In brief

ZEITGEIST

Head in the clouds of Titan

Cloud imaged by the VIMS on 26 March 2007 when the Cassini flew over Titan (cloud activity over the South Pole can still be observed, when it was expected to have disappeared). © NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
Cloud imaged by the VIMS on 26 March 2007 when the Cassini flew over Titan (cloud activity over the South Pole can still be observed, when it was expected to have disappeared).
© NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Titan, Saturn’s biggest satellite – and the only satellite in the solar system with a dense atmosphere – has revealed its cloud cover. Its atmosphere is the site of a very active meteorology with very marked seasonal cycles due to the sharp inclination of the satellite’s rotational axis. Lying ten times further from the Sun than Earth, Titan takes 29 years to orbit our star and each season lasts about seven years. Cloud formation in Titan’s atmosphere is not the result of the condensation of water but of methane and ethane.

Launched in 1997, the international mission Cassini-Huygens has the task of studying the planet Saturn and its environment. The study of its satellite Titan is one of the mission’s major aims. Observations carried out with the VIMS (Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer) scientific instrument between July 2004 and December 2007 made it possible to produce the first map of Titan’s clouds on the basis of more than 200 clouds recorded during this period. The spatial distribution of the clouds revealed by this study, published in Nature, gives precise indications of Titan’s atmosphere and in particular of the mechanisms that govern its cloud cover. The clouds are distributed in the two polar regions and across a latitudinal band around 40°S, this confirming the dominant role of air circulation in cloud distribution, as the satellite’s climate models predict.

The evolution of cloud cover through the seasons is understood less well, however. So there is still work to do for the Cassini-Huygens mission that ‘interplanetary meteorologists’ hope to extend until 2017.




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To the sound of Greek antiquity

© Courtesy Luca Petralia
Francesco De Mattia playing the epigonion at the Musica@Fisica concert organised by the Dante network (www.dante.net), held in Catania (Sicily) in June 2009. © Courtesy Luca Petralia Francesco De Mattia playing the epigonion at the Musica@Fisica concert organised by the Dante network (www.dante.net), held in Catania (Sicily) in June 2009.
© Courtesy Luca Petralia

For the first time in centuries, the sound of the epigonion, a musical instrument of Greek antiquity, can again be heard. Italian experts working with the ASTRA (Ancient instruments Sound/Timbre Reconstruction Application) project have succeeded in reviving this instrument that is closely related to the modern-day harp by combining art and technology. In re-creating the sound of the epigonion they took as their basis data obtained from archaeological discoveries, historical drawings and literature.

The information describing the materials of which the instrument is made and the way in which it is used were then transcribed into ‘computer language’ using the physical modelling technique. This involves using a series of equations and algorithms that make it possible to model the instrument’s ‘behaviour’ in a mechanical system.

This achievement was made possible thanks to the GÉANT and EUMEDCONNECT research networks and the Grid infrastructures managed by the EGEE (Enabling Grids for E-science) infrastructure project that served not only to link up powerful computers but also to share knowledge and data on the epigonion. It is easy to understand why ASTRA had recourse to such networks when one considers that reproducing a sound of around one minute requires about half an hour of data processing.






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The return of the blue whale

© Shutterstock
© Shutterstock


Forsaken by the blue whales decades ago, the waters off the coast of Alaska (US) and the Canadian province of British Columbia are seeing the timid reappearance of the large cetacean. Since 1966, when the ban was introduced on hunting that had brought the species to the brink of extinction, these large mammals have been making a gradual recovery. While scientists estimate that the blue whale population was 350 000 before the whalers began their onslaught, there are now believed to be between 8 000 and 14 000 blue whales inhabiting the world’s oceans.

It was in 2004 that scientists making a population census of humpback whales in the Gulf of Alaska noticed three blue whales. One or two blue whales have since been observed every year off the coast of the Canadian province and in the Gulf of Alaska.

Researchers with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) stress in the journal Marine Mammal Science that such findings could mean that a population of blue whales in the eastern North Pacific is in the process of re-establishing a traditional migratory flow.

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Daily sperm practice

© Shutterstock
© Shutterstock

An ejaculation a day improves sperm quality and therefore the chances of conception. The Australian study that reached this conclusion, presented at the last annual congress of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology, held in Amsterdam, involved 18 men whose sperm quality was below the average.

After being ‘prescribed’ an ejaculation a day for a week, the researchers measured the DNA deterioration of the spermatozoids as well as their mobility, two parameters that saw a marked improvement after the treatment. The authors attribute the improvement to a reduced stay of male gametes in the testicular ducts where they are exposed to the damaging effect of oxidising molecules.



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Injecting into the heart of cells

Twenty times thinner than a human hair, the nanoneedle measuring 50 nanometres in diameter developed by researchers at the University of Illinois (US) permits injections into a single cell. Coated with a fine layer of gold and attached to a glass pipette, this needle easily penetrates the cell membrane and makes it possible to deposit one or more molecules inside the cell together with the quantum dots used for the medical imaging of cells, replacing the usual colouring agents.

This new nanotechnological instrument as described in Nano Letters enables scientists not only to control, monitor and record the process for delivering active molecules to a cell interior, but also to use this needle as an electrochemical probe and optical biosensor. This development should permit a more precise monitoring of the fine interaction between proteins and DNA or RNA molecules inside cells.

