New scientist 4 july 2009


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New scientist 4 july 2009

  1. 1. EDITORIAL New York, Sydney and Tokyo, to mentionNow is the time just a few cities. Unless something can be Time to declareto prepare for done, great swathes of urban sprawl will vanish beneath the waves. It will take a war on war itself massive engineering effort to protectthe great floods these cities – an effort that may be beyond economies that have been brought to their COULD war ever become history? Even asking that question seems like starry-eyed idealism,Building in at-risk coastal areas knees by climate change. yet this is to misunderstand the nature of None of this means we should despair, and warfare. The urge to wage war is not a fixedshould stop if we want to leave stop trying to curb emissions; the more we aspect of human nature but actually a rationalour children a lasting legacy pump into the atmosphere, the higher and response to certain environmental conditions, faster the seas will rise. But alongside these based on a cost-benefit analysis (see page 38).THREE key facts about rising sea levels need to efforts, we need to start acting now to Over the past century the balance of thatbe hammered home to the world’s politicians minimise the impact of future sea-level equation has shifted. Technological and socialand planners: sea-level rise is now inevitable, rise. That means we must stop building change – not least the spread of democracy andit will happen faster than most of us thought, in the danger zone. education – have made wars between nationand it will go on for a very long time. states increasingly irrational. Warfare is on the Even if greenhouse gas emissions stopped “In a few hundred years, large parts wane worldwide; modern conflicts are largelytomorrow, the oceans will continue to swell as of London, New York and Sydney insurgencies, terrorism and guerrilla activity.they warm, and as glaciers and ice sheets melt will vanish beneath the waves” It is within our power as a species to shift theor slide into the sea (see page 28). The growing balance of the equation even further. We’veconsensus among climate scientists is that the Countless billions are being spent on had a war on cancer, a war on drugs and“official” estimate of sea-level rise in the last constructing homes, offices, factories and a war on terror. Why not a war on war? ■report of the Intergovernmental Panel on roads in vulnerable coastal areas. For instance,Climate Change – 0.2 to 0.6 metres by 2100 – the glittering skyscrapers of Shanghai, China’sis misleading. It could well be in the region economic powerhouse, are being built on land The end of magic?of 1 to 2 metres, with a small risk of an even that is a mere 4 metres above sea level ongreater rise. And barring a megaproject to cool average, and which is sinking under the weight SCIENCE sometimes has an air of magicthe planet, it could take several thousand years of its buildings and as water is extracted from about it, while magicians in their turn exploitfor it to reach equilibrium – by which time the rocks beneath them. science to fool our senses. As Arthur C. Clarkesea level will be somewhere between 10 and In cities that have been around for hundreds once remarked, any sufficiently advanced25 metres higher than it is today. of years, this sort of development may be technology is indistinguishable from magic, For many islands and low-lying regions, understandable. But planning for new coastal and the same can be said for technology that isincluding much of the Netherlands, Florida developments is to fly in the face of reality. barely off the drawing board. Metamaterials areand Bangladesh, even small rises will spell If we want to build a lasting legacy for our raising the possibility of making one object lookcatastrophe. Most countries, however, will descendants, we should do so on the plentiful like another (see page 20), and while turningonly lose a tiny percentage of their land, even land that is in no danger from the sea. It is one the concept into reality will take decades, thewith a very big rise. The problem is what has of the easiest ways to mitigate climate change, knowledge that it is even conceivable puts thebeen built on that land: large parts of London, and we should be acting on it now. ■ magician’s art of illusion in the shade. ■ What’s hot on SPACE Gluttonous black holes HEALTH Magnet and sticky TRANSPORT Bailout to ENVIRONMENT Financial power ancient cosmic blobs tape turn tongue into joystick jump-start electric cars The crisis may have helped climate Glowing blobs of gas dotting the A tongue-tracking system that can Department of Energy in the US has The banking crisis and high oil prices early universe seem to be lit by be used to control a wheelchair or pledged $8 billion to make the next caused the growth of greenhouse gas giant black holes that are devouring computer could give people with generation of cars more efficient than emissions to slow by half in 2008 their surroundings spinal injuries more ways to interact ever before. See the new electric cars with the world, as our video shows that will receive most of the money EARTH Best ever hiking TECH ‘Dark flash’ photography map revealed See images may end red-eye Fed up with ROBOTS Domestic robots FOOD Sweet tooth may have from the most comprehensive digital flash photography that dazzles and with a taste for flesh been survival trait Europeans topographic map ever made of our disturbs those in the picture? Now Watch robotic furniture that earns are among the world’s most planet, now accessible for free online there’s a solution – photography using its place in the home by eating pests sugar-sensitive people – a trait a “dark” infrared and ultraviolet flash and digesting them to generate its that could have helped ancient For breaking news, video and online to invisibly illuminate the scene own power populations spot energy-rich foods debate, visit 4 July 2009 | NewScientist | 5
