News this Week

Science  05 Feb 2016:
Vol. 351, Issue 6273, pp. 540

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    News at a glance

    Scientists lose fight for California bones


    These rare ancient skeletons from California are likely to be reburied without scientific study, after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a court case about them last week. The remains, which were discovered in 1976 on the grounds of the University of California (UC), San Diego, date to about 9000 years ago, making them among the oldest in North America. They could shed light on the still murky peopling of the continent and on the possible coastal lifestyle of some of the earliest Americans. However, a local Native American tribe, the Kumeyaay, declared rights to the bones, saying that the remains had been found on their ancient lands. UC officials agreed to give the remains to the tribe for likely reburial, but three UC scientists sued the university system to allow scientific analyses, particularly ancient DNA studies, to determine the remains' relationship to living tribes ( “We just wanted to study the remains,” said UC Berkeley paleoanthropologist Tim White, one of the plaintiffs. California courts ruled against the scientists in 2013, based on a legal technicality involving the Kumeyaay's status as a sovereign nation. Now that the Supreme Court has declined to reopen the case, the UC system is expected to give the bones to the Kumeyaay, perhaps as soon as the end of February.

    Kew Gardens to host The Hive

    The Hive at the Milan Expo in Italy in 2015.


    A twisting structure meant to evoke a swarm of bees is set to alight at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in the United Kingdom this summer. The Hive, an installation that was originally part of the U.K. Pavilion at the 2015 Milan Expo in Italy, was designed by artist Wolfgang Buttress and inspired by U.K. research into the health of bees, bee communication, and the role of bees in the global food chain. Visitors will enter the 17-meter-tall aluminum structure through a wildflower meadow, and will then be surrounded by hundreds of LED lights and a swell of music, buzzes, and pulses that increases as they move toward its center. The structure—which won dozens of awards at the expo—is set to arrive in June.

    Microplastics hurt oyster reproduction

    Pacific oysters reproduce less when they've ingested microplastics, a lab study shows.


    Eating, for an oyster, is pretty simple: Take water in, keep the tasty plankton, spit water out. But increasingly, the mollusks are getting an unwelcome additive: tiny pieces of plastic ranging from a few micrometers to a millimeter in size. Over time, the human-produced plastic—derived from anything from clothing to industrial processes—washed into the oceans breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. Now, a new laboratory-based study shows that when Pacific oysters are exposed to these so-called microplastics, they ingest as much as 69% of 6-micrometer particles added to water. The microplastics end up in the oysters' guts and disrupt their digestion or hormone systems, ultimately causing them to invest less energy in reproduction. Female oysters exposed to microplastics made 38% fewer eggs, and males made sperm that were 23% slower. Plus, they had fewer offspring, which were themselves slower to reach maturity.

    “I will put it into my syllabus that the class is not open to students carrying guns. I may wind up in court. I'm willing to accept that possibility.”

    Nobel Prize–winning physicist Steven Weinberg of the University of Texas, Austin, pledging opposition last week to a state law allowing concealed weapons on campus.

    By the numbers

    82,000—Number of deaths worldwide that could be prevented each year by making breastfeeding nearly universal for infants and young children (The Lancet).

    99%—Fraction of U.S. coastal waters in which contaminants in fish tissue pose a threat to predator fish, birds, and wildlife, according to a new report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Selenium is the primary culprit, likely boosted by pollution such as agricultural runoff and sewage.

    $54,600—List price for a 12-week course of Merck & Co.'s newly approved hepatitis C drug Zepatier; that's much less than the listed price of similar drug regimens from AbbVie ($83,300) and Gilead Sciences ($94,500).

    Around the world

    Greifswald, Germany

    Twisty stellarator hits its stride

    German Chancellor Angela Merkel this week kicked off real fusion research on the country's new reactor Wendelstein 7-X by flicking the switch to fill the reactor with hydrogen plasma. W7-X is a stellarator, a fusion reactor with a strange, twisty shape that researchers hope will keep the superhot gas inside more stable than traditional doughnut-shaped “tokamaks” do (Science, 23 October 2015, p. 369). Nineteen years and €1 billion in the making, W7-X started operation last November, producing a plasma of helium gas. But hydrogen is required for the reactor's ultimate goal: to get the gas so hot that its atoms fuse together. The rate of actual fusion reactions with plain hydrogen will be very low, however; to up that rate and produce more energy, the plain hydrogen will eventually have to be replaced with its more reactive isotope deuterium. Future reactors will use a yet more reactive mix of deuterium and tritium.


