News this Week

Science  02 Oct 2015:
Vol. 350, Issue 6256, pp. 12

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  1. This week's section

    Syrian researchers to make first seed bank withdrawal

    The Syrian conflict has prompted the first withdrawal from the Svalbard seed vault.


    Researchers from the International Center for Agricultural Research In The Dry Areas (ICARDA), formerly based in Aleppo, Syria, will make the first withdrawal from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, officials for the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which oversees the Svalbard vault, said on 21 September. The Svalbard vault, located on the remote Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, contains a wide variety of plant seeds that are duplicates of seeds in other gene banks, in order to insure against the loss of those seeds during regional or global crises. The Syrian conflict forced much of ICARDA's staff to flee the country, and the Svalbard seeds will help the center generate material for new seed banks in Lebanon and Morocco, focusing on crops including wheat, barley, and their wild relatives. “It is [ICARDA's] mandate to allow this material to be accessed by scientists, breeders, and farmers,” says the trust's Brian Lainoff. “With no foreseeable future in which there is peace [in Syria], it was important to reestablish collections so they can continue to work.”

    Duck-billed dino thrived in Arctic

    Scientists have found a new species of hadrosaur that lived in the Arctic (here in an artist's impression).


    Scientists have discovered the fossilized bones of a new dinosaur species that apparently flourished in what is now northern Alaska. The creature, a type of duck-billed dinosaur, or hadrosaur, was abundant in the region about 70 million years ago. More than 6000 bones from the species—more than any other Alaska dinosaur—were collected from a site called the Prince Creek Formation, and have been excavated and categorized, the study's authors reported in Acta Palaeontologica Polonica. The team named the new species Ugrunaaluk kuukpikensis, which means “ancient grazer” in Inupiaq, the language of Alaska Inupiat Eskimos. Although the creatures would have experienced periods of winter darkness and possibly snow, temperatures in the region were warmer than they are today, averaging in the low 40s, and fossilized pollen evidence suggest the dinosaurs lived in a conifer forest. The find builds support for the idea that some dinosaurs were adapted to the cooler temperatures of the Arctic, the researchers say.

    Climate pledges not enough to curb warming

    How much warming by 2100?CREDIT: A. CUADRA/SCIENCE

    Current national commitments to cut greenhouse gases would likely allow average global temperatures to rise by 3.5°C by 2100, suggests a new analysis conducted by the nonprofit group Climate Interactive and released this week. That is well above the 2°C rise deemed safe by many policymakers and researchers. The analysis, appearing roughly 2 months ahead of a United Nations meeting in Paris intended to finalize a new global climate deal, focuses on emissions targets pledged to date by more than 70 nations, which are together responsible for about 65% of the world's emissions. The new model assumes annual emissions will remain flat for the remainder of the century after 2025 to 2030; nations will neither do more to clamp down on annual emissions, nor allow them to rise. But that would translate to steadily rising temperatures as carbon pollution continues to accumulate in the atmosphere (red curve), and failure to reach the goal of holding warming to 2°C (blue curve).

    “Any scientist or dietitian who is willing to take Coca-Cola funding gets it.”

    Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, to The New York Times, on Coca-Cola's release last week of obesity-related research it funds.

    Around the world

    Huairou, China

    Unveiling China's nuclear past

    A slice of modern China's scientific history that was concealed for 6 decades is now on display to the public for the first time, revealing details of the country's atom bomb program. What was once a top-secret satellite and nuclear weapons R&D facility on the outskirts of Beijing is now a museum run by the Chinese Academy of Sciences. At its peak, more than 17,000 Chinese researchers toiled at the nuclear lab, established in 1958. However, the site was not widely known before it was unveiled this fall, coinciding with the start of classes at the academy's sprawling Huairou campus. The “two bombs, one satellite” project museum, as it's called, includes documents, photos, and even the names of some key scientists.

    Silver Spring, Maryland

    Cancer test draws FDA warning

    The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has called out genetic testing company Pathway Genomics for failing to seek its approval before marketing a blood test to screen for various cancers in healthy people. Pathway's CancerIntercept Detect service, which costs between $299 and $699, relies on liquid biopsy, a relatively new screening approach that identifies DNA from circulating tumor cells in blood. The company maintains that the test can be legally marketed under separate regulations governing laboratory-developed tests, because a physician must agree to order the test, and Pathway returns any positive results indicating the presence of cancer through a person's doctor. But in a 21 September warning letter, FDA told the company that the test's blood collection tubes constitute a medical device, and called the product “a high risk test that has not received adequate clinical validation and may harm the public health.”

