Nature for 2005/11/17

I’m part of a reader survey for the journal Nature, so I have a 13 week subscription dropping into my lap. Therefore, y’all get to hear my comments on these issues, as and where I get time to do so. First up is the 2005/11/17 edition (Vol. 438, No. 17).

Nature has pages that briefly report on research that is published elsewhere. That’s a commendable aim, to note good research as it happens. But sometimes the reporting is a bit too brief… Take the item on page 260, “Undercover Learning”.

Curr. Biol. 15, 1931-1935 (2005)

Wood crickets (Nemobius sylvestris; pictured left) have surprised biologists by appearing to learn from each other.

Crickets that are made to share a cage with predatory spiders will hide under leaves to avoid attack. In experiments led by Isabelle Coolen of the National Center for Scientific Research in Tours, France, crickets that had not been exposed to spiders were found to adopt this hiding behavior when mixed with trained crickets. This suggests that the insects are capable of social learning — a phenomenon that, in insects, researchers have only previously observed in species that live in colonies, such as bees, ants and termites.

What the short summary doesn’t tell us that the longer original article hopefully lays out clearly is a test to make sure that the hiding-under-leaf behavior is not instinctual for this species, in which case simply looking at whether “naive” insects emit the behavior when mixed with “trained” insects is completely uninformative.

There’s a news article concerning the breakup of a research partnership whose subject was stem cells over ethical concerns. Gerald Schatten has suspended his research collaboration with Woo Suk Hwang (no, I’m not making this up) because there are claims that Hwang’s work in part has been due to human egg harvesting from his graduate students. “Egg donation is a painful and invasive procedure that requires multiple hormone injections”, reports Nature. So to avoid the appearance of impropriety the stem cell community looks askance at having one’s employees undergo this procedure. Hwang has promised to reveal the results of an internal lab investigation into the matter.

Another article shows that US government research funding is expected to rise slightly for 2006. Four science agencies should increase their budgets by 2% to 7%, two others have smaller gains, the Department of Commerce budget stays the same, and the Department of Agriculture loses a fraction of a percent of its research budget. I’m struck by the discrepancy between the size of the NASA budget ($16.4B) and the NSF budget ($5.6B). Earlier this year I attended a workshop at a conference on writing grant proposals for NSF funding. One of the statistics given there was that the usual NSF program is only going to fund 10 to 15% of applications that it receives, and yet these applications can easily cost a researcher between one and four weeks of effort to produce. The inefficiency of the process is stunning. How to change it is less clear, but the NSF personnel said that most of the proposals they see propose good, doable research, so one option would be to actual put some more money into the NSF research pot and get more researchers funded.

On to page 267, with two articles there on “intelligent design”, primarily covering recent events in Pennsylvania with the Kitzmiller v. DASD case, and in Kansas with the adoption of a whole new definition of science by the state board of education.

Relativity won’t help physicist Nobel laureate John Robert Schrieffer (p.270), whose 100-MPH collision with a van caused a death. He has been convicted of vehicular manslaughter and will serve a two-year term in prison.

P.275 gives us an article on global warming and the Himalayas. The Himalayas have lots of glaciers and glacial lakes. The water cycle in the mountains is something that natives living there have become accustomed to, but things are appreciably changing. The greater amount of glacial meltwater causing flooding is a big clue that global warming is real. On the one hand, there is too much water in the glacial lakes because the glaciers are melting. On the other, in some places wells are drying up. There is talk among climatologists that the pattern of weather that generates the region’s monsoons may also be altered.

On p.293, there is the “News and Views” article on “Dimensions of superspreading”. This concerns the epidemiology of outbreaks and the critical role our understanding of individual variation in infectiousness — uncovering the role of individuals who transmit disease prolifically as “superspreaders”. They present the “20/80 rule” that 20% of the infectious population transmits 80% of the cases seen. Upshot: seek to treat or contain the “superspreaders” to reduce the total number of cases and hopefully reduce the length of an epidemic outbreak, which puts the limited response resources where they can do the most good.

I’ll try to continue at another time.

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Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.