In new strategy, Wellcome Trust will take on global health challenges

With an endowment worth £28 billion, the Wellcome Trust is taking on goal-oriented global health challenges.

Arcaid Images/Alamy Stock Photo

One of the world’s largest nongovernmental funders of science, the Wellcome Trust, is enlarging its focus to include goal-oriented, as well as basic research. The London-based philanthropy, which spends more than £1 billion per year, said today it will boost funding for research on infectious diseases, the health effects of global warming, and mental health. The new strategy moves it closer to philanthropies such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which focuses on public health challenges around the world. “It’s a big shift,” says Jeremy Farrar, an infectious disease expert who leads the charity. “It’s not just about discovering stuff, it’s also about making sure that changes come to peoples’ lives.”

Wellcome already supports significant research in infectious disease. But outbreaks are “becoming larger, more frequent, and more complex,” a Wellcome spokesperson says, and so it will spend more money on researching neglected tropical diseases and pushing for “clinical trials with greater participant diversity.” It also hopes to make an impact in new areas. The spokesperson argues that there has been “little scientific progress in 30 years” on mental health or on the health impacts of global warming, which include the spread of infectious diseases and heat-related sickness and death.

Adding mental health is a particularly big step, says Devi Sridhar, a global health expert at the University of Edinburgh who receives some funding from Wellcome and who consulted on a review that led to the new strategy. “We haven’t really seen a charity take on the mental health agenda,” she says. 

The strategy is likely to influence other funders because the Wellcome Trust has a huge sway in the U.K. research system and beyond, says James Wilsdon, a science policy expert at the University of Sheffield who is partly funded by Wellcome. “In a sense, where Wellcome moves, others quite often follow.”

Wellcome, which has seen its endowment rise to £28 billion (more than the $22.6 billion of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and less than the Gates Foundation’s $50 billion), also plans to spend a bigger share of its money outside of the United Kingdom. The trust wants to foster international cooperation as a counterweight to rising nationalism, Farrar says. “If you look at any of the challenges we face, not just the three we’ve chosen but any of the others, then I think the answers do not lie in returning to a 20th century nationalistic agenda.”

Farrar acknowledges that the new strategy is a departure from a focus on curiosity-driven basic research. “There are certain challenges, where you can’t just leave it to the idiosyncrasies of discovery,” he says. “You have to have a greater sense of mission of where you’re trying to get to.”

He adds, however, that basic research will still be the major beneficiary over the next 3 to 5 years. That’s partly because Wellcome needs to develop expertise in areas like climate change. “The frank truth is we couldn’t put a huge amount of money into that space at the moment and know quite where to use it,” Farrar says. Given Wellcome’s growing wealth, money for basic research could stay roughly at current levels while spending in the new focus areas ramps up, the Wellcome spokesperson says.

Helga Nowotny, a former president of the European Research Council (ERC), the EU basic research funding organization, says that is good news. As the coronavirus pandemic and climate change press down on society, research focused on pressing current problems is in vogue, and often it comes at the expense of basic research. In a July budget deal, for example, European leaders proposed slashing the ERC budget in favor of more applied research. “The tendency to prioritize short-term–oriented research over discovery research has recently increased again,” she says.

Nature family of journals inks first open-access deal with an institution

The deal covering 55 Nature-branded titles is based on a cost of €9500 per article for immediate open access, higher than prevailing market rates.

E. Petersen/Science

The Nature family of journals announced today it has become the first group of highly selective scientific titles to sign an arrangement that will allow researchers to publish articles that are immediately free to read. The deal will allow authors at institutions across Germany to publish an estimated 400 open-access (OA) papers annually in Nature journals, which have traditionally earned revenues exclusively from subscription fees.

The deal, known as a transformative agreement, comes as research funders in Europe have pushed to accelerate a transition to OA. Like other such agreements, the 4-year deal—to take effect in January 2021—aims to redirect money that the institutions currently spend on subscriptions to supporting OA publication.

