In brief

Zeitgeist

Appearances matter

© Shutterstock
© Shutterstock

When a female Gouldian finch (Erythrura gouldiae) mates, the sex of her eggs will depend on… what her partner looks like. In Australia, there are two varieties of Gouldian finch: one with a black head and the other with a red head. Experiments have shown that, although the two varieties are of the same species, they are genetically incompatible. When the father and mother have the same head colour, the female hatches a roughly equal proportion of female and male offspring. But if the parents have differentcoloured heads, the female will deliberately produce more than 80 % male offspring. This increases their chances of survival because daughters resulting from genetically incompatible pairings have a much higher mortality rate than sons.

To test the influence of future Gouldian finch mothers on the gender of their offspring, researchers from Macquarie University (AU) came up with the idea of dyeing their suitors’ heads. The results of the study published in Science show that when a female believes she is mating with a male of the same species, she produces a more or less equal number of daughters and sons. So the sex of the brood depends not on the male’s true genetic characteristics but on the female’s perceptions of them. A real case of judging by appearances…

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Like mother, like daughter

Sexual or asexual reproduction? Termite queens from the species Reticulitermes speratus use both mating systems. Most of the young males and females produced from sexual mating with the colony’s king will become the hive’s workers and soldiers, while the female larvae resulting from parthenogenesis (asexual reproduction in females without fertilisation by a male), which are genetically identical to their female parents but have no genes in common with the king, mostly grow to be queen successors, known as secondary queens, which remain in the termite colony and mate with the king. This is what Japanese and American researchers have revealed in a study published in Science magazine.

The advantage of this dual mating system is that it avoids inbreeding, where the king, which lives longer than the queen, would effectively mate with his own daughter, as happens with other termite species. Parthenogenesis enables the primary queen to pass on her entire genome through her female successors and, in so doing, to preserve the colony’s genetic diversity.

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Learning to unlearn

Victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal, would pay dearly to rid themselves of their fear memories. While many scientific studies focus on the molecular mechanisms for learning and memorisation, to tackle PTSD scientists need to address the ‘unlearning’ process. Researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies (US) have discovered that a receptor for glutamate, the most prominent neurotransmitter in the central nervous system, plays a key role in the unlearning process.

They made this discovery in experiments where they trained mice to fear a tone by coupling it with an electric shock to the foot. They found that if, following this fear conditioning, the mice are repeatedly exposed to the tone without receiving any electric shocks, their fear eventually subsides. However, mice lacking the gene coding for metabotropic glutamate receptor 5 (mGluR5) are unable to shake off their fear of the now harmless tone. Further experiments confirmed the inability of these mutants to carry out tasks that required them to ‘unlearn’ what they had just learned. The researchers believe that a similar mechanism might be perturbed in PTSD sufferers and that mGluR may provide a potential target for new therapeutic treatments.

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The Amazon is gasping

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© Shutterstock

In 2005, the Amazon forest seems to have swapped its legendary status as a carbon sink for the less praiseworthy one of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitter. According to an international study published in Science magazine, the Amazon forest, known as the lung of the Earth, which normally absorbs some 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, actually emitted nearly 3 billion tonnes in 2005, so releasing an extra 5 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.

This extra CO2 is thought to be a direct consequence of the drought that struck the Amazonian region in 2005, killing many trees. Since nothing is lost nor gained but everything converted, the multitude of bacteria, fungi and animals feasting on the dead trees released CO2 in the process. Setting aside the effect of a drought in a specific year, the authors of the study stress the fragile nature of the rainforests’ carbon sink capacity.


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Shrinking shells

In spite of their small size, together foraminifera represent an enormous biomass and play a key role in fixing carbon dioxide in the oceans. To protect themselves, these single-celled organisms secrete calcite, forming a test (a sort of mineral-rich shell pierced with holes).

In a study published in Nature Geoscience, Australian researchers uncovered a link, in a 50 000-yearlong record obtained from a Southern Ocean marine sediment core, between higher atmospheric carbon dioxide and low shell weights in planktonic foraminifera called globigerina.

They compared the shell weights of globigerina collected from sediment traps in the Southern Ocean with the weights of shells preserved in the underlying Holocene-aged sediments. The results revealed that the shells of modern globigerina weigh between 30 and 35 % less than those of their ancestors. This reduced calcification is thought to have been caused by ocean acidification arising from high atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.

