I C A H E G E R

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±I N T E R V I E W

5 Astronomer ALAN DRESSLER


Sets Off on the Trail of the
First Galaxies in the Universe

What did the universe look like in its toddler years? To find out,
astronomer Alan Dressler of the Carnegie Institution of Wash-
ington and his team are training some of the world’s largest
telescopes on a small swath of sky in the constellation Sextans.
Their aim is to detect “Lyman-alpha emitters,” distant gas clouds
enclosing primordial stars. The blobs hail from a crucial moment
What’s so interesting about
the Lyman-alpha blobs?
I would call them building
blocks of galaxies, mostly gas
and stars. That’s where the
Lyman-alpha radiation comes
from: the glowing hydrogen
gas that’s being lit up by the
when those first stars flooded the cosmos with energy, setting
off a chain of events that led to the formation of modern galaxies. young stars that are in these
building blocks. The question
Last year Dressler’s colleague Masami Ouchi found the king of
we are trying to get at is, as
the blobs: Nicknamed Himiko, it is 55,000 light-years in diameter,
you go fainter, how many more
making it the largest object ever seen so early in the universe. of them are there? It turns out
Dressler spoke with DISCOVER about what it all means. that the number of objects
goes up steeply: When you go
a factor of 10 fainter, you see
Why are you interested in Lyman-alpha objects. Out of all 100 times as many objects.
what happened 12 billion those things that Masami was
years ago? doing, this rather extraordinary When we study these early
Our research program started object stood out. objects, what do we learn?
with galaxies: Why are there We know a lot about our
so many different types, what What is Himiko? galaxy today—chemical abun-
are their histories, and how I don’t know. I don’t think we dance, how it has been built
did we get the structures we have a good explanation for up over time. There’s a “fossil
see today—spiral, elliptical, it—and that was what was record” in our galaxy of what
and so forth? Why are they interesting about it. It is a happened. But it would be hydrogen gas could exist.
so different? We have a very unique object in terms of size great to see a movie of what From that point it was electri-
tentative grasp on that. and output, which is not the was going on deep in the past. cally neutral, until something
way my scientific inclinations In astronomy, we can do that. came along to light it up.
How did your Carnegie col- tend to go. What we’ve really We can look back and observe People used to think, well,
league find Himiko? been trying to do is to find the the universe at that time. maybe quasars did it, but there
The technique by which we’re more typical galaxies from the just weren’t enough of them
seeing this is Lyman-alpha era about a billion years after How much do we know around. Then they said maybe
emission. The light comes out the Big Bang. To do that, we about conditions in the very it was young galaxies.
in the ultraviolet, then there’s have to tune up an instrument early universe?
this big redshift [as the light and expose it for 20 hours At the beginning there was so So now you think the first
is stretched by the expan- under extraordinary conditions. much energy that electrons galaxies sculpted the
sion of the universe], which My colleague Crystal Martin and protons went their own cosmos, paving the way for
puts it in the more detectable, and I are trying to push a factor way. Then, 400,000 years after more galaxies to evolve?
far-red part of the spectrum. of 10 times fainter than what the Big Bang, the universe We’ve now found about 50 of
Himiko came out of a survey of people had been doing. cooled to the point where these very, very faint building
blocks of galaxies. We have a
big enough sample to say we
text by FRED GUTERL photograph by SPENCER LOWELL know how common they are.

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It looks like there are enough these building blocks deter- complete picture of the aver- fraud. We’ve seen something,
of them to explain why the uni- mines what shape a galaxy age time, rather than always but it’s very sketchy. What
verse went from being neutral takes. The universe started off going for the big, “Oh, I’ve we’re mostly aiming toward is
to being full of ionized gas. smooth, and then it began to got the most distant object in to get a picture of how ordinary
get lumpy. Our best bet is that the universe.” That’s kind of galaxies come about.
What are you trying to in the places where the density meaningless, actually.
understand now about these of the blobs is highest, they What’s next?
galactic building blocks? merge together very early and Because not much was hap- We have pushed Magellan
We’re trying to figure out how form stars more rapidly, creat- pening that early? [the 6.5-meter telescope in
massive they are, how they ing elliptical galaxies. In the If you’ve got a picture of your Chile] as much as we could.
spin, what their structures and places that are less dense the child at 6 months, you’re I am working toward using
compositions are, so we’ll building blocks take longer to not going to learn a lot from the James Webb Space
know how the first heavy ele- develop; those come together another one from when she Telescope—the Hubble
ments started to come about. later and make spirals. was 5 months and 13 days. replacement that should be
What you want to see is when up by 2014—to look at the
And then we’ll start to under- What’s next—will you look things are changing. Astrono- formation of galaxies in much
stand the crazy diversity of even further back in time? mers are always selling the idea greater detail. We’ll get a first
modern galaxies? No. You don’t really want to that we’ve pushed further than look at galaxies forming in the
Yes. The interaction among look further. You want a more ever before, but it’s a bit of a first billion years.

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·M E D I C I N E

6
When swine flu emerged
in Mexico last April, it was
dubbed a “killer virus”
because of its apparent high
mortality rate. By mid-June
the flu had spread to 73 other
SWINE FLU OUTBREAK
SWEEPS THE GLOBE

countries, infecting 30,000


people and prompting the
World Health Organization to
issue its highest warning, a
Phase 6 pandemic alert. In
the United States, concern
took off in late August, when
the President’s Council of
Advisors on Science and
Technology said the virus
could infect up to 150
million Americans and kill
30,000 to 90,000. And then, A Mexico City subway
on October 23, President in the midst of the H1N1
outbreak last May.
Obama declared swine flu a
national emergency, noting
that “the potential exists for demic. First, cases of swine for Disease Control and emergency, according to the
the pandemic to overburden flu broke out before the usual Prevention (CDC), says that CDC, and about 4,000 of
health-care resources in flu season; and second, a her group is preparing for the those people died. Each year
some localities.” disproportionate number of worst. “In certain situations seasonal flu kills approxi-
The current strain of swine young people were reported such as 1918, there was a mately 35,000 people in the
flu, formally known as the to be sickened by it. rather mild spring season of United States alone. Without
2009 H1N1 flu, is a mutated By September five pharma- disease followed by a much extensive immunization,
cousin of the 1918 Span- ceutical companies had prom- more severe fall wave,” she the H1N1 flu is on track to
ish flu, which affected both ised to produce 250 million says. “There’s a seasonality surpass that toll, says Dean
humans and pigs. That virus doses of 2009 H1N1 vaccines, component that caused the Blumberg, associate profes-
took 50 million to 100 million and experts assured the public virus to spread more rapidly sor of pediatric infectious
lives worldwide, according that these inoculations were and more deeply into the disease at the University of
to Jeffery Taubenberger, the safe. But as of the first week population.” California at Davis Children’s
pathologist who sequenced of November, only 26 million An estimated 22 mil- Hospital. Because this virus
its entire genome. doses had been distributed to lion American citizens were is so novel, few people
MARCOS FERRO/AURORA PHOTOS

Fears that this year’s virus hospitals and doctors’ offices. infected with the new H1N1 are protected by preexist-
would behave like its 1918 Nancy Cox, head of the virus in the months before ing immunity. “Pretty much
relative were heightened flu division at the Centers Obama declared the national everyone is going to get it,”
when two characteristics of Blumberg says, “so we’re
the new flu were noted as expecting more deaths and
similar to the earlier pan- T E X T B Y J E A N N E L E N Z E R complications.”

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Ô TECHNOLOGY

7 THE GRAPHENE
REVOLUTION

Graphene’s atom-thin sheets,


shown here in an artist’s
rendering, let electrons pass
through rapidly.

Under a transmission electron microscope it looks deceptively transfer of data through the chip. Graphene’s extreme thinness
simple: a grid of hexagons resembling a volleyball net or a section of means that it is also practically transparent, making it ideal for
chicken wire. But graphene, a form of carbon that can be produced transmitting signals in devices containing solar cells or LEDs.
in sheets only one atom thick, seems poised to shake up the world The big limitation of graphene is that it is not a true semicon-
of electronics. Within five years, it could begin powering faster and ductor. Unlike silicon, it cannot be switched on and off to create
better transistors, computer chips, and LCD screens, according to circuits, which will limit its use in electronics. “In mainstream
researchers who are smitten with this new supermaterial. digital applications, you will not see graphene displace silicon,”
Graphene’s standout trait is its uncanny facility with electrons, Columbia University electrical engineer Ken Shepard insists. But
which can travel much more quickly through it than they can other researchers are already expanding graphene’s capabilities.
through silicon. As a result, graphene-based computer chips In June materials scientist Feng Wang of the University of Califor-
could be thousands of times as efficient as existing ones. “What nia at Berkeley announced a method to tune the material electri-
limits conductivity in a normal material is that electrons will scat- cally to give it switching properties. That would enable graphene
ter,” says Michael Strano, a chemical engineer at MIT. “But with to form extremely small, fast transistors.
graphene the electrons can travel very long distances without Even without switching, Strano thinks graphene will find many
scattering. It’s like the thinnest, most stable electrical conducting uses—as a flexible conductor in thin-film batteries or roll-up LCD
framework you can think of.” screens, for instance. “I’m most excited about the applications
In 2009 another MIT researcher, Tomas Palacios, devised a we have yet to discover,” he says. “Graphene is an out-of-the-box
graphene chip that doubles the frequency of an electromagnetic material, so we shouldn’t try to hammer it into existing boxes.”
JANNIK MEYER

signal. Using multiple chips could make the outgoing signal many
times higher in frequency than the original. Because frequency
determines the clock speed of the chip, boosting it enables faster T E X T B Y E L I Z A B E T H S V O B O D A

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Ç
ASTRONOMY

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EARTH-LIKE WORLDS
COME INTO VIEW
In the race to find planets around other stars, the grand
prize would be to find a world like Earth orbiting a star like
the sun—and astronomers closed in on that trophy in 2009.
The first known exoplanets were huge and gassy. Then in
February a European group led by Alain Léger of the Institut
d’Astrophysique Spatiale in Paris and Daniel Rouan of the
Paris Observatory used the Corot space observatory to find
a planet less than twice the diameter of Earth, the smallest
confirmed exoplanet ever seen.
Actually, “seen” is misleading. What Corot detected was the
subtle, repeated dimming of the star Corot-7, 500 light-years
away in the constellation Monoceros. This dimming, the team
concluded, was caused by a planet orbiting so that it passed
directly between the parent star and Earth, a so-called transit.
“They’ve gone to great lengths to rule out any other explana-
tions,” says David Charbonneau of the Harvard-Smithsonian
Center for Astrophysics, a friendly rival of the Corot scientists.
The amount of dimming—less than one-thirtieth of a percent
—tells the astronomers that their new world, provisionally
named Corot-7b, is about 15,000 miles wide. Its “year” is just
20.4 hours long because it orbits so close to its star, with day-
time temperatures nearing 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. By Sep-
tember, Didier Queloz of the Geneva Observatory had weighed
Corot-7b. Using the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet
Searcher, or HARPS, at the European Southern Observatory
in Chile, his team measured the planet’s gravitational influence
on its parent star. The verdict: The planet is five times the mass
of Earth and has about the same density, suggesting it is made
of rock. In raw form, the new planet resembles our own world.
Other enticing discoveries soon followed. Planet hunter
Michel Mayor of Geneva University trained HARPS on the near-
by star Gliese 581, 20 light-years away, and in April reported
that it, too, has a little planet, possibly smaller than Corot-7b.
The same set of observations indicated that another of Gliese
581’s planets—this one seven times the mass of Earth—orbits
at the right distance for liquid water, making it the first alien
world that could plausibly support life. In October the HARPS
scientists announced that about 40 percent of the sunlike stars
they have examined have small, potentially Earth-like com-
panions. Also that month, Queloz’s team described a second
super-Earth circling Corot-7. “Low-mass planets are every-
where, basically,” Mayor’s coworker Stephane Udry declared.
And the real jackpot may not be far off. In March NASA’s
Kepler satellite went into an unusual, Earth-trailing orbit looking
for transiting planets. Its telescope is bigger than Corot’s, its orbit
is more stable, and it is slated to scan 100,000 stars, while Corot
is limited to 12,000. “If other Earths are out there,” says Kepler
team member Charbonneau, “we’re going to find them.”
ESO/L. CALCADA

An artist’s vision of a
boiling lava sea covering
the rocky planet Corot-7b. T E X T B Y M I C H A E L D . L E M O N I C K

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p ENERGY How to Stash the C arb on

9
1. CAPTURE IT AT THE SOURCE
A coal-fired power plant in Spremberg, Germany, is using the
same carbon capture and storage method planned for Future-
Gen. Engineers are having no trouble capturing the carbon diox-
ide, but efforts to store it in underground rock formations in
eastern Germany have run into local opposition.
2. GRAB IT WITH ARTIFICIAL TREES
To corral widely dispersed CO2 emissions from cars, “artificial
trees”—towers filled with carbon-absorbing materials—could line
roadways, pulling the gas from the air and compressing it into
a storable form. Several companies, including Global Research
Technologies in Tucson, are testing prototypes.

EXPERIMENTAL
3. BURY IT UNDER THE SEA
Some research groups have tried fertilizing the ocean with
iron to encourage massive plankton blooms that suck carbon
dioxide from the air. When the plankton dies and sinks to the

POWER PLANT seafloor, it should bury the carbon, but early results have not
been impressive. Proposals to pump CO2 directly to the ocean
bottom also seem unlikely to move forward, as the piped-in

TAKES THE CO2 OUT carbon could have nasty environmental consequences.
4. TURN IT INTO CHARCOAL
Wood or other biomass heated slowly in a chamber without
oxygen will transform into charcoal that does not decompose
for thousands of years. In addition to locking away carbon, this
“biochar” makes a good fertilizer. Carbonscape in New Zealand
and a few other companies are now working on economical
biochar-producing ovens.
5. TURN IT INTO ROCK
Certain types of minerals naturally combine with carbon diox-
ide. In the right locations, CO2 injected into the ground at high
pressure would react with those minerals to form stable car-
bonate rock. This approach is currently being tested in Oman
and at other sites around the world.

into a near-liquid state, and for sequestering human-


piped at least a mile down into generated carbon (see above).
porous sandstone capped by But FutureGen has drawn
a layer of impermeable shale. criticism from left and right.
Coal is a dirty business, one 60 percent of its carbon diox- Engineers will essentially be Some environmentalists say
of the leading sources of car- ide emissions deep under- trying to duplicate the geologic America should shift from coal-
bon emissions in the United ground, the 275-megawatt circumstances that trapped generated electricity entirely;
States. But coal is also a big FutureGen plant, to be built in natural gas deposits under- others believe the goal of cap-
business, generating 51 per- Mattoon, Illinois, seeks to show ground for millions of years. turing 60 percent of emissions
cent of the nation’s electricity. that coal can be, if not exactly Energy Secretary Steven is too modest. Meanwhile,
With that in mind, in June the clean, then at least cleaner. Chu has called FutureGen “a some fiscal conservatives
Obama administration revived Once FutureGen is up and flagship facility” that will dem- disapprove of spending so
FutureGen, an advanced-tech- running—now scheduled to onstrate how to capture and much money (the Department
nology coal-fired power plant happen in 2014—the carbon store carbon on a commercial of Energy has committed
axed by the previous adminis- dioxide gas it produces will scale; that technology would $1 billion) on an unproven
FRANS LANTING/CORBIS

tration in 2008. By burying be siphoned off, compressed allow us to rein in greenhouse- technology for an established
gas emissions while still burn- industry. Their nickname for
ing coal. The project could the behind-schedule and over-
T E X T B Y E L I Z A S T R I C K L A N D also help spur other proposals budget project: NeverGen.

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±I N T E R V I E W

1o Economist GEORGE LOEWENSTEIN


explains the psychology behind the
current financial meltdown—and how
we can overcome our dark side.

Classical economics is based on the premise that people act


rationally, making logical decisions about how and why they
spend their money. But a year that brought economic panic and
the worst downturn since the Great Depression showed how
wrong that assumption can be. Often we are self-defeating, irra-
tional, and just plain foolish. More complete explanations of why
deal with immediate threats.
It’s not very good at deal-
ing with gradually unfolding
threats, like inflating market
bubbles or global climate
change. The smiling Bernie
Madoff doesn’t seem scary,
business school; and oth-
ers, we scanned people’s
brains and saw that regions
responsible for feeling pain
activate when people confront
prices they feel are too high.
When we use a credit card, it
people act the way they do are provided by behavioral econom- even though he should. He’s anesthetizes the pain of pay-
ics, an emerging field that incorporates insights from cognitive giving impossible returns year ing because it doesn’t feel like
after year, but it’s not the kind we’re spending money. Anoth-
and social psychology and neuroscience. George Loewenstein,
of thing that triggers fear. er nasty feature of credit cards
Herbert A. Simon Professor of Economics and Psychology at is that it doesn’t feel like you
Carnegie Mellon University and a leader in this field, spoke to Why are some people far are taking on debt, because
DISCOVER about why smart people sometimes act so dumb. more likely than others to there’s always the possibility
buy into a bubble? of paying it off at the end of
Pessimists take longer to get the month. How many people
persuaded that there really is who end the year with $1,000
Is the central insight of housing prices would always a boom. Some sit out the of revolving debt on their card
behavioral economics that rise. That’s particularly amaz- whole boom-and-bust cycle would have agreed to take out
people don’t always act in ing because in the 1990s we and feel relieved at the end, a $1,000 loan to fund miscel-
their own best interest? had a stock market bubble and but others capitulate at a late laneous purchases? Very few.
Absolutely. Behavioral eco- bust, and during the bubble, stage, with results that rein-
nomics provides a framework commentators had been say- force their pessimism. Another Some say high executive pay
for explaining why people ing that the old rules of stock part of the answer lies in differ- is needed to stimulate top
behave in a self-destructive valuation don’t apply. Less ences in tastes for taking risks. performance, but you found
fashion. It’s more realistic than 10 years later, people Some people can’t sleep at something very different.
about human behavior. became convinced again night if they take on too much Our belief was that very high
that an asset—in this case, real estate debt. Others seem levels of executive compensa-
The economic collapse housing—would indefinitely go utterly undisturbed by financial tion couldn’t be justified on a
was in part precipitated by up in value, and commenta- risk or even thrive on it. motivational basis. We gave
people taking on mortgages tors were again saying the old subjects seven different tasks,
they couldn’t afford. They rules don’t apply. That tells you Why do people charge things some of which were simple
stood to lose a lot of money. about the failure to generalize. they can’t pay off? but effort-dependent, like
What makes people do that? Another part of the explana- Credit cards have pernicious adding strings of numbers. For
It points to a very important tion has to do with a kind of psychological properties. It mundane tasks, high incen-
property of the human brain: herd mentality. There is an doesn’t feel like you’re spend- tives motivate people in an
We are not dispassionate infor- instinctual feeling of safety in ing money. You’re just swiping almost unlimited fashion. But
mation processors. If we want numbers. the card; you’re not giving with tasks that require creative
to believe something, we’re anything up. In research with solutions, as well as with ath-
amazingly adept at persuading Why don’t we perceive these Stanford psychologist Brian letic endeavors, people actu-
ourselves that what we want to kinds of looming problems? Knutson; Scott Rick, now at ally started to do badly when
believe is true. People thought Our fear system evolved to the University of Michigan compensation was increased.
When stakes are high, the
brain tends to narrow its focus.
text by KATHLEEN MCGOWAN photograph by ETHAN HILL This impairs performance on

32 | DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM
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important to you: values you


cherish or your own long-term
self-interest.
We think that the reason
is a phenomenon called loss
aversion. In a lot of competi-
tive situations, people look at
others whom they perceive
to be at a higher level, which
forms their reference. They
feel themselves to be in the
domain of losses, and they are
desperate to get out. Much
cheating, it seems, occurs
not because people just want
more but because they feel “in
a hole” that they can get out
of only by cheating.

How can we outwit our own


self-destructive tendencies?
In the last several years,
behavioral economics has
started to offer solutions for
a wide range of problems:
obesity, addiction, failure to
take medications, even global
climate change. People are
very shortsighted; they have
what behavioral economists
call “present bias prefer-
ence.” Nowadays there are
a lot of wellness programs in
which people are incentivized
to engage in exercise and
other healthy behaviors. Small
incentives can have a large
impact on behavior if they are
immediate, because they play
on present bias preferences.
Or take what is called the
default effect: People tend
to be lazy decision makers,
taking the path of least resis-
tance. And defaults are often
unhealthy: At McDonald’s, for
example, if you order a combo
meal, the default includes a
soda. We did field research at
a fast-food restaurant showing
that if you make the healthy
options just slightly more
the types of creative tasks that gain or lose, to the detriment of desperation. Hypermotivation, convenient—for example, with
involve expansive thinking, focusing on the task itself. we call it. Greed is actually an “express menu” that has
such as drawing novel con- the antithesis of self-interest, healthy options but requires
nections between disparate But shouldn’t we reward because you’re so motivated turning the page to see the full
things. People can also ambition—the “greed is to achieve some goal that you menu—you can get people
become too focused on how good” argument? do it at the expense of other to eat more healthily. You can
much money they stand to We view greed as a form of things that might be more use laziness to help people.

JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2010 | 33
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MEDICINE || EVOLUTION || MIND || SPACE

11 The Age of
Genetic Medicine Begins
functioning immune system in two bubble babies.
Just months earlier, molecular geneticist and physi-
In 2009 gene therapy rebounded from years of high- cian Jean Bennett and her husband, retinal surgeon
profile failures—including unexpected deaths and Albert Maguire of the University of Pennsylvania School
cancers—to produce startling triumphs. By fixing of Medicine, reported that gene therapy had improved
defects written into patients’ DNA, medical researchers vision in a teenage boy with Leber congenital amau-
treated two serious genetic disorders. “At last we are rosis (LCA). A mutation in any of 13 genes causes this
on the brink of fulfilling the promises that gene therapy rare condition, which progressively leads to blindness.
made two decades ago,” says geneticist Fabio Can- Bennett and her team injected a benign virus carrying a
dotti of the National Institutes of Health. corrected copy of the gene into the boy’s retina, where
In February molecular biologist Alessandro Aiuti of it helped the eye make rods and cones. Even receiv-
the San Raffaele Telethon Institute for Gene Therapy ing only modest doses, other young patients given a
in Milan reported that his team had cured nine of ten working version of the gene in one eye were also able
infants born with bubble baby disease, a devastating to see better. In a phase 1 clinical trial, published in The
disorder caused by a single defective gene. Newborns Lancet, all the children involved gained enough vision
with the condition, also known as severe combined to walk independently. “The results are better than any-
immunodeficiency disease, lack a functioning immune thing I could have dreamed of,” Bennett says.
system. Aiuti and his team harvested stem cells from the The remarkable turnaround in gene therapy is largely
infants and then infected those cells with an engineered due to scientists’ increasingly refined ability to engineer
virus carrying healthy copies of the missing gene. When the viruses used to deliver healthy genes to the cells
the modified stem cells were injected back into the that need them. Using new viruses and better tech- Top: LCA eye prior
to therapy. Bottom:
newborns, they spawned a normal immune system. niques, gene therapists have begun tackling cancer and
Healthy eye.
Candotti has reported similar success establishing a HIV. Clinical trials are under way on both. JILL NEIMARK

These sponges from


the Eocene may
resemble the earth’s
first animals.
12 Oldest Animal
Fossils Uncovered
three miles beneath the deserts of Oman. Sponges
are the only organisms known to produce appre-
ciable amounts of this steroid, and geochemist Gor-
don Love of the University of California at Riverside
The origin of animals has long perplexed scientists. interprets the chemical signature as evidence that
DNA studies of creatures living today suggest that spongelike animals had evolved by then.
their common ancestor appeared nearly 800 million Another team reported in Geology in May that
years ago, yet the fossil record contains no clear they had found meshlike patterns suggestive of
evidence of animals more than 555 million years sponges in 850-million-year-old rocks. They turned

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: DR. JEAN BENNETT; NASA/JPL/UCLA; D. HURST/ALAMY; SINCLAIR STAMMERS/PHOTO RESEARCHERS
old. Two new discoveries are starting to resolve up in an ancient reef built by cyanobacteria, says
that apparent conflict. Together they push the fossil Fritz Neuweiler of Laval University in Quebec. The
record of animals back another 300 million years. earth’s early oceans initially contained little oxygen,
In a study published in Nature in February, but cyanobacteria produce it as a by-product of
researchers reported finding a steroid compound photosynthesis. “Here we have a local oxygenated
(called 24-isopropylcholestane) in 675-million-year- environment,” Neuweiler says, “and this would have
old stone cores, drilled from former seabeds up to supported these early animals.” DOUGLAS FOX

13 Hope for
HIV Vaccine
The trial followed more than
16,000 people (who initially
tested HIV-free) for three and a
alternative analyses that put the
vaccine’s effectiveness slightly
lower, at around 26 percent,
encouraging, but notes that the
vaccines seemed to have no
effect on the amount of virus in
An international team of half years. They received either leading some to question the the bloodstream of people who
researchers announced in Sep- a combination of two potential reliability of the results. The contracted HIV during the study.
tember that for the first time, an vaccines or placebo shots. By researchers reply that all of the Nelson Michael of the U.S.
AIDS vaccine has demonstrat- the end, 74 placebo recipients analyses consistently support a Military HIV Research Program,
ed some real ability to prevent had acquired HIV infections, modest protective effect. which helped run the trial, is
HIV infections in a large clinical compared with 51 vaccinated AIDS researcher Jay Levy at more optimistic: “We’ve shown
trial, reducing the odds of infec- individuals. The trial report, the University of California at that this 26-year global effort
tion by about 31 percent. published in October, included San Francisco finds the results has not been in vain.” NAYANAH SIVA

34 | DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM
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The Moon:
14 Intact
Tissue Found
and suggested the presence
of two proteins—laminin and
elastin—found in the blood
vessels of animals.
Cold, Wet, and
in Dinosaur
When scientists uncovered a
“This type of preservation
isn’t supposed to be pos-
sible,” Schweitzer says, “but
Breathing
68-million-year-old Tyranno- here it is.” Her new discovery
It is our closest neighbor
saurus rex fossil in Montana addressed many issues raised
in space, yet the moon con-
sandstone in 2000, they never by critics of the T. rex work.
tinues to surprise us as new
expected to find traces of For instance, her team adopt-
lunar missions overturn old
tissue. So when paleontolo- ed painstaking tactics to avoid
ideas about Earth’s satellite.
gist Mary Schweitzer’s initial contamination. In the lab, they
In October NASA inten-
analysis of the fossil showed used sterilized tools to sample
tionally crashed the 2.8-ton
delicately preserved collagen the sandstone-encrusted
upper stage of a Centaur
protein, skepticism reigned. thighbone, and specimens
rocket into a crater near the
But in May, Schweitzer, of were quickly sealed in jars.
lunar south pole. Four minutes
North Carolina State Univer- “Obtaining amino acid
later, the Lunar Crater Observa-
sity, replicated the results sequence data can show
tion and Sensing Spacecraft
and also announced a bigger where extinct animals fit in the
(LCROSS) followed, analyzing the
find: a collection of even tree of life,” she says. “It’s a
dust kicked up by the impact. NASA
larger protein fragments work in progress, but molecu-
anticipated a debris plume 30 miles
from an 80-million-year-old lar paleontology might show
high, which should have been visible
duck-billed dinosaur called us how dinosaurs are related
from Earth with a 10-inch telescope. The
Brachylophosaurus canaden- to each other and even provide
smashup proved more whimper than bang for
sis. The fragments revealed some physiological insights if
amateur observers, but LCROSS team members
more evidence of collagen we’re really lucky.” AMY BARTH
were thrilled. “We got wonderful measurements from
all phases of the impact: the flash, the ejecta plume, and the
resulting crater formed by Centaur,” says LCROSS principal
investigator Anthony Colaprete of NASA’s Ames Research

15 Model Solves
Fundamental Packing Problem
Center. He and colleagues are still analyzing the data
from ultraviolet, visual, and infrared spectroscopy
to measure the chemical composition of the lunar
material. “We’re looking for water vapor or ice, as
well as hydrocarbons and other volatiles,” he says.
The county-fair challenge of guessing how many gum balls are
The LCROSS results will flesh out the surprise
in a jar is far more than just a game for kids; understanding how
announcements in September that three other
objects pack into a particular volume is a fundamental problem
spacecraft—India’s Chandrayaan-1 and NASA’s
of physics and engineering. A team of physicists at New York
Deep Impact and Cassini—detected traces
University recently loosened the problem a bit, producing a simple
of water on the moon’s surface by studying
model that predicts the arrangement of randomly packed spherical
reflected infrared light from the sun. The water’s
particles, even when the objects are of different sizes.
origins are unclear. One possibility is that hydro-
Theorists had previously calculated that each particle touches
gen ions from the solar wind bond with oxygen
an average of six neighbors, and that packed spheres of uniform
in the lunar soil, says University of Maryland
size fill about 64 percent of the total available space. Jasna Brujic
astronomer Jessica Sunshine, deputy principal
and colleagues experimentally verified both of those claims using a
investigator on Deep Impact. Results like these belie
three-dimensional microscope—which examines many horizontal
the moon’s image as an inert rock, Colaprete says. “It
layers of a sample and then stacks those images to create a 3-D
is an active, breathing body.”
image—to analyze oil droplets tightly packed in water. The
The moon might have more water deposited by icy
physicists also studied how changing the mix of droplet
comets landing in cold, permanently shadowed craters
sizes affects their arrangement.
at the south pole. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO),
“If you give us the distribution of particle sizes, we
circling the moon at an altitude of 31 miles, recently sent back
can tell you about their geometry,” Brujic says. The
the first global temperature maps of the surface (at right). Some
research, published in Nature in July, could inspire bet-
of those craters dip to around –400 degrees Fahrenheit, the coldest
ter ways to stock vending machines, prepare products
places ever measured in the solar system. LRO’s neutron detector
for shipping, grind drugs for pills, and extract petro-
suggests the presence of water in deep freeze there. The orbiter is also
leum from porous rocks. But so far Brujic has modeled
measuring radiation, looking for good spots for future exploration, and
only spheres; contestants dealing with gumdrops or
mapping the moon’s topography to 100-meter resolution. JENNIFER BARONE
M&M’s will have to wait for future studies. STEPHEN ORNES

JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2010 | 35
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MEDICINE || MIND || TECHNOLOGY

17 The
Common
18 Rise of the Mind Readers
Magnetic resonance imaging, or silence between tracks, indicat- University College London, who
Cold Is MRI, has become a powerful tool ing anticipation. When we hear scanned subjects who were navi-
Decoded for evaluating brain anatomy, but a
newer incarnation of the technol-
music we do not know, our brains
are relatively inactive because
gating a virtual reality simulation.
Just from the pattern of activity in
If knowing your enemy
ogy called fMRI (the f stands for we cannot anticipate the song. the hippocampus—a part of the
is half the battle, we may
functional ) can probe even more The prefrontal cortex, premotor brain instrumental to our ability to
yet defeat the common
deeply. In studies published over cortex, and basal ganglia, which navigate—the researchers could
cold. A paper published
the past year, neuroscientists signal the body to act and move, determine where each subject
last April in Science
have shown that fMRI can peel seem to direct this response. was located within the simula-
detailed how geneticists
away the secrets of emotion and tion. “Different spatial positions
sequenced the RNA
thought; in fact, some of their find- w Other fMRI studies show how are associated with different pat-
from 100 strains of
ings are almost like mind reading. the brain discerns true state- terns of activity in the hippocam-
rhinovirus—all the known
ments from false ones. According pus,” Maguire says. JANE BOSVELD
types of the leading
w Using fMRI, New York Uni- to researchers at the University
cause of the cold.
versity neuroscientist Elizabeth of Lisbon and at Vita-Salute in
Pulmonologist
Phelps has identified two brain Milan, false statements activate a
Stephen Liggett of the
regions—the amygdala and the section of the brain’s frontal polar
University of Maryland
posterior cingulate cortex, asso- cortex, which is related to prob-
School of Medicine
ciated with emotional learning lem solving. True statements trig-
says his team found
and decision making—that are ger the left inferior parietal cortex
regions of the genome
crucial in forming first impres- and the caudate nucleus, areas of
that are similar across
sions. “Even when we only briefly the brain related to memory.
all strains. Those
encounter others, these regions
sequences, presumably
are activated,” Phelps says. w The work closest to mind
essential to survival, are
reading comes from Demis Has-
prime targets for new
w At Georgetown University sabis and Eleanor Maguire at
drugs. Equally notable
Medical Center, a team used fMRI
are the bits of RNA
to study how we mentally encode
that differ, which may
music. When we hear a sequence
explain why some bugs

3D4MEDICAL.COM
of familiar songs, our brains show
are nastier than others.
high levels of activity during the
Rhinoviruses can
instigate asthma or
trigger severe wheezing
episodes in asthmatics,

19
but it is unclear whether
only certain strains of the your car) produce energy for as little as one-tenth the
virus are to blame. Look-
ing at large numbers of
New Battery Tech cost of lithium batteries, but they wear out more quickly
and are heavy. Blended battery packs, pioneered this
rhinovirus genomes may Could Transform the Car year by Indy Power Systems of Noblesville, Indiana,
provide answers. “Just Last year the car battery turned glamorous: Hybrid strike a balance. Software switches between lead-acid
saying it’s rhinovirus is hysteria invigorated the faltering auto industry, and and lithium-ion batteries, offering a transitional technol-
not sufficient, because General Motors touted its upcoming plug-in hybrid, ogy until lithium energy storage gets cheaper.
there is so much diver- the Chevy Volt, at every opportunity. For decades Engineers are also finding ways to shorten recharg-
sity,” Liggett says. researchers have labored to make batteries smaller, ing times. In March an MIT team unveiled technol-
And don’t throw out cheaper, and more efficient. At last some of those proj- ogy that could theoretically charge an electric car in
your tissues just yet: No ects are yielding encouraging results. five minutes rather than the eight hours that is typi-
one knows how to defeat The latest electric vehicles use lithium-ion batter- cal today. MIT’s battery contains a vast number of
any of the strains, and ies, in which lithium ions move from anode to cathode microscopic particles that have a lithium center and a
Liggett’s group believes (negative to positive), transforming chemical energy glassy phosphate coating. The coating allows lithium
there are many more to into electric current. These batteries are smaller, light- ions, which travel quickly in the core of the battery
be identified. The team er, and more robust than their nickel-based or lead- but slowly at the surface, to maintain their speed and
is now sequencing 3,000 acid predecessors. IBM announced in June that it is to be shed quickly. “The coating allows the lithium to
samples collected from pursuing a new kind of lithium battery that uses the get to the right place on the phosphate very fast,”
patients at the University surrounding air as a cathode, making it even lighter says Gerbrand Ceder of the MIT team. “We fixed the
of Wisconsin at Madison. and more compact than existing designs. bottleneck at the surface.” One company has already
MEGAN TALKINGTON Traditional lead-acid batteries (like the one that starts licensed the technology. JOCELYN RICE

36 | DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM
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© 2008 JupiterImages Corporation.


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wide variety of scriptures—many more than we have today.
and the Battles over Authentication
Taught by Professor Bart D. Ehrman,
Relying on these writings, Christians held beliefs that today would The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

be considered bizarre. Some believed that there were 2, 12, or as Lecture Titles
many as 30 gods. Some thought that a malicious deity, rather than 1. The Diversity of Early Christianity 13. The Acts of John
the true God, created the world. Some maintained that Christ’s 2. Christians Who Would Be Jews 14. The Acts of Thomas
3. Christians Who Refuse To Be Jews 15. The Acts of Paul and Thecla
death and resurrection had nothing to do with salvation while oth- 4. Early Gnostic Christianity— 16. Forgeries in the Name of Paul
ers insisted that Christ never really died at all. Our Sources 17. The Epistle of Barnabas
5. Early Christian Gnosticism— 18. The Apocalypse of Peter
What did these “other” scriptures say? Do they exist today? How An Overview 19. The Rise of Early
could such outlandish ideas ever be considered Christian? If such 6. The Gnostic Gospel of Truth Christian Orthodoxy
7. Gnostics Explain Themselves 20. Beginnings of the Canon
beliefs were once common, why do they no longer exist? These 8. The Coptic Gospel of Thomas 21. Formation of the New
are just a few of the many provocative questions that arise from 9. Thomas’ Gnostic Teachings Testament Canon
10. Infancy Gospels 22. Interpretation of Scripture
Lost Christianities: Christian Scriptures and the Battles over
11. The Gospel of Peter 23. Orthodox Corruption of Scripture
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MIND || ASTRONOMY || ENVIRONMENT || TECHNOLOGY || ANTHROPOLOGY || BIOLOGY

20 Can a
Shock to the 21 Fresh Hints of Life on Mars
For scientists hunting for life on Mars, the new buzzword is
Brain Cure methane. In 2003 a group studying the Red Planet saw the spec-
tral signal of methane gas, often a sign of biological activity on
Depression? Earth. Since then, Michael Mumma, director of NASA’s God-
For years, deep-brain stimulation— dard Center for Astrobiology, has monitored Mars closely.
in which a neurosurgeon drills a hole In January he announced his results: Broad plumes of
in the skull and inserts an electrode methane emanate from the planet’s surface, “funda-
far into a patient’s brain tissue—was mentally changing our understanding of Mars.”
considered a radical treatment, To track the methane, Mumma dispatched
reserved for the most severe cases observers to NASA’s InfraRed Telescope Facility
of Parkinson’s disease. Now neurol- and the W. M. Keck Observatory, both in Hawaii.
ogists are exploring the treatment for The astronomers expected to find the gas spread
disorders ranging from depression to uniformly. Instead they detected localized clouds
Alzheimer’s disease. that appeared only at certain times—once in
In 2009 two clinical trials began 2003 and again in 2005, during the Martian
testing deep-brain stimulation northern summer and southern spring. “We have
(DBS) to ease intractable depres- found plumes that exist only in warmer periods,
sion. The process was given a green when methane is released along with water,”
light by the Food and Drug Admin- says physicist Robert Novak of Iona College in New
istration to treat the worst cases of Rochelle, New York. The variability of the methane
obsessive-compulsive disorder after suggests that the gas may be spewed by an ongoing
a small pilot study showed promis- geologic process like volcanism, or possibly through the
ing results. Mount Sinai School of metabolic activity of microbes. If underground life is the
Medicine neurologist Giulio Pasinetti source, methane might be released during the warmer months
is in the early stages of testing DBS as the ice melts. “If life existed on Mars, it would break down
for Alzheimer’s disease, and neuro- chemically and methane would be a product,” Novak says.
surgeon Bomin Sun of the Center of Mumma remains cautious: “We wouldn’t dare say we’ve detected biol-
Functional Neurosurgery at Shanghai ogy.” But the search is on. In 2011 NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory will touch
Jiao Tong University is harnessing it down to sniff out evidence for methane, other organics, and life. HEATHER MAYER
to treat anorexia.
Across a range of disorders,
deep-brain stimulation works much
the same way: A pacemaker-like
device in the chest transmits a signal
to the implanted electrode via wires
that run underneath the scalp. The
device is thought to modulate elec-
22 Clear-
Cutting Has a
binge initially see higher life
expectancies, literacy rates,
and incomes. But once the
local forest is gone, income
from timber typically dries up,
erty, and contributes to global
warming by eliminating trees
that would absorb and store
carbon dioxide. “The challenge
now is to create a development
trical activity in the circuitry of the High Cost the researchers believe; many path that is win-win-win.” One
dysfunctional brain, explains Oxford For people living in poverty farms and cattle ranches are possibility, Rodrigues suggests,
University neurosurgeon Tipu Aziz, in the Amazon, cutting down abandoned after a few years could be to create a provision in
who is exploring DBS as a treatment the rain forest often appears because the nutrient-poor soil the next international climate-
for cluster headaches. to be the only way to thrive rapidly becomes depleted. change treaty requiring wealthy
The new studies build on work by economically—first by selling “The current development countries with high carbon
Emory University neurologist Helen the lumber, later by farming and strategy results in a lose-lose- emissions to pay Brazilians for
Mayberg. In 2005 she showed ranching on the land. A study lose situation,” Rodrigues the environmental benefits of
that direct modulation of specific published in Science in June says. It destroys the rain forest keeping their forests standing.
brain circuits could help severely indicates otherwise. Despite habitat, fails to alleviate pov- ELIZA STRICKLAND
depressed patients who had not gaining some temporary bene-
responded to other treatments. “The fits, communities that clear-cut
concept of tuning brain circuits is a their forests end up no better
new strategy,” she says. Neuroimag- off than those who do not.
ing can pinpoint regions of dysfunc- Ana Rodrigues of the
tional brain activity, making it pos- Centre for Functional and
sible to understand the underlying Evolutionary Ecology in
biology of a disorder and correct France and her colleagues
abnormal rhythms of the brain. found that Amazonian towns
K ATHLEEN MCGOWAN in the midst of a deforestation

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25
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Skip a Meal,
Extend Your Life?
23 Computer Learns to Reason
Like Isaac Newton
To stave off aging, Americans spend billions of dollars every
year on supplements, gyms, even therapists. But a report
released in July suggests that the secret to a longer life may
simply involve a new twist on an old adage: Watch what you eat.
Describing the basic laws of physics occupied Sir Isaac Newton for decades. A study of adult rhesus macaques showed that the mon-
In April scientists unveiled a computer program that can analyze data and keys were one-third as likely to die from age-related diseases
independently derive those fundamental physical laws within a matter of hours. if they consumed 30 percent fewer calories than they did
This program could relieve major logjams in scientific research. Modern instru- in their regular diet. Previous, well-publicized research had
ments like space observatories, particle colliders, and gene chips produce vast shown that restricting calories can increase the life span of
amounts of data, and mining that data is a slow, laborious process. Smart soft- creatures ranging from fruit flies to dogs, for reasons still
ware—a synthetic scientist, in essence—could greatly speed it up. unclear. But the latest trial, led by geriatrics expert Richard
Cornell University roboticist Hod Lipson and his Ph.D. student Michael Weindruch at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Cen-
Schmidt developed their system to analyze data from the kinds of mechanics ter and published in Science, is the first to show that caloric
experiments that college students encounter in introductory physics courses: restriction can improve survival in primates.
observing the motion of a swinging pendulum or of two weights bouncing on This kind of research takes enormous patience. Weindruch
connected springs, for instance. An automatic camera fed data directly to has spent 20 years studying his monkeys. In that time, the dieting
their computer program, which then tried millions of mathematical expres- ones have shown reductions in diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular
sions to identify which ones held true from one experiment to the next. Using disease, and even brain atrophy. They are also visibly fluffier and
an evolutionary algorithm, the program randomly varied the winning equations sturdier compared with their fully fed counterparts. “Slowing the
to match the data more closely. In this way it “discovered” a handful of natural aging process through calorie restriction spills over to primates
laws, including conservation of energy and momentum. Complex experiments and probably people,” Weindruch says.
required as much as 40 hours, simple ones as little as 10 minutes. Pharmaceutical companies are
The Cornell program “won’t replace scientists anytime soon,” Schmidt says. now seeking a drug that mim-
“But it will let them look in a more efficient way at what might be interesting.” Gene ics the benefits of a restrictive
chips, for instance, can measure the expression of thousands of genes at a time, diet without the sacrifice. In
but the important question is how one gene regulates others within that incred- July an independent team
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: TRENT SCHINDLER/NASA; TYLER BOLEY/GETTY IMAGES; MASTERFILE; RICARDO FUNARI/BRAZILPHOTOS/PHOTOSHELTER

ibly complex web of relationships. Smart software could rapidly flag interesting reported in Nature that rapa-
patterns—such as the way that levels of one protein depend on six others—so that mycin, an immune-suppress-
researchers could then follow up with targeted experiments. DOUGLAS FOX ing drug, increases longevity
in elderly mice by up to 38
percent. At the Jackson Labo-
ratory in Maine, gerontologist

24
David Harrison and his team
site suggests that settlers there stored a chose to test rapamycin,
World’s mix of wild and cultivated barley, along
with an early variety of wheat.
which is already approved
for use in procedures such
First Grain Silos “The surprise is not only that they were as kidney transplants,
Discovered in storing food but that they were storing it because previous
in such a sophisticated way,” Kuijt says. research showed that the
Jordan The granary floors at Dhra were elevated, drug increases the life span of
In June archaeologist Ian Kuijt at the most likely to keep out mice and to pre- flies and may reduce cancer in
University of Notre Dame and colleagues vent spoilage from dampness; they were mammals. “We’re not claiming
reported that they had uncovered the also slightly sloped, perhaps for drain- to achieve immortality,” Har-
world’s earliest known granaries, locat- age. By providing a buffer against famine rison says, “but rapamycin is a
ed at the Dhra archaeological site on the and allowing larger groups of people to step toward expanding healthy
shore of the Dead Sea in Jordan. In a settle together, these storehouses may life span by about 10 years.”
paper published in Proceedings of the have fostered the cultural transition from AMY BARTH
National Academy of Sciences, the team bands of hunter-gatherers to complex,
describes food storage structures dating cohesive societies.
back 11,000 years, a millennium before “Stored food can be used as a form
humans were thought to have domesti- of social currency,” Kuijt notes. “It liter-
cated crops. Analysis of grains from the ally changes everything.” LINDSEY KONKEL

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26 J. CRAIG VENTER on biology’s next leap:


digitally designed life-forms that could
produce novel drugs, renewable fuels,
and plentiful food for tomorrow’s world.

