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Seven days: 6–12 June 2014


The week in science: Germany quits mega-telescope project; a $4.5-billion proposal for the US BRAIN initiative; and NASA is told to plot a course for Mars.

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SOFIA saved The world’s biggest flying telescope, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), was given a new lease of life on 5 June. The US Senate voted to give US$87 million in the 2015 fiscal year to the observatory — a modified Boeing 747 that carries a 2.5-metre telescope. The funding boost could rescue SOFIA; in March, NASA had proposed effectively cancelling the project because of its high operating costs. SOFIA is a joint venture with the German Aerospace Center and became fully operational in February. The Senate and the House of Representatives must now agree on the budget.

Telescope pull-out Germany is pulling out of the world’s largest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), scheduled to be completed in South Africa and Australia by the mid-2020s. Germany’s research ministry announced the move on 5 June, citing a tight budget, according to the SKA Organisation. The decision will take effect on 30 June 2015. The pull-out is “disappointing, but not catastrophic” for SKA’s ability to secure funding, says Philip Diamond, director-general of the SKA Organisation near Manchester, UK. See for more.

Credit: Dennis Kunkel/Dennis Kunkel Microscopy/NIGMS


Nature in close-up This microscopic image shows the forest-like arrangement of hairs on a gecko’s toe that gives the animal its gravity-defying ability to scurry across ceilings. Each foot has hundreds of thousands of these hairs, called setae, which fray into smaller hairs with split ends called spatulae. The hairs’ strong grip has inspired the design of medical adhesives. This image was taken by Dennis Kunkel, a photomicrographer in Hawaii. It is part of Life: Magnified, an exhibition of scientific images on display at Washington Dulles International Airport’s Gateway Gallery from June to November. Other images include a bacterium being swallowed by an immune-system cell and chromosomes lining up for cell division.


Destination Mars To revive the moribund US human spaceflight programme, NASA should plot a course for Mars, says the US National Academy of Sciences in a report published on 4 June. The report outlines plans for putting humans on Mars sometime between 2037 and 2050 at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars. It criticizes the agency’s current strategy of seeking to visit an asteroid put in orbit around the Moon, warning that it will end in the “loss of the long-standing international perception that human space-flight is something the United States does best”. See for more.

Forest genetics Many countries do not know enough about the genetic make-up of the trees growing in their native forests, finds a report from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The 86 countries that contributed to the analysis provided genetic information for only around 600 species out of a maximum of 100,000 shrubs and trees thought to be growing around the globe, the report says. In its analysis, The State of the World’s Forest Genetic Resources, published on 3 June, the FAO calls on governments to improve data gathering and research to help manage tree species.

El Niño watch The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts that there is an 80% chance that an El Niño event — a periodic warming of waters in the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean — will occur this autumn or winter. The forecast, made on 5 June, also predicts a 70% chance that an El Niño will occur this summer — up from a 50% chance predicted in March. The US forecasters suggest a moderate-strength El Niño, which could scramble global weather patterns until it ebbs.

Credit: Anthony Pidgeon/Redferns/Getty


Chemist dies Alexander ‘Sasha’ Shulgin, a chemist famed for synthesizing and analysing novel psychoactive compounds, died on 2 June at the age of 89. Shulgin (pictured) earned his PhD in biochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, and went on to work for US firm Dow Chemical, where he developed one of the first successful biodegradable pesticides, mexacarbate. Later he began to develop psychedelic drugs and tested their activity on himself and a small group of friends. He published numerous academic studies and books on the subject, and remained a respected scientist throughout his career.

Fossil sentence  An American fossil dealer was sentenced to three months imprisonment on 3 June, after pleading guilty to smuggling dinosaur fossils into the United States, including a 70-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton from Mongolia. Eric Prokopi received a reduced sentence for helping prosecutors to recover more than 17 other dinosaur fossils. The stolen Tyrannosaurus skeleton, which sold at auction for more than US$1 million, was returned to Mongolia in May 2013. Mongolia will open a dinosaur museum to house the returned fossils.


BRAIN plan The US National Institutes of Health laid out its ten-year plan for the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative on 5 June. It proposed that Congress grant the initiative a further US$4.5 billion for 2016–25. According to the plan, the first five years will be spent developing technologies to record, analyse and manipulate the brain. In the following five years, researchers will use those technologies to study how the brain’s circuits lead to behaviour and cognition.

High-seas value International waters store around 500 million tonnes of atmospheric carbon per year, providing an ‘ecosystem service’ to humans that is worth up to US$222 billion annually, according to the first economic assessment of the high seas. The report was published on 5 June by the Global Ocean Commission, a non-governmental organization in Oxford, UK. It adds that 10 million tonnes of fish are caught each year in international waters, generating more than $16 billion. On 24 June, the commission will publish proposals for protecting the ocean.

Microbead ban Illinois became the first US state to ban the manufacture and sale of personal-care products that contain plastic microbeads. Environmental scientists say that the non-biodegradable beads, used as exfoliating agents, pass through sewage systems and build up in waterways, where they absorb toxic chemicals and threaten aquatic life. A law signed by Governor Pat Quinn on 8 June prohibits the manufacture of soaps, cosmetics and medications containing the beads by 2018 and the sale of these products by 2019. At least four other states are considering similar bills.

Carbon cap China could set its first absolute cap on fossil-fuel emissions from 2016. On 3 June, international media reported that He Jiankun, a senior government adviser on climate change, told a meeting in Beijing that the Chinese government may outline the cap in its next five-year economic plan, for 2016–20. He later clarified that the idea was his personal view. China is the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide.

Development goals A United Nations working group led by Hungary and Kenya has drawn up a list of 17 sustainable development goals and started negotiating on them this week. The goals will replace the Millennium Development Goals, which expire next year and include targets for eradicating hunger and poverty and halting biodiversity loss. The United Nations aims to finalize the new goals next year.


Stem-cell patents A US federal court threw out a legal challenge to a key embryonic-stem-cell patent on 4 June. The non-profit advocacy group Consumer Watchdog in Santa Monica, California, had argued that the patent was invalid because the supposed invention was merely a product of nature. The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled that Consumer Watchdog could not challenge the patent, which is owned by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation in Madison, because the group does not use embryonic stem cells and was not directly harmed by the patent.

Pharma buy-out US pharmaceutical giant Merck agreed to pay US$3.85 billion for Idenix — a developer of hepatitis C virus therapies in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The price tag, agreed on 9 June, was more than three times the Idenix stock listing at the close of trading on the previous day.

Credit: Source: Ministry of Health, Saudi Arabia


The fatality rate for cases of the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronavirus in Saudi Arabia is 41%, not 33%, according to figures released on 3 June. The country’s health ministry — which a day earlier sacked deputy health minister Ziad Memish, a key figure in the nation’s efforts to contain the virus — said that it had retrospectively identified 113 extra cases, and announced “new standards” for reporting the disease. Of 815 MERS cases reported worldwide by 4 June, 84% were in Saudi Arabia.


17–19 June Space scientists meet in Chicago, Illinois, for the annual research conference on the International Space Station.

19 June The peak of the 3,000-metre Cerro Armazones mountain in northern Chile will be blown off to make a home for the European Extremely Large Telescope.

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Seven days: 6–12 June 2014. Nature 510, 192–193 (2014).

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