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Raising the dead New Scientist 14 Oct 2000

Extinction needn't be the end of the line

AN EXTINCT species could soon be brought back from the dead. Advanced Cell Technology of Worcester, Massachusetts, plans to clone the bucardo, a species of Spanish mountain goat that died out earlier this year. T'he company has shown that it can be done by cloning a wild ox called a guar using the eggs of domestic cows. When "Noah" is born next month, he will be the first animal ever created by putting the DNA of one species into the eggs of another. Conservationists warn that the breakthrough should not be an excuse to relax efforts, though. "As a last ditch effort for conservation, it might be useful," says Gordon Reid, director of Chester Zoo. "But it would be daft to imagine that cloning alone could save species," he adds. The Spanish mountain goats will be cloned using tissue samples from the last surviving female, which was killed in January by a falling tree. But all the animals created this way will be female. Chromosomes from closely related species would be needed to create male goats. The lack of diversity among clones of a single animal could be another problem. "If you produce lots of animals that are identical, you get inbreeding," says Bill Holt of the Zoological Society of London. "They can't adapt to stresses, which is what evolution is about and why you need biological diversity." To create Noah the guar, Robert Lanza and his colleagues at Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) employed the same technique used three years ago to create' Dolly the sheep. They took 692 skin cells called fibroblasts from a dead guar and fused them with cow eggs stripped of their nucleus. Of the 81 that developed into embryos, 44 were implanted into cows. Eight foster mothers became pregnant, but five miscarried. Lanza and his colleagues removed three fetuses from two other mothers, and found that they were apparently healthy. Noah is the only remaining fetus. "Right now, all indications via ultrasound are that there are no forseeable problems," says Philip Damiani of ACT. There might still be problems, though. "There have been reports of high mortality in cloned cows and sheep," he says. Clones have died hours or days after delivery or had abnormally high birth weights. However, Noah won't be pure guar. All his mitochondria-cellular organelles that contain their own DNA-will have come from the cow egg used to create him. Damiani accepts that cloning won't solve everything. "Our objective was to prove it could be applied to endangered species," he says. He envisages "frozen zoos" holding tissue from many members of endangered species, such as the giant panda. If numbers fell dangerously low, these tissue banks could be used to increase genetic diversity. Andy Coghlan

Source: Cloning (vol 2, p 79)

Age of iron and ice New Scientist 14 Oct 2000

Airborne fertiliser may keep the Earth in a frozen grip

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OCEAN scientists believe they have recreated one of the key processes that trigger the beginning and end of ice ages. In one of the largest experiments of its kind, an intemational team "fertilised" a swathe of the Southern Ocean with iron. This boosted the growth of algal plankton, which suck up carbon dioxide. The researchers argue that variations in the amount of iron in dust blowing onto the oceans from land in the past would have affected algal growth, changing atmospheric CO2 enough to either freeze or thaw the planet. But the researchers warn that the technique is not a quick fix for global warming. Next month, governments meet in The Hague to agree plans to soak up CO2 from the air by planting trees. Adding iron to the oceans on a large scale, however, might disrupt the ocean's ecosystem and is far too dangerous to be considered as a solution, the researchers say. Scientists working on the Southern Ocean Iron Release Experiment (SOIREE) released 8 tonnes of iron over a patch of ocean 8 kilometres across, south of New Zealand. The iron produced a sixfold increase in algal growth. Six weeks later, satellites could still see the plankton covering a thousand square kilometres of ocean, says Ed Abraham of the National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research in New Zealand. The growing algae sucked up 10 per cent of the CO2 dissolved in the surface water, which was replaced by CO2 from the air. The iron experiment was first tried in the Pacific (New Scientist, 1 July 1995, p 5). But the Southern Ocean success has profound implications for understanding the beginning and end of ice ages, says Andrew Watson of the University of East Anglia in Norwich. He believes that the amount of iron reaching the Southern Ocean in dust from land could determine how much CO2 the oceans can absorb from the atmosphere. "We think Patagonia may be crucial," says Watson. It was very dry during the last glaciation. Dust storms containing iron rained onto the ocean, stimulating algal growth that absorbed atmospheric CO2 and helped to maintain the global freeze. But at some point Patagonia became wetter. The iron rain ceased, ultimately causing a global rise in atmospheric CO2 Modelling studies suggest that the loss of iron caused a 20 per cent rise in CO2 says Watson, half of what was needed to end the glaciation. So could the trick be repeated in reverse? Could we seed the Southern Ocean with iron to reduce global temperature? The SOIREE results suggest this could yield "a modest increase" in the ocean's take-up of carbon, agrees Abraham. But all the researchers urge great caution. "It would be extremely inadvisable to even consider such a radical and potentially dangerous step," warns Cliff Law of Britain's Plymouth Marine Laboratory. It could trigger changes in ocean ecosystems that "might increase production of other greenhouse gases and toxins", he says. Fred Pearce

