In brief

Zeitgeist

Methane on Mars

Mars Express – artist’s impression. © Alex Lutkus
Mars Express – artist’s impression. © Alex Lutkus

It is now confirmed: Mars emits methane regularly. Over six years – or three Martian years – researchers working on a NASA-funded study trained three powerful telescopes fitted with infrared high dispersion spectrographs on the planet. This device makes it possible to decompose the light reflected by a planet and, as each element absorbs preferentially a part of the light spectrum, to determine remotely the composition of its atmosphere. This study not only supports similar results obtained in 2004 using the Mars Express European probe, but also made it possible to pinpoint the locations in the red planet’s northern hemisphere that are believed to be the source of these methane emissions.

As methane has an extremely brief Martian life the scientists are eager to discover how this gas is produced. Is it the result of a geological process, such as the disintegration, due to the effect of heat, of methane hydrates buried deep below the planet’s surface? Or could it be proof that life, if it once existed on Mars, has not totally deserted it? NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, due to be launched in 2011, will perhaps be able to solve the mystery.


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Mapping Africa’s soils

Sites where soil samples have been collected. © CIAT 2009
Sites where soil samples have been collected. © CIAT 2009

Deforestation, over-exploitation, desertification and inappropriate crops or farming practices have all played their part in the deterioration of soils in sub-Saharan Africa and, as a result, in the low yields obtained by farmers in this part of the world.

In their efforts to reverse this trend, the local players and experts alike are cruelly lacking in reliable information on the chemical and physical properties of African soils. To correct this deficiency, in January 2009 the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) launched the Africa Soil Information Service (AfSIS)








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The suicidal cancer

Visualisation of the differences in Rad51 gene expression in normal and cancerous cells (cancerous cells in two right-hand columns). This gene could also be used to develop gene therapies for cancer patients. © Courtesy Christopher Hine
Visualisation of the differences in Rad51 gene expression in normal and cancerous cells (cancerous cells in two right-hand columns). This gene could also be used to develop gene therapies for cancer patients. © Courtesy Christopher Hine

Biologists at Rochester University (US) may have stumbled upon a new weapon in the fight against cancer. The team was trying to gain a better understanding of why the protein Rad51 is expressed five times more in cancer cells. To trace the origins of this overexpression, they replaced a part of the protein’s gene with a marker and, against all expectations, found that the cancer cells generated following this operation produced 12 500 more Rad51 than a normal cell! The researchers then envisaged inducing the self-destruction of cancer cells by combining a variant of the diphtheria toxin with the Rad51 gene. And it works! When tested on various cancerous tissues, the ‘toxic bomb” discovered by the Rochester University biologists made it possible to destroy cancer cells without any notable affect on healthy cells. The researchers are now trying to develop techniques for introducing the gene into the body by means of a benign virus.













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Confusing the clownfish

© Shutterstock
© Shutterstock

Will clownfish lose their way if ocean acidity continues to increase due to anthropic CO2 emissions? After they leave the egg, the young clownfish head for the ocean to feed on plankton before settling at a reef suited to their needs. An experiment carried out by scientists at James Cook University (AU) seems to show that the ability of the young clownfish to choose a suitable environment is impaired when they enter more acidic waters. Researchers placed the young fish at the end of a Y-shaped reservoir with, on one side, attractive plants for the young fish and, on the other, elements deemed to be particularly repugnant.

In water with a pH of 815, which is equivalent to the average acidity of the world’s oceans at present, everything went off normally with most of the young fish heading determinedly to the side of the reservoir with ideal living conditions. When the pH was increased to 7.8 – the level forecast for 2100 – the young fish did the opposite, spending 80% of their time on the opposite side. The authors fear that these results will be applicable to most of the coral fish whose offspring often employ the same orientation mechanisms. The damaging effects of increased ocean acidity had already been shown for crustaceans and shellfish, but never before for fish.






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Therapeutic Tetris


Have you recently experienced a traumatic event? Then play a game of Tetris! Victims of accidents, wars or rape often develop Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, characterised by irrepressible flashbacks. Psychiatrists at Oxford University (UK) came up with the idea of countering this symptom with the help of a computer video game. They exposed volunteers to a series of filmed images of violence and then invited some of the group to play a game of Tetris.

The following week the researchers carried out a series of tests designed to measure the impact of the films on the group of participants. According to the results, those who played Tetris experienced fewer flashbacks and obtained better results in the standard test used by psychiatrists in assessing the seriousness of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder experienced by a patient. The study authors believe that video games such as Tetris exhaust the brain’s visuo-spatial resources, in the process reducing the memorization of the visual component associated with an event. Although the technique does not provide a global response to Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, it could prove useful for the immediate care of victims of violent incidents.



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Sudden death of the Caralians





The Caral civilization, considered to be the oldest civilization in the Americas, disappeared very suddenly 3 600 years ago. Based on the Pacific coast 180 km north of Lima in Peru, it is a civilization that prospered for 2 000 years. In addition to impressive pyramidal constructions, the Caral archaeological sites also provide evidence of a vast system of agricultural irrigation. So why was such a flourishing civilization wiped out in the space of just a few generations?

A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that the combination of an earthquake and the climatic variations induced by the El Nino phenomenon was the cause of the decline of the Caralians. Around 3 600 years ago violent seismic shocks destabilised the mountain chain above the valley they inhabited, causing rocks fragments to accumulate at the foot of the slope. Torrential seasonal rain caused by El Nino then carried these rocks down to the ocean that then washed them back up in the form of sand and alluvium, this creating a huge ridge that isolated the fertile bays. Driven by the wind, the sand apparently invaded the fields and blocked the irrigation systems, causing the Caralians to starve.

