New scientist 17 january 2009


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New scientist 17 january 2009

  1. 1. New Science Publications Editorial–Editor-in-Chief Jeremy WebbEditor Roger HighfieldAssociate EditorsLiz Else, Stephanie PainNews Editor Shaoni BhattacharyaEditors Helen Knight, Celeste Biever,Richard Fisher, Sumit Paul-Choudhury, What were they thinking?Priya ShettyTel +44 (0) 20 7611 1206Fax +44 (0) 20 7611 1250ReportersLONDON Andy Coghlan, Paul Marks,Linda Geddes, David Shiganews@newscientist.comBOSTONUS Bureau Chief Ivan Semeniuk Neuroscience could learn much from the humility of Charles DarwinSAN FRANCISCOBureau Chief Peter Aldhouspeter.aldhous@newscientist.comJim Giles IT IS two centuries since the birth of at last to be becoming Charles Darwin, but even now his advice can Now it seems that a good chunk ofTORONTO Alison MotlukBRUSSELS Debora MacKenzie be spot on. The great man attempted a little the papers in this field contain exaggeratedMELBOURNE neuroscience in The Expressions of the claims, according to an analysis whichAustralasian Editor Rachel Emotions in Man and Animals, published in suggests that “voodoo correlations” oftenFeatures Editors Ben Crystall, 1872, in which he discussed the link between inflate the link between brain areas andKate Douglas, Clare Wilson, David Cohen,Graham Lawton, Valerie Jamieson, facial expressions and the brain. “Our present particular behaviours (see page 11).Michael Le Page, Caroline Williams, subject is very obscure,” Darwin warned in his Some of the resulting headlines appearedRichard WebbFeatures Contacts book, “and it is always advisable to perceive in New Scientist, so we have to eat a littleTel +44 (0) 20 7611 1201Fax +44 (0) 20 7611 1280 clearly our ignorance.” humble pie and resolve that next time a Modern-day neuroscience might benefit sounding brain scan result appears we willOpinion Editor Jo Marchant from adopting a similar stance. The field has strive to apply a little more scepticism toEditors John Hoyland, Amanda Gefter,Alison George, Eleanor Harris produced some wonderful science, including our coverage. Neuroscientists should alsoTel +44 (0) 20 7611 1240Fax +44 (0) 20 7611 1280 endless technicolor images of the brain at take a hard look at their techniques, but don’ work and headline-grabbing papers about expect anyone to rush back to reanalyse theResearcher Lucy DodwellEditorial Assistant Amy Galloway the areas that “light up” when registering data. Science is too competitive to spend timeProduction Editor Mick O’Hare emotions. Researchers charted those sad raking over old results.Asst Production Editor Melanie Green spots that winked on in women mourning the This is not the first time neuroscientistsChief Sub John LiebmannSubeditors Vivienne Greig, Julia Brown, end of a relationship, the areas that got fired have been criticised for over-egging brainSean O’Neill, Eleanor Parsons up when thinking about infidelity, or those scanner results (New Scientist, 21 SeptemberArt Director Alison Lawn that surged in arachnophobes when they 2002, p 38). It probably won’t be the last. ButDesign Craig Mackie, Ryan WillsGraphics Nigel Hawtin, Dave Johnston thought they were about to see a spider. at least there are signs that the self-correctingPictures Adam Goff, Kirstin JenningsTel +44 (0) 20 7611 1268 The subjective subject of feelings seemed nature of science will win the day. ●Fax +44 (0) 20 7611 1250Careers Editor Helen Thomsoncareers@newscientist.comTel +44 (0) 20 7611 1248Fax +44 (0) 20 7611 1280Consultants Alun Anderson, Stem cell bonanzaAnil Ananthaswamy, Stephen Battersby,Michael Bond, Michael Brooks, DESPITE progress ranging from bone The method would use a person’s ownMarcus Chown, Rob Edwards, Richard Fifield,Barry Fox, Mick Hamer, Jeff Hecht, marrow transplants to reconstructed stem cells, so there is no need to tinker withBob Holmes, Justin Mullins, Fred Pearce, windpipes, it is still easy to forget that many cells outside the body, nor any possibilityHelen Phillips, Ian Stewart, Gail Vines,Gabrielle Walker, Emma Young stem cell treatments are still some way off. of rejection. To fix other kinds of tissue wePress Office and Syndication Which is why a new discovery gives us grounds will still need the most versatile of stem cells,UK Claire BowlesTel +44 (0) 20 7611 1210 Fax 7611 1250 for optimism (see page 6). If it works as well in the embryonic kind.US Office humans as it has in mice, it should enable The good news is that Mozobil and theTel +1 617 386 2190 patients to produce floods of potentially growth factor are all already commerciallyNEWSCIENTIST.COM curative stem cells in their own bone marrow. available, making it easier to do furtherOnline Publisher John MacFarlaneOnline Editor Rowan Hooper All it takes is a drug called Mozobil, plus animal experiments and human trials. BestEditors Maggie McKee, Tom SimoniteReporters Catherine Brahic, Colin Barras, a natural growth factor, to boost production of of all, we can take heart that dazzling advancesSandrine Ceurstemont, Michael Marshall, stem cells with the potential to repair blood, genuinely promise new treatments, and don’tEwen Callaway, Rachel CourtlandOnline Subeditor Dan Palmer muscle, bone, ligaments and blood vessels. just swell the academic literature. ●Web team Neela Das, Cathy Tollet,Ruth Turner, Ken Wolf, Edin Hodzic,Vivienne Griffith, Rohan Creasey,Matteo Giaccone Reasons to be cheerful ACCORDING to a deeply unscientific but of this year feel particularly depressing for oft-quoted formula, 19 January will be “blue many. But consider this: it turns out that Monday”, the most miserable day of the being too happy can actually be bad for you year. That is the day when we are supposedly (see page 36), leaving you unwilling to make most likely to wallow in self-pity, feeling fat, the effort to change your life for the better. broke and washed-up. So why not stop being miserable about being The credit crisis and consequent global miserable, and start to enjoy it for a change? economic woes have, it’s true, made the start Just don’t smile and wreck all the benefits. ● 17 January 2009 | NewScientist | 3
