News this Week

Science  08 Aug 2014:
Vol. 345, Issue 6197, pp. 604

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  1. This week's section

    Mexican porpoise nears extinction

    A vaquita caught in fishing nets in Baja California, Mexico.


    The critically endangered vaquita, a species of porpoise (Phocoena sinus) found only in Mexico's Gulf of California, is fast approaching extinction, an international team of scientists concluded this week. The researchers recommend that all gillnet fishing in the animal's range be banned, starting in September 2014. A mere 97 P. sinus are believed to survive, about half of 2012's estimated population, reports the team, which was established by the government of Mexico. Just 25 are thought to be reproductively mature females. The vaquitas, whose popular name translates as “little cow,” are dying at an accelerated rate because of a surge in the illegal gillnet fishery for the totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi), a critically endangered fish. Totoaba swim bladders are highly prized as a traditional health food in China; a single bladder can command thousands of dollars. One in five vaquitas are drowning each year in the nets, the scientists report; the population is declining at a rate of 18.5% each year. A presidential commission will meet in August to discuss the possible ban.

    “I am firmly of the belief it is not simply a moral issue but that we as a nation can get a strategic advantage from this—something that will be good for the economy.”

    Norman Baker, U.K. government minister in charge of regulating animal experiments, to BBC News on his support for an eventual ban on animal testing.

    Spelunking for Pleistocene fossils

    Scientists descended into Natural Trap Cave last week.


    An international team of scientists last week rappelled 26 meters into a cave containing wolf, lion, camel, bison, and other animal fossils dating back to the end of the Pleistocene, about 11,600 years ago. It was the first time in 30 years that scientists had entered Natural Trap Cave, a sinkhole in Wyoming's Bighorn Mountains. “Getting the whole team in and out of the cave each day has been a bit time-consuming on the ropes,” says team member Alan Cooper of the University of Adelaide in Australia (which has video footage of the cave and excavations at its blog, So far, the researchers have collected long bones and teeth for DNA analysis and radiocarbon dating to shed light on extinctions at the end of the Pleistocene Ice Age and on the evolutionary history of “enigmatic” species such as the American camel and lion and a cheetahlike American cat. Larger expeditions are planned for 2015 and 2016.

    By the numbers

    70%—Likelihood that a World Cup soccer goalkeeper will dive right for a fourth ball after three balls kicked left (or vice versa)—a classic gambler's fallacy, according to a Current Biology study.

    12–15%—Amount of staff that biopharmaceutical giant Amgen plans to lay off by the end of 2015.

    300%—Increase of the level of mercury in some surface ocean waters due to human activities, finds a study in Nature.

    Venezuela's first dinosaur

    The new dino's teeth were perfect for chomping bugs.


    Dubbed Laquintasaura venezuelae after the La Quinta Formation of the Venezuelan Andes mountains in which it was found, the country's first known dinosaur lived 200 million years ago, was the size of a small dog, and dined on plants and possibly insects, scientists reported online this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. L. venezuelae is interesting because it's an early ornithischian, a group that includes later horned critters such as Triceratops and Stegosaurus; very few early ornithischians are known, so the new Venezuelan species may provide important clues about early dino evolution, the scientists say. Furthermore, the sighting of an early, well-dated ornithischian near the equator contradicts hypotheses that ornithischians could not have lived in warm, tropical climates. Finally, at least four Laquintasaura individuals were found together, suggesting that ornithischian dinos lived in “herds,” a kind of social behavior not previously seen so early in the fossil record.

    Around the world

    Washington, D.C.

    DOE to make papers free

    The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) this week unveiled its answer to a 2013 White House mandate to make the research papers the agency funds free for anyone to read: a Web portal called PAGES that will link to full-text papers within 12 months after they're published in a peer-reviewed journal. That will eventually mean free access to 20,000 to 30,000 papers a year on energy research, physics, and other scientific topics. The papers will not reside in a central DOE database, but on institutional repositories and journal publishers' websites. Open-access advocates complain that linking to papers on journal sites will limit what people can do with the material. Researchers must submit links for their papers for DOE funding awarded after 1 October.