  2. 2. UPFRONTMIKE THEISS/ULTIMATE CHASE/CORBIS Blast clues in rare clouds WHAT do the space shuttle and a giant Europe in less than 24 hours. explosion in 1908 have in common? Michael Kelley of Cornell Both have been followed by strange, University in Ithaca, New York, glowing clouds, and these may point now believes the water was to what caused the Tunguska blast a carried by high-speed winds in the century ago. thermosphere, a region between The blast destroyed a swathe 90 and 500 kilometres up, about of Siberian forest near the Tunguska which little is known. Although such river, and a day later people across eddies have never been measured, Europe saw strange clouds that Kelley believes these winds would lit up the night sky. These were explain why observers near the probably noctilucent clouds: poles have seen noctilucent clouds rare clouds of ice crystals high a few days after shuttles have enough to reflect sunlight long launched from distant locations after sunset (see image). (Geophysical Research Letters, The fact that the clouds were seen DOI: 10.1029/2009GL038362). just a day later suggests the explosion Kelley thinks the clouds mean that somehow injected water vapour into the explosion was caused by a wet, the normally dry upper atmosphere. icy comet, which shed some of its But no one could explain how vapour moisture up in the thermosphere, travelled to the western edge of rather than by a dry, stony asteroid. –Day and night combined– Doubt in fashion huge interest because they Drug-resistant flu She has now recovered after identify links between genes taking the antiviral Relenza, and SHOULD fashionable scientific and their function. THE first case of swine flu resistant the drug-resistant strain appears findings be subject to a higher Pfeiffer scoured the literature to Tamiflu raises questions about not to have spread. The State burden of proof? Yes, says a study for reports that one yeast protein a policy in some countries of Serum Institute in Copenhagen that found links between the interacts with another, and giving low, “prophylactic” doses assumes resistance emerged research popularity of certain compared these to systematic of drugs to those who have come during treatment with Tamiflu, proteins and the accuracy of measurements of these into contact with infected people. as low doses can favour the reports about their behaviour. interactions. Claims involving On 29 June, Denmark’s National emergence of resistant strains. Researchers have previously extremely popular proteins were Board of Health announced the If health authorities continue to suspected that trendy fields only half as likely to be confirmed first known case of H1N1 swine hand out prophylactic treatments, may attract spurious results, for as ones involving less glamorous flu resistant to the most popular further resistant cases are likely to two reasons. First, because there ones. “For some research fields, antiviral drug. The woman was in emerge. As many countries have are greater rewards for getting a higher burden of proof would contact with an infected person stockpiled Tamiflu, and a specific positive results, so there is a certainly be appropriate,” says and was put on low-dose Tamiflu vaccine is unlikely to be available stronger incentive to massage Pfeiffer (PLoS ONE, DOI: 10.1371/ as a precaution, but she developed in time for the next wave of swine data or ignore outliers. Second, journal pone.0005996). flu anyway. flu, this could prove disastrous. because more groups test trendy FLIP NUKKLIN/MINDEN/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC STOCK hypotheses. This would lead to Preservation pays more negative results, too, but the positive ones get reported more. WATCHING whales is far more Now biologist Thomas Pfeiffer profitable than eating them, concludes a report published “Claims involving extremely last week by the International popular proteins were half Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). as likely to be confirmed as It found that revenues from less trendy ones ” whale watching in 2008 reached $2.1 billion – double the amount at Harvard University has found earned a decade ago. that “popular” results are indeed “It’s clearly the most sustainable less reliable – at least those use of whales,” says Patrick Ramage regarding protein interactions of the IFAW. “You can watch the in yeast. Such interactions are of –Look but don’t kill– same whales dozens of times, but 6 | NewScientist | 4 July 2009
  3. 3. For daily news stories, visit 60 SECONDSyou can only kill a whale once.” Stem cell tourism attempts to treat patients should Worldwide creationism Globally, whale watching has not be condemned, provided a A British Council poll of 10,000grown by 3.7 per cent each year in THE internet may be awash with new treatment has a clear clinical people in 10 countries has revealedthe last decade. Last year, 13 million bogus or untested stem cell-based rationale, along with evidence that creationism is strongest in thepeople observed whales in 119 treatments targeted at unwary that it should not cause serious US, South Africa and India, withcountries, supporting 13,000 jobs. patients, but that is no reason to side effects. 43 per cent in each country agreeing The report was launched at the condemn all “unofficial” therapies. “What patients care about is that God created life in its presentannual meeting of the International So say researchers who last year getting better and surviving, and form. Almost a quarter of LondonersWhaling Commission in Madeira, drafted a set of international are creationists, according to the pollPortugal. The IWC edged closer guidelines designed to crack “Companies making presented at the World Conferenceto a conservation role by backing down on “stem cell tourism”. justifiable attempts to of Science Journalists in Londona pioneering US$1.2 million The team insist their new treat patients should on Tuesday.Australian programme to study plea for more tolerance of not be condemned”live whales in the Southern Ocean. unsanctioned trials andBut it postponed a decision on treatments is no U-turn (Science, demonising stem cell tourism will Shotgun stunnerwhether to allow Japan to resume DOI: 10.1126/science.1171749). never squelch this vital instinct,” The stun gun maker Tasercommercial whaling in its They argue that companies says Olle Lindvall of Lund International this week tripled thecoastal waters. making scientifically justifiable University Hospital, Sweden. range of its weapons – a shotgun cartridge delivers an electric shock to people up to 30 metres away instead of tethered barbs. CriticsFarewell, Ulysses Reprieve for Amazonian land worry the new weapons could killUNLIKE Odysseus, who found SQUATTERS hoping to gain legal who can own land. They say the if the cartridge hits the eye.his way home 10 years after the ownership of tracts of Brazil’s law still allows land to be donated orTrojan war, the solar probe called Amazon rainforest were thwarted sold at a quick profit for less than it Schizophrenia genesUlysses is destined to “sail beyond last week by the country’s president, is worth, and that it legitimises all Schizophrenia arises from thethe sunset” until death. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. At the last land grabs before December 2004. combined effect of thousands of Ground controllers are now minute, Lula used his powers to veto They also claim that uncertainties genes, concludes the Internationalpulling the plug on the probe, parts of a controversial bill that would in the law remain, and that this Schizophrenia Consortium in threewhich was launched in 1990 by have allowed the land grab. encourages squatters who hope papers published in Nature. Some ofNASA and the European Space The original purpose of the bill had they may eventually be rewarded. the variants have also been linked toAgency. In its 18-year epic journey, been to grant land rights to indigenous “The veto was positive,” says bipolar disorder, which is surprisingthe probe has flown through inhabitants, but amendments as it Brenda Brito, executive director as psychiatrists had assumed thethree comet tails, studied passed through Congress would of Imazon, which campaigns for two conditions had different causes.magnetic fields around the sun have given legal backing to a ploy by sustainable use of Amazonia’sand Jupiter, and found interstellar companies and landowners to acquire resources. But to avoid another race No more side effectsdust blowing through the solar ownership of plots of forest by putting for property, the government should Malaria patients on quinine might besystem. It is the only craft to fly squatters on them. Once acquired, pre-empt land grabs by creating new able to avoid serious side effects byby the sun’s poles three times – such land is often deforested. protected areas for conservation, and taking supplements of the aminocapturing snapshots of its 11-year Despite the veto, campaigners for by recognising indigenous people’s acid tryptophan. So say researcherssolar cycle. the rights of indigenous Amazonian land before issuing title deeds to at the University of Nottingham, UK, In 2008, low power threatened people say more clarity is needed on private parties, Brito says. who found that quinine blocks theto freeze the probe’s remaining uptake of tryptophan by brain cells, AP PHOTO/ALBERTO CESARfuel, but the team managed to reducing their ability to produce akeep it going. Now fuel is running vital neurotransmitter (Journal oflow, plus it is sending back little Biological Chemistry, DOI: 10.1074/data, so NASA and ESA have opted jbc.M109.005843).to turn off its transmitter, whichsends data back to Earth. “We’d already gone a year more Ares I grounded?than we thought we could, so we Safety concerns may prompt the USthought it would be a good time air force to veto the first test flightto get out,” says Ed Massey, NASA of NASA’s next-generation launcher,project manager for Ulysses. After the Ares I rocket, due in August.its death, Ulysses will continue to The air force is worried that Ares I’sorbit the sun on a path that takes tendency to vibrate violently in flightit outside the orbits of the planets, could make it careen out of controlwhere it will effectively become and crash in a populated artificial comet. –Squatters arrive, then forest goes– 4 July 2009 | NewScientist | 7
  4. 4. THIS WEEKA premium planfor the neediestCould insurance giants save the world’s poorfrom the effects of climate change?Catherine Brahic insurance” protects farmers against the vagaries of the weather.AS WESTERN governments dither For example, if rain gauges atat the negotiating table over how local weather stations drop belowto help the world’s poorest people a certain level, insurancecope with climate change, some companies can automaticallyunlikely saviours have stepped transfer a payout to farmersup to the plate: the giants of the without having to visit insurance industry. Cover is tailored to each region. As well as providing protection In Adi Ha, where farmers need the DIETER TELEMANS/PANOSfrom the increasingly rains to start before a certain date,unpredictable weather, the those who are insured will receivepremiums could also be a a payment if rains fail to comepowerful way to get poor people before an agreed cut-off date. Into adapt to climate change by the hurricane-prone Caribbean,encouraging them to invest in hotel owners can buy insurancemeasures like drought-resistant that pays out if winds exceed a went through a big soul-searching climate change held in Marchcrops. Is this profit-driven certain speed. The premiums can process before climbing on board in Copenhagen, Pablo Suarez,endeavour too good to be true? cost as little as a few dollars a year. microinsurance projects, and a researcher who has consulted Each year, people in the small The scheme in Ethiopia is backed ultimately decided it made sense,” on insurance projects for OxfamEthiopian village of Adi Ha by Swiss Re, but like others of its says Marjorie Victor of Oxfam and the UN Developmentdepend on the precise timing kind, it only got off the ground America. “Insurance companies Programme, confessed that heof the rain to grow teff, a sour- because of the firm’s collaborators, have surprisingly aligned initially approached the idea withtasting grain they turn into the in this case Oxfam and the interests with NGOs when it a degree of scepticism, but nowtraditional injera flatbread. If the International Research Institute comes to reducing risk.” calls himself a “convert”.rains fail, so do their livelihoods. for Climate and Society (IRI) at According to Molly Hellmuth of Heavyweight humanitarians Climate models forecast that Columbia University, New York. IRI, “the trick is to balance the are also backing the idea. Kofidroughts, floods, heatwaves and Alliances between NGOs, needs of companies to make a Annan, former secretary-generalsevere storms are destined to charities and insurance firms may profit with the needs of farmers”. of the UN and head of the Globalbecome more frequent, so what seem an unlikely match. “Oxfam At a session