Thursday, March 30

News at a glance: Monkey shipments, a controversial visa, and support for geoengineering research | Science


Lab pauses monkey imports

Charles River Laboratories, one of the largest U.S. importers and suppliers of research monkeys, announced last week it is suspending shipments from Cambodia after receiving a subpoena from the U.S. Department of Justice. In November 2022, the agency indicted members of a smuggling ring that was illegally exporting cynomolgus macaques caught in the wild in Cambodia, labeling them as captive-bred. Charles River said the subpoena is related to several shipments it received from its Cambodian supplier. Charles River said the suspension was voluntary and motivated by “ongoing investigations” of the “supply chain” from Cambodia. The United States is by far the largest importer of the animals globally, mostly for research by pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. Cynomolgus macaques, which are endangered, accounted for 96% of the nearly 33,000 nonhuman primates the country imported in 2022, according to U.S. government data. About two-thirds of the cynomolgus animals came from Cambodia.


U.K.-EU deal opens door to science funds

Researchers in the United Kingdom breathed a cautious sigh of relief this week after the government struck a deal with the European Union to fix post-Brexit disputes including trade across Northern Ireland’s border. The tentative pact, called the Windsor Framework, does not explicitly involve science. But it could end a 2-year delay in finalizing plans for allowing U.K. researchers to apply for grants from Horizon Europe, the European Union’s giant science funding program. In December 2020, the United Kingdom agreed to pay a fee to become “associated” with Horizon Europe, like other non-EU countries including Israel, Norway, and Turkey. But a diplomatic impasse over Northern Ireland—which is part of the United Kingdom but shares a border with EU member Ireland—blocked the arrangement. If the U.K. Parliament approves the Windsor Framework, negotiations for a new deal on Horizon Europe could resume. Even then, some researchers predict they will be long.


Embryo-editing scientist loses visa

He Jiankui, the Chinese biophysicist imprisoned for 3 years after he edited the genes of human embryos, resulting in three live births, obtained a visa to work in Hong Kong last month—only to see it revoked 10 days later. The 2-year Top Talent visa He received aims to attract those “with rich work experience and good academic qualifications.” In comments on social media and in the local press, He said he hoped to find a position at a Hong Kong university or research institute. Instead, after He’s visa drew attention, Hong Kong officials reconsidered and canceled it, saying he may have made false statements on his application form. They announced they will revise application forms to require disclosure of any criminal convictions. After his April 2022 release from prison, He set up a laboratory in Beijing and has been asking philanthropists to support his research into improving gene therapies for rare diseases. He has not disclosed whether he has found any backers.

quotation mark

There is not a consensus in the U.S. government.

  • U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby
  • responding to reports that the Department of Energy now believes “with low confidence” that SARS-CoV-2 emerged from a lab leak in China rather than a natural spillover. Several other agencies favor a natural origin.

A call for geoengineering research

More than 60 prominent climate scientists this week called for breaking a taboo about solar geoengineering—artificially cooling the planet by making it more reflective—by boosting research on it. Some activists and scientists are staunchly opposed to even studying geoengineering, arguing that it distracts from the necessity of cutting greenhouse gas emissions. But the open letter says decisions on implementing geoengineering schemes are likely in the coming decades, and that simulations and field experiments are needed to understand the schemes’ effectiveness and risks. Among the signatories are retired NASA scientist James Hansen, one of the first to warn about the dangers of global warming, and Harvard University climate scientist David Keith, who has for years tried to gain permission to perform a small-scale geoengineering experiment.


Cancer’s price tag: $25 trillion

Cancer will cost the world $25 trillion from 2020 to 2050, equivalent to an annual tax of 0.55% on global gross domestic product, a study has found. The analysis estimated treatment costs and the loss of economic productivity by people who become ill or die from 29 types of cancer, accounting for differences across countries in people’s education and workforce experience. The most costly cancers include those of the lung, colon, breast, and liver, several of which are also among the most prevalent globally. Increased spending on screening, diagnosis, and treatment could yield substantial health and economic benefits, especially in low- and middle-income countries, which record about 75% of cancer deaths, according to the study, published last week by an international team in JAMA Oncology.


