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See Inside February 2009

Updates: Whatever Happened to the Risk for Another Indian Ocean Tsunami?

Also: updates on rabies recoveries, bioterror risks and the genetic tracking of religious persecution

No Relief from Tsunami Threat
In the devastating wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, scientists rushed to investigate its cause and the potential for another killer wave [see “Tsunami: Wave of Change”; SciAm, January 2006]. They found that the tsunami resulted from a magnitude 9.2 earthquake off Sumatra’s western coast—specifically, at the Sunda megathrust, where one tectonic plate is diving below another. Scientists had conjectured two strong earthquakes there in 2007 might have relieved pent-up energy, thereby preventing another major quake.

Unfortunately, California Institute of Technology researchers and their colleagues have bad news. They analyzed satellite radar and GPS station data, along with coral reef growth patterns and other historical geologic records to assess how much of the area ruptured as compared with past activity. Evidently, the 2007 events released only a quarter of the stress trapped within. The teams report in the December 4 Nature and the December 12 Science that another tsunami-unleashing earthquake could occur there at any time. —Charles Q. Choi

Rabid Recoveries
In 2004 Jeanna Giese became the first person to survive a rabies infection without taking the vaccine. Rodney E. Willoughby, Jr., of the Medical College of Wisconsin saved her by inducing a coma and injecting her with antivirals [for his account, see “A Cure for Rabies?”; SciAm, April 2007]. Last fall this “Milwaukee protocol” may have helped an eight-year-old Colombian girl and a teenage Brazilian boy beat the odds, too.

The girl began recovering while in her coma; before waking, however, she died of pneumonia, which her physicians say was unrelated to her rabies infection. The boy is recuperating, but whether the protocol worked is not completely clear: he had a partial course of the rabies treatment before showing symptoms. (Five others have recovered after such partial treatment.) Although the two cases may represent positive news for the Milwaukee protocol—research on it is controversial and hard to conduct—Giese remains the only clear-cut success story for now.

Bioterror by 2013
Fear of deadly pathogens released as weapons of mass destruction has risen since the 9/11 attacks and the anthrax mailings [see “The Specter of Biological Weapons”; SciAm, December 1996, and “After the Anthrax”; SciAm, November 2008]. Such an event is more likely than a nuclear detonation, concludes a congressional commission, which in its December 2 report says a bioterror incident will likely occur somewhere by 2013. Cooperative efforts to secure pathogens and steer bioweapons scientists to peaceful activities has worked in the past, but such programs must be strengthened and extended, the commission states.

Religious Effects
The human genome can tell a story of ancestral migrations [see “Traces of a Distant Past”; SciAm, July 2008]. It also reveals the effects of religion and persecution. Investigators studied the genes of 1,140 males from around the Iberian Peninsula—specifically, their Y chromosome, which changes little from father to son. They found that 19.8 percent of the modern Iberian population has Sephardic Jewish ancestry. It probably reflects the 15th-century purge and conversion of Jews by Christians. Similarly, 10.6 percent have Moorish ancestry, probably a result of the Muslim conquest of the region in A.D. 711. The findings appear in the December 4, 2008, American Journal of Human Genetics.

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