Source: Nature (vol 407, p 695, 727 and 730)

Double or Quit New Scientist 14 Oct 2000
A lone researcher says he can cut an electron in two. If he's right, quantum physics is dead. Marcus Chown investigates

AT THE TIME no one even realised it had happened. More than thirty years ago, researchers in Minnesota did the unthinkable and broke the "indivisible" electron into fragments. This, at least, is the contention of British physicist Humphrey Maris, and no one has yet been able to prove him wrong. "Electron fragments behave to all intents and purposes like entirely separate particles," says Maris, who is based at Brown University in Rhode Island. "I call them electrinos.' Pause a moment to consider what Maris is saying. The electron is the lightest subatomic particle and the one with the greatest claim to being absolutely fundamental. In fact, in the 103 years since its discovery, there has been no other evidence whatsoever that the electron is divisible. It is the modern incarnation of Democritus's "uncuttable" atom. The claim that electrons are divisible is therefore nothing short of a bombshell dropped into the world of physics. "If Humphrey is correct, it means a Nobel Prize," says Gary Ihas of the University of Florida. Nobel prizewinner Philip Anderson of Princeton University thinks Maris must be wrong. 'But it's not obvious why," he admits. Maris does not have definitive proof of his hypothesis. But earlier this year he published a paper that put it on a firm theoretical basis, and marshalled supporting evidence from past experiments. Now he is doing his own experiments, trying to break up the electron. Whether Maris succeeds or not, he may have found a large crack in one of the foundation stones of modem physics. "Humphrey has succeeded in exposing a fundamental flaw in the framework of quantum theory," says Peter McClintock of the University of Lancaster.

This astonishing heresy is centred around the electron's wave function, the mathematical entity that, according to quantum theory, encapsulates everything about the electron that it is possible for us to know. Among other things, an electron's wave function describes the probability of finding it at any particular location. The wave function of an electron confined to, say, a spherical cavity is the three-dimensional description of how the electron's locafion is "smeared out" over the space. In its lowest energy state, the wave function is spherical. The next highest energy level gives the wave function a dumb-bell shape. "It was while thinking about this state I was led to the conclusion that an electron might split in two," says Maris. If the dumbbell could be stretched and pinched, he reasoned, might it simply divide? Maris is expert in liquid helium, a substance that gives physicists the perfect opportunity to test this idea because electrons can exist independently and autonomously within it. When electrons from a radioactive source are fired into a vat of helium, repeated interactions with the electrons of the helium atoms slow them down until, finally, they grind to a halt. The intruding electrons do not attach themselves to helium atoms as a third electron, however. The Pauli exclusion principle makes sure of that, because it forbids more than two electrons from sharing the same quantum state. Faced with helium atoms whose electrons have bagged the lowest energy state-the ground statean interloper with no spare energy has no choice but to lodge in the space between atoms. There it clears a bubble of space around itself-an electron bubble. Electron bubbles form only in certain types of liquid-those in which the van der Waals force of attraction between atoms is weak enough to allow an electron to push them apart. In fact only two substances fit the bill: liquid helium and liquid hydrogen. At very low temperatures in helium, electron bubbles displace more than 700 helium atoms, creating a cavity around 38 angstroms (3.8 nanometres) across. Inside this cavity quantum mechanics rules, ensuring that the electron can occupy only a limited set of energy states.

