News this Week

Science  03 Apr 2015:
Vol. 348, Issue 6230, pp. 12

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  1. This week's section

    ‘Little Foot's’ big footprint


    From his beautifully preserved head (shown) to his fairly small feet, “Little Foot”—an australopithecine and cousin to the famous “Lucy”—is the most complete hominin skeleton ever found. Now, a new study in Nature this week supports the idea that Little Foot may also be old enough to be an ancestor of the more than 3-million-year-old human line. Since the fossil was discovered in South Africa's Sterkfontein Caves in the early 1990s, most of its anatomy remains unpublished, and researchers have argued bitterly about its age (Science, 21 March 2014, p. 1294). The skeleton can't be dated directly—it's too old for radiocarbon—and it is confusingly sandwiched between a younger limestone and older rock that is closer to the time when the cave formed. Depending on what is dated, age estimates range from 2.2 million years to more than 3 million years old. The team behind the new study thinks the older rock corresponds most closely to the fossil's age; they used aluminum-beryllium to date that rock and concluded that Little Foot died 3.67 million years ago. But some skeptics argue that the research team still might be dating the wrong rocks.

    A gallery of brain cells

    A digitally reconstructed 3D fruit fly neuron; different colors indicate distinct cell branches.


    Got 3D microscopic images of neurons from a bee brain? How about brain cells from fruit fly larvae, mice—or people? BigNeuron wants your data. Whether a neuron branches like a chandelier or spreads like a pyramid, a brain cell's shape is one of the most important clues about its function, says project leader Hanchuan Peng, a neuroscientist at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, Washington. However, different labs use incompatible methods to digitally reconstruct neurons, making their data hard to share, Peng says. BigNeuron, announced 31 March, will collect images of neurons from labs worldwide, then host hackathons to put the data in an online, public platform. Free, easy access to a vast library of brain cell types will help researchers better understand how information flows between neurons, Peng says: After all, the brain's complex connectivity, which produces all thoughts and behavior, “doesn't just come out of the air.”

    “The average person probably knows less about their body than their equivalent in the early 1800s.”

    Neuroanatomy professor Tom Gillingwater of the University of Edinburgh, which will host an upcoming series of public anatomy workshops, the first in the United Kingdom for 180 years.

    Around the world


    Error led to vessel's sinking

    The 10 October sinking of Taiwan's Ocean Researcher V resulted from human error, Wen-chung Chi, director-general of the country's Maritime and Port Bureau, told local press last week. A day into a cruise to study atmospheric pollution, Ocean Researcher V, in service under the Taiwan Ocean Research Institute (TORI) in Kaohsiung, headed back to port because of bad weather. The ship drifted off course, struck two submerged reefs, and sank near the Penghu Islands 260 kilometers southwest of Taipei. The accident claimed the lives of two researchers and rendered the research ship a total loss. Chi said that a review of the ship's voyage data recorder and other evidence indicated that the crew should have been alerted that the ship had drifted off course. TORI will have a similar ship built as replacement, says the institute's director, Hui-Ling Lin.

    Washington, D.C.

    U.S. tackles antibiotic resistance

    The White House last week announced a 5-year action plan to respond to the continued rise in drug-resistant bacteria. The plan describes steps that will be taken across several government agencies to prevent the misuse of existing antibiotics, track the appearance and spread of dangerous pathogens, and encourage the development of new drugs. It would establish stewardship programs at acute care hospitals and a network of regional labs to detect resistant strains. Although some urged the White House to take more aggressive action to ban the use of antibiotics in livestock, many praised the new plan as an ambitious first step. “This is the most serious proposal on this issue from any U.S. president, ever,” says Boston University health law professor Kevin Outterson.


    Scientists' media contact curbed

    Government scientists in the United Kingdom must now get permission from agency ministers before speaking to the media, according to a recent change in the Civil Service Code for public workers. Advocates for science communication last week expressed “deep concern” about the change. “We believe this will have a negative impact on the public understanding of science and the quality of the public discourse on some of the most important and contentious issues of our times,” wrote the Science Media Centre in London, the Association of British Science Writers, and Stempra, a network of science public relations workers. Similar restrictions on media contact in Canada have led to long delays in granting interviews with scientists and the omission of Canadian research from media stories.

    Mexico City

    Mexico submits climate plan

    Mexico will cut its greenhouse gas emissions 22% by the year 2030, the country pledged to the United Nations on 27 March. It is the first developing country to submit its climate action plan in advance of the Paris summit in December, where world leaders hope to hammer out a global climate change accord. Mexico now contributes 1.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. “As a developing country, we want to participate,” said Roberto Dondisch Glowinski, who represents Mexico in the U.N. climate talks, in an interview with the website ClimateWire. “Believe me, these numbers are not going to be easy for us, but we are committed.”

    Washington, D.C.

    New plan for asteroid mission

    Rather than bag up an entire asteroid, NASA has decided to pluck a boulder off an asteroid's surface and bring it back to the vicinity of Earth, officials in charge of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) announced last week. The $1.25 billion mission, to launch in December 2020, would send a robotic spacecraft to rendezvous with an asteroid in 2022. The spacecraft will first collect a boulder several meters across from the asteroid; it will then orbit the asteroid for up to 400 days to test out an idea for defending Earth from an asteroid impact: using the spacecraft's own gravitational field to subtly alter the asteroid's orbit. The spacecraft would then bring the snatched rock back in 2025. But some scientists are skeptical about the mission, due to concerns that its costs could eat into science mission funding. ARM has also drawn skepticism from Congress, which will decide whether to fund it.


    NIAID head treats Ebola patients

    Anthony Fauci is head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. He wields a $4.4 billion research budget and has a punishing schedule. But in recent weeks, Fauci, 74, has reserved 2 hours on most days to put on a protective plastic suit and help treat a U.S. health care worker (who has not been identified) who became infected with Ebola in Sierra Leone. “I do believe that one gets unique insights into disease when you actually physically interact with patients,” says Fauci, who also helped treat Dallas nurse Nina Pham last October during her stay at NIH's Clinical Center. He adds he also wanted to show his staff that he wouldn't ask them to do anything he wouldn't do himself.


    Tiny warbler crosses big ocean

    Tagged blackpoll warbler


    A boreal songbird that fits in the palm of your hand still piles on enough fat to fly from Canada to the Caribbean islands. Some ornithologists suspected that the blackpoll warbler common in North America's subarctic evergreen forests takes a direct route over the Atlantic Ocean to South America for the winter. But because a blackpoll weighs just 12 grams, slightly more than a U.S. half dollar, others doubted the bird could make it that far. To find out, two teams of scientists put dimesized devices that record daylight and time on 20 blackpolls preparing to travel south. Postjourney, the team retrieved five of the tags—which showed that blackpolls do fly about 2500 kilometers over water, stopping off in the Caribbean en route to Venezuela, the teams report in a joint paper this week in Biology Letters.