In brief

ZEITGEIST

Europe seeks its ancestors

DNA analysis carried out at a Mainz University laboratory. © Joachim Burger
DNA analysis carried out at a Mainz University laboratory.
© Joachim Burger

It seems that, when it comes to tracing our roots, DNA studies create as many mysteries as they solve. In 2005, researchers at the Johannes Gutenberg Institute of Anthropology at Mainz University (DE) showed that Europe’s first farmers were not the direct ancestors of modern-day Europeans. Continuing their line of investigation, in a subsequent study they compared the DNA of these farmers with that of the hunters-gatherers who inhabited Europe after the Ice Age. It seems they too had no link with the first farmers… or with today’s European population. Modern Europeans do not therefore descend from either of these two groups or even, in all probability, from a mixture of the two, certain types of DNA that are common today being absent from the skeletons analysed. So the mystery remains. On the other hand, studies have made it possible to shed some light on European sedentarisation.

It was long believed that the first farmers were former huntergatherers who came progressively to settle in one place. But as there is no link between these two groups the farmers must indeed have come from elsewhere. Scientists have managed to locate and date this immigration. They came from the Carpathians 7 500 years ago. It is an origin that places them close to regions where sedentarisation first took root, namely Anatolia and the Near East.

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Deserts threatened by nitrogen

Researchers from Cornell University in New York (US) have made a discovery we could well have done without: the loss of nitrogen in arid soils. Their experiments in the Mojave Desert in the American West show that the lack of water coupled with high temperatures causes the loss of nitrogen that is released in the form of gas.

As the water and nitrogen present in the soil are the two principal elements on which biological activity depends in desert soils, this means that the vegetation is doomed to become even poorer. The phenomenon also further feeds a vicious circle. Nitrogen causes an increase in tropospheric ozone concentrations that pollute the air and, most seriously, add to the greenhouse effect and in turn the warming responsible for climate change and the reduced rainfall in these regions. This type of abiotic, thus nonbiological, loss had not been envisaged previously when calculating the nitrogen balance. It is why scientists insisted that this new data should be included in the climate models.

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So who’s the fairest of them all?

© Shutterstock/Anat-oli
© Shutterstock/Anat-oli



If a pig ventured in front of a mirror it would probably charge what it would regard as another pig, we are tempted to believe. But according to a team of Cambridge University (UK) researchers in anthrozoology – the discipline that studies relationships between man and animals – it would do nothing of the kind, at least if one is patient.

Scientists placed eight pigs two at a time for five hours in an enclosure containing a mirror. The animals began by growing angry at their reflection, breaking the mirror on each occasion. After a few hours, however, they seemed to understand that the mirror was simply reflecting their environment. To check this, the researchers placed a bowl of food in the enclosure, being careful to install a ventilator to dispel their odour. The bowl was hidden behind a screen but visible in the mirror. All the pigs, except one, headed for the actual bowl within about 20 seconds. According to Daniel Broom, who headed the study, this information may make it possible to improve the living conditions of farm pigs. With this intellectual prowess the pig joins the very closed circle of species with a certain self-awareness.

The elephant, the killer whale, the dolphin, the African Grey parrot, the magpie, a number of primates and man from the age of 18 months, are all members of this ‘happy few’ who pass the mirror test.


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Cooperate or die

Escherichia Coli.© Inserm
Escherichia Coli.
© Inserm


A team of French and Portuguese researchers from the Institut Pasteur (FR) and Lisbon University, who published a study in the journal Current Biology, looked at the cooperation mechanism at work on the microbial scale in the case of Escherichia Coli. This bacteria is found in abundance in the intestinal flora, enjoying neighbourly relations with the human body. However, any change in the interaction with the latter or with other microbes is enough to render it very virulent. At the same time its secretome – the proteins on which its vital functions depend – can be easily exploited by other microbes, by means of the horizontal transfer of genes, a nonsexual process by which very mobile genes, encoded in the cell plasmid, ‘jump’ from one organism to another. It is this that renders Escherichia Coli a potential even if unintentional ‘cooperator’.

The question for the researchers was to understand why this phenomenon has endured when it is of little benefit to the helping organisms – and at times even harms them. According to their study, the answer lies in a triple process. Many of the secretome genes have cooperative traits that, once transferred to other organisms, will convert these into cooperators. To maintain this new population they are coupled with other genes that impose a punitive strategy of the kind ‘cooperate or die’. Finally, the genetic similarity of the infected individuals will favour the maintenance of these traits from one generation to the next by virtue of what is known as ‘kin’ selection. The study of this process opens the door to a better knowledge of bacteriological growth and its potential manipulation.


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The baby has an accent

© Shutterstock/Ngo Thye Aun
© Shutterstock/Ngo Thye Aun

We already knew that, when exposed to different languages, newborns showed a distinct preference for the language closest to the one they heard in the womb. We now find that their cries also echo this accent. A team from the Center for Prespeech Development and Developmental Disorders at Würzburg University (DE) has studied the melodies formed by the cries of 30 French babies and 30 German babies shortly after their birth.

It seems that the French babies stress the end of their cries, as French speakers raise their pitch at the end of words or sentences, while the German babies do the exact opposite, after the fashion of German speech. This is not of course really an accent, as accents are to do with the way words are pronounced, but the study does confirm the importance of melodies in language learning and shows clearly that the process begins in the womb with the perception and then reproduction of the melodies heard. The researchers see this as a step towards solving the mystery of the appearance of language in our ancestors.



