Keeping linguistic variation in the family

Summaries of newsworthy papers - Language: Keeping linguistic variation in the family; Neuroscience: Creating human neurons that model schizophrenia; Fossils: A fresh start for early eukaryotes; Physics: Atomic currents in a spin; Physics: Simulating quantum magnetism; And finally… Ear evolution caught in the act


This press release is copyright Nature.

VOL.472 NO.7342 DATED 14 APRIL 2011

This press release contains:

· Summaries of newsworthy papers:

Language: Keeping linguistic variation in the family

Neuroscience: Creating human neurons that model schizophrenia

Fossils: A fresh start for early eukaryotes

Physics: Atomic currents in a spin

Physics: Simulating quantum magnetism

And finally… Ear evolution caught in the act

[UPDATE] Comment: Shake-up time for Japanese seismology

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

· Geographical listing of authors

Editorial contacts: While the best contacts for stories will always be the authors themselves, in some cases the Nature editor who handled the paper will be available for comment if an author is unobtainable. Editors are contactable via Ruth Francis on +44 20 7843 4562. Feel free to get in touch with Nature's press contacts in London, Washington and Tokyo (as listed at the end of this release) with any general editorial inquiry.

Warning: This document, and the Nature papers to which it refers, may contain information that is price sensitive (as legally defined, for example, in the UK Criminal Justice Act 1993 Part V) with respect to publicly quoted companies. Anyone dealing in securities using information contained in this document or in advanced copies of Nature’s content may be guilty of insider trading under the US Securities Exchange Act of 1934.

The Nature journals press site is at

· PDFs for the Articles, Letters, Progress articles, Review articles, Insights and Brief Communications in this issue will be available on the Nature journals press site from 1400 London time / 0900 US Eastern Time on the Friday before publication.

· PDFs of News & Views, News Features, Correspondence and Commentaries will be available from 1400 London time / 0900 US Eastern Time on the Monday before publication

PICTURES: While we are happy for images from Nature to be reproduced for the purposes of contemporaneous news reporting, you must also seek permission from the copyright holder (if named) or author of the research paper in question (if not).

HYPE: We take great care not to hype the papers mentioned on our press releases, but are sometimes accused of doing so. If you ever consider that a story has been hyped, please do not hesitate to contact us at [email protected], citing the specific example.


[1] Language: Keeping linguistic variation in the family (AOP)
DOI: 10.1038/nature09923

***This paper will be published electronically on Nature's website on 13 April at 1800 London time / 1300 US Eastern Time 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 14 April, but at a later date. ***

Most of the linguistic features that have been said to be universal to all human languages are shared only between languages within the same family. These findings, which challenge two major linguistic theories, are reported in a phylogenetic analysis published in Nature.

A central goal of linguistic theory is to explain the great diversity of human languages and two main groups of theories have attempted to do this. Generative linguists following Noam Chomsky suggest that a small number of innately acquired parameters of variation control a larger number of structural features of language. Other linguists, following Joseph Greenberg, claim that there are statistical tendencies for linguistic traits to co-occur across languages, reflecting universal cognitive or systems biases. But testing these theories has been difficult without reliable information about the relatedness of languages.

Russell Gray and colleagues used computational phylogenetic methods to analyse linguistic diversity in a third of the world’s 7,000 extant languages, representing four distinct language families. Focusing on variation in word order, they show that most seemingly universal structures are shared only within, not across, language families, in contrast to the Greenbergian approach. Their analyses also reveal that systematic correlations between word-order features are likely to be the exception rather than the rule, in contrast to the Chomskyan approach. Instead, the authors suggest that linguistic diversity is shaped primarily by cultural evolution.


Russell Gray (University of Auckland, New Zealand)
Tel: +64 9373 7599 ext. 88525; E-mail: rd.gray(at)

[2] Neuroscience: Creating human neurons that model schizophrenia (AOP)
DOI: 10.1038/nature09915

***This paper will be published electronically on Nature's website on 13 April at 1800 London time / 1300 US Eastern Time 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 14 April, but at a later date. ***

A cellular model for schizophrenia is described in Nature this week.

The mechanisms that underlie schizophrenia are still unknown, although scientists have been able to describe some of the cellular and molecular abnormalities found in neurons of schizophrenic patients from post-mortem data. Fred Gage and colleagues took fibroblast cells from patients with schizophrenia and reprogrammed them into induced pluripotent stem cells, which differentiated into neurons.

The authors noted that the neurons displayed some of the same types of cellular abnormalities as seen in neurons from schizophrenic patients, such as reduced connectivity between neurons and altered gene expression. Interestingly, Gage and colleagues found that using a current schizophrenia medication, Loxapin, some cellular and molecular characteristics of these schizophrenic neurons could be ameliorated.