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New origin of the Milky Way

© ESO
© ESO

To date, astrophysicists have believed that spiral galaxies are the result of older galaxies colliding. Although called into question by certain observations, this theory has been well and truly compromised since Nature published the results obtained by digital simulation using the giant calculator Mare Nostrum. Thanks to this super computer’s 2 000 processors and four weeks of calculations, the French and Israeli astrophysicists who wrote the article were able to prove that spiral galaxies result not from a collision but from implosion. Gases produced by cold currents cross the halo of black matter that surrounds a galaxy and converge on the very hot galactic disc at its centre. The build up of cold gas then causes the galactic disc to break up into huge lumps within which new stars are formed.

This new hypothesis fits much better with recent gravitational studies that showed that a galaxy is located at the heart of a halo of black matter. It also helps us to understand why hundreds of solar masses are created every year within the largest galaxies.

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European news

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Fertility…

©Shutterstock
©Shutterstock

Every day, vast quantities of oestrogens, originating in particular in hormonal contraceptives, enter waste water systems (see also “Endocrine disruptors on our plates?”, page 28). These residues are just one of the many endocrine disruptors, compounds suspected of causing many health problems as they interfere with the hormonal functioning of living creatures. Studies have already shown that a combination of oestrogens and substances of another kind, the anti-androgens, is at the origin of the sharp fall in male fertility observed over the past 30 years.

A study led by Susan Jobling, a researcher at Brunel University (UK), has just identified this same cocktail as responsible for the feminisation of freshwater fish. This is a first as previous research had found that oestrogens alone were responsible for this phenomenon. Although the fertility problems of man and freshwater fish can be linked, the exact nature of the anti-androgens involved remains to be determined. These substances are found in a wide range of products, from anti-prostate cancer medicines to pesticides, and including everyday products such as soap, detergents, toothpaste and cosmetics.







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… and fertilisation

©Shutterstock
©Shutterstock

The departure of the German research vessel Polarstern to sub-Antarctic waters made a lot of ‘waves’ at the beginning of 2009. The subject of the debate was the potential environmental consequences of an artificial fertilisation of the oceans. Last January, about 50 researchers set off for the Austral Ocean, between Patagonia and Antarctica, to spread 20 tonnes of iron sulphate over a surface area of 300 km2. The aim of this joint German- Indian experiment, known as LOHAFEX, was to test whether or not such a fertilisation made it possible to increase the carbon sequestration capacity of oceans.

Many questions were raised about the pertinence of this expedition by environmental protection associations as well as a number of scientists. At the time of the operation’s launch, a study published in Nature revealed not only the limited potential as carbon pools of ocean regions rich in iron but also that artificial fertilisation was much less effective than the natural presence of iron. A few days after it set sail, the mission was suspended by the German Research Ministry while awaiting a further assessment of its impact on the environment. The experts finally concluded that it would be negligible, thereby allowing the Polarstern to continue on its way. Some scientists continue to believe that unloading large quantities of iron into the oceans could cause a chemical reaction leading to the production of nitrogen protoxide, a greenhouse gas more devastating than CO2.






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No smoke without fire

©Shutterstock
©Shutterstock

Where does it come from, this thick brown fog that clouds the skies of Southeast Asia every winter? Of course the experts knew that combustion of the biomass as well as of fossil fuels is the root cause of the formation of this cloud of soot, but nobody had managed to determine which of the two factors contributed the most. Maldivian, Indian and Swedish researchers analysed the cloud recently using carbon 14. This radioactive carbon isotope, used more frequently by archaeologists to date their findings, is very present in the biomass and much less present in fossil fuels that are formed over very long periods.

The study concluded that the biomass, which is often burned by poor populations living in these regions in connection with their farming or other everyday activities, bears two-thirds of the responsibility for this cloud formation with fossil fuels accounting for the remaining third. These results will permit a more effective targeting of the measures needed to combat seasonal pollution that, in addition to playing its part in accelerating global warming, is also the cause of many cancers, cardiovascular disease and respiratory complaints.












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Sino-British mobilisation

If we are to limit the effects of global warming, it is essential to speed up the development and implementation of new energy solutions. This is perfectly possible provided a global research effort is made. The universities of Leeds in the UK and of Zhejiang in China have just responded to the urgency by creating the UoL-ZJU Centre for Sustainable Energy Sciences and Technology.

This centre of virtual expertise is seeking to pool the resources of the two universities as part of a common response to the principal climate challenges of the moment. The centre’s field of research ranges from capturing and storing CO2 to fuel cells and includes photovoltaic cells, alternative fuels and pollution control measures. This cooperation opens up new financing and exchange prospects for researchers and post-docs as well as for the world’s energy industry that the two universities want to involve in their projects.


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Big Brother is watching waste


Every day thousands of lorries loaded with dangerous industrial residue travel the roads of Europe to sites that specialise in processing highly toxic waste. Guaranteeing their safe arrival and, most importantly, preventing illegal dumping, are proving to be particularly arduous tasks. In Lombardy, in northern Italy, a new system has just been deployed to automate the surveillance of these delicate consignments. About 200 containers attached to 100 lorries have been fitted with small devices that make it possible to trace their every movement with great precision.

These devices can be tracked by satellite, sending a signal to a central server immediately a trailer is coupled or uncoupled while also stocking other information such as container temperature and condition. This Advanced Tracking System - ATS – currently operates using the American GPS but it will be linked to Galileo as soon as the European satellite positioning system is fully operational. Allix, the Italian SME responsible for developing the ATS, was awarded regional first prize in the European Navigation Satellite Competition at the end of 2008.