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The smell of old books

© Shutterstock/Valentin Agapov
© Shutterstock/Valentin Agapov


The characteristic grassy aroma of old books is at the heart of a new method of assessing the degree of ageing of old books. Known as ‘material degradomics’, it was developed by a team of British and Slovenian researchers, in particular at University College London and the University of Ljubljana, and published in the journal Analytical Chemistry. Unlike traditional techniques this has the major benefit of not damaging the documents analysed as it is based solely on the aroma they emit.

As they age, books give off volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are responsible for the distinctive aroma. The scientists analysed the COVs emitted by 72 historic works with a composition typical of the 19th and 20th centuries. The 15 most abundant COVs were chosen as deterioration markers and related statistically to the principal paper components (resin, lignin, carbonyl, etc.) and some of their chemical parameters, such as pH. The recorded levels of each marker thus provide a kind of ‘digital fingerprint’ of a book at a given moment. This information could help museums and libraries in setting restoration priorities and refining the methods.


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EUROPEAN NEWS

Genetic assault on Alzheimer’s

Cerebral cortex. © Inserm/Catherine Fallet-Bianco
Cerebral cortex.
© Inserm/Catherine Fallet-Bianco

Two studies, the results of which are published jointly in Nature, have identified three new genes involved in Alzheimer’s disease. The first two, the gene for clusterin (CLU) and CR1, were identified by the team of Philippe Amouyel, professor of epidemiology and public health at the University of Lille 2 (FR). Mutations in these genes make it difficult to eliminate beta amyloid, a peptide highly damaging to the nervous system, and which accumulates in patients’ brains. Any research leading to the elimination of the beta amyloid peptide represents therefore a potential avenue for treatment.

Simultaneously, a British team led by Julie Williams from the Alzheimer’s Research Trust (UK) also put its finger on the CLU gene and a third gene called PICALM. Using DNA microarrays, researchers have determined the expression levels of 20 000 individuals, both healthy and sick. While these tests have revealed the involvement of the PICALM gene in the onset of this dementia, its precise role remains unclear.






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From lithium mystery to exoplanets

Exoplanet Gliese 581. Artist’s view. © ESO/L.Calçada
Exoplanet Gliese 581. Artist’s view.
© ESO/L.Calçada


For over 60 years scientists have wondered why the sun contains less lithium than many similar stars. According to the study published in Nature in November 2009 by the team of astrophysicist Garik Israelian of the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands (ES), the mystery is solved: it is because our star is surrounded by planets.

For several years the European South Observatory (ESO) has been observing 500 stars, including 70 surrounded by planets, using the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) spectrograph of its 3.6-metrediameter telescope at La Silla, Chile. By focusing only on stars comparable to the sun, which make up about one quarter of the sample, Garik Israelian and his team noted that the majority of those that are surrounded by planets contain about 100 times less lithium than the others.

Lithium, a light element consisting of three protons and four neutrons, was probably produced shortly after the Big Bang, 13.7 billion years ago. Logically, it should be found in comparable proportions in most stars. But it would appear that the formation or presence of planets around a star leads the latter, by a mechanism that remains to be discovered, to destroy its lithium. This finding should certainly spur on the small world of exoplanet hunters, because the lithium deficiency of stars is now a serious indication of the presence of these extrasolar planets.

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A marine bacterium against cancer

Fragments of cancerous cells. © Inserm/Jenny Valladeau
Fragments of cancerous cells.
© Inserm/Jenny Valladeau

The attention of Nereus Pharmaceuticals, a commercial company based in San Diego (US), and of biochemists at the Technical University of Munich (DE) has been drawn to a marine bacterium that goes under the Latin name of Salinispora tropica. This produces a molecule that could advantageously replace the existing proteasome inhibitor drugs, used to prevent the proliferation of cancerous cells, but which cause serious side effects by also affecting healthy cells.

Proteasomes are enzyme complexes that process the waste matter in cells. Disabling them condemns the cell to suffocate in its own residue. The Salinispora tropica produces a lethal molecule with an identical effect. It creates an opening in the proteasome, then blocks it, like a broken key in a lock. Researchers see it as offering a better way to block the proteasome. Now that they know the mechanism in detail, all that remains is to alter it to create proteasome inhibitors targeted at the sick cells.






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Engraved memories

“And all of a sudden the memory became visible to me. This taste was that of the little piece of madeleine cake.” Marcel Proust © Shutterstock/Lulu Duraud
“And all of a sudden the memory became visible to me. This taste was that of the little piece of madeleine cake.” Marcel Proust
© Shutterstock/Lulu Duraud

Why do some events remain forever engraved in our memory, while others quickly disappear? Everything depends on the ability of our brain to convert new sensory impressions into lasting memories. The first step of this process is to store the memories for a few hours only, thanks to an alteration in neural transmission which induces a series of chemical changes in the synaptic connections. But how do these recent memories then become permanently anchored in the cerebral cortex?

By managing to switch on and off the ability to form lasting memories in genetically manipulated mice, researchers at the Karolinska Institutet (SE), in collaboration with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) in the U.S., have highlighted the role of the nogo receptor 1 (NgR1) molecule. It would appear that the gene responsible for this molecule needs to be deactivated before long-term memories can be formed. Indeed, when researchers inserted an NgR1 gene that remained active even if the mouse’s original NgR1 gene was switched off, the rodent had great difficulty in converting immediate memories into lasting ones.