Under the arrangement negotiated by the Nature group and the Max Planck Digital Library in Germany, authors at institutions that sign up will be able to make an unlimited number of accepted research articles OA. They would also be able to read all content in Nature journals for free. Nature expects about 120 German institutions that currently subscribe to the journals will take the deal; if all do, the publisher estimates it will cover publishing 400 papers annually, or about 3.5% of all articles published in Nature and the Nature-branded journals. Besides the flagship Nature, the family of 55 journals includes some of the world’s most highly cited titles, including Nature Biotechnology and Nature Medicine. (Nature titles now allow authors to deposit the final published versions of articles in free, public repositories such as PubMed 12 months after publication.

Some institutions may end up paying more under the deal than they have been spending on subscriptions, Nature publishing said. That is in part because the deals include new titles launched by the publisher during the term of the agreement, including three new, multidisciplinary journals planned for debut in 2021.

The flat fees paid by the institutes will reflect Nature’s estimate that the cost of publishing each OA paper averages about €9500 (or $11,200), Nature publishing said. That figure is notable because selective journals have previously been reluctant to embrace immediate OA options because, they say, they would have to charge authors a prohibitively high price to cover their production costs. Those costs are relatively high at selective journals because they reject the large majority of the manuscripts that they evaluate; in a system in which all journal revenues depend on per-article fees paid by authors, the rejected papers generate no revenue.

In a 2013 news article in Nature, the journal’s former editor in chief, Philip Campbell, estimated that to cover all costs, including the cost of producing news stories and other content, the flagship journal Nature alone would have to charge up to £30,000 (nearly $40,000) per research article. The new €9500 per paper cost estimate is much lower, but if Nature had chosen to charge authors that much to publish open access, it would have been the largest OA fee in the scientific publishing industry. (However, many publishers now subsidize the fees they charge authors.) The new deal avoids requiring authors to directly pay such fees.

The deal represents “an enormous opportunity for scientists in Germany,” as well as an opportunity for researchers elsewhere to build on their scientific findings, said Klaus Blaum, vice president of the Max Planck Society’s Scientific Council for Chemistry, Physics and Technology.

Springer Nature, the parent of the Nature journals, has already been expanding OA options. In 2019, it signed the world’s largest transformative agreement to date, with the German institutions represented by the Project DEAL consortium. It provided a similar package deal for publishing in and reading more than 2500 Springer Nature titles outside of the Nature family.

Nature’s announcement also said Springer Nature is continuing to develop other options for “authors around the world” to publish OA in Nature journals. Advocates of expanding OA have pointed out that many authors in developing countries work at institutions with modest or no existing spending on subscriptions, leaving little money to be converted into a transformative agreement.

Nature’s deal follows an earlier, now-ended experiment along similar lines by AAAS, which publishes Science. In 2017, AAAS and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation agreed to a pilot program in which Gates-funded authors could publish an unlimited number of accepted research articles on an immediately free-to-read basis. The foundation paid $100,000 for a 12-month run, as well as an additional, undisclosed sum for a 6-month extension.

During the trial run, Gates-funded authors published a total of 44 papers in Science and its four subscription-based sister journals. But in 2018, the parties ended the arrangement. In a 2019 report about the pilot, AAAS and Gates said “the partnership did not identify a mutually agreeable business model to support open access publishing in the longer term.”

AAAS continues to explore other ways to offer open access, Bill Moran, publisher of the Science family of journals, said on Monday. “AAAS would consider transformative agreements, but we are focused on helping authors who have relevant mandates or recommendations from their funding agencies comply via green open access routes, which involve authors posting the accepted version of a study to a personal website or in their institutional repository immediately upon publication,” he said.

*Editor’s Note, 20 October, 1:31 p.m.: This article has been updated to reflect that Nature’s deal is available to institutions in Germany besides the Max Planck Society institutes and that institutions could sign up without conducting further negotiations with Nature over terms.