J. Craig Venter keeps riding the cusp of each new wave in biol-
ogy. When researchers started analyzing genes, he launched
the Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), decoding the
genome of a bacterium for the first time in 1992. When the
used, so we have defined
a separate field that we call
synthetic genomics—the
digitization of biology using
only DNA and RNA. You start
The initial challenge there
was straightforward: Could
we construct pieces of DNA
large enough to make up
a chromosome? When we
government announced its plan to map the human genome, by sequencing genomes and looked in the literature, the
he claimed he would do it first—and then he delivered results putting their digital code into answer was no. DNA syn-
in 2001, years ahead of schedule. Armed with a deep under- a computer. Then you use thesizers, which have been
standing of how DNA works, Venter is now moving on to an the computer to take that around for 30 years, made
information and design new only short pieces. That was
even more extraordinary project. Starting with the stunning
life-forms. the basis of all the work we’d
genetic diversity that exists in the wild, he is aiming to build done in DNA sequencing.
custom-designed organisms that could produce clean ener- How do you build a life- When you get beyond 20 or
gy, help feed the planet, and treat cancer. Venter has already form? Throw in some mito- 30 nucleotides [the “letters”
transferred the genome of one species into the cell body of chondria here and some of DNA—each gene is made
another. This past year he reached a major milestone, using ribosomes there, surround of hundreds or thousands of
it all with a membrane— nucleotides], the error rate
the machinery of yeast to manufacture a genome from scratch.
and voilà? gets larger and larger.
When he combines the steps—perhaps next year—he will We started down that road,
have crafted a truly synthetic organism. Senior editor Pamela but now we are coming from So making larger sections
Weintraub discussed the implications of these efforts with the other end. We’re starting of DNA required a different
Venter in DISCOVER’s editorial offices. with the accomplishments of approach?
three and a half billion years Right. In 2003 we made our
of evolution by using what first synthetic virus, and it
we call the software of life: was 100 percent accurate.
Here you are talking about in reductionist biology— DNA. Our software builds We did it by taking viral DNA
constructing life, but you getting down to the genetic its own hardware. By writing and putting it in a cell, in
started out in deconstruc- code, interpreting what it new software, we can come this case E. coli. The E. coli
tion: charting the human meant, including all 6 billion up with totally new species. was able to read the genetic
genome, piece by piece. letters of my own genome. It would be as if once you code and make proteins that
Actually, I started out smaller, Only by understanding things put new software in your self-assembled to form the
studying the adrenaline at that level can we turn computer, somehow a whole virus. At that point we knew
receptor. I was looking at one around and go the other way. new machine would material- we could accurately make
protein and its single gene for ize. We’re software engineers DNA pieces of 5,000 base
a decade. Then, in the late In your latest work you are rather than construction pairs, the size of the small
1980s, I was drawn to the trying to create “synthetic workers. viruses. The goal was to make
idea of the whole genome, life.” What is that? a 600,000-base-pair bacterial
and I stopped everything It’s a catchy phrase that But the DNA software works chromosome. We thought
and switched my lab over. I people have begun using to only if you can use it to piece we could do that by putting
had the first automatic DNA replace “molecular biology.” together an actual genome serial pieces together, but
sequencer. It was the ultimate The term has been over- outside the machine, right? solving the chemistry was a
huge challenge. We exhaust-
ed the genetics of E. coli and
text by PAMELA WEINTRAUB photography by MACKENZIE STROH found we could grow these

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large pieces of synthetic DNA [molecular scissors that cut that use human waste to make definitely don’t all do it. Maybe
only by harnessing yeast. DNA in specific places], the drinking water, electricity, or we can’t prevent somebody
cell’s original DNA would be both. Could algae be used for really dedicated to doing harm,
What made you realize that destroyed. The transplanted food? Imagine using algae to but we can prevent the frivo-
yeast could help you? DNA would take over instead. make artificial steaks. Look at lous uses of this technology.
We’d been studying Deinococ- So now we had the cell of one all the bacteria in the oceans;
cus radiodurans, the Conan species containing the DNA they have far more sophisticat- Could synthetic biol-
the Barbarian of bacteria. You of another species. In a short ed chemicals than our chem- ogy extend all the way to
can expose it to more than time, all the original proteins istry industry can produce. A humans? Could we use the
3 million rads of radiation and disappeared, and we ended lot of these are antibacterial or technology to make better
it won’t be killed. Its chromo- up with a cell that had totally antiviral compounds, because versions of ourselves?
somes get blown apart into transformed from one species that’s how bacteria protect
hundreds of small pieces, but into another. themselves in the environment. We have no clue of how to do
then over 12 or 24 hours it If we’re ever going to have a it now. We’re still struggling
reassembles its DNA exactly So you have transplanted chance of using these com- with the smallest bacterial
as it was before. We were a natural genome, and you pounds, we’re going to have to cell, in which we don’t know
trying to capture that system have created a synthetic make them synthetically. what even one-fifth of the
when we discovered that yeast one. How close are you genes do. We do not have
does the same thing, only not to combining these steps, What about safeguards and the computing power on the
with radiation: Yeast can take transferring a synthetic risks? As with computer planet to make a synthetic
the pieces of DNA that we genome so it takes over a hacking, some people are human genome. We don’t
make and do the assembly foreign cell? itching to do these “bio- have any way of collecting the
work for us. I now joke that I predict it’s logical hacking” experiments data to do it right now. So the
going to happen this year, with synthetic life in their notion of trying to change our
Last August you reported but I’ve done that for the last basements and backyards. genome, I find at this stage
cloning the entire genome two years. It’s a technicality You can buy a DNA synthe- of our knowledge almost an
of a bacterium, Mycoplasma in one respect because what sizer off eBay, and an enter- immoral discussion. It would
mycoides. What’s next? we’re showing is that DNA prising person could build a have to be blind human
Now we add the yeast centro- is DNA. But truly being able DNA synthesizer from plans experimentation, not caring
mere [the section of yeast DNA to make a working synthetic they can get off the Internet. what the outcome would be.
involved in reconstruction] genome—I think it’s a proof We don’t try to downplay the
to the DNA of the organisms that’s important. risk. Because these tools are But one day we’ll know
we are synthesizing. It’s like a so powerful, somebody could, more—what then?
jigsaw puzzle. We throw in the Once we have the power to just by ordering a handful of History will view these first
pieces and the yeast compo- create new life-forms, how chemicals, pretty cheaply synthetic genomes as a bright
nent automatically assembles will we benefit? make viruses that could cause dividing line, just like the line
them the right way. It thinks it’s We could synthesize cells that a lot of damage or death to a before and after the reading
just assembling and repairing use carbon dioxide and make large number of people. We of the genetic code. Through
one of its own chromosomes. other things from it. If this desk don’t want kids trying to be the these experiments we have
and that plastic chair protector first one on their block to build been able to write the genetic
Then you have to boot up were made from CO2, it would a virus, so I think there should code while we’re continuing to
the genome in a living cell to solve the problem of how to be laws for simple screening. read it more and more quickly.
generate the hardware, the sequester CO2 from the atmo- The synthetic DNA companies Advances in biology should
life-form itself. How will you sphere and would totally solve that make these products continue at a phenomenal,
do that? the question of paper versus should be required to screen exponential pace. We could
In one of our most important plastic. You’d absolutely want them against a list of infectious learn more next year than we
experiments, we took the DNA plastic bags if they could be agents. It would be easy to learned in the entire prior his-
from one bacterial cell and made from carbon dioxide and screen someone trying to copy tory of science. Twenty years
treated it with harsh enzymes not from oil. Ebola, for example. A lot of from now, the things we’re
to destroy any proteins. We the companies do it voluntarily doing now will look frighten-
found that if we transplanted What else could we do? now, but they don’t all do it, ingly primitive. My view of
that naked DNA into another We could solve the problem of and on a global basis they humanity is that we will find
bacterial species, along with fuel production. In theory, we it irresistible to try to use
associated restriction enzymes could replace fuel that comes these technologies to change
out of the ground with things ourselves. I confess, I think
made from carbon dioxide on we’ll do it, but perhaps not we
a new scale. We could make ourselves.
small-scale microbial fuel cells

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‘‘
‘‘ History will view these first synthetic
genomes as a bright dividing line, just like the line before
and after the reading of the genetic code.

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BIOLOGY || SPACE || MIND || ENVIRONMENT || MEDICINE

27 29
Genetic
Disease Cured
With Two Moms
Mitochondria are the powerhouses
that provide our bodies’ cells with
28Mercury’s Probe Shows Another Baby
Boom Hits
Rich Nations
Population dynamics are
the energy they need to function.
So when mitochondrial genes go
awry, the result is hereditary disor-
ders that wreak havoc on organs
Hidden Face m o re c o m p l e x t h a n w e
thought. Fertility rates generally
decline as development rises,
and this has indeed been hap-
with high energy requirements, like Three preliminary flybys of Mercury by NASA’s Mes-
pening in most industrialized
the brain and the heart. In Septem- senger spacecraft have given scientists a vast amount
nations. Birthrates in Italy, Ger-
ber, researchers announced that of new information about the solar system’s small-
many, and Japan, for instance,
they had demonstrated a way to est, hottest planet. The only other spacecraft to visit
have dipped to 1.3 children
replace defective mitochondria with Mercury—Mariner 10, which swung past in 1974 and
or fewer per woman. But
healthy ones. Moreover, they were 1975—left nearly half of the surface unseen. Messenger’s
recently a team of sociologists
able to perform the repair before an new maps fill in most of the gaps and show that about 40
in the United States and Italy
egg cell was even fertilized. percent of the landscape has been shaped by volcanism,
revealed a twist in this pattern.
Geneticist Shoukhrat Mitalipov of indicating widespread geologic activity in Mercury’s past.
When development—mea-
Oregon Health and Science Univer- Peering down into impact craters, the probe’s cameras
sured by income, education,
sity and his team took the nucleus have seen evidence that the planet was shaped by sev-
and life span—improves past
out of an egg from a macaque eral massive floods of lava billions of years ago.
a certain point, they find, fer-
monkey, removing almost all of the The most recent flyby, this past September, also
tility picks up again. The study
genetic material but leaving the mi- clarified why Mercury still has a slight atmosphere even
was published in August in the
tochondria and their DNA. The re- though its gravity is too weak to maintain one for long.
journal Nature.

THIS PAGE, FROM LEFT: PROFESSORS PIETRO M. MOTTA & TOMONORI NAGURO/PHOTO RESEARCHERS; NASA. OPPOSITE, FROM TOP: MICHAEL MELFORD/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC; MASTERFILE
searchers then injected the nucleus Powerful solar winds press through Mercury’s magnetic
The anticipated boost in fer-
of an egg from a second macaque, field to blast away material from the planet’s surface.
tility rates is not large enough
fertilized the cell with sperm, and That material replenishes the atmosphere as it continu-
to alter projections that the
implanted it in the second monkey’s ously drifts away into space. Sodium is prominent in
global population will level
womb. The technique has yielded the atmosphere at the poles (where the solar wind pen-
off by midcentury, says study
four healthy babies. The same etrates most easily), suggesting that the surface there
coauthor Hans-Peter Kohler,
procedure could be used to trans- contains sodium-rich rocks. Nearer the equator calcium
a sociologist at the University
plant DNA from a human egg with predominates, and magnesium is everywhere.
of Pennsylvania. In fact, birth-
mitochondrial disorders into one All of this is just a preview of the full Messenger mis-
rates in most highly developed
with healthy mitochondria. sion that begins in March 2011, when the spacecraft
countries are still too low to
“This offers real treatment for will settle into orbit for at least a year of continuous,
maintain the national popula-
many diseases,” Mitalipov says. close-up observations. At that point, the trickle of data
tion. (The United States is an
“And not in 20 years. It can be on Mercury will become a flood. “It has been wonder-
exception, with fertility rates
used now to prevent thousands of ful,” says principal investigator Sean Solomon of the
near the replacement level of
birth defects.” The process would Carnegie Institution of Washington, “but this is just
2.1 births per woman.) But
yield a baby with two biological the beginning.” MICHAEL D . LEMONICK
the new analysis may provide
mothers, raising prickly legal and
some relief for nations that
ethical questions. But Mitalipov
fear they soon will not have
points out that only 37 mitochon-
enough middle-aged workers
drial genes would be replaced; the
to support their growing elderly
25,000 nuclear genes that make
population.
up an embryo’s DNA and define all
The researchers are now
of a person’s external traits would
investigating why a wide
remain unchanged. AMY BARTH
range of developed coun-
tries, despite their differing
A mitochondrion social structures, appear to
be experiencing a similar and
unexpected uptick in birth-
rates. “There is clearly not a
one-size-fits-all set of institu-
tions and policies that facili-
Sunbaked Mercury, captured by Messenger
during the spacecraft’s September flyby, reveals tate higher fertility,” Kohler
previously unseen craters and lava flows. says. MEGAN TALKINGTON

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30 Hunters
Accelerate the
bighorn sheep, caribou, marine inver-
tebrates, and two plants. (“Hunters
also want the biggest ginseng,” Dari-
mont says.) Animals that are routinely
Pace of Evolution subject to pursuit are, on average, 20
Humans are powerful agents of evolu- percent smaller and reproduce at a
tionary change: Wild animals and plants 25 percent younger age than what would
that are hunted or harvested evolve three be expected without human influence,
times as quickly as they would naturally, the researchers determined. Predation
according to a study from the University is not the only way that people affect
of California at Santa Cruz. In our quest populations. Creatures that are exposed
to bag the biggest and the best, we intro- to environmental influences like pollution
duce selective pressures that favor less also experience accelerated evolution,
desirable creatures, such as those with although the effect is less dramatic.
smaller bodies or less majestic horns. The resulting changes have ripple
Hunting also gives a competitive advan- effects, Darimont notes. Smaller and
tage to animals that have babies when earlier breeders often produce fewer
they are younger, before they become offspring, for instance. “Size really
tempting targets for humans. matters,” he says. “If a harvested ani-

2 Fake DNA
A team led by biologist Chris Dari- mal keeps shrinking, it may no longer

3Fools
mont combed through data on dozens be prey to its predator. The whole food
of species—predominantly fish but also web can be altered.” AMY BARTH

31 Sun’s Changes Have Surprise


Crime Lab
DNA evidence has become a stan-
Effects on Earth’s Weather dard forensic tool because it can
pinpoint one individual out of mil-
Scientists have long suspected that the sun affects climate on Earth, but that
lions. But the Israeli company
connection has proved hard to pin down. Researchers recently demonstrated that
Nucleix has shown that it is
the 11-year cycle of solar activity influences weather in the tropical Pacific Ocean.
distressingly simple to make a
Even then the exact cause remained obscure, since the sun’s brightness varies by
phony DNA fingerprint.
just one-tenth of a percent. Two studies from 2009 are filling in the gaps.
In Nucleix’s experiment,
In August an international team led by Gerald Meehl, a climatologist with the
researchers took a small
National Center for Atmospheric Research, announced that the sun’s outsize
bit of DNA (which can be
influence results from its combined effects on our atmosphere and oceans. When
collected from an object like
the sun is at its most intense, ozone in the stratosphere absorbs more ultraviolet
a cigarette butt) from a test
energy, making areas near the equator warmer than usual. The added heat changes
subject, replicated it millions
wind patterns, bringing more rain to the western tropics. At the same time, the
of times over, and used it to
extra sunlight causes more evaporation off the ocean, which adds to downpours
build an artificial DNA sequence.
in the western tropics. Simulations that modeled just one of these effects failed to
They then added the built-up DNA
match the real world. Meehl saw that the two mechanisms “feed off each other,
to blood that had been processed to
producing a stronger response than either can alone.” His results should help
remove the original, DNA-containing white
climatologists predict monsoons in Asia and overall climate in North America and
blood cells. When analyzed by a leading foren-
might someday allow them to estimate seasonal rainfall years in advance.
sics lab, the mixture was indistinguishable from
Meanwhile, Henrik Svensmark of the Technical University of Denmark and his
real blood and natural genetic material. Going a
colleagues are exploring a broader climate impact of solar activity. He believes
step further, the researchers fabricated artificial
that cosmic rays—energetic subatomic particles from outer space—help seed
DNA using only sequence data and added it to a
cloud-forming water droplets in the lower atmosphere. During peak solar activ-
saliva sample. This fake also passed inspection.
ity, eruptions from the sun spew out huge clouds of plasma that shield Earth from
Although the experiment was done entirely
those cosmic rays. After examining cloud cover and cosmic ray fluxes, Svensmark
with commercial technology, DNA expert Larry
concluded that declines in cosmic rays lead to fewer clouds, implying that an
Kobilinsky of John Jay College of Criminal
active sun could lead to warmer surface temperatures. Following the strongest
Justice in New York doubts that most criminals
solar eruptions, he found that the sky lost 7 percent of its cloud water. Many sci-
would have the skills to pull it off. Just in case,
entists doubt the significance of these cosmic ray effects, but Svensmark sees the
though, Nucleix has developed a test that can
question as ripe for investigation. “The sun is doing natural experiments on Earth’s
screen for fake DNA. BOONSRI DICKINSON
atmosphere, giving us the opportunity to test these ideas,” he says. JANET FANG

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EVOLUTION || TECHNOLOGY || MEDICINE

3 34
Blast of Biodiversity
to commercial coffee trees that in the last 15 years are yoked to
Computers Go
produce their own decaf. local ecosystems and likely to Quantum
The exaggerated nature of the become extinct. One capuchin
Atomic-scale computers that
newfound species illustrates the monkey inhabits only a single
exploit the bizarre rules of quan-
rich and complicated ways in 200-hectare slice of forest ringed
tum physics have the potential
which organisms adapt to their by sugar plantations.
to process enormous quanti-
It might seem that biologists unique environments. People rely on biodiversity, too.
ties of data far more quickly
have already canvassed every Many plants, insects, and The earth’s dazzling biological
than today’s devices. In June,
bit of our planet. In reality, by vertebrate animals are com- cornucopia helps regulate carbon
researchers at Yale University
tapping the latest genetic and pletely dependent on endangered dioxide levels, protects crops and
announced progress toward
molecular techniques they are ecosystems. A March 2009 humans from pests and disease,
this goal, creating the first quan-
identifying new species at an study by biologist Paul Ehrlich of recycles nutrients, and holds a
tum processor that is built into a
unprecedented pace. To draw Stanford University and biologist still largely unfathomable genetic
conventional silicon chip.
attention to this fast-growing Gerardo Ceballos of the National bounty. “The human economy is
Quantum computers pro-
catalog of biodiversity, the Arizo- Autonomous University of Mexico a wholly owned subsidiary of the
cess information using bits that
na State University International found that 81 percent of the 408 economy of nature,” Ehrlich says.
behave like atoms, so even the
Institute for Species Exploration new mammal species discovered JILL NEIMARK
slightest disturbance would ruin
created a top 10 list of the most
the process. Previous experi-
amazing species discovered in
ments had required complicat-
2009, including:
ed lasers or magnets to keep
Tahina spectabilis: A palm
the system stable, but the Yale
native to northwest Madagascar,
team’s processor was designed
the species is so huge that single
into computer chips. With one
trees can be spotted via Google
calculation, the device solved a
Earth. The plant’s trunk grows
math problem that would take
to 60 feet high and its leaves to
an ordinary computer as many
more than 15 feet across. After
as four steps. The key difference
30 to 50 years, the palm pro-
is that quantum bits can take on
duces hundreds of flowers that
fuzzy values: not just 1 or 0, but
drain its nutrients completely,
in some sense everything in

THIS PAGE, FROM TOP: NATHALIE METZ (2); S. BLAIR HEDGES/PENN STATE. OPPOSITE, FROM LEFT: J. L. CARSON/CMSP; JAN WOITAS/DPA/CORBIS
causing it to die in a few months.
between at the same time.
Fewer than 100 specimens have
While the Yale research
been found, but the plant is now
focuses on hardware, a team
being cultivated.
from MIT and the University
Phobaeticus chani: The world’s
of Bristol in England is finding
longest stick insect, measuring
better ways to use quantum
two feet from antennae to tail,
computations. In October the
was discovered in Borneo, Malay-
group described a new algo-
sia. This creature resembles a
rithm that could rapidly solve
small branch with six twiggy legs.
the complex linear equations at
Hippocampus satomiae: This
the heart of many key process-
pygmy sea horse, which lives off
es, including image processing
the coast of Derawan Island in
and gene analysis.
Borneo, is the smallest of its kind,
Turning the Yale experi-
about half an inch long.
ment into a useful computer
Leptotyphlops carlae: Also
will require adding many more
among the incredibly small is the
quantum bits and managing
world’s most minuscule snake:
how those bits interact. “It just
Found in Barbados, it measures
seems so difficult to make a
only four inches long.
large-scale quantum comput-
Coffea charrieriana: Producing Clockwise from top left: Leaf and
flowers of the giant palm Tahina er,” says Steven Girvin, a Yale
the first known coffee bean that
spectabilis, and the tiny snake physicist who coauthored the
is naturally caffeine free, this Leptotyphlops carlae. Both species findings. “But five years ago I
plant from Cameroon could lead were discovered in 2009.
never thought we’d be where
we are now.” ANDREW GRANT

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35
Neanderthals of it from the Vindija cave in
Croatia) to get 3 billion Nean-
Get Personal derthal base pairs essentially Pääbo and a
Did humans and Neanderthals uncontaminated by human Neanderthal
ever lie under the moon, mak- DNA or by microbes. skeleton.
ing love? Could Neanderthals To perform this stunning feat,
talk? Do we have any of their Pääbo and his team used new,
genes? We diverged from our high-throughput DNA technolo-
hominid cousins as long as gies—developed in part by the
400,000 years ago, and by companies 454 Life Sciences
30,000 years ago they were and Illumina—to analyze hun-
gone, leaving the particulars of dreds of thousands and even
any intertwined history seem- millions of DNA fragments at are now analyzing whether could not speak like we do,”
ingly lost forever. the same time. there was any interbreeding” Pääbo concludes.
We are beginning to revisit With the ability to sequence at all, Pääbo says. What lies ahead? Pääbo
those ancient days, however, DNA at warp speed, the re - In studying the reconstructed will continue sequencing Nean-
due to a draft of the Nean- searchers could finally decon- genome, he learned that, like derthal DNA until he has a
derthal genome created by struct the genomic relationship modern humans, Neander- genome that is similar in com-
Svante Pääbo and colleagues between Neanderthals and thals may have used the spo- pletion and quality to the exist-
at the Max Planck Institute for modern humans. Although ken word. Indeed, they have ing map of the chimpanzee
Evolutionary Anthropology in our DNA sequences are more two mutations in a language- genome. Ultimately, comparing
Leipzig, Germany. The draft, than 99.5 percent identical, associated gene called FOXP2, Neanderthals, humans, and
announced in February, covers our genetic cousins did not mutations that are not found in chimpanzees will help us find
about 63 percent of the roughly contribute any mitochondrial chimpanzees. Such changes “those few genetic changes that
3.2 billion base pairs in the DNA to us, and probably little seem to be associated with are crucial for modern human
Neanderthal genome. Pääbo genetic material overall. (It is vocalization. “From the data we behavior and ability,” he says,
created it by sequencing DNA still possible that we donated have so far, there is no reason and that reveal what makes us
from fragments of bone (most genes to them, however.) “We to assume that Neanderthals uniquely human. JILL NEIMARK

Micrograph
of E. coli, future exposure. A separate set of trials in
a leading As a result, a person can rabbits, which concluded
cause of
diarrhea. experience multiple bouts in April, demonstrated that
of diarrhea, which can lead the doubled-up molecule
to dehydration, malnutrition, provoked the animals’
and even death. Children are immune system to produce
especially vulnerable because antibodies. And when these
they have a higher density of antibodies were tested in
chemical receptors susceptible mice, researchers found that
to the E. coli toxin than adults they made the mice immune
do. That toxin is also a leading to the effects of E. coli.

