News this Week

Science  27 Mar 2015:
Vol. 347, Issue 6229, pp. 1398
  1. This week's section

    Lopsided ice points to moon's polar shift

    An off-axis abundance of water at the moon's north pole (left) is matched symmetrically at the south pole (right).


    Oddly, much of the moon's ice is not found at its poles, but is buried below the surface in an area 5.5° away from the north pole and in a matching region 5.5° from the south pole, scientists announced last week at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas. The data came from NASA's Lunar Prospector mission, which orbited the moon from 1998 to 1999 and measured neutrons emitted from the surface. Slower, less energetic neutrons indicate the amount of hydrogen—a proxy for water—lurking within a meter of the surface. The antipodal, off-axis location of the ice suggests that in the past, the moon's axis of rotation—and hence its poles—shifted. The possible culprit: a 3.5-billion-year-old hot spot produced by high concentrations of radioactive elements. (The radioactive heat, and resulting lava, also formed the dark spot on the near side of the moon called Oceanus Procellarum.) The heat may have created a low-density lens in the moon's mantle that would have caused the axis to wobble into today's position. If so, the lopsided ice may mean the moon's water is nearly as ancient as the orb itself.

    Pangaea's monster amphibian

    Water-dwelling Metoposaurus algarvensis was bigger than a human.


    Before dinosaurs, this giant salamanderlike amphibian was a top predator in tropical areas of the supercontinent Pangaea. The newly discovered species Metoposaurus algarvensis, described this week in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, was more than 2 meters long, weighed as much as 100 kilograms, and had a broad flat head the size and shape of a toilet seat. It lived between 220 million and 230 million years ago and was among the largest in a group of amphibians known as metoposaurs. Researchers unearthed hundreds of fossilized bones within a 4-square-meter area in southern Portugal, where they believe the creatures became concentrated and then died when the lake they inhabited dried up. Because the beasts had spindly limbs probably in sufficient to support their weight, they likely remained in the water most of the time, feeding on fish but possibly snacking on small ancestors of dinosaurs or mammals that wandered too near the waterside.

    Luminous mushrooms entice winged visitors

    An eerie glow helps this Brazilian fungus spread its spores.


    It might look like something from a 1960s black-light poster, but the glowing fungus Neonothopanus gardneri grows at the base of palm trees in Brazilian forests. Its light show serves to attract insects that will spread its spores, according to a study published online last week in Current Biology. Scientists placed plastic mushroom decoys at the base of trees, some lit with green LEDs to mimic the bioluminescence of the real thing. Over 5 nights, they counted the insect visitors to each imitation mushroom and found that the LED light conferred an advantage: They collected a total of 12 insects from the dark mushrooms, compared with 42 from the glowing ones. In lab work, the researchers also showed that the mushrooms follow a daily rhythm, lighting up only when it's dark—presumably, an energy-conserving measure and another indication that their glow serves a purpose.

    “In the end, we did not know what words to use that would make the world wake up and realise how out of control the outbreak had truly become.”

    Bart Janssens, director of operations at Doctors Without Borders, in a critical report on the global response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, released this week.

    By the numbers

    14.54 million—Square kilometers, the maximum extent of Arctic sea ice in 2015—the lowest ever recorded, reports the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center.

    67%—Projected global increase in the use of antibiotics in food animals between 2010 and 2030, according to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    38:11—Minutes and seconds it would take to fall through a borehole piercing Earth, based on a new estimate published in the American Journal of Physics.

    Around the world

    Arlington, Virginia

    NSF to make papers free

    The National Science Foundation (NSF) has released a policy that will require its grantees to make their peer-reviewed research papers freely available within 12 months of publication in a journal. The move comes in response to a February 2013 White House memo ordering science agencies to come up with public access policies similar to that of the National Institutes of Health, which posts grantees' papers in the full-text PubMed Central archive. NSF will not follow that model, but will work with the Department of Energy to create an online index of papers that will link to full-text papers on journals' own websites. Although open-access advocates prefer full-text archives, many publishers say NSF's plan will minimize costs to taxpayers.

    Washington, D.C.