It is unclear whether reduced calcification will affect the survival of this and other species of foraminifera, but a decline in their population could jeopardise the oceanic uptake of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

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Local warming

Since 1980, the tropical North Atlantic has been warming by an average of a quarter-degree Celsius per decade. Although global warming may have contributed to this rise, it is far from the only cause.

A study by American researchers from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows that the local reduction in wind-borne dust and volcanic emissions from Africa has also played a major role because these airborne particles reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the ocean, keeping the sea surface cool.

The researchers arrived at this conclusion by combining satellite data of dust and other particles with existing climate models to evaluate the effect on ocean temperature. According to their calculations, the decline in airborne particles above this part of the ocean is responsible for two thirds of the rise in its temperature in recent years.

Global warming and reduced sunlight-screening from these airborne particles would appear to work together to raise the temperature of these Atlantic waters, causing a growing number of hurricanes, which thrive on warmer water.

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Rapid recharge

In a communication society where the mobile phone is king, running out of battery can be a real source of stress. For the more farsighted among us who have remembered to bring along their charger, all they need is a hefty dose of patience while their battery recharges itself. Now, though, advances by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) (US) could soon slash this waiting time.

Like all batteries, lithium-ion batteries comprise two electrodes: an anode and a cathode. It is the movement of lithium ions between the two that creates the electric current, and the faster the ions travel, the faster the battery is recharged. The researchers found that lithium ions can travel very quickly through battery material but only through tunnels accessed from the surface. If a lithium ion at the surface is not directly in front of a tunnel entrance, it is unable to travel there.

The MIT scientists have created a new surface structure that allows the lithium ions to move quickly around the outside of the material, much like a ring road around a city. As a result, the new batteries recharge 100 times faster! We shall have to remain patient for a while longer though, because it is not planned to market this new system for another two to three years.

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European news

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LOHAFEX flops

Plankton three weeks after iron fertilisation. © Philipp Assmy/Alfred Wegener Institute
Plankton three weeks after iron fertilisation.
© Philipp Assmy/Alfred Wegener Institute

In the previous issue of research*eu we announced the launch of the Indo-German LOHAFEX project, the aim of which was to determine if the potential of oceans to sequester atmospheric CO2 could be catalysed artificially by adding iron sulphate.

The first results of this expedition – one that incurred the wrath of environmental protection organisations and certain sections of the scientific community – are disappointing if instructive. As expected, the project did generate an algal bloom, but not of the micro-algal variety that had been hoped for. Previous fertilisation operations had resulted in an increase in diatoms, micro-algae with the particularity of having a protective wall known as a frustule. However, as the northern waters of the Austral Ocean, site of the LOHAFEX experiment, are naturally poor in silicic acid, the principal element needed for the formation of this diatom frustule, this variety of micro-algae was unable to proliferate.

Diatom blooms are more effective at fixing atmospheric CO2 because they are much larger than those of other types of vegetal plankton. In addition, diatoms are not consumed by the neighbouring fauna (zooplanktons, fish, shellfish, etc.) and sink to the seabed due to the weight of their shell, thereby optimising the CO2 fixing process.

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GOCE in orbit

© ESA
© ESA

The European satellite GOCE (Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer) was launched Tuesday 17 March from the Plessetsk base 800 km north of Moscow. This first of the Earth Explorer missions under the Living Planet Programme launched by the European Space Agency (ESA) in 1999, aims, among other things, to study one of nature’s most fundamental forces: the Earth’s gravitational field.

During its 20 months in orbit, this Earth explorer will gather valuable data on the Earth’s atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, cyrosphere and interior. This information should prove particularly useful in advancing research on oceanic circulation and sea-level change. This will in turn permit a better understanding of the effects of human activity on these processes that are influenced by global warming. The GOCE’s measurements of the static gravitational forces will provide oceanographers with a more accurate picture of the Earth’s reference surface area – the geoid – that is necessary for assessing average sea levels and currents.

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Code name: BPH-715

Indicated for the treatment of osteoporosis, bisphosphonates (BPH) recently revealed potential in treating cancer and an ability to boost the immune system. Clinical trials showed that when molecules of this kind are associated with hormonal therapy the risk of a recurrence of breast cancer in pre-menopausal women is reduced significantly. The problem is that the most frequently used bisphosphonates combine with bone minerals and this restricts their action in other tissues.