Fred Gage (The Salk Institute, La Jolla, CA, USA)
Tel: +1 858 453 4100 ext. 1012; E-mail: gage(at)

[3] Fossils: A fresh start for early eukaryotes (AOP)
DOI: 10.1038/nature09943

***This paper will be published electronically on Nature's website on 13 April at 1800 London time / 1300 US Eastern Time 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 14 April, but at a later date. ***

Eukaryotes that evolved on land may have emerged from the sea earlier than previously thought, according to a paper published online in Nature this week.

Paul Strother and colleagues describe complex microfossils found in billion-year-old rocks from northwest Scotland. These microfossils are diverse, multicellular structures with organic walls and measure up to one millimetre long. The authors also provide evidence that these simple eukaryotes lived in freshwater habitats and were exposed to the air in habitats above water.

Life originated in the sea more than three billion years ago; however, the first signs of life on land are less well-defined. The identification of eukaryotes in non-marine settings described by Strother’s team indicates that eukaryotic evolution on land may have commenced much earlier than previously thought.


Paul Strother (Boston College, Weston, MA, USA)
Tel: +1 617 552 8395; E-mail: strother(at)

[4] Physics: Atomic currents in a spin (pp 201-204; N&V)

A study that uncovers the transport dynamics of strongly interacting Fermi gases is reported in Nature this week. The results may have implications for many fields of physics involving fermion transport, from spintronics to studies of the early Universe.

The non-equilibrium dynamics of strongly interacting fermionic systems, such as nuclear matter or electrons in high-temperature superconductors, are not fully understood. To address this issue, Ariel Sommer and colleagues investigated spin transport — a potential carrier of information — in a strongly interacting Fermi gas. Such systems are advantageous in that they can be studied in real time with high precision. By allowing two ultracold atomic gas clouds to collide, the researchers observe a high degree of spin drag. The interactions can be strong enough to reverse spin currents, so that opposite spin components reflect off each other.

The findings reported by Sommer and his co-workers reveal that the speed of spin diffusion is set by a fundamental quantum limit. This law would also have to be obeyed by electrons, nuclear matter, and even quarks shortly after the Big Bang.


Ariel Sommer (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, USA)
Tel: +1 617 324 0500; E-mail: atsommer(at)

John Thomas (Duke University, Durham, NC, USA) N&V author
Tel: +1 919 660 2508; E-mail: jet(at)

[5] Physics: Simulating quantum magnetism (AOP; N&V)
DOI: 10.1038/nature09994

***This paper will be published electronically on Nature's website on 13 April at 1800 London time / 1300 US Eastern Time 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 14 April, but at a later date. ***

Scientists have achieved the simulation of quantum magnetism using an array of ultracold rubidium atoms in an optical lattice. The findings, reported online in Nature this week, offer a means of improving our understanding of magnetic materials characterized by strong quantum correlations, such as high-temperature superconductors and spintronic devices.

Quantum simulation of condensed-matter systems using ultracold atoms provides a way of studying problems that are too complex to solve with classical computers. Markus Greiner and colleagues have simulated a quantum phase transition in a chain of spins, directly imaging the formation of domains as the system crosses from a paramagnetic phase into an antiferromagnetic phase. The approach provides a tunable platform for studies of magnetic quantum phase transitions, which have been realized only in a few real materials.


Markus Greiner (Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA)
Tel: +1 617 595 3811; E-mail: greiner(at)

Ian Spielman (National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, MD, USA) N&V author
Tel: +1 301 975 8664; E-mail: ian.spielman(at)

[6] And finally… Ear evolution caught in the act (pp 181-185; N&V)

The discovery of the fossilized remains of a small, extinct mammal from the Cretaceous of China could fill in an important piece in the puzzle of mammalian middle-ear formation.

The lower jaw of reptiles comprises several different bones, whereas in mammals, the lower jaw consists of only one bone (the tooth-bearing dentary) — most of the rest have developed into the ossicles of the middle ear (the ectotympanic, malleus and incus). There is, however, little direct fossil evidence to document this transition.

In Nature this week, Jin Meng and colleagues describe a fossil representing a previously unknown species of triconodont, in which the lower-jaw elements have started to become the middle-ear ossicles seen in extant mammals. The animal’s ectotympanic and malleus have lost their contact with the dentary bone but are still connected to the lower jaw by a sliver of ossified cartilage (the Meckel’s cartilage). The authors suggest that the Meckel’s cartilage could have played a stabilizing role, bridging the dentary and the detached ossicles during mammalian evolution.


