Science

News at a glance: Earth’s top geological sites, cameras on sharks, and China’s space station

NATURAL HISTORY

Science society lists Earth’s top ‘geoheritage’ sites

The International Union of Geological Sciences last week marked its 60th anniversary by announcing a list of 100 “geoheritage” sites that have substantially influenced understanding of Earth’s deep history. The global list, released in collaboration with UNESCO, is meant to foster conservation and tourism. The sites include familiar ones, such as the Grand Canyon’s “great unconformity,” a billion-year gap in the rock record erased by erosion. More exotic examples include limestones in Germany that preserve Archaeopteryx, a feathered fossil that links dinosaurs to birds, and the Canary Islands’ Taburiente Caldera (above), which gave such volcanic formations their name.

LABORATORIES

China completes space station

China this week launched the final module of its Tiangong-3 space station, providing the country its first long-term platform for space experiments. U.S. restrictions on use of NASA funds have blocked China from participating in research on the much larger International Space Station. Nine of Tiangong-3’s research projects involve international collaborators, many from developing countries, jointly selected with a U.N. agency. These include a four-nation experiment on gamma ray bursts and a pair of infrared cameras to study Earth’s humidity flows. Tiangong-3 or “Heavenly Palace” will house between three and six astronauts. It succeeds two smaller craft, Tiangong-1 and -2, that are no longer orbiting.

SCIENTIFIC PRIZES

Oil researcher wins courage prize

A biochemist in Nigeria has won this year’s John Maddox Prize, which honors “standing up for science,” for her tenacity in braving threats while working with oil companies and local communities to clean up soil pollution near the country’s oil fields. Eucharia Oluchi Nwaichi, a biochemist at the University of Port Harcourt, was threatened by representatives of an oil company who confiscated her recordings and data, according to a statement by the award’s organizers, the U.K. charity Sense for Science and the journal Nature. She also worked to defuse a dispute between residents and a different oil company about the harmful effects of liquid waste on fish stocks, and to persuade both sides to support research to test methods to decontaminate soil, the statement says. Petroleum production in Nigeria, one of the world’s largest oil exporters, has caused extensive pollution and led at times to armed conflict.

CLINICAL RESEARCH

Long Covid pill trial set to begin

Plans for the first test of whether Pfizer’s COVID-19 pill known as Paxlovid can alleviate Long Covid were unveiled last week, as organizers said they expect to begin recruiting 1700 volunteers in January 2023. Patient groups and researchers have long sought such a trial to study whether suppressing the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus can reduce Long Covid’s debilitating symptoms, such as fatigue and brain fog. Participants will take either Paxlovid (a combination of the antivirals nirmatrelvir and ritonavir) or a placebo for 15 days. The Food and Drug Administration authorized the drug in December 2021 for people at high risk of severe illness from acute COVID-19. Paxlovid knocks back virus that’s rapidly replicating. Researchers don’t know whether such replication is happening in people with Long Covid or whether their bodies harbor virus reservoirs that help drive symptoms. The trial marks the first treatment trial backed by RECOVER, the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s research effort on Long Covid, which critics charge has been slow to test therapies.

ECOLOGY

Cameras on sharks help map vast seagrass meadows

On Little Bahama Bank, a tiger shark swims over manatee grass (Syringodium filiforme).A.J. GALLAGHER ET AL., NAT. COMMUN. 13, 6328 (2022)

Researchers mounted cameras on tiger sharks to help measure an expanse of seagrass meadows in the Bahamas that they estimate is the world’s largest, at 92,000 square kilometers. Seagrass provides a vital habitat for many other marine species, including commercially valuable fish, and the plants sequester large amounts of carbon. The new estimated size of the Bahamas’ seagrass meadows, reported this week in Nature Communications, is about 40 times larger than the previous estimate and represents an area the size of Portugal. Tiger sharks (Galeocerdo cuvier) often swim over seagrass meadows, where they hunt dugongs and other herbivores. The research team fitted seven sharks with video cameras and tracking devices to map the seagrass habitat—the first use of this technique. The team used these data and diver surveys to spot-check estimates of total extent gleaned from satellite data, which can be imprecise. Measurements of carbon in seagrass sediments suggest the Bahamas could contain as much as one-quarter of the carbon stored worldwide by seagrass.

RESEARCH INTEGRITY

Academy probe clears biologist

A review by the U.S. National Academy of Medicine (NAM) has found no basis for sanctioning a member whom three leading Republicans accused of obscuring COVID-19’s origin. Last year, members of the House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce asked NAM to suspend and investigate conservation biologist Peter Daszak. Their complaint alleged that he violated NAM’s code of conduct by refusing to share data and answer their questions about a grant awarded by the National Institutes of Health to the nonprofit he runs, the EcoHealth Alliance, which in turn shared funding with China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). Several Republicans have argued that the pandemic originated in a lab leak at WIV. Many scientists not involved in the grant have agreed with Daszak that no direct evidence supports this assertion whereas stronger evidence indicates the pandemic virus first jumped from animals to humans at a Wuhan market. In an email to members last week, NAM said its probe determined Daszak had not violated its code of conduct.

INFECTIOUS DISEASES

Antimalaria antibody delivers

A single intravenous infusion of lab-produced monoclonal antibodies was up to 88% efficacious in preventing malaria infection in Mali, researchers reported this week. The study, in The New England Journal of Medicine, offers new hope for combatting the disease, spread by parasite-laden mosquitoes. Malaria parasites have developed resistance against many drugs, and the mosquitoes that spread them have adapted to withstand some insecticides. Researchers at the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases developed the antibody, and working with colleagues at the University of Sciences, Techniques and Technology of Bamako, tested it or a placebo in 330 adult volunteers. The research team is now testing a more powerful antibody in 6- to 10-year-old children in Mali who are receiving the antibody by subcutaneous injection, a method that is much more practicable with young children than intravenous infusion. In 2020, malaria killed 627,000 worldwide, two-thirds of whom were children younger than 5 in Africa.

PALEONTOLOGY

Casts of destroyed fossil found

In two museums’ storerooms, scientists have stumbled upon previously unknown casts of an ancient marine reptile’s skeleton that was destroyed during World War II. The original fossil represented the first complete ichthyosaur, a creature that resembled a cross between a crocodile and a dolphin. Famed fossil hunter Mary Anning exhumed the specimen from Jurassic-age rocks along southern England’s coastline in 1818. In 1941, the stunning, 200-million-year-old fossil was obliterated by a German bomb that hit the London museum where it was displayed. Since then, paleontologists have relied solely on a single scientific illustration of the fossil, made in 1819. The two much more detailed plaster casts were discovered in 2016 and 2019 at Yale University’s Peabody Museum of Natural History and Berlin’s Natural History Museum, the researchers reported this week in Royal Society Open Science.

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