News this Week

Science  07 Nov 2014:
Vol. 346, Issue 6210, pp. 680

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  1. This week's section

    One penis, or two?

    In the last spiral of an embryonic python, paired penises are forming.


    Ever wonder why men have one penis while snakes have two? The genetic instructions specifying the organ's development are essentially the same in reptiles and mammals. So to understand the differences, Harvard University developmental biologist Patrick Tschopp and colleagues traced penis development in mouse and snake embryos. Signals from the cloaca, a cavity destined to become the lower gut, initiate penis formation in both animals—but in snakes, the penis arises from what would have been the beginnings of the rear legs, whereas in mice, cells destined to become the tail take on that task, the team reported this week in Nature. As in real estate, location is everything: The rodent cloaca is by the solo tail-to-be and taps some of those cells for the penis—while the snake cloaca is by where two limbs used to form, so it gets two penises instead of just one. Thus, penis formation is an example of “deep homology”: Instead of a common cellular ancestry, the same organ in different species has a common molecular ancestry.

    Experiments lost in rocket explosion

    An unmanned rocket bound for the ISS exploded shortly after its launch 28 October.


    Six seconds after liftoff, on 28 October an unmanned Antares rocket commissioned by NASA and bound for the International Space Station (ISS) exploded just over the launch pad at Wallops Island, Virginia. The explosion of the rocket, built by Orbital Sciences Corp., incinerated numerous scientific experiments on board as well as 748 kg of supplies for the six astronauts on the ISS. Among the losses were 18 experiments by students from across the United States and Canada; a high-resolution camera developed by the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, to observe the chemical composition of meteors entering Earth's atmosphere; and an experiment to test materials for their suitability as solar sails, which use radiation pressures from stars to propel spacecraft without burning fuel.

    The trees and the tornado: Winner of ‘Dance Your Ph.D.’

    Plant biologist Uma Nagendra's aerial dance was the overall winner.


    A circus extravaganza by plant biologist-cum-aerialist Uma Nagendra depicting plant-soil interactions in the aftermath of a tornado is the overall winner of this year's “Dance Your Ph.D.” contest, co-sponsored by Science. Nagendra, a Ph.D. student at the University of Georgia, Athens, demonstrates how tornadoes' destruction can offer tree seedlings a respite from parasitic soil fungi. Nagendra, also the biology category winner, will receive $1000 and a trip to Stanford University in May 2015, where her video will be screened. The three other category winners, each of whom will receive $500, include: Hans Rinderknecht of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, who explained how he uses light to trigger nuclear fusion; Saioa Alvarez of the University of the Basque Country in Leioa, Spain, for her dance explaining the chemistry of emulsions like mayonnaise; and David Manzano Cosano of the Complutense University of Madrid, who danced about the history of technology and colonialism in the Pacific.

    “Africa has … become powerless, confused, disoriented, and totally helpless, resorting to international aid, begging for everything.”

    Nigerian Academy of Science President Oyewale Tomori, criticizing Africa's response to Ebola at an emerging diseases meeting in Vienna last week.

    By the numbers

    $193 billion—China's record-high research and development expenditures in 2013, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, the Ministry of Science and Technology, and the Ministry of Finance.

    Around the world

    New Orleans, Louisiana

    Ebola fears hamper U.S. meetings

    Fears of the Ebola virus are barring researchers from two scientific meetings in New Orleans. Several scientists—including representatives of the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—had to cancel their trip to the annual meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene this week after the state of Louisiana barred attendees who had treated Ebola patients or been in Guinea, Sierra Leone, or Liberia in the previous 3 weeks. The same rules will affect the annual convention of the American Public Health Association (APHA), held in New Orleans from 15 to 19 November, says APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin. Meanwhile, two infectious diseases meetings in Europe went ahead as planned this week because no Ebola travel restrictions applied in their host cities, Vienna and Stockholm.,


    Germans boost research funding

    After months of deadlock, German politicians agreed on 30 October to a €25.3 billion ($31.6 billion) funding package for universities and research institutes through 2020. The bulk of the new money, €19.3 billion, will go to universities. Nonuniversity research organizations like the DFG funding agency, the Max Planck Society, and the Leibniz Association will receive 3% annual budget increases from 2016 through 2020, down from recent 5% yearly increases. Funding for overhead costs—a long-simmering issue—will rise from 20% to 22%. The country's Excellence Initiative, a competition between universities for extra funding, will also continue, though details won't be worked out until after an evaluation of the program is finished in early 2016.


