January 2011

Volume 25 Issue 1

The Scientist January 2011 Cover




Contributors Samuel S. Myers and Aaron Bernstein are interested in the bigger picture. Both enrolled in interdisciplinary programs in college and moved on to medical school. But even their medical school and residency experiences were untraditional. Myers enlarged his view of the world by taking a two-year break from his medical residency at the University of California, San Francisco, when Tibetan officials invited him to become the health administrator of Qomolangm

Brave New Drugs

By Sarah Greene Brave New Drugs Intoxicating ideas for saving a billion lives A call to indie innovators to come up with affordable alternatives David Nutt was no stranger to controversy by the time he was fired as chair of the UK’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs in October 2009, after claiming that alcohol is more harmful to health, and to society as a whole, than many illegal drugs—including cannabis, LSD, and ecstasy. Though no


Mail Really Learning Biology At least in the Unites States, most undergraduate biology majors are required to take an evolution course as part of their core curriculum, but I know of no undergraduate curriculum that requires a course in systematics. While evolution does indeed explain the “why” of homology, systematics tackles the more fundamental questions of “what is homology, how do we discover it, and use it to infer phylogene


Eavesdroppings Speaking of Science © T-Immagini / istockphoto.com Understanding brain code, and connecting it with a computer chip, is the next pivotal frontier, analogous to how cracking the DNA code astronomically progressed science. —Caroline Rothstein, in “Implant Memory Chips in Our Brains,” a Big Think interview with Gary Marcus When we’re shown trust, our brains motivate us to be trustworthy. It’s a beautiful ki

Master Collaborator

By Carrie Arnold Master Collaborator Stoma on a tobacco leaf Brian Sullivan / Getty images When University of California, Riverside, botanist Sean Cutler figured out how the hormone abscisic acid (ABA) helps plants survive drought, the discovery felt more like a burden than a triumph. His finding was in jeopardy of languishing unpublished because previous research on the hormone was tainted by suspect results and retracted papers. In the 1980s, scientis

Eau de Choice

By Richard P. Grant Eau de Choice HIDDEN JEWEL In the wild, male animals typically compete with each other for the attention of the opposite sex. When the female of a species—mouse, rat, cat, dog, or human—puts the lion’s (or rather, lioness’s) share of effort into raising offspring, she becomes a shrewd investor who must be choosy about her mate. Evolutionary biologist Jane Hurst at the University of Liverpool has found that male mice

A Morbid Map

By Jef Akst A Morbid Map Below, from L to R: David Rosenblatt, grad student Natascia Anastasio, Loydie Jerome-Majewska and Jacek Majewski. CREDIT: Daniel Boismenu In October 2009, Loydie Jerome-Majewska and her husband Jacek Majewski made a bet: which of them would be the first to identify the gene that causes Van Den Ende–Gupta Syndrome (VDEGS)? Gene mapping of four patients with the rare genetic disorder had narrowed the search to a region of chromosom

Bacterial Glue

By Cristina Luiggi Bacterial Glue Mélanie Hamon talks about bacteria that hijack the host’s cell-renewal process. Courtesy of Mélanie Hamon The intestinal epithelium is continually renewing itself. This is bad news for bacteria such as Shigella flexneri, which infects cells that line the gut and causes dysentery in humans. Pasteur Institute microbiologist Mélanie Hamon chats about a paper that describes how this stomach bug has evolved a wa

Top 7 From F1000

Top 7 From F1000 MedicalRF / Photo Researchers, Inc. 1. To stent or not? » A large randomized trial demonstrates that arterial stenting is as effective and safe as surgical intervention in treating narrowing (stenosis) of the carotid arteries, challenging previous work that showed stents were more risky. T.G. Brott et al., N Engl J Med, 363:11-23, 2010. Evaluated by G. Tang & J. Matsumura, Univ Wisconsin; M. Alberts, Northwestern Univ; M. Nishik


Synthetic Spirits

By David Nutt Synthetic Spirits Can we use science to reduce the harms of alcohol? © Ljupco / Istockphoto.com Alcohol is the oldest of all recreational drugs. While its psychological complications have long been known, only in the past century have its medical complications, such as liver cirrhosis, cardiovascular disease, and cancers, become recognized. In many Western countries these medical problems have increased at an alarming rate. In the United Kingdo

Garage Innovation

The potential costs of regulating synthetic biology must be counted against putative benefits.

Mining Bacterial Small Molecules

By L. Caetano M. Antunes, Julian E. Davies and B. Brett Finlay Mining Bacterial Small Molecules As much as rainforests or deep-sea vents, the human gut holds rich stores of microbial chemicals that should be mined for their pharmacological potential. animate4.com ltd. / Photo Researchers, Inc. Companies spend huge resources going to the far reaches of the Earth to search for the next blockbuster. But we need look no further than our own intestines, which are p

The Coming Health Crisis

By Samuel S. Myers and Aaron Bernstein The Coming Health Crisis Indirect effects of global climate change threaten the health of hundreds of millions of people. The very uncertainty that shrouds this issue must serve as an organizing principle for adaptation to its ill effects. Heading to the water hole, northern Namibia Alexander Nesbitt Human activity is disrupting Earth’s climate, and the rising emissions of greenhouse gases are accelerating that dis

From Simple To Complex

By Jef Akst From Simple To Complex The switch from single-celled organisms to ones made up of many cells has evolved independently more than two dozen times. What can this transition teach us about the origin of complex organisms such as animals and plants? Sean McCabe Given the complexity of most organisms—sophisticated embryogenesis, differentiation of multiple tissue types, intricate coordination among millions of cells—the emergence of multicel

Watt Fun!

