News this Week

Science  12 Feb 2016:
Vol. 351, Issue 6274, pp. 642

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  1. News at a glance

    Obama makes last budget request

    The president met with his national security team to discuss new cybersecurity measures in the request.


    President Barack Obama's final budget request to Congress, released 9 February, calls for boosting federal research spending in 2017 by 4%, or $6 billion, to $152 billion. But about two-thirds of the new money would come from so-called mandatory funding mechanisms, which aren't popular with Congress. Mandatory spending dedicates revenue from a specific source, such as the sale of communications spectrum, to specific programs, which gives lawmakers less control over the annual budget. The request calls for the National Institutes of Health to get about an $800 million increase to $33.1 billion. The National Science Foundation would get a 6.7% increase to about $8 billion. The Department of Energy's Office of Science would get $5.7 bill ion, a 6.6% boost. NASA's science office would remain flat at $5.6 billion. Basic science spending at the Department of Defense would drop 9%, to $2.1 billion. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency would get about a 4% bump to $3 billion. Competitive grants for agricultural science would double, to $700 million. The White House also wants $1.8 billion in emergency spending to address the Zika virus.

    Odd wildebeest cousin had ‘vuvuzela’ in its head

    Rusingoryx atopocranion may have used the bony tube in its skull to communicate at low frequencies (artist's conception).


    In 1983, paleontologists gave a now-extinct cousin of the wildebeest the name Rusingoryx atopocranion, noting its oddly shaped head. That cranium, researchers reported last week in Current Biology, housed an S-shaped tube that may have allowed the creature to bellow at very low frequencies. The team performed CT scans on several skulls of the species unearthed on Kenya's Rusinga Island; the fossils were entombed in floodplain sediments between 40,000 and 285,000 years ago. Using computer analyses, researchers suggest that airflow through the bony tube would have generated sound at frequencies between 248 and 746 cycles per second—a range that encompasses the drone of the South African vuvuzela (which achieved fame during the 2010 FIFA World Cup). When further modulated by the soft tissues of the throat and windpipe, the frequency could have dropped below 20 cycles per second, below the hearing threshold for most humans—and most predators on the African savanna. Although absent in all living animals, similar tubes have been found inside the skull crests of certain dinosaurs.

    Indigenous groups to share malaria drug profits


    A French government research agency has agreed to share revenues from a potential malaria drug with the people who helped discover it after a human rights organization accused the institute of biopiracy. Scientists at the Institute of Development Research (IRD) isolated the candidate drug from Quassia amara (shown), a small red-flowered tree native to Central and South America, after collecting knowledge about medicinal plants from indigenous and local communities in French Guiana. They reported its antimalarial activity in 2009 and obtained a patent in March 2015. In a 25 January letter, the Fondation Danielle Mitterrand France Libertés along with legal scholar Thomas Burelli of the University of Ottawa called IRD's actions “immoral” and announced they had challenged the patent. IRD initially mounted a vigorous defense, but on 5 February agreed to share any proceeds if the drug makes it to the market. Details of the deal still need to be worked out.

    “From … the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician … and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’”

    Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell to People magazine in 1974. Mitchell died last week at the age of 85.

    By the numbers

    42—Wind speed, in meters per second, at which trees tend to break, regardless of their diameter, height, or elastic properties (Physical Review E).

    13%—Fraction, on average, of Antarctica's floating ice shelves that could be lost with little impact on the ice sheet upstream. Some areas are even more susceptible to ice loss, such as the Amundsen and Bellingshausen seas (Nature).

    Around the world


    Response to trial crisis faulted

    Why one man died and four others fell ill during a drug safety study in France last month is still unclear (Science, 22 January, p. 320). But a preliminary report by France's General Inspectorate of Social Affairs (IGAS) lashes out at Biotrial, the company that conducted the tests of a compound called BIA 10-2474, developed by Portuguese pharma company Bial as a candidate drug for a range of diseases. The study had proceeded without incident since July 2015, but on 6 January, a group of eight people entered the study, six of whom received multiple high doses of the drug. One subject complained of headaches and blurry vision and was hospitalized on 10 January; he was declared brain-dead the following day. The IGAS report, released 4 February, cites three major errors that put other volunteers at risk: Biotrial gave the five remaining volunteers their daily dose on 11 January without checking on the first subject's status; it did not inform the volunteers about his status, robbing them of a chance to reconsider their participation; and it did not report the disaster to health authorites until 14 January, 3 days after the study was halted.