Light touch

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Maris worked out that an electron in a bubble could be put into the dumb-bellshaped excited state by illuminating the helium with light that had a wavelength of about 10 micrometres, which is easily supplied by a carbon dioxide laser. In this state, Maris calculated, the electron imparts most of its force to the ends of the dumb-bell; this force is enough, he realised, to make the bubble wall wobble violently "I found that the force exerted by the electron was enough to elongate the bubble until it formed a thin neck," he says. "If the pressure in the liquid was great enough, there was the possibility of it pinching off the neck so that the bubble might actually split in two." This sounds harmless enough, but the implications are staggering. If the bubble split, half of the electron's wave function would be trapped in each of the two daughter bubbles (see Diagram). As the wave function is the essence of an electron, the electron would be split into two. The indivisible would have been divided. Maris planned to test his idea in the laboratory but first decided to search back through the literature to see whether anyone had done the kind of experiments he had in mind. He soon found what he was looking for. In the late 1960s, Jan Northby and Mike Sanders at the University of Minnesota studied the speed of electron bubbles moving in an electric field in liquid helium. They measured the electric current that flowed as the bubbles moved, and then illuminated the helium with light. The researchers expected this to increase the current. They reasoned that light would eject some of the electrons from the bubbles, and that these would whiz through the helium, boosting the current- and that is exactly what they observed. But as physicists have since realised, this reasoning was flawed. "We now know that knocked-out electrons form new electron bubbles," says Maris. "The current should not have increased." Inexplicably, however, it did. In 1990 and 1992, researchers at Bell Labs in New Jersey ran a similar experiment, with the same result. No explanation has ever been found-until now, perhaps. Maris suggests that, instead of ejecting the electrons, the light boosted them from the ground state to the dumb-bell-shaped excited state, and the electron bubbles split. "There were more bubbles, and being smaller they were more mobile," says Maris. Although the total charge in the system remained the same, the smaller bubbles felt less drag in the helium, and thus moved faster. "Consequently, the current went up," Maris explains. Maris believes he has further evidence to support his explanation. Northby and Sanders saw the increased current only below 1.7 kelvin, exactly the temperature at which Maris's theory says the effect should take hold. According to his calculations, electron bubbles should split apart only below a critical temperature of 1.7 K. The crucial factor is viscosity. If it is too great, says Maris, the liquid will behave like treacle, resisting the elongation of the bubble and squeezing it back to a sphere. Below 2.19K liquid helium becomes a superfluid: as you cool it, its viscosity starts to disappear. By 1.7 K, Maris calculated, the liquid would be so slippery that it couldn't stop the bubbles dividing. Other experimenters have studied the mobility of electrons in a more precise way. They include Gary Ihas and Mike Sanders at the University of Michigan in 1971 and Van Eden and McClintock of the University of Lancaster in 1984. These physicists created a short burst of about a million bubbles which they carefully timed as they moved through liquid helium in an electric field. Since the bubbles were created together, they should have crossed the finishing line together. To the surprise of the experimenters, most of the bubbles arrived in three separate clumps. Maris's explanation is again simple. Unlike the electrons in the Minnesota experiment, these electrons had been cre ated in.an electrical discharge-a minia ture bolt of lightning. This produced light, and Maris says that some of this light boosted electrons within the bubbles to the excited state, causing them to split, and split again. Hence the spread of arrival times, with whole, half and quar ter charges making up most of the current. McClintock is not yet convinced by Maris. But he admits that nobody else has come up with a plausible explanation. "The electrino idea offers a possible way out," he concedes.

