News this Week

Science  17 Apr 2015:
Vol. 348, Issue 6232, pp. 264

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  1. This week's section

    A dwarf planet's mysterious mottled landscape


    About 20 years ago, the Hubble Space Telescope observed several curious bright spots on the surface of the dwarf planet Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Now, scientists are getting a much closer look. NASA's Dawn spacecraft, which was captured by Ceres's gravity on 6 March, has been offering the first close-up look at the surface of a dwarf planet in a series of images it took last month. The images offered evidence that the spots might be plumes of ice bursting out of the dwarf planet's surface. But new images from the spacecraft, released this week at the annual meeting of the European Geosciences Union in Vienna, paint a more complex picture. A false-color map of Ceres's surface (pictured) shows that only some of the bright spots remain visible at infrared wavelengths, which could suggest different origins than the icy plumes. The map also reveals that the dwarf planet's surface has fewer large craters—a possible sign of geologic activity—than researchers expected.

    New species of ‘terror bird’ discovered


    Famed for their large hooked beaks and a presumed taste for meat, flightless “terror birds” (above, in an artist's representation) were among South America's top predators before going extinct about 2.5 million years ago. Now, paleontologists have unearthed one of the most complete fossils of a terror bird—known as a phorusrhacid—to date. The skeleton of the new species is nearly 95% complete, giving scientists the ability to study a terror bird's anatomy in unprecedented detail. So far, researchers say, the most interesting information has come from CT scans of the bird's inner ear, which show that it had a much lower range of hearing than its closest relatives. The fossil, missing only a few wing and toe bones and the tip of its stubby tail, was excavated in northeastern Argentina in 2010 from material laid down as sediment about 3.5 million years ago.

    Panel: Thumbs-down to Japan's plan to hunt minke whales

    A panel nixed Japanese research whaling in the Antarctic. (This minke whale was landed north of Japan.)


    Experts on a review panel gave a thumbs-down to Japan's latest proposal to resume hunting minke whales in the Antarctic for scientific research. The panel, which was convened by the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), released its nonbinding report this week from a February meeting in Tokyo. From 1987 to 2014, Japan killed 10,000 whales in the Antarctic under a special IWC clause that permits “scientific whaling.” But in March 2014, the International Court of Justice ruled that Japan's whaling was not “for purposes of scientific whaling.” Japan agreed to revise its research plan. But the panel has concluded that Japan's new proposal to harpoon nearly 4000 additional minke whales over the next 12 years fails to demonstrate why its scientists need to kill any whales to achieve their research objectives. Japan's fisheries officials say they are open to revising their proposal, although they did not give details. If Japan abides by the panel's recommendations, it will collect samples nonlethally next year during its proposed whale hunting season.

    “I'm 110% committed to being a scientist … [but] 110% effort may not be enough if I can't afford to get to the conferences where I may meet somebody that gives me [a] job.”

    Marine sociologist Edward Hind; his #SciSpends survey asked scientists what they spend to advance their careers.

    #IAmAScientistBecause …

    A cheerful meme swept through the Twitter science community last week: Biologists, physicists, geologists, and others proclaimed why they love their work. See some of our favorites below and at

    there are moments when I learn something in the lab and think, I'm the only human that knows this right now

    @DrWorms (Brian D. Ackley)

    my honest answer to “what would you want to do all day if you didn't need money” is “what I actually am doing”

    @WhySharksMatter (David Shiffman)

    Science turns “I don't know” into “I don't know... yet” and you won't find anything more empowering than that.

    @orzelc (Chad Orzel)

    By the numbers

    3.3 million—Age, in years, of the earliest known human tools. The tools were found at a site in Kenya, scientists reported this week at the Paleoanthropology Society's annual meeting in San Francisco, California.

    $13 million—The largest education donation to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History to date, made to support the museum's science education center, Q?rius.

    Around the world

    Geneva, Switzerland

    WHO backs trial result access

    The movement to make results from clinical trials publicly available has found an important new ally. On 14 April, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a statement calling for the public release of all key clinical trial outcomes within a year after data collection ends and for publication of the findings in a peer-reviewed journal within 2 years. Recent research has shown that many studies still go unpublished, says WHO's Vasee Moorthy. This can harm patients and research volunteers, waste money, and distort scientists' understanding of the state of the art of their science. “It's unethical to conduct clinical research without reporting the results,” Moorthy says. WHO also called for the publication of results from older, finished trials that have never been made public.

