News this Week

Science  05 Jun 2015:
Vol. 348, Issue 6239, pp. 1062
  1. This week's section

    Mystery malady kills saiga antelopes

    Burial pit for saiga antelopes that have died in central Kazakhstan.

    PHOTO: SERGEI KHOMENKO/FAO

    A mysterious illness is sweeping through the critically endangered saiga antelopes of Central Asia. Since 10 May, some 120,000—about half of the world's saiga (Saiga tatarica) population—have died of the unidentified ailment, which causes severe diarrhea and respiratory problems. Saiga (pictured above) are known for these strange die-offs, particularly during calving season when herds of females give birth within 1 week, creating perfect conditions for disease to spread because of their close proximity. But the current crisis is more alarming—and puzzling—as entire herds of mothers and calves are falling ill at the same time, even when hundreds of kilometers apart. Using tissue samples collected from the Betpak-Dala region of Kazakhstan, where the die-off is centered, scientists at the Royal Veterinary College in Hatfield, U.K., have narrowed the possible diseases to two types of bacterial infections or to a viral ailment transmitted by mosquitoes. They hope lab tests will provide a definitive diagnosis.

    ‘Hellboy’ dino was a close relative of Triceratops

    IMAGE: JULIUS T. CSOTONYI/COURTESY OF ROYAL TYRRELL MUSEUM, DRUMHELLER, ALBERTA

    They call him “Hellboy,” and it's easy to see why. In addition to the sharp horns on his nose and over his eyes, which were probably used for defense against predators like Tyrannosaurus rex, the newly dubbed Regaliceratops peterhewsi dinosaur had a particularly ornate frill behind its head, most likely for sexual display. Although he is definitely a cousin of the famed Triceratops, Hellboy's horns and frill more closely resemble those of another group of horned dinos that includes Centrosaurus. Those dinos were already extinct by the time the new dino roamed what is now Alberta province in Canada, 68 million years ago, the researchers report online this week in Current Biology. That means his ornamentation is a case of independent evolutionary invention, the authors say. The paper includes another example of what might be called sexual display: At its very end, the lead author asks a fellow researcher at the museum to marry him. (After seeing a preprint, she said yes.) http://scim.ag/dinohellboy

    Great Barrier Reef still a World Heritage Site—for now

    PHOTO: © REDBRICKSTOCK.COM/ALAMY

    Australia's Great Barrier Reef (GBR) has narrowly avoided earning an embarrassing “in danger” listing by the United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture's World Heritage Committee. In a draft decision announced on 29 May, the World Heritage Committee working group noted “with concern” that the overall outlook for the reef is “poor,” and that climate change, poor water quality, and coastal development are major threats to its health. The decision—which will be approved or amended by the full committee later this month—allows the GBR (shown) to keep its current World Heritage Area status, but requires Australia to report on progress to safeguard the reef from further decline by 1 December 2016. If “anticipated progress” is not demonstrated by that time, an “in danger” listing will be reconsidered in 2017. Australia will also have to report in 2020 on whether the nation's Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan is meeting its targets. http://scim.ag/GBRWHC

    “It's going to end brain research in this country. It will be disastrous.”

    David Nutt, a former chief drug adviser to the U.K. government, complaining that a new bill to ban the sale of all psychoactive substances in the country will stifle scientists' access to compounds.

    By the numbers

    47—Number of colleges that graduated half of all 918 MacArthur Foundation “genius” award winners, according to a report intended to highlight the diversity of recipients. Eleven percent of fellows attended either Harvard University or Princeton University.

    40—Number of robotics engineers that Uber Technologies Inc. has hired away from Carnegie Mellon University, to develop autonomous vehicles that can replace human drivers.

    $4 million—Funds raised so far for the Big Bang Theory Scholarship Endowment by the cast and crew of the popular TV show to help support University of California, Los Angeles, students in STEM fields.

    Around the world

    Seoul

    Asia battles MERS outbreak

    Authorities in South Korea and China are scrambling to contain an outbreak of the deadly Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), a viral disease discovered in 2012 that has sickened at least 1000 people and killed more than 500, most of them in the Arabian Peninsula. The Asian cluster of cases, already the largest ever outside the Middle East, started when a South Korean business traveler returned to Seoul from the Middle East in early May. He fell ill a week later and was diagnosed with MERS on 20 May after being treated at three different clinics. As Science went to press, 24 others had been diagnosed with MERS as well, and two had died. Korea has already quarantined 700 people, but one contact broke his quarantine and, after a 26 May stop in Hong Kong, traveled to China's Guangdong province, where he was diagnosed with MERS. So far, no further cases have been reported from China or Hong Kong. http://scim.ag/MERSkorea

