News this Week

Science  05 Sep 2014:
Vol. 345, Issue 6201, pp. 1102
  1. This week's section

    Furry pollinator wins photo contest

    The rock mouse and the pagoda lily are pollination partners.


    With this picture, ecologist Petra Wester from Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf in Germany documents for the first time that the Namaqua rock mouse (Aethomys namaquensis) pollinates the pagoda lily (Whiteheadia bifolia) in South Africa, solving a long-standing mystery. The lily's low-hanging bowl-shaped flowers, stif stamens, easily accessible nectar, and weak nutty scent hinted that a rodent might be its pollinating partner. Wester found that as the mouse leans in to lick the nectar, the stamens transfer pollen to its nose. The image earned Wester $400 and first place in the BMC Ecology photo contest, a competition set up in 2012 by the journal to reward researchers who best capture ecological interactions. The journal's editorial board and a guest judge, Caspar Henderson, author of Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary, picked Wester's shot from among 313 entries. It was taken at night, after many days and nights of watching the flowers to determine how they were pollinated. In addition to a runner-up—an albatross feeding her chick—five other photographs were selected as the best in their subfields.

    “The story follows a brilliant bioethicist who is called in at crisis moments to solve the most complicated, dynamic and confounding medical issues imaginable.”

    Variety's synopsis of a TV pilot commissioned by CBS based on well-known bioethicist Arthur Caplan.

    By the numbers

    53—Cases of Ebola, including 31 deaths, confirmed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo by the World Health Organization as of 2 September, in an outbreak unrelated to the West African strain.

    7.3—Distance, in light-years, from Earth of detected water clouds around a brown dwarf—the first sighting beyond our solar system.

    45—Minutes during which mayfly larvae must hold their breath while molting, according to a new study in Freshwater Science, which suggests molting stresses may increase with rising temperatures.

    What makes these stones slither?


    Scientists think they have solved the mystery of the “slithering stones” in Death Valley, California. Hundreds of these boulders sporadically manage to slide across the surface of the desert lakebed Racetrack Playa, leaving behind zigzag trails. The phenomenon has never been observed, although scientists have proposed many explanations, from hurricane-force winds to floating ice sheets. In 2011, researchers installed a weather station and time-lapse cameras near the playa, and placed 15 GPS-embedded limestone rocks in the lakebed. But for 2 years the stones didn't budge an inch. Then in November 2013, rain created a shallow pond, which froze on cold desert nights. In daylight, the surface ice broke up into floating windowpane-thin sheets that, nudged by the light breezes, could push more than 60 rocks at a time. The analysis appeared on 27 August in PLOS ONE.

    Neandertal artistry?


    One of the biggest debates in archaeology is whether Neandertals were capable of the kind of abstract and symbolic expression that prehistoric modern humans demonstrated in their cave wall paintings. Possible evidence for Neandertal art—a 41,000-year-old red disk on the wall of the Spanish cave of El Castillo—was reported a couple of years ago, but could have been painted by modern humans who entered Europe around that time. Now, archaeologists working at Gorham's Cave, a former Neandertal haunt on the coast of Gibraltar, have found a cross-hatched pattern etched into the hard rock floor. The deep incision lay under archaeological layers dating back at least 39,000 years—but containing stone tools that only Neandertals made, they report this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Whether such simple patterns are good evidence for complex symbolic expression is still under debate.

    Around the world


    Japan's science-friendly budget

    Japan's ministry of education showed strong support for research in its proposed budget for the next fiscal year, announced last week. It asked for an 18% increase, to $11.1 billion, for science and technology spending. This includes a 53% increase, to $494 million, for programs to turn lab discoveries into new products and industries. It also bolsters grants-in-aid for small groups at universities and research centers, with a 5.8% increase to $2.4 billion. Big science facilities, including the SPring-8 synchrotron and the Japan Proton Accelerator Research Complex, would also enjoy budget increases. Government-wide S&T spending won't be known until officials gather the requests from the various ministries. The budget will be finalized and submitted to the legislature in December and take effect 1 April.

    Shanghai, China

    The PandaX dark matter detector.


    Dark matter hunters catching up

    At a 24 August press conference, physicists in China announced the latest result in the search for particles of dark matter, the mysterious stuff whose gravity binds the galaxies. Researchers with a subterranean detector called PandaX spotted no such particles floating about. That isn't surprising because the larger, more sensitive LUX detector in South Dakota hasn't seen anything either. However, PandaX is designed so that researchers can quickly quadruple its mass, giving them “a window of about a year” to try to leapfrog LUX in sensitivity before an even bigger detector called XENON1T comes on line in Italy, says PandaX spokesman Xiangdong Ji of Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Richard Gaitskell, a LUX collaborator from Brown University, calls the new result “very credible.”

    Washington, D.C.

    U.S. begins biosafety review

    Declaring September “National Biosafety Stewardship Month,” the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is conducting a “safety stand-down” to ensure that its researchers are properly tracking and handling all infectious agents. White House science officials have asked all relevant federally funded labs to do likewise, and NIH wants its grantee institutions to participate as well. The request follows three recent mishaps at federal labs involving anthrax, smallpox, and H5N1 bird flu (see p. 1112).

    San Francisco, California

    Ruling in skeleton dispute

    Three scientists have lost their bid to prevent burial of two 9000-year-old human skeletons claimed by the Kumeyaay people of southern California. The remains, discovered beneath the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), chancellor's residence, could provide data on the origins of people in the New World. But the tribe considers the skeletons to be the remains of their ancestors rather than scientific specimens (Science, 8 October 2010, p. 166). The three university professors filed suit against UCSD in 2012 after it agreed to return them, arguing that the remains predate the arrival of the Kumeyaay tribe to the area. Last week, a federal circuit court upheld an earlier decision ruling against the professors on procedural grounds. They are now considering an appeal.

    Silver Spring, Maryland

    Twenty coral species protected

    Pillar coral (Dendrogyra cylindricus)


    Ocean acidification, warming waters, and disease are stalking 20 species of Caribbean and Pacific corals, prompting the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to seek protection for them under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Last week, NOAA added the 20 species to two already on the list of threatened organisms. (None hold the more restrictive “endangered” status.) “I don't think we can make any decision anymore about ESA listings without taking into account the reality that the planet is warming, that the ocean is changing, and will continue to change,” says the agency's Russell Brainard. NOAA's decision completes action on a 2009 request to list 83 coral species under the act.

    Bethesda, Maryland

    Ebola vaccines fast-tracked

    The spreading Ebola epidemic in West Africa has amplified calls for a vaccine and a treatment. Last week saw progress on both fronts. The U.S. National Institutes of Health announced on 28 August that it was fast-tracking clinical studies of an Ebola vaccine developed in collaboration with GlaxoSmithKline. Several countries will soon launch small-scale studies of the genetically engineered vaccine to assess safety and immune responses. Separately, a group led by scientists from the Public Health Agency of Canada reported that a cocktail of antibodies called ZMapp rescued 100% of 18 monkeys initially infected with high doses of Ebola and treated up to 5 days later. (See p. 1108 for more Ebola coverage.)

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