News this Week

Science  18 Sep 2015:
Vol. 349, Issue 6254, pp. 1264

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  1. This week's section

    Fires disrupt and inspire scientists

    A wildfire burns in Montana's Glacier National Park in July.


    Some 45,000 wildfires in the United States so far this year have scorched more than 3.5 million hectares, destroyed hundreds of homes, and killed at least four people. Whereas many scientists bemoan sites ruined by the flames, some also see new research opportunities. In Idaho, the Tepee Springs fire may force the abandonment of a logging experiment that took months to plan, says forest scientist Robert Keefe of the University of Idaho, Moscow. In Montana, blazes have prevented ecologist Tabitha Graves, of the U.S. Geological Survey's Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center in West Glacier, from reaching cameras that track the growth of huckleberries, a key food for bears. But even if the cameras melt, she says the flames might provide a chance to study postfire recovery. And “when the smoke clears … years like this present great research opportunities,” says fire researcher Max Moritz of the University of California, Berkeley, although finding funding can be tough.

    Pluto and Charon's complicated faces

    Dark ridges at the bottom of bright Sputnik Planum may be dunes; old, cratered terrain is visible below that.


    NASA has released more images of Pluto and its moon Charon, taken by its New Horizons spacecraft during its July flyby. The new images of Pluto reveal more of the dwarf planet's complex surface, including a mishmash of features near a flat, icy plain informally named Sputnik Planum (one lobe of Tombaugh Regio, also known as Pluto's bright “heart”). Chaotic, jumbled mountains at one edge of the plain may be blocks of water ice floating within a denser, softer deposit of frozen nitrogen, says Jeff Moore, a New Horizons team member at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. The icy plain also appears to contain dark, windswept dunes, even though Pluto's atmosphere is thought to be too thin for significant wind. “The surface of Pluto is every bit as complex as that of Mars,” Moore said in a statement. New images of Charon, meanwhile, show the moon's dark, frigid poles—just tens of degrees warmer than absolute zero—in greater detail, as well as a reddish blemish that appears to be an impact basin.

    By the numbers

    57%Klebsiella pneumoniae isolates in India that were resitant to antibiotics of last resort in 2014, up from 29% in 2008. In most of Europe, the number is below 5% (Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics, & Policy).

    $1 billion—Amount of money that bats save corn farmers around the world each year by feeding on corn earworms, thereby increasing crop yields by 1.4% (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

    73%—Amount of Americans who can distinguish the definition of astrology from astronomy (Pew Research Center).

    “Its intense aroma had hints of antiseptic smoke, rubber, and smoked fish …”

    Tasting notes by Scotland's Ardbeg Distillery on whiskey sent to the International Space Station 4 years ago and returned last year. Pre–space journey, the same whiskey had “hints of cedar, sweet smoke, and aged balsamic vinegar.”

    Around the World

    San Francisco, California

    Court nixes pesticide approval

    Concerned about the precarious state of bee populations, a federal court last week ordered the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to withdraw its approval of sulfoxaflor, a new type of insecticide, until it has more science at hand. EPA approved sulfoxaflor in May 2013 for many crops, including cotton and citrus. Environmental and beekeeping groups sued, contending that there was inadequate science to rule out impacts on honey bees. EPA argued that it protected bees by approving lower doses and restricting spraying when bees are most active, but the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ordered the agency to come up with more data on bee impacts. Dow AgroSciences, which manufactures pesticides with sulfoxaflor, said in a statement that it will work with EPA to “complete additional regulatory work” but that it is considering appealing the court's decision.

    Simferopol, Crimea

    Russia absorbs Crimean institutes

    Crimean Astrophysical Observatory.


    After months in limbo, scientists in a Black Sea region annexed by Russia could see their prospects improve. Last week, the Russian government announced that the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) will absorb the cream of Crimea's research institutes. After Russia seized control of the Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, the United States, the European Union, and other countries sanctioned Russian and Crimean entities that facilitated Russia's takeover. Most scientific cooperation with Crimea stopped, and key institutes were placed under the control of local administrators lacking scientific expertise. But some scientists in Crimea who welcomed annexation note that their funding has improved because they can compete for Russian grants. Now, several research centers—including the Crimean Astrophysical Observatory in Nauchny and the Institute of Archaeology in Simferopol—will become part of RAS. “It means for us that our research will be evaluated now by real scientists. We fought for this status and we won,” says Valentina Mordvintseva of the Institute of Archaeology.

    Manchester, U.K.

    Bioethics group OKs gene editing

    Genetic editing of human embryos “has tremendous value” to help solve important scientific questions, and should proceed despite ethical concerns, the Hinxton Group, an influential international bioethics consortium, said on 9 September. New techniques that allow researchers to precisely edit genes in living cells have become powerful tools but have raised questions about the ethics of genetically altering humans in ways that could be passed on to future generations; for example, in April, Chinese scientists published the first paper describing the use of a genome editing technique called CRISPR/Cas9 in human embryos. The Hinxton Group called for more discussion and careful policies to govern research using gene editing in embryos, but concluded that the insights such research could provide into early human development and disease are ethically justifiable. They also concluded that use of the technologies for reproduction is premature.