Stem cell research, clinical use of ‘magic mushrooms’ among issues on state ballots this year

Voters lined up last month in Fairfax, Virginia, to cast their ballots in this year’s elections.


Election Day is 3 November, but U.S. voters have already started to mail in or drop off their ballots. In addition to selecting candidates for local, state, and federal positions, voters in many states will be weighing in on more than 100 initiatives and referenda.

The measures often deal with mundane financial matters. But voters will also get to vote on a number of hot-button issues, including marijuana legalization, abortion, and health care.

There are also a few science-related initiatives that the research community is watching. Here are examples from four states: California, Colorado, Oregon, and Nevada.

Renewing stem cell research funding in California

In 2004, Californians voted in favor of Proposition 71, which established the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) to conduct work with human embryonic stem cells, and authorized the state to sell $3 billion in bonds to fund the institute. Now, CIRM’s bond funding has nearly expired, and Proposition 14 aims to renew the flow. It asks voters to approve issuing an additional $5.5 billion in bonds. The proposition is led by Californians for Stem Cell Research, Treatments and Cures and backers include high-profile scientists, California Governor Gavin Newsom (D), and 80 patient advocacy organizations.

The original bond item enabled CIRM to build a dozen new research facilities and fund an array of research projects. CIRM says the effort has resulted in more than 60 clinical trials and two Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved drugs (both for blood cancers).

But some critics say CIRM’s claims are exaggerated and that it has hyped the potential for life-saving stem cell research. The assertion that the two blood cancer drugs “are the result of CIRM’s funding is disingenuous at best, and dishonest at worst,” says Jeff Sheehy, a member of CIRM’s governing board who opposes Proposition 14. He says any state-backed funding would be better invested in addressing homelessness, health care, and education. CIRM would be able find funding elsewhere, he says, such as from private donors and the National Institutes of Health.

Lawrence Goldstein, a stem cell neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, who co-chaired the scientific advisory board for Proposition 71 and again for Proposition 14, disagrees. The proposition’s potential benefits outweigh any costs, he argues, adding that the proposition’s defeat could force CIRM to close. “The cost of the initiative is a tiny fraction of the cost of disease,” he says. He also raises concerns that President Donald Trump, if reelected, could block federal funding for stem cell research. “You don’t know what’s going to happen in 4 years … so California does need to go its own way,” he says.

Bringing wolves back to Colorado

Gray wolves once existed in two-thirds of the continental United States, dominating mountain ranges and roaming the Great Plains. But by the 1940s, trappers and hunters had driven wolves to near extinction. In Colorado, Proposition 114 aims to reintroduce gray wolves to parts of the state. The initiative is spearheaded by the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund, an advocacy group.

Eric Washburn, campaign manager for Proposition 114, looks to Yellowstone National Park as a model for Colorado’s initiative. In 1995, biologists reintroduced gray wolves to Yellowstone. Over the past 25 years, they’ve seen “massive ripple effects throughout the [Yellowstone] ecosystem that were driven by the presence of wolves,” Washburn says, including beneficial shifts in vegetation and wildlife populations that many researchers argue were catalyzed by the return of wolves.

Polls suggest a majority of Colorado residents are in favor of the proposition. But some hunters and livestock farmers oppose the measure, concerned that wolves will reduce populations of elk and deer and threaten livestock. But proposition supporters downplay those concerns, noting for example that studies have found wolves are responsible for killing less than 0.1% of livestock. Still, to address such concerns, the proposition includes a provision calling for ranchers who lose livestock to wolves to receive financial compensation.

If Proposition 114 is approved, Washburn says Colorado Parks and Wildlife will spend the next year writing a wolf restoration and management plan. The agency would start to reintroduce wolves by the end of 2023.

