News at a glance: Ebola vaccine trial on hold, Oppenheimer’s name cleared, and the return of a long-forgotten coffee bean

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PUBLIC HEALTH

Ebola vaccine trial on hold

A planned clinical trial of vaccines against the Sudan ebolavirus likely will not go forward, after traditional containment methods appear to have stamped out the outbreak of Ebola that surfaced in Uganda on 20 September. An international effort moved at record speed to deliver two experimental vaccines against the virus, which differs from the Zaire ebolavirus that caused the massive West Africa outbreak in 2014–16. The vaccines arrived in Uganda last week, and a third is on the way. But the planned “ring trial” depended on vaccinating recent contacts of people with confirmed Sudan ebolavirus infections. The last known case in Uganda left the hospital 3 weeks ago, and the number of contacts still eligible for the trial has dwindled. As of 15 December, Uganda had recorded 77 confirmed and probable deaths from the outbreak. A statement from the World Health Organization (WHO) said Makerere University is ready to lead the ring trial if new cases emerge. WHO plans to consult with experts in January 2023 on other potential studies of the vaccines.

PHILANTHROPY

HHMI funds education reform

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) is spending $60 million to create seven networks, totaling 104 colleges and universities, that will work together to improve U.S. undergraduate science education. Last month, HHMI announced that the third round of funding under its Inclusive Excellence program will be used to build decentralized “learning communities,” each with about 15 institutions, that will work on course content, faculty teaching, and helping students transfer from community colleges to 4-year degree programs. David Asai, HHMI’s education guru, says he hopes those in the consortia will “hold themselves accountable” for making the changes in academic culture needed to create a larger, diverse scientific workforce.

HISTORY OF SCIENCE

Oppenheimer’s name cleared

In 1954, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) revoked the security clearance of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist who during World War II led the development of the first atomic bomb. Last week, the Department of Energy, AEC’s successor, vacated that decision, stating the process that led to it was manifestly unfair. AEC leaders suspected Oppenheimer, who died in 1967, sympathized with communism and the Soviet Union. However, historians argue that records show he served the United States faithfully and he was sanctioned because of his opposition to developing the more powerful hydrogen bomb.

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I always had it in my mind, yeah, one of these days I’m going to be a patient. We all are.

  • National Cancer Institute Director Monica Bertagnolli
  • quoted by The Washington Post after she revealed she was recently diagnosed with breast cancer.

SCIENCE JOURNALISM

Chemical society fires editors

Chemists reacted with outrage after the American Chemical Society (ACS) fired two senior editors from its weekly magazine, Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN). In March 2021, ACS transferred C&EN from the society’s publications division to its communications arm, and last week, Bibiana Campos Seijo, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, and Jyllian Kemsley, an executive editor, were let go. Susan Morrissey, ACS communications vice president, noted in an editorial this week that the reorganization is meant to “strengthen [C&EN’s] role as the official organ” of the society. After the firings, 13 current and former members of C&EN’s advisory board posted an open letter questioning whether ACS officials had “revoked” the magazine’s long-standing editorial independence. “What good is that subscription if C&EN primarily becomes a newsletter of ACS activities?” they wrote. Since the transfer, several staff journalists have left.

BOTANY

An old coffee bean returns

Recently, droughts have doubled the price of the world’s most popular coffee bean, Coffea arabica. Global warming may soon make it impractical for many plantations to grow it. So, coffee growers in Africa have begun to resurrect a long-forgotten variety, C. liberica, researchers reported this week in Nature Plants. Botanists at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, report that C. liberica was widely grown in the 1870s, but its walnut- to plum-size fruits and tough skin were harder to process than the cherry-size fruits of other varieties. The bean fell out of favor at the turn of the 20th century. In recent years, Ugandan farmers have started to ramp up cultivation of a C. liberica subspecies known as “excelsa,” which is resistant to wilt and other diseases. It produces bold, sweet coffee and doesn’t need chilly high altitudes to thrive. Thus, excelsa and other little-used coffee varieties may help keep coffee cups full as the planet warms, researchers note.

BIOLOGY

Male wasps have protective privates

Mason wasp

The mason wasp uses the twin barbs of its genitalia as “pseudostingers.” SHINJI SUGIURA; S. SUGIURA ET AL., CURRENT BIOLOGY, 32, R1336, 2022

When a Japanese entomologist got stung by a male wasp earlier this year, she was shocked. Only females should be able to deliver such a painful prick, as their stingers are modified egg-laying organs known as ovipositors. Males are generally considered harmless. But looking closer at the mason wasp (Anterhynchium gibbifrons), the scientist realized it had pierced her skin using its sharp, two-pronged genitalia, she and colleagues reported this week in Current Biology. To test whether these males’ pseudostingers might deter attackers, the researchers enclosed male mason wasps with one of their predators, a tree frog. The wasps fought hungry frogs with their piercing penises—and got spat out about one-third of the time. Males who had their pseudostingers removed all became frog food. The findings are the first evidence of male genitalia playing a defensive role in the animal kingdom.

CLIMATE CHANGE

Kick-starting carbon capture

Last week, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced a $3.7 billion plan to kick-start commercial efforts to remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. DOE officials say such efforts will be critical to the U.S. meeting its goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, between 100 gigatons and 1000 gigatons of CO2 need to be removed from the atmosphere this century to limit global warming to 1.5°C. Funded by the recently passed Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the program includes $3.5 billion for four regional facilities to demonstrate different direct air capture technologies, each capable of removing and storing at least 1 million tons of CO2 from the atmosphere each year. Another $115 million will pay for a prize for novel direct air capture technologies. The remaining money will support state and local CO2 capture efforts and commercial partnerships.

CONSERVATION

A vow to protect biodiversity

More than 190 nations this week agreed to new global goals for protecting nature by 2030. Two weeks of negotiations, which ended on 19 December, yielded numerous commitments including pledges to protect 30% of Earth’s land and sea, and to equitably share any benefits derived from sequencing the genomes of wild organisms. Realizing the goals will be a challenge, observers warn. Nations failed to meet goals from previous versions of the biodiversity pact, and finding adequate funding is an issue. Negotiators also left many details unresolved. “Now we have to go into the nitty gritty” of implementation, says David Obura, a sustainability scientist who directs CORDIO East Africa, a conservation think tank.

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