    Batavia, Illinois

    Journey's end for giant magnet

    The Muon g–2 ring moved in on 30 July.


    Thirteen months after traveling 5000 kilometers by land, sea, and river, the Muon g–2 storage ring is in its new home at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois. As part of Muon g–2's relocation from Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, the 15-meter-wide ring—which produces an exceptionally uniform magnetic field—was sent on an epic monthlong journey by truck and barge across shuttered roadways, around the eastern U.S. coast, and up three rivers until it arrived at Fermilab last year (Science, 14 June 2013, p. 1277). The ring slid into place on 30 July, slipping through a hole in the side of a newly completed building—a process Muon g–2 Project Manager Chris Polly compared to inserting a giant CD into a CD player. The team hopes to have the ring cooled to superconducting temperatures in 6 months and plans to start taking data by March 2017.

    Washington, D.C.

    U.S.-Russia science gets chillier

    Due to tensions over the unrest in Ukraine, science ties between Russia and the United States are fraying. NASA and the Department of Energy have said that they would block most government travel by their scientists to Russia. As a result, some U.S. scientists waiting for permission to attend the International Atomic Energy Agency's conference on fusion in St. Petersburg in October remain in limbo, while Russian-born plenary speaker Eugene Koonin of the National Center for Biotechnology Information in Bethesda, Maryland, has pulled out of an international meeting on extremophiles next month in St. Petersburg, citing “various reasons … some of them personal.” Meanwhile, a U.S. and Russian nuclear science collaboration featuring reciprocal visits to atomic sites is on ice, The New York Times reported 3 August.


    100,000 Genomes gets boost

    Britain's giant sequencing endeavor, the 100,000 Genomes Project, is getting £300 million from public and private sources to meet its 2017 deadline, Prime Minister David Cameron announced 1 August. The project, launched in 2012 and run by state-owned Genomics England, aims to sequence 100,000 whole genomes of National Health Service (NHS) patients. The goal is to match genomic and clinical data to develop personalized therapies for cancer and rare diseases. A pilot effort has sequenced a few hundred genomes; the new funding will allow the project to sequence about 10,000 samples next year and 100,000 by the end of 2017. Most of the money comes from U.S.-based DNA sequencing machine manufacturer Illumina, with contributions from the Wellcome Trust, NHS, and the state-funded Medical Research Council.


    Neurosciences chief steps down

    The chief mover and shaker for neuroscience at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is retiring. Neurobiologist Story Landis has spent 19 years at the $1.5 billion National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes (NINDS), becoming its director in 2003 after 8 years as scientific director. She helped develop NIH programs for young investigators, coordinated neuroscience research across NIH, served as point person for stem cell research, and steered an effort to improve reproducibility of preclinical studies. Since last year, she has co-led NIH's role in the federal brain-mapping project known as the BRAIN Initiative. NIH Director Francis Collins called Landis “one of the true giants at the NIH.” Landis, 69, plans to join her husband in Maine at the end of September. NINDS Deputy Director Walter Koroshetz will serve as acting NINDS director.

    Cell biologist commits suicide

    Sasai fielded questions about the STAP cell papers in April.


    Yoshiki Sasai, a noted stem cell scientist at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology (CDB) in Kobe, Japan, who co-authored two controversial and later retracted papers that reported a simple way of reprogramming mature cells, committed suicide this week. Local media reported he was found hanging from a stairway railing in the RIKEN complex in Kobe. Sasai, 52, was a corresponding author on one paper and a co-author of another that together reported a new phenomenon the researchers called stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP). The papers, by lead author Haruko Obokata, also of RIKEN CDB, appeared online in Nature on 29 January. Nature retracted the papers on 2 July, citing duplicated and mixed-up images, mislabeling, faulty descriptions, and other discrepancies. A prolific developmental biologist, Sasai had risen to be deputy director of the center and was considered a contender to become its director.