A team of researchers from Europe, the US, Taiwan and Japan has developed a new compound, known as BPH-715, which has proved particularly effective in inhibiting the growth and invasiveness of tumours reproduced on cell cultures. When subsequently tested on mice, BPH-715 revealed not only its effectiveness in killing tumoural cells in these rodents, but a very low affinity with the bones. The results of this study are published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. The authors believe that this new medicine would be 200 times more effective in combating cancer than substances subjected to clinical trials recently and would activate more T gamma-delta lymphocytes, the immune cells involved in eliminating tumours.


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Implanting a single embryo

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© Shutterstock

Since 1978, the year of the first test-tube baby, more than 3.5 million children have been born worldwide as a result of assisted reproduction. To increase the chances of success for interventions of this kind doctors implant several fertile ovules into the uterus of the future mother. However, Finnish researchers showed recently in the journal Human Reproduction that these multiple implants bring no better results than implanting a single embryo.

To arrive at this conclusion, scientists monitored the pregnancy of women having received two embryos and others who received just one embryo implant. The birth rate was 42 % for a single implant and 37 % for a multiple implant. At the same time, multiple births are often associated with health problems for the mother as well as an increased risk for babies born prematurely or of insufficient weight.



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Virtual virtuosos

Constant practice is the only way of developing perfect command of a musical instrument. The problem is that it is very difficult to have a teacher on hand all the time to correct any false notes. Now, a computer programme developed by the European project Vemus – Virtual European Music School – offers a solution. This virtual academy of music is intended for beginner – or intermediate – level students of the flute, recorder, trumpet, saxophone and clarinet. There is a choice of three learning scenarios. Individual practice enables the pupil to play alone in front of a computer that corrects him when he makes a mistake. Alternatively, distance learning links a teacher to a pupil via the Internet. Finally, during conventional music lessons the teacher is able to connect with several pupils to give them a lesson at the same time. The user can add the score he wants to work on and the developers say that new instruments can be added easily to the system provided they are monophonic, as the operation is more complex for polyphonic instruments (piano, guitar, etc.). The beta version of Vemus is available in several languages and can already be downloaded free of charge via the project website.

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Nano regulation



They are so small that they are invading our lives almost unbeknown to us, despite the media and scientific ruckus they often create. Nanotechnologies are already a part of our everyday lives, whether in the ultrafine sunscreens that contain nanoparticles of titanium dioxide or the lipsticks that last longer due to their zinc oxide nanoparticles. At present, there is nothing to inform the consumer of the presence or absence of nanoparticles in the products they purchase and few independent studies have checked for the effects these microscopic ingredients could have on health.

The European Parliament now seems determined to make up for this lack, at least for cosmetics. A new resolution was adopted in March to render obligatory, from 2012, the labelling of products containing nano ingredients. A new evaluation procedure will also apply to ensure that cosmetics present no health risks before they are made commercially available. Yet some loopholes remain. The labelling obligation applies solely to products marketed after 2012, for example, and then only to insoluble and bio-persistent nanomaterials.

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Science at your fingertips

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Summer paleotrip

Archaeological dig in Russia (2005). The dinosaur remains are analysed by the Blagoveschensk laboratory, after which the Belgian team takes casts of the most interesting pieces back to the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (ISNB) for further research. © ISNB
Archaeological dig in Russia (2005). The dinosaur remains are analysed by the Blagoveschensk laboratory, after which the Belgian team takes casts of the most interesting pieces back to the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (ISNB) for further research.
© ISNB

Summer paleotrip Since 2005, the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (ISNB) has been offering holidays that are, to say the least, original. The first ‘paleotrip’, or paleontological dig (Les Dinosaures de l’Amour), took 11 amateur paleontologists to Blagoveschensk, on Russia’s border with China. They had been selected more for their enthusiasm than for their expertise, and were brought along to help the scientists in their research.

The objective was to hunt down dinosaurs that had died out 65 million years ago, to try to understand how and in what time frame they became extinct and to examine in more detail the hypothesis that a meteorite had been responsible for their extinction. In 2006, 12 ‘paleotrippers’ (ranging in age from 21 to 64) embarked on a second field trip. “We excavated the two richest sites in Russia, which also harbour the youngest dinosaurs in Asia.

These dinosaurs lived 65 million years ago, just before the famous Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary (K-T) crisis, which led to the extinction of the species. We now know that dinosaurs were a highly diversified species before they became extinct and that they died out very suddenly,” explains Pascal Godefroit, a paleontologist at the ISNB. This summer, the hunt will continue at Velaux, near Marseilles, in collaboration with the University of Poitiers (FR). Although this site has already yielded up some wonderful fossils, it has never been subjected to large-scale excavations until now. While it is too late to enrol for this year’s expedition, it might be worth bearing in mind for next summer.