    Brussels

    ERC shielded from cuts

    The European Commission will cut €2.2 billion from its research program Horizon 2020 to fodder a controversial new investment fund aimed at boosting Europe's sluggish economy. But the European Research Council (ERC), a popular basic science fund that's part of Horizon 2020, will escape the budget knife thanks to intense pressure from E.U. parliamentarians and scientists. In January, the commission had proposed trimming €2.7 billion from Horizon 2020's budget—which totals €74 billion through 2020—including €221.2 million from ERC's envelope. After a series of talks, the commission announced on 28 May that it would find €500 million elsewhere. Also safe from cuts are the Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions, which provide funding for Ph.D. and postdoc fellowships, and a program called Spreading Excellence and Widening Participation, which aims at helping member states with poor research performance. http://scim.ag/ERCcut

    Washington, D.C.

    Treat HIV immediately

    Last week, a study of 4685 HIV-infected people across 35 countries was halted early, because results showed that immediate treatment with antiviral drugs cut the risk of disease and death in half; the study's placebo arm will now be offered the drugs. The finding brings to a close a divisive issue. The United States and many other countries already recommended treating everyone diagnosed with an HIV infection, but guidelines in the United Kingdom and elsewhere called for starting treatment only after immune system damage occurs, in part because of worries about long-term toxicities of the drugs. The Strategic Timing of Antiretroviral Treatment trial, which began in April 2009 and was supposed to run through 2016, was the first randomized, controlled clinical trial to evaluate the benefits of early treatment. Its data also validate the push to use treatment as a prevention tool, as HIV-infected people on antiretrovirals are far less likely to transmit the virus to others.

    Monrovia

    Chimp care in Liberia assailed

    Chimps at the Liberian rehabilitation center for apes.

    IMAGE: © ALBRECHT G. SCHAEFER/CORBIS

    A dispute over who should fund the care and feeding of 66 chimpanzees living on island sanctuaries in Liberia has sparked a campaign for the animals. Researchers with the New York Blood Center (NYBC) in New York City had tested hepatitis vaccines in the chimps before moving them in 2006 to mangrove islands, where they roam freely. NYBC was contributing to the estimated $30,000 per month required for the chimps' care. But the center recently cut off funding and is in arbitration with the Liberian government over sharing the financial burden for the animals' well-being. Concerned that the sanctuaries are not supplying the chimps with food and water, Brian Hare, a great ape researcher at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, has launched a petition (http://bit.ly/chimppetition) urging NYBC to restore funding.

    Palmyra, Syria

    IS group to spare Palmyra

    An Islamic State military commander said last week that the archaeological sites at the central Syrian city of Palmyra will not be destroyed. Palmyra is one of six World Heritage Sites in Syria, and archaeologists feared that the city's beautifully preserved ruins dating back to roughly 2000 years ago would be looted and torn down. The Islamic State group has bulldozed the ruins of another World Heritage Site—the city of Hatra in northern Iraq—and licensed the sale of archaeological artifacts. Although the group has said that Palmyra will not be targeted, it does plan to destroy religious buildings and artifacts such as statues, which it believes violate the Islamic law against idolatry. Satellite images confirm that Palmyra's archaeological sites are intact for now. Many, but not all, of the city's statues and artifacts were evacuated by President Bashar al-Assad's forces before the Islamic State group took the city.

    Washington, D.C.

    U.S. revises wetlands rule

    Seasonal streams and small wetlands in the United States will get greater protection from development under a controversial federal rule issued on 27 May. The rule, written by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency, is designed to clarify which water bodies are covered by the Clean Water Act. Builders and others will now be required to receive a permit before disturbing smaller water bodies that have a hydrological connection to a larger river or lake. Many conservation scientists welcomed the rule, which they say will help protect vulnerable ecosystems. Industry and farm groups, however, have vowed to block its implementation in court or through action by Congress.

    Newsmakers

    Explaining sleep to 11-year-olds

    “Danger! If you don't sleep, you'll die!” That's the prizewinning message from materials scientist Brandon Aldinger in the latest version of the Flame Challenge—an annual competition to encourage scientists to share their research in clear and accessible terms. Some 20,000 11-year-old judges from around the world decided Aldinger, who designs transparent armor for soldiers at a small company in Saxonburg, Pennsylvania, should receive the $1000 prize for best written answer. Health physics master's student Eric Galicia of the Illinois Institute of Technology won $1000 for the best video. The contest, created by actor and science communicator Alan Alda and sponsored in part by AAAS, which publishes Science, has previously challenged scientists to explain flame, time, and color.

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