  2. 2. News in perspective Upfront– THREATENED BY AN ANGRY SUNROB ATKINS/GETTY Our technologically dependent society effects on supplies of water, medicine could be brought to its knees the next and other necessities, the report says. time Earth is walloped by an extreme Damaged transformers could be solar outburst. a particularly big problem. “If a large Intense outbursts of plasma from the number were taken out it could take sun, called coronal mass ejections, can quite a while to replace them,” says create electromagnetic interference that Baker. “There’s not a lot of stock… plays havoc with technology. In 1989, one and they have to be built to order.” nasty blast knocked out the power grid in Fortunately, there are ways to reduce Quebec, Canada, for several hours. Future the risk of catastrophe. Relatively cheap blasts could be much worse, according modifications could make transformer to a report by a US National Research circuits up to 70 per cent less vulnerable Council committee led by Daniel Baker to solar storm damage, the report says. of the University of Colorado in Boulder, One small mercy is that some based on workshops held last year. scientists argue the sun is likely to enter The most powerful solar outburst on a decades-long quieter period soon, record happened in 1859. Then, it merely during which big outbursts would be disrupted telegraph communication. If less likely (New Scientist, 10 January, it happened today, it could cause lasting p 11). However, this prediction is damage to power grids, with knock-on fraught with uncertainty. –Technology in the firing line– Runaway rabbits of Applied Ecology, vol 46, p 73). The Tasmanian Parks and Drug safety fears 30 to 74 (The New England Journal of Medicine, vol 360, p 231). Ray THE rabbit population boom Wildlife Service (TPWS), which FRESH fears have been raised over believes a perception that these ravaging Macquarie Island, eradicated the last cat in 2000, the safety of antipsychotic drugs. drugs are safe has led to them halfway between Australia and expected myxomatosis to limit First-generation antipsychotics, being prescribed more. Antarctica, is providing an urgent rabbit numbers. But Bergstrom which are mainly used to treat Meanwhile Clive Ballard at reminder of why conservationists believes that had the TPWS “done schizophrenia, mania or delusion King’s College London and his need to analyse all aspects of an their calculations” it could have disorder, are known to raise the colleagues have completed the eradication programme. avoided a population explosion. risk of heart problems. first long-term study of the effect A plan to save the island’s birds A spokesperson for TPWS, Now Wayne Ray at Vanderbilt of antipsychotics on people with by ridding it of its 160 feral cats however, told New Scientist University in Nashville, Tennessee, Alzheimer’s, who are given the has gone disastrously wrong, with that it was a “conservation and colleagues report that newer drugs to reduce aggression and the rabbit population now at a achievement” to remove one of antipsychotics such as olanzapine, agitation. They found that whopping 130,000, up from just the island’s main pests. It is now risperidone and quetiapine, which prolonged use increases the risk of 4000 in 2000. Clearing up the planning a rabbit and rodent were thought to be safer than premature death, and recommend world heritage site is expected to eradication programme for next their older counterparts, also pose antipsychotics only as a last resort cost AU$24 million (US$16 million). year. This time, TPWS says, it risks. The researchers found these in people with Alzheimer’s (The “We need a culture change,” intends to conduct a quantitative drugs double the risk of sudden Lancet Neurology, DOI: 10.1016/ says ecologist Hugh Possingham risk assessment first. cardiac death among people aged S1474-4422(08)70295-3). of the University of Queensland JANET JARMAN/CORBIS in Brisbane. Environmentalists “are often averse to maths, Tequila hangover and so avoid quantitative risk THE benefits of a good name assessments”, he says. only stretch so far. A “geographical indication” (GI) that legally ties products like “The rabbit population is champagne and tequila to their now at a whopping 130,000, place of origin and cultural up from just 4000 in 2000” heritage does not always help the region it sets out to protect. The rabbits have trashed the Sarah Bowen of North Carolina vegetation on 40 per cent of the State University in Raleigh and island, according to an estimate her colleagues found that tying by Dana Bergstrom of the the making of tequila to the Australian Antarctic Division in Jalisco region of Mexico has Tasmania and colleagues (Journal –Agave blues– made its production socially 4 | NewScientist | 17 January 2009
  3. 3. 60 SECONDSand ecologically unsustainable. Tequila’s blue agave plant takes Epidural safety the chance of lasting harm from a spinal anaesthetic is between Nuclear budget explodessix years to mature, leading to an WOMEN in pain during childbirth 1 in 50,000 and 1 in 23,000 The US government spent $52.4 billion onunstable local supply. This, plus a now have one less thing to worry (British Journal of Anaesthesia, nuclear weapons in 2008, according tohuge leap in demand for the drink about. The most comprehensive DOI: 10.1093/bja/aen360). If US think tank the Carnegie Foundation.since the 1990s, has driven many study into the risks posed by only women in childbirth are This is twice the total spend on science,liquor companies to grow their epidurals concludes that they are considered, it is between 1 in space and technology, and 14 timesown near Jalisco (Journal of safer than previously thought. the budget for energy research. WhileRural Studies, DOI: 10.1016/j.jrurstud.2008.07.003). Estimates of the risk of lasting harm from these spinal injections, “Past results were variable, $47 billion goes towards maintaining the US arsenal, only $5 billion is spent This has led to “environmental often offered to women in labour which has been confusing for on preventing nuclear threats.degradation and the elimination to numb the pain of childbirth, anaesthetists and patients”of traditional practices”, says vary quite a bit, but a figure used Brown revolution beginsBowen. Tequila – the first GI widely was 1 in 25,000. 320,000 and 1 in 80,000.granted outside Europe – should Now a panel led by Tim Cook of “Past results have been African scientists this week beganbe a lesson to other poor nations, the Royal United Hospital in Bath, very variable, which has been a project to boost food productionsays Bowen. “The specification of UK, has collected information confusing for anaesthetists and by compiling a digital map of thesustainable production practices from all National Health Service made it difficult for them to continent’s horrendously depleted soils.within [the GI] legal framework hospitals in the UK that carry out communicate the risk to Launched by the International Centeris essential,” she says. the procedure. It concludes that patients,” says Cook. for Tropical Agriculture in Nairobi, Kenya, the map will show whichWatchdog’s woesNASA’s financial watchdog is a IRON-SEEDING SHIP SETS SAIL compounds – such as phosphate – are needed where to restore soil fertility.toothless organisation that does Legal controversy surrounds the detrimental effects on ecosystems. The Telescope marathonnot understand the role of an largest ever “iron-seeding” experiment IMO’s rules on marine protection do notauditor. That is the scathing to geoengineer the climate as it sets cover experiments like Smetacek’s, but Astronomers looked set to breakconclusion of a report from the sail from South Africa. “it will be in clear defiance of the UN records this week by monitoring threeUS Government Accountability Within weeks, a team led by Victor Convention on Biological Diversity”, quasars for 33 hours – the longest timeOffice (GAO). Smetacek of the Alfred Wegner Institute warns Jim Thomas of environmental this has been achieved “live”. On NASA’s Office of the Inspector in Bremerhaven, Germany, hopes to research organisation ETC Group. 15 and 16 January, telescopes fromGeneral (OIG) is charged with dump 20 tonnes of ferrous sulphate into Smetacek says his expedition has been Asia, Australia, Europe and theimproving the space agency’s the Southern Ocean. The aim is to trigger approved by the German government, Americas were due to stream data viaefficiency while also identifying a plankton bloom that will suck carbon which helped define the UN guidelines. high-speed fibre links directly to aany mismanagement or abuse out of the air and lock it up at the Others point out the experiment is supercomputer – creating the biggestof its $17 billion annual budget. bottom of the ocean. unlikely to cause harm. “Twenty tonnes real-time telescope ever.Yet out of the 71 NASA programme After a company called Planktos of iron particles in the vast ocean is veryaudits carried out between 2006 sparked controversy in 2007 with plans much a drop in the bucket,” says Ken Goats against clotsand 2007, only one identified to dump iron filings in the Galapagos, Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution atany potential cost savings, claims both the International Maritime Stanford University in California. “The A drug expressed in the milk ofthe GAO report. This makes Organization (IMO) and the UN rational concern is that experiments genetically engineered goats has wonNASA’s inspectorate poor value Convention on Biological Diversity will lead down some slippery slope – a favourable review from the US Foodfor money, say the authors, who recommended that governments restrict that small experiments could be scaled and Drug Administration. Made bycalculate that the OIG recoups only such activities because they could have up without any regulation.” GTC Biopharmaceuticals of Rockville,36 cents for every dollar it costs Maryland, antithrombin prevents JACQUES DES CLOITRES/MODIS/GSFC NASAto run, compared with an average blood clots during surgery or childbirthof $9.49 for those overseeing in people with a rare clotting disorder.other US agencies. It received European approval in 2006. Most of the blame is directedat Robert Cobb, head of the OIG, Cancer-free baby?for choosing investigations notintended to save money. He The first baby to be screened as ancounters that the GAO report is embryo for the presence of a geneflawed because it uses “selective that raises the risk of cancer has beenand incomplete data”. Politicians born. Paul Serhal’s team at Universitymay have had enough, however. College London discarded six embryosBart Gordon, chairman of the with the BRCA1 gene, which raises theUS House Committee on Science risk of breast cancer by 80 per cent,and Technology, wants Barack and implanted two lacking it, resultingObama’s administration to in one birth.remove Cobb from his post. –Blooming disaster?– 17 January 2009 | NewScientist | 5
  4. 4. International news and exclusivesThis week–This week–Heal yourself, withstem cells’ helpDrugs that free up the body’s own stem cells couldbring simpler, cheaper therapies a step closerANDY COGHLAN stored ready for transplant into the bone marrow followingIT HAS been an uplifting week for chemotherapy to kill cancerousstem cell research. Not only is US blood cells, where they restockpresident-elect Barack Obama the blood cells destroyed by thepoised to sweep away restrictions anti-cancer drugs.on stem cells when he takes office Now Rankin’s team has shownon 20 January, but a new that it is possible to persuade thetreatment based on the drug bone marrows of mice to produceMozobil promises to harness an two additional categories ofindividual’s stem cells to help stem cell – mesenchymal stemthem heal their own bodies. cells (MSCs) and endothelial A few days ago Sara Rankin progenitor cells (EPCs) –and her colleagues at Imperial broadening considerably theCollege London announced that types of damage and disease thatMozobil, in combination with might be treatable. “It’snatural growth factors, can promoting self-healing,” saysfree up specific types of stem Rankin, whose team’s research –Broken bones could mend faster –cells from the bone marrows of was published last week inmice and send them flooding Cell Stem Cell (DOI: 10.1016/j. down inflammation, and so could Mozobil plus a natural substanceinto the bloodstream. stem.2008.10.017). “We’re simply be used to treat autoimmune called vascular endothelial The discovery is important boosting what’s going on diseases. EPCs repair blood vessels growth factor (VEGF). Rankin’sbecause it opens up the possibility naturally, and we’ve shown that and form new ones, so they have team also used GSCF and Mozobilof treatments tailored to the we can selectively mobilise the potential to restore vital blood in mice to show that, in principle,individual, who would for different types of stem cell.” supplies to tissues damaged by drug therapies can be tweaked toexample take drugs to stimulate MSCs grow into muscle and strokes or heart attacks. produce either blood stem cellsthe growth and release of specific bone, and so have the potential Rankin and her colleagues or those that become muscle,stem cells to repair cardiac to repair cardiac tissue following showed that they could persuade bone and blood vessels.tissue after a heart attack. Such heart attacks, or to accelerate mouse bone marrow to release What is more, the stage istreatments would be free of the healing of broken bones or floods of both types of cell at the set for these treatments toethical baggage associated with ligaments. They also damp same time by giving the mice be tried in people, as boththerapies based on extracting growth factors are availablestem cells from human embryos – commercially. Mozobil’s maker,though their development wouldnot remove the need for STEM CELL DELIVERANCE IS NIGH Genzyme of Cambridge, Massachusetts, received approvalembryonic stem cell research as