Volume 497 Number 7451


Still less equal p.535

Japan’s government must stick by its promise to help women’s careers to prosper.

doi: 10.1038/497535b

Overtaken by events p.535

Despite the small number of entries, the genomics X prize is to be commended for attempting to push the boundaries of DNA sequencing technology.

doi: 10.1038/497535a

Without borders p.536

Increasing scientific globalization is welcome, but could compromise national efforts.

doi: 10.1038/497536a


News Features

Method man p.550

Karl Deisseroth is leaving his mark on brain science one technique at a time.

doi: 10.1038/497550a

Cosmic dawn p.554

The Hubble Space Telescope is giving astronomers a glimpse of the Universe's first, tumultuous era of galaxy formation.

doi: 10.1038/497554a

News & Views

Time, space and memory p.568

The brain's hippocampus contains place cells, which encode an animal's specific location. The finding that hippocampal neurons may also respond to time could provide information on the coding of episodic memories.

doi: 10.1038/497568a

A spruce sequence p.569

The first published whole-genome draft sequence of a gymnosperm, the Norway spruce, provides a powerful platform for studying the unique development, adaptation and evolution of this major group of plants. See Article p.579

doi: 10.1038/nature12250

Evolutionary dichotomy for rocky planets p.570

A simple model shows that a rocky planet close to its star may solidify so slowly that its water is lost to space and the planet becomes desiccated, whereas a planet farther out may solidify quickly and retain its water. See Letter p.607

doi: 10.1038/497570a

It's an analog world p.572

The first synthetic genetic circuits to use analog computation have been developed. These circuits involve fewer components and resources, and can execute more complex operations, than their digital counterparts. See Letter p.619

doi: 10.1038/nature12246

Hesitation on hominin history p.573

Extensive studies of fossil skeletons of Australopithecus sediba provide fascinating details of the anatomy of this hominin species, but do not convincingly indicate its position on the evolutionary route to modern humans.

doi: 10.1038/497573a

A glimpse inside a magnetar p.574

Hundreds of neutron stars have exhibited 'glitches' in their spin-down rates — an indication of ultra-dense superfluids in their interiors. Now one highly magnetized star has shown a surprising glitch in the 'wrong' direction. See Letter p.591

doi: 10.1038/497574a

Rear view of an enzyme p.576

The enzyme Ubc9 mediates attachment of the small modifier protein SUMO to target proteins. It emerges that for optimal functioning — and for proper meiotic cell division — Ubc9 itself must be modified by SUMO.

doi: 10.1038/nature12249

Drug for an 'undruggable' protein p.577

Scientists have long aimed to develop drugs against the cancer-associated protein KRAS, but without success. An approach that targets the oncoprotein's cellular localization reignites lost enthusiasm. See Letter p.638

doi: 10.1038/nature12248


The Norway spruce genome sequence and conifer genome evolution OPEN p.579

The draft genome of the Norway spruce (P. abies) is presented; this is the first gymnosperm genome to be sequenced and reveals a large genome size (20 Gb) resulting from the accumulation of transposable elements, and comparative sequencing of five other gymnosperm genomes provides insights into conifer genome evolution.

doi: 10.1038/nature12211

The importance of mixed selectivity in complex cognitive tasks p.585

When an animal is performing a cognitive task, individual neurons in the prefrontal cortex show a mixture of responses that is often difficult to decipher and interpret; here new computational methods to decode and extract rich sets of information from these neural responses are revealed and demonstrate how this mixed selectivity offers a computational advantage over specialized cells.

doi: 10.1038/nature12160


An anti-glitch in a magnetar p.591

Magnetars are neutron stars with X-ray and soft γ-ray outbursts thought to be powered by intense internal magnetic fields. Like conventional neutron stars in the form of radio pulsars, magnetars exhibit ‘glitches’ during which angular momentum is believed to be transferred between the solid outer crust and the superfluid component of the inner crust. The several hundred observed glitches in radio pulsars and magnetars have involved a sudden spin-up (increase in the angular velocity) of the star, presumably because the interior superfluid was rotating faster than the crust. Here we report X-ray timing observations of the magnetar 1E 2259+586 (ref. 8), which exhibited a clear ‘anti-glitch’—a sudden spin-down. We show that this event, like some previous magnetar spin-up glitches, was accompanied by multiple X-ray radiative changes and a significant spin-down rate change. Such behaviour is not predicted by models of neutron star spin-down and, if of internal origin, is suggestive of differential rotation in the magnetar, supporting the need for a rethinking of glitch theory for all neutron stars.