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Taking stock of informal education

ECSITE 2.0 R/evolution/s is the title of the 20th annual conference of ECSITE, the European Network of Science Centres and Museums, held at the ‘Leonardo da Vinci’ National Museum of Science and Technology in Milan (IT) from 4 to 6 June 2009. ECSITE brought together some 350 institutions and bodies involved in disseminating the culture of science (including science museums and centres, universities, aquariums and libraries). The conference provided an opportunity for informal education partners to take stock of two decades of science promotion activities and to discuss future plans. How to approach new scientific content? Which innovative methods and aids might be of interest? How to attract new visitors and trigger a science debate?


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Water as a learning aid

Courtesy Ranka Junge/ZHAW
Courtesy Ranka Junge/ZHAW

It is never too early to encourage environmental awareness and respect for nature. The initiators of the Play with Water project target children from the age of seven upwards. They provide primaryschool teachers with classroom experiments, excursion ideas and teaching material for raising environmental and ecological awareness. For instance, pupils can experiment with biodegradable and non-degradable materials and set up a ‘compost factory’ in their classroom (using biodegradable kitchen waste to make compost for fertilising crop plants). Alternatively, they can create a polyculture system where they feed fish on vegetables they have grown in the classroom, or construct a wetland model to recycle grey water and wastewater in ecological ways. There are also excursions where children can study life in a river ecosystem or visit a water treatment plant. This is an EU-supported ‘young citizens’ project.






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Come on, girls…

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© Shutterstock


Why do girls seem less interested in science and technology than boys? Is it a matter of preference, or of preconceptions, education or gender differences in the way girls perceive science and technology careers? The seven partners in the European GAPP project (Gender awareness participation process) (1) took a practical approach to answering this question by studying schoolgirls and -boys aged between 14 and 18 years and involving their teachers and sometimes their families.

The project involved a total of 26 research institutes, 40 researchers, 1 817 pupils, 87 teachers and 207 parents at various stages before it ended in late 2008. The GAPP project promoters devised a number of practical activities to bring pupils into contact with scientists, including laboratory experiments followed by discussions (Italy), individual meetings with scientists (Belgium) and the production of a film on researchers (Poland). A document on the design, implementation and evaluation of these initiatives can be downloaded from the project website.

It should be of interest to anyone working in science communication and give them ideas for good practice. So, what were the project conclusions? That science and technology careers are just as accessible to girls as to boys and that the desired attributes (intelligence, creativeness and perseverance) are not in the least gender specific. Anything else is simply down to preconceived ideas.

  1. Città della Scienza (IT), Ciênca Viva (PT), Experimentarium (DK), Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (BE), NEMO (NL), SISSA-ICS (IT), University of Warsaw (PL)
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Genomic revolution

Close-up of DNA’s molecular of structure. © Shutterstock
Close-up of DNA’s molecular of structure.
© Shutterstock

The subject of genomics never ceases to raise new issues and has caused much ink to flow. The ‘Inside DNA’ website provides a wealth of scientific information. Teachers can find classroom resources tailored to pupils of differing levels. The ‘Real Research’ space offers students and the public a chance to further their knowledge by reading the views of leading researchers.

Anyone can give their point of view on ethical matters arising from new human genetics developments, and this feedback will be shared directly with the Human Genetics Commission, the UK Government’s advisory body on new developments in human genetics. “It’s your chance to have a say in the future policy of a science that will affect all of our lives,” say the organisers. This virtual environment is supported in the field by a touring exhibition that will travel the length and breadth of the UK in 2009. Inside DNA was developed by the British science centre, AT-Bristol, with funding from the Wellcome Trust and support from the Sanger Institute genomics centre.




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Crossborder Science Ac’

It all began in the Parisian district of Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, where, in 2006, researchers and students from the district’s education and research institutions got together to found an association called Paris-Montagne and a programme entitled Science Académie (‘Science Academy’ in English). The title was shortened to Science Ac’, to parody France’s TV reality show talent contest, Star Ac’ (the British equivalent was ‘Fame Academy’).

In 2008, a total of 200 secondary school pupils took part in Science Ac’ (of whom 66 % were girls). The association’s aim is for secondary-school pupils to discover science careers and research procedures and they are given a chance to take part in a laboratory or hospital placement. There the young people meet researchers who, while not mentors per se, can guide them in their choices and nudge them in the right direction. Summer schools are held in universities abroad and individual stays are organised in Germany, Croatia, Hungary, the UK or Serbia for secondary-school pupils who have participated in Science Ac’ programmes.

