News this Week

Science  12 Jun 2015:
Vol. 348, Issue 6240, pp. 1180

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  1. This week's section

    Researchers call for Canada mining ban

    An oil sands refinery in Fort McMurray, Canada.


    More than 100 researchers are calling on Canadian officials to stop new mining of the nation's oil sands. New projects shouldn't start “unless consistent with an implemented plan to rapidly reduce carbon pollution, safeguard biodiversity, protect human health, and respect treaty rights,” the researchers wrote in a 10 June statement posted on The signers, who include a Nobel laureate, 12 fellows of the Royal Society of Canada, and 22 members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, offer 10 arguments for a moratorium, “each grounded in science.” For example, they write, a 2014 report by the government of Alberta—where large oil sands deposits are located—suggests that less than 0.2% of the area affected by oil sands mining has been reclaimed, despite the industry's assurances. They also note that studies suggest Canada can't meet its existing commitments to curb carbon emissions if mining expands. New development would show that “Canada has gone rogue,” said one signer, policy specialist Thomas Homer-Dixon of the University of Waterloo.

    When it was wet, Baja's bunnies went wild

    Ancient bones from black-tailed jackrabbits helped reveal El Niño's effects.


    In 2010, undergraduate student Isaac Hart of the University of Utah took on a monumental and menial task, sorting thousands of hare and rabbit bones collected in 2008 from an outcrop in Baja California into species. Five years later, Hart (now a graduate student at the university) and his colleagues say the bones are helping highlight the impact of climate change on vertebrate populations over the past 10,000 years. The 3463 bones, ranging from a few millimeters to about 10 centimeters long, belong to two cottontail species—which thrive in dense, moist habitats—and one hare, a jackrabbit that does well in dry, open spaces. By comparing the relative abundances in the layers of bones, they found that warm, wet El Niño years led to bunny booms even when rabbits farther inland were on the decline, the researchers report in the July issue of Quaternary Research. The work drives home the impact of precipitation on small mammals' survival, as well as differences in how climate change will affect coastal and inland populations, the researchers say.

    Many European fish on brink of extinction


    More than 90 species of marine fish in Europe's waters are threatened with extinction, finds a report published 3 June by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and funded by the European Commission. Sharks (such as the blue shark, pictured), rays, and other cartilaginous fish are at greatest risk, with about 40% facing extinction. Unregulated overfishing is a primary culprit, but fisheries are also being harmed by pollution, coastal development, offshore oil and gas development, and mining. “There's been no effective movement on fisheries management in the Mediterranean in the last decade,” says Nicholas Dulvy, a marine ecologist at Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, in Canada, and one of the report's authors. The report is the first complete assessment of extinction risk for the more than 1200 species of marine fish native to the Mediterranean, Black, Baltic, and North seas, as well as the European part of the Atlantic Ocean.

    “Let's be bold—let's join the rest of the world and go metric.”

    Former Rhode Island governor and senator Lincoln Chafee last week on CNN, announcing his presidential candidacy—and one part of his platform.

    By the numbers

    3%—Fraction of humans—including some who are seemingly healthy—who have a genetic condition, according to a recent study in the American Journal of Human Genetics.

    54—Number of laboratories—all but three of them in the United States—to which the Defense Department mistakenly sent live samples of anthrax, it announced last week.

    0%—Snowpack in Oregon's Klamath Basin, as a proportion of the 8 June average, according to the state's Natural Resources Conservation Service. The region is preparing for a 4th year of severe drought.

    Around the world

    Geneva, Switzerland

    LHC is back in business

    The long wait for the new, improved Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is over. On Wednesday, 3 June, physicists at the European particle physics lab CERN got their first taste of data from new experiments that smash protons together at record energies of 13 tera-electronvolts (TeV)—nearly twice as high as the accelerator's first run. The LHC was shuttered for 2 years to allow for maintenance, repairs, and upgrades. In recent months, the physicists at CERN have slowly brought the machine back online. The LHC achieved its first 13-TeV collisions on 20 May, and Wednesday marked the first collisions at that energy with beams stable enough to produce data for the four large experiments located around the LHC's 27-kilometer ring. The LHC's energy boost will aid scientists in the search for exotic physics, including the elusive dark matter and supersymmetry.


    ESA picks mission finalists

    A black hole at a galaxy's center drives jets of material.