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An anti-rejection and anti-ageing molecule

© Shutterstock
© Shutterstock

Already valued for its effectiveness in preventing rejection in the case of organ transplants, rapamycin could be even more prized for making it possible to extend the life of mammals. This is what was recently revealed by a team of US researchers and published in Nature. Scientists administered this molecule with antifungal and antibiotic properties as a foodstuff to mice aged 20 months, which is the equivalent of 60 years for a man. A comparison of their life span with those of mice of the same age fed normally showed that treatment with rapamycin increased the average life span of males by 9 % and of females by 13 %.

Rapamycin inhibits the TOR (target of rapamycin) protein kinase that plays a fundamental role in cell growth and proliferation. First discovered in yeast, this protein is also found in mammals (mTOR) and its inhibition had already extended the lives of invertebrates. While a second study, which is in progress, already confirms the effect of rapamycin on the life span of mice, the authors nevertheless advise caution regarding the potential use of this molecule to slow the ageing process given the significant immunosuppressor effects it engenders. This discovery could, however, make it possible to develop compounds similar to rapamycin, but without side effects.

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EUROPEAN NEWS

Renewable and profitable?

© Shutterstock
© Shutterstock


While there is no doubt that renewable energies help combat climate change and to reduce dependency on fossil fuels, their economic interest is far from clear. Now, thanks to the Employ-RES study carried out jointly by six European institutes at the Commission’s request, we have facts and figures on the impact of renewable energies on jobs and growth.

If Europe meets the target it has set itself, namely renewable energies representing 20 % of final consumption by 2020, the sector will then generate, gross, 2.8 million new jobs and 1.1 % added growth in the Community GDP. But if we look at the net figures, taking into account the increase in energy prices and the reduction in investments in the traditional energy sector, the ultimate result would be the creation of 410 000 jobs for an added growth of 0.24 % of GDP. Although more modest, these figures seem to be the best we can hope for. The study concludes that action would be more rewarding economically than inaction.

Forecasts show that if we do not step up the effort, present policies – which would permit no more than 14 % energy savings by 2020 – would provide less in terms of jobs and growth, whatever the model of analysis and scenario envisaged.


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BIOTRACER 1 – Salmonella 0

© Shutterstock
© Shutterstock

The principal culprit in gastroenteritis has lost a major battle. A team of researchers from the BIOTRACER network has developed a process for quantifying salmonella in pork. To date, all such attempts had come up against the same obstacle. As the bacteria are generally present in low quantities in food, the samples are first of all enriched to facilitate detection. But this process renders quantification difficult.

The new method is still based on an enrichment phase, followed by an amplification of the bacterial DNA by PCR (polymerase chain reaction) in real time, but this initial phase has been reduced. Researchers observed that there is a precise correlation between the quantity of salmonella contained in the basic sample and the PCR signal, provided the enrichment period is limited to the exponential growth phase of the salmonella.

By permitting the simultaneous analysis of several samples, this process opens the door to compiling a new quantitative database, one that is necessary in the field of risk analysis and controlling critical points, an area hitherto impossible.

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A new lease of life for the heart

© Shutterstock
© Shutterstock

Stem cells obtained from bone marrow and adipose tissue could improve the cardiac function after a heart attack, according to studies carried out by scientists at the Centre for Applied Medical Research and Navarre University Hospital (ES).

Cardiac arrest is one of the most common complaints in the world. When a person suffers such an attack the damaged muscular tissue dies and the residual scar tissue does not retract. As a result, the myocardium is unable to regenerate, with serious consequences for the workings of the heart, possibly ultimately leading to cardiac insufficiency. Experiments carried out on rats showed that stem cells obtained from bone marrow were able to repair the damaged tissue while the adipose cells were transformed to form blood vessels and cardiac cells. What is more, the results obtained were maintained over a long period, stressed Manuel Mazo, who headed the study.






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The other Sichuan disaster

According to a Chinese proverb, ‘going on the road to Sichuan is as hard as going to heaven’. © Shutterstock
According to a Chinese proverb, ‘going on the road to Sichuan is as hard as going to heaven’.
© Shutterstock

It seems that a huge volcanic eruption in south-west China virtually wiped out all marine life 260 million years ago, according to a study headed by the paleontologist Paul Wignall of Leeds University (UK) and published in the journal Science.

Mount Emei, located in presentday Sichuan Province, is believed to have spewed almost half a million cubic metres of lava. The lava flowed down the mountainside and into deep sea waters triggering a massive explosion that emitted vast quantities of sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere, leading to the formation, around the earth, of thick layers of cloud that cooled the atmosphere and culminated in torrential acid rain.

The researchers were able to identify the precise moment of the eruption, as the lava formed a very distinct layer of igneous rock between two layers of sedimentary rock that contain all the marine fossils that can be easily dated. The link between a volcanic eruption and mass extinction is often difficult to establish as it is generally based on the CO2 produced as a result of the eruption. Yet the effects of the build-up of this gas in the atmosphere are progressive and therefore more difficult to identify.


