News this Week

Science  06 Nov 2015:
Vol. 350, Issue 6261, pp. 610

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  1. This week's section

    A new glimpse of Enceladus

    Enceladus, snapped during Cassini's deep dive toward the moon last week.


    NASA's Cassini spacecraft has returned some photographic loot from its plunge toward the icy surface of Saturn's sixth-largest moon. The 28 October flyby sent the spacecraft just 49 kilometers above the surface of Enceladus, and through one of its huge geysers. No new images of the geysers are available yet, but the latest snapshots highlight the moon's fractured, cratered surface. Since Cassini began its flybys of Saturn and its moons in 2005, researchers have spotted more than 100 geysers, which spew the contents of Enceladus's subglacial ocean—ice particles, water vapor, and organic molecules—out of fractures in the ice covering the moon's south polar region. Samples from the flyby should give scientists a fuller picture of the plumes' makeup, perhaps even settling a debate over whether its eruptions resemble curtains or columns. And they could indicate how hospitable that buried ocean is for biology. Molecular hydrogen in the plume, for example, would help confirm hydrothermal activity on the sea floor, a potentially important ingredient for life.

    Eels shock prey with a twist

    When it wraps around its prey, an electric eel doubles the shock.


    An electric eel can stun its prey with hundreds of volts of electricity, but if it curls up around the victim first it can double that zap, according to a new study. Horizontal strands of nervous tissue running along an electric eel's body generate an electric field inside the animal, with a positive pole near the head and a negative one near the end of the tail, researchers reported last week in Current Biology. When they placed eels in a tank and dangled fish wired with electrodes in the water, the creatures used the curling tactic to bring their two poles together and increase the strength of the electric field. The experiments indicate that eels use the curling strategy more when their prey continues to struggle. The largest eels, which generate the most voltage, were less likely to bother with the tactic.

    Scrutiny for U.S. biosecurity

    A worker at a U.S. Army biodefense lab.


    Spurred by several accidents at federal labs, the White House last week announced new steps to shore up biosafety and biosecurity at facilities that work on risky pathogens and toxins known as select agents. The White House memo comes in response to inadvertent shipments of live anthrax samples and the discovery of old vials of live smallpox, among other incidents. It includes plans for public disclosure of lab accidents, a new anonymous system for reporting mishaps, and a review of the many high-containment labs in the country ( The memo came the same week as a report from two conservative Washington, D.C., think tanks finding that the nation's fragmented, $6-billion-a-year biodefense effort should be overseen by the vice president.

    “Our constitution demands that we possess scientific temper and a commitment to reason, but our government is now moving away from scientific temper and reason.

    Molecular biologist Pushpa Bhargava, to BBC Hindi, on his decision to return the Indian government's prestigious Padma Bhushan award in protest of religious extremism.

    By the numbers

    67%—Portion of the world's population infected with type 1 of the herpes simplex virus (World Health Organization).

    15%—Fraction of Americans surveyed who said they are “more convinced that global warming is happening and we should act” as a result of Pope Francis's May encyclical (University of Michigan and Muhlenberg College).

    22%—Increase in mortality among white middle-aged U.S. men with a high school degree or less, 1999–2013 (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

    Around the world

    Bethesda, Maryland

    Chronic fatigue research boost

    Myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), a baffling illness that has attracted few researchers, is receiving far more serious attention from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). Director Francis Collins announced last week that the NIH Clinical Center will launch a new study of the disease, which will be moved from the Office of Research on Women's Health to the higher profile and better funded National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. NIH currently spends only $5 million on the disease, which is estimated to affect more than 1 million Americans. ME/CFS patients have applauded the NIH announcement, though the “renewed research focus” does not include new money. Collins promises that will happen soon. “Give us a chance to prove we're serious, because we are,” he says.

    New Guinea

    Language trove goes digital

    Though not much larger than the state of Texas, the island of New Guinea is one of the most linguistically diverse places in the world, with more than 1000 distinct languages, many of which have never been analyzed by linguists. Last week, in the journal PLOS ONE, linguist Simon Greenhill of the Australian National University in Canberra presented a new online database of words gathered from published surveys, book chapters, and articles, as well as the accounts of early European explorers. already contains glossaries for more than 1000 languages from 23 different language families, including 145,000 words. Greenhill hopes the linguistic community will use the site to solve long-standing questions about how New Guinean populations expanded and spread their culture.