After Barack Obama is inaugurated as Bush introduced to satisfy opponents in December from the US Foodthey do not cover all cell types. US president on 20 January, expect him of research on human embryos. and Drug Administration to sell Treatments to stimulate the to make good on his promise back in Congress may later pass legislation the drug in combination withbone marrow to make stem cells August to reverse George W. Bush’s to block reintroduction of the GCSF for treating lymphoma.are already widely used to treat restrictions on stem cell research. restrictions by future administrations. Genzyme told New Scientistleukaemias and other blood “As president, I will lift the current In a memo to the transition team this that it is looking into othercancers. Based on a natural administration’s ban on federal funding week, the US Center for Genetics and ways of using Mozobil. “Itsgrowth factor called granulocyte of research on embryonic stem cell lines Society in Oakland, California, called on novel mechanism of actioncolony stimulating factor (GCSF), created after 9 August 2001 through Obama to work with Congress to opens the door for a rich area ofthey prompt the bone marrow to executive order,” he said. introduce comprehensive laws research,” says Richard Peters,produce extra haematopoietic Now the smart money is on him overseeing all stem cell research in the vice-president of global medicalstem cells (HSCs), which grow into issuing an executive order himself US, which at present is completely affairs at Genzyme Transplantall types of blood cell. These cells within days to get rid of the veto that unregulated in the private sector. and Oncology.can be extracted over weeks and One big question is whether6 | NewScientist | 17 January 2009
  5. 5. In this section ● ‘Phoenix’ universe, page 8 ● Novels act as societal glue, page 10 ● Doubt over brain image results, page 11 Warmer climate stifles DAVID BABCOCK/ALT-6/ALAMY ethical and regulatory issues associated with other types of stem cell therapy, and it would be a lot cheaper,” says Rankin. But she stresses that the approach can’t be used for every type of poor nations’ economies disease, and so should not be used by governments as a reason to GlOBAL warming will not only likely, as were political coups. reduce funding for other stem devastate agriculture in developing Olken says his results fit with cell research. She points out, for countries, it will undermine other studies showing that high example, that there are no known economic and political stability to temperatures increase civil unrest, bone marrow stem cells that a far greater extent than previously and that drought can lead to make nerve or brain cells. These imagined, according to new study. political instability. The results were can only be made from embryonic The link between “high presented last week at a meeting of stem cells, or from induced temperatures and poor growth is the American Economics Association, pluripotent stem cells produced much stronger than we’d realised”, in San Francisco. by introducing genes that coax says Benjamin Olken, an economist Slowing growth rates would skin and other cells back into an at the Massachusetts Institute of have cumulative effects that studies embryonic-like state. Technology. Crucially, says Olken, might miss if they were only focusing Robin Lovell-Badge of the UK’s his team’s study is the first to link on specific issues such as the impact National Institute for Medical climate change with economic of drought on food supply, he says. Research in London agrees. “It growth – as opposed to output – If global temperatures rise as doesn’t change the need to do which will have a bigger long-term predicted, the economic gap embryonic stem cell research at effect on a country’s fortunes. between rich and poor nations will all.” Bone marrow stem cells, for High temperatures could even have doubled a decade from now. example, can’t make insulin- undermine scientific productivity, In 50 years’ time the gap will have producing islet cells for treating say Olken’s team. If they are correct, widened 12-fold. diabetes, he adds. the economic gulf between rich and The study’s breadth and What Rankin hasn’t shown yet, poor nations will widen dramatically emphasis on growth is welcome as she herself admits, is whether this century. but the results need to be treated the stem cells produced in her The team looked at how with caution, economist Eric Strobl the new approach will supplant study do indeed accelerate or temperatures affected economic of the École Polytechnique in Paris, or simplify other stem cell improve healing. And as Lovell- growth in the past 50 years. While France, told New Scientist. He points treatments in development. Badge points out, “Giving patients rich economies seemed resilient to out that Olken failed to find a link Many of these rely on extraction Mozobil plus VEGF could have temperature rises, the GDP of poor between rainfall and economic and multiplication of specific other effects on the body.” countries dropped by 1 per cent in years growth that previous work on stem cells from patients’ blood, Tantalisingly, however, there is when those temperatures rose 1 °C or agriculture suggests should exist. a process which takes weeks and unpublished evidence that more above the regional average. Richard Tol of the Economic and is technically difficult. Given Mozobil-derived EPCs help heal The number of scientific papers – Social Research Institute in Dublin, Mozobil plus growth factors, cardiac tissue in mice after heart a measure of innovation – also fell Ireland, adds that poor nations often patients could potentially make attacks. The research, presented in poor countries in hot years, as did suffer from corruption, a factor that extra copies of the same cells in 2003 at the American Heart economic investment in the region. Olken’s analysis did not explicitly in their own bodies. Association’s annual meeting, was Breakdown in government was more control for. Jim Giles ● led by Atsuchi Iwakura and his“We’re simply boosting what’s colleagues at AnorMed, the AMI VITALE/PANOS going on naturally, and we can company in Boston which The originally developed Mozobil. selectively mobilise different results show that the hearts of types of stem cell” treated mice recovered faster and had less scarring a month after An international registry of the heart attack. clinical trials run by the US Rankin favours further National Institutes of Health research in animals before included 720 new or ongoing trials moving into people, but she which specified enriching patients’ acknowledges that all the own stem cells outside the body ingredients are available as part of the treatment. In many commercially, and so could be cases the new drug regime could used by anyone contemplating potentially be used instead. clinical trials. “It’s feasible this “Ours is a much more direct will happen in the next five to 10 approach, and doesn’t have the years,” she says ● –No way to grow when the heat is on– 17 January 2009 | NewScientist | 7