Whale skin bears record of obscure migration journeys

A southern right whale breaching
A southern right whale breaches as it plies the Southern Ocean for krill and other food.FRANCO BANFI/SCIENCE SOURCE

Scientists used small patches of skin from southern right whales to probe how climate change has shaped their migrations. The technique could help inform conservation measures for the animal, which is recovering from whaling but remains threatened. The species (Eubalaena australis) is difficult to track. But the team gathered the skin samples from whales in coastal breeding areas, in part by shooting them with retrievable darts that punch out a small section of skin. The researchers then analyzed chemical signatures —isotopes of carbon and nitrogen—in the skin samples and matched the signatures to isotope ratios mapped across the Southern Ocean over the past 30 years. Whales eat krill and copepods bearing those isotopes, which turn up in fresh whale skin by about 6 months later, creating a record of the whales’ past travels. Among the team’s findings is that the ocean midlatitudes have consistently remained an important feeding ground. In some parts of the Southern Ocean, the whales are migrating south less often to feed, likely because climate change has reduced populations of krill near Antarctica in some places, the team reports this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Boron fuel shows fusion promise

Researchers have sparked fusion in a reactor using an alternative fuel mixture that could make potential fusion power plants safer and easier to operate than those burning more conventional fuel. Most experimental fusion reactors use the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium. But tritium is hard to come by, and that fuel combination produces high-energy neutrons that are hazardous to humans and damage reactor walls and components. Alternative fuel made of protons and boron generates no neutrons and produces only harmless helium, but requires a temperature of 3 billion degrees Celsius—200 times the heat of the Sun’s core—to burn. Now, a team using a conventional fusion reactor in Japan called the Large Helical Device has reported seeing some fusion reactions at a lower temperature, by using a powerful particle beam to accelerate the protons and help trigger the reactions. The work, reported this week in Nature Communications, is far from a practical fusion plant. But a fusion startup, TAE Technologies, which collaborated in the study, hopes to develop one using the fuel.


NASA science chief named

NASA this week named heliophysicist Nicola Fox as its new science leader. As associate administrator for the agency’s science mission directorate, Fox will be responsible for a $7.8 billion budget and more than 100 missions across four divisions: earth science, planetary science, astrophysics, and heliophysics. Fox joined NASA in 2018 to become the heliophysics division chief. Before that, she worked at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, where she was project scientist for the $1.5 billion Parker Solar Probe, a mission that is now sampling the Sun’s corona in a series of close flybys. Fox replaces Thomas Zurbuchen, who stepped down at the end of 2022.


Climate change opens new migration destination for Arctic geese

A warming climate has led some pink-footed geese to start meeting up to mate in a new location in northern Russia, nearly 1000 kilometers northeast of their traditional summer breeding grounds. The speed at which the new population has developed, over only about 15 years, is “astonishing” and rarely observed, says the team’s leader, Jesper Madsen of Aarhus University. It’s a sign that some species can adapt beneficially to the effects of climate change, at least in the short run, he adds. Every spring, some 80,000 geese (Anser brachyrhynchus) migrate north from Denmark, the Netherlands, and Belgium to breed in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago. After a few thousand birds started to show up in Sweden and Finland—east of their traditional migration route—scientists caught and attached GPS trackers to 21 birds. Half of those birds flew northeast to Novaya Zemlya, an archipelago in northern Russia, the researchers report this week in Current Biology. There, the researchers found the new breeding population, which they estimate could consist of 3000 to 4000 birds. Novaya Zemlya’s spring temperatures are now similar to Svalbard’s decades ago. The birds may have found their new, hospitable breeding ground by drifting off course or by following another species, the taiga bean goose, which already go there.

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