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Goodbye to the Kraft process

The timber processing industry could be on the verge of a small revolution. Researchers at Queen’s University Belfast (IR) and University of Alabama (US) have developed a dissolving technique that is cheaper, more effective and, above all, more ecological than the Kraft process that has been used since the 19th century. The miracle recipe swaps traditional chemicals for ionic liquids. These are in the form of organic salts with a relatively low fusion point. Not only are these products less toxic and biodegradable, but they are also able to dissolve wood shavings at lower temperatures and pressure. By adding water and acetone, researchers also managed to partially separate the two components of the dissolved wood, namely cellulose and lignin, both of which are at the basis of many derivatives. Cellulose can be used to produce biofuel, textiles and of course paper. Lignin makes it possible to synthesise chemical products that are usually derived from oil. According to Robin Rogers, co-director of research with Héctor Rodríguez, the discovery of this new process marks major progress in developing the bio-refinery concept. ‘This could open the door to developing a genuinely sustainable chemical industry, one based on renewable resources,’ he declared.

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River pollution

S© Shutterstock
© Shutterstock

A team from Cemagref in Lyon (FR) has identified a pertinent indicator of the level of pollution in rivers: the biofilm. A complex combination of bacteria, algae and fungi, the biofilm forms a viscous layer on immersed supports, such as the stones on a river bed.

The biofilms are able to break down the pesticides that contaminate aquatic environments and modify their structure, diversity and functioning. Toxic substances, for example, can change the photosynthetic, respiratory or enzymatic activity of aquatic ecosystems, either definitively or temporarily. It is in this way that biofilms can serve as an early warning signal of pollution.

It remains to characterise and distinguish the responses of biofilms to pollutants from those induced by environmental factors (current speed, physico-chemical composition, etc.). It is research of this kind that should help respond to the need set out in the Water Framework Directive to improve the ecological quality of European rivers by 2015.




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The water carrier

Researchers at Göteborg University (SE) have succeeded in unravelling a major mystery in the fight against cancer. They have managed to determine the three-dimensional structure of yeast cell aquaporins. An aquaporin is a small membrane protein on which many hopes have been pinned, as it regulates the flow of water inside cells. This is vital to controlling cell shape and size. These flows of water could play a crucial role in several types of cancer, research on mice having shown that inhibiting this function made it possible to reduce significantly tumour propagation and growth.

The Swedish researchers revealed the protein structure with the aid of X-ray crystallography. The high resolution of the images permitted detailed observation of the protein’s amino-terminal extremities, a sort of long tail whose function was hitherto unknown. Their research indicates that these act as a valve, opening and closing depending on the quantities of water the cell needs to absorb or reject. The channel formed by the aquaporins is regulated mechanically and by phosphorylation (addition of phosphates).

Research Director Karin Lindkvist believes these discoveries will allow a human aquaporin inhibitor to be developed that, in the longer term, could lead to the creation of medicines able to slow tumour growth. The results of this study were published in the June 2009 edition of the journal PloS Biology.

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The stealth of the chlamydia

Sweden has contributed to its cost to the better detection of chlamydias, the parasites that are the source of many sexually transmitted diseases. In 2006 a new strain of this bacteria spread like wildfire through the country, eluding the principal diagnostic tests. Swedish doctors believed that infection rates were falling when in fact the very opposite was the case. This new strain of chlamydia, along with five others, was the subject of a recent study by the British Sanger Institute and Southampton University (UK).

It seems that the genetic sequence of the bacterial plasmid (the DNA molecule that exists outside the chromosome) on which the tests were based had quite simply disappeared from the Swedish strain.

The researchers therefore set about determining another genetic sequence for the purposes of identifying the parasite. After painstaking analysis they opted for the region that showed the least variation between strains but is still situated in the plasmid. According to Helena Seth-Smith, who headed the study, this is a timely warning as this kind of development could also be true of other infectious bacteria.

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The mother, the child…

Cardiogramme d’un foetus. © Shutterstock
Cardiogramme d’un foetus.
© Shutterstock


A good example of interdisciplinarity was published recently by the prestigious National Academy of Sciences in the United States. It was in the form of cooperation between the Potsdam (DE) Institute of Research on Climate Change and the Chair of Radiology and Microtherapy at the University of Witten/ Herdecke (DE). The scientists discovered that the heartbeats of the mother and foetus could be synchronised. The feeling often reported by mothers of being able to feel whether or not their baby is doing well could be linked to this interaction.

The study was carried out on six women at between 30 and 40 weeks of pregnancy and the heartbeats were measured with the aid of a magnetocardiograph. It seems that the cardiac rhythms are different but linked by certain ratios. It also seems that an increase in the mother’s respiratory rhythm favours the phenomenon. These hidden interactions were revealed thanks to an algorithm that generates what are known as ‘twin surrogates’ which could be translated as ‘fictitious twins’. These are independent copies of the underlying system that serve to identify statistically the periods of synchronisation.

The mathematical approach could facilitate the detection of complications earlier in a pregnancy. More generally, it opens up new prospects for research on interactions between independent but strongly linked physiological systems.