  6. 6. This week– SOUNDBITESDark energy gave first 10 billion years or so. The pair ‹ I guess I could have been say their calculations show that dark energy may in fact last much popular by accepting Kyoto.›us our home longer, and so is “absolutely In his final press conference, President essential” for the endurance of George W. Bush said he could easily habitable regions. After each clash have won popularity in Europe, if he had it would stretch the habitable wanted to, by agreeing to international regions so there is enough left initiatives such as the Kyoto protocolJESSICA GRIGGS spatial dimensions that the after the next clash, and so on in (The Guardian, London, 13 January) initial scenario envisaged. subsequent cycles (see diagram).OUR universe may have arisen Unfortunately, adding extra “Most of the universe is consumed ‹ He’s not a genius. They hadfrom seeds preserved in a universe dimensions throws up another in ashes, but the phoenix universethat existed before the big bang – problem. As two branes approach, emerges once again from the small no passwords, no firewalls,all thanks to dark energy. the additional dimensions must surviving seed,” says Steinhardt and that’s the problem – One of the models put forward shrink or grow in sync with the ( Gary embarrassed them.›to explain how the universe dimension that separates the This is not the first use of the Janis Sharp defends her son Garybegan proposes that it is just the branes. Otherwise, large areas of term “phoenix universe”. It was McKinnon, who faces extradition tolatest phase in a never-ending the brane become warped, so that coined in 1933 by Georges Lemaître, the US with a possible 70-year sentencecycle. Proposed in 2002 by Paul most of it ends up as black holes an advocate of the big bang theory. for hacking into NASA computers,Steinhardt of Princeton University and only a tiny proportion as “Our model is a more appropriate apparently to search for evidence ofand Neil Turok from the University ordinary, habitable space. After use of the name,” Steinhardt extraterrestrial life (The Times, London,of Cambridge, the model argues several cycles, this space shrinks to claims. “We were motivated by 13 January)that our universe exists on a 3D the same conceptual issue: whatregion called a “brane” separated “Without dark energy, most of happened at the big bang. Was itfrom similar branes by a fourth the beginning or not?” ‹ Fetal testosterone not the brane would end up asspatial dimension. Under the Like its predecessors, the pair’s only masculinises the body,right conditions, these branes black holes, leaving only a tiny work is built on a variant of string it masculinises the mind.›collide, triggering a big-bang-like proportion as habitable space” theory called M-theory which hasevent. After the collision, the yet to be completely fleshed out, Autism researcher Simon Baron Cohenbranes bounce apart, before nothing, so the process is unlikely says Peter Coles of the University from the University of Cambridgeanother collision occurs many to have led to our universe. of Cardiff in the UK. Andrew on his finding that children exposedbillions of years later. Now calculations by Steinhardt Liddle of the University of Sussex, to high levels of testosterone in the This model initially struggled and Jean-Luc Lehners, also at UK, describes their model as a womb have a greater risk of developingto explain the ripples in the Princeton, show that when dark “neat and novel” picture, but adds autism-spectrum characteristics,temperature and density of the energy – the stuff that appears to that it is “hard to believe that we’ll which he believes are more “male”universe that can be seen in the be causing the expansion of the ever make observations that could (AFP, 12 January)cosmic microwave background universe to accelerate – is brought show whether it is right or not”.radiation left over from the big into the picture, the cycling can However, Martin Bojowald ‹ We can’t fire our bears orbang. The only way to make be sustainable, so long as dark of Pennsylvania State University, furlough our sea lions.›calculations based on the cyclic energy dominates for around University Park, says their model Many US zoos and aquariums are losingmodel produce the observed 600 billion years. is “more realistic” than previous government funding as a result of thepattern of ripples is to add extra In earlier cyclic models, dark versions, and that future financial crisis, but John Calvelli of thedimensions, as predicted by energy has merely kept the cycles measurements of dark energy Wildlife Conservation Society, whichstring theory, on top of the four stable, and only dominated for the may allow the idea to be tested. ● operates zoos and aquariums in New York, points out that it’s hard to seeCOSMIC RECYCLING where cuts can be made (AssociatedIn one model of how the universe began, dark energy lasting hundreds of billions of years is an essential ingredient Press, 13 January) As branes collide... ...only a fraction of the ...but thanks to dark energy habitable areas survive the seeds expand enough to seed the new universe for the cycle to repeat ‹ We applaud the folks at City Crab and Seafood for their compassionate decision.› SEED Ingrid Newkirk, president of PETA, responding to the news that George,HABITABLE a lobster thought to be as old as 140 –REGIONS an age rarely seen in captivity – has been returned to the ocean from his previous home, a New York restaurant (Reuters, 9 January) COLLAPSED BLACK HOLES8 | NewScientist | 17 January 2009
