News this Week

Science  15 May 2015:
Vol. 348, Issue 6236, pp. 736
  1. This week's section

    Liberia cautiously hails Ebola's end

    Women in Liberia celebrate the announcement of the end of the Ebola epidemic in their country.


    The Ebola epidemic in Liberia is officially over. Cases have been declining there since October, and on 9 May—42 days after the last confirmed Ebola patient was buried—the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the country free of the disease. (The incubation period for Ebola is up to 21 days, and WHO requires a country go twice that period without cases before it declares the official end of an outbreak.) The epidemic claimed more than 4700 lives in Liberia, including nearly 200 health care workers. Replacing lost doctors and nurses is only one of the daunting challenges the country still faces, however. The epidemic continues in neighboring Guinea and Sierra Leone and could cross the border again. Although scientists still don't know where the virus lurks in wildlife, many predict that another outbreak in West Africa is only a matter of time. Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf says the country will try to use the lessons learned during the epidemic to strengthen its health system. She spent 9 May shaking hands—a practice discouraged during the epidemic—with survivors and family members of those who died.

    How old is the baby, really?

    Wrinkles in a baby's foot hold clues to its gestational age.


    Wondering exactly how many weeks a baby was in the womb? There's an app for that. BabyFace, the brainchild of researchers at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, asks new parents to upload photos of their babies' feet, face, and ears, as well as their gestational ages, to an online database that, the scientists hope, will make it easier to gauge a baby's time in the womb. The depth of foot wrinkles and the roundness of eyes are among several subtle clues. The app is designed for babies born between 28 days early and 14 days late, and the eventual goal is to use it to craft a second app, NeoGest, which will assist doctors and families in the developing world who want to gauge a baby's prematurity. The project brings together computer scientists and child health experts at the university and is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

    Ground-dwelling birds build complex nests


    Living on the ground floor isn't always a bargain—at least when it comes to a bird's nest. A nest can be anything from a few twigs thrown together on a flat space to an elaborately woven hanging orb—but in one family of birds, those species that live lower down tend to build more elaborate nests, scientists report this week in The Auk: Ornithological Advances. Although a simple cup-shaped nest suffices for this bearded parrotbill (shown), which lives a meter high among cobweb-laden grass stalks, the parrotbill's ground-based relatives build more elaborate dome-shaped lairs to keep predators away from their young. To understand why birds have such different housing tastes, neurobiologist Zachary Hall of the University of Toronto analyzed nest placement and type across the family tree of 90 species of Old World babblers like the parrotbill. In previous work, Hall had helped establish that birds with more complex nests have more folds in the cerebellum, a part of the motor control section of the brain. Now, he and his colleagues report that for these birds, the more complex domed nests coevolved with the move to the ground.

    “Until you put a million hours into it, shut up.”

    California Governor Jerry Brown, in a speech to water agency officials last week, chastising critics of the state's plan to build twin tunnels under the Sacramento–San Joaquin River delta.

    By the numbers

    2.6–2.9 millimeters—Annual rise in global mean sea level from 1993 to 2014, according to a Nature Climate Change study. During the 1990s, the rise was slower than previous estimates, suggesting that it is now accelerating.

    7.3—Magnitude of another strong earthquake that rocked Nepal on 11 May, just over 2 weeks after a 7.8-magnitude quake struck and killed at least 8000 people.

    1.2 million—Hectares of trees lost globally since 2001, threatening species from whooping cranes in Canada to rare Peruvian frogs, according to a recent World Resources Institute analysis.

    Around the world


    Nobelists defend animal research

    Sixteen Nobel laureates have added their voices to a chorus of 149 science organizations defending existing E.U.-wide rules for animal research. In an open letter published last week, the group warns that repealing the current rules, as a citizens' initiative has proposed, would harm biomedical research in Europe. More than 1 million citizens from 26 countries have formally urged the European Commission to scrap a 2010 directive that regulates the use of animals in scientific research. The Stop Vivisection European Citizens' Initiative, submitted to the commission in March, calls for a “paradigm shift in the way biomedical and toxicological research are being conducted.” The proponents want the commission to put forward a fresh proposal phasing out animal testing in favor of “more accurate, reliable, human-relevant methods.” The commission must now consider turning the proposal into legislation; it has until early June to respond.

    Washington, D.C.

    White House OKs Arctic drilling

    Activists in Seattle protest Arctic drilling plans.


