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ASTROPHYSICS

Webb telescope fully formed

The James Webb Space Telescope, the largest space observatory ever launched, completed most of its delicate in-space deployments last week after unfolding two wings of its 6.5-meter main mirror. Webb has now executed 85% of several hundred mechanical actions that could jeopardize the mission were any to fail. Next, operators will fine-tune the positions of the main mirror’s 18 gold-plated segments with 126 tiny motors to form a single reflecting surface; then, the team will calibrate Webb’s four instruments, which must be cooled below –230°C to see in the infrared. Expected this summer is a first image, one that will demonstrate Webb’s unprecedented capability to peer into the early universe and other worlds—then the science begins.

CLIMATE POLICY

NASA names chief scientist

Katherine Calvin, a researcher who studies the impacts of global warming, was appointed this week to be NASA’s new chief scientist and senior climate adviser. Calvin has worked since 2008 at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, modeling how climate change will alter farming, water use, and other aspects of human society. Calvin will advise Bill Nelson, NASA’s administrator, as the agency grapples with adapting to climate change, including planning the long-term future of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and other prominent space facilities on coastlines vulnerable to sea level rise. (The chief scientist position does not directly oversee NASA’s scientific missions, including those focused on climate; those are managed by Associate Administrator Thomas Zurbuchen.)

ECOLOGY

Huge icefish colony found

Icefish on the sea floor
Icefish guard nests along the Weddell Sea’s floor.ALFRED WEGENER INSTITUTE/PS124 AWI OFOBS TEAM

Scientists aboard an Antarctic research cruise have discovered the most extensive breeding colony of fish anywhere. In February 2021, while towing video cameras and other instruments close to the sea floor in the Weddell Sea, the RV Polarstern came upon thousands of 75-centimeter-wide nests, each occupied by a single adult icefish (Neopagetopsis ionah) and up to 2100 eggs. “It was really an amazing sight,” says deep-sea biologist Autun Purser of the Alfred Wegener Institute, who led the research cruise’s underwater imaging, reported in Current Biology this week. Including subsequent tows, the team saw 16,160 closely packed fish nests, 76% of which were guarded by solitary males. Adult icefish may use currents to find the spawning grounds, where the water above is rich in zooplankton that their offspring can eat, Purser says. Assuming a similar density of nests in the areas between the survey lines, the researchers estimate that about 60 million nests cover roughly 240 square kilometers. The icefish and their eggs dominate the area’s biomass, which the authors describe as “exceptionally high” for the Antarctic sea floor. The researchers say the colony provides a new reason to create a marine protected area in the Weddell Sea, a unique and largely undisturbed ecosystem.

RESEARCH SECURITY

Foreign funding disclosure

U.S. research agencies have 120 days to develop uniform policies describing the outside sources of funding that scientists must disclose when they apply for federal grants. The deadline was set in a 4 January directive from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) aimed at protecting federally funded research from attempted theft by some foreign governments. In recent years, the Department of Justice has prosecuted some two dozen academics for failing to disclose financial ties to China, a move critics say has chilled research collaborations and criminalized minor violations of often confusing federal rules. Research groups welcomed OSTP’s 34-page report, but say they wish it had specified what kinds of foreign collaborations might get a scientist in trouble. “OSTP intends to address [such questions] in the future,” says its director, Eric Lander. And one federal agency, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, already has begun to give top-ranked proposals a second look, based on the foreign ties of the scientist submitting the proposal, before making any award.

COVID-19

Chinese tire of ‘zero COVID’ policy

As the 13 million residents of the city of Xi’an endure a third week of lockdown after a December 2021 outbreak, many Chinese are losing patience with the country’s “zero COVID” strategy. People expressed outrage on social media after a graphic 4 January post about a woman in her last month of pregnancy whose admission to a Xi’an hospital for abdominal pain was delayed because her most recent COVID-19 test was no longer valid; she had a stillbirth at the hospital entrance, blood pooling at her feet. (The original post has disappeared.) Authorities say the tough measures have nearly ended Xi’an’s outbreak, the worst in China since the disease broke out in Wuhan, in early 2020. Since 9 December 2021, Xi’an has logged more than 2000 Delta variant infections, but on 10 January, it reported just 13 new cases. China has now detected its first community cases of the Omicron variant, sending more cities into lockdown and raising concerns about the impact on the Winter Olympic Games, starting on 4 February in Beijing.

quotation mark

For people who are not responsible for policy, it’s very easy to make a prediction.

  • Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
  • to The New Yorker, responding to suggestions to change course and treat SARS-CoV-2 as endemic
ECOLOGY

Ticks with Lyme overwinter better

More ticks carrying the bacterium that causes Lyme disease survived the winter in Nova Scotia than did uninfected ones in a new study of 600 of the arachnids kept outside in small vials. “Winter conditions may favor the ability of infected ticks to find hosts and continue to spread disease,” says Laura Ferguson, an ecoimmunologist at Dalhousie University. And infected ticks were more active during fluctuating wintry temperatures in the lab, Ferguson and colleagues reported at the annual meeting of the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology in Phoenix last week. The finding suggests the variable winter conditions brought on by climate change could boost the odds people will encounter Lyme-infected ticks.

