News this Week

Science  11 Sep 2015:
Vol. 349, Issue 6253, pp. 1146

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  1. This week's section

    Polio resurfaces in West Africa and Ukraine

    Low vaccination rates enabled two polio outbreaks, in Ukraine and in Mali; for each, the culprit was a virus derived from the live oral vaccine (shown here in Pakistan).


    Countries in Ebola-ravaged West Africa are on high alert after polio was confirmed in a toddler in Bamako, Mali, on 7 September, just a week after two cases were reported in southwestern Ukraine. The outbreaks are unrelated, but in both instances the culprit is a vaccine-derived poliovirus (VDPV). Rare VDPVs arise when the weakened form of a virus used in the live vaccine regains its virulence—a danger when vaccination rates are low, which allows the strain to circulate and accumulate genetic mutations. In West Africa, a 19-month-old boy was paralyzed in Guinea on 20 July and traveled to Mali for treatment, where a type 2 VDPV was confirmed. With health systems and routine immunization in West Africa decimated due to the Ebola outbreak, the World Health Organization (WHO) deems the risk of spread high. In Ukraine, two children—a 4-year-old and a 10-month-old—were paralyzed on 30 June and 7 July. VDPV type 1 was confirmed 31 August. The risk of spread within Ukraine—where social tumult led to falling vaccination rates—is also high, WHO says, but the risk of international spread is low. Emergency efforts to fight the outbreaks with mass vaccination campaigns could begin this week.

    Help for the spotted handfish

    Pollution and invasive sea stars threaten the spotted handfish.


    The charmingly awkward spotted handfish (Brachionichthys hirsutus) isn't an avid swimmer; it prefers to clamber along the sandy bottom on its oddly shaped pectoral fins. Last month, the most comprehensive survey to date of this critically endangered species native to Tasmania, Australia, found just 79 handfish within its remaining habitat in the Derwent River and estuary, with three or fewer at several locations. Pollution and silt clouding the waters from farming and construction are partially responsible for its decline. But another major culprit is an invasive sea star that eats stalked sea squirts. That's a problem because the handfish like to lay their eggs around these squirts. Biologists with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation and the University of Tasmania are trying to recreate the handfish's habitat by putting pieces of plastic into the sediment to replace the eaten sea squirts. The scientists will meet with Australia's Department of the Environment next month to discuss setting up a captive breeding population in case the remaining wild fish go extinct.

    Satellite's high-resolution mapping instrument fails

    A key mapping instrument on SMAP (artist's conception shown) failed just months after launch.


    A radar instrument on NASA's Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) mission, designed for high-resolution mapping of the moisture content in the topmost 5 centimeters of Earth's soil, has failed because of a problem with its amplifier, the agency announced on 2 September. With an ability to map moisture in areas as small as 9 kilometers across, the radar was supposed to help improve forecast models for weather, drought, and flooding. But engineers have exhausted possibilities for resurrecting the instrument after it first stopped working on 7 July. The other main instrument on the $916 million mission, which launched in January (, is still operational, but that instrument, a passive radiometer, has lower resolution, at about 40 kilometers across. Scientists had wanted to use SMAP to understand how some storms seem to depend on alternating wet and dry patches of soil at distances of 10 kilometers.

    By the numbers

    6190—Height, in meters, of Alaska's Denali, the tallest peak in North America, according to a new measurement by the U.S. Geological Survey. The previous accepted elevation, made using 1950s-era technology, was 6194 meters.

    0—Number of HIV infections that occurred over 2 years in 657 people in San Francisco, California, who took a daily antiretroviral drug as prophylaxis.

    300—Number of induced pluripotent stem cell lines—the largest publicly available collection—available through a new stem cell bank launched last week by the Coriell Institute for Medical Research in Camden, New Jersey.

    “Y Wang, Y Zhang and Y Li make every other academic look like a slacker. Each has published around 30,000 papers in just 10 years, for an average of nearly 9 papers a day.”

    From a recent paper in Scientometrics showing how ambiguity in author names has compromised Thomson Reuters's ranking of the most cited researchers.

    Around the world

    Thousand Oaks, California

    Grizzly obesity study retracted

    Last year, researchers announced in Cell Metabolism that they had learned how grizzly bears gain weight prior to hibernation—without developing obesity-associated health problems like diabetes. But the journal retracted the paper last week after some of its authors at Amgen in Thousand Oaks, California, announced that the original paper contained falsified data. No one outside of Amgen knows who tampered with the findings, but the scientist has since been let go, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal. The academic co-authors on the study insist that the findings are still viable, and say they are currently replicating the falsified portion of the study to verify them.

    Washington, D.C.

    Mekong forests dwindling fastest

    Earth lost 18 million hectares of trees in 2014, according to a report last week by the Global Forest Watch (GFW)—but not in the most expected places. Economic factors and new laws have slowed the forests' demise in Brazil and Indonesia, the top tree-clearing countries, reducing their share of global forest loss from 53% in 2001 to 38% in 2014. Meanwhile, the rate of tree cover loss is increasing in Cambodia, Vietnam, and other Mekong Delta countries, at rates five times faster than in other tropical countries. Sierra Leone and Madagascar are not far behind, in part because of the development of oil palm plantations. And dry tropical forests in Paraguay, Argentina, and Bolivia are also in trouble. GFW's estimate of total hectares lost roughly agrees with an estimate of 15 billion trees per year reported last week in Nature. But critics note that neither number factors in new trees being replanted or growing back naturally.