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… and the Earth

Surface plankton bloom after El Niño crossed the Pacific.© NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/SeaWiFS-Orbimage SVS
Surface plankton bloom after El Niño crossed the Pacific.
© NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/SeaWiFS-Orbimage SVS

So what does all this have to do with climate, the object of attentions at Potsdam? The algorithm developed by the mathematicians also makes it possible to understand other synchronisation phenomena, which could be described as the ‘perception’ by a given dynamic system of the existence of another system. Synchronisation defines the way in which these two systems respond to the influence of the other as well as external influences. This could be applied to complex climate models, such as teleconnection, or the correlation between two climate phenomena separated by great distances. The most known teleconnection unites the El Niño current off the coast of Peru with the Indian monsoon caused by southern oscillation, that is the cycles of variation in atmospheric pressure in the South Pacific.

The algorithm could also serve research on the loss of biodiversity caused by man, making it possible, for example, to identify why and to what extent the fragmentation of an ecosystem by roads or plantations affects the diversity of species.




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SCIENCE AT YOUR FINGERTIPS

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Darwin celebrations

New Darwin Centre (artist’s rendition). © Natural History Museum
New Darwin Centre (artist’s rendition).
.© Natural History Museum
© Cap Sciences/Objectif prod
© Cap Sciences/Objectif prod

‘Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work worthy the interposition of a deity. More humble and I believe truer to consider him created from animals,’ wrote Darwin. To the great displeasure of the creationists, the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth (1809) has been celebrated virtually worldwide, particularly in Europe, where many discussions have been held on a ceaseless list of questions to which there are often no clear answers: How did species appear? What roles do culture and the environment play in their transformation? Is man still evolving? And lastly, what has become of God?

London’s Natural History Museum (NHM) opened the Darwin Big Idea Big Exhibition in 2008, retracing this pioneering scientist’s intellectual path to deciphering the theory of evolution. It showed various organisms and fossils collected during Darwin’s voyage aboard HMS Beagle, which took him from Australia to South America. Another big idea was the Natural History Museum’s New Darwin Centre, which opened to the public on 15 September last year. This giant curved cocoon, housed inside a stunning concrete, steel and glass building, stands beside the famous 19th-century Natural History Museum. The NHM’s collection of some 17 million insect specimens and 3 million plant specimens will be displayed there in an intimate yet spectacular setting. The centre will provide facilities for 200 scientists to work at any one time, as well as hosting visitors interested in science who want to find out more about the scientists’ work.

The French National Museum of Natural History (MNHN) in Paris designed its famous Galerie de l’Évolution to explain how the theory of evolution became a science, through its anatomy and palaeontology collections. The adjoining garden, Jardin des Plantes, highlights Darwin’s work with plants, as well as his very personal – and passionate – approach to gardening.

The botanical gardens at Meise in the Flemish region of Belgium illustrate the ‘green’ side of a Darwin who was passionate about plants and unravelling their mysteries, and had a special fascination with orchids, carnivorous species and the sexuality of plants. The Natural History Museum of Brussels took advantage of Darwin’s bicentenary to inaugurate its new evolution gallery (containing 600 fossils and 400 naturalised animals). This exhibition, aimed chiefly at children, traces the link between the past, present and future. The visit ends in a room dedicated to the future, where visitors are surrounded by the kind of species that might populate the Earth in years to come.

The Natural History Museum of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, is currently staging an event called Parce Queue (a play on the French word for tail: queue), perhaps because Darwin seemed to attach so little importance to that appendage (‘The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick,’ he said). While the peacock uses it for display and seduction, the tail has many other uses in other animals. For instance, it is used as a weapon by snakes and crocodiles, a parasol by squirrels and a means of expression by cats and dogs. Despite Darwin’s feelings on the subject, the event’s organisers believe that the tail is a wonderful example of diversification that shows us how living creatures have evolved in close harmony with their environment.

Finally, the Evolution of Life website (in French, English and German) takes a highly educational approach to the subject, under three different headings: ‘Observe’ (videos and animations tracing the history of evolution), ‘Explore’ (simulations) and ‘Teach’ (teaching kits for different levels).


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Climate in the front line

The virtual exhibition and game Clim’City were designed by Cap Sciences (Bordeaux) to make young people aged 12 and upwards more aware of the world in which they will have to live – and above all to reflect on the burning issue of global warming. What kind of climate can we expect in 2010? How can we reduce greenhouse gas emissions now? How will humans adapt to the climatic conditions of the future? The exhibition features a range of idyllic virtual landscapes, including pleasant homes, peaceful power stations, grazing cattle, perfect blue lakes and a snow-covered ski resort. However, by clicking on them we are made aware of a more complex reality behind the idyll. More than 300 documents in English and French (texts, videos, interviews, diagrams, graphics, animations) inform us about the uncertain future of these habitats.

