Science

News at a glance: LGBTQ+ Nobel laureates, a statistics prize, and the return of the snail darter

CONSERVATION

Once-controversial fish delisted

A small fish famous for drawing the first U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the Endangered Species Act was removed last week by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from the list of species under threat of extinction. In 1975, the agency declared the snail darter (Percina tanasi) endangered, concluding that construction of a dam on the Little Tennessee River would doom the 9-centimeter-long animals. Although the court upheld the listing in 1978, Congress allowed the dam to go ahead. The darter’s outlook improved after some were moved to other streams, more populations were discovered, and stream water became cleaner. Although the snail darter is the fifth fish species to recover and be removed from the list, some 400 other fish species across the United States remain listed as imperiled. The pace of recovery is slow mainly because species are listed only after they have declined to small populations that are difficult to rescue, and because conservation funding is inadequate, researchers report this week in PLOS ONE. Worldwide, populations of freshwater species have declined by 83% on average since 1970, according to the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report, released this week.

DIVERSITY

In a first, Nobelists are out as LGBTQ+

Last week’s Nobel Prize recipients in the sciences included, for the first time, researchers who have publicly acknowledged they are members of the LGBTQ+ community. Ancient DNA pioneer Svante Pääbo, who bagged the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, has talked about his bisexuality in interviews and in his autobiography, Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes. Stanford University chemist Carolyn Bertozzi, who was awarded the chemistry Nobel, is an out lesbian who has been lauded for her commitment to mentorship and promoting diversity in science. In February, she won AAAS’s Lifetime Mentor Award for mentoring more than 170 grad students and postdocs, including 73 women and 61 members of other underrepresented groups. “The diversity of people created an environment where we felt we didn’t have to play by the rules,” Bertozzi told an audience at Stanford last week. “If there weren’t the right chemistries to get the job done, we could invent new chemistries.” Although the inclusion of these laureates marked a milestone for diversity in science, this year’s science laureates were less diverse in other respects: Nine of the 10 are men, and all 10 are white.

CONSERVATION

Old-growth protection falls short

Old-growth forests—the most ecologically rich type—cover 67.2 million hectares of the United States, or 36% of all its forests, according to a comprehensive study in Frontiers in Forests and Global Change. But about two-thirds of these mature forests are privately owned, and of the minority owned by the federal government only about 24%, or 6 million hectares, is protected from logging. Logging or development of the remaining forests could complicate plans by President Joe Biden’s administration to better protect old-growth forests and their role in supporting biodiversity and limiting emissions of greenhouse gases.

CHEMISTRY

Drug building blocks revealed

By mining an existing database, researchers have identified an additional 1800 naturally occurring crystal compounds that could serve as building blocks for new, “one-handed” drugs. The newcomers join a smaller pool of about 250 starter compounds that are synthesized as mixtures of two mirror-image forms (much like a right and left hand), which spontaneously separate when the compounds crystallize. One of each pair can then be used to build more complex one-handed compounds that can be tested as drugs, which often require a specific handedness to be effective. Researchers at Durham University identified the 1800 compounds by analyzing the 1.2 million crystal structures in the Cambridge Structural Database, which had not been previously recognized as containing spontaneously separating crystals. The team reported its results on 23 September in JACS Au.

The stone is a symbol of cultural violence [and] … cultural imperialism.

  • Monica Hanna
  • acting dean of a university’s College of Archaeology in Aswan, Egypt, to Reuters about the Rosetta Stone, now in the British Museum. Egyptian archaeologists are campaigning for its return to Egypt.
ARCHAEOLOGY

Aboriginal tree carvings recorded

Australia’s ancient rock art preserves images of what Aboriginal Australians call the Dreaming, representing stories about the creation of their ancient culture and landscape. Now, researchers are studying another form of their art, preserved in the Tanami Desert in northwestern Australia: geometric symbols and figures of birds, serpents, and other animals carved into the soft, rippling bark of barrel-shaped boab trees. The archaeologists worked closely with Aboriginal Australians to document the carvings before they are lost, as the trees die of old age, lightning strikes, and bush fires. The authors, who include members of the Aboriginal Lingka (snake) clan, photographed and analyzed the artwork found on a dozen boabs and describe the work this week in Antiquity. One series of carvings depicts the winding path of the King Brown Snake, or Lingka Dreaming, who in traditional stories shaped the region’s present dry, undulating landscape.