This discovery is worth noting as a possible avenue for new treatments for memory impairment.









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Of the fragility of sperm …

© Shutterstock/Sebastian Kaulitzki
© Shutterstock/Sebastian Kaulitzki

According to the Genetics, Reproduction and Development unit, consisting of researchers from several French research centres, an antioxidant protein known as GPX5 serves to protect human sperm. Sperm acquires its fertilising capacity during maturation in the epididymis. However, the DNA of particularly fragile sperm may fragment after oxidative stress. And this is where GPX5 comes in. Researchers have discovered that male mice that are deficient in this protein possess morphologically normal sperm. But when this sperm is used to fertilise ovules from female mice caught in the wild, this produces developmental defects and a greater incidence of miscarriages and perinatal mortality. These results, if applicable to humans, could have an impact on the technology of medically assisted procreation (MAP). They could also help improve the protection of human sperm, which currently undergoes severe oxidative stress during thawing prior to artificial insemination.





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… and that of infertile men

Infertile men are significantly less healthy than the fertile population, if we are to believe an article published in December 2009 in the journal of the European Association of Urology.

The article is based on the findings of a prospective study conducted between September 2006 and 2007 at the University of Milan (IT), by urologist Dr Andrea Salonia’s team, of 344 men aged 18 to 60 years suffering from infertility. Comparison with a control group of 293 fertile men of analogous age shows that less fertile men have a significantly higher level of comorbidity on the Charlson comorbidity scale, which lists all the comorbid (i.e., affecting the patient simultaneously) pathologies of aged persons. This means that, in addition to infertility, these patients have other health problems in greater proportions than the fertile population. Given the limited size of the sample, it is still too early to draw general conclusions, and larger scale studies will be needed to confirm these results.

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A black day for dark matter

Centre of the Milky Way. © ESO/S.Gillessen et al.
Centre of the Milky Way.
© ESO/S.Gillessen et al.

A few years back astrophysicists were pondering over the origin of the flow of electrons and positrons detected in the Milky Way. The most likely hypothesis at the time was that these elementary particles were produced by the mysterious ‘dark matter’.

In fact dark matter has nothing to do with this, according to a study published in August 2009 in Physical Science Letters by a team including astrophysicist Julia Becker from the Ruhr-Universität Bochum and physicist Wolfgang Rohde from the Technische Universität Dortmund in Germany. According to this study, the flows that have been detected in fact come from the plasma ejected during the explosion of huge stars having a mass of more than 15 times that of the sun. This accelerated plasma collides with the solar wind consisting of particles from earlier explosions to form a shock wave. Depending on the alignment of this shock wave with the magnetic field of the remnant star, the emerging signal is sometimes weak, sometimes very high energy. This model fits perfectly with the observations, leading the authors to state that we need to look elsewhere for proof of the existence of dark matter.





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Cells that counteract asthma

Mouse lung. © Inserm/Michel Depardieu.
Mouse lung.
© Inserm/Michel Depardieu

A team of researchers from the Applied Genoproteomics Interdisciplinary Group (GIGA) of the University of Liege (BE), led by biologist and veterinarian Fabrice Bureau, has found, in the lungs of mice, cells that are able to prevent asthmatic reactions. These cells, which are regulatory macrophages, are associated with the dendritic cells in the lungs, which serve to present antigens to the T lymphocytes in the lymph nodes. It would seem that regulatory macrophages detect the antigens we constantly inhale and the concomitant immunostimulatory molecules, thus preventing the migration of dendritic cells to the lymph nodes and hence the reaction of the immune system to these harmless allergens.

The immune response which asthma sufferers develop against airborne allergens is redundant and even harmful. Each exposure to these allergens reactivates the immune system of the lungs, leading to a narrowing of the airways and poor oxygenation.

The researchers therefore are tending to associate the development of asthma with a deficiency of regulatory macrophages at a certain point in a person’s life.


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The good greenhouse effect

Four billion years ago, the sun was still a young star, 30 % cooler than today, and the earth, without the greenhouse effect to heat it, would probably never have known life. This life it owes to carbon oxysulphide (COS) derived from the volcanic activity that it experienced during several millennia, according to a study published in August 2009 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The authors, chemist Matthew Johnson and his colleagues at Copenhagen University and a team from the Tokyo Institute of Technology, found in ancient rocks a strange distribution of sulphur isotopes that could not have resulted from geological processes. Convinced that an atmospheric factor had come into play, they irradiated sulphur dioxide (SO2) with sunlight at different wavelengths, and actually managed to reproduce the distribution of the sulphur isotopes in the rocks.

For researchers, these results clearly identify carbon oxysulphide, which was formed from sulphur ejected from volcanoes, as the best candidate for explaining the greenhouse effect experienced by the earth in its infancy. They believe that a cover of atmospheric COS, which is more efficient than CO2, would have been enough to make good the 30 % less energy received from the sun. And it would have facilitated the emergence of life all the more as, like ozone (O3), it halts ultraviolet radiation.

But how then, with such a cover, do we explain the ice age that the earth apparently experienced 2.5 billion years ago? Precisely by the appearance of life, which resulted in the release of large amounts of oxygen. In an oxidized atmosphere, the volcanic sulphur would no longer have produced COS, but sulphated aerosols having the opposite effect. In other words, we need to reckon with the gases that were present in the atmosphere.

