News this Week

Science  01 May 2015:
Vol. 348, Issue 6234, pp. 480

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  1. This week's section

    New earthquake danger zones in U.S. heartland


    Scientists say that the injection of wastewater from oil and gas operations is triggering a surge in small earthquakes in the U.S. heartland, pushing critically stressed faults past the snapping point. On 23 April, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) released a report that identifies 17 areas in eight states with frequent induced earthquakes (boxed areas on map); in some areas, such as Oklahoma, the threat of earthquake shaking rivals that in California. Previous USGS hazard maps were built on decades if not centuries of data, but for the induced earthquake regions, the researchers modeled future hazards based on tremors only in the past year. USGS also offered hazard predictions for just 1 year into the future, rather than the usual 50 years, noting that uncertain factors such as the price of oil and actions of regulators could influence earthquake rates. Although most induced earthquakes so far have been small, some have been big enough to damage buildings—and USGS says it can't rule out the possibility of a magnitude-7 temblor.

    Holy batwings! Dino had webbed forelimbs


    Test your dinosaur knowledge: The creature depicted here a) is the only known flying dino with wings like those of a bat or a flying squirrel, rather than a bird; b) had wings made of skin rather than feathers; or c) has the shortest name ever given to a dinosaur. Answer: All of the above. The 160-million-year-old dinosaur, dubbed Yi qi (“strange wing” in Mandarin Chinese, and pronounced “ee chee”), was discovered in northeastern China and is reported this week in Nature. It weighed just under 400 grams and was closely related to the earliest birds (like the 150-million-year-old Archaeopteryx). But unlike any other bird or dino, Yi qi had stiff rods projecting from each wrist that apparently supported wings made of skin, as suggested by the remains of membranous material found between the rods. Researchers are pretty sure that it could fly, but whether it was a glider or was capable of powered flight is not yet clear.

    A fiery reawakening

    The eruption of Chile's Calbuco volcano, seen from Puerto Montt on 22 April.


    The Calbuco volcano broke its 43-year dormant streak when it erupted twice last week, in the late afternoon of 22 April and the early morning of 23 April. The eruptions sent ash plumes billowing as high as 17 kilometers into the atmosphere, and thousands were evacuated from the surrounding areas. Over the course of 3 days, Calbuco belched out 210 million cubic meters of ash, Chile's National Geology and Mining Service (SERNAGEOMIN) reported. There were no injuries or deaths, but many buildings in the rural region have collapsed under the weight of the falling ash, according to BBC. SERNAGEOMIN warns that another round of destruction could be on its way: Heavy rains forecasted in the coming weeks could set off lahars, or landslides of volcanic material.

    “We clearly need a fundamental change of course, to protect the earth and its people. … This moral obligation extends to all.”

    Cardinal Peter Turkson, urging action on 28 April at a Vatican summit on climate change and poverty. Pope Francis is expected to release an encyclical on the environment in June.

    By the numbers

    75%—Human-induced global warming accounts for this fraction of heat extremes worldwide, and 18% of heavy precipitation events, finds a study in Nature Climate Change.

    47.4%—Fraction of people in an Indiana community study who tested positive for HIV after sharing syringes or having sex with HIV-infected injection drug users.

    200—Levels, in parts per million, of flame retardant chemical polybrominated diphenyl ether found in a Cooper's hawk near Vancouver, Canada, called the most polluted wild bird in the world.

    Around the world

    Vallon-Pont-D'Arc, France

    Replica of a cave of wonders


    When spelunkers discovered the 36,000-year-old Chauvet Cave in southern France's Ardèche region in 1994, they beheld exquisite paintings of horses, lions, bison, and other animals. These ancient masterpieces—the oldest cave drawings then known—rewrote the prehistory of art. At the urging of archaeologists, the French government, worried about damage to the works from exhaled CO2, locked the cave behind a steel door and allowed in only cave art experts and occasional VIPs. But now tourists can get an idea of the wonders experienced by early humans and researchers: Last week, a $59 million replica of Chauvet opened just down the road in the village of Vallon-Pont-d'Arc. On walls fashioned from mortar and resin, skilled painters, supervised by Chauvet archaeologists, recreated some 400 artworks using natural pigments and working directly from digital photographs taken during the last 20 years of research.

