News this Week

Science  30 May 2014:
Vol. 344, Issue 6187, pp. 950
  1. Random Sample

    Toxic toad invades Madagascar

    The Asian common toad has appeared in the island nation, threatening native fauna.

    PHOTO: JONATHAN KOLBY

    The imperiled fauna of Madagascar may face a deadly new threat—a highly toxic toad. In late March, Jonathan Kolby of James Cook University, Townsville, in Australia and other researchers caught six Asian common toads (Duttaphrynus melanostictus) near the seaport of Toamasina. The species is common in Southeast Asia, spread to Bali in 1958, and has since invaded other parts of Indonesia. The toads appear to be harming native wildlife in East Timor, like their relative the cane toad has done in Australia. The Asian toad has deadly chemical defenses similar to the cane toad. Because there are no native toads in Madagascar, predators such as mongooses, lemurs, and more than 50 species of snakes are at risk of poisoning. The voracious, fertile toad could also compete with native frogs for food. “This is the worst thing I've seen come along in a while,” says Fred Kraus of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. “It makes one's blood chilled.” Writing in a letter to Nature this week, Kolby, Kraus, and 10 colleagues call for urgent eradication. Researchers are scouting around Toamasina to see how far the toad may have spread. “We hope that we've found it soon enough,” Kolby says. “If it hasn't spread that far yet, then we've got hope.”

    “Using vaccinators for these purposes is the moral equivalent of running guns in Red Cross ambulances—and the world rejected that many many years ago.”

    Stefano Bertozzi, dean of public health at the University of California, Berkeley, responding to a White House vow that the CIA will stop using vaccination programs as cover for spying.

    Space buffs to wake up ‘zombie’ probe

    ISEE-3 has 13 instruments for studying space weather.

    PHOTO: ISEE-3 REBOOT PROJECT, MARK MAXWELL

    A group of citizen scientists are ready to wake up and recycle a long-unused NASA spacecraft. NASA launched the International Sun-Earth Explorer-3 (ISEE-3) in 1978 to study space weather, and it went on to study two comets. The mission ended in 1997, but the spacecraft kept broadcasting its location. On 23 May, the ISEE-3 Reboot Project, which has raised more than $150,000 in crowd-funding, tested its transmission equipment at the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico. As Science went to press, the group was waiting for final NASA permission to make first contact with the spacecraft, says Keith Cowing, a co-director of the project. “[NASA] left gas in the gas tank and the keys in the ignition,” he says. Robert Farquhar, the 81-year-old original flight director for the ISEE-3 mission, believes that most of the spacecraft's 13 instruments should still be working. He wants to redirect the spacecraft to an encounter with comet 46P/Wirtanen in 2018.

    Ape researchers speak up for captive chimp studies

    Ending captive chimp research may harm wild chimps, some scientists say.

    PHOTO: JEREMY BREAUX, NEW IBERIA RESEARCH CENTER

    The U.S. government's recent push to stop “invasive” research with captive chimpanzees may overreach and cause the overall species harm. So argue ape researcher Peter Walsh of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom and colleagues in the 26 May online issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers tested a vaccine for the Ebola virus in chimpanzees at the New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana, aiming to protect wild chimps and gorillas from devastating outbreaks. But, Walsh and colleagues lament, “in an effort to pay back an ethical debt to captive chimpanzees, the U.S. Government is poised to renege on an even larger debt to wild chimpanzees,” which were exported from Africa to create the captive colonies. The government should instead establish a captive chimp population dedicated solely to conservation research, the authors propose. Their study, which showed that the vaccine was safe and stimulated the immune system, was likely “the first conservation-related vaccine trial on captive chimpanzees” and, they note, “may be the last.”

  2. Around the World

    Bethesda, Maryland
    Less review for gene therapy
    Paris
    Institut Pasteur under fire
    Berlin
    Funding agreement reached
    Los Angeles, California
    Young inventor may seek asylum
    New York City
    Yelp reviews track illness

    Bethesda, Maryland

    Less review for gene therapy

    The National Institutes of Health (NIH) will no longer subject all proposed gene therapy clinical trials to review by the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC), which has reviewed them since the late 1980s. As the field has matured, using gene therapy to treat several disorders, researchers argued that RAC review is redundant because gene therapy protocols are already reviewed by institutional ethics and biosafety boards and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. In December 2013, an Institute of Medicine (IOM) panel agreed, recommending that NIH should continue to register trials but the RAC only needs to review protocols not evaluated by standard oversight bodies and that pose unusual risks—for example, ones that use a new vector. Last week, NIH Director Francis Collins announced that NIH has accepted these IOM recommendations. http://scim.ag/genether

    Paris

    Institut Pasteur under fire

    Institut Pasteur was investigated after SARS virus samples went missing this year.