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New insights into HIV

Burgeoning of the AIDS virus. The virus exits from the infected cell with the help of cellular partners of the cytoskeleton, which are very present in the cell extensions called filopoda. © Inserm/Philippe Roingeard
Burgeoning of the AIDS virus. The virus exits from the infected cell with the help of cellular partners of the cytoskeleton, which are very present in the cell extensions called filopoda.
© Inserm/Philippe Roingeard

The green fluorescent protein, which earned the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2008 for its finders, has recently helped advance research into AIDS. Using it, researchers from the universities of Munich and Heidelberg (DE) were for the first time able to observe in detail and in real time the process of replication of HIV-1, and how these new viruses are released to infect neighbouring cells. For this, biophysicist Don Lamb of the University of Munich, who led the research, used cell culture containing eight of the nine genes of HIV-1, manipulating one of them to get a fluorescent form of the GAG (group-specific antigen) protein which makes up the virus capsid (skin).

The study, part-financed by the Seventh Framework Programme and published in PloS (Public Library of Science) Pathogens, shows that once the HIV-1 assembly process has been activated, the host cell membrane is covered with viruses within just one or two hours. Each is individually assembled – not from a reusable budding platform, as is suspected to exist for other viruses, but from viral proteins synthesised by the infected cell in around 25 minutes. The researchers were also able to determine whether the viruses visible on a cell’s surface were produced by the cell itself or whether they came from neighbouring infected cells. Until now little was known about the mechanisms of intercellular infection of the AIDS virus. These discoveries bring a new dynamic dimension to this process.






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The paradox of holes

Courtesy Institute of Physics, University of Stuttgart
Courtesy Institute of Physics, University of Stuttgart

Cut holes in gold film so fine as to be already semi-transparent, and you will have… a more opaque film! This is the conclusion of the team from the Physikalisches Institut of the Universität Stuttgart (DE). Surprising? Not totally, because we know that, being in the form of waves, light cannot pass through holes which are narrower than its wavelength.

However, metals are at times an exception to the rule. Some 10 years ago, researchers demonstrated that in the presence of a particular arrangement of holes the incident light created waves, via the electrons of the metal, which spread over the entire surface. The interaction of these plasmons with the light caused it to be transmitted through the film. The gold films used matched these transmission conditions – 20 nm thick and holes of 200 nm in diameter – but even so the percentage of transmitted light was lower than that of nonperforated film. Scientists suspect the semi-transparent nature of the film which lets through 40 % of the light. The remaining 60 % would seem to be insufficient to allow the plasmons to play their role. Moreover, the transmission rate seems highly dependent on the wavelength as infrareds generate a very high absorption. The German study in this way adds a new relief to existing knowledge. Mastery of these specific interactions could open the way to the development of integrated plasmonic chips for filtering certain wavelengths.

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SCIENCE AT YOUR FINGERTIPS

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Remote tracking of gorillas

Courtesy UWA
Courtesy UWA

Some 700 mountain gorillas still inhabit our planet. Around half live in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, while the others are found in Rwanda and the Republic of Congo. In 2008, Bwindi and the nearby Mgahinga Gorilla National Park attracted 600 000 visitors.

A critically endangered protected species, the gorillas represent a valuable tourism and financial resource, managed by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA). The UWA ensures that the areas reserved for the gorillas are respected, collects fees from visitors to national gorilla parks and redistributes part of its earnings to the local population, by providing support to schools, hospitals and small livestock farming and other activities.

To reach out to a wider audience, the UWA recently launched the website www.friendagorilla.org, where the stars are the gorillas. The site contains a raft of information about their habits and distinctive characteristics compared with other primates and, if you want to emulate the famous Diane Fossey, you can befriend a mountain gorilla or two.

For the modest sum of USD 1 per year, web users can follow the movements of a small group of gorillas around the clock. Hidden cameras in the impenetrable forest track these nomads, which shelter in a different spot every night. Although it will, of course, cost you a little more, you can travel to see the gorillas in person in the Mgahinga national parks. The parks’ trackers will show you how to spot them, but no one can guarantee that they will appear on cue. At least the spectacular scenery should go some way to soothing any frustration.



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Giant footprints

Set of dinosaur footprints at the Plagne palaeontological site (FR). © CNRS Photothèque/Hubert Raguet/UMR5125
Set of dinosaur footprints at the Plagne palaeontological site (FR).
© CNRS Photothèque/Hubert Raguet/UMR5125

The largest dinosaur footprints ever found have been discovered at Plagne (FR), between Lyon and Geneva. The depressions measure between 1.20 and 1.50 metres in diameter and the tracks spread over dozens and possibly even hundreds of metres. They were authenticated as sauropod footprints by Jean-Michel Mazin and Pierre Hantzpergue, two researchers from Claude Bernard University in Lyon. Sauropods were giant long-necked herbivores measuring more than 25 metres in length and weighing up to 40 tonnes. It was not the scientists who made this discovery, though, but, two amateur enthusiasts of palaeontology, fossils, volcanoes and nature.

