News this Week

Science  05 Dec 2014:
Vol. 346, Issue 6214, pp. 1158
  1. This week's section

    Did Homo erectus engrave this shell?

    This engraved shell was part of an assemblage of shells dated to 500,000 years ago.

    PHOTO: WIM LUSTENHOUWER/VU UNIVERSITY AMSTERDAM
    PHOTO: WIM LUSTENHOUWER/VU UNIVERSITY AMSTERDAM

    Homo sapiens probably began engaging in a rudimentary form of symbolic behavior at least 100,000 years ago—much earlier than once suspected—etching abstract patterns onto pieces of ochre and animal bone. But in this week's issue of Nature, researchers report evidence that such behavior may go even farther back, to our predecessor species, Homo erectus. The scientists found a geometric zigzag pattern (inset) engraved on a freshwater mussel shell from the famous Homo erectus Trinil site on the Indonesian island of Java. The shell comes from an assemblage dated to at least 500,000 years ago. The team is cautious not to call this relatively simple engraving symbolic behavior, however, and some skeptics point out that the shell was dug up 120 years ago, leading them to question whether the pattern is the handiwork of “Java Man” or a modern human who came by hundreds of thousands of years later.

    Crowdfunding boost for dancing spider study

    Some male jumping spiders are quite flamboyant.

    PHOTO: © COLIN HUTTON

    Like eight-legged birds of paradise, male jumping spiders flash red, blue, green, and orange patches as they circle, lunge, and wave their legs in a courtship dance. Taking advantage of the spiders' antics (and YouTube fame), researchers have raised more than $7000 from the public to study how well the spiders see color. Vision ecologist Daniel Zurek of the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania and colleagues had found a red filter in the eyes of five Habronattus species of jumping spiders that greatly expands the diversity of color they see. To find out how widespread the red-filter adaptation is among the 100 Habronattus species, the team turned to Experiment.com, a crowdfunding website for scientists. Having reached their goal last week, the team plans to head to Arizona and southern California next spring to collect 12 to 25 species of the spiders; they'll test the spiders' eyes for color sensitivity and determine whether improved color vision coincides with flashier displays.

    Another boost for cosmology's standard model

    The Planck spacecraft has mapped the polarization of the CMB radiation across the sky.

    CREDIT: ESA/PLANCK COLLABORATION

    The latest study of cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation—the afterglow of the big bang—confirms even more precisely the standard model of cosmology, researchers with Europe's Planck spacecraft reported at a press conference on 1 December in Ferrara, Italy. That victory for the theory leaves researchers with no puzzles to lead to a deeper understanding. “I was hoping to find an anomaly,” says Nazzareno Mandolesi, a Planck team member with Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics in Bologna. But the results do not touch on the biggest controversy in cosmology. In March, researchers using the BICEP2 telescope at the South Pole reported swirls in the polarization of the CMB that could be proof that the infant universe underwent an exponential growth spurt called inflation. In September, Planck researchers showed that much of that signal likely comes from dust within our galaxy. The teams are now working on a joint analysis, but Planck researchers wouldn't say when it might be complete. http://scim.ag/CMBconfirm

    “No one really wants to admit I exist.”

    James Watson, who co-discovered the structure of DNA but has been criticized for making racist remarks, explaining why he is auctioning his Nobel medal.

    By the numbers

    10%—Fraction of the estimated 100 billion galaxies in the universe in which complex life is possible. The rest are sterilized by gamma ray bursts. (Physical Review Letters)

    75—Number of zoonotic pathogens (which can jump from animals to humans) out of 150 studied that show visible symptoms in animals. In the past 60 years, only 13 disease outbreaks were preceded by wildlife reports—suggesting many early warning signs were missed. (EcoHealth)

    10 million—Years ago that a common ancestor of humans, chimps, and gorillas evolved a protein that could efficiently metabolize alcohol. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)

    Around the world

    Strasbourg, France

    EC plan diverts research money

    European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has sparked criticism with plans to raid the European Union's science budget to fodder a new “Investment Plan for Europe,” aimed at boosting Europe's sluggish economy. Juncker, who presented the plan to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on 26 November, proposed diverting €2.7 billion from Horizon 2020, the bloc's €70 billion, 7-year research funding program, to contribute to a €21 billion investment pot. Juncker said this could multiply 15-fold to €315 billion over 3 years with contributions from industry and national governments and suggested this would eventually benefit research. But critics have expressed skepticism of this. “Let's stick with the Horizon 2020 budget, which we all welcomed in 2012,” said Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities, in a statement. http://scim.ag/JunckerHor2020

    Whitehouse Station, New Jersey

    Merck in race for Ebola vaccine

    Pharmaceutical giant Merck has jumped into the race to develop an Ebola vaccine. On 24 November, Merck of Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, announced a licensing agreement with NewLink Genetics of Ames, Iowa, to “research, develop, manufacture, and distribute” an Ebola vaccine. Now in small human trials, the vaccine—developed by the Public Health Agency of Canada and licensed to NewLink—contains a gene for the Ebola surface protein engineered into a crippled version of a livestock pathogen, vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV). The marriage puts the VSV Ebola vaccine on equal footing with another in phase I studies being developed by GlaxoSmithKline and the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Both vaccines could move into large-scale efficacy trials in West Africa in January, but their safety and efficacy won't be determined before April.

    Sydney, Australia

    CSIRO to cut a fifth of its staff

    The bad news just keeps coming for scientists at Australia's leading research organization. A new analysis of management documents by the union representing staff at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) reveals that one in five employees will be out of a job by June 2015. This figure is higher than initially announced in May by management. In the previous financial year, CSIRO's workforce declined by 513 positions. The union forecasts that another 878 people will be let go, which combined with last year's job losses represents a 21.5% cut to the workforce. Broadly speaking, science and research positions will compose 57% of the 878 jobs set to be cut by June 2015, with the remaining losses coming from support or management roles. The cuts are a result of the government's decision in May to slash AU$115 million, or 16%, from the organization's budget over 4 years.

    Washington, D.C.

    New U.S. rules to curb ozone

    The United States on 26 November proposed tightening the country's standard for smog-producing ozone from 75 parts per billion to between 65 and 70 parts per billion. The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) science advisory board has endorsed lowering the threshold since the late 2000s, but 3 years ago the Obama administration shelved a draft proposal to impose a lower standard, suggesting that it would be too onerous during the country's recovery from a severe recession. The new proposal, announced by EPA, essentially renews much of that earlier proposal. States will be required to comply by 2020 to 2037, depending on the severity of their ozone problem. EPA will accept public comment on the proposal until the end of February 2015 and says it plans to finalize the new rules by 1 October 2015. http://scim.ag/EPAozone

    Altos De Pipe, Venezuela

    Science center on chopping block

    On 18 November, scientists in Venezuela awoke to a surprise: The National Assembly's Commission on Science, Technology, and Innovation had introduced and approved a bill that would abolish the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research (IVIC), founded in 1959. IVIC would be replaced by a new institute devoted to “science that serves the people” rather than “science that wallows in itself,” said Representative Guido Ochoa of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, according to the newspaper El Nacional. The bill is “completely absurd,” says Margarita Lampo, an IVIC ecologist. “If this law passes, 55 years of scientific work will be thrown in the trash.” Lampo and other IVIC representatives met with the people's minister for higher education, science, and technology on 24 November in hopes of reforming the proposal. A date for the final vote has not been set.

    London

    U.K.'s bid for quantum tech lead

    The United Kingdom announced 26 November the creation of a £120 million network of four “quantum technology hubs”—involving 17 universities and 132 companies—to create commercially viable technologies based on quantum mechanics. Each hub, led by the universities of York, Glasgow, Oxford, and Birmingham, will focus on different applications of quantum technology: communications, sensing and imaging, computing and simulation, and sensing and metrology. Physicist Kai Bongs, who will lead Birmingham's effort, envisions a “U.K. quantum valley” where the industry will flourish and develop an ecosystem. “Companies are very hungry for atom devices,” Bongs says. “We might see products coming out in the 5 years.” The government announced the 5-year, £270 million National Quantum Technologies Programme last year. http://scim.ag/UKquantum

    London

    Nature tries paper sharing

    Nature Publishing Group (NPG) has unveiled a new approach to freely sharing papers normally behind a paywall. The initiative, announced 1 December, is meant as an alternative to “dark sharing,” in which scientists download PDFs of their own papers and e-mail them to nonsubscribers—problematic to publishers, who can't accurately gauge how often the articles are read. NPG's initiative, to last 1 year, will allow subscribers to share a link to a read-only version of the paper; the link will encode the identity of the sharer and of the paper and will lead to a full version of the paper that can be annotated but not downloaded or printed. http://scim.ag/Naturesharing

    Bethesda, Maryland

    Move faster, NSABB tells U.S.

    A moratorium on funding some research on the flu, MERS, and SARS viruses is confusing researchers.

    CREDIT: V. ALTOUNIAN/SCIENCE

    The U.S. government needs to move quickly to clarify and grant waivers to a recently announced moratorium on funding for potentially risky research involving three types of viruses—influenza, MERS, and SARS. Those are two main points in a 25 November statement from the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), which advises the government on problematic research. The pause, which was announced 17 October and has affected 18 projects at 14 institutions, has created confusion among researchers. It applies to so-called gain-of-function studies that could make a pathogen more dangerous, but researchers can apply for a waiver to continue studies that are deemed important for protecting public health. NSABB members, however, are concerned that the government has been slow to rule on waiver requests. http://scim.ag/NSABBquick

    Newsmakers

    Surgeon under investigation

    The Karolinska Institute in Stockholm is investigating misconduct allegations against surgeon Paolo Macchiarini, who led high-profile attempts to implant artificial tracheas in patients (Science, 19 April 2013, p. 266). Macchiarini operated on three patients at Karolinska University Hospital, replacing their damaged tracheas with an artificial scaffold seeded with stem cells. Two patients died; a third has been hospitalized since the operation 2 years ago. Four doctors involved in the patients' care have said that patients did not give proper consent and Macchiarini's papers left out serious complications. An external expert's report is expected in January. Meanwhile, Karolinska's ethics council is investigating questions raised by an outside surgeon about whether Macchiarini accurately described patient outcomes. Macchiarini says both sets of charges are baseless.

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