Jin Meng (American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY, USA)
Tel: +1 212 496 3337; E-mail: jmeng(at)

Anne Weil (Oklahoma State University, Tulsa, OK, USA) N&V author
This author is travelling.
E-mail: anne.weil(at)

[UPDATE] Comment: Shake-up time for Japanese seismology (AOP)

Robert J. Geller calls on seismologists in Japan to stop making long-term earthquake forecasts using flawed methodology, to scrap futile efforts at short-term earthquake prediction, and to stop treating the hypothetical ‘Tokai earthquake’ as if it were real. Geller writes in a Comment piece published online in advance of print this week in Nature.

Geller slams the national seismic hazard maps produced by the Japanese government as based on outdated science. He argues for the repeal of the 1978 Large-Scale Earthquake Countermeasures Act, which implicitly assumes, based on scant evidence, that predicting earthquakes hours or days in advance is possible. He contends that if, rather than flawed methodology, global seismicity and the historical record in Tohoku (such as the 38-metre tsunami of 1896) had been used as the basis for estimating seismic hazards, the Tohoku earthquake on 11 March could easily have been foreseen in a general way, although not of course its particular time, epicenter or magnitude. “Countermeasures for dealing with such events could and should have been fully incorporated in the initial design of the Fukushima nuclear power plants,” he writes.

All of Japan is at risk from earthquakes, and the present state of seismological science does not allow us to reliably differentiate the risk level in particular geographic areas, he concludes. “Future basic research in seismology must be soundly based on physics, impartially reviewed, and be led by Japan’s top scientists rather than by faceless bureaucrats.”


Robert J. Geller (University of Tokyo, Japan)
Tel: +81 3 5841 4306; E-mail: bob(at)


[7] A conserved mechanism of DEAD-box ATPase activation by nucleoporins and InsP6 in mRNA export (pp 197-200)


***This paper will be published electronically on Nature's website on 13 April at 1800 London time / 1300 US Eastern Time 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 14 April, but at a later date. ***

[8] TET1 and hydroxymethylcytosine in transcription and DNA methylation fidelity
DOI: 10.1038/nature10066


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.

Beijing: 6

Copenhagen: 8

Sesto Fiorentino: 4

Kyoto: 7

Nijmegen: 1

Auckland: 1

Edinburgh: 8
Oxford: 3
Sheffield: 3


La Jolla: 2
Palo Alto: 7

Boulder: 7

Cambridge: 4, 5, 7
Weston: 3

New York
Cold Spring Harbor: 2
New York: 6

University Park: 2


From North America and Canada

Neda Afsarmanesh, Nature New York
Tel: +1 212 726 9231; E-mail: n.afsarmanesh(at)

From Japan, Korea, China, Singapore and Taiwan

Mika Nakano, Nature Tokyo
Tel: +81 3 3267 8751; E-mail: m.nakano(at)

From the UK

Rebecca Walton, Nature, London
Tel: +44 20 7843 4502; E-mail: r.walton(at)

About Nature Publishing Group (NPG):

Nature Publishing Group (NPG) is a publisher of high impact scientific and medical information in print and online. NPG publishes journals, online databases and services across the life, physical, chemical and applied sciences and clinical medicine.

Focusing on the needs of scientists, Nature (founded in 1869) is the leading weekly, international scientific journal. In addition, for this audience, NPG publishes a range of Nature research journals and Nature Reviews journals, plus a range of prestigious academic journals including society-owned publications. Online, provides over 5 million visitors per month with access to NPG publications and online databases and services, including Nature News and NatureJobs plus access to Nature Network and Nature Education’s

Scientific American is at the heart of NPG’s newly-formed consumer media division, meeting the needs of the general public. Founded in 1845, Scientific American is the oldest continuously published magazine in the US and the leading authoritative publication for science in the general media. Together with and 15 local language editions around the world it reaches over 3 million consumers and scientists. Other titles include Scientific American Mind and Spektrum der Wissenschaft in Germany.

Throughout all its businesses NPG is dedicated to serving the scientific and medical communities and the wider scientifically interested general public. Part of Macmillan Publishers Limited, NPG is a global company with principal offices in London, New York and Tokyo, and offices in cities worldwide including Boston, Buenos Aires, Delhi, Hong Kong, Madrid, Barcelona, Munich, Heidelberg, Basingstoke, Melbourne, Paris, San Francisco, Seoul and Washington DC. For more information, please go to

Published: 13 Apr 2011

Contact details:

The Macmillan Building, 4 Crinan Street
N1 9XW
United Kingdom

+44 20 7833 4000
News topics: 
Content type: