Sunday, January 29

News at a glance: ‘Cherry-picked’ vaccine guidance, AI-written papers, and an apology for prisoner research | Science


Utah’s Great Salt Lake may dry up within 5 years

North America’s largest saline lake could be gone by 2028 if water inflows are not restored, researchers warned last week. The Great Salt Lake in Utah has lost nearly three-quarters of its water and 60% of its surface area since 1950, a report from 32 scientists at multiple institutions concludes, and a recent drought has accelerated the losses. To restore the lake, farmers, homeowners, and others will need to reduce the amount of water they take from feeder streams by 30% to 50%. If they don’t, the continent could lose a key habitat for some 10 million migratory birds and the dry lakebed could become a major source of dangerous dust pollution. “Most Utahns do not realize the urgency of this crisis,” the researchers wrote, adding that the state’s governor and legislature should immediately launch “a watershed-wide emergency rescue” that includes more funding for water conservation efforts. In 2022, Utah enacted new policies that allow those permitted to withdraw water to limit their take without losing their rights. But the amount conserved that year was less than one-tenth the average annual rate of loss, the report says.


Ebola outbreak nears official end

An Ebola outbreak in Uganda that surfaced in September 2022 and led to 77 probable and confirmed deaths was expected to be declared over on 12 January, 2 days after Science went to press and 42 days after the last known case. That interval, twice the maximum known incubation period, is considered long enough for health authorities to proclaim victory over Ebola. An approved vaccine exists for the Zaire ebolavirus but not for the distantly related Sudan species that surfaced in Uganda. The country instead curbed the outbreak by isolating people with confirmed cases, testing their contacts, and improving sanitation. The dwindling case numbers led Ugandan officials and international partners to call off a planned efficacy trial of three experimental Sudan vaccines. But the country may still test the safety of the vaccines and the immune responses they trigger, which could speed their eventual approval by regulators and help prepare Uganda for a future return of the virus.

Update: Uganda declared the end of the Ebola outbreak on 11 January.


Lander to head science ‘incubator’

Eric Lander, who resigned as President Joe Biden’s top science adviser in February 2022 after an investigation found he bullied subordinates, has a new job. He will be chief scientist at Science for America, a new nonprofit that aims to become a “solutions incubator” to help address big global problems, including climate change and pandemics. Its board boasts leading scientists in multiple fields (including Gilda Barabino, president of AAAS, which publishes Science). The group has collected commitments of $30 million over 2 years from nine philanthropies, including Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Ford Foundation, and Gates Ventures. Science for America announced Lander’s role in a blog post in July 2022 that did not receive wide attention; STAT reported the news in December 2022. Lander is on leaves of absence from faculty positions at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, STAT reported.


Florida vaccine warning criticized

Florida’s surgeon general, a professor of medicine at the University of Florida, may have violated the institution’s research integrity rules when he advised young men not to receive messenger RNA vaccines against COVID-19, a panel of UF faculty public health experts concluded recently. However, the university said last week that Joseph Ladapo was not acting in his academic capacity in October 2022 when he offered the advice, claiming the vaccines produced a high risk of cardiac-related death. In an evaluation first reported by The Washington Post, the faculty panel said Ladapo cherry-picked evidence to support that view, ignoring evidence that the risk of death is low and the vaccines’ benefits are significant. Ladapo joined UF in 2021, the year he was appointed surgeon general by Governor Ron DeSantis (R), a COVID-19 vaccine skeptic.


Keeping guns from children reduces deaths

bullets inside a safe
To protect kids, “safe storage” laws require ammunition to be stored locked and separate from guns.VICTORAS/SHUTTERSTOCK

Two types of gun policies in the United States produce starkly different results for public safety, a study has found. “Safe storage” laws, aimed at preventing children from accessing firearms, reduce deaths; laws that strengthen concealed-carry and stand-your-ground protections tend to increase them, according to the study, issued this week by the nonprofit RAND Corporation. Americans privately own as many as 393 million guns, and more than 45,000 die annually from both deliberate and unintentional gun injuries. Just over half the deaths are suicides. In 2020, firearm-related injuries surpassed motor vehicle crashes as the leading cause of death among U.S. children and adolescents ages 1 to 19. Authors of the study, a meta-analysis, examined evidence from 152 studies covering 18 areas of federal and state gun control policies.


UCSF contrite on prisoner studies

The University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), last month apologized for “past harms” by two faculty members who conducted experiments on prisoners in the 1960s and ’70s. The work was done in most cases without their informed consent, even though UCSF and the federal government required it. The university described the research, in which prisoners volunteered to participate and were paid, in a preliminary report about an internal review it is conducting. One study dosed the prisoners with pesticides and herbicides. One of the researchers, Howard Maibach, remains on the faculty. In a letter to colleagues, Maibach said that “the work I did,” which involved more than 2600 prisoners, “was considered by many to be appropriate by the standards of the day,” but given today’s mores, “I have sincere remorse.” He and a colleague, the late William Epstein, undertook the UCSF experiments after being trained by the late Albert Kligman, a dermatologist at the University of Pennsylvania, whose research on that state’s prisoners triggered a similar apology by that institution. The UCSF studies continued until 1977, when California halted human subject research in state prisons.