doi: 10.1038/nature12159

Cloning of Dirac fermions in graphene superlattices p.594

Superlattices have attracted great interest because their use may make it possible to modify the spectra of two-dimensional electron systems and, ultimately, create materials with tailored electronic properties. In previous studies (see, for example, refs 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8), it proved difficult to realize superlattices with short periodicities and weak disorder, and most of their observed features could be explained in terms of cyclotron orbits commensurate with the superlattice. Evidence for the formation of superlattice minibands (forming a fractal spectrum known as Hofstadter’s butterfly) has been limited to the observation of new low-field oscillations and an internal structure within Landau levels. Here we report transport properties of graphene placed on a boron nitride substrate and accurately aligned along its crystallographic directions. The substrate’s moiré potential acts as a superlattice and leads to profound changes in the graphene’s electronic spectrum. Second-generation Dirac points appear as pronounced peaks in resistivity, accompanied by reversal of the Hall effect. The latter indicates that the effective sign of the charge carriers changes within graphene’s conduction and valence bands. Strong magnetic fields lead to Zak-type cloning of the third generation of Dirac points, which are observed as numerous neutrality points in fields where a unit fraction of the flux quantum pierces the superlattice unit cell. Graphene superlattices such as this one provide a way of studying the rich physics expected in incommensurable quantum systems and illustrate the possibility of controllably modifying the electronic spectra of two-dimensional atomic crystals by varying their crystallographic alignment within van der Waals heterostuctures.

doi: 10.1038/nature12187

Hofstadter’s butterfly and the fractal quantum Hall effect in moiré superlattices p.598

Electrons moving through a spatially periodic lattice potential develop a quantized energy spectrum consisting of discrete Bloch bands. In two dimensions, electrons moving through a magnetic field also develop a quantized energy spectrum, consisting of highly degenerate Landau energy levels. When subject to both a magnetic field and a periodic electrostatic potential, two-dimensional systems of electrons exhibit a self-similar recursive energy spectrum. Known as Hofstadter’s butterfly, this complex spectrum results from an interplay between the characteristic lengths associated with the two quantizing fields, and is one of the first quantum fractals discovered in physics. In the decades since its prediction, experimental attempts to study this effect have been limited by difficulties in reconciling the two length scales. Typical atomic lattices (with periodicities of less than one nanometre) require unfeasibly large magnetic fields to reach the commensurability condition, and in artificially engineered structures (with periodicities greater than about 100 nanometres) the corresponding fields are too small to overcome disorder completely. Here we demonstrate that moiré superlattices arising in bilayer graphene coupled to hexagonal boron nitride provide a periodic modulation with ideal length scales of the order of ten nanometres, enabling unprecedented experimental access to the fractal spectrum. We confirm that quantum Hall features associated with the fractal gaps are described by two integer topological quantum numbers, and report evidence of their recursive structure. Observation of a Hofstadter spectrum in bilayer graphene means that it is possible to investigate emergent behaviour within a fractal energy landscape in a system with tunable internal degrees of freedom.

doi: 10.1038/nature12186

Persistent export of 231Pa from the deep central Arctic Ocean over the past 35,000 years p.603

The Arctic Ocean has an important role in Earth’s climate, both through surface processes such as sea-ice formation and transport, and through the production and export of waters at depth that contribute to the global thermohaline circulation. Deciphering the deep Arctic Ocean’s palaeo-oceanographic history is a crucial part of understanding its role in climatic change. Here we show that sedimentary ratios of the radionuclides thorium-230 (230Th) and protactinium-231 (231Pa), which are produced in sea water and removed by particle scavenging on timescales of decades to centuries, respectively, record consistent evidence for the export of 231Pa from the deep Arctic and may indicate continuous deep-water exchange between the Arctic and Atlantic oceans throughout the past 35,000 years. Seven well-dated box-core records provide a comprehensive overview of 231Pa and 230Th burial in Arctic sediments during glacial, deglacial and interglacial conditions. Sedimentary 231Pa/230Th ratios decrease nearly linearly with increasing water depth above the core sites, indicating efficient particle scavenging in the upper water column and greater influence of removal by lateral transport at depth. Although the measured 230Th burial is in balance with its production in Arctic sea water, integrated depth profiles for all time intervals reveal a deficit in 231Pa burial that can be balanced only by lateral export in the water column. Because no enhanced sink for 231Pa has yet been found in the Arctic, our records suggest that deep-water exchange through the Fram strait may export 231Pa. Such export may have continued for the past 35,000 years, suggesting a century-scale replacement time for deep waters in the Arctic Ocean since the most recent glaciation and a persistent contribution of Arctic waters to the global ocean circulation.

