Science  03 Feb 2012:
Vol. 335, Issue 6068, pp. 511

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  1. CDC Finds No Physical Cause for Mysterious Disease

    A 6-year study of Morgellons disease—an odd sickness described by patients who say it causes colored fibers to emerge from the skin—came to a quiet end last week. Paid for by the U.S. government, a $580,000 report in PLoS ONE found no infectious organism, no toxin, no parasite—indeed, no physical cause of the disease. Instead, the report suggested it might be an epidemic of “delusional parasitosis.”

    Led by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the investigation sought to learn what prompted a flurry of complaints starting in the early 2000s from patients who felt they were infected with bugs, harmed by toxins, or riddled with parasites that caused skin lesions and extrusions of fiber. Many also complained of fatigue or confusion. Several dozen members of Congress, including then-Senator Barack Obama, asked for an inquiry. Last week's report was the result. CDC teamed up with researchers from Kaiser Permanente of Northern California and others to comb through medical records and gather clinical samples. They found no communicable disease and primarily cotton fibers. This is good news, says CDC official Daniel Rutz: It means that people who have Morgellons do not need to worry about infecting relatives.

  2. A Volcanic Trigger for Europe's Little Ice Age

    For decades scientists have debated whether a fading of the sun or massive volcanic eruptions sent Europe into the icy grip of the Little Ice Age. This week a group of researchers reported new climate records and modeling that credits a burst of volcanic eruptions late in the 1200s with sole responsibility for triggering a centuries-long big chill across Europe.

    In a paper published in Geophysical Research Letters on 31 January, geologist Gifford Miller of the University of Colorado, Boulder, and colleagues report carbon-dating of whole plant remains now emerging from beneath the ice cap on Canada's Baffin Island. The dating shows that the plants mostly died between 1275 and 1300 as Arctic ice suddenly expanded. That abrupt chill coincided with four massive volcanic eruptions in the tropics, suggesting the eruptions caused the cooling. And the group's climate modeling indicates that the volcanic cooling, which normally lasts just a few years, could have become locked in for centuries if it reordered ocean and sea-ice circulation in the North Atlantic.

    Cold snap.

    Pieter Bruegel conveyed the icy cold of Europe circa 1565.


    The new data convince climate modeler Gavin Schmidt of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, who was not part of the study, that volcanoes triggered the abrupt onset of the Little Ice Age. But the modeling suggesting how the cooling could persist for centuries, he says, needs more work.