News this Week

Science  16 Jan 2015:
Vol. 347, Issue 6219, pp. 216
  1. This week's section

    More room for Mexican wolves

    An expanded range and new protections may help Mexican gray wolves thrive.

    PHOTO: SYKADELX/ISTOCKPHOTO

    In an effort to improve the recovery of Mexican gray wolves, the rarest subspecies of the gray wolf (Canis lupus), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expanding the animals' range and placing them under the protection of the Endangered Species Act. The wolves can now roam from the Mexican border across much of New Mexico and Arizona south of the Grand Canyon. Since 1998, when the first captive-bred Mexican wolves were released in Arizona's Blue Range, the animals have struggled. In contrast with the successful 1995 release of Rocky Mountain gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park (which today have spread into several states and number over 1000), the Mexican wolf numbers only 83, and the population is inbred. Under the new ruling, more captive-bred wolves will be freed in national forests in the two states and allowed to disperse west and east to the California and Texas borders. Wolves moving beyond the new range will be captured and returned to the core area. http://scim.ag/mexwolf

    Visit scenic Kepler-186f: NASA invites you to try a holiday in space

    CREDIT: NASA/JPL-CALTECH (3)

    NASA scientists announced earlier this month at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle that the catalog of possible planets around other stars detected by the Kepler spacecraft has now topped 4000; more than 1000 of those had been confirmed as exoplanets by other methods. Fergal Mullally of the Kepler Science Office says that the new catalog contains “more Earth-like candidates than ever before.” One is “the closest analog to Earth found to date,” he says. To celebrate Kepler's achievements—cut short in 2013 when its pointing mechanism failed—NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has produced a series of retro-style travel posters for potentially habitable exoplanets, extolling the virtues of their strong gravity, red grass, and binary suns. Throughout last year, NASA researchers worked to develop a new mission for Kepler, using the pressure of sunlight to help steady it. The so-called K2 mission announced its first discovery of a new exoplanet, HIP 116454b, last month. As well as exoplanets, K2 will study planet formation, stellar evolution, and other, more distant objects. http://scim.ag/_Earthlike

    Scotland's first ichthyosaur

    Scotland's first known marine lizard, Dearcmhara shawcrossi.

    CREDIT: TODD MARSHALL

    Forget the Loch Ness monster: Scotland was once home to a swimming reptile the size of a motorboat. Scientists have discovered the country's first known ichthyosaur, a large marine creature that lived during the Middle Jurassic period about 170 million years ago. The fragmentary specimen—dubbed Dearcmhara shawcrossi by researchers who described it online this week in the Scottish Journal of Geology—is named after amateur collector Brian Shawcross, who found the fossils on the shores of Scotland's rugged Isle of Skye. (Dearcmhara, pronounced “jark vara,” is Scottish Gaelic for “marine lizard.”) The ichthyosaur, pictured here in an artist's reconstruction, was about 4 meters long and hunted fish and smaller reptiles in the then-warm seas around Skye, which has some of the world's best preserved Middle Jurassic sediments.

    “In raising these concerns, I have nothing to gain and much to lose.”

    Duke University medical student Bradford Perez, in a 2008 memo that led to misconduct allegations about the lab of Anil Potti, according to last week's issue of The Cancer Letter. http://scim.ag/_Perez

    By the numbers

    800—Number of migrating blacktip sharks within a square kilometer of ocean 500 meters off South Florida, scientists reported last week at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting.

    12—Weeks it took to clear people of hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection with a combination of three anti-HCV drugs, according to a study in The Lancet. Previous regimens took twice as long.

    7534—Record number of patents IBM received in 2014. The company has topped the annual list of U.S. patent recipients for 22 years.

    Around the world

    Mountain View, California

    Slew of deals for 23andMe

    Direct-to-consumer genetic analysis company 23andMe has announced the first two of a string of anticipated deals to share its data with drug developers. Through the sale of $99 saliva testing kits, the company has built a coveted genetic database of 800,000 people, more than 80% of whom have agreed to participate in research. Last week, 23andMe announced that it will share 3000 whole genomes with biotech company Genentech to help identify new drug targets for Parkinson's disease—in return for an upfront $10 million, plus more to come, depending on the project's progress. And on 12 January, it revealed another agreement with pharma giant Pfizer, for a lupus research effort that will involve enrolling 5000 patients in a longitudinal study. The company has said that it plans to roll out 10 such deals this year.

