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Article Released Wed-27th-May-2009 18:01 GMT
Contact: Ruth Institution: Nature Publishing Group
 Climate change: Thawing permafrost soils as a carbon source

Summaries of newsworthy papers include Exoplanetary phases seen, Rethinking the war on cancer, Natural selection at the group level?, Super states, Mantle mixing model and Ancient immunity underestimated


This press release is copyright Nature.

VOL.459 NO.7246 DATED 28 MAY 2009

This press release contains:

· Summaries of newsworthy papers:

Climate change: Thawing permafrost soils as a carbon source

Space: Exoplanetary phases seen

Essay: Rethinking the war on cancer

Evolutionary biology: Natural selection at the group level?

Quantum physics: Super states

Geophysics: Mantle mixing model

And finally… Ancient immunity underestimated

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

· Geographical listing of authors

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[1] Climate change: Thawing permafrost soils as a carbon source (pp 556-559)

As the world warms, permafrost thaw may lead to the release into the atmosphere of ‘old’ carbon that accumulated over thousands of years in permafrost soils, a Nature paper suggests.

Huge amounts of carbon are stored deep in the Earth’s permafrost soils, but its potential rate of release has been hard to quantify. Edward Schuur and colleagues present data from a long-term monitoring site in Alaska, where permafrost temperatures have been directly measured since 1985. They measured net ecosystem carbon exchange and radiocarbon ages of the carbon emissions to determine the influence of old carbon loss on the ecosystem carbon balance.

Calculating a possible trajectory of carbon release over decades, they suggest that, initially, as plant growth is stimulated, permafrost thaw is likely to cause net carbon uptake by ecosystems. But over longer periods of time, the significant amounts of soil carbon lost with permafrost thaw will overwhelm this increased plant carbon uptake at rates that could make permafrost a large carbon source in a warmer world.

Edward Schuur (University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, USA)
Tel: +1 352 392 7913; E-mail:

[2] Space: Exoplanetary phases seen (pp 543-545)

Almost 400 years after Galileo first observed the changing phases of Venus, this week the first optical observations of the phases of an extrasolar planet are published in Nature. The new discovery shows that, at optical wavelengths, the planet resembles what we see for the interior planets of our Solar System.

The hot Jupiter CoRoT-1b was the first planet discovered by the CoRoT (Convection Rotation and Planetary Transit) satellite. Ignas Snellen and colleagues present an analysis of optical photometric data from the same satellite, representing 36 planetary orbits, showing the permanent nightside hemisphere of the planet to be entirely black. The dayside flux, reflecting a small proportion of the incident stellar light, dominates the optical phase curve.

Ignas Snellen (Leiden University, Netherlands)
Tel: +31 71 5275838; E-mail:

Essay: Rethinking the war on cancer (pp 508-509)

Cancer therapies are typically designed to kill as many tumour cells as possible. The hope is that this will cure the disease or, at the very least, keep patients alive for as long as possible. But, in an Essay this week in Nature, Robert Gatenby argues that it might be impossible to eradicate most disseminated cancers, and that trying to do so could make tumours progress faster than they otherwise would.

Gatenby suggests that principles for successful cancer therapy might be found in applied ecology. Efforts to manage invasive species, which share many properties — such as dispersal, proliferation, migration and evolution — with cancerous cells, have shown that controlling pests by restricting the growth of their populations is often a far more effective strategy than trying to eradicate them.

This idea is supported by in vivo experiments, computer simulations and mathematical models of tumour evolutionary dynamics developed by Gatenby and his colleagues. These indicate that standard high-dose therapies could speed up the emergence of resistance, and so reduce a patient’s chances of survival. Gatenby argues that instead of focusing exclusively on trying to eradicate the disease, oncologists should also consider therapies that sustain a stable tumour mass in patients.

Robert Gatenby (Moffitt Cancer Center, Tampa, FL, USA)
Tel: +1 813 745 2843; E-mail:

[3] Evolutionary biology: Natural selection at the group level? (AOP)
DOI: 10.1038/nature08071

***This paper will be published electronically on Nature's website on 27 May 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 28 May, but at a later date. ***

Natural selection is unlikely to operate at the group level, a Nature paper suggests.

The finding that parasites evolve to become less virulent in spatially structured populations has been mooted, controversially, as evidence that natural selection can produce adaptations at the group level. However, Geoff Wild and colleagues show that this reduced virulence can be understood as an individual-level adaptation, an explanation more in keeping with social evolutionary theory. According to their model, lower virulence is selected because of the direct benefits to the parasites, and because it reduces competition for relatives.

