News this Week

Science  20 Mar 2015:
Vol. 347, Issue 6228, pp. 1294
  1. This week's section

    Ganymede's hidden ocean

    PHOTO: NASA

    The solar system's largest moon, in orbit around Jupiter, harbors an underground ocean containing more water than all the oceans on Earth. Ganymede's smooth icy surface—evidence of past resurfacing by the ocean—had already hinted that an ocean lay beneath. But new observations of the 5300-kilometer-wide moon by the Hubble Space Telescope, published online last week in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics, remove any remaining doubt. Ganymede's magnetic field produces two auroral belts (detectable in the ultraviolet, shown); these belts rock back and forth due to interactions with Jupiter's own magnetic field. But a third magnetic field, emanating from the electrically conductive, salty ocean and induced by Jupiter's field, counterbalances the rocking of the auroral belts. The Hubble study suggests that the ocean is no more than 330 kilometers below the surface. Ganymede is the fourth moon with a subsurface ocean, joining Jupiter's Europa and Saturn's Titan and Enceladus; Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt, may also have one. Such oceans are considered good places to look for life.

    An index of nonnative sea life

    PHOTO: JULIALINE/SCIENCE SOURCE

    A catalog of more than a thousand alien species found in Earth's oceans launched this week. The World Register of Introduced Marine Species describes an initial 1457 species within the comprehensive World Register of Marine Species (launched in 2007) that have been spread by humans beyond their historic ranges. To create the list, a team of researchers sponsored by the Flanders Marine Institute in Ostend, Belgium, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Invasive Species Specialist Group spent 2 years compiling databases of invasive species and consulting nearly 2500 scientific papers. Entries note whether the alien species are causing economic losses or—like this red lionfish, a venomous native of the Indian and Pacific oceans now found in the Caribbean Sea—ecological trouble.

    75,000—Number of people with multidrug resistant tuberculosis in 2013 in the World Health Organization European region, the most of any area, according to WHO.

    Around the world

    Bethesda, Maryland

    Rewarding staff scientists

    The U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI) plans to test an idea aimed at bringing stability to biomedical research labs: an award to support scientists who want to spend their careers doing research but don't want to be the harried principal investigator who runs the lab and chases research grants. Last week, the agency rolled out the details for the “research specialist award” at an NCI advisory board meeting. The 5-year, renewable award, which could cover up to 100% of salary, would be aimed at scientists with a master's, Ph.D., M.D., or other advanced degree holding positions such as lab research scientist or core facility manager. NCI plans to earmark $5 million for 50 or 60 awards over 18 months and will issue a request for applications later this year. http://scim.ag/NCIstaffaward

    Mountain View, California

    23andMe tackles drug discovery

    Armed with the DNA of its 850,000 customers, direct-to-consumer genetic testing company 23andMe is shifting gears and plans to develop drugs itself. The firm announced last week that it will create a therapeutics group to mine its genomes—amassed from the sale of $99 saliva test kits—for new drug leads. The company has made several deals recently to sell portions of that database to pharmaceutical companies, including Pfizer and Genentech. Now, it will bring on Richard Scheller, former head of research and development at Genentech, to head its in-house discovery efforts. “I wanted to see if we could really take advantage of the full potential of the human genome,” Scheller told Forbes, “and thought that this is the best place to do that.”

    London

    Hunting genes in East London

    Researchers plan to recruit 100,000 Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in East London and search their DNA for genes that, when missing, protect against disease. The East London Genes & Health study will focus on two groups who suffer high rates of poor health, yet are left out of large genetics studies. Because of marriage between close relatives, they are also more likely to include “knockouts,” individuals who lack a functional copy of a gene. If such a person is unusually healthy, a drug that targets the same gene in other people might prevent or treat illness. Study leaders at Queen Mary University of London will spend 4 years recruiting volunteers age 16 and older, healthy or ill, and will link their DNA data and health records. Funding of £4 million comes from the Wellcome Trust and the U.K. Medical Research Council. http://scim.ag/EastLondhealth

    San Diego, California

    Cholesterol drugs may help heart

    Two experimental cholesterol-lowering drugs may protect against heart attacks. The drugs, evolocumab and alirocumab, block a protein called PCSK9 that has drawn interest because people with mutations that disable its gene have extremely low low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels. Now, studies presented at the American College of Cardiology conference this week and published in The New England Journal of Medicine show the drugs' efficacy against heart disease. In the alirocumab trial, 27 of 1550 people on the drug (1.7%) had a cardiovascular event, compared with 26 of 788 people (3.3%) on placebo. The gap was similar for evolocumab: 29 of 2976 (0.95%) people in two trials had heart trouble within a year on the drug, compared with 31 of 1489 (2.18%) of those not taking it. Doctors caution that more information is needed, especially on the long-term safety of both therapies.

    Rome

    Scientists oppose air gun ban

    PHOTO: SOOPYSUE/ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

    The heads of many of Italy's research institutes are opposing a new bill that would, if made law, punish users of seismic air guns with jail sentences of between 1 and 3 years. Air guns are used in underwater seismic surveys around the world, but some evidence suggests the blasts of sound they emit can injure or kill whales, dolphins, and other sea life. The Italian institute heads last week signed a letter arguing that the proposed ban is based on bad science and would harm research, particularly studies aimed at better understanding earthquakes and volcanoes. They suggested that the bill's real aim is to oppose hydrocarbon exploration. The research heads acknowledged that air guns can harm animals but argue for the use of measures to limit the harmful effects, such as carrying out surveys when ocean mammals are absent or present in limited numbers.

    Washington, D.C.

    Detente on NSF peer review?

    Congressional support for peer review at the National Science Foundation (NSF) used to be a given. But for the past 2 years, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), chair of the science committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, has complained that NSF's grantsmaking system has greenlighted research that is frivolous or unimportant. So it was noteworthy last week when Smith declared that his inquiry into dozens of NSF awards has found “nothing to suggest it is not the best available means for making very difficult, complex decisions.” Smith isn't throwing in the towel; committee staffers visited NSF last Friday to pore over a dozen grants, some dating from 2008. But Smith's backhanded compliment, combined with new NSF policies aimed at doing a better job of explaining the value of its research to society, could be good news for NSF's beleaguered merit review process. http://scim.ag/NSFpeerturn

    Newsmakers

    New director for DOE lab

    Steven Ashby, a computational mathematician, will become director of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland, Washington, the Department of Energy's (DOE's) lead laboratory for chemistry, environmental science, and data analytics. Ashby, 55, has served as PNNL's deputy director for science and technology since 2008 and will succeed Michael Kluse, who is retiring. “He's a great choice,” says Mark Peters, associate lab director for energy and global security at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois. “When it comes to thinking about what the system can do to support science and national security, he's one of the people [DOE leaders] call.” PNNL has a staff of 4283 and a $1.0 billion annual budget. Ashby takes the helm on 1 April. http://scim.ag/AshbyPNNL

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