    Royal Dutch Shell has cleared a major hurdle toward its second attempt at oil exploration in the Arctic Ocean. On 11 May, the Obama administration gave conditional approval for the company to resume drilling this summer in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska's coast. The move comes 3 years after a series of problems, including the grounding of one of its offshore rigs due to rough seas, forced Shell to suspend its operations and embroiled the company in lawsuits by environmental and native groups. Before receiving the go-ahead, Shell must still obtain state and federal drilling permits for six planned exploration wells. Shell must also abide by Arctic-specific safety regulations released by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management this past February. The administration's decision has angered environmental groups still smarting from a January decision to open up part of the Atlantic coast to drilling (Science, 30 January, p. 460). Drilling opponents fear an accident, noting that the Arctic region lacks data on both the fate of oil in the cold environment and the infrastructure for rapid response.

    New Brunswick, New Jersey

    Bioethicists to weigh drug access

    Pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson announced last week it will convene a panel of bioethicists to help decide how to respond to patient requests for access to experimental drugs outside of clinical trials. If denied, these appeals can create bad publicity, but granting such requests poses a dilemma for drugmakers, because unapproved treatments have not yet been proven safe or effective and can be costly to supply. The new committee, to be overseen by New York University bioethicist Arthur Caplan, will help the company “better weigh what we know about these therapies against the patient's condition and risk factors,” said Amrit Ray, chief medical officer for Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies, in a statement. The move could serve as a new model for companies to address “compassionate use,” an issue that has recently inspired a series of controversial state laws (Science, 20 June 2014, p. 1329).

    Geneva, Switzerland

    Pricey drugs on ‘essential’ list

    Several expensive new drugs that treat hepatitis C and some common cancers are on the latest Essential Medicines List (EML) published by the World Health Organization (WHO). An expert committee selects medicines every 2 years for the list based on scientific evidence that the drugs work and are safe and cost-effective. This year's list, released 8 May, includes five new drugs that target the hepatitis C virus (HCV) and 16 new cancer medicines, including pricey drugs such as sofosbuvir for HCV and the antileukemia drug Gleevec. “We are trying to use the list as leverage for increasing access and further actions on a global level,” says Italian pharmacologist Nicola Magrini, WHO's top overseer of EML. Many developing countries use EML to help determine how much money they invest in different medicines. Magrini describes the list as “a flag” from a neutral party that a “cost-effective” drug is of little use if countries cannot afford it.

    Sydney, Australia

    Climate skeptic's center in limbo

    The Australian government's controversial plan to help fund a think tank in collaboration with global warming skeptic Bjørn Lomborg has unraveled—for now. Last month, the University of Western Australia (UWA) in Perth announced plans to host an Australian Consensus Centre in collaboration with Lomborg's Copenhagen Consensus Center that UWA said would focus on how to prioritize global aid spending, not climate change (Science, 24 April, p. 376). But Australia's conservative government outraged scientists already concerned with budget cuts to science funding when UWA announced the government would contribute AU$4 million to start the center and cover a third of its operating costs. In the wake of the uproar, UWA Vice-Chancellor Paul Johnson announced on 8 May with “great regret and disappointment” that he had advised the federal government that the university would cancel the center's contract and would return the money to the government. Australia's education minister has vowed to find a new home for the center.


    New science minister in U.K.


    In a Cabinet reshuffle after last week's general election that surprisingly left the Conservative Party with a ruling majority in the United Kingdom, Jo Johnson has been named the new minister for universities and science. His predecessor, Greg Clark, was promoted to minister for communities and local government. Johnson, a member of Parliament since 2010, studied history at the University of Oxford and worked as a journalist for the Financial Times for 13 years. Johnson will oversee higher education, research funding, and related areas. His record on science is scant, but he has taken positions on hot issues for universities, voting to increase tuition fees and supporting enrollment of foreign students.


    Drug-resistant typhoid on rise

    The world is facing an epidemic of multidrug-resistant typhoid fever, finds the largest study to date of genomes of Salmonella enterica Typhi, the bacterium that causes the diseases. Typhoid spreads through contaminated water or food, causing fever, headache, and other symptoms. It can lead to complications like gastrointestinal perforation and can kill up to 20% of patients. Now, a clone of the bacterium that's frequently multidrug-resistant, called H58, is rolling across Asia and Africa, the team found. They analyzed the genomes of 1832 samples from 21 countries in Asia, Africa, and Oceania. H58 likely emerged in South Asia around 1985, picking up resistance genes in the following years before spreading to Southeast Asia and Africa, the scientists report online this week in Nature Genetics. They plan to sequence many more typhoid isolates to pin down the origins of H58.

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