News this Week

Science  13 Mar 2015:
Vol. 347, Issue 6227, pp. 1180

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  1. This week's section

    Climate change turning Atacama mummies into black ooze

    Some Chinchorro mummies at a Chilean museum are beginning to rapidly degrade.


    Mummies made by the Chinchorro culture in Chile and Peru have survived for more than 7000 years. So when several specimens at the University of Tarapacá's archaeological museum in Arica, Chile, started to turn into black ooze, scientists knew something was wrong. The museum sent samples of damaged and undamaged mummy skin to Harvard University, where researchers cultured the microorganisms growing on each kind of skin. They then transferred the cultures to pig skin and ran tests to determine the conditions under which the microbes started munching away. It turns out that when the humidity is high, the mummies' microbiome kicks into high gear—something the Chinchorro didn't have to worry about, living in and around the extremely arid Atacama Desert. In recent years, however, Arica has become increasingly humid, possibly due to global climate change. Stringently controlling the humidity inside the museum's collection is a relatively easy fix, but the changing climate in northern Chile may damage the hundreds of mummies likely buried in shallow graves around Arica, the researchers warn—and archaeologists may find themselves digging up little more than black ooze.

    Brains that fluoresce

    A rat cerebellum imaged with two-photon microscopy.


    Shoot the brain repeatedly with gentle, focused bursts of light, and its fine structures will appear in luminous detail. That's the principle behind two-photon microscopy, an imaging technique honored with the €1 million Brain Prize this week. Traditional fluorescence microscopy creates an image by shining light on cells labeled with fluorescent molecules. By contrast, the two-photon method, first developed by Winfried Denk in 1990, uses two consecutive pulses of relatively lower energy infrared light to elicit a glow from the fluorescent molecules. The weaker and less scattered light illuminates a smaller area and penetrates deeper into tissue, allowing researchers to focus on tiny details such as the structure and interaction of neurons. The Grete Lundbeck European Brain Research Foundation selected four scientists involved in the technique's development to split the winnings: Denk, now at the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology, shares the prize with Arthur Konnerth of the Technische Universität München, Karel Svoboda of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Janelia Research Campus, and David Tank of Princeton University.

    A scaled-back radio array

    Dipole antennas of SKA's proposed low-frequency telescope in Australia.


    The consortium that will build the world's biggest radio telescope, the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), this week announced the final plan for the €650 million first phase of the project, due to begin construction in 2018 and be completed by 2023. The first phase, SKA1, was scaled back to stay within available funding, but will still achieve its two key scientific goals. The first is to detect metronomic signals from rapidly spinning neutron stars, or pulsars, and use them to track the passage of gravitational waves. The second is to map out the faint signal of neutral hydrogen gas back to the time of the earliest formation of stars and galaxies. SKA1's final plan has two components: a midfrequency array with about 200 (down from 250) dish antennas in South Africa; and a low-frequency array in Australia made up of about 130,000 (down from 250,000) so-called dipole antennas (similar to a rooftop TV aerial). SKA's phase 2 will be built between 2023 and 2030. The final instrument will have dishes and antennas stretching across most of southern Africa as well as Australia and will have a total collecting area of a square kilometer.

    “We were told not to use the terms ‘climate change,’ ‘global warming’ or ‘sustainability.’ ”

    Attorney Christopher Byrd, formerly with Florida's Department of Environmental Protection, to The Miami Herald. Some former employees say the state banned the terms' use in reports and e-mails in 2011.

    By the numbers

    2.9 million—The first estimate of the number of large whales killed and processed by industrial whaling during the 20th century, as reported in Marine Fisheries Review.

    13.4%—Clinical trials of medical products that reported basic results in the public database within the 1-year window required by the U.S. Congress, according to a study in The New England Journal of Medicine.

    Around the world

    Sydney, Australia

    Big science faces dark days?

    Facilities across Australia as diverse as telescopes, supercomputers, a synchrotron, and marine observation networks may fall victim to budget politics. The government has linked operational funding for 27 major research facilities—AU$150 million in fiscal year 2015 to 2016—to the passage of controversial and unrelated education legislation, which is now stalled in the country's senate. Since the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) was established in 2004, successive governments have committed more than AU$2 billion to the facilities. In a 4 March letter to Prime Minister Tony Abbott, the heads of 15 of the country's major scientific research organizations warned of “immense” damage to domestic and international research if the facilities close. They noted that some 35,000 Australian and overseas researchers use the NCRIS facilities, which employ more than 1700 scientists, support, and management staff.

    Lausanne, Switzerland

    Low-cost x-rays for all

    A radiography device in a Cameroon hospital.