  7. 7. M.DEUTSCH/CORBISModel of surprise has‘wow’ factor built inWE ALL know what surprise feels attention by being surprisinglike, but a computer model has or unexpected. Surprise as theynow defined the concept. It is the compute it may also explain whatchange in expectation caused by causes the “orienting reflex”,the arrival of new data, it says. The whereby our attention is caughtmodel uses an aptly named unit by novel stimuli.of measurement – the “wow”. To test their hypothesis, the Pierre Baldi at the University pair developed a computer modelof California, Irvine, and Laurent which simulated a population ofItti at the University of Southern visual neurons “watching” videoCalifornia in Los Angeles devised clips, just as your brain wouldthe model while investigating watch it through the eye’s retina.human attention. They used the model to analyse A dominant theory from the short video clips and mark which1950s has it that the amount of regions of the videos it considered –Simulated surprise–attention we pay to an object or the most surprising – which theyevent is linked to the volume of rated in wows. “Something that is Itti (Vision Research, DOI: 10.1016/ example, it could be used to rankinformation our brains need to very surprising has a high wow j.visres.2008.09.007). websites for interest, as thoseform an understanding of it. For content,” says Baldi. This study is a long-awaited providing more original contentexample, our attention should When they showed the videos “satisfactory theoretical account” would stand out, while spammers,hover over intricate patterns to human volunteers, their eye for what holds our attention, says copycats and aggregator sites maylonger than over a plain surface. movements correlated with what Aapo Hyvärinen, a computer be classified as boring. It could But this model did not consider the computer had rated as being scientist at the University of also be used to design more eye-that the majority of data is useless, worthy of attention. Helsinki in Finland. He adds that catching advertisements, he says.says Itti, while only a little is of “We found that human it formulates “a Bayesian theory He and Baldi are now carryinginterest to you or might indicate a observers did indeed look at of surprise in which an event is out experiments in monkeys tothreat. Instead, he and Baldi reckon surprising things while watching surprising if it changes our beliefs”. see if individual retinal neuronsthat we focus more on objects or TV, much more than they looked Itti says the model could have compute surprise in the way theirmovements that attract our at information-rich objects,” says wide-ranging applications. For model predicts. Linda Geddes ●Self-replicator to DNA. One of the reasons for this is that, unlike DNA, RNA molecules can versions of R3C ribozyme pairs to test tubes containing a wider range of RNA alive,” he cautions, since life is not simply the ability to replicate likesuggests life catalyse chemical reactions. “We’re trying to jump in at the last signpost building blocks. Giving the ribozyme pairs an array of components meant crazy. The molecules must also gain new functions without laboratorybegan with RNA we have back there in the early history of life,” Joyce says. they could concoct new ribozymes. Since each enzyme has slightly tinkering – something that Joyce says he has no idea how to create yet. Joyce and Lincoln created their different properties, these new A life-mimicking molecule will alsoA SYNTHETIC molecule that performs RNA enzyme, or ribozyme, called R3C, forms might be better or worse at need to assemble itself from simpleran essential function of life – self- from scratch to perform a single replicating their sister ribozyme. components than two halves, saysreplication – could shed light on function: stitching two shorter RNAs What came out bore an eerie Michael Robertson, a biochemist atthe origin of all living things. The together to create a clone of itself. resemblance to natural selection: a the University of California, Santa Cruz.lab-born strand of ribonucleic acid Next, Lincoln redesigned R3C, few sequences proved to be winners, DNA and RNA normally replicate(RNA) can evolve in a test tube making a sister RNA that could itself but most lost out (Science, DOI: 10.1126/ with the help of a protein enzymeto double itself ever more swiftly. join two RNAs into a ribozyme. Rather science.1167856). The victors emerged that joins individual nucleotide This is the first time that an than replicating themselves, each because they could replicate faster in “letters” together. Early life may haveexperiment has produced an RNA molecule was able to make a copy the face of competition, Joyce says. had an enzyme that did the same, orthat can sustain its own replication. of its sister, a process called cross “I wouldn’t call these molecules this enzyme could have joined short Gerald Joyce, a biochemist at the replication. The pairs double until stretches of RNA, Robertson says.Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, there are no more starting bits of “A few RNA sequences proved The true story of the origin of lifeCalifornia, and colleague Tracey RNA left. “We just let them amplify will always remain elusive, however.Lincoln studied RNA because most themselves silly,” says Joyce. to be winners. These were the “[It] is a historical problem that we’reresearchers think early life stored The team then sought to “evolve” ones that could replicate faster never going to be able to verify,”information in this sister molecule their molecule. They added different in the face of competition” Robertson says. Ewen Callaway ● 17 January 2009 | NewScientist | 9
  8. 8. This week– agrees. “Modern democracies, Starving bacteria Novels help to with their formal checks and balances, are carrying forward an egalitarian ideal.” bumped up early uphold social order A few characters were judged to be both good and bad, such as Heathcliff in Emily Brontë’s Earth’s oxygen Wuthering Heights or Austen’s HUNGRY nickel-grabbing bacteria PRIYA SHETTY Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula Mr Darcy. “They reveal the pressure could be to thank for the surge in scored highly on status-seeking being exercised on maintaining atmospheric oxygen 2.5 billion years WHY does storytelling endure and social dominance. the total social order,” says Carroll. ago that made Earth hospitable to life. across time and cultures? Perhaps In the novels, dominant Boehm and Carroll believe Stefan Lalonde of the University the answer lies in our evolutionary behaviour is “powerfully novels have the same effect as of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, roots. A study of the way that stigmatised”, says Gottschall. “Bad the cautionary tales told in older and colleagues measured the people respond to Victorian guys and girls are just dominance societies. “Just as hunter-gatherers concentration of nickel deposited literature hints that novels act as machines; they are obsessed with talk of cheating and bullying as a in layered sedimentary rocks, or a social glue, reinforcing the types getting ahead, they rarely have way of staying keyed to the goal “banded iron formations”. They found of behaviour that benefit society. pro-social behaviours.” that the bad guys must not win, that levels had dropped by two- Literature “could continually While few in today’s world novels key us to the same issues,” thirds in the 200 million years prior condition society so that we fight