Clim’City also takes a playful look at a dozen or so themes (climatology, politics, transport, habitat, energy, industry, agriculture, waste, health, biodiversity, food, tourism and leisure). An interactive game enables us to apply the information concealed behind the images and to try to take personal responsibility for the environment – in other words, to simulate a reduction in our own ecological footprint. The aim is for players to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a quarter in compliance with European standards. This could turn out to be much more than a game, though, as children often prove to be excellent opinionmakers


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An artist and children

Bestiarium Construendum by Alexander Reichstein. © Heureka’s Image Bank/Saila Puranen
Bestiarium Construendum by Alexander Reichstein.
© Heureka’s Image Bank/Saila Puranen

‘I plan my exhibitions as installations, where children and adults can experience art in different ways: looking at it, touching it, climbing on it – in short, playing with it. My projects function almost like a theatre, with children as visitors and actors simultaneously,’ explains Alexander Reichstein. His Bestiarium Construendum – Curious Creatures exhibition, currently on show at the Heureka science centre (FI), consists of 36 large pieces of a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle of sculpted animals, which children can dismantle and reassemble to make new creatures. Just piece together the wings from one and the head or tail from another, and there you have it – a whole new way of seeing the living world…

Russian-born Alexander Reichstein, who now lives in Finland, also likes to illustrate books for children, sometimes working jointly with them. Another of his itinerant exhibitions, HELA LIVET FORR I TIDEN (All of Life Long Ago), will travel all over Finland and Sweden. The exhibition presents to children the entire cycle of human life from birth till death, in a playful and poetic way through a series of simple, halftransparent fabric ‘picture houses’ each illustrating a major period of human life. The houses were decorated by Anna-Clara Tidholm, the well-known author and illustrator of children’s books.



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Musée du Vivant, alias the encyclopaedia of ecology

The Musée du Vivant in Paris, France, claims to be the world’s first ecology and sustainable development museum, designed to help people to ‘understand the world of today’. The museum, founded by the Paris Institute of Technology for Life, Food and Environmental Sciences AgroParisTech, is a resolutely virtual medium characterised by the abundance, diversity and depth of its online documentation. Its website contains a host of scientific archives, theses, articles, posters, photographs and films on ecology and sustainable development, compiled by AgroParisTech over the years. This material, which is often impossible to find elsewhere, is likely to be of interest to researchers, students, associations and anyone concerned by the political, cultural or economic development of ecology.

The huge archives are accompanied by a news section (news headlines, event calendar and new teaching resources), together with numerous links.

In 2006, AgroParisTech also created the Ecology and Sustainable Development Network, bringing together all the heritage conservation institutions involved in eco-matters, in particular members of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) and UNESCO. Weighty stuff indeed!


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Research under the microscope

Do industrial researchers have souls?

In his work The Scientific Life: a Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation, historian and sociologist of science Steven Shapin questions two widely accepted ideas. The first is that modern scientific research, as presented by Max Weber and Robert K. Merton, is a collective enterprise based on standards of interaction between researchers, exempt from any moral concern and in which individuals do not count. The second is that that deep-seated differences exist between research undertaken in the academic environment and research carried out in business enterprises which are motivated by the search for profit.

Shapin takes the opposite position, maintaining first that in modern research, just as much as in classical research, individuals and their personal psychological qualities, starting with their own charisma, play a vital role, as do moral roles such as integrity and the desire for knowledge; second that these qualities and values influence just as much research undertaken in an industrial environment as that undertaken in universities. Shapin supports these affirmations with historical considerations and theoretical reflections, as well as an analysis of the results of a survey he himself undertook among a certain number of researchers.

Shaking received ideas is always useful, and Steven Shapin has frequently shown himself a perspicacious observer of science. But this time, the general opinion is that he has gone too far, with a desire to think out of the box leading him to exchange one form of naivety and prejudice for another.

Clearly, the statements of industrial researchers cannot be considered as strictly objective. As everyone who has ever looked at pharmaceuticals research knows, the fact that research activities are carried out in a context dominated by considerations of profitability has profound consequences on the way they are undertaken. To maintain otherwise is to defend a paradoxical thesis for the pleasure of doing so.

Michel André


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Teaching corner

The sky detectives

Mirros on the Great Canary Telescope © Miguel Briganti (SMM/IAC)
Mirros on the Great Canary Telescope
© Miguel Briganti (SMM/IAC)

Spain’s recently inaugurated Great Canary Telescope (Gran Telescopio Canarias (GTC)) holds out the prospect of extraordinary discoveries for astrophysicists (see article page 32). The key to its future success lies not just in the impressive scale of its mirror but, more importantly, in the precision of its spectrometers, instruments that are an invaluable aid to stargazers. Just how do spectrometers unveil the mysteries of the farthest nebulae from down here on Earth?

As Newton demonstrated in the 17th century, a prism breaks down the sun’s rays into a continuous spectrum of colours, each corresponding to a wavelength. Each star emits its own light, which spectral analysis can decode into a wide variety of parameters, including the star’s composition, speed and density.

Since the advent of quantum physics, we know that all atoms are formed of a nucleus around which electrons gravitate in predetermined energy layers. When an energy input causes an electron to jump from one energy orbit to a higher one, it emits a photon (light particle), the frequency of which depends on the energy difference between the two orbits. Because each element has its own electrical orbital characteristics, all spectral rays from a star reveal its chemical composition, even thousands of light years away.

Added to this is the Doppler effect. The sound of a racing car appears to rise in pitch as it approaches and to fall in pitch as it recedes into the distance. Similarly, the spectral rays of a star also change in relation to their relative speed. It is this systematic red shift of distant bodies (towards lower frequencies) that reveals the expansion of the universe.

