News this Week

Science  08 May 2015:
Vol. 348, Issue 6235, pp. 612

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  1. This week's section

    Whale mouths sport bungee-cord nerves

    Feeding humpback whales can open wide thanks to expandable nerves (right).


    When a humpback whale gets hungry, it pumps its tail and fluke to lunge through the briny, prey-laden water with its jaw dangling nearly perpendicular to its body. To accommodate that mouthful, the family of baleen whales called rorquals (Balaenopteridae)—which includes blue, fin, and humpback whales—has evolved unique features such as highly flexible jaw joints, a deformable tongue that inverts into a sac to hold the seawater, and grooved, expandable blubber on their under sides. Now, scientists have identified another necessary adaptation: Nerves in the whales' tongue and mouth can extend to more than double their original length. Stretching vertebrate nerves normally leads to pain, paralysis, or even the detachment of nerve roots from the spinal cord. But researchers report this week in Current Biology that rorquals' nerves consist of a core of folded bundles of nerve fibers surrounded by a thick wall of folded collagen and elastin—the same protein that keeps skin elastic. The nerves unfold until the collagen stiffens, preventing overelongation, and the elastin snaps the nerves to their previous shape.

    “[T]he application of reason, more than any other means, has proven to offer hope for human survival on Earth.”

    U.S. Representative Mike Honda (D–CA), introducing a resolution to declare a National Day of Reason as a secular alternative to the National Day of Prayer

    Three Q's

    A protester in Baltimore throws a gas canister back at police during riots on 28 April.


    Riots convulsed Baltimore, Maryland's streets last week following the funeral of a 25-year-old African-American man who died in police custody. Dan Braha, a social scientist at the New England Complex Systems Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has been collecting Twitter data related to the riot as part of a larger study of social media and civil unrest.

    Q:How does Baltimore's rioting compare to that in Ferguson, London, and elsewhere?

    A:In terms of the communications and patterns of spread, they are remarkably similar. Even if the causes are different, there seems to be a universal pattern to civil unrest.

    Q:What can you learn about the Baltimore riots from social media?

    A:It's interesting to see the pattern of spread, much like forest f res, spreading in clusters and locally. The riots, in my view, could easily spread across other cities in the United States where racial tensions are high and are close to a tipping point.

    Q:How do you spot this tipping point?

    A:There are three basic data from tweets: location, time, and intensity. First, you create a network of communication, where the nodes are people or groups. Then, you correlate the communication patterns with characteristics such as gender [and] political attitudes. … It is the intensity of the communication—how many messages over time—that predicts what is to come. Full interview at

    Around the world

    Washington, D.C.

    House bill recommends NIH boost

    The U.S. House of Representatives last week released a bi partisan draft bill that aims to jump-start biomedical innovation with new policies at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Food and Drug Administration. The 21st Century Cures Act, spearheaded by Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton (R–MI) and a senior democrat, Diana DeGette (D–CO), delighted research advocates with a suggested NIH budget increase of $10 billion over 5 years. An earlier draft released by Upton in January failed to win DeGette's support and disappointed NIH advocates (Science, 6 February, p. 594). The new version cuts incentives for drug developers and creates an NIH innovation fund to support “young emerging scientists,” precision medicine, and a third unspecified category.

    Jodrell Bank, U.K.

    Giant telescope picks U.K. HQ

    The countries building the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), a vast radio telescope to be constructed in South Africa and Australia, have turned down the chance of headquartering it in the historic Castello Carrarese in Padua, Italy, in favor of a new purpose-built HQ at SKA's current interim home near Manchester, U.K. Castello Carrarese, until recently used as a prison, made early running in the race to host the HQ. “Both [nations] offered substantial financial support,” says SKA Director General Philip Diamond. But the 11 member countries opted for the United Kingdom, which will chip in £200 million to the project, including the HQ bid and its contribution to phase I of construction from 2018 to 2023.

    Washington, D.C.

    Americas declared rubella-free

    Rubella virus


    North and South America have become the first region in the world to eliminate rubella, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) announced on 29 April. Rubella symptoms are usually mild, but if contracted in early pregnancy, the virus can lead to miscarriage or birth defects known as congenital rubella syndrome (CRS). The last endemic cases of rubella in the Americas were reported in Argentina in 2009, and the last case of CRS was reported in Brazil the same year. The 15-year-long elimination campaign vaccinated an estimated 250 million adolescents and adults in 32 countries and territories in the Americas, said PAHO Director Carissa Etienne.

    Tübingen, Germany

    Researcher drops primate work

    A researcher targeted by animal rights activists is giving up his work on primates. Nikos Logothetis, a director at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics, says that he will conclude his experiments on macaques “as quickly as possible” and focus future work on rodents. In a 28 April letter, he cited the failure of the Max Planck Society (MPS) and other scientific organizations to press criminal charges against aggressive activists as a factor in his decision. Logothetis's research was the subject of a German television program in September that included footage filmed by an undercover activist. MPS says it was advised not to bring charges against the activist.


    California climate goals

    California has raised the bar for global climate change action. The state, halfway to its goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, now aims to drive carbon pollution 40% below that mark by 2030. Governor Jerry Brown signed an executive order on 29 April matching the European Union's ambitious pledge for international climate change negotiations, to be finalized in Paris this December. California, unlike Europe, has created jobs while slashing carbon. The move by the world's eighth largest economy will inspire nations to aim high on climate action, Brown's supporters say. Critics maintain California business will suffer if the state is too far ahead of the pack. Indeed, because California generates less than 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions, Brown's move helps the planet only if others follow.