Geoff Wild (University of Western Ontario, London, Canada)
Tel: +1 519 661 2111 Ext. 88784; E-mail:

[4] Quantum physics: Super states (pp 546-549; N&V)

A technologically impressive set-up that enables researchers to generate and control arbitrary quantum states is revealed in this week’s Nature.

In Schrödinger’s classic ‘thought experiment’, a boxed, unwatched cat is not alive or dead but both. Andrew Cleland and colleagues describe a set-up where they can create, on demand, one or other quantum state, or the indeterminate ‘Schrödinger’s cat’ alternative. The quantum states, consisting of different but defined numbers of photons, are prepared in an electromagnetic resonator, then ‘superposed’ and measured in a completely controlled and deterministic manner.

The preparation and use of these indeterminate ‘superposed’ states forms the basis of quantum computation and simulation, so the findings may find use in this field.

Andrew Cleland (University of California, Santa Barbara, CA, USA)
Tel: +1 805 893 5401; E-mail:

Yasunobu Nakamura (Nano Electronics Research Laboratories, Tsukuba, Japan) N&V author
Tel: +81 298 50 1148; E-mail:

[5] Geophysics: Mantle mixing model (pp 560-563)

An elegant modelling study, which describes how noble gases can be retained in the Earth’s mantle, even in the presence of whole mantle convection, has managed to reconcile seemingly disparate views on mantle mixing.

Some geochemical studies suggest that the upper and lower mantle layers have not mixed extensively over geological history. But most geodynamic and seismological studies indicate that significant mixing does occur between the layers, and that the mantle convects as a whole. In this week’s Nature, Helge Gonnermann and Sujoy Mukhopadhyay propose a simple solution to this apparent contradiction.

The authors’ model takes into account the decreased efficiency of degassing as the concentration of noble gases decreases over time, and predicts that noble gases will be retained in the lower mantle even if whole mantle convection occurs. Their model successfully predicts the inferred present-day concentrations of helium and argon in the upper and lower mantle, as well as the helium isotopic ratio observed in ocean island basalts thought to originate from the lower mantle.

Sujoy Mukhopadhyay (Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA)
Tel: +1 617 496 6441; E-mail:

Tim Elliott (University of Bristol, UK) N&V author
Tel: +44 117 954 5426; E-mail:

[6] And finally… Ancient immunity underestimated (AOP)
DOI: 10.1038/nature

***This paper will be published electronically on Nature's website on 27 May 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 28 May, but at a later date. ***

Jawless vertebrates have more sophisticated immune systems than was previously thought — a finding that provides new insight into the evolution of the human immune system.

In mammals there are two arms to the immune system that work together in synergy to eradicate infection and disease. The innate immune system provides the first line of defence by recognizing and attacking invading organisms in a generic, non-specific way. The sophisticated adaptive system eliminates intruders in a much more precise way, and it remembers the offending organism so that it can react faster to a second encounter.

In this week’s Nature, Max Cooper and colleagues show that sea lampreys (Petromyzon marinus) have compartmentalized immune systems containing cells that resemble cytokine-secreting T cells and antibody-secreting B cells of the mammalian adaptive immune system. This pushes the evolution of the adaptive system back to jawless vertebrates, indicating that their system either was a precursor of or evolved alongside our own immune system.

Max Cooper (Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, GA, USA)
Tel: +1 404 727 8457; E-mail:


[7] Broad line emission from iron K and L shell transitions in the active galaxy 1H 0707-495 (pp 540-542)

[8] A regulated auxin minimum is required for seed dispersal in Arabidopsis (pp 583-586)


***These papers will be published electronically on Nature's website on 27 May 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 28 May, but at a later date. ***

[9] Polar gradients of the DYRK-family kinase pom1p couple cell length with the cell cycle
DOI: 10.1038/nature08054

[10] Structural insight into the autoinhibition mechanism of AMP-activated protein kinase
DOI: 10.1038/nature08075

[11] A spatial gradient coordinates cell size and mitotic entry in fission yeast
DOI: 10.1038/nature08074


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.

Ghent: 8

Halifax: 7
London: 3

Beijing: 10

Paris: 7, 11

Garching: 7

Leiden: 2, 8

Alicante: 8
Madrid: 7

Umea: 8

Lausanne: 9

Bristol: 7
Cambridge: 7
Edinburgh: 9
Norwich: 8
Oxford: 9
Southampton: 7


Fairbanks: 1

La Jolla: 8
Riverside: 1
Santa Barbara: 4

Gainesville: 1

Atlanta: 6

College Park: 7

Cambridge: 5
Worcester: 7

Ann Arbor: 7

New York
New York: 11

North Carolina
Chapel Hill: 8

University Park: 7

Houston: 5


From North America and Canada
Neda Afsarmanesh, 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: Climate change, Space, cancer, Evolutionary biology, Quantum physics, Geophysics, immunity
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