News this Week

Science  04 Mar 2016:
Vol. 351, Issue 6277, pp. 1009

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    News at a glance

    Rewilding led to hybrid orangutans

    Many orangutans at Camp Leakey in Borneo now carry a “cocktail” of genes from different subspecies.


    From 1971 to 1985, primatologists have released more than 90 rehabilitated orangutans—most confiscated from the illegal pet trade—into the wilds of Borneo. At the time, orangutans were considered a single species; however, they are now thought to be two separate species with at least three reproductively distinct subspecies. Those early rewildings, a new study shows, inadvertently introduced the wrong subspecies into local populations. Primatologist Graham Banes of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom and colleagues analyzed 44 years of data from Borneo's Camp Leakey and also used fecal samples to study the genetics of the camp's ape population. Two reintroduced females were not from the local subspecies; one has at least 14 descendants, whereas the other has had few of spring, many with health issues that could be the result of mixing populations. Meanwhile, an estimated nine males from mixed-species unions have carried their “cocktail” of genes into the wilds of Tanjung Puting National Park—with unknown repercussions. Given the number of orangutan reintroductions and the likelihood that other wildlife sanctuaries have also reintroduced the wrong species, this may be the tip of the iceberg, the researchers wrote last week in Scientific Reports.

    Corpse flower's cousin smells like coconut

    Softball-sized Rafflesia consueloae is the smallest species in the giant flower family.


    The world's largest and perhaps stinkiest flower has a newly discovered—and much smaller and much more pleasant-smelling—cousin. The genus Rafflesia has produced some of the largest flowers on Earth; the largest known individual flower is about a meter across and was produced by R. arnoldii, which some call the corpse flower for its distinctive odor (and not to be confused with another giant flower commonly called a corpse flower, Amorphophallus titanium). Now, in the mountains of the Philippines's Luzon Island, scientists have found R. consueloae, a parasitic flowering plant (like its larger cousins) that has a far less offensive smell. It measures only 10 centimeters across, making it the smallest of the giants, they reported last week in PhytoKeys.

    Return of the monarchs


    The number of monarch butterflies wintering in Mexico is up for the second year in a row—but their famous migration remains imperiled, researchers said in a press conference in Mexico City 26 February. Every year, millions of butterflies journey from their breeding grounds in the U.S. Midwest and Canada to their winter habitat in the oyamel fir and pine forests of central Mexico. Since 1993, researchers have estimated the butterflies' numbers based on the total forest area they inhabit. Monarchs covered 4 hectares of forest this winter, according to a December 2015 survey released last week. That's nearly four times as much area as last year (1.13 hectares), and suggests an ongoing rebound from the all-time recorded low of 0.67 hectares in the winter of 2013–14. But monarch numbers remain low compared with the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the butterflies often covered 8 hectares or more. Their main threat is still the loss of milkweed in the United States (Science, 23 January 2015, p. 357), says Omar Vidal, the director general of the World Wildlife Fund Mexico in Mexico City, which administers the annual count.

    “Precision medicine is not a replacement for making sure people have just basic health care.”

    President Obama, 25 February, at a White House summit marking 1 year of the Precision Medicine Initiative, when asked what the initiative can do to address opioid drug abuse in rural communities.

    Around the world

    Washington, D.C.

    Average innovator? Not Steve Jobs

    If you think the archetypal U.S. researcher-entrepreneur is a young white college dropout building a startup in his garage, then think again, argues a new study of the demographics of U.S. innovators in the information, life, and materials sciences. The face behind the next big thing could easily belong to a middle-aged male Ph.D. from India or China, working at a large firm, conclude researchers from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation in Washington, D.C., and George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. The team used patents and awards to identify and send surveys to more than 6000 U.S. innovators. Of the 923 who responded, 46% are immigrants or the children of immigrants. More than half hold doctorates and work at firms with more than 500 employees. The median age is 47, and just 12% are women. Fewer than 8% belong to a minority group.

    Berkeley, California

    Budget crunch at Berkeley

    Latimer Hall at UC Berkeley's College of Chemistry.


