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News at a glance: La Niña’s triple dip, Yak lungs, and a drop in U.S. life expectancy


ASTRONOMY

Webb telescope snaps its first exoplanet

An exoplanet was imaged at various wavelengths (insets); the white pentagram marks the parent star.NASA/ESA/CSA; A. CARTER/UCSC; THE ERS 1386 TEAM; A. PAGAN/STSCI

The James Webb Space Telescope has taken its first images of a planet beyond our Solar System, opening a new chapter in the discovery and study of exoplanets. The young gas giant, seven times the mass of Jupiter, is captured still glowing hot after its formation, its infrared radiation having traveled 350 light-years to reach Webb’s gold-plated mirrors. Webb relied on an optical mask to block the overwhelming glare of the star and image the planet, HIP 65426 b, at multiple infrared wavelengths, astronomers reported in a preprint. About 20 other exoplanets have been imaged directly, though telescopes on Earth and in space. But Earth’s atmosphere blocks most infrared light from reaching telescopes on the ground. Webb, with its large mirror, state-of-the-art sensors, and no blurring atmosphere, is expected to see many more exoplanets, including smaller ones down to the size of Saturn or Neptune. Researchers hope Webb’s images will help them understand how and where such planets form.

POLITICS

Next U.K. PM a cipher on science

U.K. scientists expressed unease this week after the country’s Conservative Party chose Liz Truss as the next prime minister. Truss, who served as foreign secretary under outgoing leader Boris Johnson, has said little about research. Her proposed fiscal policy favors innovation, but she has not spoken in favor of Johnson’s goal of doubling government spending on research, and may alter spending plans made by Johnson’s government. Also in question is the United Kingdom’s participation in Horizon Europe, the European Union’s 7-year, €95 billion science funding scheme, given Truss’s hard-line stance on Brexit disagreements with Europe. Unlike some of her fellow Conservatives, she has not denied climate science, but she has not indicated strong support for action to achieve the country’s emissions targets.

quotation mark

No one goes to jail.

  • Luciano Evaristo
  • former chief inspection officer of Brazil’s environmental law enforcement agency, in The Washington Post, about people charged with deforesting the Amazon. Observers also decry a lack of inspectors and indifference by the national government.
ARCHAEOLOGY

Earliest known amputation found

In a cave on the island of Borneo containing some of the earliest known cave art made by our species, scientists have uncovered evidence of a surgical amputation from about 31,000 years ago. The nearly complete skeleton of a Homo sapiens individual was found missing the lower half of their left shin and foot. Bony growth fused together the tibia and fibula, indicating the individual, estimated to have been in their early 20s when they died, survived for several years after losing the limb. The clean cut line along the bone, as well as the absence of crush marks that would indicate an animal attack or some other traumatic accident, suggest the lower limb was removed using sharp tools, the researchers report this week in Nature.

POLITICS

Chile nixes science-heavy charter

To the dismay of many scientists in Chile, nearly two-thirds of voters on 4 September rejected a draft constitution that would have supported research, environmental policies, and Indigenous rights. The document would have guaranteed scientists freedom of research; it also directed the government to strengthen the development of research and take action on the climate and biodiversity crises. Last month, more than 1200 scientists endorsed the draft, and both sides of the political spectrum backed many of the science provisions. But the proposal also drew criticism that it would steer Chile too sharply to the left by calling for a more egalitarian society, gender parity, and universal health care.

PHYSIOLOGY

Lung cells give yaks a high-altitude edge

a yak
WEI LIU

In Tibet’s thin, low-oxygen air, 800-kilogram yaks have no trouble sprinting at 40 kilometers per hour. Now, scientists have discovered a special kind of cell in their lungs that may enable these oxlike animals to thrive in the harsh conditions by helping them use oxygen more efficiently. Researchers have long known that certain yak genes and physiological adaptations, such as large hearts and lungs, might increase their fitness at high altitudes. This week in Nature Communications, the research team reports finding cells in the lining of yak lung blood vessels with genes—including two linked to high-altitude fitness—that are more active than in similar cells in cattle, which live at lower altitudes.

INFECTIOUS DISEASES

Gift funds pandemic treatments

Inspired by the record-fast creation of messenger RNA vaccines that blunted COVID-19’s impact, a philanthropist is providing AU$250 million ($172 million) over 20 years to bring similar alacrity to the development of therapeutics during future pandemic threats. Geoffrey Cumming, who made a fortune in oil and gas, is putting up what is believed to be the largest gift to medical research in Australia to launch the Cumming Global Center for Pandemic Therapeutics at the University of Melbourne. It aims to create pharmaceutical platforms that could be used to rapidly develop monoclonal antibodies and other antiviral treatments to counter a new pathogen. Some scientists have argued that more lives could have been saved had an effective COVID-19 treatment quickly become available before the vaccines were tested and authorized at the end of that year.

PUBLIC HEALTH

COVID-19 saps U.S. longevity

COVID-19 sent Americans’ life expectancy plummeting in 2020 and 2021, in the largest 2-year drop in the past 100 years, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said last week. Among racial groups, Native Americans and Alaska Natives saw the biggest decline, from an average of about 72 years in 2019, before the pandemic started, to roughly 65 years in 2021—the same as the overall U.S. life expectancy in 1944. For all Americans, life expectancy in 2021 was just over 76 years, a drop of nearly 3 years from 2019 and the lowest since 1996. Other causes of the decline included accidents, heart disease, and suicide, CDC said.

Indigenous groups see biggest drop

Life expectancy fell sharply for Native Americans and Alaska Natives, despite an active campaign to vaccinate them against COVID-19.

graph showing life expectancies for different racial groups
(GRAPHIC) C. BICKEL/SCIENCE; (DATA) NATIONAL CENTER FOR HEALTH STATISTICS, NATIONAL VITAL STATISTICS SYSTEM, MORTALITY
METEOROLOGY

La Niña scores a triple

The La Niña weather pattern is likely to last through the end of the year, the first time this century it will have persisted through three Northern Hemisphere winters, the World Meteorological Organization said last week. La Niña is marked by cool surface waters in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean and is the opposite number to the warming trend known as an El Niño. The effects of La Niña are global: It increases the chances for drought in the U.S. South and the Horn of Africa, which is currently experiencing a severe one. La Niña also tends to deliver more rain to Australia and South Asia—a factor in recent flooding in Pakistan, for example. Climate models suggest La Niña and El Niño events will both become more frequent and intense with global warming.



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