News this Week

Science  12 Dec 2014:
Vol. 346, Issue 6215, pp. 1272

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  1. This week's section

    Aiming for the heart of an asteroid

    Artist's rendition of Hayabusa 2 on its way to asteroid 1999 JU3.


    Japan last week successfully launched the spacecraft Hayabusa 2 on a 6-year round trip to asteroid 1999 JU3. If all goes well, the spacecraft will return to Earth in 2020 with the first-ever samples from beneath an asteroid's surface. The probe will circle the asteroid, collecting data, deploying several small landers, and briefly touching down to collect surface samples. Then, in the most audacious gambit of the mission, Hayabusa 2 will release an impactor that will blast a crater into the asteroid. The spacecraft will touch down a second time and capture ejecta. Comparing surface and underground samples will give scientists a better idea of the original material of this asteroid type and how space weathers it. The Hayabusa 2 team hopes its probe will have a less eventful voyage than its predecessor: The first Hayabusa overcame fuel leaks, equipment failures, and a weeks-long loss of communications during its mission to the asteroid Itokawa in 2005. But Hayabusa set a historic first: In 2010, it carried samples from an asteroid's surface to Earth.

    Shrinking tribe once most populous

    Ju/'hoansi tribe, a Khoisan people, foraging in Namibia.


    The Kalahari Bushmen of southern Africa—who speak in Khoisan “click” languages—are in decline, with only 100,000 speakers in Africa. But the Khoisan have the greatest genetic diversity known among human populations, despite their small size. Based on a single genome published in 2012, researchers thought the Khoisan came from a large ancestral population but couldn't rule out interbreeding with other diverse Africans. The new study, in Nature Communications, compared genomes from five Khoisan hunter-gatherers with DNA from 1462 genomes of other people—and found that two of the bushmen inherited their DNA only from northern Khoisan ancestors whose lineages were very ancient. The team also found that the populations of four groups—ancestors of the Khoisan, the Yoruba, Europeans, and Asians—all declined 120,000 to 30,000 years ago, likely due to dry climate. But the Khoisan decreased far less than the others—possibly because of increases in rainfall in southern Africa that supported their population. That suggests that for tens of thousands of years, the Khoisan were “the largest population” on Earth.

    Mars crater held ancient lake

    Lakebeds in Mars's Gale crater were built over millions of years.


    Gale crater, the bowl on Mars that NASA's Curiosity rover has been exploring for 2.5 years, was filled with water billions of years ago—and had bouts of deposition in river deltas and lakebeds that may have lasted a million years or more, scientists reported 8 December in a press conference. That's good news for astrobiologists who hope that the ancient environment on the Red Planet was habitable for a sustained time. Mars scientists always suspected that Gale crater held water; in December 2013, the Curiosity team reported evidence for lakebed mudstones near the rover's landing spot. This week, the team described angled sediment beds associated with river delta deposition and the flat bedding of lake sediments, suggesting million-year cycles of deposition. As Curiosity explores a sediment mountain in the crater's center, it may spy other deposition cycles, which could boost estimates for the duration of the wet period to tens of millions of years.

    “I look at some of the titles and I go—really?”

    University of California President Janet Napolitano, on the need to improve federal grant descriptions, a step the National Science Foundation plans to take to eliminate fodder for congressional critics (

    By the numbers

    $4.1 million—Sale price for James Watson's Nobel Prize, earned in 1962 for the co-discovery of the structure of DNA and auctioned off last week. The buyer, Russian mogul Alisher Usmanov, has said he plans to return it to Watson.

    269,000—Total weight, in tons, of plastic floating in the world's oceans, according to a new study in PLOS ONE.

    8 million—Number of “dark” asteroids that may be lurking in the Oort cloud, scientists reported last month in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

    Around the world


    Chimp ‘personhood’ appeal fails

    Advocates of “legal personhood” to chimpanzees have lost another battle. Last week, a New York appellate court rejected a lawsuit by the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) to free a chimp named Tommy from captivity. The group had argued that the chimpanzee deserved the human right of bodily liberty. The court's decision is the latest setback for NhRP, an animal rights group that has been trying to free four New York chimpanzees—including two research chimps—since 2013 (Science, 6 December 2013, p. 1154). Despite the loss, the group is pursuing more cases in the hopes of conferring legal rights to a variety of animals, from elephants to dolphins.

    Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

    New cell science institute

    Eleven years after establishing the Allen Institute for Brain Science, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has a sequel: the Allen Institute for Cell Science. Like its predecessor, the new institute will be seeded with $100 million, and the data generated will be publicly available. (It will also be housed in the same Seattle building.) It aims to decipher how the cell's components work together and how they are perturbed by gene mutations, drugs, and other forces. Rick Horwitz, formerly a professor of cell biology at the University of Virginia, will be executive director; initial plans call for hiring 75 scientists. The first project, announced 8 December at the annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology, will focus on how induced pluripotent stem cells transform into heart muscle and epithelial cells.

    Kucha, China

    Colorful tombs on the Silk Road

    Tomb M1, one of 10 ancient tombs unearthed in the oasis state of Qiuci in 2007.


    In the rubble of the ancient Silk Road, Chinese archaeologists have excavated the ruins of tombs dating to the 3rd or 4th century C.E. Discovered in 2007 in northwest China during one of the country's relentless construction projects, the tombs give insight into the ways of the wealthy in Qiuci, then a powerful oasis state in the Taklamakan desert. Yu Zhiyong and colleagues from the Xinjiang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology excavated 10 tombs, publishing their findings in October in Chinese Cultural Relics. The tombs were colorful and intricate: Blue brick gates opened into domed burial chambers lit by oil lamps. In one chamber, the complete skeletons of four women and one man were found face-up; coins nearby suggest two may have held money. The chambers appear to have been used for repeated multiple burials, the archaeologists wrote, warranting further research.


    2014 may be hottest on record

    The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) announced on 3 December at the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change talks that 2014 is on track to be the warmest year on record. Whether the 2014 record, if confirmed, means the end of the so-called warming hiatus is unclear, WMO's Michel Jarraud said during a teleconference. The hiatus, which began in about 1998, has been typified by a slower rate of increase in average air temperatures than in previous decades.

    Quincy, Massachusetts

    Cape Cod turtle deaths

    Hundreds of endangered sea turtles, mostly juvenile Kemp's ridleys less than a foot long, have been washing up on the beaches of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, sick and stunned by the cold ocean water. They are being trapped on their southbound fall migration to warmer climes by the arm of the cape, which protrudes into the Atlantic Ocean. Many also have life-threatening conditions like dehydration, pneumonia, infections, or off-kilter blood chemistry. Rescue crews have picked up more than 1070 turtles, about 20% of them already dead; the living turtles are sent to a sea turtle hospital in Quincy, Massachusetts, run by the New England Aquarium. Six hundred and fifty turtles have been admitted so far—approaching triple the hospital's previous record of 240, set in 2012. The reasons for this year's stranding remain unknown.

    Washington, D.C.

    Habitat proposed for Arctic seals

    A ringed seal pup on an iceberg in Nunavut Territory, Canada.


    Shrinking sea ice is wreaking havoc on Arctic ringed seals, which live in and beneath the ice in the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort seas and were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in December 2012. Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) proposed designating more than 906,000 square kilometers off Alaska as protected habitat for the seals, based on a yearlong study of their critical habitat needs and the economic effects that protecting them may have on the region, which harbors extensive oil and gas reserves and commercially valuable fish. NOAA will accept public comments on the proposal until 3 March 2015.

    Ithaca, New York

    ArXiv probes ‘text reuse’

    Two analyses of manuscripts submitted to arXiv, the world's largest preprint repository, examine the prevalence of scientific plagiarism. One study of “text reuse” in 757,000 articles submitted between 1991 and 2012 found that that the more text a paper poached from published work, the less frequently it was cited. The study was published 8 December in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences. A second analysis by Science's news staff found that 3.2% of 301,759 arXiv papers submitted since 2011 were “flagged” by repository software for extensive text reuse without citation. Of the 57 nations with more than 100 submitting authors, Bulgaria had the highest rate of flagged authors, 20%; New Zealand had the lowest, 0.6%.

    Washington, D.C.

    Renewal again for R&D tax break?

    The U.S. Congress was set this week to renew a popular tax break that allows companies to write off certain research expenses. But industry and a bipartisan group of lawmakers failed in their bid to make the R&D tax credit, worth some $7 billion annually, a permanent part of the tax code—as many economic experts have urged. Instead, as Science went to press, the Senate was poised to pass a House of Representatives–approved bill that would temporarily restore for 2014 the R&D credit and nearly 50 other tax breaks that expired earlier this year. It would mark the 16th time Congress has temporarily extended the credit since it was created in 1981. Critics say that pattern makes it difficult for businesses to plan long-term investments.

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