Theirs was no chance discovery. It goes to show what valuable allies amateurs can be to scientists. Our two discoverers (retired teacher Marie-Hélène Marcaud and geologist Patrice Landry) are both members of a local naturalist society that has been searching for dinosaur footprints for years. “We formed groups to explore different sites”, explains Patrice Landry. “Following a series of observations and discoveries, we pinpointed certain rock facies. We also studied geological maps and aerial photos to identify rock outcrops and work out how to reach them. Based on all this, we focused on potential sites and have been exploring them systematically. Plagne was one such site and it was the first time that we went there.”










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Online competition

A road is soaked with water prior to a tyre performance test by the French Public Works Research Laboratory (LCPC) in Nantes. © Austrian Institute of Technology/Roland Spielhofer
A road is soaked with water prior to a tyre performance test by the French Public Works Research Laboratory (LCPC) in Nantes.
© Austrian Institute of Technology/Roland Spielhofer

Take three key elements (tyres, roads and safety). Mix together. Give it all a good shake. Let your imagination run free and devise a clear, original, forceful message to highlight the interactions among the three elements. The product? A short video for Youtube of no more than five minutes that may well herald a bright future.

This describes the online video competition staged by the European TyroSafe (Tyre and Road Surface Optimisation for Skid Resistance and Further Effects) project. The winning video will be used to raise awareness and promote the TyroSafe project in different exhibitions, seminars and events organised by the project partners. The panel of judges comprises a number of respected road research experts. Competition participants are entirely free to choose their video format (it can be an advertisement, a marketing video, or even a song, for instance) and can use any of the visual elements appearing on the TyroSafe website. Although video entries are accepted in any language, non-English-language videos must be subtitled in English.








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Culture surfing

© Shutterstock/Lori Labrecque
© Shutterstock/Lori Labrecque


While Google is striving to digitise all the world’s books, Europe’s ambition is to bring together online its own rich cultural heritage under the Europeana label, pooling the vast collections held in libraries, archive centres and museums throughout Europe. These include an impressive number of books and periodicals (some 2.5 billion documents in libraries alone) and millions of hours of film and video on European history and culture. Europeana was put into operation in November 2008 and this gigantic virtual collection already houses 4.6 million digital items in 19 languages (including books, maps, works of art, posters, photos and audiovisual archives).

Not only is Europeana a cultural challenge, it is also a communication technology challenge. It has been a particularly complex task to put into motion this diverse network of partners with very different cultural management backgrounds. Content contributors must each comply with the standards essential to such a shared enterprise. Then, consultation methods need to be devised to ensure that access is provided to a wide variety of users (including researchers, teachers and students, cultural enterprises and curious members of the public) in the most appropriate manner possible. Europeana is well worth a visit: at the website portal you are presented with a variety of themes that invite you to embark on some socio-cultural surfing. Each item you visit will open up new pathways. The site also features a timeline navigator where you can click on a year from 1801 to 2007 to view images from that era. As its home page states, Europeana really is a “place for inspiration and ideas”.

The UNESCO World Digital Library (WDL), which opened in April 2009, is a broader global venture. It makes available to a general audience a wide variety of documents in libraries and cultural institutions all around the world. So far, 26 institutions from 19 countries have contributed content to the WDL, in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish. With the WDL, UNESCO aims to expand the volume and variety of cultural content on the Internet and to narrow the digital divide within and between countries.


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Mapping the impact of global warming

© Shutterstock/Loris
© Shutterstock/Loris


The Copenhagen world summit on climate change is expected to culminate in an agreement limiting global warming to 4°C (7°F) between now and the year 2100(1). What would happen if this proved to be just a pious hope? The consequences are all too obvious if you take a look at an interactive map of the planet featured on the British government website Act on Copenhagen.

The map presents the latest scientific results on global warming. You can use it to study a specific geographical zone or one of the impacts of climate change: agriculture, the Amazon forest, the carbon cycle, sea-level rise and temperature rises.

The scenarios are enough to make your head spin: 130 million flood victims per year; 1 billion people with water shortages; a 48-centimetre rise in sea level (with an estimated 600 million people living less than 10 metres above present sea level); large areas of the Amazon forest lost through drought, and more… All just alarmist theories?

The scientists are quick to remind us that 35 000 people died as a result of the European heat wave in 2003.

  1. See also the interview with Jean-Pascal van Ypersele in this issue.


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RESEARCH UNDER THE MICROSCOPE

New sciences?

In an article in the journal Minerva, Andrea Bonaccorsi, Professor of Innovation Economics and Sociology of Science at the University of Pisa, attempts to characterise what he calls the ‘new sciences’. These are the organised bodies of knowledge – information sciences, materials sciences and life sciences based on molecular biology – which have been developed after the Second World War and all of which are structurally different, he notes, from traditional disciplines like physics, chemistry or astronomy.

Contrary to what is often said, he insists, the approach of these new sciences is marked, no less than the old ones, by ‘reductionism’, that is the desire to ‘replace the visibly complicated by the invisibly simple’, to quote the famous French physicist Jean Perrin. Nor are these sciences more distinct in terms of interdisciplinarity, or, more fundamentally in each case, by a more applied orientation, in response to social needs and economic pressures.

For Bonaccorsi, what defines them essentially is the shape of the dynamics of research. Theirs is a more ‘industrial’ dynamic, characterised by rapid growth and a high degree of diversification, linked to a tendency towards diverging problem areas – with each explanatory hypothesis in turn opening up a new research programme.