    São Paulo, Brazil

    GM eucalyptus approved in Brazil

    Test plot of FuturaGene's GM eucalyptus.


    Commercial planting of genetically modified eucalyptus trees has been approved for the first time anywhere by the National Biosafety Technical Commission of Brazil. The trees were developed by FuturaGene of São Paulo, a subsidiary of Suzano Pulp and Paper. The trees grow about 20% more wood than standard ones—a feature the company expects will allow it to reduce its carbon emissions by cutting the distance the wood must travel to mills. Development began in 2001, and the trees have been in field trials since 2006. Commercial planting was approved on 10 April, shortly after a meeting of the commission was canceled due to protests by the Brazil Landless Workers' Movement. The protesters also destroyed GM seedlings at FuturaGene's research station in Itapetininga, 170 kilometers west of São Paulo.

    Southborough, Massachusetts

    Monkey deaths prompt new probe

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture has launched an investigation into Harvard University's New England Primate Research Center after several suspicious deaths at the facility. The inquiry coincides with a series of articles published by The Boston Globe, which has uncovered potential animal welfare violations at the center, including a dozen dehydrated squirrel monkeys found dead in their cages or euthanized because of poor health between 1999 and 2011. In several cases it appears that the animals were not given water or were unable to drink due to malfunctioning water lines. Some of these animals were the subject of a 2014 Veterinary Pathology paper on the impact of dehydration on lab animals. The journal says it is investigating this study. The primate center is set to close at the end of next month—although, the Globe notes, the university blames finances, not animal care problems.


    Three Q's

    Scientific labs generate a lot of waste, a fact that bothered biomedical engineer Joshua Resnikoff (also co-founder of eco-friendly company Cuppow!). So last October, he founded Labconscious (, an open community where scientists can share tips and tricks to help each other green their labs.

    Q:How did you get interested in reducing lab waste?

    A:I'm a biomedical engineer by training. In life science, there's an unbelievable amount of waste that comes out of the lab. I'm a big environmentalist—I take the time to sort my recycling at home. It's always been a hard juxtaposition to go from biking to work to throwing all of this plastic away.

    Q:What's the purpose of the blog?

    A:We don't pretend to be the experts in the room about any of this stuff. The real goal of the blog is to get the conversation going and raise awareness so that people can trade tips and best practices and better products that they've discovered on their own.

    Q:Can you share a few quick tips?

    A:One, recycle your pipette tip boxes—don't throw them into the biohazard bin. Two, shut the sash on your bio hood and chemical fume hood when it's not in use to save energy. And look for vendors that have green product alternatives.

    Artificial trachea pioneer cleared

    Paolo Macchiarini, a thoracic surgeon who attracted widespread attention for transplanting artificial tracheae into patients—and then faced charges of scientific misconduct—has been found not guilty in the first of two investigations into his work. The ethics council of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm began its investigation after receiving concerns last year about misrepresentation of results in Macchiarini's papers. In its report, released 14 April, the council dismissed the issues. “We are now happy that everything has been cleared,” Macchiarini says. Pierre Delaere, a head and neck surgeon at UZ Leuven in Belgium who brought the case against Macchiarini, says he is “stunned.” Another ongoing investigation claims that Macchiarini did not get properly informed consent from patients, a charge he denies. Macchiarini, who splits his time between the Karolinska Institute and Kuban State Medical University in Krasnodar, Russia, says his team has “moved forward” and no longer works on tracheae.


    Vampire bats prefer bacon

    Examining animal droppings is not glamorous—even if you're studying vampires. But for scientists interested in the diet of the common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus), it's one of the few ways to learn what they eat. In a new study in the Journal of Mammalogy, researchers used DNA from the bats' feces to learn whose blood they suck and which blood they like best. They found that more than 60% of their viable samples—collected from 18 villages in the Amazon—contained chicken DNA, while just 30% contained pig DNA. After accounting for the relative scarcity of pigs, the scientists found that swine took the prize: Vampire bats were seven times more likely to feed on pigs than chance would predict.