News this Week

Science  23 Oct 2015:
Vol. 350, Issue 6259, pp. 360

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  1. This week's section

    Predator wannabe just another T. rex

    A 3D reconstruction of this skull suggests it is a Tyrannosaurus rex, not a Nanotyrannus.


    Some scientists think that Tyrannosaurus rex, which roamed the western United States between 68 million and 66 million years ago, had a smaller cousin named Nanotyrannus. But a new study, presented this week at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in Dallas, Texas, supports the argument that Nanotyrannus is simply a juvenile version of T. rex. Scientists have wrangled over Nanotyrannus for decades: A skull found in Montana was first described in 1946 as a member of the tyrannosaur family, but other researchers later concluded that it was a separate, smaller taxon based on the fusing of the bones in its skull. Years later, another paleontologist concluded that the skull bones weren't fused and that it was a juvenile T. rex after all. A second skull and partial skeleton, found in 2002 in Montana, seemed to bolster this case. Now, the new study, based on a 3D computer reconstruction of the second skull and skeleton, counted microscopic “growth rings” in its calf bone and concluded that it was indeed a juvenile. Yet the debate isn't quite over: Scientists in the Nanotyrannus camp argue that a third skeleton—found in 2006 but mired in controversy after its owners tried to auction it—would provide the best evidence for their case.

    Pollen-covered honey bee eye wins Nikon photography prize


    If honey bees were publicity hounds, this one might have stars in its eyes. But the winning entry in this year's Nikon Small World photography competition has an eye full of pollen instead. Photographer and former beekeeper Ralph Grimm captured this extreme close-up after 4 hours of a painstakingly careful setup. Grimm, a high school fine arts teacher, says he hopes to call attention to the honey bees' continued struggle to regain a stable population. Honey bees are a crucial facilitator in food diversity and stability—contributing more than $15 billion to crop value annually in the United States. But over the last decade or so, the bees have fallen victim to a number of problems like parasites, pesticides, and disease, causing their numbers to dwindle 30% each year since 2006. Grimm tells Nikon that his image, though beautiful, comes with a word of caution—we need to stay connected to our planet by listening to little creatures, like bees.

    An early glimpse into a tiny world


    Some things can never be unseen: the microscopic mandibles of a fruit fly; the leggy limbs of a hairy flea (shown). Three hundred and fifty years ago, scientist and amateur artist Robert Hooke's exquisite illustrations of tiny things showed people for the first time what the parasites that plagued them looked like. In his 1665 book Micrographia—the first major work of illustrated observations made through a microscope—Hooke chronicled dozens of parasites, plants, and other microscopic wonders. The Royal Society celebrated the book's anniversary this week with a microscopy drawing event and an exhibition in London. Robert Hooke made profound contributions to timekeeping, astronomy, physics, and microscopy—and coined the word “cell.” In Micrographia, he also argued, controversially, that fossils were the mineralized remains of ancient living organisms.

    “Please give Maddie one more day to complete her homework. We had some big family news and did not get to this. Her grandpa won the Nobel Prize in chemistry!”

    Note sent to Maddie's teacher this month; her grandfather is Swedish chemist Tomas Lindahl.

    By the numbers

    6.9–8.5—Average number of hours of sleep per day among hunter-gatherers in three preindustrial societies (Current Biology).

    70%—Fraction of U.S. citizens who believe in climate science—an increase of 7% in the last 6 months (Poll by University of Michigan and Muhlenberg College).

    76%—Fraction of U.S. respondents with no formal religious affiliation who think science and religion are often in conflict; only 16% of respondents with no formal religious affiliation think their own beliefs conflict with science (Pew Research Center survey).

    Around the world

    Cupertino, California

    Health research via iPhone

    Apple's open-source health research platform ResearchKit, launched in April, is expanding as it continues to garner interest from researchers; the platform added three new apps designed and managed by academic investigators, the company announced last week. ResearchKit is a software framework that lets researchers run large studies with data collected from participants' iPhones. An initial five apps released in March focus on tracking conditions including asthma, Parkinson's disease, and diabetes. Last week, three new studies came online: the EpiWatch app, developed by Johns Hopkins University, aims to track seizures using the accelerometer and heart rate sensor in the Apple Watch; Duke University's Autism & Beyond app explores ways to detect developmental disorders with the iPhone's front-facing camera; and a melanoma app from Oregon Health & Science University has users photograph their moles to enable new cancer detection algorithms.