doi: 10.1038/nature12145

Emergence of two types of terrestrial planet on solidification of magma ocean p.607

Understanding the origins of the diversity in terrestrial planets is a fundamental goal in Earth and planetary sciences. In the Solar System, Venus has a similar size and bulk composition to those of Earth, but it lacks water. Because a richer variety of exoplanets is expected to be discovered, prediction of their atmospheres and surface environments requires a general framework for planetary evolution. Here we show that terrestrial planets can be divided into two distinct types on the basis of their evolutionary history during solidification from the initially hot molten state expected from the standard formation model. Even if, apart from their orbits, they were identical just after formation, the solidified planets can have different characteristics. A type I planet, which is formed beyond a certain critical distance from the host star, solidifies within several million years. If the planet acquires water during formation, most of this water is retained and forms the earliest oceans. In contrast, on a type II planet, which is formed inside the critical distance, a magma ocean can be sustained for longer, even with a larger initial amount of water. Its duration could be as long as 100 million years if the planet is formed together with a mass of water comparable to the total inventory of the modern Earth. Hydrodynamic escape desiccates type II planets during the slow solidification process. Although Earth is categorized as type I, it is not clear which type Venus is because its orbital distance is close to the critical distance. However, because the dryness of the surface and mantle predicted for type II planets is consistent with the characteristics of Venus, it may be representative of type II planets. Also, future observations may have a chance to detect not only terrestrial exoplanets covered with water ocean but also those covered with magma ocean around a young star.

doi: 10.1038/nature12163

Palaeontological evidence for an Oligocene divergence between Old World monkeys and apes p.611

Apes and Old World monkeys are prominent components of modern African and Asian ecosystems, yet the earliest phases of their evolutionary history have remained largely undocumented. The absence of crown catarrhine fossils older than ∼20 million years (Myr) has stood in stark contrast to molecular divergence estimates of ∼25–30 Myr for the split between Cercopithecoidea (Old World monkeys) and Hominoidea (apes), implying long ghost lineages for both clades. Here we describe the oldest known fossil ‘ape’, represented by a partial mandible preserving dental features that place it with ‘nyanzapithecine’ stem hominoids. Additionally, we report the oldest stem member of the Old World monkey clade, represented by a lower third molar. Both specimens were recovered from a precisely dated 25.2-Myr-old stratum in the Rukwa Rift, a segment of the western branch of the East African Rift in Tanzania. These finds extend the fossil record of apes and Old World monkeys well into the Oligocene epoch of Africa, suggesting a possible link between diversification of crown catarrhines and changes in the African landscape brought about by previously unrecognized tectonic activity in the East African rift system.

doi: 10.1038/nature12161

Long-term warming restructures Arctic tundra without changing net soil carbon storage p.615

High latitudes contain nearly half of global soil carbon, prompting interest in understanding how the Arctic terrestrial carbon balance will respond to rising temperatures. Low temperatures suppress the activity of soil biota, retarding decomposition and nitrogen release, which limits plant and microbial growth. Warming initially accelerates decomposition, increasing nitrogen availability, productivity and woody-plant dominance. However, these responses may be transitory, because coupled abiotic–biotic feedback loops that alter soil-temperature dynamics and change the structure and activity of soil communities, can develop. Here we report the results of a two-decade summer warming experiment in an Alaskan tundra ecosystem. Warming increased plant biomass and woody dominance, indirectly increased winter soil temperature, homogenized the soil trophic structure across horizons and suppressed surface-soil-decomposer activity, but did not change total soil carbon or nitrogen stocks, thereby increasing net ecosystem carbon storage. Notably, the strongest effects were in the mineral horizon, where warming increased decomposer activity and carbon stock: a ‘biotic awakening’ at depth.

doi: 10.1038/nature12129

Synthetic analog computation in living cells p.619

A central goal of synthetic biology is to achieve multi-signal integration and processing in living cells for diagnostic, therapeutic and biotechnology applications. Digital logic has been used to build small-scale circuits, but other frameworks may be needed for efficient computation in the resource-limited environments of cells. Here we demonstrate that synthetic analog gene circuits can be engineered to execute sophisticated computational functions in living cells using just three transcription factors. Such synthetic analog gene circuits exploit feedback to implement logarithmically linear sensing, addition, ratiometric and power-law computations. The circuits exhibit Weber’s law behaviour as in natural biological systems, operate over a wide dynamic range of up to four orders of magnitude and can be designed to have tunable transfer functions. Our circuits can be composed to implement higher-order functions that are well described by both intricate biochemical models and simple mathematical functions. By exploiting analog building-block functions that are already naturally present in cells, this approach efficiently implements arithmetic operations and complex functions in the logarithmic domain. Such circuits may lead to new applications for synthetic biology and biotechnology that require complex computations with limited parts, need wide-dynamic-range biosensing or would benefit from the fine control of gene expression.

