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Science

The best in science news, commentary, and research
Big science is hard. It is the throw-deep approach that pushes technology to the edge to achieve stunning breakthroughs that dramatically extend the frontiers of science, while inspiring the next generation of scientists and capturing the imagination of the public. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) produced the Higgs boson, a particle that explains why all other particles have mass and whose name is now known around the world; the Atacama Large Millimeter and Submillimeter Array (ALMA) revealed some of the earliest galaxies, as well as a nearby planetary system that has a striking resemblance to our own; and for 25 years, the Hubble Space Telescope has dazzled us with its discoveries and iconic astronomical images. But before they became famous for discoveries, these and other big projects were infamous for their problems. What are the challenges for big science, and what does it take to succeed? Author: Michael S. Turner

In science news around the world, the European Parliament pushes back against a plan to siphon money from the European Union's research budget to create a new investment fund; the United States' new ice-capable vessel, the RV Sikuliaq, passes its ice trials and is ready for full research operations; the Australian government angers its scientists over plans to contribute funds to a new center in collaboration with controversial climate author Bjørn Lomborg; the U.S. patent office gears up to reconsider the awarding of 10 patents related to the CRISPR technique for DNA cutting; and scientists report that the increasing global demand for rubber is imperiling biodiversity in Southeast Asia. Also, former University of Michigan forestry student Doug Scott chats with Science about the 1970 teach-in he helped organize that was a precursor to the first Earth Day. And the United States' first National Math Festival brings math-related fun, from balloon octahedra to the Ooblek Olympics, to Washington, D.C.

A battle has erupted in Brussels over the European Commission's plan to raid funds earmarked for research, in a bid to boost Europe's lagging economy. Announced in November, the plan involves diverting €2.7 billion from the European Union's 2014 to 2020 research budget to create a new E.U. investment fund. Member states like the idea, and commission officials insist there is no cause for alarm. But scientists protested, and now the European Parliament appears to have heard them. Earlier this week it voted to oppose raiding the research budget, setting the stage for lengthy negotiations with the Council of Ministers, which represents member states. Author: Tania Rabesandratana

Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX) has never hidden his desire to reshape federal research policy—often over the objections of much of the scientific community—since he became chair of the House of Representatives science committee 2 years ago. Smith doesn't have the authority to impose that vision on Congress, but his committee's oversight of several key scientific agencies makes it an important player in any debate on the topic. Last week he introduced legislation—H.R. 1806, called the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015—that lays out those plans in unprecedented detail for three agencies—the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy's research activities, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, along with federal science education policy. The reaction was predictable: Although academic leaders say that some parts of the new, 189-page bill are better than previous versions, most believe it would still seriously damage the U.S. research enterprise. Authors: Jeffrey Mervis, Adrian Cho

Clinical trials are in for an overhaul, if a group of experts has its way. Surprisingly, although billions of dollars are spent each year to test new drugs, the information these trials yield is often of little help to doctors trying to treat the patients right in front of them. That's because trials often limit who can enroll—for instance, if a person has diabetes or high blood pressure, she might be excluded from a test of a new medicine. But doctors treat patients taking multiple drugs, and with multiple conditions, all the time. At a recent meeting, doctors, clinical trial experts, and statisticians made the case for a new type of experiment: pragmatic clinical trials, which focus less on basic biology and more on what doctors need to make decisions. Author: Jennifer Couzin-Frankel

For nearly 60 years, scientists have tracked the wolves of Isle Royale and their moose prey, uncovering key insights about predator-prey relations. Now the iconic study may be ending, as only three wolves remain, including a pair and what may be their pup, which may be malformed due to complications of inbreeding. The other wolves are presumed to have either died or left the island last year when a bitter winter froze the channel to the mainland, in a reverse of how carnivores originally came to Isle Royale. But even as the study on Isle Royale appears to be on its last legs, other researchers may have caught the birth of a similar natural experiment. Across the lake in Canada, three mainland wolves crossed the ice to a smaller island, Michipicoten. They seem to have settled in, hunting caribou and likely breeding. Scientists are now studying the trio, in what may be an Isle Royale redux. Author: Christine Mlot

The debate over whether peer review can pick out the research most worthy of funding has heated up in the past decade, as competition for federal dollars has become more intense. Two new studies support claims that peer review works at the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—that is, that it produces the desired outcome. One study, on page 434 of this week's issue of Science, examined the outcomes of 137,215 research project grants awarded between 1980 and 2008. It found that grant proposals rated more highly by NIH study sections generated more publications and more citations than proposals that received lower scores. A second study, which will appear in the July 2015 issue of Research Policy, found that the additional proposals funded after the agency received billions of dollars from the 2009 economic stimulus package garnered fewer citations and publications. But some experts say the papers' definition of success ignores important factors, meaning that the debate is sure to continue. Author: Jeffrey Mervis