PUBLISHING

COVID-19 papers yanked faster

Retracted papers about COVID-19 have been pulled from journals faster than those on other topics, a study has found. Eighty-two percent of the flawed pandemic papers were removed within 6 months of publication compared with 58% of the other papers. Some scientists have suggested that too many COVID-19 findings were rushed into print with inadequate scrutiny, resulting in inferior quality. But the faster retractions for the COVID-19 papers indicate heightened scrutiny, at least after publication, the study’s authors said in the 4 October issue of JAMA Open Network. The overall retraction rates for COVID-19 and other papers have been similar. In all, 138 original research papers about COVID-19 had been retracted by May—a small fraction of the total pandemic literature, which by some estimates has topped 500,000 articles.

SCIENTIFIC PRIZES

Statistics gets $1 million award

Five academic researchers will share an inaugural $1 million prize honoring pioneering work in statistical methodology that has become widely used and is socially relevant. The Rousseeuw Prize for Statistics, to be awarded biennially, is named for Peter Rousseeuw, a retired researcher from the hedge fund Renaissance Technologies and a statistics professor at KU Leuven, who funded it to bring more attention to his field. Announced this week, the award recognizes five collaborators for work on causal inference that has applications in medicine and public health. Their work influenced guidelines on when to initiate antiretroviral therapy in people with HIV, for example. James Robins of Harvard University will receive half the prize money, and Miguel Hernán of Harvard; Thomas Richardson of the University of Washington, Seattle; Andrea Rotnitzky of Torcuato Di Tella University; and Eric Tchetgen Tchetgen of the University of Pennsylvania will divide the other half.

ASTRONOMY

China launches solar observatory

China this week launched the Advanced Space-based Solar Observatory (ASO-S), a satellite equipped to monitor the Sun’s magnetic field while watching for solar flares and the titanic blasts known as coronal mass ejections. The simultaneous observations could yield clues to what triggers those eruptions and better predictions of when they will occur. Researchers hope those insights in turn may help lessen disruptions that the eruptions could cause to power grids and navigation systems on Earth. The platform—dubbed Kuafu-1 after a mythological Chinese Sun seeker—will orbit 720 kilometers from Earth. ASO-S joins NASA’s Parker Solar Probe and the European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter in what are expected to be complementary solar observations.

EVOLUTION

Pesky plant bugs become pollinators

bugs on Syngonium hastiferum
Bugs that provide pollination cover the plant Syngonium hastiferum.FLORIAN ETL/UNIVERSITY OF VIENNA

A Costa Rican flower has found a way to trick insects that damage it while feasting on its nectar into providing a benefit in return—pollination. Syngonium hastiferum is one of the first plants shown to have evolved to coax this service from a plant bug. Most species closely related to Syngonium hastiferum are pollinated by beetles, attracted by an evening perfume. But Syngonium hastiferum gives off a morning scent that attracts a plant pest—a nectar-robbing bug. The plants’ usually smooth pollen has evolved spines that stick to the bugs of this species so they pollinate the female flowers, the researchers reported in the 4 October issue of Current Biology.

SPACE SCIENCE

Asteroid deflected, NASA says

The NASA spacecraft that hurtled into an asteroid 2 weeks ago significantly altered its target’s orbit around another asteroid, the agency announced this week—offering clear proof that humans could redirect future celestial threats to our planet. On 26 September, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test craft landed a 6-kilometer-per-second punch on Dimorphos, a 160-meter-wide moon of a larger asteroid, Didymos. To gauge the target’s deflection, Earth-based telescopes calculated its new orbital period by monitoring the dip in brightness of the two bodies as they pass in front of each other. Prior to impact, Dimorphos took 11 hours and 55 minutes to complete a lap around Didymos; now, the cycle is 32 minutes shorter. NASA had said before the impact that a reduction of at least 73 seconds would be a success.

LAB SAFETY

U.S. agency’s firing ruled illegal

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) violated a federal law protecting whistleblowers when it fired a microbiologist in retaliation for reporting breaches in biosafety and animal welfare at a wildlife disease lab in Seattle, a federal judge ruled on 29 September. The judge decided that Eveline Emmenegger, a former lab manager at the Western Fisheries Research Center, is entitled to damages of up to $200,000. In 2017 and 2018 she reported problems, including leaks of wastewater containing hazardous, regulated pathogens and deficient care of lab animals. Emmenegger was fired in March 2021 for alleged poor performance, which she denied. She appealed and USGS reversed its decision the following month. Emmenegger returned to work in May 2021. USGS faces other allegations of lab safety problems at a facility in Wisconsin and data falsification at a lab in Colorado.

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