News this Week

Science  13 Feb 2015:
Vol. 347, Issue 6223, pp. 696

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  1. This week's section

    Fungus has decimated bat colonies

    A little brown bat with white-nose syndrome hangs in Vermont's Greeley Mine.


    In just 7 years, a fungal disease known as white-nose syndrome has killed more than 5 million North American bats, nearly wiping out entire colonies. Initially identified by a white fungus growing on bats' noses, the disease drains hibernating bats of their energy reserves. Now, a study in Global Ecology and Biogeography takes a closer look at how the size of a bat colony affects the likelihood of local extinction. They studied more than 1100 winter colonies of bats in North America, poring over 4 decades of population counts between 1976 and 2013. Since its discovery in North America in 2006, the disease has reduced populations of North American bats in the colonies by 60% to 98%, the researchers report. For five out of six species of hibernating bats studied in eastern North America, larger winter colonies helped insulate against local extinction—but for the sixth and most affected species, the northern long-eared bat, extinction risk was constant regardless of colony size. Resulting increases in mosquitoes and agricultural pests could lead to damaged crops and increased spread of human diseases.

    Anthropocene started earlier in the Andes

    Bolivia's Potosí silver mine, shown here in 1884, produced significant air pollution.


    Dust and metals preserved in an ice core from the Quelccaya Ice Cap high in the Peruvian Andes indicate that humans began polluting the region centuries before the industrial revolution arrived—and suggest that the Anthropocene, a geological epoch defined by humans' influence on the planet, began at different times around the world. The ice core records centuries of South American air pollution from mining during precolonial times through 1989, researchers report online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Air pollution really took off when the Spanish colonized South America in the 16th century; one major culprit was likely a gigantic silver mine in Potosí, Bolivia. Lead levels in the ice core nearly doubled between 1450 C.E. and 1900 C.E. Although most of South America's air pollution was released in the 20th century, colonial mines like Potosí had such a dramatic impact on the environment—240 years before the industrial revolution—that they should be considered the beginning of the Anthropocene in the region, the researchers say.

    Why Italian earthquake scientists were exonerated

    Rubble in L'Aquila, Italy, in April 2009, days after an earthquake killed more than 300 people.


    Six scientists convicted of manslaughter in 2012 for advice they gave ahead of the deadly L'Aquila earthquake 3.5 years earlier were victims of “uncertain and fallacious” reasoning, found three judges who acquitted the experts in an appeal trial last November. The judges also reduced the sentence of a seventh defendant, a public official, from 6 years to 2 years. In a 389-page document deposited in court 6 February and since released to the public, the magistrates accepted the controversial idea that officially sanctioned reassurances were decisive in causing some of the quake victims to stay indoors—but ruled that those reassurances were the exclusive fault of the public official, at the time deputy head of Italy's Civil Protection Department, and no blame can be attributed to the scientists.

    “It is one thing to debate the merits of a theory. It is quite another to impugn a person's character with innuendos.”

    A 5 February British Columbia Supreme Court ruling that Canada's National Post defamed climate scientist Andrew Weaver and must retract several articles.

    By the numbers

    $1.09 billion—Amount of money paid, as of 31 December 2014, to support the international response to the Ebola outbreak, or 37.7% of the $2.89 billion pledged by donors.

    250—Percent by which total energy used by consumer electronics rose in an average U.S. household from 1992 to 2007, according to a study in Environmental Science & Technology.

    Around the world

    Washington, D.C.

    A new name for chronic fatigue

    A committee convened by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) has proposed a new name for a condition known as chronic fatigue syndrome or myalgic encephalomyelitis: systemic exertion intolerance disease (SEID). After reviewing thousands of studies, expert testimony, and public input, the committee concluded that “the name ‘chronic fatigue syndrome’ has done a disservice to many patients” as it was “stigmatizing and trivializing,” while myalgic encephalomyelitis “does not accurately describe the major features of the disease.” In a 235-page report released on 10 February, the committee also suggested diagnostic criteria for SEID that focus on “central symptoms” such as reduced ability to work and study and “unrefreshing” sleep. Criteria used by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were deemed “overly inclusive, particularly of patients whose symptoms may be caused by a psychiatric disorder.” An estimated 836,000 to 2.5 million Americans have these disorders, but IOM notes that fewer people will meet the new, stricter criteria.

    Upton, New York

    New light source shines

    On 6 February, Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Ernest Moniz dedicated the new $912 million National Synchrotron Light Source II (NSLS-II) at DOE's Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York. The NSLS-II will be the brightest synchrotron light source in the United States and—within a certain energy range—the world. NSLS-II research “will probe the fundamental structure of novel materials and help drive the development of low-cost, low-carbon energy technologies, spark advances in environmental science, and spur medical breakthroughs,” Moniz said. The NSLS-II, which will be 10,000 times as bright as its predecessor, will produce extremely intense beams of x-ray, ultraviolet, and infrared light. It will allow researchers to probe the properties of materials at resolutions approaching 10 nanometers.

    Bethesda, Maryland

    NIH old scientist award panned

    An idea from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to nudge aging scientists to retire is being blasted in the blogosphere. The potential “emeritus award,” described in a 3 February notice and NIH's Rock Talk blog, would allow senior investigators to wind down their labs or transfer the work to a junior colleague. Many of the more than 140 comments on the blog post argue that such an award is unnecessary and could take funding away from younger researchers. NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research Sally Rockey says she's not surprised by the negative responses: “In tight budget times, any proposed new award creates angst that it will have an impact on the rest of the pool” of investigators. Rockey encourages critics to submit formal comments.


    Stem cell odd couple team up

    Woo Suk Hwang, who fraudulently claimed to have created embryonic stem cells matched to human patients, and Shoukhrat Mitalipov, who really did it, will conduct joint research, reported South Korea's Dong-A Ilbo newspaper this week. In 2006, Hwang retracted two papers published in Science and was later convicted for embezzling research funds and bioethics violations. Mitalipov, of the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, reported in May 2013 that he had derived stem cells from cloned human embryos. Hwang told the newspaper that he, Mitalipov, and Xiaochun Xu, CEO of Boyalife Group in Wuxi, China, will jointly work on cloning mechanisms, with an eye to curing inherited mitochondrial disease. Boyalife, a Chinese regenerative medicine company, will put up about $93 million.

    Washington, D.C.

    DOE scraps carbon capture plant

    The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has again pulled out of FutureGen, the troubled project to create the first commercial-scale power plant in the United States that captures and sequesters CO2 emissions. Originally conceived under President George W. Bush in 2003, the project was previously abandoned by the U.S. government in 2008 due to rising costs. In 2010, President Barack Obama earmarked $1 billion for FutureGen 2.0, a $1.7 billion revised version that would retrofit a coal-fired power plant in Illinois. The stimulus money would have to be spent by September 2015. However, permitting delays and legal challenges by environmental groups have slowed its progress, and on 3 February, FutureGen Alliance CEO Ken Humphreys announced that “the DOE has concluded that there is insufficient time to complete the project.”

    Bethesda, Maryland

    Shattered chromosome cure

    A girl who grew up with a serious genetic immune disease was apparently cured in her 30s by one of her chromosomes shattering into pieces and reassembling. As a 9-year-old, the woman had the first known case of WHIM syndrome, which results in warts and frequent infections from low levels of certain white blood cells. Her two daughters developed the same rare disease through a fault in the CXCR4 gene, but the woman, now 59, no longer has symptoms. National Institutes of Health (NIH) researchers traced her improvement to chromothripsis, a phenomenon discovered 4 years ago in which a chromosome somehow shatters during cell division, then reforms with the pieces scrambled. Although this can contribute to cancer, it seems to have cured the woman by deleting her flawed copy of CXCR4 from a blood stem cell, the NIH team reported in Cell.

    Washington, D.C.

    Push to protect farm animals


    The U.S. Congress last week proposed new protections for farm animals used in scientific research. The move comes in response to an exposé published in The New York Times last month, which documented numerous cases of animal suffering and death at a Department of Agriculture facility that has been trying to create larger and more fecund farm animals for several decades. Lawmakers from both parties are backing a bill—called the AWARE Act—that would expand the scope of the Animal Welfare Act, which governs the humane treatment of laboratory animals. Farm animals are currently excluded from the act, unless they're used in biomedical research or exhibition. The new law would require closer monitoring—and more inspections—of research involving cows, pigs, and other livestock.


    Head of FDA to step down

    After serving nearly 6 years as head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Margaret Hamburg revealed last week that she will step down at the end of March. Her e-mail announcement to FDA staff, later posted on the agency's website, provided little detail about the decision. The departure comes in the middle of a major overhaul of the agency's food safety oversight and as legislators prepare to propose key changes to its medical product review and approval process. FDA Chief Scientist Stephen Ostroff will fill her position until President Barack Obama appoints a new commissioner. Duke University cardiologist Robert Califf, who will step in as deputy commissioner later this month, is rumored to be a likely successor.