on insurance and Humanitarian Forum, has saidcan poor farmers do? US andEuropean farmers buy cropinsurance to cope with extreme WHEN IT PAYS TO CUT EMISSIONSweather. But the cost of checking Insurance companies are putting ■ UK insurer Fortis offers preferential However, some policies haveclaims from smallholder farmers increasing pressure on governments mortgage rates for energy-efficient made people take more risks. Underin developing countries is to cut emissions, and are giving their home upgrades the US National Flood Insuranceprohibitive, and so insurance customers incentives to do the same. ■ Several companies offer premium Program, the government subsidisescompanies have tended to steer The industry has a vested interest, discounts to hybrid car drivers private homeowner policies, so theclear of them. because climate change worsens ■ Hurricane-resistant homes built in price that homeowners pay doesn’t Now a different type of weather-related disasters, leading to Florida are automatically eligible for reflect the full scale of flood scheme is being rolled mounting risk and payouts. In 2008, insurance discounts Many have criticised the schemeout in Adi Ha and many other a high number of tropical cyclones ■ UK insurers pressed their for encouraging people to build onplaces in Africa, Latin America helped drive overall natural disaster government to manage the growing high-risk flood plains and there isand Asia, backed by corporate losses to the third highest on record, flood risk; in exchange they agreed to evidence that the number of repeatgiants such as Swiss Re and according to Munich Re figures. continue to provide flood insurance to claims from frequently floodedMunich Re. Instead of insuring Examples include: households and small businesses properties is growing.against lost crops, “index8 | NewScientist | 4 July 2009
  5. 5. In this section■ Hippy monkey murders, page 10■ Cosmic beads, page 11■ 16-year-old baby, page 12 Police crackdowns may encourage drug use TOUGH policing of the illegal drugs In one example, the model is used market may have the perverse effect to simulate what happens when the of making drugs more affordable and number of police is increased. The thereby encouraging people to use researchers assume this would make them, according to a new model of it even more difficult than usual for the dynamics of this market. buyers to find a new seller. Its creators, a team of economists When they add this effect into led by Manolis Galenianos of the model, some dealers respond Pennsylvania State University in by lowering the quality of the drugs University Park, stop short of calling they sell; they can get away with for police to soften their approach because this would also have adverse “Buyers became unwilling consequences. But for law enforcers to switch supplier, so whose aim is to discourage drug use, sellers lure them in by the findings hint that tough policing offering purer drugs” alone may not be the most effective way to tackle the problem. this because their customers become The model is based on the especially reluctant to look interactions of a hypothetical elsewhere. But more dealers react population of buyers and sellers. by working harder to build a good Unlike other models of the market in relationship with customers, because –If the rains fail, they’re covered– illicit drugs, it takes into account two finding new ones has become harder factors that are crucial to the way than before. They do this by raisingthat “index insurance may hold interpret insurance as a “silver sellers and buyers act that tend not to the purity of their drugs, making itanswers for some of the more bullet”, say Koko Warner of the be present in conventional markets. cheaper for users to get the same hit.obstinate problems faced by the UN University, Tokyo, Japan, and One concerns the way consumers The team, which has submittedpoor and the vulnerable”. colleagues. They point out there is judge quality. In the market for its results for publication, concludesInsurance is being considered as no evidence yet that the schemes electronic goods, say, consumers that rigorous policing may encouragepart of the successor to the Kyoto leave poor people less vulnerable, generally have access to reliable drug use, and suggests thatprotocol, to be hammered out at nor help them cope with the information about the quality of the discouraging dealers from sellingUN negotiations in December. long-term effects of climate product. In contrast, heroin users often stronger drugs may be a better way As in the west, insurance can change such as sea-level rise and have no way of gauging the quality of of restricting drug use.also act as a powerful incentive for desertification. Premiums are a purchase before they use it. One strategy for achieving thispeople to adapt their behaviour to renewed annually, so can only The second concerns what is known might be to hand out longer sentencesclimate change (see “When it pays protect farmers from events in as “search cost”. While buyers of for selling stronger drugs – thoughto cut emissions”) .“If I am a farmer a coming year. As climate change TVs can easily switch shops if they team member Rosalie Liccardo Pacula,and the insurance company tells renders some regions increasingly don’t like a seller, drug users face an economist at the RAND Corporationme my premium will be cheaper an increased risk of arrest every time in Santa Monica, California, points outif I plant sorghum which is “Oxfam went through a big they search out a new dealer. So in that care would need to be taken indrought-resistant, then that gives soul-searching process Galenianos’s model, buyers make following this route. Weaker drugs canme an incentive,” says Suarez. before climbing on board purchasing decisions without be more dangerous than pure ones if Some schemes are being microinsurance projects” considering whether they could the substance used to dilute them isbundled up with bank loans, get higher-quality drugs at a lower toxic. Before the model can drive policyallowing farmers to invest in inhospitable, insurance may price from somewhere other than it needs to incorporate more details,drought-resistant seed or become unaffordable. their usual supplier. such as differences in behaviour ofirrigation systems. Farmers in “Some people are going to be The model produces results that