News this Week

Science  26 Sep 2014:
Vol. 345, Issue 6204, pp. 1544
  1. This week's section

    People's climate march draws 400,000

    The climate marchers' causes ranged from indigenous rights to the Keystone XL Pipeline.


    Nearly 400,000 people joined the People's Climate March on 21 September in New York City, in what organizers called the largest climate demonstration in history. The march was organized by a coalition of more than 1500 organizations and spearheaded by the international environmental organization The name refers to the 350 parts per million concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere proposed as a “safe” upper bound to limit global warming by NASA scientist James Hansen and others in 2008. The march cast a wide net, drawing scientists, politicians, indigenous groups directly affected by changing climate, and numerous famous faces. Among the big names: former Vice President Al Gore, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, scientist Jane Goodall, actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Emma Thompson, and musician Sting. People bore posters calling for more clean energy, an end to deforestation, and stopping the Keystone XL Pipeline project. The event came 2 days before a U.N. climate summit and coincided with more than 2800 “solidarity” events in 166 countries, according to the organizers.

    “They wanted to impose a scheme of alarm, of psychological terrorism.”

    Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro in a speech broadcast on 17 September, about his ordered prosecution of doctors who spoke out about nine people who recently died from an unidentified infectious disease, possibly chikungunya.

    MAVEN makes it to Mars orbit

    The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission will explore the planet's atmosphere and ionosphere.


    Following a 10-month cruise, NASA's MAVEN spacecraft entered orbit around Mars on 21 September EDT. The spacecraft is the fourth orbiter in operation at Mars, along with NASA's Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the European Space Agency's Mars Express. India's Mars Orbiter Mission is supposed to enter orbit on 23 September EDT. MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) will measure the rate at which Mars is losing atmospheric gas molecules to space. Mars had a thicker atmosphere 4 billion years ago—one that could have helped keep temperatures high and the surface wet—and scientists want to understand how the planet's atmosphere became so thin. With its other Mars orbiters starting to show their age, NASA added a communications package to MAVEN, so that it could relay data from rover missions on the surface. MAVEN will just be finishing its system checks when the comet Siding Spring brushes past Mars on 19 October.

    Less nutritious tropical leaves

    Red colobus monkeys may soon have trouble getting enough protein.


    Even as scientists beef up the nutrient value of human foods, from iron-fortified cereals to vitamin A–enriched rice, the opposite is happening for leaf-eating monkeys. In the 1970s and 1990s, researchers analyzed the nutrient content of leaves in a Ugandan tropical rainforest that was a hotspot for primates. Jessica Rothman, a nutritional ecologist at Hunter College of the City University of New York, has now compared those results with her own analysis, sometimes using the same trees, of 10 species. Increasing temperatures and rainfall variability due to climate change have taken their toll. Over the past 30 years, the leaves' protein content has declined and fiber has increased, she and her colleagues report in an Ecology preprint. Monkeys prefer low-fiber, high-protein foliage. Based solely on the leaves in that rainforest, models that predict population growth indicated that leaf-eating primates there may decline by 31% in the coming years.

    By the numbers

    5 million—Minimum extent, in square kilometers, of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean this year, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. Measured on 17 September, it's the sixth lowest extent since 1979.

    30—Years left, at 2014 CO2 emissions rates, before we hit a quota of emissions that would warm the planet by more than 2°C compared with preindustrial times, according to Nature Geoscience and Nature Climate Change.

    29%—China's share of global CO2 emissions in 2013, surpassing the European Union for the first time, according to the Global Carbon Project.

    Around the world

    Idlib, Syria

    Deadly vaccine mix-up

    Human error appears to be to blame for the deaths of 15 children, all or most under age 2, during a measles immunization campaign in an opposition-held area of northern Syria last week. Up to 50 more children were sickened. Investigations are continuing, but at this point the cause looks like a “terrible, terrible mistake,” in which a strong muscle relaxant was administered along with the measles vaccine, says epidemiologist Chris Maher of the World Health Organization in Amman. He and others worry that the tragic incident and rumors that the vaccine was deliberatly spiked may derail immunization across Syria, which faces the threat of a large measles outbreak next spring.

    Washington, D.C.

