News this Week

Science  09 Jan 2015:
Vol. 347, Issue 6218, pp. 108

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  1. This week's section

    A fresh look at the ‘Pillars of Creation’

    Hubble's high-definition update to the iconic Eagle Nebula image.


    In honor of the 25th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope in April, astronomers have taken another snapshot of one of the images that made Hubble famous: the “Pillars of Creation” in the Eagle Nebula. “It's a new image of an old friend,” said Paul Scowen of Arizona State University, Tempe, presenting the images at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle this week. “You can see how far Hubble has come in the past 25 years serving the astronomical community.” Hubble's instruments have been upgraded since the original image was snapped 19 years ago (inset), so astronomers are able to see more detail and gather more data than previously. The image shows a region of gas and dust where stars are being born, but much of the material is in the process of being blown away by ultraviolet light from massive young stars elsewhere in the nebula. At the top of each pillar is a denser region that is shadowing material below from light coming in from above, producing the pillar effect.

    The ant, the plant, and the bear

    Insect-tending ants can compromise plant growth.


    Black bears inhabiting a moutain meadow in Colorado wield an un expected influence over a part of the ecosystem—by eating ants, the bears indirectly helped a key plant species called rabbitbrush thrive. Over 4 years, a team of ecologists found, bears damaged or destroyed 26% to 86% of ant nests in the subalpine meadow—and plants lacking ants grew better and produced more seeds. The scientists performed a series of controlled experiments to better understand the complex relationship between bears, ants, and rabbitbrush, including removing all ants from some plants, allowing a few ants on others, and leaving the ants alone on still others. In other tests, they manipulated the number of insect predators on the plants. Although the ants themselves don't directly harm the plants, they scare off predatory insects, allowing treehoppers and other plant-munching insects to take a serious toll on plant growth, the team reported online ahead of print in Ecology Letters.

    A shark-toothed chainsaw

    The “Jawzall,” consisting of shark teeth mounted onto sawing blades.


    First there was the Sawzall, a reciprocating saw that is the go-to tool for cutting up unwanted material. Now there's the “Jawzall.” Sharks shake their heads as they chomp, ripping prey's flesh; to assess how deadly different shark bites can be, a Cornell University undergraduate and her colleagues mounted four to 10 teeth from four different sharks onto separate sawing blades, then videotaped how well the teeth sliced through a dead salmon after six saws. Tooth performance matched a shark's lifestyle, the researchers reported this week at the annual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology. The tiger shark, which eats crunchy turtles and crustaceans, had the deadliest teeth, breaking the salmon's spine in six cuts, while the large, coarsely serrated ivories of the carrion-eating sixgill shark performed the poorest. After 12 saws, the team found that the teeth dulled quickly—which may limit how often sharks can eat.

    “This is a decisive event on the hard road to commercializing transgenic technology in China.”

    Statement on, a website set up by Chinese scientists, after the government this week renewed permits allowing scientists to grow three genetically modified crops.

    By the numbers

    51,840—Area, in square kilometers, of China's glaciers, according to the Second Glacier Inventory of China—a decrease of 13% compared with the last inventory in 2002.

    74%—Orangutan habitat in Borneo lost by 2080, according to models of climate change and deforestation published in Global Change Biology this week.

    41—Number of new drug approvals by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2014, the fastest pace in the past 18 years.

    Around the world

    Washington, D.C.

    Lawmakers scrutinize monkey lab

    Four members of Congress have asked the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to investigate psychological experiments on monkeys being carried out at an NIH lab in Poolesville, Maryland. The letter, which comes in response to an aggressive campaign by the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, claims that for more than 30 years researchers at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development have been “removing [macaques] from their mothers at birth and subjecting them to distressful and sometimes painful procedures that measure their anxiety and depression.” NIH says it will respond directly to Congress, and that its director will address the letter in detail.

    Washington, D.C.

    Lab animal welfare questioned

    The agency responsible for overseeing lab animal welfare in the United States is not performing as well as it should, according to an audit released in December by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA's) Office of Inspector General. The report claims that USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has been wasting resources inspecting facilities that don't house animals and that it has been too lax in punishing institutions that don't comply with animal welfare guidelines. APHIS says it welcomes the report and has already begun working on solutions.

