News this Week

Science  15 Jan 2016:
Vol. 351, Issue 6270, pp. 208

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  1. News at a glance

    The Milky Way grew out as it grew up


    Astronomers have long predicted that the oldest stars in our Milky Way galaxy are in the center, whereas its outer environs are full of younger objects. Now, a team of astronomers has mapped out this prediction in exquisite detail, as they reported last week at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Kissimmee, Florida. The team used the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), a 2.5-meter telescope at the Apache Point Observatory in Sunspot, New Mexico, to determine the masses of red giant stars scattered throughout the Milky Way. Red giant stars are bright stars nearing the end of their lives; the older the red giant, generally speaking, the lower its mass. But the SDSS cannot measure mass directly. So the team combined the spectra of light emitted by the red giants with data from NASA's exoplanet-hunting Kepler observatory; from this, they calculated the masses of 70,000 red giants across a large swath of the Milky Way. In the map (above) the focus with lines coming out of it is the location of Earth. To its right are older stars (red) around the galactic center and to its left are younger (blue) stars in the outer parts of the disk.

    Hazardous haze again threatens Southeast Asia

    Haze from peat and forest fires smothered much of western Indonesia last fall, including the city of Palangkaraya on the island of Borneo.


    Forest fires and peat fires in Indonesia blanketed Southeast Asia in a thick, acrid haze from August through October last year. A brief rainy season this winter offered a temporary respite, but the region is beginning to dry out, thanks to this year's strong El Niño—and another bout of haze could form as early as next month. “This is a very big issue,” says Mikinori Kuwata, an atmospheric chemist with the Earth Observatory of Singapore at Nanyang Technological University; the haze may not only be a health hazard, he says, but the particulates in the haze may also reduce rainfall, ultimately eroding food security. Kuwata and others are trying to crack the riddle of haze chemistry to better understand its impacts. “The combination of peatland and forest fires leads to a unique composition of the haze,” says Rajasekhar Balasubramanian, an environmental engineer at the National University of Singapore who is studying how haze particles behave in the lungs. The chemistry of peat varies at different locations—and at different depths—so that each haze event has a different chemical fingerprint. That, Balasubramanian says, complicates efforts to track smoke constituents and their interactions with the atmosphere and sunlight.

    U.K. seagrass meadows suffering

    Levels of nitrogen and other nutrients in leaves offer clues to the health of seagrass meadows, such as this one on the coast of Wales.


    Eelgrass (Zostera marina) provides important habitat for young fish, shrimp, mussels, and other organisms living along the North Atlantic and North Pacific coastlines. But excess nutrients pouring into the sea are degrading this habitat, especially near cities, crops, or livestock: The nutrients spur the growth of algae and phytoplankton, which can smother the grass and dim the sunlight it needs to grow. Seagrass around the United Kingdom is in a particularly bad state, researchers report this week in Royal Society Open Science. They measured nutrient levels in leaf tissue at 11 locations around the U.K. coast, and discovered that, on average, nitrogen was 75% higher than reported in Z. marina elsewhere in the world. Phosphorus, meanwhile, was lower—both indications of poor water quality. In addition, boat moorings and anchors and bait-digging during low tides have damaged many seagrass meadows. “There's a lack of recognition of how degraded the marine habitats are in the U.K.,” says co-author and marine ecologist Richard Unsworth of Swansea University in the United Kingdom, who has set up a conservation group called Project Seagrass to study techniques to restore seagrass meadows.

    “It's frankly so preposterous that I don't believe it.”

    U.S. District Court Judge Peter Messite, sentencing former U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) police officer Christopher Bartley to 42 months in jail. Bartley claimed he cooked methamphetamine in a NIST building as research to train officers about meth.

    By the numbers

    23%—Decline in U.S. cancer death rates between 1991 and 2012, according to a new report by the American Cancer Society. The reduction is due to a combination of less smoking, better care, and better screening.

    4 million—Record-setting number of hectares of U.S. land burned by wildfires (about half of them in Alaska) in 2015, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.

    800—Force, in multiples of a cockroach's body weight, needed to smash the insects, as reported last week at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting in Portland, Oregon

    Around the world

    Mysuru, India

    Furor over Indian conference

    For the second year running, the Indian Science Congress, held last week, has drawn condemnation and scorn from the country's prominent scientists. Amid the legitimate science, a few talks were beyond the pale, some researchers say, including a 5 January lecture on the supposed health benefits of blowing a conch shell, and a scheduled (but not presented) paper on how the Hindu god Shiva was the “greatest environmentalist in the world.” Nobel laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, a biologist at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, told The Times of India that the congress was a “circus” and said he would never again attend one. Biologist P. M. Bhargava, founder of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, told the paper that the event had deteriorated over the years and was now “an absolute waste of money.”

    Washington, D.C.

    Weighing a threat to bees

    EPA gauged the risk of a pesticide to honey bees.


    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has for the first time evaluated the risk posed by a pesticide to honey bee colonies. When residues of imidacloprid in plant nectar or pollen exceed 25 parts per billion, they would likely harm the colonies, leading to fewer pollinators or less honey, EPA concluded last week in a draft assessment. Imidacloprid belongs to a controversial group of pesticides called neonicotinoids (Science, 10 May 2013, p. 674). Some U.S. crops, such as citrus trees, may have dangerous residues, EPA noted, but the level of imidacloprid is lower in crops such as corn that do not produce nectar. Environmental groups and some scientists say the proposed threshold is too high, objecting that EPA relied on a single study conducted by a pesticide company. (EPA considered more than 75 studies, but found only the industry study acceptable for reanalysis of raw data.) “It's completely inadequate,” says Chris Connolly of the University of Dundee in the United Kingdom. Bayer CropScience welcomed EPA's “science-based apprach.” EPA will accept public comments for 60 days, and plans to release preliminary assessments for three other neonicotinoids in December.


    Singapore boosts science

    On 8 January, Singapore's government announced that it will spend 19 billion Singapore dollars ($13.2 billion) on R&D from 2016 to 2020. The Research Innovation Enterprise 2020 Plan, or RIE2020, is an 18% increase over the previous 5-year cycle. “This is an assurance of sustained support for research in Singapore,” says Chorh Chuan Tan, president of the National University of Singapore and deputy chairman of the government-backed Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR). The biggest share—21% of the budget—will go to health and biomedical sciences. That will help address one of Singapore's pressing issues: meeting the needs of a rapidly aging population. The budget also boosts A*STAR's high-profile Biopolis research complex, and places a priority on advanced manufacturing technologies, with emphasis on boosting the aerospace, electronics, chemical, pharmaceutical, and marine sectors.

    New York City

    Outbreak response revamp urged

    A report by a high-profile commission urges the world to revamp how it collectively responds to infectious disease crises, “one of the biggest risks facing humankind.” Sponsored by seven leading philanthropies and the U.S. government, The Neglected Dimension of Global Security recommends that the world spend about $4.5 billion more each year to bolster the ability of countries to respond to outbreaks, primarily by building their own public health infrastructures. Roughly $1 billion would go toward accelerating R&D for new vaccines and drugs, suggests the report, written by an independent commission organized with help from the U.S. National Academy of Medicine and released 13 January. Similar to other recent reports written in the wake of what the commission called the “sluggish, ill-coordinated, and clumsy” response to Ebola, the report urges the World Health Organization to “make significant changes,” including the formation of a new Center for Health Emergency Preparedness and a $100 million contingency fund to help member states mount emergency responses rapidly.


    Three Q's

    Qais Rasheed is the chairman of Iraq's State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. Science spoke with him recently in his office at The Iraq Museum in Baghdad about the Islamic State (IS) group, the museum, and more.

    Q:Much of northern Iraq is under the control of the IS group. What is your biggest worry?

    A:Our biggest concern is that ISIS [the group] will set booby traps at ancient sites in Mosul. After its liberation, we will send in teams to assess the damage. It will not be easy or even possible to rebuild, and we will need an international campaign to assist in conservation.

    Q:You recently reopened the Iraq Museum, which was closed for 12 years following its 2003 looting. How many visitors do you have, and how many objects are on display?

    A:On average we have about 400 people a day. For Iraqis, the entrance fee is 2000 Iraqi dinar [$1.80] and 250 Iraqi dinar [$0.23] for school children. We have some 10,000 objects on display, and about 500,000 in storage, but we don't yet have a full inventory.

    Q:How strongly does the government support antiquities and heritage?

    A:Antiquities rank at the bottom of the list of government priorities. There is a very limited budget. For 2015, we had 67 billion Iraqi dinar [$61 million] and 63 billion Iraqi dinar [$57 million] of that goes to salaries. There's not much left for conservation and excavation. We do have some financial support from Japan, Italy, and the United States.


    Soda tax leads to lower sales

    In 2012, the first year of Mexico's national tax on soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages, purchases of those goods fell by an average of 6%, according to a study in The BMJ last week. Mexico's example shows “a taxation policy can work” to reduce sugary beverage consumption, says Shu Wen Ng, a health economist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who co-authored the paper. The drop in soda purchases accelerated over time, reaching 12% by December 2014. Low-income households altered their behavior the most. Still, “it's too early to tell” whether Mexico's tax will help reduce the country's high rates of obesity and diabetes, Ng says. Tom Sanders, a nutritional scientist at King's College London, says the drop averages to about one sugar cube per day, “which is a drop in the caloric ocean. Long-term reductions in total energy in the range of 300–500 [calories per day] are probably needed to prevent obesity.”

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