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  • Mining coronavirus genomes for clues to the outbreak’s origins

    Field scientists holding a bat prior to sample collection

    As part of a long-running effort to see what viruses bats harbor, researchers in China examine one temporarily captured in a cave in Guandong.

    EcoHealth Alliance

    attaaaggtt tataccttcc caggtaacaa accaaccaac tttcgatctc ttgtagatct …

    That string of apparent gibberish is anything but: It’s a snippet of a DNA sequence from the viral pathogen, dubbed 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), that is overwhelming China and frightening the entire world. Scientists are publicly sharing an ever-growing number of full sequences of the virus from patients—53 at last count in the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data database. These viral genomes are being intensely studied to try to understand the origin of 2019-nCoV and how it fits on the family tree of related viruses found in bats and other species. They have also given glimpses into what this newly discovered virus physically looks like, how it’s changing, and how it might be stopped.

    “One of the biggest takeaway messages [from the viral sequences] is that there was a single introduction into humans and then human-to-human spread,” says Trevor Bedford, a bioinformatics specialist at the University of Washington and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. The role of Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China, in spreading 2019-nCoV remains murky, though such sequencing, combined with sampling the market’s environment for the presence of the virus, is clarifying that it indeed had an important early role in amplifying the outbreak. The viral sequences, most researchers say, also knock down the idea the pathogen came from a virology institute in Wuhan.

  • ‘People need to see big patterns.’ U.S. ecological observatory’s new science chief looks ahead

    A NEON observation tower at sunset

    Many National Ecological Observatory Network sites include towers bristling with instruments that collect a wide range of environmental data.

    Courtesy of the NEON Program and Battelle

    One year ago, an ambitious 20-year effort to establish a network of long-term ecological monitoring sites across the United States was floundering—again. Battelle, contracted in 2016 by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to finish building the National Ecological Observatory Network, had fired two senior NEON managers and dissolved its 20-member scientific advisory board, causing NEON’s chief scientist to resign. The developments came on the eve of the completion of the 81-site facility, which cost a half-billion dollars to build and is designed to usher ecology into the era of big data.

    Now, Battelle has hired a new chief scientist and observatory director to guide NEON’s work. Early next month, Paula Mabee, an integrative biologist at the University of South Dakota and, for 2 years, the leader of NSF’s environmental biology program, will officially join NEON’s Boulder, Colorado–based staff.

    Mabee has her work cut out for her. Some senior academic ecologists have been skeptical about NEON’s value—and have worried the network’s long-term operating costs could erode NSF funding for other ecological studies—although younger researchers appear more eager to tap the torrents of data it is producing. And NSF is set to decide whether to extend Battelle’s current NEON contract past late 2021, or choose another contractor—meaning Mabee could be out of a job.

  • Outbreak of virus from China declared global emergency

    An official uses a thermal imaging device to measure the temperatures of passengers on an airplane

    A Russian health official uses thermal imaging devices to remotely measure temperature of passengers from China arriving at Novosibirsk International Airport.

    Kirill Kukhmar/TASS via Getty Images

    In a move that some critics say should have happened 1 week ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the outbreak of a novel coronavirus in China a global health emergency. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced the move at a press conference on Thursday evening in Geneva. The new disease, first made public by China on 31 December 2019, has already spread to 18 countries; 7834 people have been infected and 170 of them, all in China, have died.

    WHO’s emergency committee on the epidemic met in the afternoon and recommended designating the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), just the sixth time WHO has used that label since the designation was introduced 15 years ago. The decision had been “almost unanimous,” Didier Houssin, chair of the emergency committee, said at the press conference.

    “The main reason for this declaration is not because of what is happening in China, but because of what is happening in other countries,” Tedros said at the press conference. “Our greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems and which are ill-prepared to deal with it. Let me be clear, this declaration is not a vote of no confidence in China. On the contrary, WHO continues to have confidence in China’s capacity to control the outbreak.” Tedros also outlined recommendations made by the emergency committee to control the outbreak, including accelerating the development of vaccines and drugs and combatting the spread of misinformation.

  • NIH’s new cluster hiring program aims to help schools attract diverse faculty

    illustration of a hand holding a magnet picking up circles with heads in them

    The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is hoping universities will use a controversial—and largely untested—method of hiring junior faculty members to improve the diversity of the U.S. biomedical research workforce.

