News this Week

Science  14 Nov 2014:
Vol. 346, Issue 6211, pp. 792

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  1. This week's section

    A pregnant mare and fetus, fossilized

    The fossilized remains of a pregnant mare and fetus (white circle) offer a glimpse into the reproduction of E. messelensis.


    Forty-seven million years ago, a pregnant mare and its unborn foal lost their lives—perhaps chased into a lake, where they drowned. The fossilized remains of the pair, from the early horse species Eurohippus messelensis, were discovered in the Messel Pit, a former coal and oil shale mine near Frankfurt, Germany, that is famous for its exquisitely preserved fossils. Like other early horses, the mare was small, about the size of a fox terrier, says Jens Franzen, a paleontologist at the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum in Frankfurt, who presented the fossil last week at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology annual meeting in Berlin. Not only were most of the bones of the mare and her fetus intact, but scientists can also detect the placenta, which was not fossilized directly: It is visible as a dark shadow left by bacteria that consumed the tissue and were then fossilized. The position of the foal suggests that it was close to mature, and suggests that ancient horses gave birth in a similar way to their modern cousins.

    Craving human blood is in mosquito's DNA

    Adult mosquito emerges from its watery nursery.


    Researchers have isolated a gene in the mosquito Aedes aegypti that helps explain why the species has such a yen for human blood. A. aegypti, which transmits dengue and other viruses to humans, can interbreed with a close, nonhuman-biting, forest-dwelling relative in Africa. Carolyn McBride, an evolutionary neurobiologist at Princeton University, and her colleagues compared the two subspecies, finding that human-biting “domestics” have distinct versions of a gene called Or4 and make a lot more of this odor-sensing protein than the forest mosquitos, McBride and her colleagues report this week in Nature. The domestic mosquito homes in on an odor component called sulcatone, which humans produce in abundance. Although there are likely to be other factors involved in human preference, “it seems the one identified is a, if not the, major factor,” comments Jeffrey Powell, an evolutionary geneticist at Yale University.

    “The Committee's … substituting [its] judgment for the expertise of scientists.”

    The Association of American Universities, on a review of National Science Foundation grants by the science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives.

    By the numbers

    999—Number of unique proteins produced by human sperm—compared with the human brain's 318—according to the latest version of the online Human Protein Atlas, launched last week.

    25%—Estimated increase in pollen production—and perhaps allergy suffering—as atmospheric CO2 increases from the current 400 ppm to 450 ppm, suggests a study in PLOS ONE.

    $1.2 billion—Amount that Google will pay NASA over 60 years to lease its historic Moffett airfield in northern California. Google plans to spend $200 million to convert the 83-year-old hangar into a research center for space, aviation, and robotics technologies.

    Around the world

    Washington, D.C.

    USDA OKs engineered potatoes

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved commercial planting of a potato that is genetically engineered, but not transgenic. Created by the J. R. Simplot Company in Boise, the potatoes resist bruising and, when fried, contain up to 80% less of the suspected carcinogen acrylamide than comparable varieties. Simplot created its new potatoes by adding and rearranging DNA from wild and domesticated varieties; thanks to RNA interference, two genes do not make the enzymes that contribute to bruising and the creation of acrylamide. In the late 1990s, Monsanto created a pest-resistant potato by adding in a bacterial gene, but took it off the market due to consumer opposition. Simplot expects that several thousand hectares will be planted with the new varieties next year, mostly to supply supermarkets.

    Cold Spring Harbor, New York

    BioRxiv has attracted a growing stream of papers, now totaling 824 new manuscripts.


    BioRxiv at 1 year

    A year after its launch, a new preprint server for life sciences is off to a healthy start, its creators say. BioRxiv, a free site sponsored by the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL), has attracted more than 800 papers (see graph). Submissions span many disciplines—such as cell biology and cancer research—in which preprint sharing hadn't been routine. About 28% of authors, who come from 44 countries, have revised their papers, presumably after getting feedback from readers, says John Inglis, executive director of CSHL Press. For scientists who might worry that posting a preprint will jeopardize its chances at a journal, Inglis points out that one-fourth of bioRxiv's papers have later appeared in journals including Science, Nature, and Cell.

    San Jose, California

    Historic Lick Observatory saved

    The Lick Observatory has gained a new lease on life. The first permanent mountaintop observatory in the world when it opened in 1888, Lick was targeted for closing in 2013 by University of California (UC) administrators faced with shrinking funding. A “Save Lick” campaign spearheaded by UC astronomers and amateur stargazers ensued. Then, in a 29 October letter, the administrators said they had scrapped the plan, noting that University of California Observatories (UCO), which manages the observatory program for the university system, had convinced them that UCO could pay for a slimmed-down program without sacrificing other priorities. But the observatory's financial future remains tricky, with a spartan $1.5-million-a-year budget and shrinking staff.

    Geneva, Switzerland

    Ebola beds still needed, says WHO

    Some onceoverwhelmed Ebola treatment centers now have empty beds because the epidemic has waned in certain areas, particularly Monrovia—but the World Health Organization (WHO) warns that a serious bed shortage still exists elsewhere in the country, as well as in hard-hit Sierra Leone and Guinea. According to WHO's 5 November Ebola “situation report,” only 22% of a planned 4707 beds are “in operation.” A key problem, the report notes, is a shortage of medical teams, not the beds themselves. All told, the three countries had only 10 of 38 needed medical teams.


    Polio pioneer heads India science

    Science now has a more potent voice in India's government. Prime Minister Narendra Modi appointed physician Harsh Vardhan on 9 November as minister for science and technology and earth sciences and elevated him to full Cabinet rank. Vardhan, 59, had served as India's health minister since Modi formed his government in May; he is known for his pioneering role in the eradication of polio from India, which earlier this year was declared free of wild poliovirus. As health minister he also promoted Ayurveda, the traditional Indian system of medicine.