Liberia's caterpillar plague

Panic struck Liberia in early 2009, after a plague of caterpillars struck villages around the country, munching trees and leaves and polluting water supplies. By late January, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the country's president, had declared a state of emergency and appealed for international aid, while the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned of further attacks to come (see 'Halting the African armyworm').

While some 400,000 villagers had to temporarily abandon their caterpillar-saturated homes, the impact of the pests turned out to be less calamitous than at first suggested. "The initial exaggerated report of the outbreak by villagers and some unqualified staff of the Ministry of Agriculture, led to rather disproportionate alarm and caused serious national panic," says Winfred Hammond, an entomologist and the FAO's representative in Liberia. The situation was exacerbated by an early misidentification of the caterpillar as an armyworm (a devastating crop pest that regularly attacks eastern Africa, but not the western side of the continent). In fact it turned out to be Achaea catocaloides, a less threatening caterpillar that feeds mostly on the Dahoma tree. "Apart from the initial destruction of a few tree crops like cocoa, coffee and plantain, Achaea did not pose any threat to food crops like rice, cassava and maize that were cultivated later in the year," says Hammond.

Army worms were not behind Liberia's woes in early 2009, as was first thought. Credit: FAO

The Liberian ministry of agriculture has now contracted Africare, a non-governmental organization, to improve the capacity of rural communities to manage such attacks. "A lot of things went wrong; there was little access to information and what there was, was taken out of context," says Julius Sele, a project manager at Africare and currently in the field in Liberia, of January's alarm and panic.

As for the armyworm, it continues to cause devastation in eastern Africa each year. Outbreaks and high moth catches have already been reported in northern Tanzania, says Ken Wilson, an ecologist at Lancaster University, UK. Together with the UK-based development organization CABI, he and fellow researchers have just received around £500,000 (US$800,000) over the next 18 months from the UK government to develop an armyworm early warning and control system in Tanzania. This includes building a processing plant to produce an experimental biological control agent, a nucleopolyhedrovirus, which can be sprayed on the worms and, if successful, would reduce the need to use chemical insecticides.

Patients at the last chance clinic

In February, artist Dunham Aurelius and accountant Sally Massagee got a thorough check-up at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. The reason — both were suffering from unrelated, unexplained diseases. Aurelius had had upwards of 18 kidney stones in about as many years and Massagee was baffled by an extraordinary and painful build-up of muscles in her body that left her weighed down and fatigued. The two were enrolled in the NIH's new Undiagnosed Disease Program, a collaborative project designed to identify previously undiscovered diseases and characterize them at a molecular level (see 'Last Chance Clinic').

Massagee, whose symptoms hinted at a novel condition involving genes that control muscle formation, in fact received a diagnosis that already exists in the medical literature, although one with a rare presentation. She received treatment for AL amyloidosis, a build-up of protein in the walls of her blood vessels, on 19 June, and says she is still recovering, albeit slowly. She has not yet gone back to work, but has been walking up to 2 miles each day. Little progress has been made on Aurelius's case, although the team is investigating some related cases in which patients have high vitamin D levels and calcification in parts of their kidneys.

William Gahl, the director of the programme and clinical director at the National Human Genome Research Institute in Bethesda says that of approximately 2,500 inquiries, the programme has seen about 140 patients. So far, one new disease with a genetic underpinning has been discovered in a family with blood-vessel calcification below the waist. The team hopes to publish on the condition soon. The genetic pathway involved, says Gahl, "was not known to be associated with ectopic calcification. I think it's important". A handful of patients, like Massagee, were diagnosed with known conditions. But the majority, like Aurelius, are still being studied.

Satellites smash debris threatens Hubble

An active communications satellite owned by Iridium Satellite of Bethesda, Maryland, slammed into a defunct Russian military communications satellite 800 kilometres above Siberia on 10 February 2009. The collision sent hundreds of pieces of debris flying at high speed across low-Earth orbit, threatening other satellites and increasing the risk to a NASA shuttle mission to fix the Hubble Space Telescope (see 'Kaputnik chaos could kill Hubble' and 'Collision debris increases risk to Earth-observing satellites').

Hubble is safe from orbital debris... for now. Credit: NASA

In the end, the Hubble mission went off without a hitch, and other satellites have yet to be influenced by the shrapnel from the collision. But the debris has had a big impact here on Earth, according to Brian Weeden, an orbital debris specialist at the Secure World Foundation, in Superior, Colorado, which promotes cooperation in space. Before the collision the US Air Force was tracking just a handful of vital American satellites. Now, "they are pretty much screening all active satellites for collisions," Weeden says.

But there's still much to be done before Earth's orbit can be declared safe, Weeden says. In the near term, the Pentagon must warn private companies and other nations about possible collisions. Ways must also be found to remove the roughly 750,000 pieces of debris flying around Earth. To that end, NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency hosted a conference this month to look at strategies for removing debris. The solutions floated include space tugs and Earth-based lasers.

Turkey's sacked science editor

The editor of Turkey's most popular science magazine Bilim ve Teknik, published by Turkey's science-funding agency TÜBİTAK, was removed from her post after she sought to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species in the March issue (see 'Turkish scientists claim Darwin censorship'). The articles on evolution and the cover with its picture of Darwin were pulled from the issue at the last minute.

An international outcry from scientists concerned that TÜBİTAK's actions had been politically motivated prompted an apparent change of heart — the editor, Çiğdem Atakuman, was reinstated and the agency promised a new special issue on Darwinism (see 'Funder moves to quell Turkish censorship row').

But in May Atakuman was stripped of editorial — and all other — duties. Her role on the magazine is reduced to one of 'adviser'. She remains a TÜBİTAK employee.