In support of his thesis, Bonaccorsi exploits the results of a comparative analysis of the frequency of new words in scientific publications in these three new fields of research, compared with publications in the traditional and well-established field of high energy physics. Interesting views like these should be qualified and supplemented. Moreover, it would have been possible to say all this in a somewhat lighter and simpler way. But let’s not complain: compared to that of many of his fellow academics, Andrea Bonaccorsi’s style is (almost) that of Voltaire.

Michel André


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TEACHING CORNER

Home-made tornado

@ Qwentes
@ Qwentes


All you need to create a mini-tornado in your kitchen is a saucepan full of boiling water, a stick of incense and a large sheet of plexiglass. First cut the plexiglass into four pieces to form a 1-metre high cuboid shape open at both the base and the top. Before assembling the pieces, cut a slit roughly 5 cm wide along the edge of the four panels on the right-hand side (see illustration). Then place the saucepan on a small burner, with the burning incense stick next to it. Cover the saucepan entirely with the cuboid and wait. After a while you will see a tornado form before your very eyes.

Magic? No, just physics! This apparatus re-creates conditions found in nature that cause tornadoes. While the air temperature just above the saucepan is close to 100°C, at the top of the cuboid it is only 30°C. The temperature variation between the different layers of air creates an Archimedes effect producing vertical acceleration of the water vapour. At the same time, this movement pulls in air through the four large slits, forcing the ascending vapour to rotate. The stick of incense releases dust onto which the water particles collect, making the phenomenon more visible.

Here on Earth, tornadoes occur in hot regions where the temperature difference between the ground and the upper layers of air is large enough to create a rising movement. The rotation is due to the inertial force of the Coriolis effect caused by the earth’s rotation, coupled with the geostrophic effects resulting from differential friction with the ground and the successive layers of air. The home-made apparatus creates an ascending movement rotating anti-clockwise, just like tornadoes in the northern hemisphere. Turn the cube upside down and you change hemispheres…


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YOUNG RESEARCHERS

Amoolya: ‘developing my own voice’


I work at Emory University in Atlanta (US). After earning a doctorate at UC Berkeley (US), I obtained a post-doctoral bursary at Embo (European Molecular Biology Laboratory) in Heidelberg, Germany. My research focuses on characterizing the mechanisms of evolution of bacterial stress responses, which play a particularly important role in human disease and the biodegradation of toxic wastes.

Although I love what I do, my journey in science has not been entirely straightforward. Growing up as the daughter of two biologists, I was encouraged to ask questions and explore nature. I was also deeply drawn to music, and studied voice and instruments since early childhood. At the end of my secondary studies in India, it was a difficult choice between a career as singer or scientist. But then I won a scholarship to study science in the United States, which impelled my journey westwards. The possibility of playing music in the new surroundings helped me cope with the culture shock and make new friends. I look back on my doctoral studies as a period of joy and creativity.

My three years in Europe were another wonderful time of transition. For the second time in my life, I moved continents, and had to start over again. It is always frightening to move thousands of kilometres away, but having done it once, I was prepared for the culture shock. To my surprise, I experienced the opposite – as an older culture with a long history, Europe some how felt closer to India, and I experienced a sense of homecoming in the town plazas and pedestrian streets. I noticed that my European colleagues were just as productive as the American ones, and also managed to maintain a balance between work and family, and take healthy vacations each year. This balance reaffirmed my desire to get married and start a family, which, in the productivist American culture, I had been avoiding.

Now that I am back in the US, I realize that this transition was (to borrow from a metaphor in music) the process of developing my own voice. Although maintaining one’s voice in the cacophony of professional pressures can be difficult, it is perhaps the truest and most beautiful reason to keep singing, or doing research.

Amoolya Singh
Computational biologist


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Cordis news

Uncovering the secrets of biodiversity

The European Research Council (ERC) has granted funding worth EUR 2.8 million to the SPATIODIVERSITY project, led by ecological modelling experts Thorsten Wiegand and Andreas Huth, both researchers at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig (DE). Over the next five years, the team will study tropical forests to increase understanding of the factors and processes governing the composition and dynamics of these species-rich communities. The study should enable them to formulate a unified spatial theory of biodiversity.

The team’s approach will be based on the spatial distribution of species, which has not yet been fully investigated. They will use an extensive range of data gathered from research areas in tropical forests which are home to hundreds of tree species. Their research will also rely on powerful computer analysis tools. They will use the latest state-of-the-art spatial pattern analysis techniques to quantify the highly complex spatial structures present in tropical forests. A raft of individualbased spatially explicit forest simulation models will then be put together (assigning a spatial coordinate to each tree). In the final stage of the project, the SPATIODIVERSITY project team will apply model selection techniques to discover which of the simulation models best reflects the observed spatial structures of the biodiversityrich areas studied.

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A new observatory in the Arctic Ocean

The European Seas Observatory Network (ESONET) project has just added another string to its bow: the Long-Term Observatory of Mud Volcano Eruptions (LOOME), which will monitor the long-term activity of a mud volcano situated in the Barents Sea, at the edge of the Norwegian continental shelf. The Haakon Mosby mud volcano lies 1 250 metres deep under the sea and has a diameter of about 1.5 kilometres (km). A mixture of mud, gases and water is emitted from the active centre of this volcano, situated 3 km below the seabed. Methane gas hydrates are found in the outlying area of this structure, helping to stabilise the area. The observatory will provide information about the dynamics of future gas eruptions and their possible impact on the gas hydrate system, soil composition and organisms living at the edge of the volcano.

