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This Week in Science : Feb 10, 2012

In a policy paper published online in advance this week, Johns Hopkins' Ruth Faden and Ruth Karron discuss the recent debates over H5N1 experiments — in which the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity recommendeds that research done by two separate groups be redacted — and say that they "highlight current shortcomings in oversight of potential dual-use research." Faden and Karron say that the "specific and immediate question posed by the H5N1 studies is how to ensure appropriate access to the details of a study when a determination has been made by NSABB that these details should not appear in the public scientific literature so as to protect against misuse," and add that ethics cannot and does not demand the impossible. No matter the measures set in place, "scientists cannot ensure or guarantee that their work will never be applied intentionally or accidentally to harm society," the authors write in Science.

Members of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center's Structural Biology Program this week present the "crystal structure of a productive covalent mouse DNMT1-DNA complex containing a central hemimethylated CpG site," which they say provides further insight into "how a combination of active and autoinhibitory mechanisms ensures the high fidelity of DNMT1-mediated maintenance DNA methylation."

Several groups comment on an April report from Quentin Atkinson — in which he reported evidence to suggest "an African origin of modern human languages" — in this week's Science. Ludwig Maximilian University's Michael Cysouw and his colleagues show that Atkinson's result was "an artifact of using suboptimal data, biased methodology, and unjustified assumptions," and "criticize his approach using more suitable data … suggesting a more complex scenario for the emergence of global linguistic diversity." In a separate article, investigators at Fudan University report "analyses using raw data without simplification," which they say "suggest a decline from central Asia rather than from Africa." Elsewhere, researchers in California also refute Atkinson's claim.

Atkinson defends his research in response to these comments, saying that he welcomes discussion of the data and alternative interpretations, though the points raised do "not undermine support for a serial founder effect model of expansion of language from Africa."

The Scan

Pig Organ Transplants Considered

The Wall Street Journal reports that the US Food and Drug Administration may soon allow clinical trials that involve transplanting pig organs into humans.

'Poo-Bank' Proposal

Harvard Medical School researchers suggest people should bank stool samples when they are young to transplant when they later develop age-related diseases.

Spurred to Develop Again

New Scientist reports that researchers may have uncovered why about 60 percent of in vitro fertilization embryos stop developing.

Science Papers Examine Breast Milk Cell Populations, Cerebral Cortex Cellular Diversity, Micronesia Population History

In Science this week: unique cell populations found within breast milk, 100 transcriptionally distinct cell populations uncovered in the cerebral cortex, and more.