TÜBİTAK produced a special Darwin issue in June, which included translations of articles from Scientific American and no Turkish authors. On 23 June, a court in Ankara dismissed a censorship claim against TÜBİTAK. The anti-evolution movement remains strong in Turkey.

Earthquake-hit university begins recovery

In April, an earthquake hit the central Italian town of L'Aquila. More than 50 students at the University of L'Aquila were killed when their new residence building collapsed. More than 70% of the university's staff and 90% of the staff at the nearby — but undamaged — underground national particle physics laboratory at Gran Sasso were left homeless. A few weeks later teaching resumed in tents and temporary accommodation around the region (see 'Research from rubble').

The Gran Sasso National Laboratory offered shelter to physics students and teachers from the university and conditions slowly improved over the summer. The sea of tents around the university has now disappeared. The new university year was able to open just two weeks later than usual on 19 October. Around 60% of the usual number of students registered — more than expected.

The Faculty of Science buildings are now being used for teaching, and research is starting up there again. Teaching has also resumed in the Faculty of Medicine building, but the badly damaged teaching hospital itself is not completely functional. Buildings of the faculties of engineering and humanities are two years away from completion.

L'Aquila is slowly recovering from the April earthquake. Credit: G. Melino

The May G8 meeting, transferred from northern Italy to L'Aquila after the earthquake, brought no long-term benefit, according to Paola Inverardi, dean of science at the university. But a web initiative offering the historic town as an open laboratory for the testing of new scientific ideas during reconstruction has led to a series of grant applications to the European Union for interdisciplinary projects, she says, such as the development of three-dimensional modelling of scene representation which can be automatically extended and maintained.

The Gran Sasso National Laboratory is also organizing a joint graduate school in particle physics with the science faculty.

Butterfly paper bust-up

In August, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) published a paper online by Donald Williamson, a retired zoologist at the University of Liverpool, UK, reporting that ancient butterflies accidentally mated with worm-like animals to give rise to caterpillars. The study — which was 'communicated' by Lynn Margulis, of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, via a soon-to-be-obsolete submission route that allows academy members to manage the peer review of a colleague's manuscript — was held up from print publication for more than two months after PNAS editor-in-chief Randy Schekman raised questions about the review process (see 'Row at US journal widens').

Lynn Margulis. Credit: J. Pedreira

The paper eventually appeared in print in the issue of 24 November, but not alone. It was accompanied by a short challenge from an invertebrate zoologist and a rebuttal from Williamson. The issue also included a four-page report by two evolutionary biologists, who disputed Williamson's hypothesis on the basis of published genome size data. In response to this second affront, Williamson prepared a brief response but, earlier this month, Schekman declined to publish it.

Two other PNAS studies linked to Margulis also got caught up in controversy. One, which Margulis co-authored, was eventually published in November, but another, which Margulis communicated, was questioned by a member of the academy's board after three anonymous reviewers recommended acceptance. The paper is still awaiting a final decision.

Margulis maintains that Williamson's and the other papers are scientifically sound and are only being censured because they don't adhere to Darwinian orthodoxy. "We don't ask anyone to accept Williamson's ideas — only to evaluate them on the basis of science and scholarship, not knee-jerk prejudice," says Margulis, who is threatening to bring the PNAS editorial board before the Academy's advocacy committee if the final paper is rejected.

Orbiting Carbon Observatory plan re-emerges after splashdown

On 24 February, a payload shroud stayed stuck to a Taurus booster rocket, and NASA's US$280 million Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) crashed into the sea, dashing the hopes of scientists who wanted to use the satellite to measure sources and sinks of atmospheric carbon dioxide (see 'Climate researchers in a spin after satellite loss').

But in a funding bill for 2010, the US Congress ordered $50 million to be spent on an OCO replacement — enough to re-start the programme (see 'Budget win for climate probe').

However, only about half of the money from Congress is new — the rest must be gleaned from other NASA Earth science accounts. Moreover, NASA's budget is likely to be flat or trimmed in the coming years — and demands for the agency to launch other Earth-monitoring satellites continue undiminished.

Fall-out from funding crisis

What has become of two scientists struggling to keep their labs alive in tight funding times, who were profiled by Nature in February (see 'Closing Arguments')?

Darcy Kelley, 61, a neuroscientist at Columbia University in New York, got desperately needed money at the eleventh hour. On 1 March, she received the first dollars of a new R01 grant from the National Institutes of Health. It is worth $250,000 a year for four years. She is now ramping up the project — a study of the neural basis of social communication in the frog Xenopus.

Darcy Kelley. Credit: K. Frank

"I was never in despair," says Kelley, who is currently interviewing postdocs and is considering hiring a lab technician. "But it is very hard to function without any money. So now I have money and now I'm functioning. It makes a huge difference."

For example, says Kelley, "I was able to meet my animal-care costs, so I don't have to clean frogs any more. It's not bad to clean the frogs for a while, but at some point it keeps you from being productive."

The other scientist who was profiled, Jill Rafael-Fortney, 40, works with mouse models of muscular dystrophy at Ohio State University in Columbus. She declined an interview request.

And finally… Rampant rabbits

In November we reported that artificial and fully functional penises had been built and grafted onto male rabbits whose penises had been surgically removed. The fake penises were built by stripping donor rabbit erectile tissue of cells, leaving behind a scaffold of collagen onto which the rabbits' own muscle and skin cells were grown. The work was done by Anthony Atala at Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Those penises were successfully used to do what male rabbits do best — impregnate female rabbits (see 'Engineered penis raises reproduction hopes').

Since then Atala has presented preliminary, as yet unpublished, results at the Materials Research Society meeting in Boston, Massachusetts in December hinting that his team has successfully constructed and implanted an artificial uterus in an animal which subsequently conceived and carried a pup to full term.