News this Week

Science  26 Feb 2016:
Vol. 351, Issue 6276, pp. 896

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    News at a glance

    NIH to review all nonhuman primate research in U.S. labs

    Macaques used in AIDS research in a U.S. lab.


    The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is about to take a closer look at the use of nonhuman primates in all federally funded U.S. research labs. In response to a congressional mandate, the agency will convene a workshop this summer to review the ethical policies and procedures surrounding work on monkeys, baboons, and related animals. The move follows NIH's decision to end controversial monkey experiments at one of its labs and the termination of its support for invasive research on chimpanzees. In a letter to lawmakers last week, NIH Director Francis Collins emphasized the importance of nonhuman primate research in tackling Ebola, cardiovascular disease, and other afflictions. But he added that “NIH takes animal welfare concerns seriously” and will convene experts in primatology, animal welfare, and ethics this summer “to ensure that NIH has the appropriate policies and procedures in place for conducting research with non-human primates.” The agency tells Science that it is still in the early stages of planning the workshop and does not have additional details to share at this time.

    Japan puts x-ray observatory in orbit

    The Hitomi telescope was launched into orbit last week.


    The largest and most advanced x-ray astronomy platform put in orbit since 1999 was successfully lifted into space 17 February by Japan's H-IIA rocket. ASTRO-H carries four x-ray telescopes to study soft and hard x-rays and gamma rays; the instruments are expected to reveal details about gases trapped in galaxy clusters and wafting through supernova remnants, as well as the turbulent streams of material spiraling away from black holes. A joint project of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's Institute of Space and Astronautical Science and NASA, the ASTRO-H team brought together 240 scientists from 60 institutions in Japan, North America, and Europe. As is customary after Japanese launches, the spacecraft was given a new name, Hitomi (which means “eye” in Japanese), to replace the ASTRO-H mission designation. Mission managers will verify the functioning of the instruments over the next several months. Full-fledged observations will begin before the end of the year.

    An armadillo the size of a (Volkswagen) Beetle

    An artist's conception of a glyptodont, now known to be an armadillo.


    During his travels in South America between 1832 and 1833, Charles Darwin collected fossils from a giant, heavily armored mammal later called a glyptodont. Glyptodonts were long suspected to be cousins to modern-day armadillos—but new genetic analyses of a 14,000-year-old fossil from an Argentine museum reveal that the ancient herbivores actually were armadillos. The fossil, a shell fragment from a large individual of the genus Doedicurus, yielded enough genetic material to completely reconstruct DNA from the creature's mitochondria. When compared to previous genetic analyses from living armadillos, Doedicurus landed squarely within the armadillo family tree, the researchers reported online this week in Current Biology. The team's analysis suggests that glyptodonts evolved about 35 million years ago. (They went extinct at the end of the last ice age, about 12,000 years ago.) Unlike living armadillos, which can roll into a ball to protect themselves, the largest glyptodonts had fused carapaces and likely depended on their shells and clubbed tails, as well as their immense size, for self-defense.

    “Ugh so sick of acting as a gatekeeper and stonewaller and rejector and delayer as an editor for journals. After #ASAPbio, resigning from all”

    Neurobiologist Leslie Vosshall (@pollyp1), tweeting last week from the Accelerating Science and Publication in Biology meeting about the future of preprints in the biological sciences.

    By the numbers

    $750 million—Amount that semiconductor-maker Marvell Technology Group will pay to Carnegie Mellon University to end a long-running patent fight, the university announced 17 February.

    35—Years left before the depletion of China's phosphate rock reserves at current rates of production. Phosphorus cycling intensified in China in the last 60 years to fertilize crops for food and animal feed (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

    29%—Fraction of clinical trials led by researchers at U.S. academic centers that were published within 2 years of study completion (The BMJ).

    Around the world

    Washington, D.C.

    NASA's next space telescope

    With NASA's huge James Webb Space Telescope due for launch in 2018, the agency has announced its next major astrophysics project: another telescope known as the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST). With its wide field of view—100 times that of the Hubble Space Telescope—WFIRST will be able to measure the shapes, positions, and distances of millions of galaxies, so as to better understand the dark matter that holds galaxies together and the dark energy speeding the expansion of the universe. In addition, it will be equipped to directly image planets around other stars. Cost overruns on Webb had delayed WFIRST's development, but in December 2015, Congress approved a 2016 spending plan that included $90 million for work on WFIRST. NASA's Program Management Council is now looking to launch the instrument in the mid-2020s.