live in hunter-gatherer societies, says Boehm. “They have a to the “Great Oxygenation Event”. against base impulses and work in “the political dynamic at work in function that continues to The team speculate that this a cooperative way”, says Jonathan these novels, the basic opposition contribute to the quality and drop in nickel starved primordial Gottschall of Washington and between communitarianism structure of group life.” ocean-dwelling bacteria called Jefferson College, Pennsylvania. and dominance behaviour, is a “Maybe storytelling – from methanogens that used dissolved Gottschall and co-author universal theme”, says Carroll. TV to folk tales – actually serves nickel in seawater to help turn Joseph Carroll at the University Christopher Boehm, a cultural some specific evolutionary food into energy and methane. of Missouri, St Louis, study how anthropologist whose work function,” says Gottschall. As methane reacts with oxygen to Darwin’s theories of evolution Carroll acknowledges was an “They’re not just by-products of remove it from the atmosphere, a apply to literature. Along with important influence on the study, evolutionary adaptation.” ● decline in the methane produced John Johnson, an evolutionary by bacteria would have led to a psychologist at Pennsylvania build-up of oxygen. State University in DuBois, the Though it is not clear quite how researchers asked 500 people much the ancient bacteria relied to fill in a questionnaire about on the metal, “growing modern 200 classic Victorian novels. The methanogens in the lab requires respondents were asked to define extremely high concentrations of characters as protagonists or nickel”, says Stephen Zinder at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.“The characters in the novels So what could have caused the nickel shortage? A surge in the fell into groups that mirrored number of magma plumes just the egalitarian dynamics of before the nickel decline removed hunter-gatherer society” a large amount of heat from Earth’s core, say the team. In these cooler antagonists, and then to describe conditions, more oceanic crust was their personality and motives, created relative to continental crust. such as whether they were This contains less of the nickel that conscientious or power-hungry. the bacteria can use. The work was The team found that the presented at the American Geophysical characters fell into groups that Union meeting in December. mirrored the egalitarian “This study is one of the first dynamics of hunter-gather to look at hard data about metal society, in which individual concentrations, which is an dominance is suppressed for important new idea,” says Timothy the greater good (Evolutionary Lyons of the University of California, Psychology, vol 4, p 716). Riverside. But he suspects the Protagonists, such as Elizabeth oxygenation effect may be less AIP/RONALD GRANT ARCHIVE Bennett in Jane Austen’s Pride and than the team thinks, because the Prejudice, for example, scored bacterial famine could have enabled highly on conscientiousness and other atmospheric reactions that nurturing, while antagonists like –Heathcliff’s personality reflects societal pressures– used up oxygen. Devin Powell ● 10 | NewScientist | 17 January 2009
  9. 9. MARK LYTHGOE & CHLOE HUTTON/WELLCOME IMAGESDoubts raised overbrain scan findingsSOME of the hottest results called voxels, which can eachin the nascent field of social contain millions of neurons, andneuroscience, in which emotions attempt to correlate the activityand behavioural traits are linked of particular voxels withto activity in a particular region of emotional changes reportedthe brain, may be inflated and in by the volunteers.some cases entirely spurious. The problem arises when So say psychologist Hal Pashler researchers attempt to calculateat the University of California, San the strength of this correlation. –Meaningful result, or just noise?–Diego, and his colleagues, who This has to be done in two stages.examined more than 50 studies The first is to identify regions and has the potential to produce it is problematic. And in 2007,that relied on functional magnetic in which the correlation between apparent links between emotions researchers withdrew part of anresonance imaging (fMRI) brain voxel activity and the emotion and brain regions when none fMRI paper published in Naturescans, many published in high- exceeds a certain threshold. In exists, Pashler’s team claims. Neuroscience (DOI: 10.1038/profile journals, and questioned the second stage, the researchers To demonstrate their point, the nn0107-1) after anotherthe authors about their methods. assess the strength of the team used this technique to search researcher showed that random Pashler’s team say that in most correlation in that region. for correlations in simulated noise could have produced theof the studies, which linked brain Pashler recommends that two brain scan data. This appeared reported correlation.regions to feelings including independent sets of scans be used to reveal statistically significant The researchers criticisedsocial rejection, neuroticism and in these two stages. If the same set correlations, when in fact there by Pashler strongly contest hisjealousy, researchers interpreted were none. The critique has been team’s conclusions. Tania Singertheir data using a method that “Some experiments correlating peer-reviewed and accepted for at the University of Zurich ininflates the strength of the link publication in Perspectives on Switzerland says Pashler’s surveybetween a brain region and the brain regions to feelings used Psychological Science. questions were “ambiguousemotion or behaviour. a method that inflated the Many researchers are not and incomplete”, causing him The claim is disputed by at apparent strength of the link” surprised by Pashler’s conclusions, to misjudge the way her groupleast two of the critiqued groups. as the more rigorous analysis corrected for random noise.Both argue that Pashler has is used for both, there is an that his team recommends Matthew Lieberman of themisunderstood their results and increased risk of misinterpreting requires more data. It is expensive University of California, Losthat their conclusions are backed random noise as a genuine signal. to run fMRI scans and difficult Angeles, says that even if his 2003by other studies. Yet in almost 30 of the to find volunteers. study in Science (DOI: 10.1126/ In many of the studies, papers Pashler’s team analysed, Nikolaus Kriegeskorte at the science.1089134) inflates theresearchers scan volunteers’ researchers used the same scans US National Institute of Mental strength of the link betweenbrains as they complete a task to identify the voxels of