    Arraial Do Cabo, Brazil

    Invasive lionfish found off Brazil

    The spread of the lionfish continues. The venomous coral reef dwellers, native to tropical Indian and western Pacific waters, have spread rapidly in less than 30 years across the eastern U.S. coast, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean (possibly introduced by aquarium dumping in the mid-1990s). Now, scientists say, the voracious lionfish—which have a strong appetite for native reef fish—have reached the southeastern coast of Brazil, crossing what was once thought to be a substantial barrier to its dispersal, the freshwater and sediment plume emerging from the mouth of the Amazon and Orinoco rivers. In 2014, recreational divers speared a lionfish of the species Pterois volitans in the reefs off Brazil's southeastern coast. A new genetic analysis of the fish, published last week in PLOS ONE, links it to the Caribbean invaders. This could spell significant trouble for native Brazilian reef fish, already suffering from overfishing and habitat degradation.

    Washington, D.C.

    Chilly climate for COMPETES bill

    The chair of the science committee in the U.S. House of Representatives and his Republican colleagues acknowledge that global climate is changing—but not that humans are the driving force. Last week, the committee approved a controversial bill to reshape U.S. science policy by a straight party-line vote (Science, 24 April, p. 380). Attempts by Democrats to revise portions of the COMPETES bill that they believe are hampering the National Science Foundation and research at the Department of Energy were voted down. An amendment by Representative Eric Swalwell (D–CA) offering “the sense of Congress that climate change is real and human activity significantly contributes to climate change” did pass—but only after the panel's chair, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), lopped off the second clause. And even that toothless statement was too bold for two Republicans, who voted no.

    Laurel, Maryland

    MESSENGER goes out with a bang

    MESSENGER has delivered its final missive. NASA's mission to the planet Mercury, launched in 2004, flew past Venus twice and Mercury three times before settling into orbit around Mercury in 2011. In those 4 years, the MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft provided new evidence that the planet has water ice and other volatiles in its permanently shadowed polar craters, probably delivered by comets and asteroids. The spacecraft also discovered a dark, probably carbon-rich layer overlying most of the polar deposits, also most likely from comets—an intriguing possible analog to the early delivery of water and organic compounds to Earth. Now, more than 3 years past its expected mission end date, the spacecraft has finally run out of propellant, and gravity has taken over. At press time, the spacecraft was expected to crash into Mercury's surface on 30 April at a speed of more than 3.91 kilometers per second.


    Malaria vaccine's mixed results

    The final results from a clinical trial of the first malaria vaccine are as lackluster as preliminary results suggested they would be. More than 15,000 children and infants in seven African countries received either three shots of the malaria vaccine known as RTS,S, three shots of RTS,S plus a booster, or a control vaccine. The vaccine worked best with the booster: Older children who received all four shots had a third fewer cases of malaria, and severe complications of the disease were also reduced by a third. Older children who didn't receive the booster also had a third fewer cases of malaria, but there was no effect on severe complications, scientists reported this week in The Lancet. Meanwhile, malaria may be on the rise following the Ebola outbreak in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, a separate team of scientists reported in The Lancet Infectious Diseases. The disease already kills half a million children a year, mostly in Africa; in the new study, modelers from Imperial College London estimated that the disruption of health care services may have led to up to 3.5 million extra untreated malaria cases and 11,000 deaths in 2014 in those countries. They say emergency interventions like mass drug administration are urgently needed while health systems recover.

    Women's cancer drug helps men

    A new breast cancer drug may also help men with prostate cancer (shown).


    A new type of cancer drug originally aimed at women with rare, inherited forms of breast and ovarian cancer may also help many men with deadly prostate cancer, according to a study presented last week in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research. The drug is AstraZeneca's olaparib, which blocks an enzyme called PARP that helps cancer cells survive chemotherapy and radiation by repairing DNA damage. Oncologists are often testing PARP inhibitors in ovarian and breast cancer patients born with mutations in BRCA1 or BRCA2, two genes also involved in DNA repair. But a team led by Johann de Bono of the Institute of Cancer Research and the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust in London found that 16 of 49 men with metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer also responded to olaparib, usually for at least 6 months. Nearly all of them had inherited mutations in BRCA or other DNA repair genes or had acquired mutations to these genes in their tumors.