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Article Released Wed-21st-November-2007 19:13 GMT
Contact: Ruth Institution: Nature Publishing Group
 Astronomy: Rare white dwarf stars with carbon atmospheres

Summaries of newsworthy papers include Ageing: A long and happy life, Environment: Browning of lakes and streams, Feature: Grand challenges in non-communicable diseases, Genetics: Insight into wood-munching termites, Earth science: Giant landslide, giant debris and finally... Babies weigh up the social situation


This press release is copyright Nature.
VOL.450 NO.7169 DATED 22 NOVEMBER 2007

This press release contains:

· Summaries of newsworthy papers:

Astronomy: Rare white dwarf stars with carbon atmospheres
Ageing: A long and happy life
Environment: Browning of lakes and streams
Feature: Grand challenges in non-communicable diseases
Genetics: Insight into wood-munching termites
Earth science: Giant landslide, giant debris
And finally... Babies weigh up the social situation

· Mention of papers to be published at the same time with the same embargo
· Geographical listing of authors

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[1] Astronomy: Rare white dwarf stars with carbon atmospheres (pp 522-524)

Several rare white dwarf stars with unexpected atmospheric properties could form a whole new category of star, according to a report in Nature this week. The composition of the stars does not fit into any currently known class of white dwarf, so their evolution remains a mystery.

White dwarfs are thought to be the final evolutionary phase of all stars with a relatively small mass - anything bigger tends to end up as either a black hole or a neutron star. After shedding their outer layers, the stars normally leave behind a core composed of carbon and oxygen surrounded by a helium layer and about 80 per cent of them also have a hydrogen layer. Until now, all white dwarfs have been found to be in one of two categories: with either a hydrogen-rich or helium-rich atmosphere.

Patrick Dufour and colleagues now report the surprising discovery of several white dwarfs with atmospheres primarily composed of carbon, with little or no trace of hydrogen or helium. The finding enriches our knowledge of the formation of white dwarfs, with implications for current theories of stellar evolution.

Patrick Dufour (University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA)
Tel: +1 520 621 5505; E-mail:

[2] Ageing: A long and happy life (pp 553-556)

An antidepressant used in humans is shown to increase lifespan in Caenorhabditis elegans nematodes in a paper published in Nature this week. Linda Buck and colleagues screened 88,000 chemicals to see whether they had lifespan-enhancing effects on C. elegans, and identified the drug mianserin - which blocks neural signalling by serotonin - as one such chemical.

In C. elegans, mianserin also seems to block the serotonin receptor and the receptor of the neurotransmitter octopamine - which has a role in releasing fat from fat cells. The drug’s effect on lifespan ‘may’ involve mechanisms similar to those that underlie lifespan extension by dietary restriction.

Linda Buck (Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle, WA, USA)
Tel: +1 206 667 6316; E-mail:

[3] Environment: Browning of lakes and streams (pp 537-540)

Lakes and streams in remote parts of the eastern United States and north and central Europe have been growing steadily browner since 1990. This is due to ever-increasing amounts of dissolved organic carbon in the water, which has been explained by various hypotheses, most of them implying that dissolved organic carbon levels will continue to rise, with unpredictable consequences for the global carbon cycle. But a paper in this week’s Nature suggests that dissolved organic carbon fluxes from these regions to the oceans may be returning to levels more typical of pre-industrial times.

Donald Monteith and his colleagues assessed time series data from 522 lakes and streams from 1990 to 2004 and found that their content of dissolved organic carbon had increased in proportion to the rates at which deposited anthropogenic sulphur and sea salt have declined.

The authors point out that the rise in dissolved organic carbon DOC may be integral to recovery from acidification but unrelated to other climatic factors.


Donald Monteith (University College London, UK)
Tel: +44 7679 0513;

Feature: Grand challenges in non-communicable diseases (pp 494-496)

There are the diseases you catch, such as malaria, HIV and tuberculosis, and those you develop, such as diabetes, heart disease, lung cancer and stroke. The second kind, chronic non-communicable diseases (CNCDs) cause more than twice the number of deaths as the first worldwide and cost economies hundreds of billions of dollars. These CNCDs are largely preventable; critical factors behind their rise include smoking, decreasing physical activity and increasing consumption of unhealthy foods.

But, compared with infectious diseases, CNCDs receive scant attention. A Feature in this week's Nature sets out the top 20 research and policy priorities for these conditions - reached via a formal, global consensus exercise - as a list entitled 'Grand Challenges for Non-Communicable Diseases'.

The Grand Challenges fall into 6 goals: reorientate health systems; mitigate health impacts of poverty and urbanization; engage businesses and community; modify risk factors; enhance economic, legal and environmental policies; and raise public and political awareness. The inventory complements a similar list published in 2003 by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and partners focused mainly on infectious diseases.

"Without concerted action some 388 million people will die of one or more CNCDs in the next ten years," the authors conclude. "With concerted action, we can avert at least 36 million premature deaths by 2015. Some 17 million of these prevented deaths would be among people under the age of 70."

Abdulla Daar (University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada)

The Oxford Health Alliance (Oxford, UK)

[4] Genetics: Insight into wood-munching termites (pp 560-565; N&V)

Termites are renowned worldwide for their catastrophic destruction of wood, as many a home-owner will testify. A paper in this week’s Nature looks into the inner workings of the vast army of bacteria naturally resident in termites’ hindguts to establish why these ‘white ant’ insects are such efficient wood demolishers.