    Chinese firm bids for GM giant

    In a move that could change how China regulates genetically modified (GM) crops, the country's biggest state-owned chemicals company last week offered $43.8 billion for Swiss-owned seed and agrichemicals giant Syngenta AG. If the deal goes through, China National Chemical Corporation would control one of the world's largest GM seed port folios. Currently, China does not allow the domestic cultivation of most GM crops, though it allows some—such as those used in animal feed—to be imported. The move comes at a time when China's top policymakers are pushing against strong public opposition to GM foods. Syngenta's board of directors, which has pledged to keep the company's current management in place, has voiced support for the buyout. But any deal would still have to clear regulatory hurdles in Europe and the United States.


    Scandal engulfs Nobel official

    The widening scandal surrounding surgeon Paolo Macchiarini and his employment at the Karolinska Insitute (KI) in Stockholm has prompted Urban Lendahl, secretary general of the Nobel Assembly, to resign. Lendahl, a developmental geneticist at KI, was involved in hiring Macchiarini in 2010. Last summer, KI cleared Macchiarini of charges that he had overstated the success of his pioneering artificial trachea implants in a series of scientific papers. But in January, a Swedish documentary suggested that Macchiarini didn't properly inform his patients about the operation's risks (six of his eight patients have died), and questioned KI's handling of the scandal. KI announced last month that it had “lost confidence” in Macchiarini and has said it will launch an external investigation into the university's interactions with him. A statement from the Nobel Committee this week said that Lendahl expected to be involved in the investigation and was giving up his work on the committee “out of respect for the integrity of the Nobel Prize work.”


    New HHMI president

    The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has chosen as its next president Erin O'Shea, a biochemist who is now chief scientific officer of the giant medical research philanthropy in Chevy Chase, Maryland. On 1 September O'Shea will become the first woman to head HHMI. HHMI has an $18.2 billion endowment and spent $666 million on research last year, mostly by supporting about 330 investigators at universities. O'Shea, 50, is a long-time HHMI investigator who studies gene regulation and signal transduction; she left Harvard University for HHMI in 2013 but maintains a lab there. She is a former postdoc of current HHMI President Robert Tjian, who has led the organization since 2009. O'Shea expects to expand HHMI's partnerships with other philanthropies and launch a major new program to promote diversity in biomedical research.

    Brain scientist to head Stanford

    Neuroscientist Marc Tessier-Lavigne, who has strong ties to both academia and the biotech industry, has been tapped to be the new head of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. Tessier-Lavigne, 56, is now the president of The Rockefeller University in New York City, where he directs a lab specializing in brain development and neurodegenerative brain disease. Previously, he was chief scientific officer and executive vice president for research at biotech giant Genentech. He has also been involved in several startups, helping to found San Francisco, California–based Denali Therapeutics, which focuses on Alzheimer's and neurodegenerative diseases, and serving on the board of Seattle, Washington–based Juno Therapeutics, which investigates cancer immunotherapy drugs. Tessier-Lavigne will replace outgoing Stanford President John Hennessy, who has been president of the university for 16 years, on 1 September.


    A 6th century ‘Little Ice Age’

    A 6th century cold spell may have helped spread the Plague of Justinian (shown in a 15th century painting).


    Historians have long identified a “Little Ice Age” period of modest cooling in the Northern Hemisphere that lasted roughly from the 16th to the 19th centuries. But a thousand years earlier, another cold spell even more profoundly chilled the Northern Hemisphere for more than a century, researchers reported this week in Nature Geoscience. Analyses of tree rings from more than 150 living trees and 500 fallen trees in the Russian Altai-Sayan Mountains provide a chronicle of climate from 359 B.C.E. to 2011 C.E. The tree rings show that 13 of the 20 coldest summers in the record occurred in the 6th century, after the year 536, when a huge volcanic eruption dimmed the Northern Hemisphere. Two additional eruptions, in 540 and 547, helped render that decade the coldest in 2300 years, the team reports. They dubbed the 120-year cold spell the Late Antique Little Ice Age, noting that it may have helped trigger societal upheaval by leading to widespread crop failures, migrations, and the spread of plague.

    Sleep loss and false confessions

    Sleep deprivation can make false confessions easy to extract, a new study shows, putting hard numbers to a problem criminal law reformers have worried about for decades. Researchers at Michigan State University in East Lansing recruited 88 students to solve problems at computers and instructed them not to press the escape key for fear of erasing study data. Half of the subjects were then forced to stay awake all night, while the rest got a full night's sleep. The next morning, the subjects each received a statement accusing them of hitting the key, although none had. They were asked to sign the statement; if they refused, they were asked to sign a second time. Lack of sleep took a toll: Twenty-two of the 44 sleep-deprived subjects signed the false confession the first time, and 30 confessed when asked again (compared with eight and 16 of the 44 well-rested subjects, respectively), the team reported this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.