News this Week

Science  07 Aug 2015:
Vol. 349, Issue 6248, pp. 566

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  1. This week's section

    Random Samples

    New evidence in the hunt for MH370

    Debris could have landed on Réunion (red circle) via the South Equatorial Current (yellow) or a system of currents and eddies farther south.


    A piece of an airplane wing, recovered last week from the island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean, may hold new clues to the fate of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 (MH370), which disappeared in March 2014 (Science, 30 May 2014, p. 963). Experts began analyzing the wing component this week to determine whether it belonged to the missing plane; among other pieces of evidence, the part's encrusting of goose barnacles may provide information about the temperature and chemical composition of the water through which it traveled. Meanwhile, oceanographers at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, U.K., analyzed decades of Indian Ocean currents to recreate two possible scenarios by which debris from a crash in the southern Indian Ocean could have ended up far to the west, on an island of the coast of Madagascar. The analysis revealed two possible scenarios, they reported on 31 July: A swirl of currents called a subtropical gyre may have pushed the debris north toward the powerful South Equatorial Current, which would then shunt it to the west. A global ocean simulation called the NEMO model suggests an alternate route: The debris may have been carried along by a complex pattern of swirling currents and eddies traveling slowly westward.

    “You have to have something in writing saying you will be using it for research purposes.”

    A technical support specialist for a company selling performance-enhancing compound FG-4592, to The New York Times on 29 July. Online chemical supply companies sell the drug—found in tests of two cyclists—but only to researchers.

    Three Q's


    Last week, the death of Cecil the lion, allegedly shot by an American trophy hunter after it was lured outside Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park, sparked international outrage. Cecil (pictured) was part of a study led by David Macdonald of the University of Oxford's Wildlife Research Conservation Unit in the United Kingdom. The lion's death has had one positive outcome: Donations to Macdonald's program poured in after TV host Jimmy Kimmel made a plea for lion conservation on 28 July. They have been tracking the movements of more than 200 lions with satellites to better understand the animals' behavior.

    Q:What was your reaction when you heard of Cecil's death?

    A:It is my day-to-day work to find animals that I'm working on suffering gruesome deaths. I seek to make the best of it by using the information to build a stronger scientific case. On the other hand, I'm a conservation biologist because I care about wildlife. And as I have studied [Cecil] for years … I was saddened at the thought of its death. And because it appears in this case that at least some of the actors in this were behaving illegally, one is not only saddened but enraged.

    Q:How did you feel when Kimmel asked viewers to support your research?

    A:He has catalyzed a wonderful action. Our project relies entirely on philanthropic gifts. To run this project … is going to cost us between £150,000 and £200,000 ($234,000 and $312,000) next year. We had no idea how we were going to pay for that.

    Q:Has the appeal raised enough money?

    A:At the moment it is close to half a million dollars. Hopefully it means we will be able to expand the project from Zimbabwe into adjoining areas in Botswana and Zambia. It would be a fitting memorial, you might say, to the sad and reprehensible loss of this lion.

    Giving whales a breathalyzer test—from the air

    The hexacopter observed humpback whales engaging in bubble-net feeding.


    Whales, like many cetaceans, are prone to respiratory tract infections, which can increase death rates for already endangered populations. Assessing whales' health, however, isn't an easy proposition: Scientists hoping to measure bacteria and fungi in a whale's “breath”—the moist air it shoots from its blowhole—need to get close enough to take a sample. Enter the whalecopter, a small, remote-controlled drone developed by researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The drone—a six-propeller hexacopter (left)—can collect breath samples and take detailed photos of the whales' spouts from the air. In a test at the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary last month, the whalecopter took full-body photographs (above) of 36 animals and collected breath samples from another 16, which the team will analyze for microorganism assemblages. The researchers plan to go out again next March to the relatively pristine Antarctic Peninsula to collect breath samples from the same species.

    Around the world

    Washington, D.C.

    Boost for exascale computing

    Titan at Oak Ridge National Laboratory is the world's second fastest supercomputer.


    The United States is officially in the exascale hunt, an effort to make a supercomputer some 30 times more powerful than today's top machine. Last week President Barack Obama signed an executive order creating a national strategic computing initiative, which aims to coordinate high-performance computing research and development between federal agencies. Past U.S. supercomputing efforts have largely been pursued independently by different federal agencies. But the top machines are now so complex and expensive that agencies must pool their R&D budgets. The order should make it easier for agencies to justify increasing their budget requests to Congress for supercomputing R&D. “This is an extremely important step for high performance computing in the U.S.,” says Horst Simon, deputy director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

    Washington, D.C.

