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News at a glance: New gene therapy, Europe’s drought, and a black hole’s photon ring


Drought exposes ‘Spanish Stonehenge’ for study

Scientists are rushing to examine a 7000-year-old stone circle in central Spain that had been drowned by a reservoir for decades and was uncovered after the drought plaguing Europe lowered water levels. Nicknamed the “Spanish Stonehenge”—although 2000 years older than the U.K. stone circle—the Dolmen of Guadalperal (above) was described by archaeologists in the 1920s. The approximately 100 standing stones, up to 1.8 meters tall and arranged around an oval open space, were submerged in the Valdecañas reservoir after the construction of a dam on the Tagus River in 1963. The water has receded a few times since, most recently in 2019, when archaeologists worked to create a digital record of the site. This time they hope to better understand engravings on the stones, which include a human figure and a squiggly line, and document any further damage to the monument’s porous granite. The drought has uncovered other historic sites across Europe, such as a Roman fort in Spain, World War II–era German warships in the Danube River, and “hunger stones”—bearing dates engraved by people suffering from famines caused by past droughts—in the Danube, Elbe, and other rivers.


Fauci sets a date to step down

Anthony Fauci, the physician and immunologist who has led the $6.3 billion U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) for 38 years and has been an ardent, embattled voice for scientific evidence during the COVID-19 pandemic, will leave government service in December. Fauci, 81, is also resigning as chief of an NIAID immunology lab and as President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser. In a statement, he said he intends to continue to mentor future scientific leaders. He told The Washington Post that his plans also include writing a book and teaching. The tireless, blunt Brooklyn native has served under seven presidents and helmed NIAID from the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s through the 2001 anthrax attacks, the 2009 swine influenza pandemic, and outbreaks of West Nile, Ebola, and Zika viruses. As a member of former President Donald Trump’s White House Coronavirus Task Force, Fauci became an icon in the United States and worldwide, working to counter Trump’s public misstatements about the pandemic. Fauci also clashed with Republican lawmakers such as Senator Rand Paul (KY) over pandemic public health measures and their baseless assertions that the SARS-CoV-2 virus originated in a lab in Wuhan, China, that had received NIAID funding.

In our big moment, our performance did not reliably meet expectations.

  • U.S. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky
  • saying she plans to reorganize the agency because of shortcomings during the pandemic. She promised more accountability and timeliness.

Gene therapy for a blood disease

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration last week approved a genetic treatment for the blood disorder beta-thalassemia, marking the third U.S. gene therapy for a rare disease. The disorder causes low hemoglobin and severe anemia, and the regular blood transfusions used to treat it can cause iron buildup that damages organs. The new treatment, Zynteglo, from manufacturer bluebird bio, relies on a virus to deliver a gene for hemoglobin into the patient’s bone marrow cells, grown in culture; the cells are then infused back into the body. In clinical trials, 89% of treated patients no longer required transfusions. Zynteglo won European approval in 2019 but was removed from the market after countries balked over the high price; in the United States it will cost $2.8 million per one-time treatment, making it one of the most expensive drugs ever. Bluebird is testing a different product that uses the same method for sickle cell anemia, which is more common in the United States than thalassemia.



Portion of monkeypox tests that came back positive in 200 men who have sex with men and did not have symptoms of the disease. It’s unclear whether these men, who participated in a screening program in France, could transmit monkeypox. But the study authors say vaccination campaigns should not be limited to people who have had contact with symptomatic cases. (Annals of Internal Medicine)


How rabbits invaded Australia

Most of Australia’s rabbits, which have become a scourge of crops and native plants, descended from a single introduction by a farmer in 1859, a genetics study has found. Rabbits were repeatedly brought to Australia, including aboard the first fleet of British ships to reach Sydney, in 1788. But the fateful introduction came in 1859, when relatives in England of Thomas Austin, a wealthy settler, sent him bunnies that he used to establish a colony on his estate outside of Melbourne. These animals may have had a leg up in colonizing the continent: The DNA of their contemporary progeny includes a large amount from wild ancestors, which may have given Austin’s brood an adaptive edge in Australia, says the study in this week’s issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The findings may aid efforts to find new ways to control the country’s rabbit populations and perhaps eradicate them.


A cheaper way to save forests

To get the most for their money, forest conservationists should target areas where relatively small investments could protect lots of species, rather than pushing to preserve a specific percentage of the landscape, a study argues. The analysis, published by economists in the 17 August issue of Nature, comes as many advocates are urging nations to adopt a new goal of protecting 30% of their lands by 2030. That “30×30” goal risks wasting limited resources, the authors say. Instead, they offer a 50-year plan, based on a study of 458 forested regions, that calls for first saving relatively species-rich forests where conservation costs are low. They found that limiting deforestation in the plan’s first year in just 18 regions—including in Turkey’s Anatolian Peninsula and in Melanesia, for example—would produce the greatest benefit. Their plan would protect a total of 46 regions within a decade. It gives a lower priority to saving forests where costs would be high, such as near cities in Brazil.


Black hole’s ‘photon ring’ unveiled

images of a black hole and its photon ring

Like art restorers discovering a hidden image under an old master, astrophysicists have reprocessed data used to create the first image of a black hole and sifted out only the light from its “photon ring.” The crisp, bright circle (above, right) shows photons held in a tight orbit near the edge of the event horizon, the point at which even light cannot escape the black hole’s gravity. To reveal the ring, researchers reanalyzed the now-iconic image of the supermassive black hole in the nearby galaxy M87, released in 2019 by the Event Horizon Telescope. That image (above, left) shows a fuzzy, fiery band of light that combines photons escaping from the ring and emissions from matter swirling around the black hole. New algorithms were able to tease out just the photons that came from the ring. The researchers reported last week in The Astrophysical Journal that the ring’s size, structure, and unvarying nature closely match theoretical predictions, confirming the ability of strong gravity to bend light into a tight curve.


Mum’s the word on flawed papers

One-third of 330 top-ranked scientific journals do not publish outsiders’ critiques of papers after they appear, even though most of these journals belong to a publishing organization, the Committee on Publication Ethics, that encourages members to publish critiques, a study found. Among the majority that do run critical letters, commentaries, or online comments, many impose deadlines and limit length. Together, these choices by both types of journals raise barriers to correcting flawed papers, the study’s authors write this week in Royal Society Open Science. In the 207 journals that accepted comments, only about 2% of 2066 randomly selected papers mentioned the existence of a relevant, postpublication critique, the team found. Its study analyzed the 15 journals with the highest journal impact factors in each of 22 scientific disciplines. All 15 journals in clinical medicine published critiques; only two math journals did.

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