A dragnet for respiratory bugs

The Wellcome Sanger Institute this week announced a project to collect and sequence millions of genomes of common respiratory pathogens, such as adenovirus, rhinovirus, and respiratory syncytial virus. The goal for these pathogens is to emulate the massive effort to monitor SARS-CoV-2. Using hundreds of thousands of swab samples collected in the United Kingdom since the pandemic started, researchers hope to develop a method to sequence all known respiratory viruses from a single sample. The pioneering plan could eventually be expanded to detect a wide range of bacteria and fungi, including benign ones naturally present as part of the human microbiome. The Respiratory Virus and Microbiome Initiative should help answer scientific questions about the evolution and transmission of the pathogens, says microbiologist Ewan Harrison, who leads the initiative. It could also give doctors and policymakers a snapshot of their activity almost in real time, perhaps starting as soon as 1 year from now, he says—which may allow public health workers to focus their response efforts.


Journals widen free open access

Paywalled journals in the Science and JAMA families this month started to allow all research articles to be free to read immediately when published, without authors paying a fee. The arrangement, known as “green” open access, permits authors to deposit near-final, peer-reviewed versions of papers accepted by the journals in publicly accessible repositories. Supporters of open access have long argued that immediate access will accelerate scientific discovery, and some supporters hail green open access as an alternative to “gold” open access, which requires authors to pay a fee unless journals waive it. Since January 2021, Science has offered the green approach for authors whose research was funded by Coalition S, a group of mostly European funders that require open access. The new policy for Science and four other paywalled journals in its family extends the approach to all research articles regardless of the authors’ funding source and allows use of repositories outside the authors’ institution. The 14 journals in the JAMA Network adopted a similar policy. Questions persist about whether the green model is financially sustainable, because institutions might drop subscriptions to journals supporting it. In a statement, AAAS, which publishes the Science journals, says that hasn’t happened.


First honey bee vaccine approved

a beehive on fire
To stop the spread of American foulbrood disease, beekeepers burn infected hives.ISTOCK.COM/BEEKEEPX

American foulbrood disease is one of the worst diagnoses a beekeeper’s brood can get. The bacteria that cause it are deadly to honey bee larvae, extremely contagious, and rarely treatable. Now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has granted preliminary approval for a vaccine, the first intended for honey bees, the vaccine’s developer said last week. After spores of the bacteria (Paenibacillus larvae) enter a honey bee hive, worker bees unintentionally spread them to larvae. When workers clean out the remains of the dead larvae, the spores are spread to those still alive. Many beekeepers must incinerate infected colonies, bees and all. Dalan Animal Health created the vaccine from killed bacteria. Beekeepers add it to food that worker bees include in the “royal jelly” they feed to the queen. Eggs in her ovaries are exposed to the vaccine, and the larvae that develop from those eggs are immune to the bacteria.


New role for viruses: dinner

Scientists have long viewed viruses only as predators, but a new study calls them something else: food. It found that microbes called ciliates can survive and thrive on a virus-only diet. A research team placed Halteria ciliates—a type of protozoan with hairlike organelles found in freshwater worldwide—in a petri dish with only chloroviruses, which infect green algae. The ciliates multiplied, and the researchers found they ingested a green dye the team had used to tag the viruses, the team reported in the 27 December 2022 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Without the viral feedstock, the ciliates’ population remained stable. Virus particles are “made up of really good stuff: nucleic acids, a lot of nitrogen and phosphorus —everything should want to eat them,” says co-author John DeLong of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, in a news release about the study. One ciliate can consume up to 1 million virus particles a day, he and his colleagues wrote in PNAS. Because Earth’s viruses are vastly abundant and ciliates are themselves eaten by larger organisms, the new finding may lead to a better understanding of food webs and other ecosystem dynamics, the authors said.


AI meeting bans AI text

In a sign of the growing worries about text generated by algorithms, organizers of this year’s International Conference on Machine Learning have banned presenters from submitting papers containing text produced by “large-scale language models,” such as OpenAI’s ChatGPT, launched in November 2022. Organizers of the conference, to be held in July, exempted text presented in a scholarly article’s experimental analysis. The wording produced by such algorithms can contain factual errors and be difficult to distinguish from human-generated text, which has raised concerns that they may fuel plagiarism and shoddy papers in laboratories and classrooms. The ban, announced last week, only applies to this year’s conference; conference organizers said they will review the models’ pros and cons.

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