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Article Released Thu-31st-July-2008 08:11 GMT
Contact: Ruth Institution: Nature Publishing Group
 Ancient ‘computer’ for sports fanatics

Summaries of newsworthy papers include Genetics for mental health disorder, Liquid ethane on Titan, Percolating disease, The impact of microRNA on proteins, Unlocking the door to HIV infection, Creating smart surface networks and Snake fangs bite back


This press release is copyright Nature.

VOL.454 NO.7204 DATED 31 JULY 2008

This press release contains:

· Summaries of newsworthy papers:

Relics: Ancient ‘computer’ for sports fanatics

Genetics: Genetics for mental health disorder

Planetary science: Liquid ethane on Titan

Epidemiology: Percolating disease

Cell biology: The impact of microRNA on proteins

Virology: Unlocking the door to HIV infection

Nanotechnology: Creating smart surface networks

And finally… Snake fangs bite back

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

· Geographical listing of authors

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[1] Relics: Ancient ‘computer’ for sports fanatics (pp 614-617)

New interpretations of the Antikythera Mechanism published in Nature this week reveal that it could be used to predict eclipses, and that it had a dial recording the dates of the ancient Olympiads. The 2,000-year-old box of intricate gearwork, recovered from the Mediterranean Sea in 1901, provides a glimpse of the engineering prowess of the Hellenic world.

Past research has shown that the Antikythera Mechanism is a complex ancient Greek geared mechanism with dials on both the front and the back. Tony Freeth and colleagues reveal new text, identifying 12 calendar month names originating from Corinth, suggesting a heritage that may extend back to Archimedes. The new inscriptions reveal that it was not simply an instrument of abstract science but that it exhibited astronomical phenomena in relation to Greek social institutions. These results add new insights into the sophisticated functions of this ahead of its time technology.

Tony Freeth (Images First Ltd, London, UK)
Tel: +44 20 8579 6848; E-mail:

[2], [3] & [4] Genetics: Genetics for mental health disorder (AOP) *Press briefing*

DOI: 10.1038/nature07229
DOI: 10.1038/nature07239
DOI: 10.1038/ng201

***These papers will be published electronically on Nature's website on 30 July 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 them on this release to avoid multiple mailings they will not appear in print on 31 July, but at a later date. ***

Specific human genomic variations associated with schizophrenia are identified by three research groups in Nature and Nature Genetics this week. Schizophrenia is a severe mental health disorder often characterized by hallucinations, delusions and cognitive deficits. Robust genetic associations with this and other mental disorders have proven difficult to obtain given the complexity of symptoms and environmental effects, so these papers represent a milestone for developing genetic tests.

Two large scientific groups, reporting in Nature, compared the genomes of thousands of unaffected people and patients with schizophrenia for copy number variations (CNVs), which are chunks of more than 100,000 DNA bases that vary between two human genomes. SGENE and partners identified three deletions — one on chromosome 1 and two on chromosome 15 — and demonstrate that these rare variants significantly associate with schizophrenia and related psychoses. The International Schizophrenia Consortium identified two of the same deletions, and also note a greater overall frequency of CNVs in the genome of schizophrenic patients. Both papers also confirm a previously known deletion on chromosome 22, identified in studies with far smaller sample sizes.

In a third paper, in Nature Genetics, Michael O’Donovan and colleagues look at the association of single-nucleotide changes, called SNPs, with schizophrenia. They identify variants at three loci as having strong independent support as risk factors for the disease. The strongest evidence is for a variant near the gene ZNF804A, which encodes a protein that may act to regulate the expression of other genes. The strength of the ZNF804A association increased when individuals with bipolar disorder were included in the analysis, lending support to the notion that schizophrenia and bipolar disorder have some risk factors in common.

Multiple previous studies focused on both SNPs and CNVs associated with schizophrenia, but used a very small sample size. These papers demonstrate a robust and consistent association for at least three genetic loci, and support the hypothesis that disorders like schizophrenia may result from interactions of large stretches of DNA at multiple locations in an individual’s genome.

Kari Stefansson (deCODE Genetics, Reykjavik, Iceland) Author paper [2]
Tel: +354 570 1900; E-mail:

Pamela Sklar (The International Schizophrenia Consortium, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA, USA) Author paper [3]
Tel: +1 617 726 0475; E-mail:

Michael O’Donovan (Cardiff University, UK) Author paper [4]
Tel: +44 292 068 7074; E-mail:

[5] Planetary science: Liquid ethane on Titan (pp 607-610; N&V)

Scientists have identified liquid hydrocarbons in Ontario Lacus, a ‘lake’ near the south pole of Saturn’s moon Titan. Infrared data captured by the Cassini spacecraft reveals that ethane, likely in liquid solution with methane, nitrogen, and other low-molecular-weight hydrocarbons, is contained within the lake.