36 Diarrhea
Vaccine Could
tially reduce that number.
Although vaccines already
exist for some causes of diar-
rhea, finding a fix for entero-
toxigenic E. coli, the leading
cause of traveler’s diarrhea,
which annually affects millions
of visitors to developing coun-
tries around the world.
In order to alert the
The new vaccine, 25 years
in the making, could proceed
to human clinical trials by the
beginning of 2010, accord-
ing to Saeed, who has been
Save Millions bacterial cause of diarrhea immune system to the pres- studying E. coli toxin since he
Nearly 1.5 million children, in children in the developing ence of the tiny toxin mol- was in graduate school. A vac-
the vast majority of them in world, has proved to be diffi- ecule, Saeed attached it to a cine could also reduce E. coli
the developing world, die of cult. The toxin produced by E. larger molecule that did not deaths among farm animals.
diarrheal diseases each year. coli is too small to be recog- alter its properties. Trials in “E. coli is a killer,” Saeed
In April, Mahdi Saeed, an epi- nized effectively by the human mice showed that this piggy- says. “A vaccine would be a
demiologist at Michigan State immune system, meaning that back approach increased the true lifesaver for children in
University, announced a new one round of infection does ability of the immune system the developing world.”
vaccine that could substan- not provide immunity against to recognize the toxin. LINDSEY KONKEL

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38
ENERGY || MEDICINE

37 Algae
Make Clean,
Renewable
Diesel Fuel
When researchers conceived of A Smart Makeover
for the Electrical Grid
turning algae into diesel fuel three
decades ago, the idea sounded
like something out of the old
sci-fi movie Soylent Green. But in
July, ExxonMobil teamed up with This may go down as the year when all the The stimulus package will fund 100 proj-
biologist Craig Venter’s Synthetic talk about creating a next-generation “smart ects nationwide, ranging from the installation
Genomics to take algae biofuel to grid” turned into action. The basic technology of smart meters in homes so that customers
the marketplace. ExxonMobil has that transports electricity around the United can manage their energy use to the improve-
invested $600 million to design bet- States is more than a century old. So in Octo- ment of power substations and transformers.
ter strains of algae and to convert ber, spurred by concern over the cost and Utilities could monitor demand in real time
them into fuel. Meanwhile, several reliability of the present system, President and adjust supply accordingly. Customers
start-up companies—including Obama announced $3.4 billion of economic could track their consumption and opt to buy
Aurora Biofuels and Solix Biofuels stimulus funds for smart grid projects and more energy during off-peak hours, when it
—have built pilot plants that prove almost $5 billion more in private investment. is cheaper and more plentiful. A grid that can
it is possible to brew algae-derived “We’ve paid attention to individual compo- store and redirect large quantities of power
diesel fuel in large quantities. “At nents of the power system for so long, but will also be crucial if the United States gener-
the beginning we’d tell people, ‘I now we have to look at the system itself,” ates more than about one-fifth of its power
know this sounds crazy,’ ” says says Dan Kammen, director of the Renew- from renewables such as wind or solar, which
Bryan Willson, a Colorado State able and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at deliver an intermittent supply of electricity.
University engineer and cofounder the University of California at Berkeley. Ford announced in August that its planned
of Solix Biofuels. “But with the These smart grid proposals would create plug-in hybrid vehicles would be able to
ExxonMobil investment, algae is a flexible, interactive relationship between communicate with a smart grid. The batter-
entering the mainstream.” energy producers and consumers. “The grid ies in these vehicles could serve as backup
Traditional biofuel crops such needs to evolve from one-way wires and storage, soaking up excess energy at night
as soybeans yield 50 to 150 cables to something where each power line and giving it back when demand surges.
gallons of fuel per planted acre would send power in either direction—to or “If we can monitor and understand what’s
per year, but Solix’s facility near from homes, businesses, or industry,” Kam- going on at all times, then we can reap the
Durango, Colorado, is producing men says. “We need the marriage of energy reward we want,” Kammen says. “And that
more than 2,000. The centerpiece technology and information technology.” is reliable, green power.” ANDREW GRANT
is a sealed growth chamber, or
photo-bioreactor, made from

TOP: ROBERT LLEWELLYN/AGE FOTOSTOCK. BOTTOM: NICHOLAS EVELEIGH/GETTY IMAGES. OPPOSITE: COURTESY MBARI
39
a clear polymer to let sunlight
through; inside is a strain of algae fix. “Since many cars are outfitted with GPS,
selected for its high rate of oil
production. (Closed reactors are
Math Could Fix you could interactively convey this information
to drivers,” Flynn says. Drivers approaching
less susceptible to contamination Traffic Jams a forming jam could then slow down well in
by outside algae than are open- During rush hour, maddening traffic jams can advance, lowering traffic density: “It reduces
pond systems.) After the algae are arise without an obvious cause. In May mechani- the severity of a jam, and it reduces the likeli-
harvested, their oils are extracted cal engineer Morris Flynn of the University of hood of accidents in the jam.” STEPHEN ORNES
and refined into renewable diesel. Alberta produced a model that shows how these
Besides sunlight, the algae require “jamitons,” or phantom jams, develop.
little more than carbon dioxide Traffic jams have been represented mathemat-
from nearby power plants, so ically as waves of alternating heavy and light car
operating expenses should be low. density. When Flynn analyzed these equations,
Willson predicts his company’s he noted striking similarities to the detonation
algae fuel (and its coproducts, waves that radiate outward from an explosion. As
which are to be sold for animal in a detonation, jamitons divide the surrounding
feed) will be cost-competitive with space into upstream and downstream regions.
petroleum diesel within five years. Downstream drivers are the ones caught in the
“It represents a large-scale solu- congestion; upstream drivers are the ones who
tion to a global problem,” he says. are unaware of the jam they are about to hit.
ELIZABETH SVOBODA Improving data flow could provide an easy

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40 Quantum Freakiness
Leaks Into the Big World the beryllium ions. Now the researchers could use
42
Infection as
If the rules of the tiny quantum world applied to
ordinary objects, all sorts of strange things could
lasers to transfer the entangled state of the beryllium
ions to the motion of the new beryllium-magnesium
It Happens
One of the challenges
happen: An object like a car or a person might be in pairs. Those pairs began to form two separate oscil-
in fighting infectious
two places at once, or two clocks could “entangle,” lating systems, analogous to a swinging pendulum or
disease is that re-
moving in synchrony as if they were physically con- a vibrating weight on a spring. “We were motivated
searchers cannot watch
joined even when miles apart. In June researchers at by pure curiosity to look at mechanical oscillators;
individual pathogens
the National Institute of Standards and Technology no one had ever entangled them before,” says David
inside living animals.
(NIST) reported on their effort to see how far quantum Hanneke, a member of the NIST team.
Did the drug kill the mi-
behavior can be extended into the everyday realm. The experiment will help scientists explore why
crobes? Did pathogens
First they coaxed a pair of beryllium ions to small objects follow the weird rules of quantum
escape to the brain?
entangle, such that their physical properties remained mechanics but large ones do not—one of the great-
Now imaging tech-
bound together even when they were far apart. To est enigmas in physics. In this case, sets of oscillat-
niques are providing
do this, the scientists flashed lasers at a frequency ing ions can be made to act as if they are connected,
answers by following
that encouraged the ions to adopt complementary even though equivalent human-scale objects, like
microbes on the move.
spin. Next the team split up the beryllium duo so that pendulums and springs, “certainly don’t behave in
An approach de-
each was now matched with a magnesium ion, and this entangled way,” Hanneke says. “So where does
scribed in PLoS Patho-
those new pairs were moved to separate areas. The the breakdown happen? It’s somewhere between
gens in July allowed
heavier magnesium ions helped cool and slow down four ions and a pendulum clock.” ELIZABETH SVOBODA
British researchers
to peer inside fruit fly
embryos to track fluo-
rescent versions of the

Strange Gaze of the bacterium Photorhab-


dus asymbiotica. Using
high-resolution confocal

See-through Fish microscopy, the scien-


tists discovered that the
microorganism thwarts
the immune system by
emitting a toxin and im-
mobilizing hemocytes,
cells that would nor-
mally kill it. Meanwhile,
at the Scripps Research
Institute and New York
University, researchers
looked inside mouse
skulls to learn how viral
meningitis can cause
seizure. By recording
moving images of
the cells using two-
photon microscopy,
they discovered an
unexpected class
of immune cells
that damage ves-
sels in the brain. Also
at NYU, researchers
are capturing images
of fluorescent Lyme
disease spirochetes
The barreleye fish has eyes that gaze upward right through a transparent shield
moving into the brain,
covering its head. This year ecologists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute
hoping to chart infec-
studied the first-ever underwater video of the strange fish. They also managed to recover
tion and document the
one alive and get a good look at that shield, which may protect its eyes as it steals
moment of cure.
prey from stinging jellyfish. JANET FANG
MEGAN TALKINGTON

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EVOLUTION

Darwin’s Nex
Genome-versus-genome there is no way that what we only some of those produce
warfare produces kids that are eat, do, and encounter can discernible changes that
somewhere in between. override the basic rules of improve (or reduce) fitness.
Not all genetic conflicts are inheritance: What is in the Many of them do nothing
resolved so neatly. In flour bee- genes stays in the genes. That much at all. Those do-nothing
tles, babies that do not inherit single rule secured Darwin’s mutations are a major force for
the selfish genetic element place in the science books. discovery today, because they
known as Medea succumb to But now biologists are finding accumulate at a measurable
a toxin while developing in the that nature can break those rate. Generally, the more silent
egg. Some unborn mice suffer rules. This year Eva Jablonka, mutations two species have
the same fate. Such spiteful a theoretical biologist at Tel in common, the more closely
Charles Darwin would have genes have become wide- Aviv University, published a related they are. If you could
turned 200 in 2009, the same spread not by helping flour compendium of more than just sequence all the genes in
year his book On the Origin of beetles and mice survive but 100 hereditary changes that all the organisms in the world,
Species celebrated its 150th by eliminating individuals that are not carried in the DNA in principle you could uncover
anniversary. Today, with the do not carry the killer’s code. sequence. This “epigenetic” the complete tree of life.
perspective of time, Darwin’s “There are two ways of winning inheritance spans bacteria, That is what evolutionary
theory of evolution by natural a race,” says Caltech biologist fungi, plants, and animals. biologist Casey Dunn of Brown
selection looks as impressive Bruce Hay. “Either you can be For example, rats exposed University is trying to do, and
as ever. In fact, the double better than everyone else, or to certain fungicides during his initial findings are con-
anniversary year saw progress you can whack the other guys pregnancy give birth to male founding expectations. Dunn
on fronts that Darwin could on the legs.” progeny with lower sperm compared the genomes of
never have anticipated, bring- Hay is trying to harness the counts and an increased 71 animal species and found
ing new insights into the origin power of such genetic cheat- chance of developing diabetes that the common ances-
of life—a topic that contrib- ers, enlisting them in the fight and cancer. In each gen- tor of all the animals on the
uted to his panic attacks, against malaria. He created a eration that follows, none planet may not have been as
heart palpitations, and, as he Medea-like DNA element that of which were exposed to simple as a sponge, as previ-
wrote, “for 25 years extreme spreads through experimental fungicides directly, the male ously thought. Instead, Dunn
spasmodic daily and nightly fruit flies like wildfire, permeat- offspring continue to suffer the identified the more complex
flatulence.” One can only ing an entire population within same fate. Jablonka argues comb jellyfish—a carnivorous
dream of what riches await in 10 generations. This year that environmental expo- ocean drifter—as the earliest
the biology textbooks of 2159. he and his team have been sures—toxic substances, diet, to diverge from the animal
working on encoding immune- and even stress—can affect family tree. The idea that the
1. Evolution happens on the system boosters into those the genome (see page 62). In simplest organism may not
inside, too. The battle for sur- Medea genes, which could extremely high-stress cases, have come first upends the
vival is waged not just between then be inserted into male they could possibly rearrange popular notion of an evolution-
the big dogs but within the mosquitoes. If it works, the it enough to create new spe- ary march toward complexity.
dog itself, as individual genes modified mosquitoes should cies. Eventually, she says, This past year Dunn has been
jockey for prominence. From quickly replace competitors “evolution will have to yield.” busy expanding his revamped
the moment of conception, a who do not carry the new family tree, starting with Acoe-
father’s genes favor offspring genes; the enhanced immune 3. Mutations reveal surpris- lomorpha, a flatworm that was
that are large, strong, and systems of the new mosqui- ing branches on the tree of long considered one of the
aggressive (the better to court toes, in turn, would resist the life. Darwin would have been most difficult animals to put
the ladies), while the mother’s spread of the malaria parasite. dumbfounded to find that in its evolutionary place. With
genes incline toward smaller our genes are littered with the help of a supercomputer,
progeny that will be less of a 2. Identity is not written just changes that have no effect on Dunn’s team showed that the
AKG-IMAGES

burden, making it easier for in the genes. According to our form or function. Mutations worm is a product of the first
her to live on and procreate. modern evolutionary theory, give rise to new genes, but split among bilateral animals

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Revolution was the social switch


from aggressive
ably replicate themselves and
undergo Darwinian evolution in
male to attentive a test tube. Now Joyce wants
mate, says C. Owen to see “if we can get the mol-
Lovejoy, an anato- ecules to invent novel function
mist at Kent State for themselves,” he says.
University. By the So where would the first life
time Ardi appeared, on earth have picked up RNA,
our ancestors had the simple hereditary molecule
stopped fighting over that is notoriously hard to syn-
mates—as sug- thesize? Two papers published
gested by the small in 2009 propose plausible
canines and wood- chemical routes. In Science a
land diet of the male July report discusses a “helper
Ardipithecus—and molecule” to RNA, which the
started providing for author was able to construct
their females and in his lab, that shows the
offspring instead. basic properties necessary
Walking upright, for evolution (see page 83).
according to Lovejoy, And a separate experiment,
is an adaptation to published in Nature in May,
carrying food through showed that it is possible for
the forest as gifts for the building blocks of RNA to
potential mates. emerge spontaneously from
Not everyone simple molecules thought to
agrees. “The whole have been present on the early
profession of earth. John Sutherland and his
paleoanthropology colleagues at the University
is undergoing a big of Manchester in England
bout of indigestion argue that the precursors
right now because came together in a warm-
they’ve had a lot of water solution, reminiscent of
material dropped Charles Darwin’s notion that
on them,” says life began in some “warm little
Ian Tattersall, an pond.” In the meantime, 2009
anthropologist at the Nobel laureate Jack Szostak
American Museum of Harvard Medical School
of Natural History. has been packaging prebiotic
chemistry into simple mem-
more than half a billion years million-year-old Ardipithecus 5. We are closing in on how branes to see how protocells
ago—a discovery that will ramidus, known as Ardi, and life began. Gerald Joyce is not could have self-assembled
help biologists understand the it was not what anyone was saying that he reproduced the out of fatty acids.
origins of the digestive and expecting (see page 22). origin of life, but by some defi- The huge strides from the
nervous systems. Behaving more like modern nitions that is exactly what he past year significantly clarify
monkeys than like chimps, has done. In 2009 he and his how life could arise from the
4. The “missing link” is not Ardi walked on two feet with graduate student Tracey Lin- laws of chemistry. “If Darwin
missing. In October paleon- opposable toes and scam- coln at the Scripps Research were around now,” Sutherland
tologists unveiled the earliest pered through the branches Institute in La Jolla, Califor- says, “maybe he would have
Transmission
known skeleton of micrograph
electron a potential on all fours. This find suggests nia, engineered a system of been an organic chemist.”
human ancestor, the
of infl 4.4-virus.
uenza that what made us human molecules that can sustain- JESSICA RUVINSKY

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SPACE || MEDICINE || ENVIRONMENT || EVOLUTION

44
Spaceport
now the facility’s 10,000-foot
runway is being formed out
of a mountain of gravel, but
by 2011 it is expected to host
unhampered by commercial
jet traffic and benefits from the
same advantages that drew
the U.S. Army there: abundant
Breaks Ground the takeoffs and landings of
space-tourism flights oper-
clear weather and a 4,700-foot
elevation, which drops the
in New Mexico ated by its anchor tenant, cost of reaching Earth orbit by
Drive an hour northeast of Virgin Galactic. up to $90 million, compared
Las Cruces, New Mexico, The $200 million project, with launching at sea level.
then another 25 miles along a underwritten by the state of “Space tourism isn’t the
dirt road, and you can watch New Mexico, broke ground in spaceport’s only purpose,”
the construction of Spaceport June not far from the restricted says Steven Landeene, its
America—the nation’s first airspace of the White Sands executive director. Private
commercial hub built specifi- Missile Range. The location companies like Lockheed
cally for spaceships. Right was chosen carefully. It is Martin are already sending
up rockets from the facility’s
vertical launchpads, located
several miles from the runway.
Other sites around the United
States also support commer-
cial launches, but these are
mostly carved out of existing
government facilities.
“Dreams are becoming a
reality,” Landeene says. He
envisions a day when Virgin
Galactic’s $200,000 flights will
come down in price and start
to change the way we fly on
Earth, with business travelers
Reconstruction of Dakota
reaching Asia or Europe in less shows the dinosaur’s heavily
than two hours. muscled haunches.
Dawn at Spaceport America—an artist’s preview. BOONSRI DICKINSON

45 Eye Drops Could


Cure Glaucoma
Scientists in Italy have discovered a simple eye drop that
may reverse glaucoma, the disease caused when pres-
sure builds in the eye, injuring nerve cells and ultimately
47
leading to blindness. Ophthalmologist Stefano Bonini at
the University of Rome Campus Bio-Medico and his col-
laborators applied drops containing nerve growth factor (a
protein involved in neural development) to the eyes of rats
with induced glaucoma. The drops protected the animals’
retinal ganglion cells and optic nerves, both of which are
generally damaged by the disease. The team’s report
appeared in the August 11 issue of PNAS.
In the study Bonini also had success applying nerve
growth factor to humans with advanced glaucoma.
Two of three patients given the eye drops exhibited a
remarkable improvement in visual acuity and sensitivity
to contrast after three months. “I cannot say that we
El Niño’s Cousin
have found a cure for glaucoma,” Bonini says carefully,
“but we have something that worked in a few patients.
It will be interesting to test more.” LINDSEY KONKEL Spurs Hurricanes
52 | DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM
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Dino Mummy Spills Its Secrets


In 1999, while fossil hunting in the Badlands of North
Dakota, 16-year-old Tyler Lyson stumbled upon a mummi-
fied dinosaur: not just a skeleton, but a fossil that turned
out to include naturally preserved soft-tissue structures.
infrared imaging to the fossil, nicknamed Dakota. He found
that its mummified remains appear to include some of
the creature’s original amino acids, although there are no
traces of whole proteins or DNA. The results were pub-
48 Twin
Black Holes
This year a group of scientists published the first in-depth lished online in July in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Found
analysis of this rare find from 67 million years ago. The generous surface area of Dakota’s skin suggests Black holes are weird
The dinosaur—a hadrosaur, or duck-billed plant-eater that there was a lot more muscle packed into the animal’s enough, but in March
—apparently died in a soggy spot. Minerals precipitated tail than previously believed. On the basis of the new infor- astronomers found
rapidly in its skin, forming a replacement framework mation, researchers now estimate that this hadrosaur could signs of something even
before the soft organic tissues decomposed. “We actually have run roughly 27 miles per hour. That is “a lot faster than stranger: twin massive
have a three-dimensional organism preserved,” says study a T. rex,” Wogelius’s colleague Phil Manning says. black holes orbiting
coauthor Roy Wogelius of the University of Manchester Manning suspects that skin and soft tissue may have tightly around each other.
in England. Scales are visible to the naked eye; more been overlooked in other fossils and that they could yield Such objects have been
remarkable, electron microscopy reveals double-layered startling new insights about ancient creatures. “I think there long predicted but
skin similar to that of modern animals, and possibly even are specimens in museums today that are time capsules,” never verified.
the outlines of cells. Wogelius, a geochemist who analyzes he says. “We could go back to these specimens and breathe Todd Boroson and Tod
mineral surfaces, was asked to apply his expertise in new life into those old bones.” MEGAN TALKINGTON Lauer at the National Opti-
cal Astronomy Observa-
tory in Tucson found what
they think is a dual black
hole while examining more
than 17,000 quasars in the
Sloan Digital Sky Survey,
which obtained data,
images, and spectra of
more than one-fourth of
the sky. The two objects (a
20-million-solar-mass hole
and a billion-solar-mass
partner) seem to be sepa-
rated by just one-third of
a light-year, less than one-
tenth the distance from the
sun to the closest star.
In theory the universe
should be littered with
To forecasters trying to anticipate extreme recent phenomenon, which explains why black hole multiples. All
weather and avert disasters, the 2004 hur- researchers were unaware of its effects. sizable galaxies are thought
ricane season looked like nature thumbing During a typical El Niño, the Pacific Ocean to be born with black
her nose at us. That year, 15 major storms warms up in a long band that extends holes at their centers, and
developed in the North Atlantic—including from the coast of South America toward each time galaxies collide
Hurricane Ivan, which caused $14 billion in Polynesia. The second, less familiar pattern and merge the expanded
damage in the United States. And yet the involves a more isolated, extensive patch of galaxy should collect a new

CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: COURTESY OF VYONYX; NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC; REUTERS/NOAA


best models had called for a quiet season warmer water in the central Pacific. one. But binary black holes
because it was a year of El Niño, a recurring After examining more than six decades’ are difficult to find. Astrono-
pattern of warm water in the eastern Pacific worth of ocean surface temperatures mers have found dozens of
Ocean. That pattern is associated with and tropical storm data, Webster and quasars with similar double
lower-than-average tropical storm activity his collaborators realized that the lines of emission, but the
in the North Atlantic. Atmospheric scientist newly identified warming in the central signatures are usually
Peter Webster at the Georgia Institute of Pacific produces more hurricanes than a attributed either to a single
Technology set out to determine what went traditional El Niño. It did not show up in black hole or to two galax-
wrong, and now he has some answers. the data until three decades ago, leaving ies passing close together.
Last spring, Webster discovered that Webster unsure whether the new weather Boroson and Lauer are
his colleagues had lumped together two pattern is part of a long-term oscillation optimistic that they have
distinct weather patterns under the name or a result of climate change. Regardless the real deal this time.
of El Niño. Those patterns “have a very, very of the root cause, though, the discovery “We’re convinced it is
different impact on the tropical climate and, of the central Pacific hot spot should lead different from every other
most important, on hurricane formation,” to better hurricane predictions and fewer object we’ve studied,”
he says. The divergence appears to be a surprises. ELIZA STRICKLAND Boroson says. STEPHEN ORNES

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SPACE || ASTRONOMY || ANTHROPOLOGY || MEDICINE

49 Space
Trash Causes
Orbital Crash
In February, about 500 miles above
Siberia, a U.S. communications
satellite smashed into a defunct
Russian orbiter at 25,000 miles per
hour, annihilating them both. It was
the first wreck of its kind—two intact
spacecraft accidentally plowing into
each other at hypervelocity—in the
half-century that humans have been
launching objects into space.
Initially the crash left behind some
1,500 pieces of wreckage bigger than
four inches in diameter, along with Computer simulation
hundreds of thousands of smaller of sunspot structure; vertical
fragments, estimates Nicholas John- magnetic fields appear dark.
son, chief scientist of the Orbital