    The European Space Agency has narrowed a field of 27 proposals down to three in a search for its next medium-sized mission. The finalists include projects to study the chemistry and physical conditions of atmospheres of planets around nearby stars, the polarization of x-rays from distant high-energy objects, and how the sun heats the solar wind and planetary atmospheres. The three teams will receive funding to develop their concepts for several years before a final decision is made. The winning mission will get a budget up to €450 million and will launch in 2025.

    Las Campanas, Chile

    Green light to build the GMT

    The Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), one of a trio of megatelescopes that will peer skyward next decade, on 3 June received $500 million to begin construction. The GMT, which will ultimately cost about $1 billion, will have a mirror 25 meters across, giving it vision 10 times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope. The telescope, set to be fully operational by 2024, is backed by 11 institutions in Australia, Brazil, Chile, Korea, and the United States. Today's top optical and infrared telescopes have mirrors about 10 meters across, but advances in optics mean the next generation, including the GMT, the European Extremely Large Telescope, and the Thirty Meter Telescope, will be much bigger. This new generation of telescopes will allow huge advances in studies of the early universe, Earth-like planets around other stars, and the mysterious dark matter and dark energy that influence the structure and expansion of the universe.

    Bethesda, Maryland

    NIH contamination scare

    Some people enrolled in clinical trials with the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) will continue the use of certain experimental drugs—although the compounds may have fungal contaminations. After an inspection by the Food and Drug Administration in May revealed multiple problems that could expose sterile drugs to contamination, NIH suspended operations last week at a facility that makes experimental drugs for the agency's Clinical Center. NIH is searching for alternate sources of products for 46 potentially affected studies. However, a few trial subjects, after being informed of the risks, have requested to continue with their experimental treatments made by the now-closed facility. NIH Director Francis Collins has granted exceptions to those whose conditions could be severely compromised if they failed to receive their next scheduled dose. They will be monitored for signs of infection.


    Anti-animal research plan rejected

    The European Commission last week rejected a plea to abolish animal experiments across the European Union, saying that doing so would harm biomedical research. On 3 March, a European Citizens' Initiative called Stop Vivisection, signed by 1.17 million signatories, formally urged the commission to scrap a 2010 directive regulating the use of animals in scientific research and to propose new rules phasing out animal research in favor of “more accurate, reliable, human-relevant methods.” Many science organizations and a group of Nobel laureates spoke out in defense of animal research. In its official decision, the commission told the petitioners that it shares the “belief that animal testing should be phased out.” However, budget commissioner Kristalina Georgieva told reporters, an abrupt stop to animal testing would be premature “because too many scientific advances are dependent on this form of testing.” The commission said it will seek to speed up the development and uptake of alternative methods.


    Protests against research reforms

    About 3000 Russian scientists rallied on 6 June to protest government reforms of the research system. A reform has been ongoing since 2013, but a few weeks ago, the Ministry of Education and Science and the Federal Agency for Scientific Organizations issued a reform road map that researchers feared would deeply damage science in Russia, largely because it would increase the proportion of the science budget devoted to competitive funding. The plans suggest that “two-thirds of the basic budget funding will be withdrawn to run competitions between researchers and laboratories,” says Evgeny Onishchenko of the Russian Academy of Sciences' (RAS's) Lebedev Physical Institute in Moscow. Whereas grant-winners and successful laboratories would receive salaries up to four times the average salary in their regions, critics say other labs would suffer. For example, three-quarters of RAS's institutes could end up without salaries or funding for equipment and will end up being closed.


    Pregnancy screening flags cancer

    As prenatal screening for genetic disorders gets more sophisticated, surprises are cropping up. This week, researchers in Belgium describe discovering three cases of cancer in pregnant women thanks to blood tests designed to detect chromosomal abnormalities in their fetuses. The tests, which aim to capture free-floating DNA fragments from the placenta circulating in mom's bloodstream, inevitably catch some of the mother's DNA, too. And if that maternal DNA is from a tumor, its sequencing may reveal cancer-specific chromosomal aberrations. One of the women described in the Belgian study, published in JAMA Oncology, had ovarian cancer, while the other two had lymphomas. (One case of lymphoma was too slow-growing to merit treatment.) Such incidental findings are, so far, uncommon: The researchers examined test results from 4000 women and found only the three cancers.