SEVEN DAYS

Truck tracks, wolf lawsuit and a fertility first

The week in science: 2–8 February 2018.

EVENTS

Truck tracks harm ancient Peruvian site Peru’s ancient Nazca Lines have been damaged by a truck that drove over the cultural site without permission, the country’s ministry of culture said on 29 January. The incident, which occurred on 27 January, left deep tracks over an area roughly 50 metres by 100 metres and affected three geoglyphs — images scratched into the ground. A truck driver was detained later that day, but subsequently released by a judge; prosecutors have appealed against the ruling. The Nazca Lines were constructed between 500 bc and ad 500, and are thought to have been used in astronomy. They have been designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations.

Damage to Nazca lines in Peru

Nazca ancient site in Peru. Credit: Genry Bautista/Agencia Andina/EPA

Fertility licences Two women have been approved to be the first in the United Kingdom to receive an in vitro fertilization procedure called mitochondrial replacement therapy (MRT), which uses the DNA of three people. MRT reduces the risk of women passing on certain inherited diseases caused by mutations in mitochondrial DNA. The United Kingdom legalized the procedure in 2015 after a parliamentary vote, but people wishing to undergo treatment must be approved individually by the country’s fertility-treatment regulator, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. The procedures will be carried out at Newcastle Fertility Centre. MRT has already been successfully performed in Mexico and Ukraine.

POLICY

Ivory trade banned Hong Kong lawmakers voted on 31 January to ban the trading of ivory in the Chinese territory, which is the world’s largest ivory market. The ban will be implemented in phases, and will ultimately require traders to dispose of their stock by 2021. Conservationists hailed the move as a victory for elephant preservation. Although ivory sales are banned in most of the world under a 1990 treaty, sales of antiques made of the material have remained legal in Hong Kong, providing cover for illegal trade in fresh ivory. A ban on the substance in mainland China — the biggest market for Hong Kong ivory — came into effect on 31 December last year.

PEOPLE

Investigator death Esmond Bradley Martin, a veteran investigator in the fight against ivory poaching in Africa, was found dead at his home in Nairobi on 4 February. Media reports said that the 76-year-old had been stabbed in the neck. Kenyan police have arrested four people in connection with the death, although the motive for the crime remains unclear. Bradley Martin, a US citizen, had spent decades investigating the trade in elephant tusks and rhino horn across Africa and Asia. His work influenced China’s decision to end its legal rhino-horn trade in 1993, as well as the country’s ban on ivory sales, which came into force on 31 December 2017. China’s ivory trade has been widely blamed for driving elephant poaching; in recent years, Bradley Martin showed that illicit trade was moving from China to neighbouring countries, such as Laos and Vietnam.

Astronomy move Astrophysicist Christian Ott, who in 2015 was found by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena to have committed gender-based harassment against two graduate students there, is moving to the University of Turku in Finland. “Dr Ott’s past was known during the recruitment process, and the matter has been carefully considered,” the University of Turku said in a 1 February statement, noting that Ott will not have supervisory responsibilities. The position is for 2 years, with a 4-month trial period. His appointment has drawn criticism from other astronomers, who say they are concerned about the message the hiring sends to those who have been harassed. Ott was a visiting professor at Kyoto University from March to June 2017, before leaving Caltech last December. Through his lawyer, Ott declined Nature’s request to comment on the matter.

Health chief resigns The head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) resigned on 31 January, soon after coming under fire in the press for trading stock in tobacco companies while leading the agency. Brenda Fitzgerald had served as CDC director since last July. On 30 January, Politico broke a story about her tobacco holdings. A spokesman for the US Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement that Fitzgerald’s financial holdings required “a broad recusal” that would limit her ability to perform her job.

ENVIRONMENT

Wolf lawsuit Conservation groups filed a lawsuit on 30 January to compel the US Fish and Wildlife Service to strengthen its plan to rescue the endangered Mexican wolf (Canis lupus baileyi) from extinction. The animals a rare subspecies of grey wolf; an estimated 150 individuals roam New Mexico, Arizona and northern Mexico. The lawsuit alleges that the federal agency failed to take steps to help the canines recover. Leading wolf biologists have recommended expanding the animal’s range and establishing new populations in the southwestern United States. The groups also claim that the plan inadequately addresses high levels of inbreeding in the Mexican-wolf population, a significant threat to its future existence.

Mexican wolf

Mexican wolf (Canis lupus baileyi).Credit: Shattil & Rozinski/NPL

FACILITIES

Neutrino test axed Italy’s physics agency, the INFN, has cancelled a planned neutrino experiment. The Short distance neutrino Oscillations with BoreXino (SOX) experiment, a collaboration with the CEA, France’s nuclear agency, was designed to determine whether there is a fourth, ‘sterile’ type of neutrino in addition to the three known ones. The partnership had planned to install a high-intensity neutrino source at the Gran Sasso underground physics laboratories in central Italy, which is home to the Borexino neutrino detector. But Mayak, a Russian firm contracted to make the source, has said that it will be unable to extract enough cerium-144 from nuclear waste for the 18-month experiment. SOX spokesperson Marco Pallavicini says that the agencies had spent about one-third of the estimated €6-million (US$7.5-million) cost of the experiment.

Satellite launch Italy and China have launched a satellite that will monitor electromagnetic phenomena from space that may be linked to earthquakes and other seismic activity on Earth. On 2 February, a rocket carrying Zhangheng-1, also called the China Seismo-Electromagnetic Satellite, lifted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the Gobi Desert in Inner Mongolia. The satellite is equipped with nine scientific instruments. Data they collect will be used to develop new methods of studying earthquakes from space, say researchers involved in the project. Zhangheng-1 is expected to be in orbit for five years.

FUNDING

Funding boost India will increase its investment in science by 10% to 536.2 billion rupees (US$8.4 billion) for 2018–19, compared with the previous year. The budget, released on 1 February, includes 30.7 billion rupees earmarked for a digital programme that includes artificial intelligence and cyber systems. Despite the new money, the country’s spending on science will remain relatively low, at around 0.8% of gross domestic product (GDP). Scientists have called for the government to boost investment in science, technology and research to 3% of GDP.

AI start-up fund Leading machine-learning researcher Andrew Ng has launched a US$175-million fund dedicated to nurturing artificial intelligence (AI) start-up companies. Ng, who was previously head of AI at Chinese tech giant Baidu, has raised money from some of Silicon Valley’s biggest investors. He wrote in a blog post on 30 January that the effort, called the AI Fund, will aim to build companies from scratch and allow quickly developing AI firms to focus on research rather than on fundraising. In December, Ng launched Landing.AI, a start-up aimed at bringing AI to the manufacturing industry — for example, by developing automated visual-inspection systems to spot defects in products.

TREND WATCH

Japan will increase its spending on science and technology by 7% to ¥3.84 trillion (US$35 billion) in 2018 compared with the previous year, the government’s science advisory body announced on 30 January. The rise comes after stagnant growth in the science budget since the early 2000s. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government aims to boost Japan’s science and technology budget by ¥300 billion per year to meet a goal of spending 1% of gross domestic product on research by 2020, up from 0.65% in 2015.

Source: Cabinet office of Japan

Nature 554, 150-151 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-01711-0
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