News this Week

Science  27 Nov 2015:
Vol. 350, Issue 6264, pp. 1008

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  1. News at a glance

    Intensifying El Niño among biggest on record

    The equatorial Pacific Ocean was unusually warm (anomalous temperatures in red) on 19 November—a hallmark of an El Niño event.


    Rising sea surface temperatures in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean show that El Niño continues to strengthen and is set to be among the three biggest on record, the World Meteorological Organization said last week. The global weather pattern, driven by the warm tropical waters, has already brought drought to Indonesia, where forest fires are currently raging, and it is set to bring extra rain to the southwest United States this winter. Ocean temperatures, 2°C above normal, place this year's El Niño alongside the most severe El Niño events previously on record: in 1972–73, 1982–83, and 1997–98. And models are predicting it will stick around. There is an 80% chance that El Niño conditions will persist through spring of 2016, according to model results released on 19 November by Columbia University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

    Tadpole's-eye view wins new photo competition


    The grand prize winner of a new nature photography competition invites viewers to imagine themselves as tadpoles. In the upward-facing shot (shown), toad larvae seem to fly against a blue sky and fluffy clouds in the clear waters of a Belgian canal. It's a side of the ecosystem we usually miss, but it's one “that is very much part of the tadpoles' own view—the clouds, the trees, and the sky,” said contest judge and evolutionary biologist Alex Badyaev of the University of Arizona in Tucson in a statement. The photo was one of more than 1000 submissions to the Royal Society Publishing photography competition, an event launched this year by two of the society's biology journals. The competition celebrates the 350th anniversary of the world's oldest scientific journal, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Belgian biologist Bert Willaert, who took the winning shot while snorkeling, said in a statement that he hopes his photo will help people appreciate the ecological wonders in their own backyards.

    Water resource protection triumphs in dance-off

    A grooving chemist in the video that won this year's Dance Your Ph.D. contest.


    When Florence Metz turned in her Ph.D. thesis on water protection policy this year at the University of Bern in Switzerland, she thought her work was done. But then a friend sent her an email with congratulations—and an order: “Dance your Ph.D.!” So Metz recruited a small army of friends to help her create an interpretive dance describing her thesis research. Her video, one of 32 submissions this year to Science's annual contest, uses various dance styles—including hip hop, salsa, and even acro-yoga—to represent the different interest groups that shape the evolution of policies around water resources. The panel of judges from the science and dance worlds awarded Metz the top prize for her efforts: $1000 and a trip to Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, in the spring, where she'll screen her dance video and give a talk. “My main aim with this video was to make people laugh,” she says. But it really does help people understand her work better, she adds. “This bridge between academia and the nonacademic world is crucial.”

    1,000,000,000—The upper limit, in tons, of carbon in soils around the world that is being removed by erosion. It's a previously unsuspected contributor to climate change, equivalent to as much as 55% of the greenhouse gas flux each year due to agriculture (Nature Climate Change).

    Around the world


    Streamlining U.K. science funds

    As the U.K. government's looming budget cuts threaten science funds, a major review for the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, issued 19 November, suggests ways to increase the efficiency of the seven research councils, which spend £3 billion a year. The report suggests creating an umbrella organization that would take on administrative tasks and ideally standardize and accelerate grant reviews. Paul Nurse, who leads the Francis Crick Institute, conducted the review and emphasizes the importance of having a prominent leader who can provide “a stronger strategic voice for research.” Already, U.K. scientists are welcoming Nurse's review, hoping that the suggestions can reshape the research landscape of the U.K.


    U.S., Cuba team up to protect seas

    A Florida Keys marine sanctuary is one collaboration site.


    Two U.S. agencies and Cuba's science ministry agreed to work together this week to manage and study marine protected areas. The new memorandum of understanding, signed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Park Service, covers the U.S. Flower Garden Banks and Florida Keys marine sanctuaries and two U.S. national parks, as well as Cuba's Guanahacabibes National Park and an offshore reef area known as the Banco de San Antonio. Efforts will include inventories and baseline studies of fish, coral reefs, and seagrass beds. Practically, that should translate into more NOAA ships, equipment, and technology going to Cuba, which has a dearth of research resources. “This particular agreement is the highest profile [attempt] to truly remove the barriers to scientific [collaboration],” says Daniel Whittle, who runs the Environmental Defense Fund's Cuba program.