Finally, the denser a gas, the more collisions there are between the particles within it, resulting in a characteristic broadening of spectral rays. With such capabilities, there can be little doubt that the four spectrometers of the European super-telescope will afford us an even better view of the skies above.


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Young researchers

Fay (26), molecular biologist

Fay Christodoulou
Fay Christodoulou

Outside the lab, in a world full of accountants, medics and lawyers, I find it very entertaining to introduce myself as a molecular biologist. People usually do a double-take and gasp just as though they had been presented with an exotic fruit.

At the EMBL(1), where I am a PhD student, being a molecular biologist is nothing fancy. Still, our lab’s research (Arendt group) sounds exotic enough because we work on a ‘living fossil’, the marine worm Platynereis dumerilii, with the aim of resolving how the brain evolved into such an organ. The last ancestor of humans (and many other species) had a simpler brain and that is what interests me, because I would like to know how it all began. We believe Platynereis is quite similar to this last ancestor and, by studying it, I identified how a recently discovered class of molecules (micro-RNAs) demarcated specific parts of the brain, as well as a handful of other organs early in animal evolution.

As I love to tell people how fascinating my worms are and how exciting my project is, I got involved in the SET Routes(2) project, a European initiative to awaken young girls’ interest in science. When I described my life experiences to pupils at a Greek high school, I was surprised to see how curious they were about my research. They were expecting to meet a nerd and were amazed to see that a scientist can be ‘normal’ and enjoy extra-curricular activities like DJ-ing, travelling, sports and photography.

The stereotype image of a scientist looks so ‘uncool’ in children’s eyes that it may discourage them to express an interest. Ironically, the new generation is very disappointed with many other career options yet remains unaware of prospects in the science world.

Inspiring even a few children has been so rewarding for me because I believe that a scientist’s role is not only to innovate but also to communicate and hopefully enrich the brain pool of the community. That is why I chose a career in science, thanks to an excellent science communicator, my high school biology teacher in Athens. It was he who ignited my passion for evolution, which was later nurtured at the University of Sussex and blossomed under the great guidance of my PhD supervisor, Detlev Arendt.

Fay Christodoulou

  1. European Molecular Biology Laboratory, Heidelberg (DE).
  2. www.set-routes.org

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CORDIS NEWS

Europe’s reptiles and amphibians under threat

EU-funded research conducted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has revealed that nearly a quarter of Europe’s amphibians and more than one fifth of its reptiles are in danger of extinction. The research formed part of the European Red Lists project, which aims to determine the conservation status of some 6 000 species of mammals, butterflies, dragonflies, amphibians, reptiles, freshwater fish, molluscs, beetles and vascular plants in Europe.

The data gathered show the number of reptiles and amphibians in Europe to be shrinking and that they are at greater risk of extinction than European mammals and birds. Of the amphibian species surveyed, 85 are found only in Europe. Two species in this class of vertebrates are classed as ‘critically endangered’, five others as ‘endangered’ and 10 species of amphibians as ‘vulnerable’. As for the reptiles, 151 species of which make their home in Europe and nowhere else in the world, scientists have placed on the Red List six species that are ‘critically endangered’, five that are ‘endangered’ and 10 other species that are ‘vulnerable’. The key factors that endanger the lives of amphibians and reptiles are human destruction of their natural habitat, climate change, pollution and the presence of invasive species that deprive the endemic species of resources.


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Europeans detect the lightest exoplanet

A team of European researchers has discovered the lightest ever exoplanet (a planet beyond the solar system) in the Libra constellation by using the HARPS (High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher) spectrograph attached to the 3.6-metre telescope belonging to the European Southern Observatory (ESO) at Chile’s Silla Observatory. This extra solar planet, christened Gliese 581 e by astronomers, has around twice the mass of Earth and is located 20.5 light years away.

Although Gliese 581 e is very likely a rocky planet according to the authors of this study, it is not in the habitable zone defined by astronomers because its location is so near its host star. The habitable zone is a region around the host star with the right conditions for water to be liquid on a planet’s surface. However, the astronomers found that Gliese 581 d, the planet furthest from the host star of the Gliese 581 system, does seem to be in the habitable zone. Their latest observations indicate that this exoplanet, with a mass equivalent to seven times that of Earth, may well be an ocean planet. It could be covered with water, as well as ice, and shrouded in a deep atmosphere.

The purpose of this hunt for exoplanets is to identify a planet with environmental conditions similar to those on Earth that could harbour life.

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OLEDs – the light of the future?

Organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) are semi-conductors made of layers of organic material only a few nanometres thick that give off light when an electrical current is applied. Over time they may well replace LCD and plasma technologies. OLEDs are thin and flexible, making them ideal for the manufacture of roll-up screens. They could even be developed for conventional lighting applications, rivalling incandescent bulbs and fluorescent tubes.

The problem is that up to now, the most energy-efficient OLEDs achieved a rating of only 44 lumens (light output) per watt consumed (lm/W), far below the efficiency levels of conventional fluorescent tubes, which range from 60 lm/W to 70 lm/W. Recently, though, scientists from the Technical University of Dresden (DE), funded by the European Union under the OLLA (Organic LEDs for ICT and Lighting Applications) project, succeeded in creating lightemitting diodes that are just as efficient as conventional fluorescent tubes. Their results were published in Nature. Their breakthrough came from combining a novel, highly energy-efficient emissionlayer design with improved light- outcoupling concepts. The authors believe that this discovery confirms the revolutionary nature of OLEDs, making them ideal for conventional lighting applications.