Maris has long realised the furore his ideas would cause. He spent several years working out the details of electron bubble fission and gathering experimental evi dence without ever telling anyone what he was thinking. 'It took time to get used to the idea and pluck up the courage to announce it," he admits. Finally, in June this year, he decided to go public. He pre sented his work at a Minneapolis confer ence on quantum fluids and solids, and then published it in a paper in the journal of Low Temperature Physics (vol 120, p 173). The conference organisers thought Maris's work important enough to give him an extra two-hour session. At the end, more than 100 physicists questioned every aspect of the theory. "My first reac tion was extreme scepticism, like every one else," McClintock says. Maris, though, had an answer for everything. "He'd obviously thought long and hard about the whole thing," McClintock concedes. Maris was encouraged by the response -or lack of it-from his peers. 'I was nervous someone would find a hole," he admits. "But to my relief nobody dis missed the idea out of hand." Experts in quantum theory are not so accommodating, though. "The idea of an electron splitting into fractionally charged fragments is totally incompatible with quantum field theory," says Anthony Leggett of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He admits that there could be something wrong with quantum field theory. "However, given its over whelming success in explaining the world, this is highly unlikely," he says. According to quantum theory, it is pos sible to have strange "superposition states", where the whole electron exists in both bubbles until a measurement forces it to be in one or the other. 'But we cannot consider states which have half an electron on each,' Leggett insists. It is impossible to solve the equations of quan tum mechanics with anything other than a whole-charge electron. The formulations of quantum electrodynamics, the area of physics that deals with the behaviour and properties of electrons, don't allow for half electrons, or any other fraction. "If the electron splits and you can mea sure a fractional charge, this flies in the face of standard quantum mechanics as well as high-energy physics," agrees David Pritchard of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 'The idea that the electron is a point particle without structure is estab lished up to very high energies."

Half measures

Like Leggett and Pritchard, most physicists are convinced that Maris's claim falls at the first fence, though they cannot pinpoint why. Their scepticism is understandable. If Maris is right then quantum theory is wrong-and nobody has the slightest idea what they would use to replace it. Maris being right would have some positive practical consequences, however. He speculates about building a device which introduces a partition into a cavity to divide the wave function of an electron. This could lead to circuits which exploit the properties of fractionally charged particles, he says. Half-mass, half-charge electrons might give electronics a whole new dimension. Then there's the pos sibility of a new kind of chemistry. Maybe you could take an electron bubble out of the liquid, attach the electron fragment to an atom and do novel chemistry with fractional electrons. Could this really happen? Maris says he doesn't know. The electron fragments, having once been part of the same electron, might even be 'entangled", sharing a strange tele pathic link. Quantum physicists have already managed to achieve this with photons, and used these entangled parti cles of light to perform astonishing feats such as teleportation and elementary quantum computing. Fractional charge might add a new string to their bow. The most profound consequences of splitting the electron, though, would be on theoretical physics. Maris's only con crete claim is that an electron's wave func tion can be split and mimic a fractional electron. He has no idea of the full conse quences of this-and neither has anyone else. Maris's hypothesis seems to throw everything we know about quantum theory into confusion. At the very least, he believes, his work challenges physicists to be specific about what they mean by the fuzzy entity that describes quantum systems. "People are going to have to hone their ideas of the wave function," he says. "Most importantly, they are going to have to address the question: what is a wave function? Is it a real thing, or just a mathematical convenience?" Physicists have always been content to think of the wave function as a mathematical device with observable consequences. But Maris believes the time has come for the idea to be grounded in reality. For the electron bubbles in helium, he says, the size of the bubble is determined by how much of the wave function is trapped inside the bubble. If there is no part of the wave function inside the bubble, the bubble will collapse. "This makes the wave function seem to be a tangible object," he argues.

Maris remains an experimentalist at heart, though. Since the theorists have nothing to say about the myriad questions he has raised, he believes answers won't be found until there is some more evidence to go on-and that means doing more experiments. Maris and others, he believes, are now looking for that evidence. "Already, the results of my experiments are encouraging," he says. But Maris also insists that he won't be upset if his idea is eventually disproved. Having lobbed in his bombshell, he seems to have decided to sit on the sidelines, enjoying the ensuing chaos. "What I have come up with is an intriguing puzzle," he says. "I want people to think. I would be happy if I was completely wrong but made a lot of people think.11 El