News this Week

Science  20 Jun 2014:
Vol. 344, Issue 6190, pp. 1324

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  1. This Week's Section

    Big boost for Pacific reserves

    Kiribati pledged to ban all fishing in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area.


    Two nations moved this week to strengthen massive marine reserves in the Pacific. The United States on 17 June announced plans to expand and strengthen wildlife protections within the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument in the south-central Pacific. The protected area now covers 212,000 square kilometers, but could expand to some 2 million under the initiative. The island nation of Kiribati, meanwhile, announced on 16 June that it will end commercial fishing in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), a biologically-rich, California-sized swath of the Central Pacific, by the end of the year. Kiribati created PIPA in 2008 but banned fishing in only 3% of the 408,250-square-kilometer reserve. Its waters are heavily fished by tuna fleets, and the closure will give notable refuge to bigeye tuna, a species prized for sushi that has been heavily overfished. Both announcements came during the Our Ocean conference, organized by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington, D.C.

    “When President Kennedy set us on a course for the moon, … nobody ignored the science. … I don't remember anybody saying that the moon wasn't there or that it was made of cheese.”

    President Barack Obama, in a commencement speech on 14 June at the University of California, Irvine, disparaging climate change deniers.

    New Horizons borrows Hubble

    New Horizons is looking for a Kuiper belt object to study after flying past Pluto.


    New Horizons, NASA's mission to the outer solar system, has been given a large chunk of time on the Hubble Space Telescope to assist an increasingly desperate search for an icy object the spacecraft can study after it hurtles past Pluto in July 2015, NASA headquarters announced on 16 June. The mission team has been unable to find a suitable Kuiper belt object for follow-up study, despite dozens of nights of time on some of Earth's largest ground-based telescopes. It needs to identify one as soon as possible to plan orbital adjustments with the spacecraft's limited supply of fuel. The team hopes that Hubble's sharper vision—and the darker background sky, as seen from space—will improve their chances. Beginning this week, the mission team will get 40 orbits, or about 40 hours, of Hubble time from the discretionary budget of the director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, which operates the telescope.

    By the Numbers

    14 Percent of sites that had levels of organic chemicals high enough to kill laboratory test organisms, in the first large-scale risk assessment of European rivers and lakes, published online on 16 June in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    $25 million Funding, derived from the 2014 Farm Bill, offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for research to combat huanglongbing, also known as citrus greening disease.

    $150 million Cost for a trip to the moon with Space Adventures, a space tourism company offering rides aboard a Russian spacecraft to within 100 kilometers of the lunar surface.

    Jaws returns

    White sharks in the North Atlantic Ocean are making a comeback.


    Atlantic white sharks may be at the top of the food chain, but trophy fishing and by-catch decimated their numbers in the western North Atlantic Ocean by as much as 73% in the 1970s and 1980s. That led to major international protections, restricting, in some waters, finning or commercial harvesting—and a new database on shark sightings in the western North Atlantic Ocean suggests the measures are working. The study, which included 649 confirmed records of shark captures or sightings between 1800 and 2010, combined new records gathered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with previously published data. Since 1990, scientists found, the sharks' abundance is now “comparable to what it was in the 1930s and 1940s,” wrote authors in PLOS ONE last week, noting that this is “a more optimistic outlook for the recovery of this iconic predator.” While rebounds are also apparent in the southern Atlantic and Pacific oceans, preventing by-catch worldwide can help protect “the long-term sustainability of their populations,” the authors add. Some celebratory chum for shark fans: The biggest animal documented in the study was more than 5 meters long.

    Around the World


    Europe relents on data sharing

    Academics breathed a cautious sigh of relief when the European Medicines Agency announced on 12 June that it would expand controversial draft rules to open clinical trial data to scrutiny. The agency's previous draft policy for data sharing would have allowed researchers only to view data on their computer screens, which researchers and the European ombudsman slammed as too restrictive and impractical (Science, 23 May, p. 784). The agency now says it will let researchers “download, save and print the trial data for academic and noncommercial research purposes.” The final text should be adopted in mid-July, before the new rules are rolled out in October.

    Davis, California

    Bringing up baby's DNA


    A baby boy born earlier this month in California may mark a first in the world of genetics—the first healthy child whose genome was sequenced while still in utero. The baby's father, a biology graduate student at the University of California, Davis, and genetics blogger named Razib Khan, told MIT Technology Review that his son's DNA is “mostly pretty boring. So that is good.” Khan reportedly obtained his baby's DNA from placental cells, which share a fetus's DNA, garnered during chorionic villus sampling, a relatively common prenatal test typically used to help diagnose significant chromosomal problems. He believes he's not the only parent to parse his child's DNA before birth—just the only one to have gone public. “Hopefully this story will prompt these individuals to come out of the shadows,” he writes on his blog, “There's nothing to hide.”


    STAP scandal threatens center

    Shutting down the research center at the heart of an unfolding scientific scandal may be necessary to prevent further research misconduct, found a report released at a press conference on 13 June. In April, an investigative committee found that two papers in Nature by scientists at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology (CDB) in Kobe, Japan, were riddled with image and data manipulation and plagiarism. The papers outlined a surprisingly simple way of reprogramming mature cells into stem cells—called stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency, or STAP. Last week, another committee surmised that a drive at CDB to produce groundbreaking results led to publishing results prematurely. The committee blamed lead author Haruko Obokata of CDB and her senior co-authors for a lack of proper oversight—and even CDB, which it recommends undergo a complete overhaul.


    Europe still snubs GM crops

    The E.U. Environment Council met on 12 June.


    Angering both sides of a fractious debate, the European Union's member states agreed last week on a plan allowing individual countries to refuse to plant E.U.-sanctioned genetically modified (GM) crops. In 2010, the European Commission proposed letting individual member states ban a given crop, while the commission would still grant pan-European marketing approvals based on the European Food Safety Authority's scientific opinion. On 12 June, 26 of 28 member states agreed to this “cultivation proposal” as a compromise. Under the proposal, member states can opt out before or after cultivation approval is granted; after approval, they can ban a GM crop for national planning or socioeconomic reasons, for example. Europe's Council of Ministers must next agree on a joint version of the plan with the European Parliament before adopting the final text, possibly next year.


    Three Q's


    Earlier this month, scientists reported finding “plastiglomerates,” rocks made of plastic, on a Hawaiian beach. Some researchers speculate that humanmade objects could become part of the fossil record, defining a human-dominated period of Earth's history called the Anthropocene. Science chatted with paleontologist Jan Zalasiewicz of the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom about what humans are leaving behind.

    Q:What is a “technofossil”?

    A:Technofossils are basically all the things we manufacture. They can survive for thousands, millions, perhaps billions of years in rock strata.

    Q:What kinds of things could we expect to survive?

    A:Looking around, I'm struggling to see anything that is not fossilizable. Let's take my desk—it's been seasoned, dried out, and varnished. [My] computer, I see plastic, titanium, bits of rubber—if buried in the stratum—it will at least leave a nice oblong detail and impression.

    Q:What could future beings infer about us from these fossils?

    A:One thing will strike them: [All of these artifacts] will be crammed into a very small physical space. The stratum itself may not be much more than a few meters thick. It will probably appear instantaneous, and it will be very hard work to figure out … this hyperevolution of the technofossils within the human stratum.