Many of these training placements rely on support from the Network for Youth Excellence (NYEX). “We are convinced of the need to harness the cultural and social diversity that exists in Europe,” says association president Livio Riboli- Sasco, who is studying for a PhD in theoretical biology at Paris Descartes University (FR). Paris-Montagne works in close collaboration with the Hungarian association KutDiák and the Portuguese association Ciênca Viva. The associations’ leaders are endeavouring to launch the ENSEMblE project to promote individual programmes for young people abroad. “In France, we target our activities mainly at young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. In Hungary, a large proportion are secondary-school students living in rural areas, as well as young Roma gypsies. The programmes provide these young people with a sense of personal fulfilment and recognition and a means for social advancement.

Their encounters with research circles have a significant impact on many young people, encouraging them to become active citizens capable of formulating their own questions and engaging in dialogue using rational arguments.”»


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Research under the microscope

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What is the use of scientific meetings?


Under the title “Meetings that changed the world”, Nature magazine published a series of six articles, one for each of six scientific meetings that have gone down in history. Among them are the 1951 Paris meeting that gave rise to CERN, the famous 1975 conference in Asilomar (California) on combinant DNA, and the meeting that launched the ‘green revolution’ in agriculture.

By way of conclusion, the magazine offered its readers a number of reflections on the subject of scientific meetings. It stressed that meetings such as the ones mentioned above have, in terms of their ambitions and success, undoubtedly played an important role in the progress of knowledge. But is this true of them all? Are scientific meetings really necessary?

Scientists love to meet. Nothing gives them more pleasure, except perhaps winning the Nobel prize! As to the prospect of sitting down in the company of their peers, jackets off, in the semi-darkness of a seminar room where a PowerPoint presentation flickers… it is enough to send them into rapture. Today, rapid air and rail transport enables them to indulge this passion to their heart’s content. In turn, research bodies organise conferences and symposiums with ever-increasing frequency. So for a long time to come we can be sure of observing, in the queue for baggage check-in, ever more examples of this particular species of traveller, researchers making their way to a conference. Most of them middle-aged males, slightly greying and rather corpulent, dressed in a tergal jacket over a crumpled shirt, their laptop suspended from their left shoulder and the right arm clutching a travel bag full of papers.

On the basis of an analysis of the purpose of scientific meetings, whether official or veiled, as well as of the motivations, avowed or unavowed, of the organisers and participants, Nature offered an answer to the question that is full of common sense: yes, scientific meetings are useful, but on this subject too careful thought is needed.

Michel André


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Teaching Corner

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Good old carbon 14

© Shutterstock
© Shutterstock

Most of us have heard about carbon-14 dating but are not always clear what it actually is or how it is used to estimate the age of a fossil. Carbon 14 (14C) is a naturally occurring carbon isotope, that is to say, an atom with the same number of protons as other atoms of the same element but a different number of neutrons (carbon 14 has six protons and eight neutrons).

The other two naturally occurring carbon isotopes are carbon 12 (12C) and carbon 13 (13C), but what makes carbon 14 useful for dating purposes is the fact that it is radioactive (1), hence its alternative name of radiocarbon.

Carbon 14 is formed when cosmic rays collide with atoms in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, creating secondary cosmic rays in the form of energetic neutrons. When these neutrons collide, a nitrogen 14 atom turns into a carbon 14 atom and a hydrogen atom. The carbon 14 atom immediately binds with oxygen to form carbon dioxide (CO2). The CO2 dissipates throughout the atmosphere and into the oceans (where it forms carbonates). So carbon 14 is found everywhere that CO2 reacts, such as in living beings that absorb carbon (and hence carbon 14).

Plants fix atmospheric carbon naturally by means of photosynthesis, which is how carbon is introduced into the rest of the food chain, when animals eat the plants and absorb carbon into their bodies. After the organism dies, the carbonfixation process ceases and its store of carbon is frozen at that point, except in the case of carbon 14, which, being radioactive, continues to decay slowly without being replaced, turning into the more stable form of nitrogen 14.

This decay becomes ever slower and is never complete. Indeed, the amount of carbon 14 in the organism shrinks to half after only 5 730 years (known as its half-life). As measurements have shown the bombardment of cosmic particles forming carbon 14 to be fairly stable over a period of several millennia, it follows that the proportion of carbon 14 contained in living beings is also stable over that time-frame.