    Medical imaging equipment is too frail and expensive for most hospitals in developing countries—an x-ray machine designed for an air-conditioned hospital “would last 3 months in Chad,” says Klaus Schönenberger, leader of the GlobalDiagnostiX project at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. On 9 March, GlobalDiagnostiX unveiled its new x-ray machine prototype that the team says is “completely rethought” to suit the needs of developing countries. The machine can weather heat, dust, and humidity and an unreliable electricity supply—at a tenth of the cost of current equipment, including 10 years of maintenance, but with high image quality, Schönenberger claims. He hopes that the product will be on the market in 2 or 3 years.

    Lausanne, Switzerland

    Reforms urged for brain project

    Two reports have urged for drastic and urgent reforms at the embattled Human Brain Project (HBP), a collaboration selected to receive up to €1 billion in funding from the European Commission and E.U. member states that has caused deep rifts among neuroscientists. In an open letter published last year, hundreds of researchers threatened to boycott the project unless the European Commission stepped in to demand an overhaul. Both an anonymous review panel working for the commission and a mediation committee led by Wolfgang Marquardt, head of the Jülich Research Center in Düren, Germany, concluded that the HBP needs to overhaul its management, scientific priorities, and communication style. (Summaries of both reports were published on 6 March and 9 March, respectively.) HBP is working to implement the advice, says Philippe Gillet, president of HBP's board of directors, including the mediators' recommendation to transform HBP into an international, CERN-like organization.

    Washington, D.C.

    USDA promises better oversight

    New research projects have been halted at a controversial U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) facility, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced 9 March. The agency's Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Nebraska, has come under fire for allegedly causing suffering and death while trying to create larger and more fecund farm animals. Last month, Congress proposed new protections for farm animals, backing a bill called the AWARE Act that would expand the Animal Welfare Act (Science, 13 February, p. 696). A draft of a USDA report released 9 March says “no instances of animal abuse, misuse, or mistreatment were observed” at the facility, but that the center had not provided proper oversight of animal care. Vilsack said no new research would be conducted until oversight is improved.


    Cancer institute head steps down

    Harold Varmus, the Nobel Prize–winning cancer biologist who has directed the U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI) for nearly 5 years, is stepping down on 31 March. While leading the $4.9 billion NCI during a time of flat budgets, Varmus promoted cancer genomics, global health, and studies of little-explored questions in cancer. He pushed for changes in how scientists are evaluated and launched a new award to give investigators stable long-term support. Varmus, 75, a former director of the National Institutes of Health, will head a lab at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City and work with the New York Genome Center. Douglas Lowy, who now serves as NCI's deputy director, will become acting director.

    French higher ed official departs

    The French secretary of state for higher education and research, Geneviève Fioraso, has stepped down for health reasons, the French government announced last week. Fioraso became minister for higher education and research in May 2012; her role was downgraded to secretary of state last year in a Cabinet reshuffle. Limited by France's austerity policies, Fioraso had few budget increases to offer and came under fire from groups that hoped she would make a more radical break with the policies of the right-wing government of Nicolas Sarkozy. Fioraso's main achievement was a law, passed in 2013, that aimed to simplify France's higher education and research landscape and give the nation a stronger strategic research agenda. The minister in charge of national education, higher education, and research, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, will temporarily take over her duties.

    Embattled RIKEN chief exits

    Ryoji Noyori plans to resign as president of RIKEN, the network of Japanese national labs that spent much of the past year embroiled in a fraud scandal, Japanese news outlets reported last week. Noyori, 76, won a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2001 and became head of RIKEN in October 2003. He has 3 years remaining in his third 5-year term as president. Some reports said he was retiring due to age, but some mentioned his desire to end a long drama over fraudulent papers on stem cells. In January 2014, a group led by Haruko Obokata of RIKEN's Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe reported in two papers in Nature to have found a new, simple way, dubbed STAP, to make pluripotent stem cells. The papers were retracted in July after investigators found them riddled with manipulated images and plagiarized text. Obokata was found guilty of research misconduct and resigned; another author committed suicide. In December, investigators concluded that the STAP cells never existed.



    The evolution of the sponge (phylum Porifera) has long been a mystery. Some scientists think the first sponges emerged in the Cambrian period, between 541 million and 485 million years ago; others say they emerged during the Precambrian as early as 760 million years ago, based on some genetic analyses of modern sponges. But claims for fossils that early have been met with skepticism due to their poor preservation. Now, a research team reporting online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences claims that the millimeter-wide 600-million-year-old fossil pictured below is the oldest known poriferan. The new discovery indicates that the common ancestor of sponges and most other animals (called Eumetazoa) lived much earlier than many scientists assumed. And because today's sponges and eumetazoans differ in key genetic features, the team says, the find could also help date the first appearance of genes key to the evolution of most animals living today.