The best in science news, commentary, and research
[Editorial] Toward designing safer chemicals
One year ago, an industrial coal-processing liquid contaminated the Elk River in West Virginia and affected the tap water of 15% of the state's population. The spill was declared a federal disaster, and ongoing investigations remain. Last month, a report assessing the water and health impacts of the Elk River spill pointed to the lack of a sound scientific approach for responding to and recovering from such incidents.* This year also marks 5 years since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and last month brought the 30-year anniversary of the Bhopal gas tragedy that killed thousands, considered the world's worst industrial disaster. Despite our best efforts and intentions, human-made chemicals continue to be released into the environment, often with unquantified and potentially unquantifiable deleterious consequences. The questions posed to science are how to better understand the nature of synthetic substances in order to predict their potential adverse impacts on humans and the biosphere, and how do we design future substances to eliminate the need for engineered control systems. Authors: Julie B. Zimmerman, Paul T. Anastas
[In Brief] This week's section
In science news around the world, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expands the range of the rare Mexican gray wolf, genetic analysis company 23andMe announces new deals to share its data with drug developers, two leading cancer groups call for e-cigarette regulation, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology suggests ways for the National Institutes of Health to stretch its flat budget, and a Chinese developer's scheme to use HIV-infected people to harass residents resisting housing demolition reveals lingering anti-HIV prejudice. Also, Brazil's new science minister is a reputed climate skeptic, causing some scientists to worry about the country's environmental future. And Science talks with Microsoft Research Managing Director Eric Horvitz about his One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence, launched late last year.
The push to test Ebola vaccines in the field is accelerating. Two candidates may go into phase III trials in a matter of weeks; a third one has just entered a phase I trial. Researchers have designed very different phase III studies for Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, the three countries with ongoing virus transmission. One problem they're facing is that the number of new cases has dropped sharply in Liberia and is beginning to ebb in Sierra Leone. That's why many scientists say Guinea—where researchers plan to try a highly unusual ring vaccination design—is the most promising testing ground. Author: Martin Enserink
[In Depth] All in the (bigger) family
A decade of genetic data and other evidence has persuaded most researchers that insects and crustaceans, long considered widely separated branches of the arthropod family, actually belong together. The new arthropod tree puts hexapods—six-limbed creatures that include insects, springtails, and silverfish—as closer kin to crabs, lobster, shrimp, and crayfish than those "standard" crustaceans are to others such as seed shrimp. Traditionally, insect and crustacean scientists have taken different approaches, even when they have studied similar problems. Now they are exploring the consequences of the new family tree, and last week at a special symposium of the annual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, researchers reported new parallels between these two very successful groups of animals and new insights about what it took for an ancient crustacean to give rise to insects. Author: Elizabeth Pennisi
Google[x], a semisecretive branch of the company most famous for its search engine, hosted an invitation-only summit on cancer immunotherapy to see how it might help speed discovery in the burgeoning field. Andy Conrad, head of the Google[x] life sciences program—which now has a team of 100—urged the participants to think big, along the lines of "10x, not 10%." For 2 days, the Google[x] team members mixed it up with leading immunologists, oncologists, materials scientists, imaging specialists, and engineers, and in the end they came up with two top-priority projects that the company plans to help fund and coordinate. Author: Jon Cohen
The U.S. government is stepping up efforts to restore the intellectual capital that Iraq will need to rebuild. The State Department's 7-year-old Iraq Science Fellowship Program has trained 52 Iraqi scientists in various specialties. This month it will be joined by a second fellowship program, funded by the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency, to bring several scientists a year to the United States to train in top labs. The new program will focus chiefly on biologists in dual-use areas—those whose research could be used to create new toxins or biological weapons—and it will emphasize biosecurity and threat reduction. Author: Richard Stone
Two weeks ago, Science published a paper by Bert Vogelstein and Cristian Tomasetti of Johns Hopkins University, which put forth a mathematical analysis of the genesis of cancer and sought to explain variations in risk at different tissues. The paper, and especially the news coverage (including by Science) that followed, came under heavy criticism and generated hundreds of comments. Journalists were accused of misinterpreting the study's results. Although some praised the paper for elucidating the role that chance—the accumulation of random mutations in stem cells—plays in cancer, others argued that the authors' conclusions were flawed or oversimplified. Science examines how this story was communicated and the challenges inherent to streamlining complex biology and statistics for experts and nonexperts alike. Author: Jennifer Couzin-Frankel
The most efficient photovoltaics are devices called tandems that consist of stacks of solar cells, each tailored to absorb a different slice of the solar spectrum. This complexity makes them expensive and thus better suited for use in space where the extra power they produce is worth the added cost. But now, solar cell researchers are looking to create low-cost, high-efficiency tandems using perovskites, the hottest and cheapest new solar cell material out there. It's still early days, and progress on perovskite tandems remains modest. But researchers say the path to highly efficient perovskite tandems is clear and is expected to occur within the next year or two. Author: Robert F. Service
[Feature] The cancer stem cell gamble
Renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology cancer biologist Robert Weinberg is staking part of his considerable reputation on a bold theory that has divided the cancer field. Weinberg and others contend that tumors contain a small number of cells that are distinctive because they resemble the stem cells that give rise to normal tissues. These cancer seeds, able to resist chemotherapy and spring back months or years after treatment, may explain the tragic relapses people often experience. Give patients a drug that targets these cancer stem cells, the thinking goes, and the disease can be kept under control. Verastem Inc., a company Weinberg co-founded, is one of several that are launching a new round of clinical trials to find out whether the theory actually works. Beyond the promise of changing cancer care, the financial stakes are huge. But as many in the field acknowledge, it may be difficult to draw definitive conclusions from these trials. Author: Jocelyn Kaiser
In 1815, William Smith, an English canal surveyor and land drainer, provided the young science of geology with the first true geological map of an entire country (see the first figure). Two hundred years on, Smith's map has become an icon of Earth science, and the basic principles he developed and applied are still used in interpreting rock sequences and making geological maps. Author: Tom Sharpe
[Perspective] New SQUID on the Bloch
Schrödinger's famous cat showed us that the matter waves inside an atom could manifest on macroscopic scales, but the real workhorse of the quantum world is the SQUID, or superconducting quantum interference device. This piece of technology is the key component of some hospital MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scanners and other medical equipment because of its ability to detect tiny magnetic fields. On page 288 of this issue, Duca et al. (1) show that identical experimental principles can be used to detect the phases of the waves describing the motion of atoms in a periodic potential, known as Bloch states. Electrons moving in a crystal lattice are described by the same states, but although they are central to solid-state physics, their properties are usually inferred from other measurements—conductivity, for example. The study by Duca et al. provides a proof-of-principle demonstration of a new type of interferometry capable of providing much more detailed information than existing techniques. Author: Austen Lamacraft
[Perspective] Interfering with interferons
Living organisms must resist viral infection. In mammals, both infected cells and innate immune cells release signals (cytokines) that program the infected cells for antiviral defense, as well as alert neighboring cells that trouble is afoot. These signals—exemplified by the type I (α and β), type II (γ), and type III (λ) interferons (IFNs)—control the mammalian response against the vast majority of viruses. The host's control of an enteric pathogen, rotavirus, requires type III IFNs (1, 2). On page 269 and 266 of this issue, Nice (3) and Baldridge (4), respectively, show that protection provided by λ IFNs is generalizable to another enteric pathogen, norovirus. Notably, this protection is independent from the adaptive immune response, which has long thought to be absolutely required for clearing viral infection. Authors: Jessica Wilks, Tatyana Golovkina
[Perspective] Gender inequality in science
Why are women underrepresented in many areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)? This is a question with no easy answers. In science, as in many areas of life, bias against women exists (1), but researchers disagree on how much bias matters: Some suggest that the effects of bias accumulate over time to shape careers (2), whereas others argue that gender differences in preferences are much more important (3). However, it is likely impossible to disentangle the effects of societal bias and individual preferences, because people's understanding of gender differences shape their preferences (4). Research suggests differences in innate ability are unlikely to play a major role (3), but one route to more equal representation across academic fields might be convincing both women and men that this is true. On page 262 of this issue, Leslie et al. (5) show that how ability is viewed within a field plays a key role in how well women are represented. Author: Andrew M. Penner
[Policy Forum] Disclosing patents' secrets
The patent system is built on a grand bargain: To gain exclusive rights to practice their inventions, inventors must disclose their proprietary knowledge publicly. Economists have studied incentive benefits of exclusivity while implicitly assuming that disclosure of know-how in patent applications is costly for inventors. Yet, apart from facilitating diffusion of knowledge, disclosing know-how in a patent may privately benefit inventors by deterring rivals' duplicative research and development (R&D), preempting competitors' efforts to patent similar technology, and reducing informational asymmetries between patentees and potential investors [supplementary materials (SM)]. Understanding to what extent disclosure is viewed as a cost or a benefit by patenting inventors provides insights into our complex patent system and allows better policy-making to advance the diffusion of technical knowledge. Authors: Stuart Graham, Deepak Hegde
[Book Review] Fueling the future
There is no such thing as a "free lunch" in the energy sector, which means we face tough choices when it comes to power. But how do we weigh our options? Matthew E. Kahn considers how we make decisions about energy in the 21st century in a review of Cheap and Clean: How Americans Think About Energy in the Age of Global Warming.
[Book Review] The straw man in the brain
Mirror neurons—brain cells that are activated when viewing the actions of another—have been implicated in everything from obesity to autism. While many of the claims made about these cells remain to be tested, they continue to persist in popular culture, much to the frustration of those working in the field. Christian Keysers considers an attempt to set the record straight in a review of The Myth of Mirror Neurons: The Real Neuroscience of Communication and Cognition.
[Book Review] What ails medical education?
America's medical residency training programs have come a long way since the late nineteenth century, but changes in the nature of hospital care have some questioning how best to facilitate high-quality care and high-quality education. Cynthia Whitehead welcomes a thorough appraisal of U.S. residency education in a review of Let Me Heal: The Opportunity to Preserve Excellence in American Medicine.
[Books et al.] Books Received
A listing of books received at Science during the week ending 09 January 2015.
[Letter] One Medicine One Science and policy
Authors: P. Sriramarao, Michael P. Murtaugh, Kavita Berger, Dominic Travis, Shaun Kennedy, Clifford J. Steer, Carol Cardona
[Letter] Counting on small-scale fisheries
Authors: Daniel Pauly, Anthony Charles