Titan is the only moon in the Solar System to have a dense atmosphere and was once thought to have global oceans of light hydrocarbons. The thick atmosphere makes surface observation difficult, and any visual data is limited to specific atmospheric windows. Previous results from the Cassini spacecraft’s imaging instruments revealed that although there are no large oceans, there are features similar to terrestrial lakes and seas and widespread evidence for fluvial erosion.

In Nature this week, Robert Brown and colleagues analyze data from Cassini’s recent flyby of Titan’s south-polar region. The Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) onboard the spacecraft was used to determine the chemical composition of the surface, and revealed a bright ‘shoreline’ in contrast to the darker, less reflective interior of the lake itself. The authors examine the absorption spectra in detail and find they correspond to hydrocarbons such as ethane, propane and butane. They conclude that if liquid ethane exists, then methane probably does also, as it is one of few molecules to be liquid under the conditions of Titan’s surface.

Robert Brown (University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA)
Tel: +1 520 621 9045; E-mail:

François Raulin (Université Paris 12 Val de Marne, Paris, France)
Tel: +33 1 45 17 15 58; E-mail:

[6] Epidemiology: Percolating disease (pp 634-637)

Percolation theory is commonly used to describe the movement of liquid through porous material — like coffee through a filter. In Nature this week, Stephen Davis and colleagues report the first example of the theory at work in nature, using it to explain the spread of plague through colonies of great gerbils in Central Asia. The research could help us to understand the transmission of other diseases.

Great gerbils live in vast underground burrow systems that form a lattice-like arrangement visible from satellite images. Fleas spread plague bacteria between gerbils living in the same burrow system, but are less likely to infect those in surrounding burrows. Using data from monitoring gerbil movements and field studies of flea dispersal, the team created a mathematical model and found that it fit perfectly with percolation theory.

On the basis of the findings, the authors call for a reappraisal of models used to describe disease transmission in other systems, including bovine tuberculosis in badger populations, where the badger setts perform the same ‘filtering’ function as the gerbil burrows. The latter may provide important information as to whether badgers serve as a reservoir of disease for transmission into cattle populations.

Stephen Davis (University of Utrecht, Netherlands)
Tel: +31 30 253 1233; E-mail:

[7] & [8] Cell biology: The impact of microRNA on proteins (AOP)
DOI: 10.1038/nature07228
DOI: 10.1038/nature07242

***These papers will be published electronically on Nature's website on 30 July 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 them on this release to avoid multiple mailings they will not appear in print on 31 July, but at a later date. ***

The consequences of protein regulation by microRNAs (miRNAs) are studied on a large scale in two papers published online in Nature this week. The results show that changing the levels of just one miRNA can, in some cases, affect the expression levels of hundreds of proteins. The studies also show that it may be possible to predict which genes miRNAs will interact with, although the science is far from exact at present.

miRNAs act on a gene’s messenger RNA (mRNA) to affect how much protein is made by that gene. miRNAs can downregulate protein expression in two ways: by causing degradation of the mRNA or by inhibiting translation of the mRNA. Previous work examined how mRNA levels were affected by miRNA expression, but because no large study of how protein levels were affected had been performed, the contribution of translational repression could not be estimated. In these studies two teams, Matthias Selbach and colleagues and David Bartel and his team, use mass spectrometry to measure how many proteins in a cell show a change in their levels when a particular miRNA is present. This is the first time researchers have measured tangibly the effect of miRNAs on cellular protein levels, and the work shows that, although the amount of expression change is modest in most cases, the scale of the effects is widespread.

Matthias Selbach (Max Delbrueck Center for Molecular Medicine, Berlin, Germany) Author paper [7]
Tel: +49 30 94 06 35 74; E-mail:

David Bartel (Whitehead Institute, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, USA) Author paper [8]
Tel: +1 617 258 5287; E-mail:

[9] Virology: Unlocking the door to HIV infection (AOP)
DOI: 10.1038/nature07159

***This paper will be published electronically on Nature's website on 30 July 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 31 July, but at a later date. ***

The structure of the protein complex responsible for unlocking cells to enable HIV entry is reported online in Nature this week. The findings provide a greater understanding of how the virus works and will help towards the improved design of vaccines and drug treatments.

Sriram Subramaniam and colleagues used cryo-electron tomography along with powerful new computational tools to look at the structure of Env — the protein complex on the surface of HIV that initiates infection by binding to the CD4 receptor on host cells. The team observed that Env changed its structure slightly to accommodate binding of CD4, turning like a key in a lock and moving the virus in place for infection.

The research offers further insight as to how the virus gets into cells, and could be used to identify regions of Env to target with vaccines and drugs to prevent infection.

Sriram Subramaniam (National Cancer Institute, Bethesda, MD, USA)
Tel: +1 301 594 2062; E-mail:

[10] Nanotechnology: Creating smart surface networks (pp 618-621; N&V)

One of the quests of nanotechnology is to fabricate things in the size range of single molecules in a simple and precisely controlled way. A paper in this week’s Nature takes on the challenge of creating a well-defined and easily modified surface network over an extended length, a feat that holds promise for systems ranging from biosensors and catalysts to molecular electronics.