    Last week, a top-level advisory group gave NIH officials the green light to launch a $241 million initiative called Faculty Institutional Recruitment for Sustainable Transformation (FIRST). The money, over 9 years, would go to help each of roughly a dozen universities and medical schools support a cluster of 10 or more newly hired young faculty members. A growing number of institutions are using cluster hiring to accelerate their capacity to do research in an emerging area, such as computational biology or nanofabrication, and a few of them have also used it to improve faculty diversity.

    Not all of the 120 new hires would need to belong to groups now underrepresented in academic medicine, which include women, black people, Hispanics, Native Americans, and those with disabilities, says Hannah Valantine, NIH’s chief diversity officer. In fact, she told the Council of Councils at its 24 January meeting, any such restriction would be illegal and also run counter to the program’s goal of attracting world-class talent. But Valantine says every person hired must have a track record of working to change a culture that too often makes scientists from underrepresented groups feel unwelcome on campus and isolated in the laboratory.

  • South Africa’s move to allow farming of lions and other wildlife is a bad idea, scientists say

    White rhino (Ceratotherium simum) with calf

    A white rhino with its calf on a private game reserve in South Africa

    Ann and Steve Toon/Minden Pictures

    A decision by South Africa’s government to include more than 30 wild species—including rhinos, lions, and cheetahs—on a list of animals that can be improved by breeding and genetic research could cause considerable damage to their genetic diversity, scientists warn today in the South African Journal of Science.

    The decision, announced in May 2019 without prior public consultation, provides “a legal mechanism to domesticate wildlife,” says Graham Kerley, a zoologist at Nelson Mandela University and one of the paper’s authors. He says the amendment lets South Africa’s growing number of game breeders register associations that can determine what a lion, or cheetah, should look like. That creates a “loophole” that would allow breeders to select for commercially desirable traits such as longer horns or larger body size—something that isn’t allowed under the country’s legislation for wildlife, he says. Such selective breeding could have “severe” genetic consequences for the animals, the scientists write.

    It’s the second time wild species have been included on the list. In 2016, the government included 12 antelope species, including wildebeests and impalas. Then, too, conservationists opposed the move, but were unable to reverse the decision. The inclusion this time of some of the country’s most iconic wildlife species has further fueled the criticism, and opponents have launched legal challenges to the amendment. 

  • After Brexit, U.K. scientists face a long road to mend ties with Europe

    Illustration of human figures standing on edge of UK separating from Europe

    After one referendum, two snap elections, and more than 3 years of dithering and debate, the United Kingdom this week will become the first country ever to withdraw from the European Union. But rather than marking the end of a process, Brexit will start another clock: an 11-month transition during which the U.K. and Europe will negotiate their future relationship on everything from trade to immigration to clinical trials. “We’re not out of the woods yet,” says Martin Smith, a policy manager at the Wellcome Trust, a U.K. charity.

    For researchers, the top issue is U.K. participation in Europe’s research program, Horizon Europe, which will run from 2021 to 2027. At about €90 billion, it is likely to be the bloc’s biggest ever. U.K. researchers now receive about £1.5 billion per year from the current 7-year program, Horizon 2020, and during the transition, they will get the remaining year of grant money owed under the scheme. To join Horizon Europe, however, the United Kingdom will have to pay to access it in the same way as 16 other non-EU countries, including Switzerland, Norway, and Israel.

    Although U.K. and EU scientists both want such a deal, European politicians may use it as a bargaining chip in trickier negotiations, such as over border arrangements, says James Wilsdon, a science policy specialist at the University of Sheffield. “In what possible sense is it in [Europe’s] interest to stitch up a neat package on science and put a bow on it for London?” Indeed, the EU research commissioner, Mariya Gabriel, indicated in an interview this month that the European Union would not offer a separate deal on research.

  • United States charges prominent Harvard chemist with failing to disclose China ties

    ScienceInsider logo

    The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston announced today it has charged Charles Lieber, the chair of Harvard University’s department of chemistry and chemical biology and a prominent nanoscience researcher, with making a false statement to federal investigators about his financial ties to a university and foreign talent recruitment program in China.

    In unrelated cases, prosecutors simultaneously filed charges against two Chinese nationals, Yanqing Ye and Zaosong Zheng, who had been enrolled in scientific research programs at universities in Massachusetts.

    Lieber, 60, is one of the highest-profile researchers to be caught up in a wide-ranging U.S. government effort to crack down on what officials have alleged is a systematic effort by China to take unfair advantage of federally funded research. He "is one of the most distinguished scientists of our time," says chemist Omar Yaghi of the University of California, Berkeley. "He has made tremendous contributions to chemistry, physics, biology, and engineering.” Harvard has placed Lieber on “indefinite” paid administrative leave, according to the Harvard Crimson

  • Can an anti-HIV combination or other existing drugs outwit the new coronavirus?