50
Debris Program Office at NASA’s
Johnson Space Center in Houston.
cool and so look dark against of 76 trillion calculations per
The debris clouds, initially distrib-
the 10,000-degree Fahren- second. The result closely
uted along the orbital paths of the
satellites, are spreading to enshroud Magnetic heit solar surface. (They still
blaze at temperatures near
matched observations of
how plasma flows from a
the entire planet, joining the roughly
19,000 large chunks of orbiting space
Mysteries 7,500°F, however.) sunspot’s central dark region
junk (below) already tracked by the of Sunspots Scientists at the National
Center for Atmospheric
into the surrounding turbulent
zone, according to lead
Department of Defense.
Even if we stop launching objects
Decoded Research in Boulder, Colo- researcher Matthias Rempel.
In July the first complete 3-D rado, simulated a typical pair This model exposes new
into space, the amount of trash will
sunspot simulation illuminated of sunspots, which usually details of stellar physics and
continue to grow. “Things will keep
long-standing questions about appear in tandem with oppo- could make it easier to predict
running into each other at a faster
these disturbances on the site polarity. Mimicking the violent “space weather” before
rate than debris will fall out of orbit,”
solar surface. Sunspots are twisted magnetic fields and it affects Earth. Sunspots
Johnson says. Another major colli-
strong magnetic regions that fast-moving plasma in these often spawn solar flares that
sion is certain to happen eventually,
disrupt the outward flow of 20,000-mile-wide maelstroms can knock out radio communi-
he adds. In March, a 5-inch fragment
heat from the sun’s interior. As required a month of work on cation, damage satellites, and
from a spent rocket engine whizzed
a result they are comparatively a supercomputer capable zap power grids. ADAM HADHAZY
closely past the International Space
Station. Scientists and policymakers
are exploring ways to prevent future
accidents by removing large, defunct
objects from orbit. JOCELYN RICE

51 Oldest Musical
Instrument Found
from the bone of a griffon vulture—might be
capable of expressing greater harmonic variety
than the modern-day flute, he says.
Conard’s group discovered fragments
More than 35,000 years ago, our ancestors of three ivory flutes in their 2008 digs. Four
living in present-day southwestern Germany other bone and ivory flutes were previously
were playing sophisticated music, according to found in the same area. Collectively, these
University of Tübingen archaeologist Nicholas are regarded as the oldest known musical
Conard. In June he announced that he and his instruments. The researchers conjecture
colleagues had unearthed an ancient bone flute that music was important in the geographic
in Hohle Fels, a cave in the Swabian mountains. expansion and cultural development of humans
The sound produced by the flute “is almost during the Upper Paleolithic era. “We can now
identical to tones of the major scale played on state that our ancestors had a developed
today’s flute,” says Nikolaj Tarasov, a recorder culture,” Tarasov says. “Not only were they
specialist at the Music University of Karlsruhe surviving, but they had time to do something
in Germany. The five-holed instrument—carved that required superior skill.” ALINE REYNOLDS

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52 Fight
Rages Over
ian cancer, but we feel sure
she had it after reviewing her
symptoms,” Ceriani says.
BRCA mutations because
Myriad controls the BRCA
genes. The U.S. Patent and
the genes related to breast
cancer and knew where the
genes were likely to be,” says
When Ceriani’s doctors Trademark Office awarded Arupa Ganguly, a geneticist at
Cancer Genes submitted her blood to Myr- the company its first patent the Hospital of the University
When Lisbeth Ceriani, a iad Genetics—the only com- in 1997; by 2000 the patent of Pennsylvania and one of
43-year-old Massachusetts pany that offers a sequencing office had awarded it eight the plaintiffs in the ACLU
woman, was diagnosed test for BRCA mutations—the more, in effect giving Myriad suit. “Essentially the work
CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: ESA/POLARIS; MATTHIAS REMPEL/UCAR/NCAR;

with breast cancer last year, company refused to process ownership of the genes. was done for Myriad already.
PHOTO RESEARCHERS; STEVE GSCHMEISSNER/PHOTO RESEARCHERS

her doctors recommended it, saying that Myriad did not Accordingly, the company is Everyone knew where the
that she undergo genetic accept Ceriani’s health insur- allowed to decide who may gene was.” Myriad has refused
testing to see if she carried ance. She could not afford study the genes and has to comment and in July filed a
mutations in the BRCA1 and to pay for the test herself written cease-and-desist let- motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
BRCA2 genes that increase (it costs nearly $4,000), so ters to university geneticists That motion was denied by a
risk of breast and ovarian she did not have it done. If working on alternative BRCA New York federal district court
cancers. She had several risk there had been a cheaper test sequencing tests. in November.
factors for inherited cancer, or a company that took her This year Myriad’s patent Robert Cook-Deegan,
including relatives who had insurance, she would have was challenged in court by director of the Institute for
died from breast and ovarian known quickly what her best the American Civil Liberties Genome Sciences and Policy
cancer. “My dad’s mother treatment options were. Union on behalf of 20 plain- at Duke University, does credit
wasn’t diagnosed with ovar- There is only one test for tiffs, including the American Myriad with discovering spe-
College of Medical cific mutation sequences and
Illustration of Genetics, the Asso- building a public database
cancer in glandular ciation for Molecular of genetic variations—both
breast tissue and Pathology, and various valuable contributions. But
lymph nodes. Inset:
individuals, including he says that many scientists
Breast cancer cells.
believe Myriad’s control has
slowed or blocked research,
and it “certainly has made
researchers more cautious in
how they report relevant find-
ings.” At the least, geneticists
in the United States do not
have the option of making
a more accurate screening
test because doing so would
infringe on Myriad’s patent.
The ACLU argues that gene
Ceriani. The lawsuit patents as a whole inhibit the
charges that the BRCA free flow of ideas and should
patents—and gene pat- not be awarded. “Gene
ents in general—violate patents defy common sense,”
established laws that says Chris Hansen, one of the
prohibit the patenting ACLU lawyers handling the
of products and laws of case. “If you’re at a cocktail
nature. According to the party and you tell people
ACLU, “Human genes, human genes are patented,
even when removed almost everyone will say that
from the body, are still can’t be right.”
products of nature.” Right or not, about 20
Critics also argue percent of all human genes
that the process of already have been included in
locating specific genes patent claims. Whether that
does not warrant the number will stand or even
awarding of patents. “A grow will depend on how
number of researchers the ACLU suit is decided.
had been looking for JANE BOSVELD

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MEDICINE || EARTH

54 Seismic
Waves Clarify How
Continents Move
Plate tectonic theory does a marvelous

53
job explaining how sections of Earth’s
crust shift about, moving continents and
reshaping oceans. Still, the underly-
ing structure that makes all this motion
possible was poorly understood until
Catherine Rychert and Peter Shearer
of the University of California at San
Lose Weight With Diego dug through 15 years’ worth of
seismic data from around the world.

Brown Fat? As seismic waves cross through differ-


ent materials, they change speed and
While millions of Americans are trying direction. By analyzing such effects,
to shed fat, in the past year three research the researchers were able to locate the
The Arabian plate (lower left) collides with
teams announced that the adult body boundary below the earth’s rigid tec- the Eurasian plate (upper right) at the Persian
contains a peculiar kind of fat that we might tonic plates where they meet the hot, Gulf, driving Iran’s Zagros Mountains upward.
prefer to hold on to. Called brown fat, it burns pliable asthenosphere beneath.
energy rather than storing it. Activating this The base of the tectonic plates might have come from seismic stations
improbable tissue might provide a new way appears to lie 44 miles beneath the near thin edges of continents; she plans
to rev up the body’s metabolism and acceler- oceanic islands, on average, and 50 to examine data from additional sta-
ate weight loss. miles below young parts of the conti- tions in those areas to confirm her find-
Packed with mitochondria (the energy- nents, the team reported in Science. ings. In the other environments, though,
generating units in cells), brown fat produces They also found a boundary 60 miles the evidence seems clear, she says: “We
heat in response to cold temperatures, con- below the oldest continental regions don’t know of any other mechanism that
suming a lot of calories in the process. Brown but are not certain that it represents the can explain the sharp, globally pervasive
fat is present in newborns, whose bodies use base of the plates. Previous evidence boundary we’ve seen.” Pinpointing the
it to keep warm because they cannot shiver, had suggested that these parts of the location of that boundary will help clarify
but it was thought to vanish by adulthood. continents were at least 120 miles thick. how continents formed and why certain
So it came as quite a shock when scientists Rychert notes that some of the data parts of those continents are particularly
at five Boston-area biomedical institutes that generated the 60-mile estimate stable today. JENNIFER BARONE
studied thousands of archived PET/CT scans
and found deposits of brown fat around the

55
neck and collarbone in about 5 percent of the
people examined. C. Ronald Kahn, the head
of obesity and hormone action research at
Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston, believes that
Virus Linked to Chronic Fatigue
brown fat is actually present in most adults Chronic fatigue syndrome, which affects 17 million people worldwide, has finally

FROM LEFT: PATRICK RYAN /GETTY IMAGES; JACQUES DESCLOITRES/MODIS/NASA; M. E. HARDUS


and that the only reason it did not show up in been linked to a specific pathogen: XMRV (xenotropic murine leukemia-related
the majority of the PET/CT scans was because virus). XMRV is one of only three known human retroviruses, infectious agents that
it had not been activated. slip into our genome and become a permanent part of our DNA. Cancer biologist
In a separate study, conducted in Finland Robert Silverman of the Cleveland Clinic isolated XMRV three years ago in men
and Sweden, adult volunteers were kept in suffering from prostate cancer. The men had an immune defect that allowed the
cold rooms or subjected to ice-water footbaths virus to proliferate, much like a defect documented in patients with chronic fatigue.
to spur any brown fat into action. Follow-up Seizing upon that clue, cell biologist Judy Mikovits of the Whittemore Peterson
PET/CT scans and biopsies then confirmed Institute in Reno, Nevada, tested 101 chronic fatigue patients. In October she
that the fat was indeed present. Meanwhile, reported that 67 percent of them had the virus, as opposed to only 3.7 percent of
researchers in the Netherlands documented healthy people. Tests on another 200 patients revealed that more than 95 percent
that lean young men have more brown fat than of people with chronic fatigue carry antibody to the virus, Mikovits says.
their overweight counterparts. For Mikovits these statistics raise new questions. Is XMRV the cause of chronic
All three reports appeared in the New fatigue, or just an opportunistic infection? More ominously, does XMRV increase
England Journal of Medicine in April. “Adults the risk of cancers, as HIV—another retrovirus—does? A blood test to detect
do have brown fat,” Kahn says. “Now the XMRV antibodies is now available through VIP Dx Labs in collaboration with
question is to find out how active it is in Whittemore Peterson. “This discovery could be a major step in the development of
controlling metabolism.” K ATHLEEN MCGOWAN vital treatment options for millions of patients,” Mikovits says. JILL NEIMARK

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57 Robots
Learn to Walk
regaining their balance after
a shove and realized that
walking is actually a type of
atory walks. This robot not
only stands like a person
but also simulates human
Last year, robots got off their controlled falling, with each gestures, body warmth,
behinds and began walking step an act of recovery. and—creepiest of all—it
upright. Inspired perhaps by That insight inspired new can sweat. Those traits
the success of drone aircraft algorithms for managing are important to the Army,
in Iraq and Afghanistan, the hips, knees, ankles, and which wants to use Petman
U.S. Department of Defense toes. Collaborating with for testing chemical-pro-
is funding projects to build the Institute for Human tection gear in battlefield
machines that walk like and Machine Cognition in conditions starting in 2011.
us—machines that could Florida, Buffinton’s team Anybots of Mountain
carry loads, perform search has built a partial bipedal View, California, is trying
and rescue, or even assist robot (torso, legs, and feet) something different with
in combat. that could soon walk over Dexter: It incorporates self-
One of the greatest simple obstacles, allegedly teaching software to help
challenges for a bipedal with better balance than a the robot learn how to walk.
robot is navigating com- person. In 2010 the group Dexter recently began its
mon obstacles like curbs will add arms and a head first tentative movements.
and stairs. Keith Buffinton, with stereoscopic vision. That’s one small step for a
a mechanical engineer at Boston Dynamics, an robot, but if this approach
Bucknell University, recently offshoot of MIT, is taking succeeds, a giant leap for

56
received a $1.2 million Navy a similar approach with robotkind. It would certainly
grant to tackle the problem. Petman, which struck out beat anything with wheels.
Earth-like He video-taped students this year on its first explor- FRED GUTERL

Storms Seen on
Saturn’s Moon

58 Orangutans Invent
With its thick atmosphere, rippling
lakes, and eroded landscapes, Sat-
urn’s giant moon Titan has a lot in
common with Earth. In August scien-
tists added another similarity shared
New Warning Calls
by these unlikely siblings: stormy Five wild orangutans in Borneo—nick-
weather. Using the NASA Infrared named Sam, Henk, Rambo, Kondor, and
Telescope Facility and Gemini North Sultan—have learned to create a new
Observatory, planetary scientist kind of distress signal, using leaves
Emily Schaller of the University of to lower the pitch of their common
Arizona identified a massive storm warning call, known as a kiss-squeak.
that appeared near Titan’s equator. The leaf-produced kiss-squeaks seem
“For so long, it was cloud-free,” says intended to make the orangutans sound
Schaller, who devoted her doctoral bigger and more threatening. “Primates
research to a largely fruitless search were assumed to have no control over
for Titanic clouds. “Then, all of a sud- their calls,” says Madeleine Hardus, a
den, they dramatically appeared.” behavioral biologist at Utrecht University
Schaller’s team could not confirm in the Netherlands, who classifies the
whether precipitation fell, but other orangutans’ ability to alter their stan-
studies have offered strong evi- dard call as “a cultural innovation.”
dence that methane clouds on Titan Hardus and her colleagues discovered
dump methane rain in a cycle much that the orangutans had developed leaf-
like the exchange of water between assisted calls to identify humans (and
the atmosphere and the surface of probably predators as well). She hypoth-
Earth. The scientists are now trying esizes that the technique is passed
to determine whether Titan’s storm down from one orangutan to the next.
resulted from atmospheric condi- Researchers have rigorously documented
tions or from surface activity, such leaf adaptation in the cluster of five but
as methane-spewing geysers or have also observed the behavior in the
volcanoes. ANDREW GRANT wider orangutan population. JANE BOSVELD

An orangutan changes its voice with a leaf.


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ASTRONOMY

FROM TOP: ESO/S. BRUNIER; NASA/CXC/UMASS/D. WANG ET AL.

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In September
the European Southern
Observatory released
one of the most
spectacular views ever
created of our home
galaxy (left). This edge-
on perspective offers a
good view of what the
Milky Way would look
like from the outside
because in a sense we
are on the outside: Our
solar system resides in
one of the peripheral
outer arms of our flat-
tened spiral galaxy.
The central bulge
is packed tight with
old red stars and an
invisible black hole
some 4 million times
as massive as the sun.
Thick clouds of gas and
dust create the spidery
dark markings. Two of
the Milky Way’s satellite
galaxies, the Large
and Small Magellanic
Clouds, appear toward
the bottom right. The
800-megapixel image
comprises nearly 1,200
photos, but no high-
powered telescopes
were involved—just
the dark, clear skies of
the Chilean desert and
Canary Islands and a
Nikon D3 digital camera.
In a separate view
zooming in on the
galactic center (bottom),
a giant black hole at the`

59
Milky Way’s core (white
area at center) gobbles
up matter and spews
X-rays. Nearby,
large stars erupt in
cataclysmic supernova
explosions, sparking
additional emissions
from gas heated to
millions of degrees. This
image, captured by the
Chandra X-ray Observa-
tory, shows X-rays
ranging from relatively
low (red) to high (blue)
energy. ANDREW GRANT

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6o Geographer MARK SERREZE says


a big Arctic melt is inevitable
and readies us for what comes next.

When Mark Serreze first traveled to the Arctic, in 1982, he was


hit with a thrilling expanse of white. “It was just the most incred-
ible, beautiful thing I had ever seen. I was hooked,” he says.
Returning many times, he got a Ph.D. in Arctic science and for 25
years has studied the region’s snow and storms. Serreze recently
you had asked me just a few
years ago, I would have said it
would disappear somewhere
around the year 2070. But we
seem to be on the fast track
Will we be able to cross the
fabled Northwest Passage?
You’re already seeing a
busier Arctic. Instead of taking
a boatload of Toyotas through
now. Climate models are tell- the Panama Canal or around
recognized that current climate trends mean that the seasonal ing us that we might lose that Cape Horn, shippers will take
Arctic ice could melt in 20 years or less. He is now trying to help summer ice by the year 2030. them right from Tokyo across
the world prepare for a very different Arctic: a place of dimin- the Arctic Ocean to Boston or
Is there any way we can even New York, at great sav-
ished species, increased vegetation, and easy travel through the
reverse the changes? ings in time and fuel.
Northwest Passage. Director of the National Snow and Ice Data We’re already committed. A
Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Serreze spoke year ago I was focusing on What will the impact be
to DISCOVER about the future of the place he loves. understanding why we’re los- beyond the Arctic?
ing the ice cover so fast. But By losing the sea ice cover
my research has shifted now we’re changing the energy
to understanding the impact. budget of the Arctic. It’s cold
How did you come to study We’re seeing areas of formerly You can think of it as throwing there because the sun’s rays
the Arctic? treeless, windswept tundra up my hands and saying, well, strike the surface at a much
I went up there with my transition into shrub vegeta- all right, we’re going to lose the shallower angle than they do
adviser to measure an ice cap tion as the climate warms and summer ice cover, so get over at the equator. Also, snow and
on northern Ellesmere Island. different things grow. it, and let’s start thinking about ice are so reflective that much
I remember flying in on an old what it really means. of the solar radiation you do
Twin Otter. There were sap- Can you determine when this get is reflected right back up
phire blue skies—it was the process began? OK—so what will be different into space. This means that
pristine beauty of the place, We’ve been able to accurately about a warmer Arctic? we set up a gradient in tem-
the whiteness of the snow measure the extent of Arctic Shifts in the sea ice are going perature in the atmosphere
and ice and the visibility of sea ice from satellites since to have cascading effects with the higher temperatures
100 miles in any direction. As I 1979. What we’ve seen is through the food chain, from in the lower latitudes and
came back again and again, I an awesome loss of ice, 40 the top predators all the way the colder temperatures in
realized that the Arctic was as percent of what we used to down to the plankton in the the Arctic. The temperature
much a feeling, a smell, as it have in the 1970s. That’s about sea. We’ll see more coastal gradient creates atmospheric
was a place. equal to the area of all of the erosion. Before, a big storm circulation, which transports
states east of the Mississippi. would come through in sum- heat from areas of equato-
What do you feel when you It’s a lot of real estate. mer but sea ice would limit the rial excess to the cold polar
visit the Arctic today? size of the waves. As we lose regions. When we lose the
Now you can see the hand Will all the Arctic sea ice the ice, the wind has what we sea ice, we start to change
of man. As we lose the ice, eventually vanish? call a big fetch over the open the nature of the temperature
the very color of the Arctic Even in a greenhouse world, water, and you get big waves. gradients, and the rest of the
is changing from pure white it’s cold in the Arctic in winter. Villages in Alaska and coastal system must respond.
toward the blue color of the We’ll have ice, but we will lose Siberia are eroding into the
ocean breaking through. the summer sea ice cover. If ocean because of this effect. What kinds of responses do
you foresee?
There are going to be shifts in
text by PAMELA WEINTRAUB photograph by BETH WALD storm tracks and the inten-

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sity of the cold air outbreaks


that you get in the winter. We
won’t have as many problems
with damaged citrus crops in
Florida. But talk to the farmer
who wants to grow winter
wheat, which requires that win-
ter precipitation. Think about
the American West, where our
whole water supply system is
strongly dependent on the win-
ter snowfall. You start to see
how these changes can have
real economic impact.

Will the shifts add to the


greenhouse effect?
The looming environmental
consequence, the one that’s
really global in scope, has to
do with the carbon cycle. The
issue here is that if we go up
to the Arctic and if we dig into
the soil, we’ll find it is peren-
nially frozen—permafrost,
with a great deal of carbon
from past plant and animal life
locked inside, roughly twice
what is in the atmosphere to
date. A big concern is that if
we start to thaw that perma-
frost, microbes living in the
soil will become active. As
they metabolize, move, and
reproduce, they’ll disturb the
soil, releasing the locked-in
carbon. Now we’ve initiated a
feedback loop. Put this stuff
in the atmosphere and you’ve
got even greater warming. The What do your studies tell you in itself isn’t always that bad. you can say good-bye to a
circulation of the atmosphere about the earth of the future? Look at the great ice ages of lot of species that we have
will spread that warmth out It’s unknown. The Arctic is the past. The key here is how today. We’re looking at a
across the land. There’s grow- a wickedly complex sys- rapidly the change will unfold. different world. That world is
ing evidence that this effect is tem, and there are all these Do I fear for the extinction of coming fast, and the Arctic
going to be quite strong. cascading effects. Change the human species? No, but is leading the way.

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MEDICINE || ASTRONOMY || EVOLUTION || SPACE

61 Abuse Asteroid Strike Predicted

62
Leaves Its Mark
on Victim’s DNA

CLOCKWISE FROM FAR LEFT: ED CUNICELLI/GLASSHOUSE IMAGES; M. SHADDAD & P. JENNISKENS; ESA/DLR/FU BERLIN; MICHAEL HAEGELE/CORBIS; JASON BOURQUE/UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
Childhood trauma may leave a last-
ing imprint not just on the psyche
but also in the DNA. This news
comes from McGill University and
the Suicide Brain Bank, a Quebec-
based organization that carried out
autopsies on suicide victims who
had been abused as kids. Across
the board, their brains showed DNA
modifications that made them par-
ticularly sensitive to stress. Although
gene variations are primarily inherit-
ed at conception, the findings show
that environmental impacts can also
The meteor’s trail over Sudan, captured by cell phone.
introduce them later on. “The idea
that abuse changes how genes
For the first time, astronomers predicted when exploded 23 miles above Sudan’s Nubian
and where an asteroid would strike Earth—and Desert, exactly as was expected.
recovered pieces of the rock to prove it. By study- The story did not end there, however.
ing the orbit of the asteroid and examining its Meteor astronomer Peter Jenniskens of the SETI
remains, researchers hope to reconstruct more Institute in California suspected that chunks of
details about conditions in the early solar system. the rock might have survived the fiery descent.
The work also serves as a dress rehearsal for He enlisted a team of local Sudanese students
efforts to discover larger, potentially deadly to comb the desert of northeastern Sudan and
incoming asteroids before they hit. managed to recover almost 300 fragments total-
function opens a new window for Astronomers with the Catalina Sky Survey ing 10 pounds. In a March paper published in
behavioral and drug therapy,” says in Arizona spotted a car-size object headed our the journal Nature, Jenniskens reported that the
study leader and neuroscientist Pat- way on October 5, 2008, when it was about as rocks were part of a porous asteroid that formed
rick McGowan. far away as the moon. After quickly deter- rapidly during Earth’s infancy, some 4.5 billion
During periods of adversity, the mining that the rock was too small to cause years ago. The fragility of the asteroid explains
brain triggers release of cortisol, a damage, scientists at the Minor Planet Center why it exploded so high up in Earth’s atmo-
hormone responsible for the fight- at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory sphere. “By looking at this trail of bread crumbs,”
or-flight response. Due to differen- calculated its trajectory. Less than a day later Jenniskens says, “we can go back in time and
tial gene expression associated with the asteroid—now classified as a meteor— see how the asteroid evolved.” ANDREW GRANT
stress, the brains of child-abuse vic-
tims had lower levels of glucocor-
ticoid receptors, McGowan found.
Cortisol normally binds to these Titanoboa as
receptors; with fewer of them pres- reconstructed by
an artist.
ent, there is more cortisol and less
resilience to feelings of stress.
In his study, McGowan reviewed
medical records and police reports
and interviewed family members to
determine whether a subject was
abused early in life. He then exam-
ined the subjects’ brain tissues
and found that among those who
had been abused, glucocorticoid-
receptor expression was reduced
by 40 percent. “If we can identify
how these changes occur, we can
identify those at high risk and ulti-
mately find ways to treat them,”
McGowan says. AMY BARTH

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64 DEET Might
Harm the Brain
DEET is great at keeping away mosquitoes—200
The steep cliffs of million people around the world rely on it—but this
the Martian polar
ice cap. common insect repellent may also interfere with the
human nervous system, a group of European sci-
entists warn. Their widely covered study, published

63
cold, about –90 degrees Fahrenheit.
in August, shows that DEET can disrupt nerve cells
In successive images, the drops seem
and enzymes in insects, mice, and people.
to flow downward and darken, as if
Did they are melting. “I think there is liquid
Vincent Corbel of the Institute of Research for

NASA’s Phoenix water on Mars right now,” Rennó says.