    Prize to spot resistant germs

    The U.S. government is offering a new incentive in the fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria: a $20 million prize for a quick diagnostic test to recognize highly resistant infections. The prize is co-sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, and its guidelines will be refined after an upcoming public meeting. It is one in a slew of U.S. actions announced last week to signal greater attention to the threat of antibiotic-resistant microbes. The White House also released a national strategy setting goals to be achieved by 2020, and the president signed an executive order creating an advisory council of nongovernmental experts and an interagency task force co-chaired by the secretaries of the Health and Human Services, Defense, and Agriculture departments.

    Washington, D.C.

    NIH cleared of interference

    A federal watchdog office has dismissed allegations that in 2013 National Institutes of Health (NIH) officials improperly interfered with another federal office's oversight of a controversial NIH-funded study involving premature infants. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) inspector general (IG) found that NIH officials encouraged HHS's Office for Human Research Protections to revise a draft letter and reverse a decision sanctioning the University of Alabama, Birmingham, for not fully informing parents about study risks. But NIH's actions were acceptable because no law bars HHS officials from consulting with each other, the IG report found. The matter concerned the $20 million, 23-institution SUPPORT study, which from 2005 to 2009 studied the levels of oxygen that premature infants should receive.

    Sydney, Australia

    STIs on rise in Australia

    Public health experts in Australia are sounding alarms over a record number of new cases of syphilis and a dramatic rise in viral hepatitis deaths. Experts trace the spike in syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) to a decrease in condom use, particularly among men who have sex with men, and see the hepatitis death toll as the result of long-term trends in injecting drug use. The alarming numbers and underlying behaviors were examined in two reports on HIV, viral hepatitis, and STIs in Australia released 18 September by the Kirby Institute for Infection and Immunity in Society and the Centre for Social Research in Health, both at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. One bit of good news: Human papillomavirus infections have dropped dramatically since a vaccination program for high school students began in 2007.

    Okinawa, Japan

    Base bad news for dugong


    Land reclamation for a new U.S. Marine Corps air base may sound the death knell for the tiny population of Okinawa dugong, considered by Japan's environment ministry to be critically endangered. The base threatens two of the region's remaining major beds of seagrass, which dugong depend on, says the Nature Conservation Society of Japan (NACS-J), which has petitioned U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy for permission to conduct a survey. Worldwide, dugong populations have been decimated by hunting, habitat loss due to coastal development, and fishing by-catching. At most 10 of the marine mammals remain in Japan's southern most prefecture, according to NACS-J. The controversy over the new base is just the latest twist in a protracted dispute over the U.S. military presence on Okinawa.

    Miami, Florida

    Hurricane drones take flight

    Last week, as Hurricane Edouard churned out in the Atlantic Ocean, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) prepared to get an inside look. But NOAA's hurricane hunters, who have flown into the storms for decades, stayed home; this time, NOAA sent in the drones. During their hourlong flight through the hurricane's winds, four meter-long “Coyote” drones transmitted temperature, pressure, and wind data from below 900 meters—where manned aircraft cannot safely fly—back to NOAA's National Hurricane Center in Miami. One even orbited briefly around the hurricane's eyewall, the intense winds surrounding the eye, before falling into the ocean. A special appropriations bill related to Hurricane Sandy in 2012 funded the $1.25 million project to test the drones this year.

    Cambridge, Massachusetts

    Ig Nobels honor ‘Jesus toast’


    Seeing Jesus, Elvis, or any other face in the random light and dark spots on a piece of toast means you are “completely normal,” according to Kang Lee, a neuroscientist at the University of Toronto in Canada. For their work on the origins within the brain of pareidolia—the perception of nonexistent objects such as faces in a random signal—Lee and colleagues have earned a coveted 2014 Ig Nobel Prize, which celebrates research that “makes you laugh, and then makes you think.” The prizes, organized by the Annals of Improbable Research and handed out 18 September during a ceremony at Harvard University, include a (worthless) $10 trillion bill in Zimbabwean dollars. This year's winners included: a study of dogs' ability to detect Earth's magnetic field based on how they align with the field while pooping; a measurement of the friction between a shoe and a banana peel; and the modulation of the pain caused by a burning laser while viewing good or bad art.

    Washington, D.C.

    New road map for fusion

    U.S. fusion research should look beyond the ITER reactor project under construction in France and focus instead on a practical energy-generating machine, says a report released this week. The Department of Energy asked the fusion community to draw up a 10-year plan with, at best, modest budget growth. Their report says research should focus on controlling the superhot plasma and on its interface with the reactor material—key issues to generate commercial power. But existing reactors—including Massachusetts's C-Mod—face closure, and under the tightest budget forecast, the United States will likely cede leadership in most areas to overseas researchers.

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