interest Health in Bethesda, Maryland, is feelings of rejection and physicaldesigned to elicit a particular and determine the final trying to gauge the number of pain, the link itself stands, asemotion. They then divide the correlation. This inflates the neuroscience papers that use this studies using different methodsimages from the scans into cubes correlation above its true value, method, because he also believes also identified it. Jim Giles ●Are successful found that traders who started the day with elevated testosterone made by many researchers to be a marker of prenatal testosterone exposure. other factors no doubt play a role in success in this particular career.traders born, more money than those who didn’t. He wondered whether another effect Traders with a longer ring finger, and therefore higher prenatal Coates agrees, and cautions against bosses using finger lengthnot made? could also contribute: individuals who had higher exposure to testosterone testosterone, made on average six times the profits of traders with to make hiring decisions. The effects of high prenatal testosterone may in the uterus are more likely to feel shorter ring fingers, and tended to even be a disadvantage in otherSUCCESSFUL financial traders may be the effects of the hormone in later life. remain traders for longer (Proceedings types of trading. For example, otherborn, not made. Men who excel at Coates recruited 49 male “high- of the National Academy of Sciences, studies have suggested that peoplefast-paced financial trading may frequency” traders from the City of DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0810907106). with a high index to ring finger ratiohave been exposed to higher levels London, who buy and sell over the The study confirms that exposure make better mathematicians. Johnof testosterone in the uterus than space of minutes or seconds, requiring to sex hormones early in life enables Manning, author of The Finger Book,their less successful colleagues. high levels of confidence and quick particular behaviours to develop, wonders whether finger ratios might Last year, John Coates at the reaction times. He measured their says Bruce McEwen of the Rockefeller turn out to correlate with success inUniversity of Cambridge and colleagues index to ring finger ratio - thought University in New York, but adds that other professions. Linda Geddes ● 17 January 2009 | NewScientist | 11
  10. 10. Research news and discovery In brief–JOEL SARTORE/NGS/GETTY Dating droughts CHARRED remains of ancient rainmaking fires are helping to date droughts in Iron Age Africa to within 20 years. After a several years of little or no rainfall, the Bantu people near modern-day Zimbabwe would send a rainmaker to nearby hills. “They’d burn fires with dark smoke to call black rain clouds from the mountains,” says Thomas Huffman at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. Villagers were also made to burn grain bins if they had planted “unlucky” foreign seeds. Huffman’s team uncovered the ashes within archaeological remains. With the help of carbon dating and analysis of tree rings they discovered and dated previously unknown droughts (Journal of Archaeological Science, DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2008.11.026). The results also date a drought in AD 1300 thought to have made a Bantu society vulnerable to they found (Proceedings of the National Academy invasion from Great Zimbabwe. Humans’ prey species evolving of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0809235106). dangerously fast to escape us It was well known that hunting and fishing, which often target the largest individuals, can cause species FISHING and hunting by humans may drive evolution in to become smaller and mature more quickly. However, Pop a pill before a way unlike anything else on Earth, and the rapid changes Darimont’s study is the first to show that this effect occurs triggered in wild species risks severe damage to ecosytems. for species ranging from cod to caribou (pictured), and that taking a drag? Chris Darimont, an evolutionary ecologist at the these species change far more quickly than they otherwise University of California at Santa Cruz, and his team, would, says Andrew Hendry, an evolutionary biologist at EXTRA doses of a molecule that reviewed 34 studies that measured how fast traits such McGill University in Montreal, Canada. helps to protect lung cells from as body size and growth rate had changed in 29 species Rapid changes in size may threaten ecosystems by the damage caused by smoking that people harvest for food. disrupting size-based interactions such as predation and might one day reduce some of the The average rate of change was three times as fast competition, says Darimont. For example, smaller fish may dangers associated with the habit. as comparable changes seen in unhunted populations, no longer be big enough to eat species they once preyed on. Avrum Spira at Boston University School of Medicine and colleagues identified This could temporarily lessen 28 microRNAs – molecules Try Tetris to help treat trauma its ability to lay down memories that control the expression of with a strong visual component, networks of related genes – that PLAYING video games after showing them graphic videos such as those that can cause were less prevalent in the airways a harrowing event may help to of car crashes, drownings and involuntary flashbacks of of smokers than non-smokers reduce the effects of the trauma. surgery. Participants who played a horrific event. Crucially, there (Proceedings of the National Post-traumatic stress disorder the video game Tetris for half an was no difference in volunteers’ Academy of Sciences, DOI: (PTSD) can trigger involuntary, hour immediately afterwards had ability to recall the event in 10.1073/pnas.0806383106). distressing flashbacks in people fewer flashbacks in the following narrative terms, so playing Tetris One microRNA, called mir-218, who have been through trauma, week and scored lower on a only seemed to prevent flashbacks. seems to control a group of genes such as soldiers or victims of rape. standard PTSD test (PLoS One, DOI: Visuospatial tasks might that help to protect lung and Emily Holmes at the University 10.1371/journal.pone.0004153). one day be given to people after airway cells from smoke damage. of Oxford and her team tried to Holmes says that playing Tetris a traumatic event, but Holmes So Spira suggests that giving spark minor flashbacks in people may “use up” the brain’s cautions that further research smokers extra mir-218 might who did not have PTSD by visuospatial processing resources. is needed. make their habit less hazardous. 12 | NewScientist | 17 January 2009