Jared R. Leadbetter and colleagues have performed a genome-wide analysis of these bacteria, isolated from the Nasutitermes termite species, and identified a rich reservoir of enzymes that they use to break down wood components such as cellulose and xylan.

Their findings could eventually help in the engineering of schemes to convert wood lignocellulose into biofuels, suggest the authors.

Jared R Leadbetter (California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA, USA)
Tel: +1 626 395 4182; E-mail:

Andreas Brune (Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology, Marburg, Germany) N&V author
Tel: +49 6421 178 701; E-mail:

[5] Earth science: Giant landslide, giant debris (pp 541-544; N&V)

It has been shown that debris flows, generated by the disintegration of layers of rock following underwater landslides, are deposited downslope from the original slide. According to research published in this week’s Nature, underwater landslides can also produce huge debris flow deposits that begin hundreds of kilometres from the original slide.
Peter J. Talling and colleagues analyse shallow sediment cores containing a sequence of deposits spanning 200,000 years off the coast of northwest Africa. They find that the debris flow deposit begins at a great distance from the original landslide. The team proposes that debris flow was most probably the result of flow transformation of a decelerating sediment-laden flow supported by fluid turbulence, and a tiny but abrupt decrease in the sea-floor gradient triggered sediment deposition.

Peter J Talling (University of Bristol, UK)
Tel: +44 780 3581666; E-mail:

Philip Allen (Imperial College London, UK) N&V author
Tel: +44 207 594 7363; E-mail:

[6] And finally... Babies weigh up the social situation (pp 557-559)

Social animals, including humans, need to be able to rapidly identify friend or foe in their own species. A paper in this week’s Nature shows that humans are able to assess other people very early on in life, even before they can talk.

Kiley Hamlin and her colleagues have tested babies of 6 and 10 months old and find that they evaluate individuals on the basis of their actions towards others, clearly preferring someone who helps rather than hinders, or is unhelpful towards, a third party.

The team’s findings indicate that humans engage in social evaluation far earlier than previously thought. This skill could be a biological adaptation that may also serve as the foundation for moral thought and action later in life, speculate the authors.

Kiley Hamlin (Yale University, New Haven, CT, USA)
Tel: +1 203-436-1414; Email:


[7] Crystal Structure of a catalytic intermediate of the maltose transporter (pp 515-521)

[8] Coupled 142Nd-143Nd evidence for a protracted magma ocean in Mars (pp 525-528)

[9] Coherent zero-state and p-state in an exciton-polariton condensation array (pp 529-532)

[10] Electron pockets in the Fermi surface of hole-doped high-Tc superconductors
(pp 533-536; N&V)

[11] Phase-contrast X-ray microtomography links Cretaceous seeds with Gnetales and Bennettitales (pp 549-552)

[12] The inhibitory cytokine IL-35 contributes to regulatory T-cell function (pp 556-569)

[13] A SNARE-adaptor interaction is a new mode of cargo recognition in clathrin-coated vesicles (pp 570-574)

[14] Identification of a mechanism of photoprotective energy dissipation in higher plants (pp 575-578)


***This paper will be published electronically on Nature's website on 21 November at 1800 London time / 1300 US Eastern time (which is also when the embargo lifts) as part of our AOP (ahead of print) programme. Although we have included it on this release to avoid multiple mailings it will not appear in print on 22 November, but at a later date.***

[15] RAG2 PHD finger couples histone H3 lysine 4 trimethylation with V(D)J recombination
DOI: 10.1038/nature06431


The following list of places refers to the whereabouts of authors on the papers numbered in this release. For example, London: 4 - this means that on paper number four, there will be at least one author affiliated to an institute or company in London. The listing may be for an author's main affiliation, or for a place where they are working temporarily. Please see the PDF of the paper for full details.

St Lucia 13

Ontario 3
Quebec 1
Sherbrooke 10
Toronto 10
Vancouver 10

Santo Domingo de Heredia 4

Ceske Budejovice 3
Prague 3

Aarhus 11

Helsinki 3

Gif-sur-Yvette 14
Paris 1
Toulouse 10

Bremen 5
Saarbrucken 4
Tubingen 11

Kanagawa 9
Tokyo 9, 10

Amsterdam 14
Wageningen 14

Oslo 3

Stockholm 11
Uppsala 3

Villigen 11

Aberdeen 5
Bangor 3
Bristol 5, 10, 11
Cambridge 13
London 3, 14
Sheffield 14
Southampton 5

Tucson 1
Davis 8
La Jolla 4
Pasadena 4
San Diego 4
Stanford 9
Walnut Creek 4
Tallahassee 10
Chicago 11
West Lafayette 7
Boston 12
New York
Yorktown Heights 5
Corvallis 3
Oak Ridge 4
Memphis 12
Houston 7, 8
Washington State
Seattle 2


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For Japan, Korea, China, Singapore and Taiwan
Mika Nakano, Nature Tokyo
Tel: +81 3 3267 8751; E-mail:

For the UK/Europe/other countries not listed above
Rachel Twinn, Nature London
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