So, all we need to do to estimate a fossil’s age is to determine the proportion of carbon 14 that has decayed since death. Using modern-day techniques, this can be done on samples smaller than one milligramme.

  1. See Nuclear waste: an insoluble question?, box entitled The ABC of radioactivity, Research*eu 61.

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Young researchers

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Araxi, evolutionary biologist, aged 31

© Humberto Gutierrez
© Humberto Gutierrez

I fell into science by accident.

My father is a geophysicist at the National University of Mexico but I never thought I would become a scientist myself. Originally I enrolled in a psychology programme but, when I had the chance to visit a neuroscience lab, the place seemed so familiar to me that I simply stayed on. With an exchange scholarship I continued working in the field at McGill University in Montreal (CA). By now I was certain I wanted to become a researcher but it was reading a paper on the evolution of ion channels that steered me away from neurosciences; I was very impressed by the elegance of natural selection and the power of using DNA sequences to understand the history of genes.

So in 2000, as a psychology graduate, I started my PhD in Molecular Evolution at the University of Bath (UK) under Professor Laurence Hurst, with scholarships from the Mexican and UK governments. We did some of the first large-scale bioinformatics analyses of the human genome showing that gene activity shapes gene characteristics and gene order in chromosomes.

With my PhD degree, I took a post doctoral position in Arizona in 2003. My dream had come true: I was now a scientist! But I moved back to the UK after becoming pregnant and remained largely away from research. With support from my PhD supervisor, I returned to science in 2007 after applying successfully for a Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship and a L’Oreal UK Women in Science Fellowship, and commuted one day a week from home in Cardiff to Bath. I now lead my own research group at the University of Bath and this year was awarded the Biochemical Society Early Career Researcher Award.

I take every opportunity to raise the profile of women scientists by lecturing to general audiences and participating in science policy initiatives like the Unesco UK annual conference. Last year I received a SHE Inspiring Women Award and was named a ‘Rising Talent’ by the International Women’s Forum for Society and Economy. Thousands of young female researchers abandon universities every year, taking their expertise with them. I am very fortunate in getting so much support at home and at work.

Araxi Urrutia


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Cordis news

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Improvements in the fight against cancer in Europe

According to a study published in the context of the EUROCARE (European Cancer Registry–based study on survival and care of cancer patients) project, the life expectancy of Europeans affected by cancer is increasing.

Comparing the number of patients surviving cancer for more than five years during two reference periods, from 1988 to 1990 and from 1997 to 1999, researchers noted that the proportion of patients surviving lung, stomach and colorectal cancer respectively increased from 6 % to 8 %, from 15 % to 18 %, and from 42 % to 49 %.

But disparities between individual countries remain enormous. All cancers combined, Icelandic men have the highest survival rate (47 %).

On the female side, Finland and France show the best results (59 %). Poland is at the bottom of the list for both sexes, with a cure rate of 21 % for men and 38 % among women. According to the study’s authors, these differences between countries reflect variations in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of cancer within the EU. These are all inequalities that Europe must tackle in the future.

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A tumour inhibitor gene

Spanish, Portuguese, Finnish, American and Japanese researchers working on the CancerDIP (The use of methylated DNA immunoprecipitation – MeDIP) in cancer for better clinical management) project have pointed to the importance of the TARBP2 gene in regulating the activity of other genes known to promote cancer. TARBP2 encodes a protein necessary for the formation of micro-RNA, or small strands of ribonucleic acid involved in the activation or inhibition of genes, including ‘tumour suppressor’ genes.

Scientists have found that in cells with mutated TARBP2 genes, the amount of micro- RNA is abnormally low and the activity of oncogenic genes increased. Inserting a normal allele of the TARBP2 gene into these cells reduces the micro- RNA to normal levels and inhibits tumour growth.

This work, coordinated by the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre – CNIO in Madrid, could stimulate the search for drugs targeting the genes that ‘block’ tumours.

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Susceptibility to psoriasis

The onset of psoriasis has long been known to be linked to individuals’ genetic predispositions. But it is only now that scientists can identify the exact nature of genetic variations behind greater susceptibility to this chronic skin disease.

An international research team, led by the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, has revealed in Nature Genetics that people lacking the genes LCE3B and LCE3C are more likely to develop psoriasis.

These two genes appear to be involved in protecting the skin. In their absence, the skin seems to be exposed to damage and inflammations of various kinds leading to the development of this disease that affects 2 to 3 % of the European population. There is currently no cure for psoriasis; the only remedy for sufferers is permanent treatment to better control the symptoms associated with this pathology.