By Karen Hopkin Watt Fun! Her doctoral advisor told her to amuse herself, and Fiona Watt has done just that—probing individual stem cells and determining the genes and molecules that direct them to differentiate or cause them to contribute to cancer. FIONA WATT Deputy Director, Wellcome Trust Centre for Stem Cell Research Herchel Smith Professor of Molecular Genetics, University of Cambridge Deputy Director, Cancer Research UK, Cambridge Research In

Interfering with Cancer

By Katherine Hyde and Paul Liu Interfering with Cancer MicroRNAs may drive the development of leukemia. Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is a cancer of the blood-cell producing bone marrow with several subtypes, and is usually fatal within months, or even weeks, if left untreated. It is now becoming clear, however, that dysregulation of microRNAs (miRs) is not simply a side effect of the cancer; rather, it could play a mechanistic role in the development of leukemia.

Basophil Roles

By Richard P. Grant Basophil Roles Dr. David Phillips/Visuals Unlimited, Inc. The paper C. Ohnmacht et al., “Basophils orchestrate chronic allergic dermatitis and protective immunity against helminths,” Immunity, 33:364-74, 2010. Free F1000 Evaluation The finding Basophils were deemed critical in allergic response and parasite removal, but their precise role has been controversial. David Vöhringer, now at Universitätsklinikum Erlan

Human Effects

By Richard P. Grant Human Effects Erle Ellis, Kees Klein Goldewijk, Stefan Siebert, Deborah Lightman, and Navin Ramankutty. 2010. The paper E.C. Ellis et al., “Anthropogenic transformation of the biomes, 1700 to 2000,” Glob Ecol Biogeogr, 19:589-606, 2010. Free F1000 Evaluation The finding To accurately measure the changes to the terrestrial biosphere on a global scale, Erle Ellis at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and coworker


Myc, Nicked

By Richard P. Grant Myc, Nicked Wikipedia (Crystal structure of Myc and Max in complex with DNA.) The paper M. Conacci-Sorrell et al., “Myc-nick: a cytoplasmic cleavage product of Myc that promotes α-tubulin acetylation and cell differentiation,” Cell, 142:480-93, 2010. Free F1000 Evaluation The finding When Maralice Conacci-Sorrell joined Bob Eisenman’s lab at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington, she

Jeremy Reiter: Hunting for Cilia

By Cristina Luiggi Jeremy Reiter: Hunting for Cilia Michael Winokur Photography Assistant professor of biochemistry, University of California, San Francisco. Age: 39 In late summer of 2005, budding developmental biologist 1 and an offer for tenure at UCSF quickly followed. RESULTS: Reiter’s passion for research was ignited during the PhD half of his MD/PhD training at UCSF, when he worked in Didier Stainier’s lab studying zebrafish he

Proteins Adorned

By Amy Maxmen Proteins Adorned Cracking the secrets of posttranslational modifications © Shunyu Fan / Istockphoto.com (inside protein molecule) Cells do what proteins tell them to do. But sequencing DNA or running microarrays won’t reveal a protein’s mandate. During and after translation, enzymes, lipids, proteins, and sugars decorate the amino acids of the newly synthesized protein. As a result of these alterations, proteins encoded by the same

The Profits of Nonprofit

By Megan Scudellari The Profits of Nonprofit The surprising results when drug development and altruism collide Victoria Hale, founder of the Institute of OneWorld Health, the first nonprofit pharmaceutical company in the US POPTECH In the beginning, they called her a fool. When pharmaceutical chemist Victoria Hale told friends and colleagues that she wanted to start a nonprofit pharma company, they laughed at her, said it was career suicide, that it could


By Vanessa Schipani Labcations Getting to know your colleagues outside the lab makes for better science. Stowe Mountain Resort, Vermont PHOTO courtesy of Stowe Mountain Resort Every winter, throngs of sleds carry children of all ages down Marshall Hill in Stowe, Vermont. Hands down, it’s “the world’s best tobogganing and inner tube hill,” sending fearless young sledders down its slope at “a million miles an hour,” says Wi

Appealing Choice

By Erika Lorraine Milam Appealing Choice A book is born from pondering why sexual selection was, for so long, a minor component of evolutionary biology. Erika Lorraine Milam Courtesy of The University Of Maryland I became fascinated by the history of sexual selection during my second year of graduate work in biology. I was drafting a review paper on the evolution of internal reproduction in fishes. The two dominant theories at the time (worked out with in

Book Excerpt from Looking for a Few Good Males

By Erika Lorraine Milam Book Excerpt from: Looking for a Few Good Males In Chapter 2, "Progressive Desire," author Erika Lorraine Milam explores sexual selection’s incursion into evolutionary theory Starting in the 1920s, three men—Ronald Aylmer Fisher, J. B. S. Haldane, and Sewall Wright—began to integrate genetics with natural selection, using mathematics to describe the evolution of a population. Only one of these mathematically inclined evo

Capsule Reviews

By Richard P. Grant Capsule Reviews How to Catch a Robot Rat: When Biology Inspires Innovation By Agnès Guillot & Jean-Arcady Meyer; translated by Susan Emanuel The MIT Press 232 pp. $29.95 Where do physicists turn for inspiration? To biology, naturally. Back in the day, we used to dream of being like the Six Million Dollar Man, Steve Austin, our bodies made of space-age metal and plastic, squishy biology replaced by new technology. But the oppos

The Mindless Machine, circa 1664

By Vanessa Schipani The Mindless Machine, circa 1664 Though many of René Descartes’ anatomical and physiological assumptions were vastly off target, he was the first to make a convincing case for a purely physical, nonspiritual view of life. Instead of seeing the mind and body as intimately intertwined, Descartes viewed them as interacting but separate entities. Animals, he reasoned, did not have minds, but were still capable of functioning, much like machin

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