ESONET is funded under the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) to the tune of EUR 7 million. The observatory was installed during the 24th Arctic expedition of the research vessel Polarstern, an icebreaker belonging to the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) in Bremerhaven (DE).

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Head in the clouds

What role do clouds play in climate change? Although the answer to this question remains unsolved, EUCLIPSE (European Cloud Intercomparison, Process Study and Evaluation Project) aims to remedy this by producing an accurate picture of the relationship between clouds and changing weather patterns. Clouds are formed by millions of droplets of water vapour condensing in the sky, and play a central role in the formation of the world’s weather patterns in terms of rainfall, sunshine hours and temperature.

EUCLIPSE, coordinated by the Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) in the Netherlands, aims to produce much clearer climate models to shed more light on the role that clouds are playing in climate change. The project has divided researchers from 13 European research institutions into several working groups.

Some will use a new climate model called EC-Earth to calculate the behaviour of clouds in an increasingly warm climate. Others will conduct simulation activities to analyse the behaviour of clouds in various global warming scenarios in different regions of the world. Lastly, a brand new range of A-train satellites will be used to depict clouds three-dimensionally for the first time. The results will be included in the next report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

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A sustainable diesel biofuel

First-generation biofuels made from foodstuffs such as sugar or corn compete with traditional food, but now European Union – funded researchers are turning to second-generation biomassderived biofuels, which do not compete with food. The aim of the project, called DIBANET (Development of Integrated Biomass Biofuels Approaches Network), is to produce a novel diesel miscible biofuel, called ethyl levulinate, from organic wastes and residues. This sustainable biofuel can be mixed with fossil diesel and used in a normal diesel engine. The DIBANET consortium, led by the University of Limerick in Ireland, is composed of partners from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Denmark, Greece, Hungary and the United Kingdom. The project will forge closer research ties between Europe and South America. Europe’s goal is to use 10 % biofuels in its total energy consumption by 2020.


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Genetics of insulin sensitivity

By scanning the genomes of thousands of diabetic and non-diabetic individuals, researchers from four European Union – funded projects (EURO-BLCS, EUGENE2, EXGENESIS and EURODIA) discovered a new genetic variant that increases the risk of a person developing type-2 diabetes. While 18 genetic variants have already been identified, this one is different because it is the first that seems to affect the ability of muscle cells to use insulin – most of the other variants impair the ability of the pancreas to produce sufficient insulin.

Type-2 diabetes arises when the body cannot produce enough insulin or does not respond to insulin correctly. The result is that cells cannot get enough glucose from the blood to use as energy. The new genetic variant affects the activity of a gene called Insulin Receptor Substrate 1 (IRS1), which produces a protein that tells muscle cells when to take up glucose from the blood. The study, published in Nature Genetics, reveals that in people with this newly discovered genetic variant, the activity of the IRS1 gene is reduced by 40 %. These results could lead to the development of a treatment that improves the way in which insulin works in the muscle cells of people with type-2 diabetes.

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Radiation, stroke and heart disease

Although scientists have known for some time that higher levels of cardiovascular disease are found in many groups of patients who have received high-dose radiotherapy treatment, the risk of heart disease or stroke from low-level radiation like that used in hospital or in dental X-rays may have been significantly underestimated. A study published in PLoS Computational Biology by Mark Little, Anna Gola and Ioanna Tzoulaki, all researchers in the European project CARDIORISK, suggests that there is indeed a link between exposure to low-level radiation and cardiovascular disease or stroke.

The scientists arrived at their conclusions after constructing a mathematical model to predict the risk of heart disease and stroke associated with low-level radiation (to which nuclear workers are exposed, for example). Results showed that this risk varies in proportion to the dose of radiation. While the reasons behind this connection are not yet known, the scientists explored the hypothesis that radiation kills monocytes (a type of white blood cell), preventing them from breaking down a protein called MCP-1. The resulting higher levels of MCP-1 cause inflammation that leads to cardiovascular disease.

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Bacteria spread the risk

Evolutionary changes commonly take place very gradually through a process of genetic mutation and natural selection in which carriers of advantageous mutations prevail over others with less advantageous characteristics. However, in rapidly changing environments, mutation does not provide the best solution because the advantage becomes obsolete too quickly. This is where another evolutionary strategy steps in, called ‘bet-hedging’, when organisms ensure the survival of their species in rapidly changing environments by generating offspring suited to distinct living conditions.

An international team of researchers headed by Hubertus Beaumont at the University of Leiden (NL) were able to observe this evolutionary strategy for the first time under laboratory conditions, using Pseudomonas fluorescens bacteria. They introduced the bacteria into two different culture media, A and B, and, after a few generations, new well-adapted strains appeared in both A and B. The researchers then placed into the B-medium the variant that out-competed other variants in the A-medium, and vice versa. Again they waited for the appearance of strains well adapted to each medium before reversing them once more.

After repeating the experiment a number of times, the bacteria ultimately developed strains in which all the individuals shared exactly the same genotype (genetic material). Several phenotypes (expressions of the genotype) had developed within this genotype, though, giving the new strains more or less identical chances of survival in each medium. So, while some of the offspring are ideally adapted to the current environment, others are better suited to completely different conditions, making the species able to survive drastic environmental changes. It took nine mutations between the strain used to start the experiment and the emergence of the bet-hedging bacterium. Given the speed with which the bacteria adopted and repeated the strategy, the researchers suspect bet-hedging to be one of the earliest evolutionary adaption techniques.

