In October 2014, the U.S. government paused funding for so-called gain-of-function (GOF) research involving pathogens with pandemic potential, to allow for a systematic assessment of its benefits and risks. The topic raises critical questions for society as a whole, and decisions cannot be left with the scientific community alone.
Author: Harvey V. Fineberg
In science news around the world, the European Commission authorizes Europe's first commercial stem cell product, the World Health Organization approves the first rapid diagnostic test for Ebola, Nature Publishing Group's journals offer authors the option of double-blind peer reviews, and malaria parasites resistant to the most powerful antimalarial drug appear to have spread from Southeast Asia to the border of Myanmar and India, a potential disaster for global malaria control. Also, the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change resigns amid allegations of sexual harassment by a colleague. And the winners of the 2015 Visualization Challenge highlight the beauty of science.
A proposed NASA mission to Jupiter's moon Europa is gathering momentum. Congress has long been enthusiastic, and earlier this month the White House finally signed on to the $2 billion mission, which would investigate the habitability of Europa, which might host life in its deep, hidden saltwater ocean. Lately the mission has also gained a tantalizing target: plumes of water vapor that seem to erupt through the moon's icy crust, presumably sweeping any organic molecules into space, where they might be detectable. The trouble is, the plumes might not exist. Observers spotted them with the Hubble Space Telescope in 2012, detecting the fluorescence of oxygen and hydrogen in the water molecules as they were bombarded by electrons whipped up by Jupiter's intense magnetic fields. But dozens of other observational campaigns have failed to spot any plume. That posed a dilemma for the scientists who gathered last week at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, to discuss how the presence of plumes—or their absence—should affect planning for the mission.
Author: Eric Hand
Seismologists worried about the prospect of a massive earthquake in the shadow of the Himalayas, where it could devastate cities such as Kathmandu and Delhi, have long cast a wary glance at an eerily calm region called the central seismic gap. A massive earthquake in southwestern Tibet in 1505 C.E., researchers proposed a decade ago, relieved enough strain to quiet that stretch of the restive Himalayas. But new findings now suggest that the 1505 temblor was smaller than thought and was just one of a cluster of potent quakes to rattle the region within a few centuries. If so, the recurrence of major quakes in the Himalayas, unlike in many other seismic hot spots, follows no discernible pattern of strain relief—meaning that authorities must gird for a megaearthquake anywhere at any time.
Author: Priyanka Pulla
In 2013, Stephen Arnon of the California Department of Public Health reported finding a novel type of botulinum toxin against which no existing antitoxins offered protection, opening a potential gap in biosecurity. Arnon decided not to reveal the genetic sequence of the microbe that produced the toxin in his papers. But since then, government researchers have concluded that the toxin poses no special threat at all, and posted the entire sequence in GenBank. Many in the small field of botulinum research still wonder how two labs could arrive at such radically different conclusions, and many say the episode could have ended much earlier—or been prevented altogether—if Arnon had been willing to share the strain of Clostridium botulinum with other labs sooner.
Author: Martin Enserink
The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, one of the world's largest collections of plants and fungi, has shrunk its scientific workforce by 18% and undergone a major reorganization. Recent independent reviews had urged Kew to focus its research program. The organization also faced budget cuts, compounded by significant bills for maintenance of its historic grounds and buildings. A new strategy, described in a 5-year plan released this week, emphasizes collections-based research, particularly in fungi and plant health. The plan sets research targets, such as charting the evolutionary relatedness of plant and fungal species by 2020, and lists several new communication products. A new website, for example, will offer information on traits, distributions, and evolutionary relationships of plants and fungi. An annual report, called the State of the World's Plants, will identify important issues in plant health and conservation.