    Washington, D.C.

    NOAA rejects email subpoena

    The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) last week declined to turn over employees' internal correspondence in response to a 13 October subpoena by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. The issue stems from a paper by NOAA scientists published 5 June in Science that found corrections to atmosphere and ocean temperature data biases erased an apparent “pause” in global warming that began in 1998, as noted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its fifth assessment report. On 23 October, Democrats on the committee published a letter on their website detailing the committee's multiple interactions with NOAA since June related to the paper's data and methodologies. The letter chastised the chairman, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), and science committee Republicans for “furthering a fishing expedition” with the subpoena. In light of NOAA's refusal to turn over internal communications, Smith's office says the chairman is considering next steps.


    Fellowships for refugee scholars

    The German government will help universities and research organizations hire scientists at risk of persecution in their home countries. On 30 October, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and the German Foreign Office announced their plans for the Philipp Schwartz Initiative, which will provide up to 3 years of funding for refugee scientists to work in Germany. The program is named for a Jewish neuropathologist who was forced to leave the University of Frankfurt in 1933. He fled to Switzerland, where he founded the Advisory Office for German Scientists, which helped other refugee researchers to find jobs abroad. He later worked in Turkey and the United States. Budget details are still being negotiated, but the Foundation says it expects to fund 20 scholars in 2016 and 20 more in 2017.

    Silver Spring, Maryland

    Cancer-killing virus clears FDA

    A genetically engineered virus therapy targets melanoma cells (shown).


    U.S. regulators last week approved the first therapy that targets and destroys cancer cells with a genetically engineered virus. Talimogene laherparepvec (T-VEC), a modified herpesvirus developed by the pharmaceutical company Amgen, based in Thousand Oaks, California, won approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on 27 October, making it the first so-called oncolytic viral therapy to be cleared for market. The treatment, which targets advanced skin cancer, is delivered as a series of injections directly into melanoma lesions. The virus selectively infects and replicates inside tumor cells. After infection, the cells rupture and release proteins that further provoke the immune system to attack the tumor. Now, the company is exploring using T-VEC in combination with other melanoma drugs to boost their effectiveness.


    Quake official to stand trial

    The official who ran Italy's civil protection department at the time of the deadly 2009 earthquake in L'Aquila will stand trial on charges of manslaughter, a judge ruled last week. Guido Bertolaso convened a panel of seven experts to analyze seismic risks days before the quake. Those experts were accused of making unjustifiably reassuring statements that led some people to remain indoors and perish. They were convicted and sentenced to 6 years in prison; all but one were acquitted last November. The new trial, set for 20 November, centers on a phone call before the experts' meeting, in which Bertolaso called it a “media operation” intended to “shut up” a technician from a nearby physics laboratory who had allegedly made alarmist predictions that had panicked the local population.


    Snail sets tiny record

    Acmella nana, with 12-point font for scale.


    In the rainforests of Borneo, the smallest land snail known to science ekes out a secret existence in limestone cracks. At least, that's where researchers think they live. Scientists have only ever found their shells, translucent granules 0.60 to 0.79 mm high scattered at the base of cliffs. The team behind the discovery has named the minute gastropod Acmella nana, and described it—along with 47 other new Bornean snail species—in an article published online this week in ZooKeys. Thanks to its tiny size, A. nana can probably fit into crevices other snails can't reach, vacuuming up bacteria and fungi that grow on wet limestone.

    Quicker cure for hepatitis C

    Targeting three different vulnerable components of the hepatitis C virus (HCV) may shorten the route to a cure, according to a small study to be presented next week at The Liver Meeting in San Francisco, California. Various combinations of three of the most effective anti-HCV drugs cured all 18 patients within 3 weeks. The approach could save thousands of dollars over the standard 12-week protocol, which attacks two HCV targets and has a $100,000 price tag. The study still needs to be confirmed in a larger trial, and its subjects don't represent most of the estimated 150 million HCV-infected people in the world: They were selected in part based on their positive response after 2 days of the drug treatment. Still, the study “opens a philosophical discussion about how to treat hepatitis C,” says Mark Sulkowski, director of the viral hepatitis center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland.

    The Science News Quiz

    Here's the question that stumped our readers this week: Can you outdo them? Where did researchers find a skeleton that might unseat the current “first ancestor” of living apes and humans?

    Take the quiz—and find out the answer—here: