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The week in science: 13–19 November 2015


Space junk splashdown; glyphosate risk assessed; US space miners get rights.

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Ocata buyout Astellas Pharma in Tokyo will pay US$379 million for Ocata Therapeutics of Marlborough, Massachusetts. Formerly called Advanced Cell Technology, Ocata has struggled financially but has continued to develop treatments in which human embryonic stem cells are coaxed into becoming retinal cells. The company has used the cells to treat two types of degenerative blindness in small-scale clinical trials. In the United States, limiting trials to a few participants would hamper speedy commercialization, but Japan has a fast-track approval system that allows commercialization of stem-cell treatments after studies on a small number of people.


Olive aid The European Commission has announced a €7-million (US$7.5-million) call for proposals for research into Xylella fastidiosa, the aggressive plant pathogen that is destroying swathes of olive trees in the Puglia region of southern Italy. The call will focus on methods of detection and control. The outbreak, which has also reached some regions of France, is a major economic threat to the European Union, but has received little research funding so far. Italian regional and national governments have also promised €6 million for X. fastidiosa research.

Chile budget boost Chile’s Congress was mulling a budget increase of 150 million pesos (US$210,000) for the nation’s research-funding agency as Nature went to press. The move followed street protests by researchers after the resignation of Francisco Brieva, director of the National Commission for Scientific and Technological Research. The body funds more than 3,000 researchers. See for more.

Credit: IAC/UAE Space Agency/NASA/ESA


Space junk splashes down safely A chunk of space debris re-entered Earth’s atmosphere on 13 November. The fragment was too small to hurt anyone but just the right size to help scientists to practise tracking an incoming asteroid. Researchers on a chartered jet filmed the debris, which may have fallen off a lunar spacecraft, as it disintegrated above the Indian Ocean near Sri Lanka. NASA astronomer Peter Jenniskens says the successful campaign proves that it is possible to gather data about an object targeting the planet, even with short notice.

Paris talks go ahead International climate talks in Paris will go ahead despite the 13 November terrorist attacks that killed at least 129 people in the French capital. The climate conference will be held, with tightened security, because it is an “essential meeting for humanity”, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said on 14 November. Some 40,000 participants will gather for the United Nations climate summit from 30 November to 11 December. Almost 120 government leaders will attend the meeting, which it is hoped will produce a global climate deal.

Dark-matter hunt The world’s most sensitive detector for dark matter was inaugurated on 11 November at the Gran Sasso National Laboratory, run by Italy’s National Institute for Nuclear Physics. Dark matter is thought to make up 85% of matter in the Universe. The experiment, called XENON1T, will monitor 3.5 tonnes of liquid xenon, to try to detect the tiny amount of energy that is given off when dark matter interacts with atoms of ordinary matter. The collaboration involves 125 scientists, and the experiment is expected to start collecting data by the end of March 2016.

Nuclear burial Finland’s government approved the construction of a deep underground facility to permanently store spent nuclear fuel on 12 November. Minister of economic affairs Olli Rehn said the move was a world first. The repository will dispose of up to 6,500 tonnes of uranium — high-level waste produced by nuclear-power facilities — by packing it into copper canisters and burying these in a clay buffer 400 metres underground. The local government has already given its go-ahead for the facility, which will be on Olkiluoto island off Finland’s west coast and is due to open around 2023.

Credit: David Doubilet/Getty Images


Reef protected Laws passed on 12 November in Queensland, Australia, will protect the Great Barrier Reef (pictured) from port development, the state’s development minister said. The laws ban disposal at sea of material dredged from ports in the region, and stop any new ports being developed in the reef World Heritage Area. They form part of commitments made by Australia to safeguard the reef after the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization considered categorizing the coral zone as ‘at risk’. Plans to dispose of dredging material near the reef have proved controversial in recent years, and conservation groups welcomed last week’s legislation.

Pesticide risk The world’s most widely used herbicide, glyphosate, is unlikely to pose a cancer risk to humans, according to a report published on 12 November by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). In its report, the agency set limits on how much glyphosate a person may safely ingest in a short period of time. EFSA’s finding comes nearly eight months after the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer said that glyphosate probably does cause cancer in humans. See for more.

Space mining is go On 10 November the US Senate passed the Space Act of 2015, allowing US citizens the rights to any materials that they gather from asteroids or other space-based resources. However, space miners will also have to comply with the 1966 Outer Space Treaty, an international agreement that states: “outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty”. The act also extends the use of the International Space Station from 2020 to at least 2024.

Pipeline questions In a letter to transport minister Marc Garneau, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on 13 November called for a moratorium on crude-oil-tanker traffic along the north coast of British Columbia. The move raises questions about a pipeline project by the Calgary-based energy-delivery firm Enbridge to carry oil from Alberta’s tar sands to the coast for shipment. Environmentalists said that a moratorium would effectively halt the pipeline, but Enbridge said that it still hopes to discuss the plan with the prime minister.

Food rules For the first time, crop farmers in the United States will have to answer to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as part of an effort to prevent food-borne illness. A set of rules that the agency released on 13 November requires farmers to train their workers in proper hygiene, and to test crop-irrigation systems for pathogens, among other things. But the regulations are less stringent than a 2013 FDA proposal that farmers found too burdensome. Another of the rules creates a programme to allow auditors to assess imported food and the overseas facilities that produce it.

Credit: Source: Pew Charitable Trusts (2015)


The number of controversial fish aggregating devices (FADs) being used in the oceans is rising. Using data from tuna-fishing boats (see chart), a 6 November report from the Pew Charitable Trusts estimates that between 81,000 and 121,000 FADs were set adrift in 2013 — and their use is growing (see These FADs are free-floating, so fish and other animals shelter underneath and become easier to catch. But researchers warn that the devices encourage overfishing, and kill vulnerable species.


8,690 The wind speed in kilometres per hour on HD 189733 b, a ‘hot Jupiter’ exoplanet 19.3 parsecs away from Earth — and the first weather data from a planet outside our Solar System. Source: Louden, T. & Wheatley, P. J. Preprint at (2015).


19–20 November The inaugural Meta-Research Innovation Center at Stanford (METRICS) conference convenes in California to discuss how biomedical scientists plan, conduct and communicate research.

23–27 November Ostend, Belgium, hosts the European Space Weather Week, a forum for space-weather forecasters and scientists.

24–26 November An international immunotherapy conference meets in Brisbane, Australia.

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The week in science: 13–19 November 2015. Nature 527, 280–281 (2015).

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