For some children, science is as palatable as brussels sprouts. To elevate the topic in the minds of primary and secondary students, the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia and the Science Museum of London have collaborated to publish an online science gallery entitled "Pieces of Science,"

By | April 15, 2002

For some children, science is as palatable as brussels sprouts. To elevate the topic in the minds of primary and secondary students, the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia and the Science Museum of London have collaborated to publish an online science gallery entitled "Pieces of Science," The 16 featured objects, from a beginner's guide to genetic engineering to the story of the mold Sir Alexander Fleming discovered and transformed into penicillin has its own its Web page, complete with history, and both online and offline activities geared to students. The museums provide lesson plans and resources for teachers. "We want to use the past to motivate the future," says Karen Elinich, director of educational technology programs at the Franklin Institute. Elinich believes the Web makes an excellent showcase. "This project is part of the movement where many museums are using technology to bring their collections to the public," she says.

Epstein-Barr Smoked Out of Its Hole

Researchers at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, Pa., appear to have discovered the protectors of Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV)—a ubiquitous herpes virus that can remain silent in human cells for years but may give rise to cancers such as Burkitt's lymphoma and nasopharyngeal carcinoma. The circular DNA genome of EBV contains a sequence similar to repeated sequences in host telomeres. Researchers found that this sequence and a viral protein EBNA1 recruit cellular proteins normally involved in protecting telomeres from rearrangement and irreversible repair—activities that would be catastrophic for the viral genome (Z. Deng et al., "Telomeric proteins regulate episomal maintenance of Epstein-Barr virus origin of plasmid replication" Molecular Cell, 9:3, March 2002.). "It shares with the cell a telomeric control of genome stability," says Paul M. Lieberman, associate professor at the Wistar Institute. The cellular proteins bind to the viral plasmid at its origin of replication and give the 'all clear' signal to the cell when the time comes for replication repair. Some researchers are developing gene therapies using EBV-based vectors because it doesn't incorporate into the host genome. "If you just put in this relatively innocuous plasmid, you could really help deliver an extra gene without disrupting the natural chromosome," Lieberman says. The research could also help in developing treatments for those at risk for EBV's cancerous complications such as people on immunosuppressant drugs or AIDS patients.

Flocks Learn Quicker than Solo Fliers

Bryce Marshall

Birds living in socially complex arrangements seem capable of learning what was once considered the province of primates, says Alan Bond, research professor of biological sciences at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. He and his colleagues found that pinyon jays, which mate for life and live in flocks of 500, more quickly learn a task involving logical inferences than do solitary-living scrub jays. The researchers, who submitted the study to Animal Behaviour, rewarded birds for pecking on one of a pair of colored disks. The birds learned that pecking disk A led to food, while pecking disk B did not. Next they had to learn a similar discrimination in which pecking disk B was rewarded and pecking disk C was not, and in a C/D pairing, that C was rewarded and D was not, and so on, through a total of seven disks. Test trials determined whether the birds could successfully learn non-adjacent disks, learning the correct disk in a B/D pairing. The study is "the first demonstration of a clear association between social complexity and cognition is animals," says Bond. Previously, he says, researchers thought that only primates could make such a "transitive inference."

Picking Apart Four Megabases of Mess

Roger Horton

The Wellcome Trust infused £2.2 million into a project that will sequence eight versions of the Major Histocompatibility Complex in hopes of aiding research on autoimmune diseases: in particular some forms of diabetes and multiple sclerosis. The MHC Haplotype Consortium will sequence eight specific haplotypes or heritable versions of the MHC from different individuals by 2004. The area of about 200 immunologically significant genes on the short arm of chromosome 6 is one of the most variable regions in the human genome. For example, one gene, HLA B, has more than 400 allelic variants alone. Nobody has the MHC sequence that was drafted by the Human Genome Project, says Stephan Beck, head of human sequencing at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. It's a hodgepodge of the individuals who contributed DNA. For this project, he says, "We picked [the eight haplotypes] to have a good ethnic mix. They're all Caucasian, but they are Caucasian of European, African, Asian, and North American descent. At the same time they were picked because their haplotypes predispose or give resistance to either diabetes or multiple sclerosis." This consortium, as with similar cohorts, adheres to the immediate data-release policy on its Web site ( Immediacy of information is important, Beck says, "because you can already start developing genotyping assays." The study should help to determine linkage groups in this highly variable region so that hundreds or thousands of single nucleotide polymorphisms can be tied to one representative SNP.

The Dilly-Dallying Venture Dollar

Erica P. Johnson

Venture capitalists smiled on life science companies this year, with biotechnology concerns attracting one-fourth of all early-stage investments, according to VentureWire, which released its first-quarter report earlier this month. International life science companies closed 133 deals and raised just less than $1.5 billion compared with $1.06 billion from 108 deals during first quarter 2001, says Ken Andersen, VentureWire editor. US companies raised the lion's share. Andy Reckles, chairman of Atlanta-based HPC Capital Management, says the growth shows that two years since the first draft of the human genome, investors are still enthused about the fusion of information and life science technologies. But Andersen expressed caution despite the glowing returns. "We're creating a biotech bubble, with investors kind of rushing in and not quite understanding what the time frame and the risks involved are," he says. "If things get tough in a few months, [companies] may find that these investors have pulled back as quickly as they went in." The capital markets are already showing weaknesses, according Eric Fredrickson, a director of Toronto-based MDS Capital. "Valuations are down quite considerably from where they were two years ago," he says. Nevertheless, he predicts the venture market will bloom. "People are going to make a lot of money.... I know it's going to happen, I just don't know the timing."

Caprion and McGill Link Up for Proteomics Project

Courtesy of McGill University

Proteomics research at McGill University got a million-dollar boost from Caprion Inc., the Montreal-based pharmaceutical company. The funding fulfills the university's responsibility to raise from industry 20% of the $3.2 million (Canadian) the university received for the project from the Canada Foundation for Innovation. "We had to assure our colleagues in the Canadian and Quebec government that the knowledge obtained from the equipment and infrastructure provided by the CFI could be leveraged in industrial applications," says John Bergeron, chair of the anatomy and cell biology department at McGill. Bergeron, a founding scientist of Caprion, says the company had previously done work in structural proteins and prions and is developing a business plan that would complement his research. Lloyd Segal, president and CEO of Caprion, credits Bergeron as the driving thinker behind the company's proteomics approach to drug discovery. Intellectual property rights are not clear-cut, but Caprion will retain the rights to discoveries, such as novel proteins, with commercial applications. McGill would receive royalties, the rights to the innovative technology, and an exemption from Caprion's patents.

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