doi: 10.1038/nature12148

BAF complexes facilitate decatenation of DNA by topoisomerase IIα p.624

Recent exon-sequencing studies of human tumours have revealed that subunits of BAF (mammalian SWI/SNF) complexes are mutated in more than 20% of all human malignancies, but the mechanisms involved in tumour suppression are unclear. BAF chromatin-remodelling complexes are polymorphic assemblies that use energy provided by ATP hydrolysis to regulate transcription through the control of chromatin structure and the placement of Polycomb repressive complex 2 (PRC2) across the genome. Several proteins dedicated to this multisubunit complex, including BRG1 (also known as SMARCA4) and BAF250a (also known as ARID1A), are mutated at frequencies similar to those of recognized tumour suppressors. In particular, the core ATPase BRG1 is mutated in 5–10% of childhood medulloblastomas and more than 15% of Burkitt’s lymphomas. Here we show a previously unknown function of BAF complexes in decatenating newly replicated sister chromatids, a requirement for proper chromosome segregation during mitosis. We find that deletion of Brg1 in mouse cells, as well as the expression of BRG1 point mutants identified in human tumours, leads to anaphase bridge formation (in which sister chromatids are linked by catenated strands of DNA) and a G2/M-phase block characteristic of the decatenation checkpoint. Endogenous BAF complexes interact directly with endogenous topoisomerase IIα (TOP2A) through BAF250a and are required for the binding of TOP2A to approximately 12,000 sites across the genome. Our results demonstrate that TOP2A chromatin binding is dependent on the ATPase activity of BRG1, which is compromised in oncogenic BRG1 mutants. These studies indicate that the ability of TOP2A to prevent DNA entanglement at mitosis requires BAF complexes and suggest that this activity contributes to the role of BAF subunits as tumour suppressors.

doi: 10.1038/nature12146

Specialized filopodia direct long-range transport of SHH during vertebrate tissue patterning p.628

The ability of signalling proteins to traverse tissues containing tightly packed cells is of fundamental importance for cell specification and tissue development; however, how this is achieved at a cellular level remains poorly understood. For more than a century, the vertebrate limb bud has served as a model for studying cell signalling during embryonic development. Here we optimize single-cell real-time imaging to delineate the cellular mechanisms for how signalling proteins, such as sonic hedgehog (SHH), that possess membrane-bound covalent lipid modifications traverse long distances within the vertebrate limb bud in vivo. By directly imaging SHH ligand production under native regulatory control in chick (Gallus gallus) embryos, our findings show that SHH is unexpectedly produced in the form of a particle that remains associated with the cell via long cytoplasmic extensions that span several cell diameters. We show that these cellular extensions are a specialized class of actin-based filopodia with novel cytoskeletal features that have not been previously described. Notably, particles containing SHH travel along these extensions with a net anterograde movement within the field of SHH cell signalling. We further show that in SHH-responding cells, specific subsets of SHH co-receptors, including cell adhesion molecule downregulated by oncogenes (CDO) and brother of CDO (BOC), actively distribute and co-localize in specific micro-domains within filopodial extensions, far from the cell body. Stabilized interactions are formed between filopodia containing SHH ligand and those containing co-receptors over a long range. These results suggest that contact-mediated release propagated by specialized filopodia contributes to the delivery of SHH at a distance. Together, these studies identify an important mode of communication between cells that considerably extends our understanding of ligand movement and reception during vertebrate tissue patterning.

doi: 10.1038/nature12157

Macropinocytosis of protein is an amino acid supply route in Ras-transformed cells p.633

Macropinocytosis is a highly conserved endocytic process by which extracellular fluid and its contents are internalized into cells through large, heterogeneous vesicles known as macropinosomes. Oncogenic Ras proteins have been shown to stimulate macropinocytosis but the functional contribution of this uptake mechanism to the transformed phenotype remains unknown. Here we show that Ras-transformed cells use macropinocytosis to transport extracellular protein into the cell. The internalized protein undergoes proteolytic degradation, yielding amino acids including glutamine that can enter central carbon metabolism. Accordingly, the dependence of Ras-transformed cells on free extracellular glutamine for growth can be suppressed by the macropinocytic uptake of protein. Consistent with macropinocytosis representing an important route of nutrient uptake in tumours, its pharmacological inhibition compromises the growth of Ras-transformed pancreatic tumour xenografts. These results identify macropinocytosis as a mechanism by which cancer cells support their unique metabolic needs and point to the possible exploitation of this process in the design of anticancer therapies.