Development in France, who led the research,
cautions that the conditions in his experiment did
Find Liquid In a follow-up, he confirmed that under
simulated Martian atmospheric condi-
not mirror real-world use of the chemical. “We
Water on Mars? tions, sodium salts do absorb water
directly exposed specific neural cells to high
concentrations of DEET,” he says. He estimates
Self-portraits taken by a NASA probe vapor and form a liquid solution.
that the risks from applying it as recommended—
on the surface of Mars may have pro- Michael Hecht of the Jet Propulsion
sprayed onto the skin, with no more than three
vided our first glimpse of liquid water Laboratory disagrees with Rennó’s
applications per day at a concentration of no more
on another planet. The Phoenix Mars assessment, saying the blobs could
than 50 percent—are far lower than the dangers
Lander, which touched down near the merely be frost; Phoenix principal
from mosquito-borne diseases, especially in the
planet’s north pole, was designed to investigator Peter Smith of the Univer-
tropics. Nevertheless, Corbel believes that DEET
look only for ice frozen into the Martian sity of Arizona in Tucson thinks there is
deserves further investigation: “It’s funny that
soil. But University of Michigan space not yet enough evidence to evalu-
after 60 years, there are still many things we don’t
scientist Nilton Rennó says probe ate the claim. “Whether you believe
know about this compound.” CYRUS MOULTON
images show blobs of liquid water Rennó’s case or not, though, he’s
clinging to the lander’s titanium legs. created some interesting ideas that are
In an October paper in the Journal of very relevant to future Mars research,”
Geophysical Research, Rennó theorizes Smith says. One intriguing possibility:
that as Phoenix landed, its thrusters If fluid water does persist on Mars, life
displaced topsoil and splashed small that might have thrived there millions
droplets of brine onto the probe’s legs. of years ago, when the climate was
Sodium and magnesium perchlorate warmer and wetter, could be hang-
salts in the Martian soil may allow water ing on in thin layers of salty water just
to remain liquid despite the extreme beneath the surface. ANDREW GRANT

65
and boa constrictors—lead author Jason Head of the University of
Toronto at Mississauga estimates that equatorial Colombia must
Giant Snake Hints have hovered around 90 degrees Fahrenheit on average, about
10 degrees warmer than the region is today.
at Life in Hot Times The team’s findings, published in Nature, support the idea that
In February researchers announced that they had uncovered the during warming periods, temperatures rise across the globe.
60-million-year-old remains of Indiana Jones’s greatest nightmare: An opposing viewpoint holds that equatorial temperatures stay
Titanoboa, the biggest snake of all time. The bones of this 43-foot, roughly constant while excess heat accumulates in higher lati-
one-ton, crocodile-munching behemoth—found amid the remains tudes. “Most climate models favor a hot equator,” says Paul
of an ancient rain forest—are helping scientists understand what Koch, a paleontologist at the University of California at Santa
the earth was like when the climate was much warmer. Cruz, who did not participate in the research.
Snakes rely on external heat to regulate their body temperature, Neither scenario would be particularly good news in the con-
and their size depends directly on the climate where they live. So text of modern climate change. Head notes that an overheated
when a team of paleontologists unearthed several huge fossilized equator could threaten a sizable portion of the earth’s biodiver-
snake vertebrae in a Colombian coal mine, the scientists were able sity and its people. “These areas are home to much of the earth’s
to deduce not only how big the creature was but also what the population,” he says. On the other hand, Titanoboa also shows
temperatures were like in its era. Assuming the monster snake’s that rain forests can thrive at substantially higher temperatures
metabolism was similar to that of its living relatives—anacondas than they do in the modern Amazon. ANDREW GRANT

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ASTRONOMY || MIND || BIOLOGY || TECHNOLOGY

66 Girls Hit
Puberty Earlier Giant Geysers 67
Around the
World From a Tiny Moon
The average age of puberty Saturn’s moon Enceladus seemed like a boring ball of
is falling, according to a study rock and ice—“until we figured out that it was spewing out
of 20,654 healthy Chinese girls its insides,” says Hunter Waite, a space scientist at South-
aged 3 to 20. On average the west Research Institute. The first major hint came in 2005,
girls developed breast buds by when NASA’s Cassini spacecraft detected magnetic field
9 and pubic hair by 11, notably distortions along with plumes of water vapor and ice erupt-
earlier than what used to be ing from its south pole. Last summer, two papers published
the norm. A 15-year Danish in Nature bolstered the possibility that the plumes originate
study similarly concludes that from buried reservoirs of liquid water (modeled below).
girls today experience initial Waite and his colleagues reported that Cassini’s mass
breast development a year spectrometer had caught a whiff of ammonia—an anti-
earlier than they did in the early freeze that could keep water in a liquid state. Another
1990s. Both reports are in sync
with a landmark 1997 study of
17,000 girls by the American
Academy of Pediatrics, which
group, led by Frank Postberg of the University of Heidel-
berg, described finding sodium in the ice grains of Saturn’s
E ring, which is composed of material released by Enceladian
eruptions. Their discovery suggests the moon may have
68 200-Year-Old
Cipher Solved
found that Caucasian girls a liquid ocean that, like Earth’s, picked up salt from rock,
In 1801 American mathematician
were developing breasts 6 to Postberg says. A third team using Earth-based telescopes to
Robert Patterson sent a letter contain-
12 months earlier than they did look for sodium near Enceladus came up empty, however.
ing an encrypted message to Thomas
40 years ago. Some scientists believe that pools of water lurk thou-
Jefferson. The president never figured it
Better nutrition—leading to sands of feet below the frozen surface, while others think
out, but this past March, mathematician
taller, heavier girls who mature the eruptions might be released directly from ice. More
Lawren Smithline of the Center for Com-

FROM LEFT: ADAM GAULT/GETTY IMAGES; NASA/JPL/SPACE SCIENCE INSTITUTE; LIBRARY OF CONGRESS. OPPOSITE: UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN MUSEUM OF PALEONTOLOGY
younger—probably plays a answers should come soon: Cassini is scheduled to loop
munications Research in Princeton, New
role. Environmental exposure by Enceladus several more times. MEGAN TALKINGTON
Jersey, finally cracked the code.
to hormone-mimicking chemi-
Patterson and Jefferson shared an
cals may have an effect too.
interest in cryptography. In his letter,
Pediatrician Barbara Cromer of
Patterson wrote that he had devised
Case Western Reserve Univer-
the perfect cipher: simple, yet impossi-
sity notes that many pesticides
ble to break without the key. It entailed
and plastics contain synthetic
writing a message in vertical columns
estrogens, and that cattle fat-
on a grid, scrambling the grid’s horizon-
tened with estrogen have up to
tal rows, and then inserting nonsense
five times as much of it in their
letters at the start of each row. The key
tissue as do untreated cattle.
consisted of numbers listing the proper
“Early puberty could represent
order of the rows and the number of
a ‘canary in the coal mine’
nonsense letters in each. Patterson
for excessive estrogen in our
claimed that his message would stump
environment,” she says. If so,
humanity “to the end of time.”
the next generation of young
Smithline took on the challenge,
women are at greater risk of
writing a computer program to test
health problems. Elevated
different arrangements of rows and vari-
exposure to estrogen over
ous quantities of nonsense letters, and
a long period is linked with
zeroing in on options that produced the
higher breast cancer rates in
most promising two-letter pairs. Pairs
adulthood and earlier onset of
like “qu” and “nt” suggested he was on
risky sexual activity. JILL NEIMARK
the right track, while combinations that
produced impossible neighbors like “vj”
and “dx” were rejected. After a week,
he exposed the mystery message as
words that Jefferson would have easily
recognized: the Preamble to the Decla-
ration of Independence. STEPHEN ORNES

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69 Prize-Driven
Research Takes Off
Lunar Lander Challenge, awarded $1 million to Masten
Space Systems and $500,000 to Armadillo Aerospace
for their progress in building a commercial rocket capa-
ble of safe vertical takeoff and landing, as demonstrat-
71 First
Ground
ed by successful tests in the Mojave Desert.
A growing number of organizations are taking a cue Other groups were also busy in 2009. Entries poured
Animals
from reality TV, offering prize money for successful in for the £10 million ($17 million) Saltire Prize, to be Borrowed
solutions to science and technology problems.
Three major prizes are currently up for grabs from
awarded by the government of Scotland for wave or
tidal energy technology that can produce a continuous
Shells
Some of the first
the X Prize Foundation, which aims to spur innovation. output of 100 gigawatt-hours for two years. More than
animals to venture onto
The $10 million Archon X Prize will reward any group 100 teams will begin competition this month. In Septem-
land commandeered
or person who can sequence the human genome in ber, the DVD rental company Netflix paid out a $1 mil-
empty seashells for pro-
10 days or less for no more than $10,000 per genome. lion purse to a seven-member team that developed an
tection, according to an
So far, eight teams have registered. The $10 million algorithm to improve its predictions of customers’ movie
April report in Geology.
Progressive Automotive X Prize, recognizing high- preferences. Netflix plans to announce a sequel early
Amherst College geolo-
efficiency, commercially viable vehicles, completed this year. Meanwhile, a company called InnoCentive
gist Whitey Hagadorn
two rounds of judging this past year. Performance tests is hosting hundreds of open questions in science and
came to this realization
will start in the spring of 2010, with winners announced technology. Rewards range from $5,000 to $1 million.
while studying imprints
in September. And 21 teams are vying to land a pri- X Prize founder Peter Diamandis thinks prize-based
in a 500-million-year-old
vately funded rover on the moon in pursuit of the innovation is much more than a fad: “Investments where
sandstone formation in
$30 million Google Lunar X Prize. Last October a small- sponsors pay only for results are efficient, effective, low-
central Wisconsin. These
er X Prize–operated contest, the Northrop Grumman risk mechanisms to solve problems.” DARLENE CAVALIER
markings resembled oth-
er tracks thought to be

70
made by an early arthro-
pod, Protichnites, as it

Ancestral Whales May Have dragged itself across an


ancient beach. But the

Given Birth on Land


While digging for fossils in Pakistan, about 50 million years ago. The pregnant
impressions exhibited
curious diagonal notches
between the leg prints
that puzzled Hagadorn.
paleontologist Philip Gingerich of the Uni- specimen, Maiacetus inuus, was found He showed them to Yale
versity of Michigan discovered the fossil near what was once a coastline. It probably geologist Dolf Seilacher,
skeleton of a 47-million-year-old pregnant looked like a long-snouted sea lion, with who noted that the
whale with her fetus positioned for head- flipperlike limbs and a long, muscular body. pattern resembled the
first delivery—a surprise since modern- This intermediate species may have spent tracks created by mod-
day whales are born tail-first to prevent most of its time in the water, coming onto ern hermit crabs as they
drowning. The clear implication: Ancestral land to rest, mate, and give birth. A second, drag their shells.
whales may have given birth on land. even more complete Maiacetus fossil was Hermit crabs carry
“Virtually all of mammal evolution has found nearby; it appears to be a male, shells on their backs
occurred on land,” says Gingerich, who in slightly larger. for protection and to
2001 described fossil evidence that whales Gingerich and team nearly overlooked store water. Protichnites
descended from split-hoofed mammals, a the two skeletons. “There was just a trace probably used shells to
finding that compounded earlier indications of chalk dust on the ground,” he says. “I keep their abdominal
of a genetic relationship between whales and thought it was nothing at first, but when we gills moist, Hagadorn
hippos. Fossils indicate that whales started came to the mother’s skull, I knew this was speculates. That would
to make the transition from land to sea something special.” LINDSEY KONKEL have allowed the animals
to breathe and forage on
land for longer periods.
“Shells increased the
range of conditions
they could withstand,”
he says. Hagadorn is
following up on a related
development, the dis-
covery of a fossil of the
A ventral view lobsterlike creature that
of the skull may have created the
of Maiacetus tracks. JEREMY LABRECQUE
inuus.

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75
ASTRONOMY || MEDICINE || EVOLUTION || ENERGY

74
72 Tiny
Robots
swimming robot. Inserted
into a patient, such a device Hydrogen Energy
Prepare for
could transport catheters and
guide wires, carry a camera, Gets Two
Surgery
or deliver drugs to the site of
an injury. “It will increase the Big Boosts
Nobody is yet plotting to ability of the doctor to see Hydrogen fuel cells, which
shrink Raquel Welch and and control what is happen- expel only water and heat as
inject her into your veins, but ing during surgery,” Friend waste, are an appealing way to
engineers are making notable says. His group is testing the generate clean electricity, but
progress toward the Fantastic mini-motor in silicone models the present technology relies on
Voyage vision: creating of human arteries and plan- expensive platinum catalysts.
miniature probes that could ning even smaller versions. Moreover, most of the hydrogen
dart around in your blood and Meanwhile, engineers at available today is derived from
treat disease from the inside. Technion, the Israel Institute fossil fuels, so hydrogen is not
This past year, mechani- of Technology, debuted Virob, nearly as clean as it may seem.
cal engineer James Friend a buglike microbot that needs This year, researchers made
of Monash University in Aus- no internal power source. notable progress in transcend-

76
tralia crafted a robot motor Instead, a magnetic field out- ing both limitations.
just a quarter of a millimeter side the body induces vibra- Looking for an alternative
in diameter and 2 millime- tions in its legs, propelling it to platinum, Jean-Pol Dodelet
ters long, smaller than the forward. The Technion team of the National Institute of
head of a pin. It is built out of hopes to deploy Virob into Scientific Research in Quebec,
piezoelectric materials that the ears of people suffering found inspiration in the human
vibrate when exposed to an from hearing loss, stimulating body, which uses iron-based
electric field. Those vibrations nerve cells that lie beyond the molecules to extract energy
can be converted into rotary reach of cochlear implants. from food. In April his group
motion to propel a miniature BOONSRI DICKINSON described an enhanced
iron-based catalyst for fuel
cells. It works just as well as
platinum-based ones but could

73 Venus Has a Secret Past


The first detailed infrared map of Venus, unveiled by the Euro-
be considerably less costly.
Chemist Daniel Nocera at MIT
is also looking to nature, trying to
find a renewable way to generate
pean Space Agency (ESA) in July, suggests that Earth’s nearest hydrogen. He has developed
planetary neighbor may have had a watery past. In size, density, a different catalyst—one that,
and composition, Venus is the most Earth-like planet in the when coupled with a photovol-
solar system, but it is a hellish domain: Ground tempera- taic cell, splits water into hydro-
tures settle around 860 degrees Fahrenheit beneath a gen and oxygen using energy
crushingly dense atmosphere laced with from sunlight,
a sulfuric acid haze. Thick clouds pre- just as plants
vent direct observation of the surface of do during
Venus, but its heated rocks emit infra- photosynthe-
red radiation that hints at their composi- sis. Nocera
tion. Captured by ESA’s Venus Express is working
orbiter, this radiation indicates that the to scale up
highlands of the planet’s southern hemi- the system in
sphere resemble granite, the same mate- hopes that it
rial that makes up terrestrial continents. To will bring clean,
form, granite requires water, which does not abundant energy
currently exist on Venus. It also requires plate tec- to poor people living off
tonics and volcanism—neither of which seems to be active at the grid. “With this,” he
this time either. The finding suggests that the young Venus might says, “the only thing
have been much like Earth, with oceans surrounding its extensive you’re tied to is the
Illustration of how a pterosaur
landmasses, before a runaway greenhouse effect condemned it sun.” JOCELYN RICE might have launched using
to its bleak fate. ADAM HADHAZY all four limbs.

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Yes, You Really Can 77 Did an Early


Smell Fear
“The smell of fear” turns out to have a foundation in science. All sweat
Pummeling of Asteroids
Pave the Way for Life
smells—and some sweat screams anxiety to the world, according to a study on Earth?
published in June in PLoS One. “The chemical transfer of anxiety may cause a The “late heavy bombardment” of asteroids that
feeling of discomfort in the perceiver. It’s like a sixth sense,” says psychologist clobbered Earth and the rest of the inner solar
Bettina Pause of the University of Düsseldorf in Germany, one of the authors of system for 20 million to 100 million years, ending
the paper. Pause and her colleagues collected sweat from 49 students at two 3.85 billion years ago, is generally regarded as
times—right before a university exam and during exercise. The researchers one of the most hostile eras in our planet’s his-
then had other students sniff the samples and scanned their brains with fMRI, tory. Collision after collision would have blasted
which registers activity. Sniffers’ brains responded to sweat made during an and heated the surface, wiping out any primordial
anxious period differently from sweat produced through physical exertion. In organisms trying to eke out an existence. New
humans, anxious sweat activates a cluster of brain areas known to be involved studies are turning this view on its head, however,
in empathy. “That suggests,” Pause says, “that anxiety—and maybe also other hinting that the ancient rain of asteroids may actu-
emotions—can be chemically transferred between people.” JANE BOSVELD ally have established a more congenial environ-
ment for biology to take hold.
There already were clues that the late heavy
bombardment was not the full-on killer it was
Giant pterosaurs were masters of the says. “Together the wings could withstand once thought to be, says planetary scientist Oleg
air from 108 million to 70 million years more than 2,000 pounds of force in launch Abramov of the University of Colorado. The ear-
ago. The biggest ones weighed 500 position. They would crouch down on all liest evidence for living organisms dates back
pounds, had a wingspan of 34 feet, flew fours, vault, and push off.” Once airborne, almost exactly to the time when the rain of aster-
40 miles an hour, and covered hundreds of the giant creatures would snap their wings oids ended. Unless life appeared nearly instantly,
miles a day. They were unable to launch into flying position and eventually soar. it must have survived the onslaught. Abramov’s
themselves like modern birds, though, so Habib used CAT scans to analyze study, published in the May 21 issue of Nature,
how did these prehistoric giants get off bone strength in a number of species shows how that could have happened. Certain
the ground? Common sense suggests they of living birds and compared them to modern bacteria thrive deep underground; their
must have run a long distance, built up measurements taken from 12 species of ancestors may have done the same, he argues.
speed, and then leaped into the air. pterosaurs. He could find no evidence to In fact, some scientists think life might have
Wrong, says Michael Habib, a paleontolo- support the idea that large pterosaurs got originated in subsurface hydrothermal sys-
gist at Chatham University in Pittsburgh. off the ground using only their hind legs tems. “Nobody had calculated how far steriliza-
“My findings suggest there was no running to launch. In this regard they resembled tion would have extended below the surface,”
involved.” According to his analysis, vampire bats, which use a “quadrupedal Abramov says. He and his coauthor, geochemist
published in the European journal Zitteliana, launch” to accelerate quickly, Habib says. Stephen Mojzsis, also of the University of Colo-
pterosaurs folded their wings so they could This kind of launch allows the bat to rado, found that if early bacteria were living more
act as arms and then used all four limbs to employ its strongest muscles (in forelimbs than 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) down, the impacts
shove themselves aloft. “Pterosaur arms and chest) for takeoff. JANE BOSVELD could have helped life by creating more hot-water-
were much stronger than their legs,” he filled cracks for microbes to inhabit.
Soon after, the late heavy bombardment might

FROM FAR LEFT: ERIK EDQVIST; JOSE ISELIN/VISUALS UNLIMITED; DORON GILD; (C) JULIA MOLNAR
have aided life on the surface, too. Back then the
sun was so dim that Earth should have frozen solid,
and yet geochemical evidence indicates the pres-
ence of oceans 4 billion years ago. One proposed
explanation is that heat-trapping greenhouse
gases kept things balmy, but it was not clear
where those gases could have come from.
In August, geochemist Richard Court of
Imperial College London published
a report showing that impacting
rocks would have shed tremendous
quantities of carbon dioxide and
water vapor, both of which effectively
trap heat. “People had always known that the bom-
bardment would have changed the atmosphere’s
chemistry,” he says, “but nobody had really done
the experimental work.” MICHAEL D . LEMONICK

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ENERGY

In the heart
of the National
Ignition Facility
78 Star Power Comes to California
(NIF), a techni-
cian inspects the
optics assem-
bly where 192
powerful laser
beams will zap a
pellet filled with
deuterium and
tritium, two
heavy forms
of hydrogen.
The pellet will
immediately
implode, reaching
a temperature of
more than 100
million degrees at
a pressure
100 billion times
that of Earth’s
atmosphere.
Under those
conditions the
hydrogen will
fuse into helium,
releasing a vast
amount of
energy and creat-
ing the kinds of
nuclear processes
that occur deep
inside the
sun. The NIF,
dedicated in May
in Livermore,
California, will
also mimic the
detonation of
nuclear weapons
and will perform
astrophysics
experiments.
Research at
the facility
could speed the
development of
abundant, clean
JACQUELINE MCBRIDE/LLNL

fusion power
—literally the
stars brought
down to Earth.
AMY BARTH

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PHYSICS || MEDICINE || BIOLOGY || ANTHROPOLOGY

79
Black Hole
80 Chimps
Plan Ahead
As a group, humans know
how to think about the future.
We are the species of agendas,
versity in Sweden, posits that
Santino may be showing off his
strength to human visitors and
other chimps. “He has a great
time scaring visitors,” Osvath
says, “and as the group’s
Côte d’Ivoire. Boesch and his
fellow researchers found that
male chimps frequently had
sex with the females they had
previously shared meat with,
thus increasing their mating