    PHOTO: LUCA BORGHI/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

    Contrary to press stories last week, the Institut Pasteur has not been closed or ordered to halt its research, says Pasteur Director-General Christian Bréchot. But Pasteur is struggling with a public relations fiasco, after the discovery earlier this year that it can't account for 2349 vials containing samples from the 2003 SARS outbreak. An independent panel found no risk to public health, but the issue led to three investigations and questions about the institute's safety procedures. On 21 May, the website Mediapart published fragments from a leaked letter by two French Cabinet ministers addressed to government inspectors investigating the issue; the letter listed multiple apparent security problems at Pasteur. Bréchot says the institute is working to improve the way it handles dangerous agents. http://scim.ag/pastSARS

    Berlin

    Funding agreement reached

    Financing for German science got a boost this week when politicians agreed on how to spend €6 billion slated for education over the next 4 years. Disagreements between the federal and state governments had delayed plans for distributing the money, promised in November. At a 26 May meeting between Angela Merkel and leaders of her party's coalition partners, the leaders agreed that the federal government would take over the country's financial aid program for university students, saving the states an additional €1.2 billion. In return, the states agreed to a change in the constitution that would allow the federal government to fund universities directly. Science leaders have lobbied for the change for several years, but the states have been reluctant to give up their control of education to the federal government. http://scim.ag/germanfund

    Los Angeles, California

    Young inventor may seek asylum

    A 17-year-old Egyptian inventor has refused to head home after competing in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, held 11 to 16 May in Los Angeles, California. Weeks before traveling to the United States, Abdullah Assem was arrested near Tahrir Square in Cairo, charged by police, and imprisoned for a little over a week for burning two vehicles and founding a group that attacked Egyptian security services in Assiut, says Assem's attorney, Farida Chetata of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. In a video interview with Al-Jazeera, Assem denied the charges and said he fears further incarceration if he returns to Egypt. A student at Dar Heraa Islamic Private School in Assiut, Assem joined 1700 finalists, aged 13 to 20 from over 70 countries, in vying for more than $5 million in awards and scholarships. He showcased a pair of wireless glasses that allows quadriplegic people to type using only eye movements.

    New York City

    Yelp reviews track illness

    Some foodborne disease came from raw fish.

    PHOTO: THINKSTOCK

    Taking citizen science to a new level, New Yorkers who used the online rating site Yelp to review restaurants between July 2012 and March 2013 also unwittingly helped the New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) hunt for outbreaks of foodborne disease. Using software developed at Columbia University, the DOHMH pilot project analyzed 294,000 reviews, searching for keywords such as “vomit” and “diarrhea.” After flagging 893 reviews for further evaluation by an epidemiologist, DOHMH eventually interviewed 27 reviewers by phone—and identified three “previously unreported restaurant-related outbreaks” involving 16 people; in each case, they even identified the likely food culprit. The researchers described the unusual effort on 23 May in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. But, they note, investigating reports of illness this way could require “considerable time and resources.”

  3. Newsmakers

    Three Q's

    PHOTO: NATIONAL AQUARIUM

    Earlier this month, the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland, announced that it was considering moving its eight Atlantic bottlenose dolphins to a marine sanctuary (http://scim.ag/baltdolphins). The aquarium's CEO, John Racanelli, has wrestled with the ethics of keeping dolphins in captivity for decades.

    Q:What got you thinking about the welfare of captive dolphins?

    A:One of my first jobs was cleaning the dolphin tank at Marine World in San Francisco in the early 1970s. One of the dolphins died right after a show. I just remember thinking, “She worked her whole life. She never got to retire.”

    Q:How has the National Aquarium changed its approach to dolphins?

    A:In 1991, we were doing seven shows a day. Then, two baby dolphins died in 2011, and we stopped the shows. Today, the public can see the dolphins, but there's no music and no TV monitors. The dolphins have more time to just goof around.

    Q:Will aquariums exist in the future?

    A:I believe there will always be a place for aquaria. People find it fascinating to see a world they wouldn't see any other way. But when you start talking about higher order animals, the public gets uncomfortable seeing them in captivity.

    Famed anthropologist dies

    Armelagos helped found the field of paleopathology.

    PHOTO: SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND UNIVERSITY ARCHIVES, UNIVERSITY OF MASSACHUSETTS AMHERST LIBRARIES

    Emory University biological anthropologist George Armelagos, who helped found the field of paleopathology, died 15 May, 6 days after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He continued to teach, mentor, and publish until his death at age 77. Armelagos, the son of Greek immigrants, was a graduate student in 1967 when he excavated Nubian human skeletons in Sudan dating back 10,000 years. Studying patterns of diet, disease, and death in these and other skeletons, he published a flurry of groundbreaking papers in paleopathology, including how changes in diet with the origin of agriculture influenced their health. He won many honors and was also known for his criticism of the concept of race. A much-loved mentor, many of his former students honored him in 2013 at a daylong session of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

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