    New Delhi

    Push for open access in India

    Two of India's major science funding agencies are joining the push to make the results of the research they fund freely available to the public. India's Ministry of Science & Technology on 12 December announced it will require researchers who receive funding from its biotechnology and science and technology departments to deposit copies of their papers in publicly accessible depositories. Researchers must post the papers within 2 weeks of acceptance by a peer-reviewed journal, although journals can ask for a 6- to 12-month delay to protect subscription revenue. India's policy, which tracks similar policies adopted by other funding agencies around the world, applies to all research funded since the 2012 to 2013 fiscal year. Institutions will also have to hold annual “Open Access Day” activities that promote the free sharing of results, the policy states.


    STAP cells likely contaminated

    Tying up a loose end in a longrunning research fiasco, an investigation by Japan's RIKEN research institute has concluded that stem cells created through a supposedly breakthrough process were actually the product of cultures contaminated with regular embryonic stem cells. The breakthrough cells—so-called stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) stem cells—were the subject of two Nature papers published in January 2014. But the contamination finding “refutes all of the main conclusions of the two papers,” a RIKEN panel reported on 26 December, adding that it “suspected that the contamination may have occurred artificially.” The committee also found that Haruko Obokata, the lead author of both papers, was responsible for doctoring two images appearing in one article. Obokata resigned from RIKEN earlier last month.

    San Diego, California

    Seed banks pay off

    A seed bank at Iowa State University in Ames, one of 69 partners in DivSeek.


    Gene banks may soon cease to serve primarily as warehouses of stored plant seeds and begin exploiting the 7 million seed deposits held in repositories all over the world. A new initiative, dubbed DivSeek (for Diversity Seek), will hold its first assembly on 9 January at the annual International Plant & Animal Genome conference in San Diego. DivSeek aims to mine the often hidden biodiversity in those gene-banked seeds. By systematically characterizing the genetic, physical, and biochemical makeup of banked crop seeds, researchers will track down traits—such as drought tolerance and pest resistance—crucial for future food security. The international consortium of 69 public sector partners, including the Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center and the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute, will coordinate and prioritize characterization efforts for a host of crops to speed up the creation of new varieties.

    McMurdo Station, Antarctica

    Antarctic balloon flight cut short

    A leak has foiled NASA's record-setting attempt for long-duration scientific ballooning. On 30 December, NASA scientists in Antarctica brought down a gamma ray telescope, called the Compton Spectrometer and Imager (COSI), that had dangled for 2 days beneath a helium balloon 115 meters in diameter. Carried by gentle counterclockwise winds in the stratosphere, COSI was to make circles above Antarctica for 100 days or more. The previous record for a balloon mission, set in 2013, was 55 days. COSI's balloon was equipped with special tendons to allow it to resist changes in volume and avoid fluctuations in altitude. But a leak in the balloon ended the mission early; scientists hope to retrieve the instrument, which landed several hundred kilometers from McMurdo, and the data it collected.

    Washington, D.C.

    Logging law's impact unclear

    Timber from Kalimantan in Indonesia, a major source of tropical timber.


    A 2008 law aimed at reducing U.S. imports of products from illegal logging appears to be working, concludes an analysis published this month in Forest Policy and Economics—but it may not be helping protect the world's forests. The Lacey Act was first passed in 1900 to penalize imports of poached wildlife (helping curb markets for feathers and hides); it was amended in 2008 to cover plant products such as wood, paper, or pulp to discourage illegal logging. The analysis shows that the Lacey Act does appear to be reducing U.S. imports of problematic timber—but the authors note that that doesn't mean the illegal logging problem is solved, as shady exporters may instead take their products to other nations with laxer regulation.

    Seattle, Washington

    How to make a habitable planet

    Earth-like exoplanets—with a rocky surface, iron core, and a dash of water—are also likely to be similar in size to Earth, suggests research presented here this week at the American Astronomical Society's annual meeting. The scientists used a spectrograph called HARPS-North, attached to Italy's Galileo National Telescope in the Canary Islands, to measure the mass of 10 smallish exoplanets; the five smallest (no more than 1.6 times Earth's mass) lay on a curve typical of a rocky planet with an iron core (also where Earth and Venus sit), suggesting they “have the same recipe as Earth,” said lead author Courtney Dressing, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a press conference.

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