    Scientist can edit human embryos

    A U.K. researcher has gotten a green light to modify human embryos (pictured, 4 days after fertilization).


    Developmental biologist Kathy Niakan has received permission from U.K. authorities to modify human embryos using CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technology. Niakan, who works at the Francis Crick Institute in London, applied for permission to use the technique in studies to better understand the role of key genes during the first few days of human embryo development. The debate about the ethics of editing embryonic genomes has raged for several years; critics say studies such as Niakan's could be the first step toward “designer babies” or even eugenics. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), which grants licenses for work with human embryos, sperm, and eggs in the United Kingdom, approved Niakan's application at a meeting of HFEA's license committee on 14 January. The minutes of that meeting state that “[o]n balance, the proposed use of CRISPR/Cas9 … was a justified technical approach to obtaining research data about gene function from the embryos used.”


    Scholars call to free scientist

    More than 300 scholars, including seven Nobel laureates, have signed a letter dated 27 January that calls on Iran to release a jailed chemist. An Iranian court last year sentenced Mohammad Rafiee, a chemist retired from the University of Tehran, to 6 years in prison for “spreading propaganda against the regime” and other crimes. In June 2014, Rafiee posted on his website a lengthy analysis endorsing Iran's efforts to reach a nuclear deal with the United States and other nations. The move came shortly after Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani, had challenged Iranian intellectuals to publicly back his support for a deal. “Why are the professors silent?” Rouhani had asked. Last week, the U.S. State Department said in a statement that it considers Rafiee “to be a political prisoner … and would call for his release, as we do for other political prisoners in Iran.”

    Washington, D.C.

    $1 billion for cancer moonshot

    The White House plans to spend $1 billion to jump-start Vice President Joe Biden's moonshot to cure cancer. The initiative will include $195 million for new activities at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) this year. The White House also plans to ask for $755 million in its fiscal year 2017 budget request to be released on 9 February, mostly for NIH and the rest for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The moonshot will ramp up efforts in cancer prevention, early detection, immunotherapy, tumor genomics, data sharing, and pediatric cancer. It will also include a new fund for high-risk, high-reward research. The National Cancer Institute will assemble a blue-ribbon panel to begin guiding the effort.


    Obokata has her say in new book

    Disgraced stem cell researcher Haruko Obokata is telling her story. In a book out last week, she describes how the discovery of stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) cells unraveled and shifts much of the blame to another researcher. The STAP method, reported in two 2014 papers in Nature, promised an easy way to create pluripotent cells for future medical treatments. Investigations by RIKEN, Japan's network of national laboratories where Obokata worked, concluded that the papers contained falsified data and that the supposed STAP cells in her laboratory were actually embryonic stem cells. RIKEN fired her, the Nature papers were retracted, and one co-author committed suicide. In Ano Hi (That Day), Obokata claims there is still evidence that STAP cells exist but says the pressures of the investigations and media attention kept her from replicating her experiments. She also says a senior colleague, Teruhiko Wakayama, now at the University of Yamanashi, provided the cells used in the experiments, but that she was left to take the blame for the cell line mix-up. Obokata says she still admires Charles Vacanti, of Harvard Medical School in Boston, in whose lab she started work on STAP cells as a postdoc.


    Bumping up baby microbiomes

    When delivered by cesarian section, a baby's “microbiome”—the trillions of bacteria in the body—is different from that of infants who travel through mom's birth canal. These differences have been linked to more asthma, obesity, and allergies, although the details remain controversial. Now, a new study examines whether rubbing mom's vaginal bacteria over a newborn delivered by C-section could alter the microbial makeup. Scientists placed sterile gauze in four mothers' vaginas for an hour before their scheduled C-sections, then rubbed the gauze over each baby right after delivery. Fourteen other babies, some born vaginally and some by C-section, acted as controls. Over the next 30 days, the team sampled bacteria on the babies' mouths, anuses, and skin. Among treated babies, the microbiome shifted somewhat toward that of the average vaginally born baby, the team reports this week in Nature Medicine. In particular, they observed enrichments in Lactobacillus bacteria and Bacteroides, both diminished in babies born by C-section. The authors say they are now enrolling dozens more babies for a larger scale and longer term test.