    Fracking rules for public land

    The Interior Department last week released the first federal regulations for oil and gas wells that use hydraulic fracturing. Intended to protect ground water, the rules tighten requirements for the cement casings of wells and for wastewater storage. Drillers must also release information about chemicals used. The rules apply to 283 million hectares of public land and 23 million hectares of American Indian land, but not private or state land, where much more fracking occurs. Alan Krupnick of Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., called the rules “a more thoughtful and more contemporary approach to regulation than we had before.” Environmental groups warned about loopholes, while energy groups immediately sued to have the regulations lifted.


    U.K. science gets funding bump

    The United Kingdom's budget contained few surprises for researchers—the core science budget is planned over 5 years—but did yield more than £240 million of additional funding. The extra money, announced 18 March, will be spent mostly on technology-related research, such as £100 million for R&D on driverless car technology and £40 million for R&D on the Internet of Things. “It is great to see the chancellor putting additional money into innovation and recognizing the value of science,” says Naomi Weir, acting director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, an advocacy group in the United Kingdom, which remains concerned about the effects of inflation on the flat budget for core funding.

    Puebla, Mexico

    Gamma ray observatory opens

    Mexico's High-Altitude Water Cherenkov Gamma-Ray Observatory.


    On 20 March, Mexican and U.S. scientists gathered on the slopes of the Sierra Negra volcano to inaugurate the High-Altitude Water Cherenkov Gamma-Ray Observatory (HAWC). “It is the biggest astrophysics project there has ever been in Mexico,” said Andrés Sandoval, HAWC's Mexican coordinator. Built at an altitude of 4100 meters, the $15 million observatory consists of 300 steel tanks, each containing 180,000 liters of pure water. Gamma rays that strike Earth's atmosphere create a shower of particles that hit the water in the tanks and emit a type of light known as Cherenkov radiation. Scientists can then trace the gamma rays back to their sources to study some of the universe's most extreme environments, including pulsars, supernovae, and the supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies.

    Washington, D.C.

    EPA ‘secret science’ bills approved

    The U.S. House of Representatives last week approved two mostly Republican-backed bills that would change how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uses scientific data and advice to write regulations. One would bar EPA from issuing regulations drawing on data that have not been made public in a way that allows for independent analysis. The other would change the membership and procedural requirements for the agency's federally chartered advisory panels. Backers say the bills would make EPA's regulatory processes more transparent and inclusive. Opponents claim they are designed to give regulated industries more influence and could force researchers to violate privacy rules. White House officials have said that they would advise President Barack Obama to veto the bills if they reached his desk in their present forms.


    Ukraine joins E.U. research club

    Ukraine has earned privileged access to competitive research funds from the European Union, bringing its science closer to the Western bloc. Under a deal signed on 20 March with the European Commission, Ukraine becomes an “associated country” to Horizon 2020, the European Union's €80 billion, 7-year research program. Until now, it was considered a “third country,” meaning Ukraine-based researchers were not eligible for parts of the program, including coveted grants from the European Research Council. The upgrade puts Ukraine on par with other non-E.U. countries such as Israel and Norway—and it got a generous 95% rebate on the association fee.


    A boost for giant telescope

    Five years after Brazil committed to joining the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the country's House of Representatives approved the agreement on 19 March. ESO is relying on Brazil's contribution of €270 million, to be paid over a decade, to help build the 39-meter European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) in Chile. Brazilian funding will allow ESO to begin the second phase of construction on the E-ELT, which is expected to see first light in 2024. After years of legislative limbo, the House's vote “brings the completion of the ratification process one step closer,” says ESO Director General Tim de Zeeuw. The agreement will now go to the Brazilian Senate, and then the president, for ratification.


    Mega–marine reserve announced

    Pitcairn Island waters are now protected.


    The United Kingdom plans to create the world's largest fully protected marine reserve in South Pacific waters surrounding the Pitcairn Islands and will rely on satellites to help police it. The move, announced as part of the United Kingdom's 2015 budget last week, will bar commercial fishing, mining, and other extractive uses in the 834,334-square-kilometer reserve, which is home to at least 1249 species of marine mammals, seabirds, and fish and holds one of the deepest well-developed coral reef communities known. The U.K. government hopes to make agreements with nongovernmental organizations to monitor reserve users by satellite, and with regional port authorities to prevent the landing of illegal catch.

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