    U.S. plan to cut emissions

    President Barack Obama on 3 August formally released a long-awaited plan to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. power plants. The Clean Power Plan aims to cut emissions by 2030 to 32% below 2005 levels, mostly by creating disincentives to burn coal to generate electricity. It would also boost incentives to build lower carbon power sources, capture carbon emissions from power plants, and conserve energy. Analysts say the plan could cut the share of U.S. electricity produced by coal combustion to about 27%, down from about 50% today, while expanding generation from renewables by one-third. White House officials call the plan, which is expected to cost $8.4 billion annually, “fair and flexible.” But opponents in Congress and industry vow to mount legislative and legal challenges, which could take years to resolve.


    South Korea not ‘MERS-free’ yet

    South Korea has almost conquered the explosive Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) epidemic that began in May—but not quite. The virus resulted in 186 laboratory-confirmed infections and 36 deaths. On 28 July, Korean Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn declared a “de facto end” to the outbreak; but to officially call the country MERS-free, South Korea has to wait 28 days—twice the virus's incubation period—after the last patient has died or cleared the virus, says a spokesperson for the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC). However, one patient, lingering in hospital isolation, continues to test positive for the virus; the 28-day countdown begins when that patient either dies or tests negative. KCDC hopes to get those negative results “soon” the KCDC spokesman says, in which case the outbreak could be formally declared over by early to mid-September.

    Bethesda, Maryland

    Golden rice retraction proceeds

    A controversial 2012 study that showed genetically engineered golden rice could alleviate vitamin A deficiency in children was retracted by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition on 29 July, nearly 2 years after investigations found problems with how the study had been conducted. In 2008, Guangwen Tang of Tufts University led a trial that gave golden rice, spinach, or a supplement to 68 children aged 6 to 8 in China's Hunan province; the findings showed the beta-carotene in golden rice was just as effective at alleviating the deficiency. But Greenpeace claimed the children were used as “guinea pigs,” sparking media outrage in China. External and internal panels at Tufts found multiple irregularities in the trial in September 2013, but also found that the study was safe and its conclusions valid. Last year, Tang asked the Massachusetts Superior Court to stop the journal from retracting the article, but the petition was denied last month.


    Misconduct probe suit dismissed

    A case brought by two cardiac stem cell researchers against their institution for allegedly mishandling an ongoing misconduct investigation was dismissed last week in federal district court. The plaintiffs, Piero Anversa and Annarosa Leri, sued Harvard Medical School and its affiliate, Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH), claiming that the inquiry into their lab at BWH wrongfully damaged their reputations. The complaint, filed in December, acknowledged that some papers from the lab contained fictitious data points and altered figures, but blamed a former senior researcher on their team. They accused the investigatory panel of factual errors, missed deadlines, conflicts of interest, and disclosure of confidential information. The judge decided that, before bringing the case back to court, Anversa and Leri must wait for the investigation to conclude and air their grievances with the U.S. Office of Research Integrity in an administrative hearing.


    Neuroscience booster indicted

    One of the leading advocates for neuroscience research in the U.S. Congress was indicted last week for alleged misuse of $600,000 in connection with a failed 2007 campaign to become mayor of Philadelphia. The U.S. Justice Department has accused Representative Chaka Fattah (D–PA) and four associates of carrying out “a wide-ranging conspiracy involving bribery, concealment of unlawful campaign contributions, and theft of charitable and federal funds to advance their own personal interests.” Elected in 1994, Fattah, 58, is credited with helping to lay the groundwork for the Obama administration's new BRAIN Initiative. He says he will fight the charges and plans to seek reelection next year.

    By the numbers

    20—Rain deficit, in inches, in California from 2012 to 2015—equivalent to a year's worth of rain for the state. The culprit: a dearth of “atmospheric rivers,” water vapor–rich air currents from the Pacific Ocean (Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres).

    24°C—Update to the office “thermoneutral zone”—not too hot or cold for most men and women. Previous models, used since the 1960s, suggested 21°C based on men wearing suits (Nature Climate Change).

    13%—Increase in purchases of “social identity” items, such as gold earrings or cologne, when classical music is playing in a store (Journal of Retail).