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The Aztec ant, a genuine conquistador

The Aztec ant – or Lasius neglectus – lives in small, interconnected networks, a characteristic that renders the ant particularly invasive. This ability to form super colonies headed by several queens is partly due to the Aztec ant’s difficulty in recognising individuals of the same anthill. In addition to this low antagonism, the insect is also believed to have to remain in constant movement as the only means of ridding itself of parasites. “Many invasive species succeed ecologically in spreading parasites as the enemy does not follow the host to its new habitat,” explain the authors of a study published on the PLoS ONE site.

By comparing the ‘invasive’ and ‘pre-invasive’ characteristics of this species with those of its non-invasive sister species that originates in Turkey, Lasius turcicus, researchers realised that the Aztec ant evolved well before leaving Asia Minor and becoming invasive. “This means that still unknown non-invasive Lasius neglectus must be found somewhere in Western Asia, unless they disappeared recently,” say the scientists. Locating this ‘missing link’ would provide valuable information on these insects and permit more effective action in the event of an invasion.

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Combating the fruit fly

Female of Ceratitis capitata (Wiedemann) on an orange.© Jacques Barths/INRA
Female of Ceratitis capitata (Wiedemann) on an orange.© Jacques Barths/INRA

Ceratitis capitata, better known as the Mediterranean fruit fly, is a nightmare for fruit growers. The eggs it lays beneath the skin of a wide variety of fruits cause damage estimated at €710 million a year for Californian orchards alone. There are currently two methods for controlling the propagation of this insect: pesticides or the use of male fruit flies that are sterilised in the laboratory by irradiation and then released during the mating period so that they can compete with the wild and thus fertile males in fertilizing – or failing to fertilise – the females.

A team headed by Ernst A. Wimmer of the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen (DE) has now developed a new even more effective method. This is also based on the rearing of sterile males but uses genetic engineering rather than ionising radiation to induce the sterility among males. As this method has less of a weakening effect on the insects they are more successful in competing with the wild male population. Researchers now need to make absolutely sure that the method is not in any way harmful to the rest of the ecosystem.




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A prototype for the ITER

Divertor designed for the ITER (artist’s impression).© Iter
Divertor designed for the ITER (artist’s impression).© Iter

A new step towards creating the ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) has just been made at the VTT (Technical Research Centre) in Finland. Researchers on this project have just inaugurated DTP2 (Divertor Test Platform for ITER), a prototype of the automatic handling device that must carry out maintenance work on the lower section of the reactor, known as the ‘divertor’. The divertor consists of ‘cassettes’ or tungsten-coated modules that capture the fusion residue within the plasma to ensure it remains puree and that require regular maintenance to remain effective.

DTP2 will have a particularly difficult task. The divertor is in the form of a particularly narrow circular channel, each cassette weighing about 10 tonnes, the heat generated by the plasma rising to several hundred million degrees Celsius, and the visibility of traditional cameras reduced to zero through the radiation! Given these extreme operating conditions, the researchers are now concentrating on the DTP2 resistance. If the tests prove conclusive, the device will be incorporated in the pilot ITER station that is currently being built at Cadarache in the south of France.




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The cap-snatching flu virus

Image of a field of the flu viral polymerase. The active site responsible for splitting the RNA is shown in red. Its activity is essential for the virus to be able to multiply in human cells.   © Stephen Cusack, EMBL
Image of a field of the flu viral polymerase. The active site responsible for splitting the RNA is shown in red. Its activity is essential for the virus to be able to multiply in human cells. © Stephen Cusack, EMBL

While seasonal flu kills hundreds of thousands of people worldwide every year and fears of a pandemic are increasing with the increased cases of avian flu, a new target for anti-flu medicines has just been identified. Published in Nature, the results achieved by the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), the Joseph Fourrier University (FR) and the CNRS (FR) show how the flu virus manages to use the tools of the host cell to replicate and produce its proteins.

The key to the process is the PA subunit of the polymerase viral enzyme. It is this that makes it possible to steal the ‘cap’ of the messenger ribonucleic acid molecules (mRNA) of the host cell that guides the protein synthesis machinery to the point of departure. Once in possession of this crucial indicator, the viral polymerase attaches it to its own mRNA, this enabling the virus to benefit from the cell machinery. This discovery therefore makes the PA sub-unit of the viral polymerase a promising target for new antiviral medicines.










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Hyperactivity: Ritalin called into question

Cover of the book from the group Pas de 0 de conduite published by Erès.© Courtesy Éditions Érès – Illustration Pancho
Cover of the book from the group Pas de 0 de conduite published by Erès.© Courtesy Éditions Érès – Illustration Pancho

Is Ritalin really effective in treating Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)? Controversy surrounds the neurobiological origin of this syndrome – believed to affect between 7% and 9% of American children – because it concerns children whose personality is not yet formed. In a study published in Trends Neurosciences, François Gonon, neurobiologist at the CNRS (FR), reviewed 80 scientific articles to check the scientific bases underlying the use of Ritalin. He stresses the lack of elements to confirm that ADHD is in fact linked to dopamine, the neurotransmitter whose deficiency Ritalin seeks to correct. The researcher also calls into question the treatment’s long-term effectiveness while stressing that, even if Ritalin indisputably acts on the principal symptoms, there is nothing to prove its effect on the causes of this disease. The neurobiologist concludes by stressing the weakness of the evidence on which the broad consensus linking ADHD to a dopamine deficiency is based.


