News this Week

Science  11 Dec 2015:
Vol. 350, Issue 6266, pp. 1296

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  1. News at a glance

    Hawaii telescope in legal limbo

    Construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (here in an artist's rendering) has been halted indefinitely.


    The effort to build the largest optical observatory in the United States, the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) in Hawaii, was halted indefinitely on 2 December after the state's supreme court ruled that the project's building permits were invalid. Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald decided that the state Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) had wrongly approved the permits in 2011 before a contested case hearing could be resolved, thus not allowing opponents due process. The decision supersedes a lower court's ruling in 2014 that upheld the permits. The BLNR must now allow the contested case hearing to be held before a new permit is issued. David Callies, a law professor at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, says opponents will likely stretch out the process with new litigation. “In that case, you're talking more than 1 or 2 years,” he says. Native Hawaiian opponents of the project say the 18-story TMT structure at the summit of the Mauna Kea volcano would be further desecration of one of their most sacred places. Protesters have been blocking construction workers' access to the site since March; about 70 people have been arrested.

    The secret to cuttlefish ‘invisibility’


    When threatened by predators, cuttlefish (such as Sepia officinalis, below) stop breathing and freeze in place. That isn't just for visual camouflage, suggests a study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Sharks can detect the electrical signals produced by an animal's gills—and less water flowing over the cuttlefish's gills makes it harder to detect, it turns out. In the lab, researchers measured electrical signals generated by cuttlefish—first, at rest on the floor of a tank, and then startled by videos of a looming predator. When the frightened creatures froze and covered the cavity leading to the gills with their tentacles, the voltage in the water dropped by about 80%. The tactic works beautifully on sharks, the team found: They simulated electrical signals from a fleeing cuttlefish, a cuttlefish at rest, and a cuttlefish holding its breath. The sharks detected the fleeing cuttlefish 94% of the time and from up to 38 centimeters away; they sensed the resting cuttlefish from 20 centimeters away and struck 62% of the time, but they had to get within 15 centimeters of the frozen cuttlefish to detect it—and still only struck 30% of the time.

    Pluto mission reveals best images yet


    NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has returned the best pictures of Pluto the world may ever see. The new images, at resolutions of about 80 meters per pixel, show a striking shoreline, where smooth plains of nitrogen ice from Pluto's “heart” rub up against water ice mountains several kilometers high. The jumbled-up rubble at the base of the ice mountains helps confirm team members' theories that the mountains are, in fact, giant icebergs that have moved around on more plastic layers of nitrogen ice below. The spacecraft made its closest approach to the dwarf planet in July. But because of the great distances and the spacecraft's low-power antenna, some of the best data are reaching Earth only now.

    “Froome's values are close to what we believe are the upper limits for VO2 peak in humans.”

    Phillip Bell of the GlaxoSmithKline Human Performance Lab, to Esquire, on measuring oxygen uptake by repeat Tour de France winner Chris Froome, who is regularly accused of doping or using illegal bikes.

    By the numbers

    55—Percent of giant exoplanets spotted by NASA's Kepler mission that are false positives—not planets but another object such as a brown dwarf, said scientists at the Extreme Solar Systems III conference last week in Hawaii.

    $730 million—Amount, in U.S. dollars, of Australia's new National Innovation and Science Agenda, announced 7 December to help reverse deep cuts to science made by the previous administration.

    €5 billion—Total amount of investment in R&D per year, by both public and private sources, that the Irish government aims for by 2020. Last year, the total spent was €2.9 billion.

    Around the world

    Charlottesville, Virginia and Palo Alto, California

    Reproducibility study trimmed

    An ambitious effort to check the reproducibility of 50 top papers in cancer biology is scaling back because of higher than expected costs. The Reproducibility Project: Cancer Biology, run by the Center for Open Science in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Science Exchange in Palo Alto, California, set out 2 years ago to replicate key experiments from highly cited cancer papers published from 2010 to 2012 (Science, 25 June, p. 1411). But the $1.3 million it had from a foundation to redo the studies was not enough, and last week the project's managers noted online that 13 of the 50 replications have been put on hold. Most involve costly animal experiments. If funding can be found, efforts to reproduce the studies will resume.