    Washington, D.C.

    Scientists: Take wolves off ESA

    The gray wolves (Canis lupus) of the western Great Lakes states—Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan—should be removed from the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), say 26 scientists and wildlife managers in a 18 November letter to the secretary of the interior, Sally Jewell. By 2014, the letter states, the wolves' numbers were more than 3700, greatly surpassing the original criteria of 300. Some conservation and animal advocacy groups dispute the notion that the wolves are fully recovered, and have used lawsuits to successfully block previous attempts to down-list them. But letter signatory L. David Mech, a wolf biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in St. Paul, and his co-authors argue that keeping the animals on the federal list only harms them by creating ill will. “When an animal is recovered but not delisted, it impugns the ESA,” Mech says, “and gives ammo to those who dislike the act.” Other scientists argue, however, that the Great Lakes wolves' greatest threat persists: People hate them.


    Europe's first T. rex

    Tristan the T. rex, one of the best-preserved Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons yet discovered, is being prepped to go on display next month at Berlin's Museum of Natural History. The fossil, more fully known as “Tristan Otto,” was named for the sons of the two private collectors who own the fossil and have loaned it to the museum for at least 3 years. Researchers at the museum, in cooperation with several other institutes, have already begun studying the bones. Broken ribs, a deformed jaw, and damaged teeth suggest that the dinosaur suffered several injuries and illnesses before it died on the verge of adulthood. Researchers hope further studies will help them answer still-controversial questions about the species, such as how fast it could run and how powerful a bite it had. The museum will unveil Tristan to the public on 17 December—the first full T. rex skeleton to go on display in Europe.

    Washington, D.C.

    U.S. gives GM salmon green light

    A fast-growing salmon developed by AquaBounty Technologies has become the first genetically modified (GM) animal to get the blessing of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). On 19 November, the biotech company received FDA's approval for the animal, which grows twice as fast as non-GM Atlantic salmon thanks to the overexpression of a growth hormone. FDA's green light marks the end of a nearly 20-year-long struggle for the right to sell the fish in grocery stores. Although a 2012 FDA draft assessment found that the salmon is unlikely to have any harmful impact on the environment, some environmental groups fear that the fish could become invasive in the unlikely event that they are released into the wild. Meanwhile, many grocery stores, including Target, Trader Joe's, and Whole Foods, have said they won't sell the GM salmon.


    Salk names new president

    Elizabeth Blackburn, a 2009 Nobel laureate in medicine for her discovery of telomeres and their role in the aging process, last week was named president of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. She will succeed William Brody, who led a $350 million capital campaign that has put the 55-year-old San Diego, California, institute on firmer financial footing. A professor at the University of California, San Francisco, the 66-year-old Blackburn calls the move to Salk a “natural transition” in her continuing quest to explore “how life works.”

    Female space pioneer honored

    Before Katherine Johnson could even get a job as a “woman computer” at Langley Research Center in the 1950s, she had to break down two formidable barriers: Working as a woman in science, and being an African-American. But Johnson, a research mathematician who this week received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, never let others define her place. Johnson plotted the trajectory for the first American into space, Alan Shepherd. And even after computers had taken over the task, Johnson says, John Glenn “wanted to see what she comes up with” before he made his historic orbital flight in 1962. At 97, Johnson has been a role model for countless African-Americans and women.


    Pathogen infects snakes' skin

    Crusty scales cover skin blisters on this infected northern water snake.


    The fungus suspected in a mysterious skin disease afflicting snakes across the eastern and midwestern United States has been confirmed as infectious and pathogenic. First described in 2006, telltale lesions have been seen in seven species and reports of sick snakes are becoming more frequent. Severity varies, but the lesions can be deadly; a population of imperiled timber rattlesnakes in New Hampshire fell by half from 2006 to 2007. The fungus Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola, found in the lesions, was a top suspect. To see whether it is the culprit, biologists with the U.S. Geological Survey cultured the fungus from a water snake (Nerodia sipedon) and then infected eight corn snakes. Within days, swelling and lesions appeared, they reported in mBio last week. Although the snakes rid themselves of the fungus by shedding their skin, two refused food and others left their hiding places—behaviors the researchers say could indirectly contribute to deaths.