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Remyelinated neurones

Induction of myelinated cells in the brain of a mouse deficient in myelin following treatment with T3. The   oligodendrocytes are visualised in fluorescent green using a GFP (Green Fluorescent  Protein) gene marker. © Said Ghandour
Induction of myelinated cells in the brain of a mouse deficient in myelin following treatment with T3. The oligodendrocytes are visualised in fluorescent green using a GFP (Green Fluorescent Protein) gene marker. © Said Ghandour

Is it possible to repair the myelin of persons suffering from multiple sclerosis? The myelin biopathology and imaging team at the Laboratory of Imaging and Cognitive Neurosciences UMR 7191 Strasbourg (FR) has succeeded in doing so in an animal model. Myelin is the substance that lines the nerves fibres and acts as an electrical insulator. It is essential for the effective conduction of the nervous influx through the neurons. In persons suffering from multiple sclerosis, the myelin sheath is destroyed progressively, resulting in a slowing down or even blocking of nervous influx transmissions. Although the immunodepressors and immunomodulators prescribed as treatment at present make it possible to reduce the frequency and duration of relapses, they are not effective in the long term. That is why remyelination is a major clinical objective.

Researchers have managed to show that the T3 thyroid hormone repairs the myelin sheaths in mice. This hormone is involved in the differentiation and maturing of oligodendrocytes – the cells that produce myelin – and could therefore have the same effect in a demyelinated adult brain. A significant aspect of this therapeutic approach is that remyelination continues even after the treatment with T3 ceases, thereby making it possible to avoid possible side effects of prolonged use of this hormone.







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Science at fingertips

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The scientists’ ‘Facebook’

ResearchGATE is a new site, made available free of charge to researchers. A place where they can present themselves and their work, locate colleagues working in the same fields, discuss with their fellows, create new networks, or perhaps discover the specialist their team is lacking. The profiles of scientists from every continent displayed on the home page are already an indication of the value of such a site.

This on-line service was launched in May 2008 by the German company of the same name. The site was developed by scientists at Hanover University (DE), the Harvard Medical School (US) and Leeds University (UK). It is an initiative that is perfectly in line with the objectives of the European Research Area.


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What does a scientist look like?

Photo submitted by young Austrians (category 1) for the Researchers’ Night competition.
Photo submitted by young Austrians (category 1) for the Researchers’ Night competition.

The ‘portrait of a researcher’ is the work children submitted as their entry for the competition organised by the Commission’s Directorate-General for Research as part of European Researchers’ Night. There were three categories for submissions – 6 to 12 years, 12-18 years, over-18s – and members of the public were invited to vote for their favourites. Although it is too late to vote, the site is still well worth a visit.

First launched four years ago, European Researchers’ Night has become a unique occasion for researchers and the general public to come together. It is held in about 200 towns throughout the 27 Member States. In 2008 there were 1 475 participating organisations (universities, companies, associations, etc.), compared with 951 in 2007. Many laboratories, museums and science centres open their doors and propose events that combine scientific rigour with the joys of discovery. These various events – including videos, competitions, exhibitions and the ‘researchers’ bar’ where people can chat with researchers – drew 20 000 visitors in 2005, and more than 300 000 last year. You can note in your diary this year’s event already: 25 September 2009.






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Asia, home to the best brains in maths

@ Shutterstock
@ Shutterstock



Asians make the best maths and science students – and have for a long time. The fourth TIMSS (Trends in International Maths and Science Study) was carried out by Boston College (USA) in 2008. 425 000 primary and secondary school pupils were tested, in 36 countries in the former case and in 48 countries in the latter. All the test results have now been placed on-line, together with the questions… so you can see how you score!

The best maths results were obtained by pupils in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, while the best science students are found in Singapore, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. In the United States as well, it is children of Asian origin who are easily the best pupils in these fields. Comparable scores were obtained in the Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) surveys in which Asians aged over 15 came out top in a group of 57 countries.

Some cognitive psychologists attribute this phenomenon to linguistic characteristics: in Chinese, Korean and Japanese you do not count in terms of 11 and 12 but in terms of 10 plus 1 and 10 plus 2 and so on, a practice that gets children used to breaking down numbers very rapidly and being quicker at mental arithmetic.

Renewing education can nevertheless produce some excellent surprises. The new emphasis placed on mental arithmetic in primary education in the United Kingdom in recent years enabled 10-year-olds in 2007 to achieve much better test results that their elders back in 1995.

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Beware of imposters

The aim of Afis (French Association for Science Education) is certainly to inform, but above all to separate true science from false science, to track down ill-considered information and hypotheses likely to raise false hopes. This trilingual site (French, English and Spanish) is packed full of information and articles that have the benefit of being written in a clear and concise language and relating to topical fields of interest, such as health risks, cloning, memory, the advantages and disadvantages of technology and new medical treatments.

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Girls have taste…

@ Peter Willersted
@ Peter Willersted






8 900 Danish schoolgirls were tested for one of the five senses to which all children are sensitive: taste. Carried out by Danish Science Communication and scientists from Copenhagen University specialising in food, the study sought to determine the way in which children respond to what is sweet, sour, salty and acidic. The tests were carried out by science teachers equipped with a set of samples and very precise instructions. There was also a questionnaire to be completed on the eating habits and preferred dishes of pupils. “What was most surprising was to obtain such clear results and of such quality,” declared project coordinator Bodil Allesen Holm.

