News this Week

Science  03 Oct 2014:
Vol. 346, Issue 6205, pp. 14

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  1. This week's section

    Fatal eruption at Mount Ontake

    Smoke rises from the volcano, hours after its 27 September eruption.


    Japan's Mount Ontake erupted without warning on 27 September, catching hundreds of climbers by surprise at lunchtime. The explosion killed more than 30 hikers near the peak and blanketed the mountain with ash. The Japan Meteorological Agency recorded seismic activity beneath the mountain in September, including 85 tremors on 11 September alone. But there was no noticeable crustal deformation and the seismic activity died down, so the agency did not raise its alert above 1 on the 1-to-5 volcanic warning scale. Yasuyuki Miyake, professor of volcanology at Shinshu University in Matsumoto, says it was a phreatic eruption, driven by steam heated by magma deep underground. Unlike magma eruptions, typically presaged by crustal deformations, “phreatic eruptions occur unexpectedly and are very dif cult to predict,” he says.

    Even early on, beetle made itself at home among ants

    The fringe on the backs of modern myrmecophilous beetles secretes a substance that ants love.


    Ants don't usually welcome strangers into their nests. But myrmecophilous beetles are the exception, having evolved special brushes on their backs that secrete a substance that the ants adore. This love potion makes an ant treat this lifelong intruder like kin, even feeding it mouth to mouth. The beetles are quite specialized obligate social parasites (meaning they need the ants to survive), with a much reduced, nonsegmented abdomen and a head that's basically a straw. The relationship dates back at least 52 million years, report Joseph Parker of Columbia University and David Grimaldi of the American Museum of Natural History this week in Current Biology. They describe finding a fossil beetle trapped in amber from India that appears to be a missing link; it looks a lot like modern myrmecophilous beetles, suggesting the ant-beetle affair was in full swing well before ants became as plentiful as they are today. The fossil may represent the oldest known example of social parasitism.

    U.S. creates marine megareserve

    A Montipora coral attracts fish in Jarvis Island National Wildlife Refuge, 2100 kilometers southwest of Honolulu.


    President Barack Obama has moved forward with a plan to expand U.S. marine reserves in the remote central Pacific Ocean into a massive national monument. On 25 September, Obama signed a proclamation expanding the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument to about 1.27 million square kilometers, up from about 225,000 square kilometers. This past June, White House officials said they were considering banning fishing and imposing other protections in an even bigger area. But they pulled back, in part as a result of opposition from the relatively small U.S. tuna fleet, which takes up to 4% of its catch in the region. Still, marine conservation groups were pleased, calling the expansion a major step.

    16,000,000—The current number of documents indexed in academic search engine Google Scholar, give or take 10%, according to a study at arXiv.

    Around the world


    Sea change for Chinese academy

    A massive overhaul is in the offing for the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), China's biggest research institution. Calling research at CAS's 104 institutes “fragmented and inefficient,” academy President Bai Chunli has launched a structural reform that will merge some institutes in the name of producing more innovative and weighty results. One of the big winners is the National Space Science Center (NSSC), which will merge with two CAS divisions to form an Innovation Academy in Space Science, akin to a NASA research center, with staff expected to triple to 3000 by 2030, says NSSC Director General Wu Ji. Some researchers may view the reform “as a top-down effort that eventually will fall short of reaching its goal,” says Poo Mu-ming, director of CAS's Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai. He, however, calls it “inevitable and timely.”

    Aral Sea

    The vanishing lake

    Aral Sea in 2000 (left) and 2014.


    Now you see it … now you don't. To irrigate cotton fields in Central Asia, Soviet authorities in the early days of the Cold War diverted water from the two major tributaries of the Aral Sea, once the world's fourth largest lake. In 2005, Kazakhstan built a dam to save the small Northern Aral Sea; by then the Southern Aral had fissured into eastern and western lobes. Images from NASA's Terra satellite document the eastern lobe drying up completely this summer—due to a combination of decreasing precipitation, vanishing snowpack, and irrigation withdrawals—for the first time in modern history.

    Washington, D.C.

    New rules for risky studies

    Academic scientists with U.S. government funding who work with any of 15 dangerous microbes or toxins will soon have to flag specific studies that could potentially be used to cause harm and work with their institutions to reduce risks, according to new federal rules. The long-awaited final rules will require that scientists using the 15 agents in seven types of experiments that represent so-called dual use research of concern (DURC)—such as making an agent more transmissible or resistant to drugs—notify a special review committee within their institution. If this committee agrees the research is DURC, the institution must notify the funding agency and develop a risk mitigation plan. Some onlookers said that the rule lacks teeth and should cover more pathogens.

    Washington, D.C.