individual buyers, Pacula says.India who bought insurance with excluded,” says Suarez. He points resemble some of what is seen in real Will politicians take notice ofloans for better quality seed saw out that this is already true, for drug markets, suggesting that it such a model? Will Brownsberger,their yields increase up to four- instance, in shanty towns in provides a useful reflection of the a drug policy specialist who sits as afold in one growing season, and Dhaka, Bangladesh, which are real world. It also throws up fresh Democrat in the Massachusetts Housesome of them use their profit to flooded every year. “In those cases ways in which dealers and addicts of Representatives, is sceptical. Evenbuy health insurance. promoting insurance is not the may relate to each other, and some if more detail is added, economists will Despite the promise of projects right move,” he says. “Insurers will unexpected ways in which these ties struggle to get the attention of drugso far, it would be a mistake to not deliberately lose money.” ■ can impact the price of drugs. policy-makers, he says. Jim Giles ■ 4 July 2009 | NewScientist | 9
  6. 6. THIS WEEK SOUNDBITESTYLER LYSON/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC and a tendon. They found “Yes, it’s a little bit dangerous. cell-like structures comparable Normally, people avoid the to those of living vertebrates. monsoon clouds.” Further analysis of the skin J. R. Kulkarni of the Indian Institute of and claw revealed the presence of Tropical Meteorology, which has begun amino acids – the building blocks an experiment to seed storm clouds of proteins – suggesting that the with rain-inducing chemicals to try cell-like structures were indeed to control the timing of the annual cells and that organic material monsoon. Its late arrival is causing havoc may have been preserved this year (The Times, London, 30 June) (Proceedings of the Royal Society B, DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2009.0812). “If you want to have a baby, Previous studies claim to have found whole proteins inside our advice is to do it often.” fossilised bones. Yet researchers David Greening of Sydney IVF, often argue that such proteins a private fertility clinic, on his study may originate not from the of 118 men that found sperm damage dinosaur, but from soil bacteria, was 12 per cent lower in men who handling of fossils, and the had sex daily. He presented the results preparation of samples. at a fertility meeting in Amsterdam –Even some skin survived– Manning says the presence of (Associated Press, 30 June) amino acids, rather than whole “Light bulbs may not seem Dinosaur ‘cells’ shed light proteins, is a good sign. After 66 million years, proteins in soft sexy but this simple action holds enormous promise.” on life 66 million years ago tissue should have broken down into amino acids, so finding large US President Barack Obama proteins would likely be a sign announcing new, tougher energy A MUMMIFIED dinosaur down soft tissue quickly. However, of contamination. The high efficiency requirements for certain unearthed in North Dakota may the rapid burial of Dakota in a concentrations of amino acids types of fluorescent and incandescent contain traces of 66-million-year waterlogged, low-oxygen in the fossil, compared with only lighting, scheduled to take effect in old organic material, which could environment allowed fossilisation traces found in the surrounding 2012. The measures should cut the provide vital information about to outpace the normal processes sediment, support the idea that electricity used by these lights by 15 to its evolution. of microbial decay, preserving they came from the fossil. 25 per cent and save up to $4 billion The well-preserved fossil of a areas of soft tissue. The authors hope that further (The New York Times, 29 June) plant-eating hadrosaur, complete Phil Manning and Roy Wogelius analysis will confirm the presence with skin and tendons, was at the University of Manchester, of organic material and provide “It’s a big and voracious discovered in 1999. Named UK, used electron microscopy and fundamental information about predator, it will eat lots of “Dakota”, it was a rare find as X-ray imaging to study Dakota’s the evolution of this species and different insects, soft fruit bacteria in the soil usually break fossilised skin, as well as a claw its descendants. Jeff Hecht ■ and all kinds of things.” Helen Roy of the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology warning that When peaceful (DOI: 10.1002/ajp.20713), show how lifestyles may dramatically alter the Federal University of São Paulo- Diadema, Brazil, who led the research. an anticipated warm summer would provide the perfect conditions for monkeys turn the behaviour of a species. The muriqui’s peaceful reputation Because fruit is widely dispersed, females detach from the main group the Asian harlequin ladybird to to murder stems mainly from northern to locate it, making them less breed, creating ecological havoc for hundreds of native species (The populations that feed on abundant available for sex with the males than DEEP in the Atlantic forests of Brazil leaves, and where males patiently in the north where everyone stays Guardian, London, 30 June) lives the muriqui – the world’s most queue to mate with females. together to eat leaves. peaceful and egalitarian primate. Or But in the southern population Lacking ready mates, males may “Fish do very well in the is it? The cuddly reputation of the where the attack took place, fruit is become frustrated, creating mutual seas without eating cows.” “hippy monkey” has taken a battering more widely available than in the tension and aggression. Also, muriqui Robert Friedland at the University after a gang of six were spotted north, and this may provide a clue to males bond closely for life with male of Louisville in Kentucky, who is attacking and killing an adult male. the assault, says Mauricio Talebi of siblings and relatives. Filippo Aureli concerned about the possibility of The victim, an old male, died an of Liverpool John Moores University, people contracting Creutzfeldt-Jakob hour after receiving savage bites to “The victim was an UK, says that this facilitates “gang” disease from eating farmed fish that his face, body and genitals. The old male who received attacks, as closely bonded males are are fed by-products rendered from observations, published this week in savage bites to his face, in a strong position to victimise an cows (Reuters, 26 June) the American Journal of Primatology body and genitals” individual. Mairi McCleod ■ 10 | NewScientist | 4 July 2009
