Published online 21 December 2007 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2007.390

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Whatever happened to...

Nature News revisits some old stories to find out what happened next.

The Indonesian mud volcano?

One of the world’s strangest natural disasters just keeps going. A mud volcano that erupted in Indonesia in May 2006 showed no sign of stopping at the end of that year, having covered entire villages in mud. At the beginning of 2007, concrete balls were dropped into the volcano to stifle its flow. But the mud has stopped only a few times this year, in March and in August, for roughly 30 minutes at a time. Richard Davies, a mud-volcano specialist at Durham University in the United Kingdom, says this was probably due to a temporary blockage when the walls of the conduit collapsed. Current flow rates are some 110,000 cubic metres of mud per day.

The mud keeps on coming.TRISNADI/AP/EMPICS

A network of dams and pumps now tries to deal with the mud. Some 16,000 people in 11 towns have been displaced, and many still live in open-air markets that have been turned into temporary refuges. Factories remain closed and locals have struggled to find new work.

Debate continues about what started the mud flow. Adriano Mazzini at the University of Oslo in Norway argues that fracturing and pressure changes following an earthquake in the area resulted in the geyser-like explosion, whereas Davies’s team is 95% certain that oil drilling in the region was the trigger.

Calls to fight cyberwarfare?

In April, wave upon wave of computer attacks, emanating from Russia, overwhelmed computer servers in Estonia — even forcing banks to temporarily shut down online services. That led one of Europe’s tiniest and most tech-savvy countries — also one of the newest members of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) — to ask what, exactly, is an act of war? Do cyberattacks count?

Since then, NATO officials have discussed not only how to best defend against cyberattacks, but also how cyberwarfare should be defined. That’s a tricky one. “In cyberspace, it’s harder to assess some factors, like damage,” says Irving Lachow, an information warfare specialist at the National Defense University in Washington DC. A NATO official told attendees at a security conference in October that the policies will be announced at a NATO meeting in Bucharest, Romania, in April 2008.

Meanwhile, Estonia continues to push for a new NATO cooperative cyberdefence centre in Tallinn, which it hopes to open next year. The United States, Germany and Spain have agreed to join up.

E8, that amazing mathematical structure?

E8 (or at least a 2D representation of it).American Institute of Mathematics/Peter McMullen

In March, researchers mapped a bizarre 248-dimensional object, an entity known in mathematics as E8. The map (which can be very prettily rendered in two dimensions) was touted as being useful to physicists interested in fundamental questions of quantum theory and relativity.

Then, in November, E8 surfaced again in reports of something claiming to be an exceptionally simple theory of everything, which basically involves sticking fundamental particles on various points of E8 and then looking at it in different ways to see how the particles relate to each other. The use of symmetrical structures in this way is fascinating and can be very powerful, and the story got lots of press after New Scientist highlighted it — not only because of the grand claim, but also because its source was a lone surfer with a physics degree. But physicists have since cast doubt on whether the idea is really new, really correct, or really able to make testable predictions. We’ll wait for the work to get peer reviewed for a journal, and for those crucial testable predictions to appear, before making a judgement.

The Turkish archaeology site under threat of flooding?

Archaeologists are still holding their breath over Allianoi, an ancient Roman health spa in western Turkey that is a well-preserved but not yet fully excavated archaeological site. Early this year, local and international archeologists protested against plans to submerge the site under a reservoir created by the 700-metre-long Yortanli Dam, as part of a massive irrigation project along the Ilya River.

Under a barrage of protest from European officials and others, the Turkish authorities have not yet given the green light to close the dam gates and start the flooding. Ahmet Yaras, head of the Allianoi excavation team (which has uncovered 20% of Allianoi, yielding some 10,000 artefacts including ceramics, coins, glass and statues), says the government has indicated that flooding will begin by February. Yaras, who has appealed for a flooding delay of five years to completely excavate the site, thinks that this time the government, under pressure from farmers, will go ahead with the reservoir. “I feel bad,” Yaras says. “I feel ashamed for my country.”

The monkey genome?

The rhesus macaque is often used as a stand-in for people in medical research, so when its genome was published in April, researchers hoped the data would help them study diseases that afflict us. It already has — largely thanks to microarrays that can tag tens of thousands of macaque genes pulled from the genome sequence. This year, researchers used the macaque microarrays to investigate immunity to HIV and dengue fever, and to confirm that the first-ever cloned monkey cells were indeed identical to each other. “Expression arrays bring the utility of rhesus macaque as the most widely used primate model animal to a new level,” says bioinformatician Aleksandar Milosavljevic of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.

Meanwhile, genome scientists are using the macaque genome to answer questions like: what genes were gained, lost or copied during primate evolution? And which of these are responsible for the differences among the primate species? These studies are in turn informing further work in people; for instance, the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle is using them to help guide its in-depth study of the human brain. Such work is destined to help explain what makes us human — though they are unlikely to hit on a firm answer in 2008.

The famous empty dome of Biosphere 2?

Biospehere: set to study hydrology.PRN/NEWSCOM

The historic Biosphere 2 dome in the Arizona desert, built more than 20 years ago for a team attempting to live in confined ecological sustainability, may have finally found a route to real research after years of dead ends.

The dome was saved from the wrecking ball in June when land around it, northwest of Tucson, was sold for housing. The dome itself was taken over by the University of Arizona in Tucson in July.

Biosphere 2’s new team of ecologists and hydrologists is now preparing to convert the glass-roofed structure for a new study on a much-debated topic: how water is stored in the ground, makes its way to rivers and interacts with ecosystems along the way. A series of workshops is being held — the next in February — to plot the research course, says director Travis Huxman. Ground breaking is set for June to create hillside landscapes inside the 1.25-hectare dome.

The US$3-million refurbishing project is to be completed for the inception of experiments in the spring of 2009, says Huxman. A foundation gift will fund the work, he added. “We want to engage the broader ecological community to make this a really transparent facility that anyone can use,” he says.

One father’s quest to sequence his daughter’s DNA?

In October, we caught up with a very personal take on personal genomics. Hugh Rienhoff, a trained clinical geneticist and bioentrepreneur had bought himself a PCR machine and a gel-box so that he could sequence his daugther’s DNA in hopes of uncovering the disorder that has left her weak and unable to put on much weight. She turned four earlier this month, and Rienhoff says a friend is now helping with additional studies on her DNA as well as sequencing genes from him and his wife.

The website Rienhoff created to chronicle her progress and that of his hypothesis has grown slowly since its launch in July: there are now ten users. “It’s not the YouTube for genetics,” Rienhoff jokes, “which I didn’t really expect it to be, to be honest with you.” More probably it will remain a domain for highly motivated parents who have a technical background or access to genomic expertise.

The International Polar Year?

The polar research community had a big push with the launch of the International Polar Year (IPY), which threw a spotlight on the poles and made it easier to push for funding across many fields of science. Many, many projects got up and running (see Scientists kick off huge polar research plan, and the news features in our special issue, The ends of the Earth). One cool project has already resulted in an interactive patchwork satellite image of the Antarctic, which lets you zoom around the ice Google-Earth-style. And it ain’t over yet. As polar research generally happens over a winter or a summer, rather than in between, the IPY was set to run from March to March rather than January to December. And for good measure, this ‘year’ also lasts 24 months. IPY officially began in March 2007 and goes on till March 2009. So stay tuned for updates. 

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