doi: 10.1038/nature12138

Small molecule inhibition of the KRAS–PDEδ interaction impairs oncogenic KRAS signalling p.638

The KRAS oncogene product is considered a major target in anticancer drug discovery. However, direct interference with KRAS signalling has not yet led to clinically useful drugs. Correct localization and signalling by farnesylated KRAS is regulated by the prenyl-binding protein PDEδ, which sustains the spatial organization of KRAS by facilitating its diffusion in the cytoplasm. Here we report that interfering with binding of mammalian PDEδ to KRAS by means of small molecules provides a novel opportunity to suppress oncogenic RAS signalling by altering its localization to endomembranes. Biochemical screening and subsequent structure-based hit optimization yielded inhibitors of the KRAS–PDEδ interaction that selectively bind to the prenyl-binding pocket of PDEδ with nanomolar affinity, inhibit oncogenic RAS signalling and suppress in vitro and in vivo proliferation of human pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma cells that are dependent on oncogenic KRAS. Our findings may inspire novel drug discovery efforts aimed at the development of drugs targeting oncogenic RAS.

doi: 10.1038/nature12205

Mature HIV-1 capsid structure by cryo-electron microscopy and all-atom molecular dynamics p.643

Retroviral capsid proteins are conserved structurally but assemble into different morphologies. The mature human immunodeficiency virus-1 (HIV-1) capsid is best described by a ‘fullerene cone’ model, in which hexamers of the capsid protein are linked to form a hexagonal surface lattice that is closed by incorporating 12 capsid-protein pentamers. HIV-1 capsid protein contains an amino-terminal domain (NTD) comprising seven α-helices and a β-hairpin, a carboxy-terminal domain (CTD) comprising four α-helices, and a flexible linker with a 310-helix connecting the two structural domains. Structures of the capsid-protein assembly units have been determined by X-ray crystallography; however, structural information regarding the assembled capsid and the contacts between the assembly units is incomplete. Here we report the cryo-electron microscopy structure of a tubular HIV-1 capsid-protein assembly at 8 Å resolution and the three-dimensional structure of a native HIV-1 core by cryo-electron tomography. The structure of the tubular assembly shows, at the three-fold interface, a three-helix bundle with critical hydrophobic interactions. Mutagenesis studies confirm that hydrophobic residues in the centre of the three-helix bundle are crucial for capsid assembly and stability, and for viral infectivity. The cryo-electron-microscopy structures enable modelling by large-scale molecular dynamics simulation, resulting in all-atom models for the hexamer-of-hexamer and pentamer-of-hexamer elements as well as for the entire capsid. Incorporation of pentamers results in closer trimer contacts and induces acute surface curvature. The complete atomic HIV-1 capsid model provides a platform for further studies of capsid function and for targeted pharmacological intervention.

doi: 10.1038/nature12162

Crystal structure of a nitrate/nitrite exchanger p.647

Mineral nitrogen in nature is often found in the form of nitrate (NO3). Numerous microorganisms evolved to assimilate nitrate and use it as a major source of mineral nitrogen uptake. Nitrate, which is central in nitrogen metabolism, is first reduced to nitrite (NO2) through a two-electron reduction reaction. The accumulation of cellular nitrite can be harmful because nitrite can be reduced to the cytotoxic nitric oxide. Instead, nitrite is rapidly removed from the cell by channels and transporters, or reduced to ammonium or dinitrogen through the action of assimilatory enzymes. Despite decades of effort no structure is currently available for any nitrate transport protein and the mechanism by which nitrate is transported remains largely unknown. Here we report the structure of a bacterial nitrate/nitrite transport protein, NarK, from Escherichia coli, with and without substrate. The structures reveal a positively charged substrate-translocation pathway lacking protonatable residues, suggesting that NarK functions as a nitrate/nitrite exchanger and that protons are unlikely to be co-transported. Conserved arginine residues comprise the substrate-binding pocket, which is formed by association of helices from the two halves of NarK. Key residues that are important for substrate recognition and transport are identified and related to extensive mutagenesis and functional studies. We propose that NarK exchanges nitrate for nitrite by a rocker switch mechanism facilitated by inter-domain hydrogen bond networks.

doi: 10.1038/nature12139