    Livingston, Louisiana

    Spacetime ripple hunt resumes

    The quest for gravitational waves—ripples in space and time that emanate from stellar sources—is once again underway. Last week, physicists working with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) began their first observing run since they rebuilt their instrument in Livingston, and its twin in Hanford, Washington. Although the original LIGO, which ran from 2002 to 2010, could detect a pair of neutron stars spiraling into each other from 65 million light-years away, advanced LIGO should eventually detect such sources out to 650 million light-years, researchers say. Right now, however, the LIGO interferometers are sensitive enough to see such binary neutron stars to just between 200 million and 260 million light-years—already a factor of three improvements over the original LIGO. Even so, there's only a small chance that it will spot anything in this first 3-month data-collection run.

    Wainwright, Alaska

    Shell abandons Arctic offshore

    Shell's Polar Pioneer drilling rig (in Seattle in May).


    Oil giant Royal Dutch Shell has announced that it will abandon oil drilling in the Arctic's Chukchi Sea “for the foreseeable future,” citing “the high costs associated with the project, and the challenging and unpredictable federal regulatory environment in offshore Alaska.” The exploratory well the company drilled this summer, Shell says, did not yield sufficient oil and gas to justify its $7 billion price tag. Supporters of offshore Arctic drilling are disappointed, whereas environmentalists say Shell's decision is a win for the region and the global climate. Shell has also spent some $15 million since 2010 on environmental studies managed by native governments in Alaska (Science, 21 August, p. 778). The fate of those programs is not known, said Alex Whiting, an environmental official with the native village of Kotzebue, which has received funding under the Northwest Arctic Borough's partnership with Shell. “I wouldn't be surprised, though, if they kept it going just in case they decided to return to the region,” he says.

    Washington, D.C.

    $100 million in new BRAIN funds

    The Kavli Foundation and several university partners announced $100 million in new funding for neuroscience research this week, including three new institutes at Johns Hopkins University, The Rockefeller University, and the University of California, San Francisco. Each institute will receive a $20 million endowment supported equally by their universities and the foundation, along with startup funding, to pursue projects in areas such as brain plasticity and tool development. The new funding, geared at providing stable support for high-risk, interdisciplinary research, “more than meets the commitment” of $40 million made by the Kavli Foundation to the national Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative, launched by President Barack Obama in 2013, Robert Conn, president and CEO of the Kavli Foundation, said in a press release. “The establishment of three new institutes, along with the added investment in our existing neuroscience institutes, will further empower great scientists to help write the next chapter in neuroscience.”

    Xinzhou, China

    China debuts new launch vehicle

    Launch of the Long March 6 rocket at the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center.


    China has debuted its latest rocket: the Long March 6. Designed primarily to take microsatellites to low-Earth orbit, the rocket blasted off on 20 September from Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center in northeastern China with a payload of 20 small satellites, some of which were student-built technology demonstrations. The success of Long March 6 sets the stage for China's largest planned rocket, the Long March 5, which is expected to debut next year using the same core engine as the Long March 6. The Long March 5 is considered pivotal for China's plans for planetary exploration; the Chang'e 5 lunar sample return mission, for instance, is expected to be launched aboard a Long March 5 in 2017.


    Novartis taps new R&D head

    The world's largest drug company by sales has chosen a prominent Harvard physician-scientist to head its research and development operation. Hematologist and cancer researcher James Bradner of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School will take over as president of the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research next March, the company announced last week. Bradner has investigated new drug candidates that target cancer gene pathways with a focus on blood cancers, and has been a strong proponent of open-source drug discovery. He gained attention in in 2010 by deciding not to patent his discovery of a compound called JQ1, which inhibits proteins known as bromodomains that are known to malfunction in some cancers. Bradner will replace Mark Fishman, who has held the position for 13 years but has reached the company's mandatory retirement age.

    Minister accused of plagiarism

    A cabinet member often tagged as German Chancellor Angela Merkel's heir apparent is the latest politician to be tripped up by the country's plagiarism sleuths. Last week, the website VroniPlag Wiki published an analysis of German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen's 1990 dissertation on the diagnosis of infections in pregnant women. The group found plagiarized passages on 27 of the dissertation's 62 pages. Von der Leyen, who practiced as a gynecologist before entering politics, told the German press that she rejected the accusation of plagiarism, and had already asked the Hannover Medical School, which awarded her medical degree, to examine the publication. The university confirmed in a statement that it has begun a formal inquiry by the school's commission for good scientific practice. Since 2011, at least a dozen German politicians have had their degrees reviewed, and often revoked, following plagiarism accusations. Two of Merkel's previous cabinet members resigned in the face of plagiarism scandals: defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg and minister of education and research Annette Schavan.