News this Week

Science  29 Jan 2016:
Vol. 351, Issue 6272, pp. 428

    News at a glance

    Spanish missions triggered crash of Pueblo population

    Spanish missions, like San Jose de los Jemez (shown), may have helped spread disease among the Pueblo.


    When European explorers first arrived at Jemez province in New Mexico in 1541, its ponderosa pine forests were home to between 5000 and 8000 Pueblo people. Some time afterward, the population had plummeted by 87%, probably because of a series of devastating epidemics, but the timing of this has been unclear. Now, a new study suggests that the downfall occurred about a century after the first contact with Europeans—corresponding with the establishment of Spanish missions in the region, which likely helped spread disease. By counting the rings of trees now growing in the ruins of Jemez villages, researchers determined that many of them sprouted in the 1630s and 1640s, suggesting that the sites were abandoned soon after the missions arrived. The population crash also triggered ecological changes, the researchers report this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Without the Pueblo people clearing underbrush for firewood and cutting down trees for construction, the region was primed for forest fires, which became more frequent in the decades following the population collapse.

    Cycling artist maps soil microbes across Eurasia

    Analyses of the microbes in these tire imprints added science to an art project.


    Art, science, and dirt collided during Wolfgang Burtscher's cross-continent bicycle trip from Austria to Laos. In anticipation of the International Year of Soils in 2015, Burtscher, an artist, stopped each day during his 11-month trek in 2012 to make a “tripmark”—a tire-track imprint—and to collect soil. Teaming up with artist and microbial ecology graduate student Magdalena Nagler of the University of Innsbruck in Austria, he turned the art project into a scientific study. Nagler sequenced the soils' DNA to identify which fungi and soil bacteria, called actinobacteria, were present. It was a rare opportunity to cover such a broad geographic area, she says, and to confirm that microbes really follow a century-old rule: “Everything is everywhere, but the environment selects.” Many microbes were ubiquitous across Eurasia, she and her colleagues report in the March issue of Applied Soil Ecology—but how similar two microbial communities are is determined more by the similarity of the soils and local climates than by their actual proximity. “For me it was surprising that [the result] was so nicely fitting our hypothesis,” Nagler says. “You are not always so lucky.”

    8—Speed, in kilometers per hour, of a Tyrannosaurus rex that strode along a shoreline 66 million years ago—a brisk but not outrunnable pace, say researchers who analyzed the spacing and arrangement of a set of fossilized footprints (Cretaceous Research).

    Around the world


    Data sharing stance sparks debate

    Support for data sharing is trending among scientists, but it has proven difficult to implement in clinical trials. Last week, The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) published two editorials, one of which sparked a backlash on social media. In the first, NEJM joined 13 other medical journals in proposing to require authors to agree to share anonymized patient data within 6 months of an article's publication. That proposal is now accepting comments at In the second, NEJM editors focused on how clinical trial data should be shared; the writers noted concerns that data might be nabbed by “research parasites” who would use them for their own ends or to disprove the original hypothesis. This outraged many scientists, some of whom coined a Twitter hashtag—#IAmAResearchParasite. NEJM Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Drazen defended the editorial's stance to Science, noting that collaborating with the group that produced data is “what we think is the preferred way to [proceed], not necessarily the only way.”


    New ocean health monitoring plan

    Tracking rapid ocean changes requires new data.


    Marine scientists are developing new sensors they plan to deploy in a global monitoring system to better observe changes occurring in the world's oceans. The Partnership for Observation of the Global Oceans (POGO), a consortium of 40 oceanographic institutions, announced the new strategy at a press conference 25 January, ahead of the partnership's annual meeting. POGO has previously coordinated the worldwide deployment of 20,000 autonomous probes known as Argo (shown) floats that gather ocean data including temperature and salinity. But POGO researchers say that scientists will need much more data to keep pace with rapid changes in the oceans, such as measurements of temperatures at depths below 2 kilometers (the depth limit of Argo sensors) as well as biological activity throughout the water column. The goal is to have the new global monitoring system in place by 2030.

    Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

    Chinese scientists indicted

    In the latest of a series of cases against Chinese or Chinese-American scientists, two GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) scientists were accused last week of transferring trade secrets to China. On 20 January, federal prosecutors in Philadelphia announced the indictment of Yu Xue and Lucy Xi and three associates for trade secrets theft, wire fraud, and other charges. The scientists stand accused of emailing and downloading proprietary data about GSK products and sending it to contacts working for the Chinese startup Renopharma; the indictment alleges that Xue was financially involved in Renopharma and hoped to profit off the transfer of information. But experts are urging caution in interpreting the case, noting that it bears similarities to two other recent cases involving Chinese American or Chinese defendants in which prosecutors abruptly dropped charges because of improper analysis or insufficient evidence.


    Three Q's

    On 22 January, neuroscientist Ian Chubb stepped down after 5 years as Australia's chief scientist. He held the position during a turbulent time. Under former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who led the country from September 2013 to September 2015, funding for scientific research fell to a 30-year low and the government failed to appoint a science minister for more than a year. Science spoke with Chubb about his experiences.

    Q:You've said that Australia should not rely on “voodoo economics.” Why?

    A:[Some] members of the commentariat believe in the omnipotence of the market. So when governments say we … have to make choices [for science funding], they are criticised as “picking winners.” In contrast, there are ample examples of sensible government interventions which can harness the nation's educational and scientific strengths. We must put our faith in evidence-based policy, not uninformed ideology.

    Q:What would you like to say to Australian scientists as you leave the job?

    A:Be patient, and persistent. We need the science. [The public] needs reassurance that what you do is important to their future.

    Q:What advice do you have for your successor, neuroscientist Alan Finkel?

    A:My only comments are: Don't flinch, and don't forget the importance of the public.


    Cats domesticated twice?

    Cats may have been domesticated more than once. That's the intriguing possibility raised by a new analysis of feline bones from three ancient farming villages in China. The bones—dated to about 5000 years ago—all belong to the leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis), researchers report this month in PLOS ONE. That's a different species than the Near Eastern wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica), the ancestor of today's house cat, which was domesticated in the Middle East about 10,000 years ago. Some of the bones show signs that the villagers cared for these animals, suggesting they may have been on the road to domestication. But the process hit a dead end at some point. Still, leopard cats survive in house cats in the Bengal breed, a hybrid of the two created in the 1960s.

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