    Climate change led to heat waves

    Australia's record-setting heat wave in 2013 is directly linked to human-caused climate change, report five separate studies published this week in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. The five papers were part of a special issue of the journal, Explaining Extreme Events of 2013, which included 22 studies focusing on 16 different extreme weather events, including the California droughts and Colorado's extreme rains. But the studies found that any link between climate change and other extreme events, including droughts, floods, and storms, was murky. “[Attribution science] is hard, cutting-edge research,” said Stephanie Herring, the report's lead editor and a researcher at the U.S. National Climatic Data Center in Boulder, Colorado.

    Ames, Iowa

    New Ebola vaccine test stalled

    Researchers eager to test an Ebola vaccine are frustrated by what they call “needless” delays. “[We] could be doing something, but things are not moving forward,” virologist Stephan Becker of the University of Marburg in Germany told Science on 29 September. He is part of a consortium ready to conduct a safety trial of a candidate vaccine licensed to NewLink Genetics of Ames, Iowa. The vaccine—which contains an Ebola gene stitched into a livestock pathogen known as vesicular stomatitis virus—was developed by the Public Health Agency of Canada in Winnipeg. The company says issues including insurance and intellectual property concerns are slowing the process. Meanwhile, testing of other vaccines is moving ahead, and researchers and others met at the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, this week to discuss how to accelerate the process.


    UNESCO meeting under fire

    The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is potentially wading into hot water on 8 October when it hosts a meeting in Paris set up by Nobelist and HIV co-discoverer Luc Montagnier to discuss his controversial research on what has become known as “the memory of water.” The afternoon will feature talks about the theory—endorsed by Montagnier but widely ridiculed as pseudoscience—that water can carry information via an electromagnetic imprint from DNA and other molecules. John Crowley, head of UNESCO's Research, Policy and Foresight Section, says the agency doesn't endorse or oppose Montagnier's ideas but offers an “intellectual space” to discuss them, a “normal procedure” because Montagnier chairs a foundation associated with UNESCO and is housed at the agency's headquarters. Andy Lewis, who hosts the blog The Quackometer, says UNESCO is conferring credibility on the research, which some see as scientific support for homeopathy. Montagnier, however, says homeopathy is not on the meeting's agenda.

    Southern Indian Ocean

    Seabed mapped in MH370 search

    The search area in the Indian Ocean is a dramatic landscape of extinct seamounts and deep depressions.


    The ongoing hunt for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared on 8 March, has yet to locate any remnants of the plane. But it is producing a first look at some previously unknown seafloor features. A team from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), which is leading the search, has been using multibeam sonar to scan 60,000 square kilometers of the “priority” search area, a long narrow arc in the southern Indian Ocean. On 24 September, ATSB released the first detailed images, revealing features such as extinct submarine volcanoes 1.5 kilometers high and depressions 1400 meters deep. When the mapping is complete, the searchers plan to deploy deep-sea vehicles to look for wreckage.

    Laurel, Maryland

    Plasma's role in deadly battle

    In 2002, during the War in Afghanistan, a U.S. Chinook helicopter was accidentally ordered to land atop snowy Takur Ghar mountain, which was controlled by heavily armed al-Qaida forces. Satellite radio operators tried to warn the pilots of the danger, but the message never got through. Now, researchers from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory say that “plasma bubbles” may have contributed to the communications blackout. The bubbles occur in the ionosphere when ionized gas, or plasma, at lower altitudes loses density and rises through heavier plasma above. That turbulence can cause radio waves to refract, leading to signal loss. Using UV imaging data from a NASA satellite, the scientists reconstructed the ionosphere above the battlefield and confirmed the presence of a bubble, they reported online last month in Space Weather.


    Getting to Mars, without stress


    India on 23 September became the first nation to reach Mars on its first try, putting its $70 million Mars Orbiter (called Mangalyaan in Hindi) into orbit ( Avionics engineer K. Radhakrishnan, 65, chair of the Indian Space Research Organisation, discussed the feat and what's next.

    Q:How challenging was it to develop Mangalyaan?

    A:Time was of the essence. We had to schedule [the launch] for November 2013, and we started with a feasibility study in August 2010. So in less than 2 years we needed to realize a spacecraft worthy of flying to Mars, going through all the tests and simulations.

    Q:What's next?

    A:We could look for another good scientific mission. We also have Chandrayaan-2, which is going to be a [moon] lander and rover [scheduled for launch in 2016 or 2017]. There will be instruments on both for making in situ observations.

    Q:You are an engineer, but you also sing and practice Kathakali, a stylized dance. How do you find time?

    A:Half an hour in a day is not [a lot] for doing something that will relax you, take all your stresses out.