Children show a wide range of tastes with significant differences according to sex and age. They do not necessarily prefer sweets – 30% of them preferred the samples with no or very little sugar. 70% say they like fish and 59% say they are not fussy about food.

Girls are generally subtler in their appreciation of food, scoring better on detecting the nuances of flavour than boys. Girls prefer ‘mild’ flavours while boys are more tempted by spicy or sweet foods. Personal tastes grow stronger during adolescence as does a craving for very sugary foods.

Students in North Jutland were found to be most sensitive to taste. They are better at recognising acidity, being able to detect its presence from 0.37 grams per litre compared with 0.50 for the majority of children. This is a cultural particularity that the scientists are unable to explain. But what they do want to explain clearly is that the food industry – and parents – could very easily put the brake on the consumption of sugary foods.



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Journey to the centre of the Earth

Philippe Roux is using seismology to determine the internal structure of the scale model (1:200) of the Kheops pyramid. Simulated by turning a jet of compressed air onto the structure, the seismological noise is recorded by a network of sensors. Once these experiments on the scale model are complete it should be possible to apply the study to the real pyramid to locate the presence of a hidden chamber.@ CNRS Images
@ CNRS Images

The Year of the Planet Earth is continuing in 2009. The National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in France is proposing a virtual visit to the Laboratory of Internal Geophysics and Tectonophysics (LGIT) in Grenoble, centred on the theme of the dynamics of the Earth. A total of 68 videos of between 2 and 6 minutes and 30 impressive panoramic slides reveal a very capricious planet with seismic and volcanic risks, a magnetic field and deformation of the lithosphere (the layer of the Earth’s crust that gave rise to mountain chains).Visitors can listen to the song of volcanoes and discover the contribution of seismologists to the study of the Kheops pyramid. The environmental dimension is also present with the presentation of how geochemistry is helping to tackle pollution problems.

About 60 researchers and post-docs, as well as undergraduates, are participating in this presentation of their laboratory. The LGIT is located close to the Alps but carries out its work in Iran, Reunion Island, India and a number of other key ‘geostrategic’ sites.






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Research under the microscope

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Dubious success







The book by American physicist Lee Smolin, The Trouble with Physics, is an all-out attack on string theory in theoretical physics. String theory aims to unify the laws governing all physical forces by combining quantum mechanics with general relativity. It is not very intuitive as it posits the existence of 10 space-time dimensions (11 according to one version). Smolin points out that, not once in its 30 years of existence, has string theory been corroborated by a test result. Although they acknowledge this weakness, the theory’s advocates claim that it helps to clarify a number of concepts and, most important of all, it holds out the promise of a ‘grand unification’.

Smolin’s historical account is both brilliant and lively. The most interesting feature of The Trouble with Physics, and the one that has attracted the most attention, is his sociological analysis of the way in which string theory has taken root in academic circles and the mechanisms that allowed it to gain its present almost total dominance. How can a community of like-minded scientists have secured such a powerful position that it is now able to determine the course of research, to monopolise public funding and to decide careers, to the point of abolishing all alternative approaches? This is what Lee Smolin sets out to explain in a few chapters that go far beyond the history of physics. Indeed, his analysis is applicable to many other fields and disciplines.

Smolin has all too readily been labelled a frustrated scientist bent on revenge for his lack of personal recognition. While he clearly empathises with the brilliant eccentrics at the fringes of the scientific community, this does nothing to detract from the pertinence of Smolin’s ideas and observations.

Michel André


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Teaching corner

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Indiscreet rays

Atmospheric transmission in terahertz (1 THz = 1012 Hz). © GNU Free Documentation License
Atmospheric transmission in terahertz (1 THz = 1012 Hz). © GNU Free Documentation License




From radio, both musical and medical, to microwave ovens or mobile phones, who today would want to be without the discoveries which exploit the electromagnetic spectrum? Each frequency range has produced its harvest of revolutionary inventions. And this list, already long, now has a new star.

Nestling between radio waves and visible light, T rays, with a frequency between 0.3 x 1012 and 10 x 1012 Hertz, have received their name by reference to their size, with 1012 corresponding to the prefix tera. Their penetration power is such that they are absorbed by both water and metals. On the other hand, materials like paper, plastics, cloth and even brick are totally transparent to them. In concrete terms, this means that a knife hidden under clothing becomes visible to the indiscreet eye of a T camera… just like its owner’s body.

While T rays have been known for at least a century, technological difficulties have until now prevented their use. The principle of the detection antenna could not be applied to them, as the length of an antenna needs to correspond approximately to the length of the wave, which for T waves is between 0.03 and 1 mm. Nor was the camera concept transposable, because unlike infrared waves, the energy of T waves is too weak to provoke the electronic transitions at the origin of an image.

But thanks to the advances of nanometrics, a hybrid technology has since come into being. Operating under normal light, a ‘T camera’ is fitted with a lens which directs the rays towards wave guides ending up on a network of antennae of just a few tens of microns in size. The electrical resistance of the antennae to the passing waves provokes a heating effect. This is sensed by a plate, allowing the temperature gradients to be transposed into a readable image.

Far beyond the security aspects, the taming of T rays opens the way for immanent upheavals in areas as diverse as telecommunications, gas detection, observational astronomy and medical imaging. No doubt we shall soon be hearing more about them…


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Young researchers

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Irene, age 27, from chemistry to nanotechnology


It is difficult to say when I started to like science. I have always preferred logic versus memory (probably because I haven’t got a very good memory). But I have always been creative and open to new things.