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Memory theory revisited

A team of British and German scientists headed by Nathan Cashdollar, a researcher at University College London’s Institute of Neurology, calls into question part of the traditional theory on memory dating back 50 years. According to this theory, the brain uses different mechanisms to create short-term memories (a few seconds) and long-term memories (more than a few seconds). Now scientists have found that the hippocampus, a section of the brain traditionally associated with longterm memory, may also play a role in short-term memory. To test the relationship of memory and its connection to thought based on longer timeframes, the researchers observed patients with temporal lobe epilepsy, which causes hippocampal sclerosis.

The patients were shown photos of everyday scenes, such as a table and chairs. As the scientists expected, they could not remember the photos when the same ones were shown to them after 60 minutes, although they could remember them after five seconds. Surprisingly, though, they were unable to remember the detailed arrangement of the objects within the scenes five seconds later. According to the researchers, the results suggest that there are two distinct short-term memory networks within the brain: one which functions independently of the hippocampus and remains intact even in patients with hippocampus-related disorders, while the other connected network is affected at the same time as long-term memory when the hippocampus is impaired.

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30 000 years in the Fram Strait

Researchers in the European ICEPROXY project have now successfully reconstructed a timeline over the past 30 000 years for fluctuating sea-ice conditions in the Fram Strait, between eastern Greenland and the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, the only deepwater connection between the Arctic and Atlantic oceans. They used a new technique combining two biomarkers: IP25, a molecule produced by tiny algae (diatoms), which can only exist if the strait is covered in ice, and brassicasterol, produced by phytoplankton that live only in open water. The analysis of a sediment core of sea ice from the strait has revealed periods when the strait was covered in ice, alternating with ice-free periods, except during the past 5 000 years, when both biomarkers were present at the same time, testifying to seasonal changes in sea-ice conditions. Transport of sea ice through the Fram Strait has an important influence on global oceanic circulation and hence on the global climate. This journey back in time improves scientists’ understanding of climatic changes before human activities started having an impact.

The ICEPROXY project is directed by Guillaume Massé, researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), and is supported by the European Research Council (ERC). The project, with a budget of EUR 1.9 million, began in 2008 and will continue until 2013.

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The European Union continues its efforts to reduce animal testing

The use of animals to test products for improving human lives has always been highly controversial. By creating an unprecedented collaboration between science and industry called the European Partnership on Alternative Approaches to Animal Testing (EPPA) back in 2005, the European Union (EU) showed its commitment to reducing animal testing within the EU Member States. In March 2009, after 10 years of discussions and pressure from animal rights campaigners, the European Parliament finally banned the testing of cosmetics on animals throughout the European Union.

At an EPPA conference in November this year, European Commission Vice-President Günter Verheugen and Research Commissioner Janez Potočnik restated the EU’s commitment to reducing animal testing. The EPAA aims are based on the 3Rs of replacement, reduction and refinement: to replace traditional animal testing by other methods as soon as possible; to reduce the number of animals used; and to cause the least possible harm to animals to minimise their suffering. To do this, the EPPA members have decided to focus on seeking novel research methods and on technology transfer and data sharing.


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Europe looks to America

The European Union launched two projects for increasing research collaboration with the United States, under the Capacities Programme of the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7).

The first project is called BILAT-USA (Bilateral coordination for the enhancement and development of S&T partnerships between the European Union and the United States of America). This platform for dialogue will bring together science and technology (S&T) stakeholders from Europe and the United States in scientific workshops, conferences and symposia on cross-cutting multidisciplinary S&T issues. BILAT-USA will also help to establish new research partnerships by disseminating information on S&T cooperation activities in the European Union and the United States. The second project, called LINK2US (European Union - United States research cooperation network: Link to the United States), aims to enhance S&T cooperation activities between the United States and the European Union. It will collate information about funding schemes and research opportunities in the United States and will raise awareness of these by European scientists and research institutions. It will also identify possible obstacles to successful participation by EU scientists in American research schemes.

Both projects began in October 2009 and are scheduled to run for three years. They are coordinated by the Austrian Research Promotion Agency (FFG) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).


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America looks to Europe

From the other side of the Atlantic there are also calls for closer research ties to be forged between Europe and the United States. Speaking at the inaugural annual lecture of the European Commission Joint Research Centre (JRC) in Brussels in October this year, Alan Leshner, Chief Executive Officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), stressed the importance of strong scientific cooperation between Europe and the United States on all the major issues facing the planet, including climate change, health and communications, to name just a few.

Dr Leshner argued that the European Union and the United States should play a leading role in creating a truly global scientific community, emphasising that greater efforts need to be made to integrate scientists from developing countries into the wider international research community. Nevertheless, Dr Leshner acknowledged that the United States had not always been the ideal research partner in recent years. Difficulties in obtaining visas, restrictions on grants and stringent laboratory security requirements introduced in the aftermath of 9/11 have reduced the number of foreign scientists applying to work in the United States. Alan Leshner pointed out that the United States’ official stance on science was changing, though.

At the end of the lecture, a three-year Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the AAAS and the JRC. The two institutions will organise joint workshops, share information and publish joint reports.

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