    Badges clarify co-authors' roles


    A collection of science, publishing, and software groups is developing a solution to the problem of how to identify the contributions of each of a paper's authors: digital “badges”—such as “computation,” “investigation,” and “data visualization”—that detail what each author did for the work. Authors can link the badges to their profiles elsewhere on the Web. The collaboration, which includes BioMed Central, the Public Library of Science, Mozilla Science Lab, and ORCID (an effort to assign researchers digital identifiers), presented the project at the Mozilla Festival in London late last month. Early prototypes are scheduled to launch next year, according to Amye Kenall, journal development manager of open data initiatives and journals at BioMed Central.


    Science's memory deepens

    Today's scientists are standing on the shoulders of giants, relying on the work of their predecessors—to whom they give a nod by citing their papers. But is the work of those predecessors becoming obsolete, as scientists choose to cite more recent work? In a paper posted on arXiv, the team behind Google Scholar weighed in this week with a study of their own massive data set. The team analyzed papers published between 1990 and 2013 and compared the publication dates of citations listed in them. The results should give older scientists reason to cheer: The fraction of citations that are at least 10 years older than the paper citing them has increased steadily, from 28% in 1990 to 36% in 2013, the team reports.


    Climate report sounds alarm

    Climate change is taking hold and will bring worrying impacts—but there is still time to limit the damage. That is the message delivered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC's) Synthesis Report, released this week, which caps work on three massive studies issued by IPCC over the past year, comprising the group's fifth assessment of climate science and mitigation since 1990. “The core message from the IPCC is the growing urgency of action,” said Bob Perciasepe, president of the Arlington, Virginia–based Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, in a statement. “The scientists have done their job. Now it's up to governments to do theirs.”

    Sydney, Australia

    New research chief touts dowsing

    Larry Marshall, the next CEO of Australia's leading research agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), is in hot water after suggesting in a recent radio interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) that CSIRO investigate water divining, or dowsing. Although it is “a little out there,” he told ABC, it's the agency's job to “push the envelope.” CSIRO scientists are keeping their heads down in the wake of a 5.45% (AU$111.4 million) budget cut that will see up to 420 jobs eliminated by June 2015, along with the closure of eight research facilities. But experts outside the agency decried the interest in dowsing expressed by a Silicon Valley venture capitalist with a doctorate in physics. “I'm appalled,” says John Williams of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and former chief of CSIRO Land and Water.

    Queensland, Australia

    Vaccine may slow koalas' decline

    Koala populations are being decimated by a chlamydia epidemic.


    Help may be on the way for koalas, whose numbers have declined from millions in the 1700s to as few as 43,000 today. In addition to urbanization, which has decimated the eucalyptus forest koalas live in, and deaths due to cars and dogs, a chlamydia epidemic is ravaging the marsupial's populations, causing blindness, infertility, and death. But last week, microbiologists at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia, announced that a vaccine helps stem the course of disease. Peter Timms and his colleagues examined and put radio collars on 60 koalas, vaccinating half of them. Of that half, uninfected koalas were protected, koalas already infected did not get sicker, and their eye infections improved, they said. They hope to get more funding to extend the vaccination program.


    Petition for jailed student


    An open letter signed by 31 Nobel laureates that calls for the release of jailed Iranian physics Ph.D. student Omid Kokabee was delivered to the Iranian mission to the United Nations last week, along with earlier petitions signed by more than 14,000 people. Kokabee, 32, has been in prison since January 2011 ( He was studying the interaction of lasers and plasma at the University of Texas, Austin, when he was arrested and was later condemned to 10 years for espionage. In April 2013, Kokabee claimed in an open letter that he was jailed for refusing to cooperate with a military research project. In early October, Iran's supreme court accepted Kokabee's lawyer's appeal and ordered a retrial. Kokabee was also awarded the AAAS Scientific Freedom and Responsibility prize last week. (AAAS publishes Science.)

    Italian physicist to lead CERN

    Fabiola Gianotti will be the next director-general of CERN, the European particle physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, which is home to the world's biggest atom smasher, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). A staff member at CERN, Gianotti, 52, served from March 2009 to February 2013 as spokeswoman for the 3000 researchers working with ATLAS, one of four gargantuan particle detectors fed by the LHC. In that position, she participated in the biggest event in particle physics in decades: On 4 July 2012, she and the representative for rival detector CMS reported that the two teams had independently discovered the long-sought Higgs boson. Gianotti will take over from Rolf-Dieter Heuer on 1 January 2016.