While doing my chemistry degree in Madrid, I decided to apply for an Erasmus scholarship. I was surprised when I found myself on the top of the list. There were other students with better marks than me but they never applied for it – not sure if it was fear, laziness, or they just didn’t want to go. I choose the Sussex University because there was an active Chemistry Nobel Laureate, Harry Kroto, and the beach – coming from Madrid, “beach” was a plus for me! During that year, I worked for the very first time in a real research project and I loved it. Research is logic but it also requires creativity in order to move forward. I decided I wanted to do research for the rest of my working life.

I did my PhD in computational chemistry in the UK and now I am a postdoc in France. My work involves computer modelling of different molecules and crystals. The computer is for me like a microscope, it allows me to visualise and analyse my samples – even if they are only on the computer screen. But my research is not only calculations and writing papers. In my opinion, a good scientist should be able to communicate. If you stay in your office you don’t have a real view of your research area. This communication should not be restricted only to other scientists. I was one of the UK physics student representatives in the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting(1) of 2005 and many of the Laureates pointed out the importance of paying back to the society by explaining what we do (do not forget that public taxes are probably funding most of our research projects). I doubted for a while if I was capable of communicating to non-scientists effectively. But you can only know if you are capable if you try it, so I did. I have participated in science festivals; I have written articles about popular science and, currently, I am one of the video-bloggers in a project which shows the research life of a group of European scientists(2). I hope the exposure to the public of real scientists will encourage future generations to get into science or at least not being afraid of mad scientists –like me!

Irene Suarez-Martinez

  1. Each year in Lindau (DE), a meeting is taking place between Nobel prices winners and picked students www.lindau-nobel.de
  2. www.Nano2hybrids.net

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Cordis news

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When a ‘good’ gene turns bad

A study under the European Eugene 2 project (European network on functional genomics of type-2 diabetes) was recently published in the journal Cell Metabolism, showing that the Ala12 gene, known to have a protective effect against obesity, can have a detrimental effect with the wrong diet.

Ala12 and Pro12 are two alleles of Pparg2, a gene that plays an important role in fat storage. Any individual carrying its most common form, Pro12, is at higher risk of contracting type-2 diabetes. On the other hand, the rarer Ala12 allele, which is carried by around 12% of the population, appears to lower the risk of obesity in many people. In some people, though, Ala12 actually appears to have the opposite effect. In this latest study, headed by Sami Heikkinen, a researcher at Institut Pasteur (FR), the researchers studied mice with different versions of the gene. They fed some of the mice a normal diet and some a high-fat diet. They found that when fed a normal, healthy diet, mice carrying the Ala12 gene have improved insulin sensitivity. When mice with the Ala12 gene were fed on a high-fat diet, though, the benefits disappeared and the animals grew even fatter than mice with the Pro12 version of the gene. This would indicate that, with the wrong diet, Ala12 has an even more detrimental effect than Pro12. These findings could help researchers to develop new treatments for type-2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

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Childhood cancers

Researchers on the European IMPACT project (Identification of novel targets for cancer therapy) have succeeded in identifying the complex molecular mechanisms that cause neuroblastoma, a cancer of the nervous system that primarily affects children under the age of five. During normal development, neural crest cells stop dividing and turn into different types of mature nerve cells. However, in neuroblastoma, the cells simply keep dividing, forming a tumour, most commonly in the abdomen. The disease is difficult to diagnose as the symptoms are vague (including tiredness, fever and loss of appetite).

Previous work has shown that high levels of a gene called MYCN are often linked to treatment resistance and poor prognosis. The gene disrupts the control of cell division and differentiation. Tobias Otto’s research group from the University of Marburg (DE) has gone one step further by demonstrating that a gene called AURKA is required for the growth of these tumours. The researchers hope to use this result to develop treatments that inhibit the AURKA gene and are more effective in combating neuroblastoma.

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QCD theory confirmed

Nearly all the mass of ordinary matter consists of atomic nuclei, which are made of protons and neutrons. These particles are in turn composed of quarks, which are held together by mass-less particles called gluons. At least this is the configuration posited by the theory of quantum chromodynamics (QCD), and it has just been resoundingly proven by a remarkable digital simulation.

The study, published in the journal Science, was conducted jointly by Bergische Universtät Wuppertal (DE), Eötvös University (HU) and the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). It proves that the standard model of particle physics, including QCD, correctly predicts the mass of neutrons and protons with an uncertainty of less than 4%. In view of the complex interactions analysed and the number of particles involved, the simulation is quite a technological feat. Most important of all is that the result confirms the QCD hypothesis that the masses of particles such as the neutron and proton come from the energy associated with interactions between quarks and gluons. The QCD theory, which has been pure conjecture for 30 years, has now truly been proven.

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Exposed by 3D

A recent study by the Leiden University Medical Center (NL) is causing quite a stir in molecular biology circles. The researchers have used cryo-electron tomography to reveal the three-dimensional structure of the mouse hepatitis virus (MHV). This is a huge stride forward because MHV is an excellent example of the coronaviruses responsible for a wide range of human respiratory disorders, such as the common cold and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

Using cryo-electron tomography, the researchers fixed the particles by ‘plunge-freezing’ them. This allowed them to examine several slices of each virus (144 samples in total) without removing them from their native environment, and to reconstruct three-dimensional images of the virions studied. One of the main findings of the study was that the envelopes surrounding the MHV particles were extraordinarily thick, around twice the size of a typical biological membrane. In addition, the surface of MHV is topped with spikes, which make infection possible. There is no doubt that these results will lead to more effective treatments.