Twenty-five years after its launch, the Hubble Space Telescope is still going strong. Its instruments are fully functional, and the orbiting observatory keeps cranking out the sorts of new results that have made it famous. It has helped measure the age and expansion of the universe, shown the ubiquity of supermassive black holes at the hearts of galaxies, watched a comet crash into Jupiter, and imaged some of the first galaxies that formed after the big bang. But all good things must end. With no space shuttle to ferry astronauts up to make repairs, Hubble's instruments are expected to fail sometime in the next decade. Meanwhile, on Earth, researchers planning a successor mission are discovering that Hubble is tough act to follow. Author: Daniel Clery

The Hubble Space Telescope's images—particularly its "deep field" views of the early universe—have transformed astronomy. Now, as Hubble enters its final years, astronomers are wondering what instruments will deliver similar revelations in the future. NASA's big plan for a follow-up space observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope, has survived a near-death experience and is now on track for launch in 3 years—but at a cost so steep, amid stagnating government funding, that it has squeezed out or delayed other missions. Casualties include the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, the International X-ray Observatory, and the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna. Astronomers working to rescue these projects and develop new ones face hard fights to get their missions off the ground. Author: Daniel Clery

As the Hubble Space Telescope's decades-long mission winds down, astronomers are worried about the future of optical and ultraviolet astronomy from space. Its designated successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, is poised for launch in 2018. But the Webb telescope sees the universe in infrared light. Some astronomers are campaigning for a new space telescope, larger than Hubble but sensitive to the same range of wavelengths—"Hubble on steroids." Researchers are still debating designs for such a multibillion-dollar High-Definition Space Telescope, but they agree that it will need to be versatile enough to serve both astrophysics and exoplanet research—two fields with very different requirements. If the project can garner broad support, its supporters say it could reach the launch pad by the mid-2030s. Author: Govert Schilling

Symbiotic partnerships are a major source of evolutionary innovation. They have driven rapid diversification of organisms, allowed hosts to harness new forms of energy, and radically modified Earth's nutrient cycles. The application of next-generation sequencing and advanced microscopic techniques has revealed not only the ubiquity of symbiotic partnerships, but the extent to which partnerships can become physically, genomically, and metabolically integrated (1). When and why does this integration of once free-living organisms happen? Authors: E. Toby Kiers, Stuart A. West

How do you take a dinosaur's temperature, reconstruct the elevation histories of Earth's great mountain ranges, probe the workings of photosynthesis, and confirm biological origins of a greenhouse gas? Increasingly, the answer lies in clumps. Clumped isotope geochemistry (1) is the latest branch of stable isotope geochemistry, the field that illuminated the Pleistocene glacial-interglacial cycles (2), the oxygenation of Earth's atmosphere some 2.5 billion years ago (3), and the enigmatic presence of grass in hominid diets (4). In this issue, Yeung et al. (page 431) (5) and Wang et al. (page 428) (6) describe clumped isotope effects that, among other things, can serve as tracers of biological versus abiological origins of gases. Author: Benjamin H. Passey

The self-assembly and packing of nanoscale particles that have nonspherical shapes is only beginning to be explored. Recent computer simulations have suggested that hard, convex polyhedra can pack more densely than spheres, leading to complex structures of liquid crystals, plastic crystals, crystals, and disordered phases (1). In particular, aperiodic quasicrystalline and crystalline phases occur in the packing of tetrahedra, the simplest polyhedron (2). On page 424 of this issue, Huang et al. report the precise synthesis of rigid giant tetrahedra consisting of hydrophobic and hydrophilic polyhedral oligomeric silsesquioxane (POSS) cages (3). They assemble a diverse range of highly ordered supramolecular lattices by exploiting the location of the hydrophilic POSS cage substituent and the number of substitutions, together with the interplay of crystallization and the collective hydrogen-bonding interactions. Author: Shu Yang

For decades, patients suffering from allergic asthma—the symptoms of which range from wheezing and shortness of breath to extreme difficulty in breathing—generally have been treated with agents that reduce airway inflammation, such as corticosteroids, or reverse airway constriction, such as β2-adrenergic receptor agonists. Unfortunately, up to 55% of asthmatics have suboptimal control with these drugs (1). Moreover, safety concerns regarding the use of β2 agonists have resulted in more stringent guidelines for their clinical use (2). Thus, there is pressing need to develop new and safe therapies. A study by Yarova et al. (3) points to a protein that controls the constriction and proliferation of smooth muscle cells lining the bronchial airway. Moreover, there is already a drug that inhibits this protein. Author: Raymond B. Penn

The past decade has seen rapid growth in our knowledge of how proteins are synthesized in cells. This includes the basic step of how transfer RNAs (tRNAs) decode messenger RNAs (mRNAs) with high fidelity and speed, how the ribosome moves along mRNA from codon to codon during translation, and how synthesis of the corresponding polypeptide chain is initiated and terminated at specific points on the mRNA (1). Structures of the ribosomal particles—megadalton RNA-protein assemblies—have provided detailed molecular views of the active sites for mRNA decoding and peptide bond formation, and suggested pathways for movement of ligands, factors, and the ribosomal subunits themselves. Obscured in this rich cache of knowledge is the fate of the protein product. How does it fold during mRNA translation and how might protein folding affect translation itself? These questions are addressed by elegant biophysical and biochemical approaches reported by Goldman et al. (2) and Kim et al. (3) on pages 457 and 444, respectively, of this issue, adding to a growing appreciation of cotranslational protein folding (4–6). Author: Joseph D. Puglisi

Advanced technologies in oil and gas extraction coupled with energy demand have encouraged an average of 50,000 new wells per year throughout central North America since 2000. Although similar to past trends (see the graph, this page), the space and infrastructure required for horizontal drilling and high-volume hydraulic fracturing are transforming millions of hectares of the Great Plains into industrialized landscapes, with drilling projected to continue (1, 2). Although this development brings economic benefits (3) and expectations of energy security, policy and regulation give little attention to trade-offs in the form of lost or degraded ecosystem services (4). It is the scale of this transformation that is important, as accumulating land degradation can result in continental impacts that are undetectable when focusing on any single region (5). With the impact of this transformation on natural systems and ecosystem services yet to be quantified at broad extents, decisions are being made with few data at hand (see the graph, this page). Authors: Brady W. Allred, W. Kolby Smith, Dirac Twidwell, Julia H. Haggerty, Steven W. Running, David E. Naugle, Samuel D. Fuhlendorf

In order for the shorebirds known as red knots to survive their annual migration from the Southern Hemisphere to the species' Arctic breeding grounds, they rely on a series of site along the way to provide enough food for their stay and to fuel their onward flight. If just one of these sites is compromised, the species itself will fail. In The Narrow Edge, Deborah Cramer travels the migration route of the American rufa knot, revealing the factors that threaten the knot's coastal stopover sites. Reviewer Nigel A. Clark welcomes this tribute to a tiny shorebird, which he believes offers important lessons and strategies that may be implemented for the protection and preservation of other species. Author: Nigel A. Clark

The wide-ranging Wellcome exhibition Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime chronicles the origins and evolution of forensic science. Featuring, among other exhibits, a miniature crime scene replica used to train crime scene investigators, a glimpse into the Paris Morgue of the 1800s, and a chilling soundtrack of a real human autopsy, reviewer Andrew Robinson finds that the exhibition features plenty to instruct, discomfort, appall, and entertain. Author: Andrew Robinson

A listing of books received at Science during the week ending 17 April 2015.

Author: Monica Plisch

Author: Tim Appenzeller

Author: Langping He

A monthly roundup of recent news and projects of Science's publisher, the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Author: Margaret M. Moerchen

Author: Nicholas S. Wigginton

Author: Caroline Ash

Author: Beverly A. Purnell

Author: Kristen L. Mueller

Author: Megan Frisk

Author: Stella M. Hurtley

Author: Wei Wong

Author: Jake Yeston

Author: Margaret M. Moerchen

Author: Valda Vinson

Author: Marc S. Lavine

Author: Brad Wible

Author: L. Bryan Ray

Author: Guy Riddihough

Author: Philip Yeagle

Author: Julia Fahrenkamp-Uppenbrink

Author: Marc S. Lavine

Author: Ian S. Osborne

Author: Monika S. Magon

Author: Gilbert Chin

Author: Marc S. Lavine

Author: Beverly A. Purnell

Author: Pamela J. Hines

Author: Nicholas S. Wigginton

Multilayer thin films have garnered intense scientific interest due to their potential application in diverse fields such as catalysis, optics, energy, membranes, and biomedicine. Here we review the current technologies for multilayer thin-film deposition using layer-by-layer assembly, and we discuss the different properties and applications arising from the technologies. We highlight five distinct routes of assembly—immersive, spin, spray, electromagnetic, and fluidic assembly—each of which offers material and processing advantages for assembling layer-by-layer films. Each technology encompasses numerous innovations for automating and improving layering, which is important for research and industrial applications. Furthermore, we discuss how judicious choice of the assembly technology enables the engineering of thin films with tailor-made physicochemical properties, such as distinct-layer stratification, controlled roughness, and highly ordered packing. Authors: Joseph J. Richardson, Mattias Björnmalm, Frank Caruso

Knowledge of the expression profile and spatial landscape of the transcriptome in individual cells is essential for understanding the rich repertoire of cellular behaviors. Here, we report multiplexed error-robust fluorescence in situ hybridization (MERFISH), a single-molecule imaging approach that allows the copy numbers and spatial localizations of thousands of RNA species to be determined in single cells. Using error-robust encoding schemes to combat single-molecule labeling and detection errors, we demonstrated the imaging of 100 to 1000 distinct RNA species in hundreds of individual cells. Correlation analysis of the ~104 to 106 pairs of genes allowed us to constrain gene regulatory networks, predict novel functions for many unannotated genes, and identify distinct spatial distribution patterns of RNAs that correlate with properties of the encoded proteins. Authors: Kok Hao Chen, Alistair N. Boettiger, Jeffrey R. Moffitt, Siyuan Wang, Xiaowei Zhuang