Created in Lab delayed gratification, and five-


year plans. But this year two
dominant male, he is showing
the other chimps that he can
success. The female chimps,
for their part, thrived because
In June researchers at Technion, studies found that chimpan- protect them.” of their increased caloric intake.
the Israel Institute of Technology, zees premeditate too. A kind of Darwinian quest The way the chimps hoard food
announced they had made an earth- In one study, a chimp named for survival underlies the makes Boesch suspect that
bound analogue of a black hole. Not to Santino—the dominant male at second thread of evidence as the animals plot such trades
worry: Instead of a superdense object Furuvik Zoo in Gävle, Sweden well. That study comes from ahead of time. “But we want to
from which no light can escape, their —was observed collecting and behavioral ecologist Chris- know more about their planning
more docile version merely prevents piling caches of stones, then tophe Boesch of the Max abilities,” he says. “How long
sound waves from getting out. returning later to hurl them Planck Institute for Evolution- ahead and how detailed is this
Constructing a sonic black hole at people who had come to ary Anthropology, who spent planning, and is there some
was first proposed by Canadian look at him. Mathias Osvath, a years observing wild chimpan- kind of hierarchical way that
physicist William Unruh nearly 30 cognitive scientist at Lund Uni- zees in the Taï National Park in they plan?” JANE BOSVELD
years ago, but the Israeli team was
the first to successfully create one.
They cooled 100,000 rubidium atoms
to a few billionths of a degree above
absolute zero and used a laser to cre-
ate a void in this tiny cloud. As the
atoms, attracted to the breach, zipped
across it at more than four times the
speed of sound, they gave rise to a
black hole effect. Under such con-
ditions, no sound wave could travel
against the flow of the racing fluid.
“It’s like trying to swim upstream
in a river whose current is faster

FROM LEFT: ISTOCKPHOTO; CRISTINA M. GOMES. OPPOSITE: CENTRO UCM-ISCIII DE EVOLUCIÓN HUMANA; MO LI, WOLFRAM PERNICE, HONG TANG
than you,” says team member Jeff An adult male
chimp (right)
Steinhauer. The boundary between
offers meat
the subsonic and supersonic flows to a female
mimics a black hole’s event horizon, carrying her
the point of no return. infant.
The discovery could potentially
provide a way to test Stephen Hawk-
ing’s prediction that a real black hole
should slowly evaporate as it emits
radiation generated in the quantum
turmoil at its event horizon. A sonic
black hole ought to act in the same
way by releasing phonons, or packets
81 Human Gene
Changes Mouse Talk
experiment: He inserted the human version of
FOXP2 into mice and studied the effects on the
creatures’ brains and vocalizations.
How important was a single gene in the evolu- Enard and his collaborators found that neu-
of sound energy. Finding phonons
tion of human language? Scientists have been rons in the brains of mice with human FOXP2
would provide strong evidence that
asking that question since linking a mutation showed greater plasticity, the ability to change
black holes “ain’t so black,” as Hawk-
in a gene called FOXP2 with a rare hereditary the strength of their connections with one
ing likes to put it. MARCIA BARTUSIAK
speech disorder seen in a British family. Other another. Such plasticity might be involved in
animals possess their own versions of FOXP2, vocal learning, he suspects. Mice endowed with
suggesting that it might be possible to deter- the human gene also expressed themselves with
mine which evolutionary changes to the gene’s lower-pitched sounds. Those deeper squeaks
DNA sequence are most closely related to our provide additional evidence of FOXP2’s central
ability to talk. This year molecular biologist role in spoken language. “We have no clue which
Wolfgang Enard of the Max Planck Institute for mechanisms could cause such a change,” Enard
Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, says, “but we don’t know of any other gene so
explored that possibility with an extraordinary directly linked to speech.” ALLISON BOND

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83
Light Can 2005. The force acts along an
Bend Itself axis perpendicular to the direc-
In July engineers demonstrat- tion in which light is traveling.
ed that beams of light can be Parallel beams can therefore
made to repel each other, much be induced to converge or
like repulsive electric charges. diverge.
The discovery could help Tang proposes that the opti-
control data transfer through cal force could be exploited
the Internet and enable cell in telecommunications. For
phones to work more quickly example, switches based on
while drawing less power. the optical force could be
The findings from Yale Uni- used to speed up the routing
versity electrical engineer Hong of light signals in fiber-optic
Tang and his team build on cables, and optical oscillators
discoveries they announced in could improve cell phone sig-
late 2008, in which they dem- nal processing. Unfortunately
onstrated the opposite effect: for amateur physicists, the
attraction between light beams optical force effect becomes
confined within a silicon chip. imperceptible for larger light
Together, the attraction and sources, so flashlight beams
repulsion effects make up cannot tug on one another.
Computer reconstruction of an ancient deformed skull shows that the what is known as the “opti- “You need a transistor-size
child to whom it belonged must have been nurtured. Such a brain cal force,” a phenomenon object to see it,” Tang says.
deformity would have made the child unable to surive without assistance.
that theorists first predicted in STEPHEN ORNES

82
Early Humans in March in Proceedings of the
Light-wave
circuit
enables
engineers
to study
the newly
Tended the National Academy of Sciences. discovered
Many mammals kill burden- optical force.
Disabled some offspring, she points out.
The 530,000-year-old de - The child, unearthed in the
formed skull of a child found Atapuerca Mountains of Spain,
in Spain indicates that some belonged to the species Homo
early humans must have nur- heidelbergensis and was prob-
tured and cared for disabled ably part of a small tribe of
members of their tribe. hunter-gatherers who migrat-
This child, estimated to be ed in response to food and
10 years old at the time of weather. “Survival would have
death, had a debilitating birth been difficult even for healthy
defect called craniosynosto- individuals,” Gracia says. “The
sis, in which joints in the skull incredible part of this story is
fuse before the brain has fin- that the parents must have
ished growing. The disorder looked after this child.”
increases pressure in the skull, The discovery was made in
impairing brain development. Sima de Los Huesos—“the Pit
“It is amazing that this child of Bones.” Located at the bot-
was able to survive until 10 tom of a 137-foot-deep chim-
years old. This is the most ney inside a cave, the pit is
ancient proof of social care of littered with remains of ancient
the handicapped,” says Ana animals and also includes
Gracia, a paleoanthropologist about 28 hominid skeletons
based in Madrid, who pub- dating back to the Middle
lished an analysis of the skull Pleistocene. AMY BARTH

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85
ASTRONOMY || ENVIRONMENT

Plankton
Record
Earth’s CO2
History
Trace elements trapped in ancient plankton reveal that
atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have been largely stable
over the last 2.1 million years. In a study published in
Science in June, paleoceanographer Bärbel Hönisch and
colleagues at Columbia University examined the remnants
of planktonic foraminifera—single-celled creatures with
elaborate shells—buried beneath the seafloor off the coast
of Africa. The plankton incorporate different forms of boron
into their shells, depending on the seawater’s acidity, so
each shell serves as a chemical record of the ocean’s pH
during its occupant’s brief life. The sea’s acidity, in turn,
reflects how much carbon dioxide was present in the
atmosphere at the time. By analyzing boron in shells accu-
mulated over more than 2 million years, Hönisch was able
to reconstruct in unprecedented detail how atmospheric
carbon dioxide levels have changed over time.
As expected, carbon dioxide fluctuated with variations
in local temperature, with higher levels corresponding to
warmer epochs. But despite major shifts in the climate
over the period she studied, Hönisch found that overall con-
centrations of the gas remained remarkably constant. That
makes today’s sky-high readings look even more anoma-
lous. “It really shows how much we have interfered with

NASA, ESA, AND H. HAMMEL (SPACE SCIENCE INSTITUTE, BOULDER, COLO.), AND THE JUPITER IMPACT TEAM; (C) MANFRED KAGE/PETER ARNOLD, INC.
the environment,” Hönisch says. “This goes way beyond
anything that earth has seen in a really long time.” The
researchers now want to dig deeper below the seafloor,
where plankton have been piling up for some 100 million
years, to study times when carbon dioxide levels were as
high as they are today. JOCELYN RICE

Plankton
On July 19, 15 years after the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet slammed shells show
into Jupiter, Australian amateur astronomer Anthony Wesley noticed that CO2
a dark spot near the planet’s south pole that resembled marks he levels have
never been
had seen after the 1994 crash. NASA scientists took a closer look so high in
and concluded that another comet or asteroid had slammed into 2 million
Jupiter with the force of 2 billion tons of TNT. The Hubble Space years.
Telescope snapped this photo four days later, showing an enigmatic
cloud spread out by Jupiter’s turbulent atmosphere. ANDREW GRANT

84
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Jupiter Gets
Comet-Whacked
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ADVERTISEMENT

Scientists have made significant contributions to


the safety and well-being of the human race. They
have identified laws of nature that explain the
functioning of the universe, Earth’s flora and fauna,
and especially of the physical activities of Homo
sapiens. But “why” planet Earth and its occupants
exist is still an admitted mystery to them. What
Richard W. Wetherill
follows explains an important part of that mystery. 1906-1989

For millennia great developmental progress has are just symbols. The law is the final arbiter: Right
taken mankind from a simple desire to survive to our begets right results; wrong begets wrong results.
present complex systems of social laws and inherited What are society’s results? Are people rational and
customs. Most readers would agree that despite those honest? Or do they act on their own motives to do, be,
man-made systems, human affairs are still in a state of have, get, and become whatever they desire?
confusion with problems and trouble growing daily. People know they must obey nature’s laws of grav-
We have races pitted against one another, political ity, friction, and all the other laws of physics, but for
groups pitted against one another, as well as individuals nearly a century scientists, religionists, educators, and
who pit themselves against one another in their careers, the public have resisted acknowledging creation’s law
marriages, and sports to name a few obvious areas. of rightness. Is that sane?
An appropriate question is, Why? Our answer fol- Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same
lows: From the beginning people have been living thing over and over again and expecting a different
by their own laws of behavior and inherited customs, result. For millennia people have reasoned from man-
but those man-made systems contradict a natural law, made laws and inherited customs over and over again,
causing people to get wrong, troublesome results. expecting a different result. Instead, over and over
That natural law was identified by Richard W. again, humanity has been getting incalculable wrong
Wetherill almost a century ago and was presented in results. Is that sane?
his book, Tower of Babel, published January 2, 1952. This essay/ad provides a brief description of the
It is a law of behavior that Wetherill called the law of behavior that natural law requires of us. Are we going
absolute right, indicating that rightness in all human to comply and get out of the muddled mess of human
activities is required for successful outcomes. affairs being caused by acting on man-made laws?
As a result of Wetherill’s identification of the law, Visit our colorful Website www.alphapub.com
he developed a program called humanetics to ex- where essays and books describe the changes called
plain the wrongness of people’s attitudes and behav- for by whoever or whatever created nature’s law of
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been destroying people’s lives but also increasingly loaded free. As people worldwide visit our Website,
is damaging the environment that supports the life they can join those who are already benefiting from
of the planet. adhering to the behavioral law with rational and
When scientists identify natural laws, they apply honest thoughts, words, and action.
their principles to better human existence and well- That is creation’s way to change what is wrong
being—that is, usually, until the nuclear age developed. until everything is made right: perfectly behaving
Scientists could now investigate nature’s behavioral law people on the one planet in this universe that sup-
and help to inform people of its principles. Wetherill ports life as we know it!
used words to describe right behavior such as rational, This public-service message is from a self-financed, nonprofit
honest, logical, and moral but cautioned that words group of former students of the late Richard W. Wetherill.

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86 The world’s greatest particle-smasher


gears up for a second try. Physicist
JOHN ELLIS previews what will happen
when the fireworks resume.

The biggest particle accelerator ever made—the Large Hadron


Collider in Geneva—spectacularly fizzled shortly after scientists
turned it on in September 2008. What felled the gargantuan
machine was a single badly soldered connection. When the
powerful electrical currents running through the LHC came to
collisions before the end of
2009. That would require
quite a lot of luck. It’s like
NASA’s launching a space
probe. If you discover a faulty
valve reading somewhere or
consists of something you
can’t see. So the way you
would detect it is by observing
events in which some particle
carries away energy invisibly.
You observe something by its
bear on that tiny piece of solder, the resulting heat set off a other, you have to go back and absence, so to speak. That
cascade of events, ending in a sudden release of helium that check it. It’s one thing to make is pretty delicate because
blew aside several of the collider’s massive superconducting collisions; it’s another to under- you have to make sure you
stand what’s going on and find couldn’t possibly have missed
magnets. The staff at the European Organization for Nuclear
new physics. anything more conventional.
Research, or CERN, spent the past year repairing the damage,
You have to demonstrate
inspecting tens of thousands of connections, and bolting down Will you be able to do nota- that you can see and mea-
the magnets in case of another accident. By the end of 2009, ble science at half power? sure accurately all the known
CERN scientists were ready to start again, using the LHC to Already at half power, particles particles—muons, quarks, and
investigate the deepest mysteries in physics—including why will be colliding at energies so on. When the experiment-
beyond what has been ers have demonstrated that
matter has mass. John Ellis, a theoretical physicist at CERN
achieved with any previous they can measure all those
who has been involved in the project for 25 years, talked with accelerator. Just to put this things accurately, then they will
DISCOVER about the repairs and the prospects for the LHC. into perspective, the energy be able to start convincing us
distance between half power that they can really measure
and the Tevatron accelerator whether there’s any miss-
There’s been a lot of We’ve been analyzing other [at Fermilab in Illinois] is greater ing energy. There have been
downtime at CERN. What possible failure modes and than the difference between false alarms in the past, when
have you been doing—long making sure none of them the Tevatron and the previous people have thought they were
lunches in the cafeteria? would have unfortunate con- collider. As soon as we make seeing missing energy. So you
People are working their butts sequences. Most of that work half-power collisions, we’ll have to be very, very careful.
off, bashing away on their is done, but there are still some be seeing beyond what the
computers. Experimentalists other precautions people Tevatron can see. That should What about supersymmetric
are using this time to work on want to take. Those would be be enough to start looking for particles—hypothetical parti-
the alignments of their detec- necessary before we go to high-profile items on the shop- cles that are like weird twins
tors, the data acquisition sys- maximum energy. For 2010 ping list, like dark matter. The of the known ones? Will the
tem, and all that. There haven’t the plan is to start up at half Higgs boson [the hypothetical LHC look for those, too?
been any idle moments. One energy, then in a few weeks or particle that endows other Supersymmetry is one
upside of the delay is that the months go to about three- particles with mass] would not example of something that
experiments are really ready to quarters energy. Full energy be seen immediately. That’s a could explain dark matter. But
take collision data. won’t be possible until 2011. real tough cookie. the two are not equivalent.
You could imagine a scenario
What happens next? When will you start making How will the LHC aid the in which supersymmetric par-
The damage that occurred in particles collide again? search for dark matter? ticles do not produce missing
2008 has been fully repaired. We might see some half-power Dark matter by definition energy and do not make dark
matter. So if you do see miss-
ing energy, you have to ask if
text by FRED GUTERL photography by ROBERT HUBER it’s a result of supersymmetry;

74 | DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM
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the energy might also be going


into extra dimensions, or there
might be some other explana-
tion. There would be a long
period in which you would try
to figure it out. You can also
imagine supersymmetry sce-
narios that don’t involve miss-
ing energy at all. Those would
be quite tricky to look for.

Could you find some sign of


the Higgs boson early on,
while operating at half or
three-quarters energy?
Finding the Higgs boson is
a question of seeing a signal
against a background. It’s
not as if you would produce
an event so distinctive that it
couldn’t possibly be anything
other than the Higgs. So
you would have to build up
statistics to convince people
that the signal you’re seeing
is the real deal. At half or
three-quarters power, we will
be able to start looking for the
characteristics of the Higgs
boson, but it will take quite a
bit of time to find.

If there were another big fail-


ure of the LHC, would that be
the end of particle physics?
If we never got the thing run- and get a punch in a tire, but The lengthy repairs must be soon. It has also been frustrat-
ning reliably, that would be the that doesn’t mean you’ll get a agonizing to people like you, ing for many of the experimen-
end, because nobody would punch every five miles. You put who have waited so long for talists, who thought they were
trust us to build anything else. on a new set of tires, and after results from the LHC. going to be able to start doing
I don’t see that happening. that the car normally works. It’s You bet. It has been even more physics, many of them having
What happened on the day of worth remembering that the frustrating for the accelerator spent 10 years in preparation.
the first start-up was not typi- problem didn’t arise in some guys, who, when they started The atmosphere has been very
cal—it was just one of those high-tech component. It was a up, thought they would be subdued. Now I can feel the
things. You drive a new car simple soldering problem. able to produce collisions very fever mounting a little bit.

JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2010 | 75
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MEDICINE || EARTH

87
Mockingbirds
Know Who
You Are
Don’t mock the mockingbirds,
because they can recognize you...
and they hold a grudge. Doug
Alzheimer’s Genes Located
This past September, a pair of research together and form destructive plaques.
Levey, a biologist at the University teams announced that they had identified The other team, led by medical psychol-
of Florida, found that the birds three new genes associated with Alzheimer’s ogist Julie Williams of Cardiff University
could easily pick out a threatening disease. The scientists also tagged another in Wales, noted the same CLU gene and
person from a crowd. 12 gene variants as promising candidates for identified another Alzheimer’s-related gene,
Levey sent students, called further study. Previously, only four genes were PICALM. This gene is thought to help main-
“intruders” in the paper he known to be linked to Alzheimer’s, which tain the health of synapses, the connection
published last May in the journal affects an estimated 5 million Americans. points between neurons, and it, too, may
PNAS, to perturb nests of mock- Both reports appeared in Nature Genetics. regulate beta-amyloid levels in the brain.
ingbirds. The intrusion constituted To pinpoint the new genes, the two groups These findings mark “the first time any
standing by an egg-filled nest for conducted studies looking for differences novel Alzheimer’s gene has been identified
15 seconds, then touching it for between the DNA of people who have Alz- in genomewide studies,” says Washing-
an additional 15 seconds. This heimer’s disease and those who do not. Epi- ton University geneticist Alison Goate, one
aggressive loitering, which was demiologist Philippe Amouyel of the Pasteur of Williams’s coauthors. Previous studies
repeated over four days, elicited Institute of Lille in France and his colleagues had examined small numbers of people to
an increasingly intense response. closed in on genes called CR1 and CLU. The confirm already-known genetic risk factors.
The mockingbirds ignored the precise function of these genes is unknown, Locating new Alzheimer’s genes will aid
approach of other, nonthreaten- but previous research suggests they may be efforts to understand the chemical pathways
ing students, but every time the involved in removing a protein fragment called that drive the disease, Amouyel says, and
intruder student swung by, the beta-amyloid from the brain. In people with might eventually point the way to effective
birds quickly and sneakily left Alzheimer’s, beta-amyloid molecules clump drugs to keep it at bay. BOONSRI DICKINSON
the nest and eventually dive-
bombed the malefactor. “The
first time a male mockingbird

89
drew blood on the back of my
neck, I was shocked,” says
intruder Monique Hiersoux. Radiation Is What
Mockingbirds’ strong aware-
ness of their surroundings makes Turns Your Hair Gray
them well suited for living so Sooner or later almost everyone’s hair goes gray, but the
close to humans, Levey con- cause has never been clear. Last spring a team of Japa-
cludes. “We might be walk- nese researchers said they think they have found the trigger:
ing along on campus and see radiation-induced stress.
a mockingbird perched on a Within every hair follicle is a population of melanocyte stem
branch and think, ‘Oh, that bird cells. Over time these cells split into two populations. One pro-
is minding its own business,’ ” he duces pigment for the hair before dying off, while the other
says. “But what we don’t realize becomes a new melanocyte stem cell. In a stress-free world,
is that we are its business.” these cells would replenish themselves indefinitely and we
MICHAEL ABRAMS would keep our youthful hair color until our dying day (baldness
notwithstanding). But stress free this world is not—nor is the lab
of dermatologist Emi Nishimura at Kanazawa University. There,
she and her colleagues bombarded brown- and black-haired
mice with DNA-damaging radiation. The consequences, as
described in a paper published in Cell this June: The melano-
cytes that originally went on to rejuvenate instead only matured
and died. The brown- and black-haired mice soon went gray.
Researchers posit that the melanocyte die-off may be a
way for the body to shed potentially cancerous, radiation-
stressed cells. It is too early to blame your spouse for your
silver strands, though—emotional stress has not yet been
shown to harm stem cells. MICHAEL ABRAMS

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90 Oldest
Octopus Unveiled
Ninety-five million years ago, five octo-
puses met their end in the waters covering
what is now Lebanon. The lack of oxygen
on the local seafloor kept the area free of
bottom-dwelling scavengers, and sediment
quickly covered the animals’ corpses, pre-
serving them in unprecedented detail. Last
January paleobiologist Dirk Fuchs of the
Free University of Berlin and his colleagues
released their analysis of these fossils—the
most ancient octopods known.
Due to their delicate construction, octo-
puses have left almost no evolutionary trail
to follow. “The preservation of these soft-
bodied creatures is the result of a chain of
lucky chances,” Fuchs says. Previously
only a single species of prehistoric octopus
had turned up in the fossil record, so the
new finds represent an explosion of informa-
tion about the animals’ history.
The five individuals include three previ-
ously unrecorded octopus species: Keuppia
hyperbolaris, Keuppia levante, and Sty-
letoctopus annae. Each specimen shows
the animal’s head, eight arms, ink sacs, and
suckers. The two Keuppia species appear
primitive, but Fuchs was surprised to find
that Styletoctopus’s anatomy places it in the
same family as Octopus vulgaris, the living
common octopus. “Its appearance indicates
that modern octopods developed much
earlier than previously thought,” he says. A rare octopus fossil from
the time of the dinosaurs,
SAM KISSINGER
seen here in ultraviolet light.
FROM FAR LEFT: ISTOCK; VERA ANDERSON/WIREIMAGE; DR. DIRK FUCHS; MARK BARLEY/UNIVERSITY OF WESTERN AUSTRALIA

91 Oxygen’s
Odd Origin
oceans. In a study published in
Nature, a team led by geomicro-
biologist Kurt Konhauser of the
University of Alberta in Canada
Deprived of this source of nick-
el, marine methane-producing
bacteria known as methano-
gens—which require nickel to
Roughly 2.4 billion years ago, examined rocks from around the function—would have been
a rapid buildup of oxygen in the world known as banded iron for- sidelined, paving the way for
atmosphere set in motion big mations (right), which contain a the rise of photosynthetic, oxy-
changes that allowed multicellu- sequentially layered record of gen-producing cyanobacteria.
lar life to emerge. Most scientists the concentrations of various Konhauser marvels at the
believe photosynthetic bacteria elements in the ancient oceans. interdependence of geology,
produced the oxygen. The driv- Their analysis showed a drop chemistry, and biology that the
ing force behind the transition of almost 50 percent in oceanic research reveals. “It links vol-
has been unclear, though. nickel levels between 2.7 and canism and trace elements in
In April, new research showed 2.5 billion years ago. seawater to changing popula-
that our planet itself might have According to Konhauser, tions in the biosphere,” he says,
been the primary cause: Today’s this “nickel famine” coincided “which in turn led to changes
oxygen-filled atmosphere may with the cooling of the earth’s in the earth’s atmosphere that
owe its existence to a dramatic mantle, which curtailed volcanic made the rise of complex life-
decline in nickel in the world’s eruptions of nickel-rich lava. forms possible.” JEREMY JACQUOT

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ENVIRONMENT

Nowhere Getting away from it all is harder than ever, according to a new map
EUROPEAN COMMUNITIES, 2009 -
JOINT RESEARCH CENTRE (JRC)

developed by Andy Nelson for the European Commission’s Joint Research

to Hide
Centre and the World Bank. An ever-expanding network of roads, railways,
rivers and shipping lanes means that only 10 percent of the earth’s surface is
now remote, defined as being at least 48 hours away from a major city. More
than half of the world‘s population lives within an hour of a major city, largely
because “accessibility is a precondition for the satisfaction of almost any

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92

economic or social need,” Nelson says. “The main story of the map is connec-
tivity. It brings home how important it is to manage our resources, lifestyles,
and economies in a sustainable manner, since we are all interdependent, and
shows the remote places left behind. It also reminds us that the price of connec-
tivity is that there is little wilderness left.” The brightest areas of the map represent
the most densely populated and accessible regions; the darkest areas are the
sparsest and most remote. Spanning lines show shipping lanes. HEATHER MAYER

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ENVIRONMENT || MIND

93
Einstein’s Brain Re-Analyzed
There has been yet another attempt to identify the unique traits
of Einstein’s brain, this one by anthropologist Dean Falk of Florida
State University in Tallahassee. Falk did not have access to the
actual brain, so she used techniques developed for the examina-
tion of fossils and applied them to photographs of Einstein’s brain
taken after his death. In a study published in Frontiers in
Evolutionary Neuroscience last May, Falk reports that
the brain exhibited “an unusual mixture of sym-
metrical and asymmetrical features” that may
have contributed to Einstein’s genius.
For one thing, the parietal lobes of the great scien-
tist’s brain were wider than normal (something that other research-
ers have noted in the past), and its grooves and ridges were oddly
patterned. These details are important, Falk says, because the
brain’s parietal lobes process numbers; they also integrate sensory
information from different parts of the body. She believes that the
novelties in Einstein’s lobes may have contributed to his “prefer-
ence for thinking in sensory impressions, including visual images
rather than words.”
Falk also observed a small, knoblike structure coming off the
right motor cortex, an area of the brain that controls the fingers of
the left hand. This knob is sometimes seen in the brains of right-
handed string players who train from a young age. Einstein was
an avid violinist from childhood on. “It tickled me,” Falk says, “that
the knob may well have been tied to Einstein’s musical ability.”
The cognitive connection between music and mathematics has, of
course, been noted for many years. JANE BOSVELD

Species Transplant Two colonies of butterflies


flapped their wings in north-
ern England and the resulting
debate was felt around the
because temperature increas-
es are outpacing the butter-
flies’ ability to compensate by
spreading northward.

