News this Week

Science  04 Jul 2014:
Vol. 345, Issue 6192, pp. 10
  1. This Week's Section

    Random Sample

    Feathers that didn't fly

    Archaeopteryx's feathers may have evolved for mating, not flight.


    To fly, modern birds now need a particular type of feather, with a thick stalk and a blade on either side. But researchers examining a new Archaeopteryx fossil think these “pennaceous,” or quill-like, feathers may have had other functions first, such as insulation or mating display. The fossil is an unusually complete specimen of the primitive bird, showing the quill-like feathers all over its body—not just on the wings and tail, but also on the body and legs. That body plumage would not have been aerodynamic, the team noted this week in Nature. Furthermore, fossils from other feathered dinosaurs and early birds show wildly varying distributions of pennaceous feathers—variations that make no sense if the feathers evolved to aid flight, the team concluded. “Aerial locomotion places fairly tight constraints on an animal; if there's one fault in your design, you're dead,” says paleontologist Oliver Rauhut of the Bavarian State Collection for Palaeontology and Geology in Munich, Germany. Instead, pennaceous feathers may have been later recruited for flying, once the creatures took to the skies.

    “ ‘Genetically modified’ sounds Frankensteinish. ‘Drought resistant’ sounds really [like] something you want.”

    Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, describing how genetically modified foods could have better spin, at the Biotechnology Industry Organization meeting in San Diego, California, on 25 June.

    Hippos: The Web's newest stars

    MpalaLive! keeps an eye on hippos and other Kenyan wildlife.


    Want to wake up to the sounds of the African savannah—the snorts of hippos, the squawks of vervet monkeys? Starting last week, the Mpala Research Centre and Wildlife Foundation in central Kenya began live-streaming the antics of African wildlife via a website ( that includes video feeds from a riverbank popular with hippos, as well as with elephants, zebra, and antelope. The view is of “our principle work site,” says Douglas McCauley, an ecologist from the University of California, Santa Barbara. “It's spectacular to share our site with millions of people.” Inspired by a 3-year project to study hippos' role in the ecosystem, the website is supported by $500,000 from the Annenberg Foundation/ and includes an illustrated field guide to 88 local animals, interviews with researchers, and lesson plans for teachers. The researchers hope to harness citizen scientists to help record the hippos' behavior.

    By the Numbers

    100 million People that could be fed by growing crops on “land-grabbed” areas, regions in developing countries that have improved infrastructure due to foreign investment, according to a study in Environmental Research Letters.

    4 million Number of distinct viral proteins in nature, according to viral ecologist Matthew Sullivan, speaking at the American Society for Virology meeting in Fort Collins, Colorado.

    19% Projected decline in Antarctica's population of emperor penguins by 2100, according to a Nature Climate Change study. The penguin colonies are threatened by shifting sea ice cover due to climate change.

    Scientists protest job cuts

    Australian scientists react to pending job cuts.


    Nearly 1000 scientists across Australia grabbed placards last week to protest pending job losses at the nation's leading research organization, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). “Scientists are not known for rushing to the barricades,” says Anthony Keenan of the CSIRO Staff Association, who adds that although staff members are concerned about job cuts at CSIRO, they are “dismayed” at the government's short-sighted approach to science. Job cuts at CSIRO are the direct result of the government's decision in May to slash AU$115 million, or 16%, from the organization's budget over 4 years. The conservative government, elected last September, has also chosen not to appoint a science minister, the first time since the portfolio was created in 1931. After speaking at a protest in Canberra, former science minister and opposition Labor Senator Kim Carr blasted the government with this tweet: “No Science Minister, no policy, no idea.”

    Around the World


    Antibiotics to be focus of prize

    The public has spoken: The 2014 Longitude Prize, a new £10 million British award aimed at stimulating innovation, will go to whomever can “create a cost-effective, accurate, rapid, and easy-to-use test for bacterial infections that will allow health professionals worldwide to administer the right antibiotics at the right time,” the prize's website states. The challenge was selected by the British public in a vote from six candidate themes (including dementia, paralysis, water, food, and flight) and was announced 25 June. The prize is a modern version of the £20,000 Longitude Prize, offered by the British government in 1714 for a method to determine a ship's longitude at sea. Money for the 2014 version comes from the innovation charity Nesta and the government-funded Technology Strategy Board. Nesta and the Longitude Committee will now finalize the criteria for awarding the money; entries are welcome starting this fall.