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Model bacteria for solar cells

Green sulphur bacteria grow under extremely low light conditions. They have organelles called chlorosomes that contain thousands of bacteriochlorophyll and photosynthetic pigments, which form efficient antennas for harvesting light and synthesising organic matter through photosynthesis. Although a fair amount is known about the mechanisms at work in the light-harvesting antennas of certain photosynthetic organisms, knowledge of the structure of the chlorosomes is still rather sketchy.

In a study published in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), an international team of researchers coordinated by the University of Leiden (NL) reveals that inside the chlorosome the bacteriochlorophyll assemble themselves into tube-like structures. Scientists have observed the stacking of photosynthetic pigments using genetic manipulation and two sophisticated bioimaging techniques: cryoelectron microscopy and nuclear magnetic resonance imaging. The concentric nanotube structure of chlorosomes is the basis of effective and super-fast light harvesting.

The authors believe that chlorosomes are an attractive model to follow because of their simple composition and their ability to work well even in low-light conditions. This discovery could lead to the development of similar structures for solar cells that convert sunlight into chemical energy.

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The happiness hormone, important but not crucial

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by a team of researchers working on the FUNGENES (Functional genomics in engineered ES cells) project provides new information on the role of serotonin, commonly known as the ‘happiness hormone’.

Serotonin is synthesised from an enzyme called tryptophane hydro xylase (TPH). This enzyme comes in two different forms: TPH1, which produces the serotonin that circulates outside the central nervous system, and TPH2, which is responsible for the production of serotonin within the central nervous system.

The researchers deleted the gene responsible for the production of TPH2 in a group of mice. They found that these mice virtually stopped producing serotonin, confirming that TPH2 was indeed the main enzyme responsible for producing the hormone.

They observed that when the rodents reached adult age, they were fertile and the females produced milk but also that they developed a number of disorders, including impaired postnatal growth, sleep alteration and breathing and cardiac problems. The mice tended to adopt more aggressive behaviour, accompanied by a tendency to eat their offspring. These observations support the assumption that aggressive behaviour is linked to low levels of serotonin. The study concludes that while TPH2-derived serotonin is involved in the regulation of behaviour and autonomic pathways, it is not essential for adult life.

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Educational television stages a comeback

Although interactive learning is growing, it still does not reach a large audience. To remedy this, the European Union is funding the ELU (Enhanced Learning Unlimited) project. The project aims to extend the advantages of interactive learning to a wider audience, especially in the newest Member States. The research team has focused its efforts not on the Internet, as you might expect, but on television. To bring the undeniable teaching potential of television up to date, the research team has developed interactive digital television (iDTV) programmes.

In addition to six ready-made t-learning modules, they have created a virtual teacher and interactive quizzes. The ELU project also led to the creation of a software package for educators to enable them to create complex interactive courses via a visual interface. The course software and methods were tested in a 30-month study of a panel of users including MBA students and young pupils and older adults from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovenia. According to the results of the study, t-learning would effectively complement e-learning and other methods of transmitting information. The researchers have announced that, while a market launch of the iDTV software is planned, educational content developers will be responsible for taking the process further.

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The anti-cancer vitamin

Although several epidemiological and clinical models had demonstrated the anti-cancer properties of vitamin D in humans, as well as the higher susceptibility to colon cancer caused by vitamin D deficiency in animal models, the exact mechanisms responsible for this have so far remained a mystery. Now a study published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, led by researchers from the NUCSYS project (‘Systems biology of nuclear receptors: A nutrigenomics approach to aging-related diseases’) and the MICROENVIMET project (‘Understanding and fighting metastasis by modulating the tumour microenvironment through interference with the protease network’), has started to unravel this mystery.

The researchers have established that the D3 form of vitamin D activates the CST5 gene in human colon cancer cell lines. The CST5 gene is responsible for making a protein called cystatin D. Research has found cystatin D to have important tumoursuppressing properties. In vitro tests have shown that cystatin D blocks the growth of human colon cancer cell lines both in the test tube and in mice. Conversely, the researchers found that artificially reducing the activity of the CST5 gene renders cells unresponsive to the anti-cancer effects of vitamin D. The exact mechanisms by which cystatin D exerts control over cancer cells remain unclear.

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Two new windows on the Universe

Last May, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched two new missions from the Kourou space centre in Guiana using the Ariane 5 ECA launchers Herschel and Planck. These two observatories, fitted with telescopes operating independently, will soon reach their final orbit 1.5 million kilometres from Earth where they will operate for an estimated lifetime of three to four years for Herschel and 15 months for Planck, during which time they will be used to gather more detailed data on the cosmos than ever before.

The telescope on the Herschel observatory, with its 3.5-metre mirror and PACS (Photoconductor Array Camera and Spectrometer), SPIRE (Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver) and HIFI (Heterodyne Instrument for the Far Infrared) instruments, is the largest telescope ever put into space. It has unrivalled sensitivity to long waves that are inaccessible from the ground and can make astronomical observations of far infrared and sub-millimetre wavelengths, gathering unique information on the components of the universe. The Herschel mission is to study the formation of galaxies and stars, the molecular chemistry of the planets, comets and the atmospheres of satellites. The Planck observatory has the task of measuring to the nearest thousandth of a degree the temperature fluctuations of fossil radiation, or the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), which is found throughout the universe and carries a direct imprint of the Big Bang.