Succeeds world. In February a group led


by biologist Stephen G. Wil-
lis of Durham University in the
U.K. reported that they had
Months earlier, marine biolo-
gist Ove Hoegh-Guldberg and
colleagues, writing in the journal
Science, proposed a broader
introduced two butterfly spe- program of relocating organ-
cies—known as the mar- isms that are facing extinction
bled white (left) and the due to climate change. Dis-
small skipper—into mayed scientists raised the
new habitats about alarm, pointing to the devas-
40 miles and 22 miles, tating effects of species intro-
respectively, from their ductions such as the invasive
homes. The move was a kudzu vine. But Willis notes that
success, Willis’s six-year he chose two thoroughly stud-
study showed. The trans- ied species that were unlikely to
FROM TOP: KEYSTONE/GETTY IMAGES; STEPHEN WILLIS

planted species increased become invasive. “It would not


their populations at the same have been good for our careers
rate as they would have in their if we introduced the next cane
current territory, proving that toad,” he says. That unpopular
the team’s models accurately creature was brought to Austra-
predicted habitats suitable for lia to control agricultural pests
the insects. Willis says that and quickly became a pest
he undertook the experiment itself. CYRUS MOULTON

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ANTHROPOLOGY || ENERGY || EVOLUTION || BIOLOGY || MIND

95 Hidden 96 Microbes
Build Better
97 Tropical Heat
Speeds Up Evolution
Civilization Batteries
Found Under In the never-ending search
If alien biologists were on an expedition to Earth, it would
not take long for them to realize that there are a lot more
Lake Huron for improved ways to store
energy, two groups are
species in the tropics than there are in temperate regions.
“It’s the biggest, most obvious pattern in nature,” says Len
Traces of an ancient caribou looking to biology, enlisting
Gillman, an evolutionary ecologist at Auckland University
hunting ground lie buried beneath microbes to produce methane
of Technology in New Zealand. Why that pattern exists has
Lake Huron, according to archae- and viruses to build batteries.
been a long-standing puzzle. This year, however, Gillman
ologist John O’Shea at the Univer- Penn State environmen-
found a possible answer: A warm climate makes life evolve
sity of Michigan. Modern Siberian tal engineer Bruce Logan
more quickly.
herders manage reindeer migra- and his colleagues identi-
Gillman and his colleagues compared 130 closely related
tion by chopping down trees and fied microorganisms called
pairs of mammal species. In each case, one species
laying them on the ground, he methanogens that efficiently
lived at a higher latitude or elevation than the other. The
noted; the animals instinctively reduce carbon dioxide to
researchers tallied the number of mutations each species
follow these “drive lanes.” O’Shea methane. When the microbes
had accumulated in the same stretch of DNA since it split
has found evidence that Paleo- receive an electric jolt, Logan
from a common ancestor. On average, mammals living
Americans did the same thing reported in March, they use
in warmer climates collected mutations 50 percent more
thousands of years ago, when the the electrons to combine

OPPOSITE: CYRIL RUOSO/MINDEN PICTURES. BELOW: LUKE LEMAN


quickly—that is, they evolved 50 percent more rapidly—
climate around the Great Lakes CO2 and protons, creating
than their sister species in cooler regions.
was similarly Arctic-like. methane gas. Methane can
These results matched up with Gillman’s earlier study
On land, old drive lanes would be stored and later used to
on plant evolution, as well as with independent research
be quickly disrupted and become fuel a vehicle or run a genera-
on cold-blooded animals. Gillman thinks that a warm
unrecognizable. In the middle of tor. Exploiting the microbes’
climate accelerates evolution by raising the metabolism of
Lake Huron, however, such lanes chemistry might be a way
organisms. A higher metabolism produces more mutations,
could have been buried when to make inconsistent energy
which in turn provide the raw material for evolutionary
lake water levels rose rapidly sources like wind and solar
change. To confirm this hypothesis, he says, scientists will
about 7,500 years ago, after the more practical.
have to make year-round measurements of the metabolism
end of the last ice age. Equipped Along the same lines, MIT
of many different species. “Boy, that will be a big job,” he
with sonar and remote-operated materials scientist Angela
warns, “even for one species.” CARL ZIMMER
underwater vehicles, O’Shea and Belcher has engineered
a team of University of Michigan viruses to help store electric-
colleagues plunged through the ity. Her genetically modified Right: Ring-tailed lemurs in tropical Madagascar.
dark waters to look around. They bacteriophages (viruses
found thousand-foot-long lines of that infect bacteria) cloak
rocks peppered with large boul- themselves in iron phosphate,
ders, which strongly resemble the a metal salt, then attach to A model of tPNA,
drive lanes used by prehistoric carbon nanotubes to produce a molecule that can
assemble itself; it
hunters in the Canadian Arctic. a framework of microscopic may resemble the
The rocks have been buried there conductive wires that can precursor of life’s DNA.
for more than 7,000 years. hold a charge just like a car
“This has potential to fill an battery. Genetic tweaks
important gap in knowledge of enabled the virus to bind
cultural development,” O’Shea tightly to the carbon nano-
says. The discovery also leaves tube, creating a high-powered
him wondering what other relics battery, as she described in a
lie hidden beneath Lake Huron. May issue of Science. Unlike
“The features are subtle,” he traditional battery manufac-
says. “I’m sure people have turing, the process requires
passed over these areas with no toxic chemicals and
sonars running and not recog- can be set up very cheaply.
nized them for what they are.” Belcher is working to improve
O’Shea plans to send divers back the batteries’ storage capac-
to the 28-square-mile site in pur- ity further by experimenting
suit of further evidence, including with different virus-coat
stone tools and preserved animal materials.
remains. AMY BARTH ELIZABETH SVOBODA

82 | DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM
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DV0110SECV9A_WC 82 11/13/09 3:39:30 PM


worldmags

99 God
Lives in
Your Head
Religion can cause wars,
unify communities, and
help us rationalize our
world, but does thinking
about God activate par-
ticular areas of the brain?
Cognitive neuroscientists
at the National Institute of
Neurological Disorders
and Stroke sought the
answer through function-
al magnetic resonance
imaging, or fMRI.
The researchers asked
religious and nonreligious
test subjects to ponder
God as a savior, a for-
giver, and a moral guide.
The fMRI scans revealed
activation of particular
neural pathways, includ-
ing those in the anterior
prefrontal cortex. But this
brain region is not used
only for religious thought.
Investigator Jordan Graf-
man says it is also a cen-
ter for empathy and for
the perception that others
have thoughts and feel-
ings of their own. “People
were using established
cognitive processes to
try to understand the
Ghadiri posited the existence of a helper molecule: actions of a supernatural
a kind of prebiotic template that might have enabled being,” he says.
RNA to spawn more complex organic compounds. The prefrontal cortex is
Then he actually constructed a version of the mol- the most recently evolved
ecule in his lab. Called tPNA (thioester peptide nucleic region of the human brain,
acid), it comprises the same four base pairs as DNA. much larger in us than in
The amazing thing about tPNA is that it adapts, apes. It is thought to have
chameleon-like, as it interacts with other molecules. benefited us by allowing
When Ghadiri poured tPNA molecules into a soup of humans to explain myste-

98
DNA bits, the tPNA base pairs reshuffled until they rious phenomena and by
matched the sequence of a DNA strand. When he bringing groups of peo-
First Molecule of mixed tPNA with a single strand of RNA, it conformed
to RNA’s structure. And when he let tPNA mingle with
ple together. “You would
persuade others that
Life Discovered? its own kind, the molecules danced until their struc- the way you think about
In the beginning there was RNA. RNA begat DNA, tures became stable. In short, Ghadiri says, it “exhib- something was the way
and DNA begat lipids, carbohydrates, and proteins: its the most basic properties needed for evolution.” they should think about
That is Genesis according to the “RNA world” The next challenge for Ghadiri is to show that tPNA it too,” Grafman says. “It
hypothesis, a leading but still sketchy picture of can self-replicate, crucial for a DNA precursor. If so, creates group cohesion,
how life began. In June, chemist Reza Ghadiri of the RNA world—and the whole field of biogenesis—will and that’s important for
Scripps Research Institute started filling in details. look a lot more credible. BOONSRI DICKINSON survival.” ALLISON BOND

JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2010 | 83
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DV0110SECV9A_WC 83 11/13/09 7:19:39 PM


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ASTRONOMY

1OO

84 | DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM
worldmags

DV0110SECV9A_WC 84 11/13/09 3:39:35 PM


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Hubble’s Amazing New Vision


The Hubble Space Telescope demonstrated its newly enhanced capabilities with this stunning image of
the Butterfly nebula. In May astronauts docked the space shuttle Atlantis onto the 19-year-old telescope to
make repairs and add new instruments. For astrophotography buffs, the most important upgrade is Wide
Field Camera 3 (WFC3), whose predecessor captured many of Hubble’s iconic images, including the Pillars of
Creation in the Eagle nebula. The latest version boasts higher resolution and an expanded field of view.
This WFC3 shot captures strands of superheated gas that were expelled by a dying star almost 4,000
light-years away. The Butterfly nebula’s distinctive shape results from a ring of dust that prevents the gas
NASA, ESA, AND THE HUBBLE SM4 ERO TEAM

from spreading uniformly in all directions. Its wings stretch more than two light-years across—equivalent
to about half the distance between our sun and the nearest star. ANDREW GRANT

JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2010 | 85
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DV0110SECV9A_WC 85 11/13/09 3:39:46 PM


worldmags
OBITUARIES

1O1IN Jean Dausset


(Oct. 19, 1916–June 6,
2009): Dausset shared a
Lawrence Slobodkin
(June 22, 1928–Sept.
12, 2009): The
1980 Nobel Prize for the renowned ecologist
MEMORIAM discovery of human leu- argued in a 1960 paper,
A powerful idea kocyte antigens (HLAs), dubbed “The World Is
far outlasts a brilliant the immune-regulating Green,” that because
mind. We remember gene complex that must vegetation is abundant,
some of the giants be “matched” for organ predation—and not the
we lost in 2009 transplants to succeed. availability of food—is
and look forward the primary check on
to standing on their Sir John Maddox the herbivore popula- Leon Eisenberg
shoulders. (Nov. 27, 1925–April tion and a key influence (Aug. 8, 1922–Sept.
BY HEATHER MAYER 12, 2009): The editor Wallace Pannier on ecosystems. 15, 2009): A child
of Nature for 22 years, (Aug. 22, 1927–Aug. 6, psychiatrist and human
he reestablished the 2009): He was a trail- rights advocate, he
influence and reputation blazer in the study of brought scientific
Willem Kolff of that august British biological weapons. In Malcolm Casadaban rigor to psychological
(Feb. 14, 1911–Feb. weekly science journal. one top-secret project (Aug. 12, 1949–Sept. studies, scrutinizing
11, 2009): During World He was also the father in 1966, Pannier staged 13, 2009): This treatment for autism
War II, the pioneering of DISCOVER contribu- a mock attack on the molecular geneticist as early as the 1950s
biomedical engineer tor Bruno Maddox. New York subway. His devised techniques to and conducting the first
created a dialysis team threw light bulbs study the genes of dis- randomized clinical trial
machine from sausage filled with microbes ease-causing microbes. in psychiatry.
casings and an auto- onto the tracks and He died after being
motive water pump. Herbert York monitored the swirl of exposed to a weakened
Kolff later built the first (Nov. 24, 1921–May the released bacteria as strain of Yersinia pestis
artificial heart. 19, 2009): After work- trains sped past. (the bacterium that Sheldon Segal
ing on the Manhattan causes bubonic plague), (March 15, 1926–Oct.
Project to construct the which he was studying. 17, 2009): He devel-
first atom bomb and oped Norplant, a
Jacob Schwartz supervising missile and hormonal form of birth
(Jan. 9, 1930–March 2, space research under control that is implanted
2009): A prolific math- President Eisenhower, Mahlon Hoagland under the skin of the
ematician, Schwartz York became an impor- (Oct. 5, 1921–Sept. 18, arm; it can prevent
made significant tant figure in arms con- 2009): The molecular pregnancy for up to five

DR. LEON EISENBERG: LIZA GREEN/HARVARD MEDICAL SCHOOL MEDIA SERVICES. NORMAN BORLAUG: MICHELINE PELLETIER/CORBIS
contributions to parallel trol. He was involved biologist described a key years. Wyeth stopped
processing, com- in launching Lawrence step in the way proteins selling the implant in the
puter programming, Livermore National are synthesized from United States in 2002.
logic, robotics, and Laboratory and was the amino acids. He also
bioinformatics. first chancellor of the codiscovered transfer
University of California RNA, an essential player
at San Diego. in gene expression. Claude Lévi-Strauss
(Nov. 28, 1908–Oct.
Hidesaburo Hanafusa 30, 2009): The French
(Dec. 1,1929–March Norman Borlaug anthropologist was a
15, 2009): His discov- (March 25, 1914–Sept. pioneer of structuralism,
ery of cancer-causing 12, 2009): The Nobel arguing that diverse cul-
genes, or oncogenes, laureate was dubbed tures share underlying
earned Hanafusa the the “father of the Green similarities and that the
1982 Lasker Award for Revolution” for devel- human mind is funda-
basic medical research. oping high-yield crops mentally predisposed to
It was his insight that and modern agricultural think in terms of binary
viruses can turn normal, techniques that have opposites: black and
healthy cells into malig- greatly increased the white, hot and cold. His
nant ones by activating global food supply and writing influenced social
those oncogenes. prevented starvation. science, philosophy,
comparative religion,
literature, and film.

86 | DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM
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DV0110OBITS1A_WC 86 11/12/09 9:23:13 PM


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DV21013.indd 1 11/10/09 5:55:57 PM


worldmags
INDEX

YEAR IN Algae Make Clean,


Renewable Diesel Fuel . . . . . . . . . . .48
MIND
Interview: George Loewenstein . . . . . . . . .32

SCIENCE A Smart Makeover for


the Electrical Grid . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .48
Rise of the Mind Readers . . . . . . . . . . . . .36
Can a Shock to the Brain

2 0 0 9 Hydrogen Energy Gets


Two Big Boosts . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .66
Star Power Comes to California . . . . . . . . 68
Cure Depression? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .38
Abuse Leaves Its Mark
on Victim’s DNA . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .62
Microbes Build Better Batteries . . . . . . . . .82 200-Year-Old Cipher Solved . . . . . . . . . . .64
ANTHROPOLOGY Einstein’s Brain Re-Analyzed . . . . . . . . . . .80
Meet Your New Ancestor . . . . . . . . . . . . . .22 ENVIRONMENT God Lives in Your Head . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .83
World’s First Grain Silos Clear-Cutting Has a High Cost. . . . . . . . . .38
Discovered in Jordan . . . . . . . . . . . .39 Sun’s Changes Have Surprise PHYSICS
Another Baby Boom Hits Rich Nations . . . .44 Effects on Earth’s Weather . . . . . . . .45 Model Solves Fundamental
Neanderthals Get Personal . . . . . . . . . . . .47 El Niño’s Cousin Spurs Hurricanes . . . . . .52 Packing Problem . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .35
Oldest Musical Instrument Found . . . . . . .54 Interview: Mark Serreze . . . . . . . . . . . . . .60 Math Could Fix Traffic Jams . . . . . . . . . . .48
Early Humans Tended the Disabled . . . . . .71 Plankton Record Earth’s Quantum Freakiness Leaks
Hidden Civilization Under Lake Huron . . . .82 CO 2 History. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .72 Into the Big World . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .49
Map Tracks Remote Places . . . . . . . . . . . .78 Black Hole Created in Lab . . . . . . . . . . . . .70
ASTRONOMY Species Transplant Succeeds . . . . . . . . . .80 Light Can Bend Itself . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .71
Interview: Alan Dressler . . . . . . . . . . . . . .24 Interview: John Ellis . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 74
Earth-like Worlds Come Into View . . . . . . .28 EVOLUTION
Fresh Hints of Life on Mars . . . . . . . . . . . .38 Oldest Animal Fossils Uncovered . . . . . . . .34 SPACE
Twin Black Holes Found . . . . . . . . . . . . . .53 Intact Tissue Found in Dinosaur . . . . . . . .35 NASA Braces for Course Correction . . . . .20
Magnetic Mysteries of Hunters Accelerate The Moon: Cold, Wet,
Sunspots Decoded . . . . . . . . . . . . . .54 the Pace of Evolution . . . . . . . . . . . .45 and Breathing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .35
Earth-like Storms Seen Darwin’s Next Revolution . . . . . . . . . . . . .50 Probe Shows Mercury’s Hidden Face . . . .44
on Saturn’s Moon . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .57 Dino Mummy Spills Its Secrets . . . . . . . . .52 Spaceport Breaks Ground
Milky Way Panorama . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .58 Giant Snake Hints at Life in Hot Times . . .62 in New Mexico . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .52
Asteroid Strike Predicted . . . . . . . . . . . . .62 Ancestral Whales May Have Space Trash Causes Orbital Crash . . . . . .54
Giant Geysers From a Tiny Moon . . . . . . . .64 Given Birth on Land . . . . . . . . . . . . .65 Did NASA’s Phoenix Find
Did an Early Pummeling of Asteroids First Ground Animals Borrowed Shells . . . .65 Liquid Water on Mars? . . . . . . . . . . .63
Pave the Way for Life on Earth? . . . .67 Leaping Flying Lizards . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .66 Venus Has a Secret Past . . . . . . . . . . . . . .66
Jupiter Gets Comet-Whacked . . . . . . . . . .72 Oldest Octopuses Unveiled . . . . . . . . . . . .77
Hubble’s Amazing New Vision . . . . . . . . . .84 Tropical Heat Speeds Up Evolution . . . . . .82 TECHNOLOGY
First Molecule of Life Found? . . . . . . . . . .83 The Graphene Revolution . . . . . . . . . . . . .27
BIOLOGY New Battery Tech Could
Stem Cell Science Takes Off . . . . . . . . . . .23 INTERVIEWS Transform the Car . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .36
Skip a Meal, Extend Your Life . . . . . . . . . .39 Astronomer Alan Dressler . . . . . . . . . . . . .24 Computer Learns to Reason
Genetic Disease Cured With Two Moms . . .44 Economist George Loewenstein . . . . . . . . .32 Like Isaac Newton. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .39
Fake DNA Fools Crime Lab . . . . . . . . . . . .45 Geneticist J. Craig Venter . . . . . . . . . . . . .40 Computers Go Quantum . . . . . . . . . . . . . .46
Blast of Biodiversity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .46 Geographer Mark Serreze . . . . . . . . . . . . .60 Robots Learn to Walk . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .57
Strange Gaze of the See-through Fish . . . .49 Physicist John Ellis . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 74 Prize-Driven Research Takes Off . . . . . . . .65
Lose Weight With Brown Fat? . . . . . . . . . .56
Orangutans Invent New Warning Calls . . . .57 MEDICINE
Girls Hit Puberty Earlier Vaccine Phobia Becomes a
Around the World . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .64 Public-Health Threat . . . . . . . . . . . . .18 DECEMBER WHAT IS IT?
HONEYBEE EYE
Yes, You Really Can Smell Fear . . . . . . . . .66 Swine Flu Outbreak
Chimps Plan Ahead . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .70 Sweeps the Globe . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .26 Each of a honeybee’s eyes
comprises 6,000 hexagonal
Human Gene Changes Mouse Talk . . . . . .70 The Age of Genetic Medicine Begins . . . . .34 units for capturing light.
Mockingbirds Know Who You Are . . . . . . .76 Hope for HIV Vaccine . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .34 The eyes are attuned to
Radiation Turns Hair Gray . . . . . . . . . . . . .76 The Common Cold Is Decoded . . . . . . . . .36 rapid movement—useful for
keeping up with a speedy
Interview: J. Craig Venter . . . . . . . . . . . . .40 queen during her mating
EARTH Diarrhea Vaccine Could Save Millions . . . .47 flight—and geometric
Seismic Waves Clarify Infection Seen as It Happens . . . . . . . . . . .49 patterns. Bees prefer radial,
symmetrical arrangements
How Continents Move . . . . . . . . . . . .56 Eye Drops Could Cure Glaucoma . . . . . . . .52
MANFRED KAGE/PETER ARNOLD

typical of flowers. They


Oxygen’s Odd Origin . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .77 Fight Rages Over Cancer Genes . . . . . . . .55 respond to many colors and
Virus Linked to Chronic Fatigue . . . . . . . . .56 can see ultraviolet light; UV
ENERGY DEET Might Harm the Brain . . . . . . . . . . .63 patterns on flower petals
may help them distinguish
Experimental Power Plant Tiny Robots Prepare for Surgery . . . . . . . .66 among plant species.
Takes the CO 2 Out . . . . . . . . . . . . . .30 Alzheimer’s Genes Located . . . . . . . . . . . .76

88 | DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM
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DV0110INDEX1A_WC 88 11/13/09 9:22:39 PM


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DV21017.indd 1 11/12/09 7:43:32 PM


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