Author: Erik Stokstad
Fewer and fewer Japanese students are going abroad for study. The number of foreign students in Japan is trending downward. And non-Japanese professors are uncommon. To address these deficits, Japan's education ministry has just launched the Top Global University Project. Under the program, 13 research universities deemed by the ministry capable of attaining top-100 status worldwide will each receive $3.5 million a year for 10 years. And 24 smaller universities will get $1.4 million a year over that period. The funding is modest, but it should allow the universities to become more in sync with international norms by revamping tenure systems, for example, and overhauling curricula.
Author: Dennis Normile
University of Colorado geneticist Christopher Korch passionately wants to correct a problem that has bedeviled biomedical research for more than half a century: the contamination of laboratory cell cultures. Over the past 15 years, he has exposed 78 widely used cell lines as overgrown with other cells, but few scientists have paid attention or sought to retract or correct their work on those impostor lines. Now Korch has a band of allies and, he hopes, a novel way to persuade recalcitrant biologists: Zoom out from individual cases of contamination to show the big picture. After a year of intensive data gathering and analysis, he believes he has for the first time begun to quantify the damage done to the scientific enterprise by contaminated cell lines. "We're looking at tens of thousands of publications, millions of journal citations, and potentially hundreds of millions of research dollars," he says.
Author: Jill Neimark
Scientists once shied away from naming research animals, and many of the millions of mice and rats used in U.S. research today go nameless, except for special individuals. But a look at many facilities suggests that most of the other 891,161 U.S. research animals—including nonhuman primates, dogs, pigs, rabbits, cats, and sheep—have proper names. Mice are Harold, Copernicus, or Dudley. Monkeys are Nyah or Nadira. One octopus is called Nixon. Animals in research are named after shampoos, candy bars, whiskeys, family members, movie stars, and superheroes. These unofficial names rarely appear in publications, except sometimes in field studies of primates. But they're used daily.Is this practice good or bad for research? Some scientists worry that names lead to anthropomorphizing and carry associations that could trigger bias. But others argue that animals that are named, and therefore seen as individuals, may be tended more carefully, making them less stressed. That's better for the animals' welfare as well as for study, these scientists say.
Author: Michael Erard
Energetic electrons are ubiquitous in astrophysical plasmas, as they are considered to be behind the surges of emission across the electromagnetic spectrum at wavelengths from radio to gamma rays. These dynamic phenomena include stellar flares, supernova explosions (see the figure) (1), gamma ray bursts, and extragalactic jets. Energetic electrons are also directly observed in situ during terrestrial substorms. Despite these rich observations and substantial progress in theory, numerical simulations, and laboratory experiments over the past few decades, however, the mechanisms by which the electrons obtain their energy still remain elusive. On page 974 of this issue, Matsumoto et al. (2) make progress toward resolving these issues.
Authors: Hantao Ji, Ellen Zweibel
Settled communities dependent on agriculture and animal husbandry emerged independently on several continents over the past ∼10,000 years. In many cases, farmers began to disperse out of regions where plants and animals were domesticated and into areas occupied by hunter-gatherer populations. This process of Neolithization certainly took place in Europe. Dating of artifacts and bones indisputably associated with human farming has led to a chronological framework for the spread of the Neolithic along two primary routes into Europe that ended with the arrival of farming in Britain ∼6000 years ago (1). Yet, on page 998 of this issue, Smith et al. (2) report genomic sequences of wheat in an ∼8000-year-old soil sample collected off the coast of southern England, suggesting that domestic crops first appeared on the British Isles long before they were cultivated there.
Author: Greger Larson
The means by which Ebola virus enters a cell are becoming less mysterious. Although a definitive cell surface receptor for the virus, if there is one, remains to be identified, the mechanism of gaining entry is beginning to be fleshed out. Once inside the cell, the importance of numerous sequential processes is becoming better understood. On page 995 of this issue, Sakurai et al. (1) add another element to the viral entry pathway by showing that a calcium channel called two-pore channel 2 (TPC2) is required for release of the viral genome into the host cell.