    Safety probe at DOD labs

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is investigating lapses in handling dangerous pathogens at four Department of Defense (DOD) biodefense labs. The probe follows the discovery in May that over the past decade, DOD's Dugway lab in Utah accidentally shipped live anthrax to scores of other labs. In August, CDC inspectors found recordkeeping problems with samples of plague bacteria and several viruses at a DOD lab in Edgewood, Maryland. That triggered the Army on 2 September to order a safety review at all nine DOD labs working with so-called select agents, a list of high-risk pathogens. Army officials also suspended select agent work at Dugway, Edgewood, and two other Maryland labs pending the outcome of safety reviews.

    Santa Clara, California

    Intel exits school science contest

    The Intel Science Talent Search, one of the nation's most prestigious competitions for science-savvy high school students in the United States, is losing its title sponsor. Intel has announced that it will no longer sponsor the program, and the nonprofit that runs the competition, the Society for Science & the Public in Washington, D.C., is looking for a new sponsor to pick up the $6 million annual tab starting in 2017. The program, meant to “inspire innovators of tomorrow,” targets science, math, engineering, and technology students in their last year of high school. It has drawn in thousands of hopeful applicants since it began in 1942. The winners receive prize money ranging from $35,000 to $150,000.

    Sydney, Australia

    A science-friendlier leader?

    Australian scientists are hopeful of a better hearing from their government after conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott was unceremoniously dumped from his post Monday evening by members of his own Liberal party. In office, Abbott oversaw deep cuts to science and research funding, shuttered the independent Climate Commission, and failed to appoint a science minister for more than a year. Abbott's replacement, Malcolm Turnbull, has shown support for the science of climate change, and had previously supported the Labor Government's Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme during his tenure as opposition leader. Abbott, who dismissed climate change as “absolute crap,” ousted Turnbull as the leader of the Liberal party in 2009. But Turnbull now says he will make no immediate changes to Abbott's climate policy; however, he has promised to put innovation and technology at the center of his government.


    Physicist fraud case dropped

    Federal prosecutors filed a motion on 11 September in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to drop a case against Temple University physicist Xiaoxing Xi, who had been accused of helping Chinese organizations illegally obtain U.S. technology. In a 14 May indictment, the government alleged that Xi, an expert on thin-film materials, schemed to pass information about a device known as a Pocket Heater—a proprietary U.S. technology used to make magnesium diboride superconducting thin films—to Chinese entities to help them become leaders in the field of superconductivity. Citing four email messages between Xi and colleagues in China, federal investigators charged him with four counts of wire fraud. In June, Xi pleaded not guilty to the charges; his lawyer argued that the email exchanges concern “routine academic collaboration” and discussed technologies that “were not restricted in any way.”

    Three Q's

    The United States lacks a world-class education system despite conducting more education research than any other country. Linda Darling-Hammond, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, hopes her new Learning Policy Institute, unveiled this month, will put more of that research to use by making it understandable and accessible to policymakers.

    Q:Why create another think tank?

    A:Our core concerns involve a set of issues you might call 21st century learning. But what we know about how to develop this kind of learning is very, very far away from policy.

    Q:What do you mean by that phrase?

    A:Our scientific knowledge is expanding so rapidly, you don't want to have kids just memorize a bunch of facts that will soon be out of date. Students need to acquire and find knowledge and make sense of it themselves. That's a radically different kind of teaching than what most schools now offer. And transforming teaching may mean transforming school organizations.

    Q:How will your institute stand out from the pack?

    A:Research can't solve deep ideological divides. But we will put more boots on the ground to make sure that the research is getting translated and available at the moment when it is needed.

    ‘Superhenge’ found near Stonehenge?

    An artist's rendition depicts standing stones at a possible Neolithic ritual site.


    Scientists may have found the remains of a huge prehistoric stone monument—buried under a grassy bank about 3 kilometers from Stonehenge. Using remote sensing and geophysical imaging technology, a team of researchers with the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project has been creating an underground map of the region since July 2010. Last week at the British Science Festival in Bradford, U.K., the team announced that they had discovered evidence of as many as 90 standing stones arranged in the shape of a C around a natural depression. The monument is thought to be a Neolithic ritual site, dating back to more than 4500 years ago. At about five times the size of Stonehenge, the site would be the largest surviving stone monument found in the United Kingdom, and possibly in Europe, the researchers say. But without excavation, what the scientists are calling standing stones could be a number of things, including rows of large pits or natural features, according to Mike Pitts, a megaliths expert and editor of British Archaeology.