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Like baby, like dog!

At age two, children and dogs evolving in similar environments show the same capacity to respond to adults’ directional gestures. To test this ability, Gabriella Lakatos’s team from the Eötvös University of Budapest observed how 15 dogs and 13 two-year-old and 11 three-year-old infants responded to various arm or leg movements pointing to a flower pot containing a reward. The results of this study in the framework of the European ‘Origins of referential communication’ programme were published in the journal Animal Cognition.

Canines and two-year-old children responded uniformly when the direction was indicated by holding out a part of the body, but the number of correct answers was lower than that obtained for the three-year-olds.

Between two and three, children’s ability to use visual communication evolves dramatically. In particular they learn to understand the importance of finger-pointing in the designation of objects.

According to the authors, it is the interactions during the language-learning process that allow young children to take this step.


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Analgesic stroking

And if gentleness were enough to soothe pain?

Side-stepping the old adage “fight evil with evil”, a research group coordinated by the University of Göteborg (SE) unveiled a mechanism which explains why stroking the skin can relieve suffering.

In fact, in response to this gentle contact, the skin nerves directly transmit the sensation of pleasure to the brain, even if it is simultaneously receiving pain impulses from the same cutaneous region. “The nerve signals that tell the brain that we are being stroked on the skin have their own separate path to the central nervous system and are not blocked by pain; on the contrary, they can mitigate it”, says Håkan Olausson, who heads this research. To achieve these results, scientists have used the technique of microneurography. This consists of implanting a tiny electrode in the nerve, which measures the electrical activity of the many component nerve fibres. Each such fibre is responsible for the perception of tactile signals over about one square centimetre of skin.

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Generation of new heart cells

Are we born with a limited number of heart cells or is the heart able to generate new ones? To this long-debated question, researchers at the Karolinska Institute have come up with an answer: heart cells are continually replaced. The renewal rate is 1 % per year up to age 20 years and decreases over the years, reaching 0.5 % in the seventies. Thus, over a lifetime, less than half of the myocardial cells are revamped.

The method used by Jonas Frisenna and his team to uncover the heart’s ability to produce new cells is totally innovative. They determine the age of heart cells using the carbon-14 (14C) dating method!

Following the aerial nuclear explosions conducted during the Cold War in the 1950s, large quantities of this radioactive isotope were released into the atmosphere and absorbed by plant, animal and human cells and DNA. But since the Nuclear Test Ban, these quantities of 14C have decreased quite rapidly.

Scientists have analysed the 14C content of the DNA of heart cells of people born before and after the nuclear tests to determine when these cells were generated. The results of this study, published in Science, open new perspectives in the search for therapies to alleviate cell death in myocardial infarction.

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Towards self-repairing materials?

Researchers at the Eindhoven University of Technology (NL) have developed a technique that can cause chemical reactions by exerting mechanical force. To transform the reactants into products, some reactions require or are facilitated by the presence of a chemical catalyst. This is usually activated by heat, light or other chemical agents.

Alessio Piermatti and his team have now found a way of shifting a catalyst from a dormant to an active state by ‘pulling’ on a polymer chain.

For this, the scientists wrapped a catalytic metal ion between two molecular caps, onto each of which they fixed a long polymer tail. When this complex is immersed in a liquid with a sufficiently strong flow, one of the caps is removed, releasing the metal ion that can now catalyse the chemical reaction. According to the study’s authors, this discovery opens the way for the creation of self-repairing materials, able to strengthen themselves under the influence of mechanical force.

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Sniffing the eruption

Volcanic eruptions release very large quantities of sulphur dioxide (SO2) into the atmosphere where it is transformed into sulphate particles. Integrating these particles into current climate models would make them even more precise. That’s the objective of researchers at the Chalmers University of Technology (SE) who have created a new volcano monitoring apparatus.

Tested on the world’s 17 most active volcanoes, this new device can measure the rate at which SO2 is emitted during the degassing of magma, a phenomenon that is decisive in triggering an eruption. “Added to the other parameters recorded by observatories, this information will also provide a better estimate of the risk of eruption since increased gas emissions by a volcano may indicate that the magma is about to rise”, says Mattias Johansson, the PhD student behind the development of this equipment that is equally effective for measuring pollution levels in cities. Equipped with software that converts the collected data into a simple graph, the monitoring device will enable specialists to determine at a glance the amount of SO2 emitted by the volcano at any given moment.