    Progress on Red-Dead conduit


    Israel and Jordan last week issued requests for proposals to build an $800 million water project that would include a pipeline linking the Red Sea and the endangered Dead Sea (below). The project, which has drawn criticism from environmental scientists, has been on the drawing board for 3 decades and is slated to be completed around 2020. Jordanian water and irrigation minister Hazim El-Nasser and Israeli Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom unveiled the project, intended to provide potable water to the region. Planners envision a de salination plant in Aqaba, Jordan, that will have an initial capacity of 65 million cubic meters of water per year. Jordan and Israel will share that water, and Shalom believes the project can also help “save” the Dead Sea, where levels are dropping by about 1 meter per year, by transporting in brine from the Red Sea. But critics fear minerals in the transported water could harm the fragile Dead Sea ecosystem, or that pumping could affect organisms in the Red Sea. Advocates for Palestinian farmers also object to the exclusion of the Palestinian National Authority from the deal.


    Japan defends whaling plan

    Japan has resumed its controversial lethal research whaling in the Southern Ocean, because it wants to determine how many minke whales can be harvested sustainably and also study the Antarctic environment, Joji Morishita, the nation's representative to the International Whaling Commission (IWC), told a press conference 7 December. “We did our best to try to meet the criteria established by the ICJ [International Court of Justice] and we have decided to implement our research plan because we are confident we have completed our scientific homework,” Morishita said. In March 2014, the ICJ had ordered the nation to halt its research whaling, ruling that its program at the time, which sought to take 850 minke whales, 50 fin whales, and 50 humpback whales, did not meet stipulated standards of whaling for purposes of scientific research. The country unveiled a new program in November 2014 that calls for taking 333 minke whales; IWC's Scientific Committee examined the new program but last June reported that it could not reach a consensus.


    Virus may cause birth defects

    The Zika virus, an emerging virus that is causing an unprecedented epidemic in Brazil and is quickly spreading through Latin America, may be responsible for a spike in severe birth defects. Transmitted by mosquitoes, Zika usually causes relatively mild symptoms, including fever and rashes. But the Brazilian government warned last week that the virus may be responsible for a dramatic increase in cases of microcephaly, a severe birth defect in which the brain fails to develop properly and the head is much smaller than normal. The connection is not yet proven, but several lines of evidence point toward Zika as a culprit: The virus has been found in the amniotic fluid of two fetuses diagnosed with microcephaly via ultrasound, and has also been found in tissues of a baby with microcephaly that died shortly after birth.


    Second try at Venus finds success

    A spacecraft designed to study Venus's atmosphere that missed its target 5 years ago has apparently succeeded in entering an orbit around the planet, according to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). An engine malfunction during its first rendezvous with Venus on 7 December 2010 sent the probe, named Atatsuki, on a 5-year, 10-orbit trip around the sun. Engineers used the time to develop a scheme to insert the craft into orbit using four small attitude control thrusters. JAXA reported that the thruster firing went as planned this week and that Akatsuki “is now in good health” and apparently circling Venus. Mission controllers will confirm the trajectory of the probe in the coming days.


    Integrity office gets new head

    The U.S. office that guards against fraud in federally funded biomedical research has a new chief. Kathy Partin, a basic neuroscientist and administrator at Colorado State University (CSU), Fort Collins, will become director of the federal Office of Research Integrity (ORI) the week of 27 December. Partin will replace David Wright, who left ORI after 2 years in March 2014 after becoming frustrated with the federal bureaucracy and the little regard his office was given by the Department of Health and Human Services. ORI has often been criticized for moving too slowly to close cases and for meting out relatively light punishments for those found guilty of research misconduct. Partin studies glutamate receptors in the brain, is assistant vice president for research at CSU, and directs the university's research integrity office.

    Three Q's

    The new open-access scientific journal Matters aims to publish single observations rather than complete stories. Science spoke with the journal's founder, Lawrence Rajendran, a cell biologist at the University of Zurich in Switzerland.

    Q:What motivated you to launch this new journal?

    A:As a postdoc applying for jobs 8 years ago, I was shocked to discover that certain figures from retracted manuscripts had gotten published elsewhere. It made me wonder if the pressure to publish “good stories” could be nudging authors to tweak data that doesn't neatly fit a storyline. I remember thinking: If people could just report the one thing they're comfortable with, they wouldn't have to be dishonest.

    Q:Tell us about Matters' submission and review process.

    A:We're focusing on cell biology, biochemistry, biophysics, neuroscience, and genetics. The first 500 submissions to the journal will be free; after that, Matters will charge $150 per submission from universities and other nonprofits, and $300 per submission from for-profit entities. We use a triple-blind peer-review process and will publish all scientifically sound observations—even negative data and confirmatory data—within 2 weeks of submission.

    Q:But there's a good reason many journals publish “stories”—people like stories.

    A:An initial finding can be extended with subsequent observations by the original authors or others, who can then build narratives from the collection of findings. It will be like Twitter—you can always go back to who said it first. Our tagline is not “stories don't matter”—it's “stories can wait.”