    Washington, D.C.

    Human subject rules revamped

    Sixteen U.S. agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), are moving to tighten rules intended to protect human research subjects. A notice released last week fleshes out intended changes to the Common Rule, a set of ethical requirements that apply to studies funded by the federal government as well as many private entities. One change would require the consent of participants prior to any analyses of their stored blood and tissue samples for additional studies unrelated to the original research, even if the samples are stripped of identifying information. Another change would simplify the often sprawling informed consent forms by moving all but the most essential components into an appendix. The new rules would also require that a research project spanning multiple institutions be consolidated under a single institutional review board. HHS and 15 other agencies will accept public comments for 90 days before releasing a final rule.

    Noordwijk, The Netherlands

    Long-distance robot control

    In video games, feeling the response of a simulated plane to a joystick or the recoil of an onscreen gun is called force feedback, or “haptic” technology. Haptic feedback is crucial for space robotics, too: The ability to “feel” helps controllers guide robot arms to do delicate tasks. This week, the European Space Agency (ESA) put this technology to the test, when Danish astronaut Andreas Mogensen drove a rover around the grounds of ESA's technology center—from the International Space Station, 400 kilometers above Earth. Mogensen took the wheel of Interact Centaur, a rover equipped with cameras, location sensors, and two robot arms. Signals from Mogensen's handheld controllers traveled through a geostationary satellite to the rover, a total journey of 90,000 kilometers. Mogensen directed the rover to do tasks with submillimeter precision, including finding a “task board” where it pulled out and reinserted a pin into a hole.


    Trained monkeys destroy nests

    China's People's Liberation Army Air Force has trained a group of macaques to drive away birds from airfields.


    In an effort to prevent damage to military aircraft due to accidental bird strikes, China's People's Liberation Army has trained a squadron of male rhesus macaques to find and destroy birds' nests. The effort, which focused on an airfield located along a major migration route for birds known as the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, was planned in advance of an airshow with jet fighters on 3 September, the 70th anniversary of Japan's surrender at the end of World War II. The macaques scramble up trees and dismantle nests by pulling out twigs; two monkeys dismantled about 180 nests over 1 month, a Chinese airbase commander told China Daily in May. Ornithologists, however, say the operation is misguided at best, and could cause stress and lead to higher mortality among migrating birds that stop in Beijing on their way south for the winter.


    Three Q's

    Soumya Swaminathan, a pediatrician who has spent 2 decades working on HIV-associated tuberculosis, is the new head of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), India's premier biomedical research organization. She talked with Science about her plans for the council.

    Q:What's India's biggest health challenge?

    A:Getting quality health care to people who need it most—urban slum dwellers, tribal and remote rural populations. We have a high burden of communicable diseases, [including] tuberculosis, malaria, and diarrhea, with increasing rates of noncommunicable diseases [such as] hypertension, diabetes, mental health problems. Undernutrition is a major factor.

    Q:How can ICMR make a difference?

    A:We need to develop, test, and validate indigenous diagnostics for common diseases and use modern communications technology. For too long, we have ignored the role that communities and ordinary citizens can play in preventive and promotive health care. [ICMR] will focus on translational and implementation research to improve access to quality health care.

    Q:What about funding levels?

    A:Biomedical research definitely needs more funding from the government. We can [also] leverage existing resources more effectively by strengthening partnerships with other Indian science agencies and with international organizations like the NIH, CDC, and MRC. I also propose to explore partnerships with the private sector and philanthropic organizations.


    Alzheimer's protein: contagious?

    From 1958 to 1985, 30,000 people worldwide—mostly children—received injections of human growth hormone extracted from the pituitary glands of human cadavers. The procedure was halted when researchers found that a small percentage of recipients had received contaminated injections and were developing Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), a fatal neurodegenerative condition caused by misfolded proteins called prions. This week, a study of the brains of eight deceased people who had contracted CJD from such injections suggests that the injections may also have spread amyloid-β, the neuron-clogging protein that is the hallmark of Alzheimer's disease. The study is the first evidence in humans that amyloid-β could be transmitted through invasive medical procedures such as brain surgery or blood transfusion, the team writes this week in Nature. Skeptics, however, note that the CJD prion itself often triggers unusual amyloid deposits; epidemiological studies, they say, show no connection between the injections and increased risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.

    New light on Basque's origins

    Many researchers have assumed that Basque—a language spoken by a group of people between Spain and France and with no known relationship to any other tongue—is a “relic language” spoken by the hunter-gatherers who occupied Western Europe before farmers moved in about 7500 years ago. But a new study this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences contradicts this idea. The researchers sequenced the genomes of eight skeletons found in a Basque country cave called El Portalón in northern Spain. The skeletons date to between 5500 and 3500 years ago and thus belonged to the farmers. The team compared these genomes with genomes from other skeletons spanning hunter-gatherer to early farming periods in Western and Central Europe, from 8000 to 5000 years ago. They also compared the ancient DNA with more than 2000 genomes from modern Europeans. Today's Basques, the scientists found, were most closely related to those early farmers, who then became isolated from later migration waves.