Manfred Buck and his colleagues combine two techniques to make their two-dimensional surface network. One relies on self-assembly of molecules on the surface, to spontaneously form large and extended patterns that are controlled at the nanometre scale. The other involves deposition of self-assembled monolayers into the self-assembled pattern, which offers unprecedented flexibility for further functionalizing the patterned surface.

By harnessing the advantages of the two methods, the team has produced a versatile nanotechnology platform that could be used to tailor the properties of surface structures.

Manfred Buck (University of St Andrews, UK)
Tel: +44 1334 467 232; E-mail:

Michael Grunze (Universität Heidelberg, Germany) N&V author
Tel: +49 6221 548 461; E-mail:

[11] And finally… Snake fangs bite back (pp 630-633)

Biologists get their teeth into the question of snake fang development this week in Nature. The research offers new evidence for how snake fangs evolved from regular teeth.

Many snakes use syringe-like fangs to inject venom into their prey. Sometimes these are located at the front of the jaw — as in cobras and vipers — and sometimes at the back. How these two arrangements arose has been the subject of controversy for many years. Freek Vonk and colleagues looked at fang development in 96 snake embryos covering 8 species to get a better idea of where the venomous teeth originate. Surprisingly, they find that both front and rear fangs arise from the back of the upper jaw, but the front fangs migrate forwards during embryo development. On the other hand, the rear fangs form a specialized zone in the tooth-forming layer that stays put.

These findings suggest that the back region of the tooth-forming layer in the snake jaw became uncoupled from the rest of the teeth during evolution, enabling the back teeth to evolve independently with the venom gland. This event could explain the massive expansion of advanced snakes that occurred during the Cenozoic era, resulting in the spectacular diversity of snake species we see today.

Freek Vonk (Leiden University, Netherlands)
Tel: + 31 71 527 5030;
Mobile: + 31 6 14 21 26 16;


[12] Scaling the Kondo lattice (pp 611-613)

[13] Primary carbonatite melt from deeply subducted oceanic crust (pp 622-625)


***These papers will be published electronically on Nature's website on 30 July 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 them on this release to avoid multiple mailings they will not appear in print on 31 July, but at a later date. ***

[14] UCP2 mediates ghrelin’s action on NPY/ AgRP neurons by lowering free radicals
DOI: 10.1038/nature07181

[15] Metabolic gene regulation in a dynamically changing environment
DOI: 10.1038/nature07211

[16] Direct observation of the mechanochemical coupling in myosin Va during processive movement
DOI: 10.1038/nature07188


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.

Adelaide: 11
Brisbane : 4
Melbourne: 11
Tanuda: 11

Antwerp: 6

Brasilia: 13

Sofia: 3

Chengdu: 2
Shanghai: 4
Shiyan: 14

Copenhagen: 2
Kongens Lyngby: 6
Roskilde: 2

Helsinki: 2

Bayreuth: 13
Berlin: 5, 7
Bonn:2, 4
Mannheim: 2, 4
Munich: 2, 4

Athens: 1

Reykjavik: 2

Dublin: 3, 4

Haifa: 11
Jerusalem: 4
Tel Aviv: 11

Verona: 2

Saitama: 4
Toyoake: 4

Leiden: 11
Nijmegen: 2
Utrecht: 2, 6

Oslo: 2

Coimbra: 3
Sao Miguel: 3

Cordoba: 10

Stockholm: 3
Uppsala: 3

Aberdeen: 2, 3
Bristol: 13
Cardiff: 1, 3, 4
Cambridge: 2, 4
Durham: 1
Edinburgh: 3
Glasgow: 7
Greenock: 2, 3
Liverpool: 6
London: 1, 2, 3, 13, 16
Oxford: 3, 4
Reading: 3
St Andrews: 10
Warrington: 13


Flagstaff: 5
Tucson: 5

Berkeley: 13
Davis: 12
Irvine: 12
La Jolla: 15
Los Angeles: 2, 3
Moffett Field: 5
Pasadena: 5
Stanford: 4
Denver: 5

New Haven: 14

District of Columbia
Washington: 3

Evanston: 4

Bethesda: 4, 9, 16

Boston: 2, 3, 8
Cambridge: 3, 8

Minneapolis: 9

New Mexico
Los Alamos: 12

New York
New York: 1, 5, 14
Syracuse: 3

North Carolina
Chapel Hill: 4
Durham: 2

Cincinnati: 14

Norfolk: 16
Richmond: 3

Seattle: 15
Walla Walla: 11

From North America and Canada
Katherine Anderson, Nature New York
Tel: +1 212 726 9231; E-mail:

Katie McGoldrick, Nature Washington
Tel: +1 202 737 2355; E-mail:

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

From the UK/Europe/other countries not listed above
Jen Middleton, Nature London
Tel: +44 20 7843 4502; E-mail

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Keywords associated to this article: Relics, Genetics, Planetary science, Epidemiology, Cell biology, Virology, Nanotechnology, snake fangs
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