    Nanyang, China

    Scheme reveals anti-HIV stigma

    A local government in Henan province reprimanded four housing officials after a developer hired six people with HIV to harass residents who resisted demolition of their homes, according to Chinese state news agency Xinhua. The patients brandished certificates showing they had HIV and needles filled with their blood, according to other Chinese press reports. The chance of transmission through needle pricks is low, especially when individuals are on antiretroviral therapy, says Joseph Tucker, a medical researcher at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who directs a project focused on sexually transmitted diseases in China. “This thuggery, underpinned by a fear of HIV-infected individuals, shows that stigma still powerfully shapes the lives” of many Chinese with the virus, he says.

    Mumbai, India

    Flight of fancy

    The “ancient” Shakuna Vimana, a spacecraft described in a modern text based on Sanskrit writings.

    CREDIT: VAIMANIKA SHASTRA/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

    A talk on ancient flying contraptions at the annual Indian Science Congress this month has caused an uproar in India's scientific community. Retired pilot Anand Bodas drew ire when he spoke of the existence of 7000-year-old airplanes capable of both terrestrial and inter planetary flight, as described in an early 20th century Indian text. One example, the Shakuna Vimana (pictured), was supposedly constructed of ammonium chloride, chickpeas, and mercury. Naresh Chandra, a secretary of the Indian Science Congress, says critics of Bodas's talk miss the point; ancient Indian science was very advanced, he says, and “anybody doing research would like to learn from history.” That argument may fly for a subject like trigonometry, but “planes and missiles are ludicrous,” Abhay Ashtekar, a theoretical physicist at Pennsylvania State University, University Park, told India's Economic Times. “Let's not insult the great minds of our antiquity with stuff like this.”

    Alexandria, Virginia

    Call for e-cigarette regulation

    Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, allow users to inhale nicotine vapors without other harmful chemicals (called “vaping”). Now, two of the largest cancer science and treatment groups in the United States have called on the government to start regulating such “electronic nicotine delivery systems” and to step up research on the health effects of vaping. A joint statement released on 8 January by the 35,000-member American Society of Clinical Oncology and the 33,000-member American Association for Cancer Research noted that “e-cigarettes may reduce smoking rates and attendant adverse health risks” but that their actual effects are unclear in the absence of research and regulation. The statement also expressed concern that “e-cigarettes may encourage nonsmokers, particularly children, to start smoking and develop nicotine addiction.” http://scim.ag/ecigreg

    Bethesda, Maryland

    FASEB on NIH funding crunch

    The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), which represents more than 120,000 scientists, last week weighed in on how the National Institutes of Health (NIH) can stretch its flat budget to cover more grants. In a new report, the group suggests cutting regulatory costs, encouraging sharing of large instruments, and awarding longer grants based on an investigator's track record rather than a specific project. FASEB also urges NIH to give extra scrutiny to proposals from well-funded labs “to ensure a global distribution of research funding.” Graduate programs should consider lowering admissions, and labs should rely more on staff scientists and less on trainees. http://scim.ag/FASEBreport

    Newsmakers

    Brazil's climate-skeptic minister

    On 1 January, a reputed climate change denier took the reins of Brazil's science ministry, causing some scientists to worry about the country's environmental future. Aldo Rebelo, a hard-line communist whose party supported the October reelection of President Dilma Rousseff, has called climate change an “environmental scam” and dubbed the movement to curb greenhouse gas emissions “the bridgehead of imperialism.” As a member of Brazil's Congress, Rebelo also worked on a 2012 revision of the country's forest code that many experts believe will increase deforestation. “His positions on climate change are completely out of phase with the Brazilian scientific community,” says Paulo Artaxo, an atmospheric physicist at the University of São Paulo who studies climate change in the Amazon. http://scim.ag/Rebeloscience

    Three Q's

    PHOTO: TED S. WARREN/AP PHOTO

    Eric Horvitz, managing director of Microsoft Research, launched the One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence (AI100) late last year to track the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on aspects of life from national security to public psychology to privacy. Science caught up with Horvitz to discuss the ambitious project. http://scim.ag/Horvitz100yr

    Q:AI100 is a continuation of a 2008 to 2009 study. Why extend it to 100 years?

    A:Machine intelligence will have deep effects on people and society. A lot can happen in 100 years of technology. … The goal is to set up an initial standing committee that will do a great job at self-sustaining and continuing a chain of standing committees and study panels over 100 years. I think it will be interesting for these panels to look back at what [earlier panels] had forecast.

    Q:Do you hope to change public opinion?

    A:It's not clear what public attitudes are on machine intelligence. Many people enjoy the fruits of systems like search engines without thinking that they are AI. As scientists, we need to [make] sure that concerns are addressed … by asking questions scientifically: Are the outcomes that some people fear possible? And, if possible, how can we make sure they don't happen?

    Q:What's your vision for the future of AI?

    A:My view is that AI will be incredibly empowering to humanity. It will help solve problems, it will help us do better science, it promises to really help with challenges in education, health care, and hunger.

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