BIOMEDICINE

New research cannabis imminent

Two companies are preparing to ship cannabis to academic and commercial clients for research use, having won long-awaited registrations that break the University of Mississippi’s 54-year monopoly on U.S. research cannabis production. Groff North America, based in Red Lion, Pennsylvania, harvested its first crop on 30 December 2021 and expects to ship cannabis preparations in the first quarter of this year to clients including universities and biopharmaceutical companies. The Biopharmaceutical Research Company (BRC), based in Castroville, California, plans to harvest its first crop intended for research customers in about 8 weeks. The company is also developing cannabis research programs with Washington State University and the University of California, Davis. Groff North America and BRC won bulk manufacturing registrations from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in May and June 2021, respectively.

PEOPLE

Dutch science head takes office

Theoretical physicist Robbert Dijkgraaf, who since 2012 has headed the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, New Jersey, was sworn in as minister of education, culture, and science in the Netherlands on 10 January. Dijkgraaf, a popular science communicator, newspaper columnist, and talk show guest in his home country, had called for an increase in government funding for science, currently some €6.2 billion annually. He will get his wish: The new center-right coalition of four parties has agreed to launch a €5 billion fund for R&D, to be spent over the next decade. IAS—which was home to Albert Einstein and many other great scientists—announced in November 2021 that Dijkgraaf will be succeeded by medieval historian David Nirenberg, dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School, in July.

BIOMEDICINE

Man receives pig heart

surgeons in an operating room looking at a heart
Surgeons examine the genetically engineered pig heart transplanted into a person last week.UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND MEDICAL CENTER

Surgeons last week performed the first pig-to-human heart transplant on a 57-year-old man with a life-threatening heart condition who was ineligible for a human donor organ. The heart, provided by the biotechnology company Revivicor, came from a pig genetically engineered to prevent its organs from prompting immune rejection by the human body. The patient was doing well 4 days after the 7 January transplant, according to surgeons at the University of Maryland Medical Center, but rejection remained a risk. If the strategy proves successful and safe long-term, pig organs could offer a long-hoped-for supply for people awaiting transplants.

ENERGY

China pioneers small reactor

A Chinese utility last month connected the world’s first commercial-scale small nuclear power plant of its kind to the electric grid. Several nations are pursuing small modular reactors—compact units that can be mass produced—because they are cheaper to build and theoretically safer. At the Shidao Bay Nuclear Power Plant in eastern China, designers opted for a “pebble bed” design, in which nuclear fuel is encased in spherical graphite “pebbles” the size of tennis balls that are packed into a cylindrical vessel like gumballs in a jar. Circulating helium is heated by the pebbles to 750°C, and the hot gas produces steam. An identical pair of these reactors will jointly generate 210 megawatts of electricity. Developers are now planning to link six reactor modules together in a 650-megawatt plant. U.S. regulators have yet to approve a leading small-reactor design from the company NuScale Power because of concerns over the reliability of its passive safety features.

CLIMATE

Ocean warming sets record

The upper reaches of the world’s oceans were hotter than ever in 2021, setting a record for the sixth straight year. The shallowest 2000 meters of the oceans last year absorbed 14 more zettajoules (1021 joules) of heat than in 2020, an injection of energy equivalent to nearly 30 times as much energy as humans use in a single year, scientists reported this week in Advances in Atmospheric Sciences. The ocean acts as a buffer against rising temperatures, absorbing an estimated 90% of the extra heat trapped by global warming. Surface air temperatures, more mercurial than the ocean, didn’t set a record in 2021—it was merely the fifth warmest year, and between 1.1°C and 1.2°C above the late 19th century’s average, the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service announced this week. Despite economic slowdowns triggered by the pandemic, two key greenhouse gases rose to record levels in the atmosphere, with carbon dioxide at 414 parts per million and methane at 1876 parts per billion, according to the service.

INFECTIOUS DISEASES

Pill curbs but doesn’t erase yaws

Eradicating yaws—a painful and disfiguring bacterial disease—may be harder than scientists hoped, a study published last week in The New England Journal of Medicine suggests. The World Health Organization aims to eradicate yaws by 2030; its strategy calls for mass treatment of communities using a single dose of the inexpensive oral antibiotic azithromycin, followed by targeted treatment for people who develop the disease’s hallmark skin ulcers and their contacts. In the trial, involving 56,000 people in Papua New Guinea, that regimen reduced yaws prevalence by 65%. An alternative, intensified treatment—three communitywide doses of azithromycin given 6 months apart—did markedly better, lowering prevalence by 91%. But it didn’t wipe out the disease, as the scientists had hoped, and a few cases of antibiotic resistance resulted, raising concern.

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