    The University of California (UC), Berkeley, may disband the university's College of Chemistry to help cope with a cash crunch. Faced with $150 million in debt, as well as flat income from tuition and rising costs, the university is considering saving money by closing the college and absorbing its departments into other university colleges. No decisions have yet been made; so far, more than 2250 people have signed a petition asking UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks to scrap the idea of disbanding the school, which is home to 101 faculty and 1492 students and postdocs. Thirteen of its faculty have won Nobel Prizes.

    San Diego, California

    Nanopore pioneer sued

    The first company to bring nanopore DNA sequencing to market is facing charges of patent infringement from genetic sequencing giant Illumina. The company filed a lawsuit against U.K.-based Oxford Nanopore Technologies last week, claiming that the nanopore platforms it has made available to researchers since 2014 use patented technology Illumina controls. Hailed as a revolution in cheap and portable DNA analysis (Science, 19 February, p. 800), nanopore sequencing reads long strands of DNA by measuring changes in electrical current as different nucleotides of a strand pass through a bacterial pore. Oxford hasn't revealed what type of pore is inside its devices, but Illumina contends that they rely on the Mycobacterium smegmatis porin (Msp). The Msp pore is described in two patents Illumina has exclusively licensed from the University of Washington and the University of Alabama, Birmingham.


    Ebola risk, ZMapp limits revealed

    Ebola survivors, like this mother and daughter, face possible long-term symptoms.


    Worrisome findings about the 2013–16 Ebola epidemic in West Africa are continuing to emerge. Many survivors of the disease have experienced long-term effects, including joint pain, neurological problems, and eye damage, researchers reported last week at a special session of the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Boston. Another group reported that many men harbor Ebola RNA in their semen after they recover, and for far longer than imagined—which suggests that fresh outbreaks caused by sexual transmission can remain a threat for nearly a year. And a third team of scientists presented disappointing results from a clinical trial of what was once considered the most promising Ebola treatment: an antibody cocktail called ZMapp. The study, started late in the epidemic, enrolled fewer people than planned, and failed to provide statistically significant results. Although the conference focuses on HIV/AIDS, meeting organizers included the Ebola findings because of overlap in the HIV and Ebola research communities and because of the magnitude of the epidemic.

    New Delhi

    Scientists decry spending plan

    Science spending in India is slated to rise by 11% in the 2016–17 fiscal year, according to the budget proposal presented this week by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But inflation, projected to be 5% in the coming year, will consume much of the increase, many scientists say—and far greater investments will be needed to revamp crumbling infrastructure. “We have very few laboratories and institutions comparable to the best in the world,” says C.N.R. Rao, a chemist and adviser to the previous prime minister, Manmohan Singh. “We need to provide much more support for improving this state.” In the new budget, agricultural research gets a 19% boost, and earth sciences and renewable energy increase by 16% each. Space research and atomic energy would get increases of just 6.6% and 5.1%, respectively. The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, which runs a network of 38 national labs, will get a 4.6% increase, in line with orders it received last year to self-finance half of its budget within the next 2 to 3 years.


    Surgeon facing dismissal

    Pressure on surgeon Paolo Macchiarini is increasing as the Karolinska Institute (KI) in Stockholm says it will try to cut ties with him before his contract runs out in November. Macchiarini, a surgeon who implanted artificial tracheae into patients at KI and elsewhere, is under a cloud of controversy after colleagues and media reports questioned the ethics of the operations and the accuracy of papers he published about their success (Science, 5 February, p. 546). Meanwhile, The Lancet published a letter on 23 February detailing problems with a 2011 paper by Macchiarini that described early success with the first patient to receive the polymer trachea seeded with stem cells. The journal has previously declined to amend or retract the paper.

    Califf confirmed as FDA head

    President Barack Obama's new pick to head the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on 24 February. Cardiologist Robert Califf has faced opposition from several senators since his nomination in September 2015. Some labeled him an industry insider for his role in overseeing large company-funded trials at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina. Others, meanwhile, used the nomination as a chance to take the agency to task over various issues not related to Califf, including FDA's response to the epidemic of opioid abuse. The opposition was blunted by a procedural vote last week that limited floor debate, and the Senate approved the nomination by a vote of 89 to four. Califf will take the helm as FDA faces pressure from Congress to speed the approval of medical products to patients.