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Signs and letters

SignSpeak (Scientific understanding and vision-based technological development for continuous sign language recognition and translation), a European project launched under the Seventh Framework Programme and coordinated by the University of Aachen, aims to develop technology that can translate sign language into text. Deaf and hard of hearing people can communicate without issue with other people who have mastered sign language, however serious work remains to improve their integration into wider society.

The SignSpeaker system will detect the dominant hand as well as the facial expressions and body posture of the user and will also take into account the context in which a sign is made, through the signs that precede or follow. Researchers will begin by conducting a scientific study in order to improve the understanding of the structure of sign language, an essential step in developing a machine to recognise the components.


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Sustainable aquaculture

Developing a competitive and sustainable European aquaculture by building up a knowledge-base of the life cycle of fish is the objective of the LIFECYCLE (Building a biological knowledge-base on fish lifecycles for competitive, sustainable European aquaculture) project. Coordinated by the University of Göteborg (SE), this project focuses on the early development, growth and environmental adaptation of the four main species bred in Europe, which are Atlantic salmon, rainbow trout, bream and sea bass.

In order to broaden our understanding of the mechanisms that control the biological functions of these fish, the 14 consortium members will take as their basis the latest physiological research in this area as well as functional genomics. The data collected in this way should enable researchers and stakeholders in the aquaculture sector to tackle problems related to changes in physiological systems at various stages of the fish life cycle.

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Solar nanocells

The solar cells in use today have an energy-to-electricity conversion efficiency of around 18 %. The problem is that manufacturing these cells requires large amounts of raw materials in a very energyconsuming process. Thin-film solar cells, which are much cheaper to produce, are expected to dominate the market very soon, but their efficiency is only around 10 %.

The ROD-SOL (All-inorganic nanorod-based thin-film solar cells on glass) project, funded by the European Union, aims to increase the efficiency of these thin-layer solar cells with the help of nanotechnology.

The seven research organisations and four industrial partners involved in this project are seeking to develop and optimise the synthesis of silicon nanorods, that is tiny silicon columns with diameters measured in nanometers, on cheaper substrates such as glass or sheet metal.

According to the partners, these nano-structures are ideal for absorbing light energy. The main challenge for researchers lies in determining the optimal diameter of the nanorods.


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With stars in their eyes

The European Union has decided to extend its financial support to the RadioNet project for a further three years under the Seventh Framework Program me. This project, already funded under the Sixth Framework Programme, with the aim of grouping the major observatories and creating a European community of radio astronomy specialists, is now sharing infrastructures and knowledge with astronomers around the world.

Radio astronomy is a branch of astronomy that explores the radio waves emitted by celestial bodies such as stars, black holes and galaxies.

This discipline is also studying the fossil radiation from the Big Bang at the origin of our universe. With this additional €10 million of funding, the 26 RadioNet partners from EU Member States, South Africa, South Korea and the United States are hoping to offer astronomers the best radio telescopes and are also looking to get involved in the projects to build the next generation of these radio astronomy observation instruments such as ALMA (Atacama Large Millimetre Array), under construction in Peru, or the SKA (Square Kilometre Array), the future location of which should be revealed in 2012.

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Alternatives to animal testing

A memorandum of cooperation to accelerate the search for alternatives to animal testing has been signed by four international agencies, including the European Centre for Validation of Alternative Methods – ECVAM, which is part of the Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the Commission. The agreement between this organisation and its American, Canadian and Japanese counterparts, which are already working closely together, aims to formalise and boost activities to reduce the number of animals used in research.

This agreement should facilitate the identification and adoption of new approaches to scientifically validated experimentation.

In the EU alone, some 12 million animals are used each year for safety testing and other biomedical experiments. ECVAM was established in 1992 to validate scientific tests that could replace animals with cell cultures or computer models.

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Science and diplomacy

“Through its use and application of scientific cooperation to help build bridges and strengthen relationships between societies, especially in areas where often there were no other formal means of approach, Europe is a wonderful example of science diplomacy. […] Science diplomacy was not the only player, but it was very valuable in creating links between European countries, first after World War II and now after the Cold War. […] “The fact that science is without borders is what makes it so useful in diplomacy. “A physicist in Hungary is constrained by the same laws of physics and maths as a physicist in France.

The political situation may be completely different, but the ability to communicate and collaborate is in fact universal. […] “Infectious diseases don’t know borders, so the ability to share research and understanding is critical for maintaining the health of the populations on both sides of a political border”, says Dr. Vaughan Turekian, director of the new centre for science diplomacy set up by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), in an interview with our colleagues from Cordis News.

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