  7. 7. For daily news stories, visit your brain schizophrenia switched between in the brain. Lloyd also identified low and high activity more sounds and rhythms in the erratically than healthy brains, brains of people with dementiamake sweet music? allowing the two types of brain to be distinguished by sound alone. While this difference is also that distinguished them from healthy volunteers. Could identifying such aural clear from looking at the images, differences ever be useful? DanielNora Schultz When Lloyd fed the software a Lloyd’s collaborator Vince Calhoun Levitin, a neuroscientist at McGill set of scans of his own brain taken at the University of New Mexico University in Montreal, Canada,WHAT does the human brain as he switched between driving a in Albuquerque, says there are thinks they might. He says brainsound like? Now you can find out virtual-reality car and resting, he variations in the music from music’s killer application mightthanks to a technique for turning found that he could detect the people with schizophrenia that be in allowing researchers toits flickering activity into music. switch-over in the sounds. are not visually obvious. “It home in on patterns that suggestListening to scans may also give Lloyd then gave the software almost sounds like there is more a particular region is interestingnew insights into the differences scans taken from volunteers background warbling,” he says. and that wouldn’t be detectableand similarities between normal with dementia and schizophrenia, He suggests that these using the eye alone. They couldand dysfunctional brains. and from healthy volunteers. “unsteady rhythms and cadences” analyse these regions more closely Brain scans created using The brains of people with may be indicative of dysfunction using conventional imaging.functional MRI consist of a series His colleague Didier Grandjeanof images in which different areas at the University of Geneva in Turning brain activity into musiclight up with varying intensity at How brain activity from scans can be turned into a symphony Switzerland says that brain musicdifferent times. These can be used might help identify temporal 1: Areas of the brain that 2: A series of brain scans 3: The notes are combined,to determine which parts of the activate at the same time are fed into software that with volumes varying with patterns in particular. “Melodiesbrain are active during a are assigned a particular plots their activity levels brain activity are a much better way to build note on a scale against time (below)particular task. complex mental representations To turn such scans into music, over time than anything the eye SOFTWARE PLOT OF ACTIVITY IN ONE GROUP OF BRAIN AREAS ACTIVITY SCALEphilosopher Dan Lloyd at Trinity can do,” he says.College in Hartford, Connecticut, Lloyd is also keen to explore the Low Highidentified regions that become Time aesthetic aspects of brain together and assigned each “It’s not quite like composedof these groups a different pitch. sound but it’s not random either,He then created software that it’s ‘almost music’. My studentsanalyses a series of scans and are putting it on their playlists.” ■generates the notes at thesepitches as the corresponding brain MORE ONLINE SOURCE: DAN LLOYDareas light up. Each note is played To hear the brain music, go toat a volume that corresponds to SNAPSHOT 1 SNAPSHOT 2the intensity of activity.Split ends left should have formed as the cosmos cooled from its hot beginnings. The monopoles – analogous to a magnet’s north or south pole without its partner. gravitational waves, which could still be travelling through space-time. “It’stheir mark on imprint of their extremely high gravity was expected to be seen in the As the strings broke, the team’s analysis shows that their split ends possible that if you wait long enough, one of those highly focused burststhe universe cosmic microwave background – the would have been capped off by more would hit the Earth, and that would radiation left over from the big bang – monopoles, eventually leading to a cause one of our gravitational waveSPACE-TIME should have universe- or as gravitational lenses that bend detectors to chirp,” says Shlaer (www.sized snags called cosmic strings distant light towards us. But no “The first cosmic strings across it, but none have convincing evidence has been seen. were unstable and split Those detectors include theyet been found. That could be According to Ben Shlaer of Tufts into small pieces capped Laser Interferometer Gravitationalbecause they broke into a tangle of University in Medford, Massachusetts, by monopoles” Observatory, which is currently beingsmaller strings and beads soon after and colleagues, that could be because upgraded, and the upcoming Laserthe big bang. The good news is that the strings were unstable and split universe filled with fragmented Interferometer Space Antenna. Thethis would have created gravitational into smaller and smaller pieces soon strings with beads at their ends. In an possible frequency range of the waveswaves that could be detected on Earth. after they formed. The first strings infant universe, these high-tension is exceptionally large, “raising the Many theories predict the existence could have been gigantic closed strings would have been whipping hope of detection” of cosmic strings,of cosmic strings. These topological loops or extremely large fragments around, accelerating the massive says theoretical physicist Henrydefects in space-time, which can be that terminated in “beads”. These beads to relativistic speeds. These Tye at Cornell University in Ithaca,larger than the observable universe, beads would have been so-called would have generated tight beams of New York. Anil Ananthaswamy ■ 4 July 2009 | NewScientist | 11
  8. 8. THIS WEEKTeen baby may hold infant, for example, whereas her sustained youth and vitality,” bones are as mature as those in says Walker. a 10-year-old (though still small), While rejuvenation wouldanti-ageing secrets and she still has the milk teeth of an 8-year-old. She is fed through a tube in her stomach because her not be possible, Walker stresses, ageing could potentially be stopped. “What you’re doing respiratory and gastrointestinal is arresting physiologicalAndy Coghlan forever young as did Oscar Wilde’s systems are maturing out of degradation, and if it’s true character Dorian Gray. sync so she can’t swallow easily that ageing is stoppable, thenBY investigating the extraordinary Despite being 16, Brooke is or safely. hypothetically we may be ablecase of a 16-year-old girl locked equivalent in size and mental Walker thinks that Brooke is to sustain life indefinitely.”perpetually in the mind and body development to an 11-month-old the first recorded case of what he Walker says that Brooke’sof a baby, it may be possible to baby. But the first full scientific describes as “developmental haphazard development isidentify the master switch that investigation of her case has disorganisation”. He suspects she probably the closest manifestationcontrols ageing. revealed that she is not simply yet of what happens when the Richard Walker of the frozen in time. Instead, her “Brooke’s body is not hypothetical regulator is disrupted.University of South Florida condition has been traced to growing as a unified Gene scans so far have shownCollege of Medicine in Tampa and different parts of her body organism but in that she has no abnormalities inhis team are comparing the DNA maturing at different rates, fragmented parts” genes linked to any knownof “teen baby” Brooke Greenberg, instead of in synchrony. disorder that causes prematurefrom Baltimore, Maryland, with “I think she has differential has mutations in a hypothetical ageing, such as progeria orthat of her three healthy sisters, growth of her body. It’s not “regulator” gene – or group of Werner’s syndrome. If theher parents and standard human growing as a unified organism, genes – thought to orchestrate project uncovers any promisingDNA sequences in the human but in fragmented parts,” says development up to adulthood and mutations the relevant genesgenome database. The idea is to team leader Walker (Mechanisms reproductive age, but as it carries will be transferred to mice totrack down the gene, or group of of Ageing and Development, DOI: on working ageing is the result. look for alterations in theirgenes responsible for ageing. 10.1016/j.mad.2009.02.003). “If you could halt that in young longevity or the timing of If such a gene can be found, it Brooke’s brain is scarcely more adulthood, the effects should be different body phases suchmay one day allow people to stay mature than that of a newborn stopped and we should enjoy as reproduction. ■ GERRY ELLIS/MINDEN PICTURESDisease runs limited by biodiversity. It is spread by ticks, and the more mammal speciesriot as animal there are, the more often ticks bite species that don’t transmit Lyme.species are lost Unlike Lyme disease, hantaviruses spread directly between the animalsCOULD biodiversity protect humans they affect. “This is the first timefrom disease? Conservationists have anyone has shown anything like thislong suspected it might, and now they in a directly transmitted disease,”have the evidence to back this up. says Daszak. Dizney suspects that Keeping complex ecosystems the more mammal species there are,intact is thought to pay big dividends, the closer mice stick to their homeby preserving natural balances territories, as many of the mammalsamong species that keep animal are predators, so mice encounterdiseases in check. These includes and infect each other less often.zoonoses – animal diseases that The team hopes this link betweenaffect humans. human health and biodiversity could Rodents in the Americas carry –Deer mice spell danger– boost public support for conservinghantaviruses, which can be lethal to diverse ecosystems.people who inhale them from dried four years. In each park, they found “This is a landmark paper,” says Daszak cautions that the effectdroppings. Some 500 people a year in variation in both the number of Peter Daszak, head of the Wildlife may not hold true for other zoonoses.the US die after being infected with mammal species and the proportion of Trust in New York, which investigates “Losing biodiversity may promotethe “sin nombre” hantavirus (SNV) deer mice with SNV. The less mammal biodiversity and disease. It is hard to this virus because deer mice are afrom the common deer mouse. diversity there was, the more deer test how the two affect each other, ‘weed’ species that thrives in Laurie Dizney and colleagues at mice were infected (PLoS ONE, DOI: he says, partly because of the huge depleted environments,” he says.Portland State University in Oregon 10.3201/eid1507.081083). In the amount of fieldwork involved. “But it is also true that the moreput four different kinds of live traps park with the lowest diversity, As a result, Lyme disease is the only species there are, the more zoonosesin five parks around Portland over infection levels were sky-high. zoonosis that has been shown to be there may be.” Debora MacKenzie ■12 | NewScientist | 4 July 2009
  9. 9. For daily news stories, visit Double whammy to kill cancer cells‘Trojan’ cells take on CANCER CELLdrug-resistant tumours STAGE 1: DISRUPT DRUG RESISTANCE Using minicells loaded with smallJUST one imitation horse was wave of minicells containing interfering RNAenough to conquer Troy, but high doses of the cancer drugit takes two waves of “Trojan” doxorubicin was then injected, cell fragments to destroy drug- and the tumours shrank,resistant tumours in mice. The indicating that the first batch hadfirst wave releases RNA to disrupt indeed blocked MDR1 (Nature Messenger RNAdrug resistance, making the Biotechnology, DOI: 10.1038/ needed for drug-resistancetumours vulnerable, and the nbt.1547). All of the treated mice siRNA blocks messenger RNAsecond delivers a fatal dose of were still alive 110 days after beingchemotherapy. implanted with the tumours, DYING CANCER Himanshu Brahmbhatt and while a group of untreated mice STAGE 2: KILL CELL CELLJennifer MacDiarmid of the had died by then. Using minicells loaded Drug kills cellcompany Engeneic in Sydney, Brahmblatt says that the cancer with cancer drugAustralia, had already coaxed cells engulf the minicells in theirbacteria such as E. coli into cell membranes – a process calleddividing at their ends, rather endocytosis. Many different cellsthan in the middle. This way they take in foreign cells