    Washington, D.C.

    EPA targets refrigerants

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed rules last week that will tighten restrictions on hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a class of refrigerants that pack up to 10,000 times the greenhouse warming power of CO2. The new rules for HFCs in air conditioners and refrigerators would cover the sales, handling, and recovery of the chemicals; if adopted, EPA estimates that the greenhouse gas reduction would be equivalent to the removal of 7 million tons of CO2 emissions in 2025. These new steps should propel international talks next month in the United Arab Emirates that are aimed at limiting emissions of HFCs, says David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Furthermore, he says, a “crucial contribution” to the global effort has been new data from the U.S. Department of Energy showing that replacement chemicals for HFCs can perform well in warm climates, which will help countries with hot climates upgrade their cooling systems.


    Elections cheer scientists

    Many Canadian scientists are celebrating the result of this week's federal election, which saw Stephen Harper's Conservative government defeated after nearly 10 years in power by the center-left Liberal Party under Justin Trudeau. Harper's government was extremely unpopular with scientists, who accused it of ignoring evidence in policymaking, “muzzling” government scientists, and focusing too much funding on commercially driven applied research. The Liberals have promised to reinstate a chief science officer, embrace “evidence based policy,” do more to address climate change, protect endangered species, and review the environmental impact of major projects. Jim Woodgett, director of research at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, says the government must also address a neglect of basic research funding. “We are at serious risk of a lost generation of scientists,” he says. “It's critical that younger researchers are given a clear indication that Canada is open to their ideas and needs.”

    Washington, D.C.

    NIH funds chimp brain resource

    Researchers at the George Washington University are developing the first national chimpanzee brain repository with the aid of a $1 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant awarded last month. The university has a collection of more than 650 mammalian brains, including 60 species of primates. The grant, to be spread across 4 years, would provide funding to make the brains more accessible to other researchers, through open data sharing and coordinated projects with other primate centers. The team, led by anthropologist Chester Sherwood, is planning to first launch an online portal this year that would offer data on MRI scans and tissue samples and allow other scientists to request samples and data. Plans for the site also include a chimp brain atlas and gene expression map. NIH began retiring many of its chimpanzees used in research in 2013.


    Parts of Ebola virus hide in semen

    In some Ebola survivors, the virus (shown) is detectable in semen up to 9 months after infection.


    Researchers have known since 1999 that traces of the Ebola virus could remain in semen for months; but two papers published in The New England Journal of Medicine last week offer details about the frightening possibility that survivors of an Ebola infection could rekindle outbreaks. In one study of 93 survivors in Sierra Leone, researchers found Ebola viral RNA in semen samples from 46 men; the likelihood of finding viral RNA declined over time. But there isn't enough information yet to assess how that translates to risk of transmission, the authors noted. However, the second paper documents a clear case of sexual transmission of Ebola virus: A 44-year-old Liberian woman was diagnosed with Ebola on 20 March, although there had been no cases of Ebola in the country in the previous 30 days. However, she reported having unprotected vaginal intercourse with an Ebola survivor on 7 March. The man had contracted Ebola in September 2014 and tested negative in early October; but a semen sample taken in March 2015 tested positive for Ebola.

    Specks of oldest life?

    Scientists have found potential evidence that life on Earth existed 300 million years earlier than previously thought. Researchers examined microscopic flecks of graphite in a 4.1-billion-year-old zircon crystal from the Jack Hills in Western Australia. Based on the ratio of light and heavy isotopes of carbon, the authors suggest the material is consistent with a biological origin, they report this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. If confirmed, the results would demonstrate that life evolved shortly after the formation of the planet 4.5 billion years ago. The authors acknowledge that nonbiological processes could also explain their results, but hope to find more graphite inclusions in other ancient zircons to help confirm their hypothesis.