News this Week

Science  26 Jun 2015:
Vol. 348, Issue 6242, pp. 1404

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  1. This week's section

    Kennewick Man was Native American


    To scientists, this nearly complete skeleton, found in 1996 in Washington state, is the “Kennewick Man.” To Native Americans, he is the “Ancient One.” Eleven years ago, after Native Americans sought to gain custody of these 8500-year-old bones in order to rebury them, the federal courts ruled he was not related to any modern tribe. That gave scientists the right to study him, although several attempts to sequence his DNA had failed. But last week, researchers reported online in Nature that they have sequenced Kennewick Man's genome—and the results, they say, leave little room for doubt that he was a Native American. Kennewick Man, they found, is closely related to at least one of the five Washington-area tribes that claimed him: the Colville. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has custody of the skeleton, now says it will reopen the case for the Ancient One's repatriation to the tribes.

    Africa's vulture populations plummet


    One of nature's best scavengers is under serious threat in Africa. Populations of seven species of vulture have fallen by 80% or more over three generations, qualifying the majority of Africa's species as critically endangered, scientists reported online last week in Conservation Letters. Despite their gloomy reputation, vultures provide valuable services; by cleaning the carcasses of dead animals, for example, they keep numbers of feral dogs in check, reducing transmission rates for rabies. And Egyptian vultures (Neophron percnopterus, pictured) have been found to remove up to 22% of waste produced in towns along the Horn of Africa. The main threat to the vultures appears to be poison, the researchers found; vultures are often incidental victims when farmers target lions or hyenas by lacing carcasses with pesticides. Poachers aiming to hide their kills of rhinos and elephants are also increasingly shooting the birds circling overhead.

    $95,000,000—Investment from pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline toward the new nonprofit Altius Institute for Biomedical Sciences, which will be devoted to studying gene regulation with the ultimate aim of treating diseases.

    Around the world

    San Diego, California

    Experts slam research whale kills

    For the third time in 15 months, experts have concluded there is no justification for Japan to kill whales for research. Opinion was split in last week's report from the annual meeting of the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), but 44 scientists from 18 countries noted that “the need for lethal sampling has not been demonstrated.” In 2014, The Hague–based International Court of Justice ordered Japan to halt its Antarctic Ocean research whaling program, stating that the lethal sampling was not justified. Japan drew up a new plan, which an IWC expert panel also rejected in February. Japan has not yet decided if it will resume killing whales as part of its Antarctic research whaling program, said Joji Morishita, the nation's representative to IWC, at a press conference this week—but, he said, IWC's Scientific Committee “does not have jurisdiction to approve or deny the research plan.” The entire IWC will take up the issue when it meets in September 2016.

    Correction (25 June 2015): Forty-four scientists from 18 countries, not 13 countries, signed a statement appended to the report from the annual meeting of the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission.

    Mauna Kea, Hawaii

    TMT construction to resume

    Astronomers have decided to restart construction of a controversial telescope in Hawaii that has been the subject of protests by Native Hawaiian groups (Science, 10 April, p. 160). At press time, the board planned to resume construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on the Mauna Kea volcano on Wednesday, 24 June, according to a statement issued 20 June by the telescope's governing board. “We are now comfortable that we can be better stewards and better neighbors during our temporary and limited use of this precious land,” wrote Henry Yang, chair of the TMT International Observatory Board, in the statement. The move comes after Hawaii's governor, David Ige (D), announced measures on 26 May—including a call to remove about a quarter of Mauna Kea's 13 existing telescopes—aimed at addressing the concerns of Native Hawaiian protesters who claim the mountain as sacred ground.

    Port Loko, Sierra Leone

    Company halts Ebola drug trial

    A clinical trial of a promising Ebola drug has been stopped early after it apparently failed to show a benefit to patients. The drug, called TKM-Ebola-Guinea, is a set of small RNA molecules packaged in lipid nanoparticles. It interferes with Ebola genes and prevents the virus from replicating. In animal trials, the drug saved monkeys from an otherwise deadly dose of the virus. But on 19 June, Tekmira Pharmaceuticals, the company that makes the drug, announced that disappointing early results had prompted them to stop enrolling people in the trial, which originally aimed for 100 patients. Meanwhile, a trial of the other drug seen as the best shot at fighting Ebola, the antibody cocktail ZMapp, is expanding to Guinea after enrolling more than 30 patients in the United States, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.


    France fills top science policy post

    French President François Hollande last week appointed political scientist Thierry Mandon as the new state secretary for higher education and research, a post that has been vacant since Geneviève Fioraso stepped down in March. The hiring delay sparked discontent among scientists, who said it betrayed a fundamental lack of interest in research. Mandon knows the research world well; he was president of Genopole, a biotechnology and genomics research cluster near Paris, from 1998 to 2014. Since June 2014, he has been state secretary for state reform and simplification, responsible for making French public authorities more efficient and user-friendly. He faces many challenges, including a recent €100 million cut in government funding for universities, which has fueled anxiety about the 2016 budget, currently under negotiation.


    New Guinea flatworm invades U.S.

    A New Guinea flatworm snacking on a snail.


    Nearly 2 years after its debut in Europe, an invasive flatworm with a taste for snails has arrived on the U.S. mainland. The New Guinea flatworm (Platydemus manokwari) is the only flatworm on the Global Invasive Species Database's list of 100 of the world's most dangerous invaders. Thought to originate from its namesake Pacific island, the predatory flatworm had been identified in 15 countries (including the United States, in Hawaii). Now, using molecular gene analysis and observations of the worm's color and shape, scientists have documented additional sightings, in Singapore, the Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, and the United States (Puerto Rico and Florida), they report this week in PeerJ. In particular, the discovery of the worm in several Miami gardens has some scientists raising the alarm, fearing that it is poised to spread throughout the U.S. mainland. However, freezing temperatures may help restrict the worm's range.

    Running out of groundwater

    Water levels in more than half of the world's 37 largest groundwater aquifers—a source of fresh water for hundreds of millions of people—are being depleted at alarming rates due to demands from agriculture, growing populations, and industry, suggest new data from the twin satellites of NASA's Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment mission. Using slight changes in the gravitational tugs on the two satellites, researchers estimated how fast the basins were gaining or losing water. Of the 37 basins, 21 showed declining water levels from 2003 to 2013; eight of those weren't being naturally replenished at all, and another five only slightly replenished, the team reported online last week in two papers in Water Resources Research.