or proteinsproduce tiny buds of cytoplasm this way, but it wasn’t clear that Deactivateddevoid of chromosomes and other cancer cells would be capable of messenger RNAorganelles. After washing these absorbing two rounds of“minicells” clear of bacterial minicells. “The first Trojan horsetoxins, the team loaded them up goes in and the cancer cell openswith chemotherapy drugs and its door,” says Brahmbhatt. “Thetagged them with antibodies cell then regenerates its entirethat bind only to tumours. When machinery for the next Trojaninjected, the minicells destroyed horse to come in and release atumours in animals. different payload.” However, because many Brahmbhatt adds that thetumours eventually become minicells could be loaded withresistant to chemotherapy, the different drugs depending on thenext step is to find ways toovercome drug resistance. “The first Trojan horse goes One way cancer cells develop in and the cancer cell opensresistance is by overproducing a its door. Then one comes inprotein called MDR1, which helps with a different payload”pump the drugs out of the cell,reducing their toxicity. type of cancer and with differentBrahmblatt’s team wondered if siRNAs to block the production ofthey could also use the minicells proteins responsible for otherto block production of this forms of drug resistance.protein. To find out, they created They could also be used tostrands of small interfering RNA treat other diseases. siRNAs have(siRNA) with a sequence designed been touted as a way to block ato block the expression of the range of disease-causing genesgene for MDR1, and loaded these but researchers have struggled tointo the minicells. get them across cell membranes Next they injected these efficiently. “This is an exciting,minicells into mice with a range novel technology with potentialof drug-resistant human cancers, applicability to a number ofincluding breast, colon and different delivery problems,”uterine tumours. The minicells agrees Daniel Anderson, whowere engulfed by the cancer cells, researches drugs delivery at thewhere they released the strands of Massachusetts Institute ofsiRNA (see diagram). The second Technology. Linda Geddes ■ 4 July 2009 | NewScientist | 13
  10. 10. IN BRIEFADAM SEWARD/ALAMY American seniors beat the Brits SENIOR citizens in the US are sharper than their British counterparts, according to a transatlantic study of how ageing affects memory. Kenneth Langa at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and colleagues compared the results of a memory test taken by 8299 American and 5276 British over-65s. The Americans outscored the British on average by 1.4 points out of a maximum of 24, with the largest gap in those over 85, where average scores were 10.1 and 8.3, respectively (BMC Geriatrics, DOI: 10.1186/1471-2318-9-23). The test involved recalling a list of nouns and stating the current day and date. Americans had higher levels of education, which might explain their higher performance to some extent. Surprisingly, drinking An hour after the female opened the box, the alcohol – which was more Ok, five minutes’ grooming researchers noted that she was rewarded by being common among British seniors – in exchange for that banana groomed more often and for longer by other group correlated with better scores. members, and that she could afford to groom dominant MONKEYS might not deal in stocks and shares, but they group members less often. do trade commodities, and now it seems that monkey Next, the team halved the importance of the female’s Pigeons navigate exchange rates are influenced by supply and demand. ability to provide food, by introducing a second lunch Grooming acts as a common currency among box that only a second female could open. The first using landmarks non-human primates, says Ronald Noë at the University female’s grooming “stock value” decreased, while the of Strasbourg, France. It is exchanged for food or greater second monkey’s rose, until both arrived at roughly the A TYPE of “black-box” for pigeons tolerance from dominant members of the group. same value and were groomed for the same amount of suggests that the birds navigate To see the exchange in action, Noë’s team created an time (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, using prominent landmarks. artificial market in groups of wild vervet monkeys by DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0812280106. Alexei Vyssotski and his team at introducing a plastic box filled with food that only one “One can say that the second provider was groomed the Institute of Neuroinformatics subordinate female was trained to open. at a cost of the first provider,” says Noë. in Zurich, Switzerland, fitted homing pigeons with an EEG device and a GPS sensor. They The big and tall don’t win ’em all Out of 46 women questioned, then recorded the pigeons’ only one said she preferred brain activity as they flew over WHO says bigger is better? are based on western data. “big” men, and neither sex was familiar terrain. Traditional hunter-gatherers in Not convinced that these influenced by size in their choice They identified several bands Tanzania don’t consider height preferences are universal, Rebecca of partner (Biology Letters, DOI: of increased brain activity when to be important when choosing Sear of the London School of 10.1098/rsbl.2009.0342). the birds passed significant a partner, in contrast to western Economics and Frank Marlowe In forager populations where landmarks, such as coastlines, women, who favour tall men. of Florida State University in food is scarce, being big might highways and farmhouses, Previous studies have shown Tallahassee studied partner not be beneficial, says Sear. She suggesting these are important to that tall men are at an advantage choice in the Hazda forager tribe suggests that height preferences navigation (Current Biology, DOI: when finding a mate: they are in Tanzania. They looked at the are context-specific and while 10.1016/j.cub.2009.05.070). more likely to marry, and produce height and weight of married some mate preferences might be The team say the next step will more offspring on average. couples, as well the number universal, it is “time to reassess be to measure brain activity over However, most of these findings of marriages per person. our ‘bigger is better’ view of size”. unfamiliar territory. 14 | NewScientist | 4 July 2009