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A fridge that orders milk

Radio-frequency identification (RFID) has a bright future ahead. Although the technology is already being exploited for animal identification, stocktaking and data collection from autonomous observation posts, lack of standardisation is hindering the global expansion of RFID. The EU has therefore decided to invest more than €500 00 via the Seventh Framework Programme in the CASAGRAS project (Coordination and support action for global RFID-related activities and standardisation), which aims to draw up international recommendations and practical standards. All RFID stakeholders are being asked to give their views on the future of the Internet through its online global forum. This cooperation is at the centre of the project as there is considerable potential for the international development of RFID. One possible application is the ‘Internet of Things’, which is a wireless self-configuring network between objects such as household appliances. Hypothetically speaking, a fridge could be aware of what is stored inside and order another litre of milk via the Web when it runs out.

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Giant stride forward for nanoelectronics

Swedish scientists working on the European NODE project (Nanowire-based one-dimensional electronics) have discovered new ways to control the growth and structure of semiconductor nanowires at the single-atom level. It is essential to control the structure in order to optimise their electronic and optical properties.

In this latest research, scientists used nanowires of indium arsenide (InAs) to determine how the structure of nanowires could be more carefully controlled. The growth of InAs was controlled by modulating two key parameters: the nanowire diameter and the temperature at which the wires are formed. The researchers created different InAs crystal structures by varying the temperature between 400°C and 480°C and by superimposing them within a single nanofibre, allowing them to consistently produce very strong ‘superlattices’. There are promising applications for these nanowires measuring between 10 and 100 nanometres in diameter and a few micrometres in length, notably in the fields of nanoelectronics, quantum optics and biodetection.

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Rhesus factor responsible for male infertility

Since the 1940s, researchers believed that ammonium, which plays a decisive role in regulating blood acidity levels (pH) in humans, was excreted through the kidneys exclusively by a process of passive diffusion. Now, new results obtained by researchers in Belgium and Switzerland under the European projects EUROGENE (European renal genome project) and EUNEFRON (European network for the study of orphan nephropathies) have demonstrated the vital role played by Rhcg, one of the five proteins involved in the Rhesus factor in the blood. The researchers investigated male mice born lacking their Rhcg gene and revealed abnormal urinary acidification. They concluded that Rhcg helps the kidneys to process ammonium.

A further result was that male mice lacking their Rhcg gene generated smaller litters, leading to the conclusion that the Rhcg gene is expressed not only in the kidneys but also in the male genital tract. These new findings bring new insights into the role of the kidneys in the pathophysiology of disease states such as distal renal tubular acidosis and male infertility, which has been experiencing a worrying rise in the West in recent years.


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Brain repair using carbon nanotubes

Recently, much attention has focused on extremely strong cylindrical carbon molecules with unique electrical properties, called carbon nanotubes (CNTs), as researchers have found CNTs to increase the responsiveness of isolated neurons. The study, published in Nature Nanotechnology, was funded in part by the European NEURONANO project (Towards new generations of neuro-implantable devices: engineering neurons/carbon nanotubes integrated functional units). The main objective is to integrate CNTs with other technologies to develop biochips that can help repair damaged central nervous system tissues. The CNTs form tight contacts with the membranes of nerve cells, which might allow them to create ‘electrical shortcuts’ between one side of the nerve cell and the other, making messages travel faster.

This advance is extremely relevant for the emerging field of neuro-engineering and neuroprosthetics, as one day it might be possible to use the nanotubes as a building block for future ‘electrical bypass’ systems to treat traumatic brain injury, or for novel electrodes that would replace metal parts of deep-brain-stimulation devices currently used to treat Parkinson’s disease and severe depression.

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New hands

Swedish researchers have succeeded in tricking the brains of amputees to make them experience a rubber prosthetic hand as their own. The success of the illusion was even revealed in physiological-response tests, when volunteers actually started to sweat when their rubber hand was pricked with a needle. The researchers observed that the shorter the time period since amputation, the greater the illusion. This raises fundamental questions about the way the brain distinguishes between parts of one’s own body and objects in the external world.

The discovery made by scientists in the SmartHand project, which has been allocated funding of €1.8 million from the Sixth Framework Programme, goes one step further towards the goal of developing a prosthetic hand that can register touch and stimulate the stump to which it is attached. SmartHand researchers aim to incorporate advances in nanobioscience, cognitive neuroscience and information technologies to develop an intelligent prosthetic hand, and so improve the quality of life of amputees, who often suffer from severe depression, distorted self-image and social anxiety.


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Waging war against infection

The EU is targeting nosocomial (hospital-acquired) infections, with two new projects, one to control methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and the other to control superbugs. The EU project targeted at MRSA infections will be headed by the University of Limerick (IE) and will attempt to limit the spread of the Staphylococcus aureus bacterium, numerous strains of which are antibiotic-resistant, making them potentially fatal. MRSA can spread on conventional textiles such as hospital gowns or bedding. The researchers are hoping to use nanotechnology to develop MRSA-resistant textiles that are self-sterilising and developed to kill bacteria.

The second research project is AEROPATH, which aims to develop new antibiotics for eradicating superbugs, another cause of numerous hospital-acquired infections. Special attention is being paid to the Pseudomonas aeroginosa bacterium, which makes its way into hospitals on fruits, plants and vegetables and which affects immunodeficient patients. The researchers will use computer modelling techniques to develop this new generation of antibiotics.