    Europe to launch x-ray telescope



    The European Space Agency (ESA) announced 27 June that its next large space science mission will be the Advanced Telescope for High Energy Astrophysics (Athena), an instrument that will scan the universe for x-ray emissions from massive black holes and other celestial objects. Athena is scheduled for launch in 2028 and would be the largest x-ray space telescope ever built. “Athena will revolutionize our view of black holes and cosmic structures filled with million degree gas. We really need this to build a holistic picture of the observable Universe,” said Kirpal Nandra, director of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany, and lead investigator of the Athena proposal, in a statement. The Athena team must now draw up a detailed design and budget before ESA gives the final go-ahead for construction, planned to begin in 2019.

    Washington, D.C.

    ‘Secret Science’ bill advances

    EPA has taken heat over data used in its air pollution regulations.


    Republicans say it's just good government. Democrats say it would undermine good government. Last week, the science committee for the U.S. House of Representatives voted along straight party lines to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from taking any action unless its rule or policy is based on scientific data that are “publicly available” and capable of “substantial reproduction.” Dozens of scientific and public health organizations say the wording is ambiguous and a recipe for inaction. But its sponsor, Representative David Schweikert (R–AZ), says the Secret Science Reform Act (H.R. 4012) simply guarantees that “public data is used to make public policy.” It's not clear if the full House will take up the bill, and there's no counterpart in the Senate.

    Washington, D.C. and London

    Sugar debate heats up


    Efforts to convince American and British consumers to eat healthier foods are, predictably, generating debate. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last week held a public meeting to discuss changes proposed in February to its Nutrition Facts label, which summarizes the contents of food and beverages. Since FDA last overhauled its food label in 1993, obesity rates, eating patterns, and understanding of various nutrients have changed substantially. FDA has so far received more than 4000 comments on its draft proposal. U.K. officials, meanwhile, want to recommend limits on how much added sugar consumers should ingest. The United Kingdom's Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition released a report last week suggesting that “free sugar”—which includes added sugars and some naturally present sugars—make up on average 5% of the country's energy intake.


    No quick fix for U.K. science ed

    There's a good reason that the Royal Society calls its new report on improving U.K. science and mathematics education a “vision” for 2030: There's no quick fix for a system that it says leaves most U.K. students without the necessary skills to be productive global citizens. Its wish list includes more math and science for upper-level students, more teachers from the ranks of college graduates with science degrees, continued upgrading of the skills of current teachers, and a smaller role for high-stakes tests in assessing a student's progress. “Education is a political football,” says co-author Julia Higgins, a professor emeritus of chemical engineering at Imperial College London. She hopes the report will convince policymakers “to relinquish some of their meddling powers … [and] get the political parties to stop batting the thing back and forth.”


    Three Q's


    Ten months after a chemical attack in Ghouta, Syria, the last 8% of Syria's known chemical arsenal left the country on 23 June. The shipment was a victory for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). But more needs to be done to make the world free of chemical weapons, says OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü.

    Q:How close are we to disarmament in Syria?

    A:All declared chemical weapons are outside of the country. If there are still some other assets related to chemical weapons in Syria, we don't know. … We are raising some questions about their declaration. [Then] I think we'll be able to say more confidently that the chemical weapons programs are totally eliminated.

    Q:Only six countries have not joined the Chemical Weapons Convention. What happens when they do?

    A:That will be an important achievement, but prevention of use of toxic substances will continue to be important, through the implementation of our convention but also through national measures.

    Q:How can scientists help?

    A:Apart from our scientific advisory board … we want to reach out … to young generations, scientific communities, academia, to raise awareness. In many countries the penal code includes references to our convention and [misguided researchers] would have to be punished. Therefore, they have also to be aware of their obligations.

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