    New Delhi

    LIGO-India gets green light

    Less than a week after two U.S.-based detectors made the groundbreaking discovery of gravitational waves (Science, 12 February, p. 645), the Indian government has approved a longstanding proposal to build its own Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). On 17 February, the Indian cabinet, chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, gave “in principle” approval to construct a LIGO lab in either Rajasthan or Maharashtra, at a projected cost of $375 million. Adding a third instrument will allow scientists to triangulate and locate the source of observed gravitational waves, says Tarun Souradeep, a spokesperson for the IndIGO Consortium, a group of Indian physicists who have pushed for the project for the last 5 years. The site is planned to be ready by 2022; by then, the consortium will import a $140 million detector—identical to the two U.S. instruments—built by U.S. researchers. “I am delighted with the Indian government's decision,” says Charles Elachi, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “This is a great step forward in humanity's quest to understand how our universe works and evolved, and how we all came about.”

    Lyon, France

    Fungal toxins can stunt growth

    Children in Africa and parts of Asia are falling victim to an “in visible” epidemic—fungal toxins in food that can stunt their growth and delay their development, according to a new report from the Lyon-based International Agency for Research on Cancer and funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The two main toxins—aflatoxin and fumonisin—are present in dangerously high levels in groundnuts, cassava, and corn, which make up the bulk of children's diets from Benin to Kenya. In the United States and Europe, fields and food are heavily treated for the toxins; that management costs U.S. food producers between $500 million and $1.5 billion each year. The new report brings together six studies that show that children with high levels of toxin biomarkers in their blood are shorter and weigh less than other children their age. They also grow at a slower pace than their peers.


    Three Q's

    Optical physicist Massimo Inguscio, previously head of Italy's National Institute of Metrological Research, last week became president of the country's largest research organization, the National Research Council (CNR). Science spoke with him about CNR's funding woes and the need for fresh talent.

    Q:Italy spends 1.25% of its gross domestic product on research. Does CNR struggle for funding?

    A:Almost all of CNR's budget is used to pay salaries and basic expenses such as electricity, which means there are virtually zero funds for research. Twenty years ago there was money to upgrade existing facilities or to buy new equipment. But now we can't do that.

    Q:The 2016 budget contains €100 million for 850 new university researchers. Is that a good sign?

    A:It is a welcome, if small, reversal compared to the general trend of decreasing finances. But … in Italy there is no multiyear strategy. Hirings can be blocked for many years and then un frozen suddenly. That leads to people being recruited because they are on a temporary contract, not necessarily because they are the best person for the job. The presidents of research institutions are asking the government to start up a process of tenure track, as happens in other countries.

    Q:Many Italian scientists work abroad. Is that a problem?

    A:It is normal that people go overseas to work. The problem is that researchers don't come to Italy. … Someone comes not only because there is a place and a wage, but also because they can hire postdocs and get projects up and running. I hope that the government can restart Italian research on the basis of excellence and meritocracy.


    Bees brighten orchid's hues

    Pollinators influence petal color in the green-winged orchid, Anacamptis morio.


    The Eurasian orchid Anacamptis morio comes in a wide variety of colors, from deep purple to white. Like some other flowers, it has markings on its lower petal that guide insects in for a landing. But A. morio offers no sweet rewards: Its color and marks are a trick designed to resemble those of nectar-laden species. Researchers thought this orchid's array of colors made it harder for pollinators to recognize it as a deceiver. To test this, plant ecologists Nina Sletvold and Jon Ågren from Uppsala University in Sweden and their team marked more than 300 individual plants in the field and hand-pollinated half of them. By comparing the production of hand-pollinated with naturally pollinated fruit from each orchid color, the researchers confirmed that insect preferences shape how the flowers look, they reported online in Evolution last week. The new data also suggest the color variety may be the orchid's way of diversifying so that at least some of its flowers resemble the most attractive flowers in an area.

    Seas rising fastest in 2000 years

    Global sea levels are exquisitely sensitive to changes in temperature and greenhouse gas levels, reports a set of four new studies published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The different authors used a variety of techniques to study sea level changes over various timescales, including historical tide gauge records, foraminifera species in marsh sediment cores as proxies for salinity over the past 3000 years, and a 1.1-kilometer-long core pulled from an Antarctic seabed that sheds light on the ebb and flow of the continent's ice sheets 14 million to 20 million years ago. “The big takeaway is that the modern rate of sea level rise in the 20th century is faster than anything we've seen in the previous two millennia,” says Benjamin Horton, a Rutgers University, New Brunswick, in New Jersey geologist who helped direct one of the studies. “This isn't a model. This is data.”