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Dogs to the rescue

Although a whole host of human diseases are genetic in origin, the factors are so diverse that it is difficult to pinpoint the role played by each gene. To get around the problem, the partners in the LUPA project (Unravelling common human diseases using dog genetics), from 12 European countries, will focus their research on dogs. This is because dogs suffer from the same diseases as humans but are less genetically complex as a result of inbreeding, and have only one tenth of the number of the single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) markers required to carry out entire genome scans.

With EU funding of €12 million, the study will target the genes responsible for a number of disorders, outlined in five work packages: cancers, cardiovascular disorders, inflammatory disorders, neurological disorders and simple (monogenic) disorders. Professor Michel Georges, project leader and geneticist from the University of Liege (BE), is hopeful that the LUPA project’s analysis of 10 000 DNA samples from healthy purebred dogs and purebred dogs suffering from diseases also affecting humans will provide considerable new insight into the pathogenesis of common human diseases.

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New approach to artificial intelligence

Robots are beginning to play an increasingly important role in our day-to-day lives, in a host of applications ranging from vehicle control to medical diagnostics. Artificial cognitive systems are now a top research priority of the EU, in its bid to become an active player on a world scene largely dominated by the United States. There will also be many economic benefits that will boost European competitiveness.

The EU has invested €1.65 million in the SIMBAD project (Beyond features: Similarity-based pattern analysis and recognition). The six project partners are calling into question traditional pattern recognition and machine learning methods. Instead of taking the standard ‘feature-based’ approach to data, SIMBAD focuses on ‘similarity information’. This should be of particular use in the biomedical field, where data are not amenable to being tackled using traditional machine learning techniques owing to the difficulty in deriving suitable feature-based descriptions. SIMBAD is already concentrating its efforts on two large-scale biomedical applications: the diagnosis of renal cell carcinoma and the diagnosis of the psychosis bipolar disorder.

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Keeping a watchful eye on carbon

A variety of European directives have already been adopted to tackle global warming by reducing carbon emissions. It still remains to evaluate this legislation’s effectiveness, and this is one of the objectives of the ICOS project (Integrated carbon observation system), the preparatory phase of which is just getting under way. The project is being funded to the tune of €4.3 million and will run for four years.

The aim of the ICOS project is to set up a comprehensive network of monitoring stations across Europe and extending into neighbouring regions of Siberia and Africa. The system will provide detailed information on where carbon is emitted in Europe and where the carbon sinks are. The stations will measure both local and atmospheric changes in the levels of CO2 and other greenhouse gases such as methane. Data gathered at these stations will be fed rapidly into a central data centre, allowing scientists to monitor flows of carbon through ecosystems in near real time. During the preparatory phase, the researchers will test and select the instrumentation to be used at the monitoring station. ICOS is scheduled to enter its operational phase in 2012 and to run for around 20 years. Total construction costs of the network amount to €128 million, and the operational costs are estimated to be around €14 euros a year.


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Enlisting nanotechnology in the fight against cancer

Nanomedicine, or the use of nanotechnology in the field of medicine, is now being exploited in the hope of developing nanoparticles capable of locating and neutralising tumours. In its fight against cancer, the EU has set up the NANOTHER project (Integration of novel nanoparticle based technology for therapeutics and diagnosis of different types of cancer) in which the 18 partners are specialised in the research and development of tools for the early detection of cancer and other illnesses. The project objective is to develop nanoparticles (nanites) that would optimise the targeted administration of treatments. The nanites have a very high surface area to volume ratio, effectively helping fuel diffusion, particularly at high temperatures. That is why NANOTHER will use two types of synthetic nanoparticles: polymeric nanoparticles and heat-generating magnetic nanoparticles. The polymeric nanoparticles will contain molecules that help it to recognise tumour cells and direct the medicine to the affected areas. The magnetic nanoparticles will also help to identify tumours and assist in their elimination by increasing the temperature. All this will allow higher dosages to be delivered to the tumour cells in a more targeted manner, which reduces not only the dosage of pharmaceutical drugs needed, but also the side effects of current chemotherapy and radiotherapy methods.


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Uncovering the secrets of the microbiome

Over the course of evolution, humans have literally merged with the millions of micro-organisms that live in or on us, turning the human body into a machine perfectly adapted to its environment. A function as vital as digestion could not take place without the myriad bacteria contained in the stomach. Scientists use the term microbiome to designate this astonishing symbiosis, which, in spite of its decisive role for human survival, is still largely unknown.

The International Human Microbiome Consortium (IHMC) was set up in late October 2008 with the aim of characterising the role of the human microbiome in the maintenance of health and disease. The initiative brings together two research projects: the Human Microbiome Project, launched by the United States’ National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2007, and the European Metagenomics of the Human Intestinal Tract (METAHIT) project, financed under the EU’s Seventh Framework Programme for research and technological development. Any researcher can join the consortium, provided that he or she adheres to a number of fundamental principles, including the free release of data and compliance with IHMC protocols.


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Today or tomorrow?

European Research Commissioner, Janez Potočnik, is demanding today the transport systems of tomorrow. In his address to the automobile industry at the European Road Transport Research Advisory Council (ERTRAC) conference on 26 January 2009, he said that, as a European technology platform, ERTRAC was in a unique position to unite all stakeholders to fully adapt our transport systems to the present-day energy requirements. He added that these issues had been under discussion for long enough and that now people were impatient to see some concrete results. The Commissioner said that, as the conference was targeted at all stakeholders involved in research on greener, safer and more intelligent means of transport in Europe, it was the ideal time and place for ERTRAC to show what the next generation of road transport in Europe would look like. So Janez Potočnik’s question was: “Are you ready to rise to this challenge?” Well, according to the proverb, all good things come to those who wait.

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