    Medical staff members wearing protective clothing to help stop the spread of a deadly virus which began in the city, arrive with a patient at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital in Wuhan on January 25, 2020.

    A patient arrives at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital in China on 25 January. Scientists in Wuhan have already set up a study to test existing antiviral drugs against a new virus, according to a paper in The Lancet.

    Hector RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images

    When a frightening new virus emerges in humans, scientists spend many months, if not years, developing and testing a vaccine. Finding new treatments, too, takes a long time, but there is another option: Try existing drugs to see whether they have activity against the new virus.

    In the case of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), researchers are already trying antivirals widely used to treat HIV, in hopes they might be able to fight the coronavirus as well. Other, still experimental antivirals—including one that was unsuccessfully tested against Ebola last year—may also hold promise.

    The Jin Yintan Hospital in Wuhan, China, where the first 41 known patients were treated, has already launched a randomized, controlled trial of the anti-HIV drug combination of lopinavir and ritonavir, according to a 24 January report by a group of Chinese scientists in The Lancet. The combination targets protease, an enzyme used by both HIV and coronaviruses to cut up proteins when they make new copies of themselves. (A spokesperson for the biopharmaceutical company Abbvie tells ScienceInsider it has donated $2 million worth of the combo, which it markets under the brand name Aluvia, to the Chinese government.)

  • Massive effort to document the genetics of European forests bears fruit

    man using a power drill for coring

    A power drill helps a researcher extract a core from a tree included in the GenTree project.

    Mehdi Pringarbe/INRA Avignon

    Faced with deforestation, climate change, invasive pests, and new diseases, many trees are in trouble. Foresters and conservationists are scrambling to save them, but can’t protect every stand of woods. And prioritizing which places—and even which individual trees—warrant preservation has been a challenge. For example, “You want a lot of genetic diversity in a conservation area. … The higher the diversity, the more the chances that the population will survive,” says F. A. (Phil) Aravanopoulos, a forest geneticist at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. But robust data on the genetic diversity of trees can be scarce.

    Now, a 4-year, $7.7 million effort to document the genetic diversity of forests in Europe is helping fill that gap. In a project dubbed GenTree, researchers from 14 countries measured, cored, and took DNA samples from 12 important tree species across Europe. No other continent’s forests have been documented so broadly and so comprehensively, says Nathalie Isabel, a forest geneticist and forester with Natural Resources Canada. “The sampling is amazing.”

    The results, reported at a forest genetics conference this week in Avignon, France, could help conservationists, tree breeders, forest managers, and researchers trying to understand how forests will cope with climate change. The data trove will “provide a solid base for a better understanding of the links between genetic diversity and increased adaptation and resilience of the European forests,” says forest researcher Hernán Serrano-León, who worked at the recently disbanded European Forest Institute Planted Forests Facility.

  • Animal rights conflict prompts leading researcher to leave Germany for China

    Nikos Logothetis

    Neuroscientist Nikos Logothetis will return to doing neuroscience research on monkeys at a new facility in China. 

    Marijan Murat/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

    A prominent neuroscientist whose German lab was targeted by animal rights activists is heading to China, where he says he will be freer to pursue his work on macaques and other monkeys. Nikos Logothetis, a director at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Germany, told colleagues last week that the first members of his lab would move in the coming months to a new International Center for Primate Brain Research (ICPBR) in Shanghai, which he will co-direct with neuroscientist Poo Mu-Ming, scientific director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’s Center for Excellence in Brain Science and Intelligence Technology. 

    Logothetis says he will follow as soon as remaining lab members have finished their projects, likely by late 2020 or early 2021. The Chinese institute is building a new facility in Shanghai’s Songjiang district, which will house as many as 6000 nonhuman primates, including many transgenic monkeys. “Scientifically it’s incredible,” he says. “They have excellent groups working with CRISPR and genetic engineering.” And, he adds, the acceptance of nonhuman primate research by authorities and the public in China is much higher than in Europe. They “know that no other brain (besides that of humans themselves) can be a true help in making progress.”

    The move is another sign that China’s investment in neuroscience research, especially involving primates, is paying off, says Stefan Treue, a neuroscientist and director of the German Primate Center. “China has made incredible progress in an unbelievably short period of time. That is the positive side of a political system that is able to move very quickly,” he says. “The combination of political will and necessary resources mean that they have put together an impressive collection of neuroscientists.”

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