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Research to free up the skies

The European Union has plans to inject EUR 1.9 billion into research aimed at preventing gridlock in the skies over Europe. This research effort will be headed by the joint undertaking SESAR (Single European Sky Air-traffic management Research), which is the technology arm of the Single European Sky (SES) initiative funded by the European Commission, EUROCONTROL (the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation) and the aviation sector.

Over the next seven years the undertaking will finance 295 research projects conducted by 16 European partners specialising in air traffic management (ATM) technologies, each responsible for a specific task. SESAR will culminate in the progressive implementation of a new generation of European ATM systems integrated into a worldwide context. As Europe faces the prospect of air traffic tripling between now and 2020, the new system will focus on short- and long-term solutions to congestion, as well as on improving air traffic safety and promoting a European air transport system more in step with sustainable development.

Scheduled work packages include the development of trajectory management and route optimisation techniques, the development of an intranet for air traffic management to improve information sharing and the implementation of a ‘rolling network operation’ plan that adapts to the situation in real time.

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IMI on course

Many are called, but few are chosen. Out of the 150 applications submitted under the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI), 15 were finally awarded funding. The projects were selected by a committee of independent experts. Seven target a whole range of ailments: diabetes, cancer, pain, psychiatric disorders, neurodegenerative conditions, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Three will work on issues relating to drug safety and effectiveness, and four focus on training.

The IMI is one of five Joint Technology Initiatives (JTI) launched as part of the European Commission’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). This is a public-private partnership that involves all stakeholders in the drug chain, including the pharmaceutical industry, innovative small and medium enterprises (SME), patient groups, hospitals and government agencies responsible for issuing marketing authorisations. Together they have drawn up a strategic research agenda which was used as the basis for the call for proposals. Each research effort will be headed by a consortium of research bodies and innovative SMEs. The 15 projects will share EUR 246 million in funding, EUR 110 million of which will come from FP7 and EUR 136 million from the pharmaceutical industry.

A second call for proposals is scheduled for this autumn. It will probably focus on oncology, the diagnosis of infectious diseases, chronic inflammatory diseases and knowledge management.

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A legal framework for research infrastructure

The Czech presidency of the European Union ended with an important decision for building the European Research Area (ERA): it was agreed to adopt a legal framework for the establishment of European research infrastructures, which are too complex for national laws to accommodate.

For several months the negotiations, headed by the Ministers in the Competitiveness Council, had been battling over such thorny issues as how to exempt research infrastructures from indirect taxes and value added tax (VAT). The new framework now means that Member States must treat research infrastructures as international organisations for VAT purposes. ‘The legal framework will significantly cut financial and administrative costs and clarify the legal environment for the functioning of European research infrastructures and at the same time enhance scientific cooperation,’ stated Miroslava Kopicová, the Czech Minister for Education, Youth and Sports.

‘The Council’s agreement is excellent news for EU research and for the EU economy,’ added European Research Commissioner Janez Potočnik, before going on to say: ‘Investing today in the construction of large-scale research infrastructures can certainly contribute to the EU economic recovery and will surely reinforce our competitiveness when we get out of the recession.’


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Research on research

Following EU Research Commissioner Janez Potočnik’s presentation of the Science, Technology and Competitiveness Key Figures Report 2008/2009 at the beginning of this year, the Commission now plans to launch a set of studies designed to further develop an evidence-based monitoring system on progress towards the European Research Area (ERA). In particular, the studies should serve as an evidence base for analysis of the contribution of research to economic growth, as well as the impact of research policies and programmes on the competitiveness of Europe.

Six research themes were selected: investments in joint research programmes; internationalisation of business investments in R&D; structural changes in sectors affected by R&D investment; patent costs; knowledge transfer, assessed by patent and licensing data; and bibliometric indicators. Although the six studies will be fully independent of each other, they are defined to be consistent in terms of their methodology and geographical coverage, allowing the results to be combined to provide a broad overview.


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Antibiotics: a call for standardisation

‘Antibiotic resistance is a growing problem worldwide, with 10 % of Streptococcus pneumoniae isolates recorded as non-susceptible to penicillin in 30 countries in 2007 (…). The proportion of European patients consulting in general practice with lower respiratory tract infection who are prescribed antibiotics ranges from about 27 % in the Netherlands to 75 % in the United Kingdom. Trial evidence suggests that most antibiotic prescriptions do not help these patients to get better any quicker (…). [This] wastes resources, (…) puts patients at unnecessary risk of side effects, and increases selection of resistant organisms, and so represents an opportunity for improved care through greater standardisation.’

Extract from an article entitled ‘Variation in antibiotic prescribing and its impact on recovery in patients with acute cough in primary care: prospective study in 13 countries’, written jointly by researchers working on the GRACE project (Genomics to combat resistance against antibiotics in communityacquired lower respiratory tract infections in Europe).The article was published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).

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