Authors: Darryl Falzarano, Heinz Feldmann
Selection arising from interactions between the sexes is responsible for some of the most striking diversity on the planet. These interactions generate coevolutionary dynamics between males and females that have shaped traits such as the striking courtship displays of male birds and the less winsome mating appendages of some male insects (1). But research on sexual selection has relevance beyond understanding the weird sex lives of animals. For example, human disturbance of sexual selection can lead to the loss of native species (2) and sexually selected male harassment of females can increase a species' risk of extinction (3). On page 985 of this issue, Mitchell et al. (4) show that sexual selection can also be relevant to human health.
Author: Suzanne H. Alonzo
Liquid crystal displays (LCDs) contain tens of thousands of pixels filled with a birefringent fluid known as a liquid crystal, in which molecular orientations fluctuate (like a liquid) but still have an average alignment (like a crystal). The moving images we see on a display are created by controlling the net orientation of the molecules, which changes the optical polarization of the liquid so that it either blocks or transmits light. But what if instead of producing an image on a flat screen, your LCD television could transform into different three-dimensional (3D) objects, and then back to a flat screen? Is it possible for soft materials to reproduce shapes instead of images? On page 982 of this issue, Ware et al. (1) demonstrate this possibility with liquid crystal elastomers (LCEs).
Author: Rafael Verduzco
Insects cost the agricultural sector billions of dollars every year in lost crop yields and insecticide expenditures. The continued use of chemical insecticides has inadvertently selected for more resistant pest strains, prompting higher doses and more frequent applications to control them. The advent of transgenic plants, such as those expressing insecticidal Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxins, reduces the use of chemicals while offering protection to some crops (1), but not all insects are affected by Bt toxins, and continued use of Bt technologies will eventually see the rise of Bt-resistant insects. To stay ahead of the pests will require additional technologies. On page 991 of this issue, Zhang et al. (2) describe a clever modification to an existing transgenic plant technology that produces insecticidal RNAs. The trick is to express lethal RNA in the plant's photosynthetic organelles, the chloroplasts.
Author: Steve Whyard
After a period of rapid global warming, the rate of global temperature rise has slowed markedly in the past 10 to 15 years. Is this “hiatus” a result of natural climate variability, or does it signify a change in the drivers of global warming? On page 988 of this issue, Steinman et al. (1) present time-series estimates of Atlantic and Pacific variability from state-of-the-art climate modeling. They show that in the past 130 years, periods of natural variability both in the Atlantic and Pacific have at times enhanced or counteracted the underlying global warming trend. The results support the conclusion that cool Pacific temperatures have played a key role in modulating atmospheric temperature increases in the past 10 years (2), only partially offset by modest warming in the Atlantic.
Author: Ben B. Booth
A great deal of research to inform environmental conservation and management takes a predict-and-prescribe strategy in which improving forecasts about future states of ecosystems is the primary goal. But sufficiently thorough understanding of ecosystems needed to reduce deep uncertainties is probably not achievable, seriously limiting the potential effectiveness of the predict-and-prescribe approach. Instead, research should integrate more closely with policy development to identify the range of alternative plausible futures and develop strategies that are robust across these scenarios and responsive to unpredictable ecosystem dynamics.
Authors: Daniel E. Schindler, Ray Hilborn
In Adventures in the Anthropocene, Gaia Vince spins rigorous science deftly into an absorbing, and occasionally even light-hearted around-the-world travelogue that attempts to convince the reader that we are not only the cause, but also the potential cure for the declining state of our planet.
Author: Hillary Young
In The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, Walter Isaacson tells the story of the people who invented the computer and the Internet. From complementary duos like Grace Hopper and Howard Aiken, who developed the first computer that automatically executed long computations, to synergistic rivals like Larry Roberts and Bob Taylor, who worked together to create the global internet precursor, ARPANET, Isaacson argues that "innovation comes from teams more often than from the lightbulb moments of lone geniuses." But how do teams really work? And will "citizen science" change how we think of teamwork in the future?
Authors: Dov Greenbaum, Mark Gerstein