Legalizing hallucinogenic mushrooms in Oregon

The clinical use of edible fungi that contain psilocybin, which causes people to experience euphoria and hallucinations, could soon be legalized for the first time in the United States. Voters in Oregon will be considering Measure 109, the Psilocybin Mushroom Services Program Initiative. If passed, it would make Oregon the first state to allow the use of so-called magic mushrooms in clinical research settings. (Possession of the fungi, which is illegal under federal law, has already been decriminalized in Denver; Oakland, California; and Ann Arbor, Michigan.)

Scientists have shown in clinical trials that psilocybin could help those with depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. It was recognized as a “breakthrough therapy” for major depressive disorder by FDA in late 2019. The mechanism isn’t clear, but psilocybin and related compounds appear to encourage new connections between neurons, says Monnica Williams, a therapist and researcher at the University of Ottawa. That could allow different parts of the brain to communicate in ways they might not have otherwise, she says.

“It’s a powerful drug and can have profound effects on people’s consciousness,” says Jason Luoma, a psychotherapist in Portland, Oregon, and supporter of the measure. “That’s part of why it works and why it’s effective,” he asserts.

If Oregon voters approve Measure 10, the Oregon Health Authority would have 2 years to establish an advisory board as well as licensing and dosage standards. Individuals over the age of 21 could then use psilocybin in a therapeutic setting and under supervision.

Advancing renewable energy in Nevada

Nevada could soon require a doubling of renewable energy use by the state’s electric utility companies. The state already has a constitutional mandate that 25% of electricity be sourced from renewables by 2025. But if voters approve Question 6, the Renewable Energy Standards Initiative, utilities would have to increase that to 50% by 2030.

The initiative was originally on the ballot in 2018 as a constitutional amendment and passed with almost 60% support. But Nevada requires that amendments be approved in two even-numbered election years to become law. Passage this year would fulfill that requirement.

Hydroelectric and geothermal energy have been the main renewable sources in Nevada, according to Chuck Coronella, a chemical engineer at the University of Nevada, Reno. However, as solar power has become cheaper to produce, he suspects many companies could capitalize on the Sun to reach the 50% goal.

U.S. climate report moves ahead after complaints about delays


Originally published by E&E News

President Donald Trump’s administration has quietly restarted the National Climate Assessment after public outcry over its delay.

A key step in the progress of the National Climate Assessment—the solicitation for authors to work on the project—was delayed for months, E&E News has reported (Climatewire, 5 October). After public outcry, NASA restarted the process, publishing a Federal Register notice Thursday on behalf of the U.S. Global Change Research Program that it was seeking lead authors and researchers for the assessment.

Donald Wuebbles, a climate scientist at the University of Illinois who co-led the first volume of the Fourth National Climate Assessment, said he hopes the process moving forward means that it will be protected by Kelvin Droegemeier, President Trump’s science adviser. He said Droegemeier is doing what he can behind the scenes to make sure the fifth assessment proceeds correctly.

Still, Wuebbles is concerned political interference could affect the process.

“We have the president who doesn’t accept scientists as being meaningful. I feel worried about everything,” he said. “I think there will be a whole lot of action if we have a change in administration.”

The delay had been criticized by Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden as an example of the Trump administration’s war on science.

“Climate change is already here, and ignoring science won’t make it go away,” the former vice president tweeted earlier this month about the administration’s delay of the assessment. “If we give the Trump Administration another four years, we’ll lose irreplaceable time to combat it.”

The National Climate Assessment relies on hundreds of studies and is produced by dozens of researchers. The most recent version, released in 2018, identified the way climate change uniquely affected different regions across the country and can be used by policy planners and local governments to prepare for future conditions.

Delays in the assessment, which is congressionally mandated, have occurred in both Democratic and Republican administrations.

But the Trump administration has aggressively targeted the assessment. It released the fourth climate assessment the day after Thanksgiving 2018 in an attempt to draw less attention to its findings, which showed how global warming was transforming all parts of the country (Climatewire, 23 November 2018).

That effort backfired, because the attempt to bury the findings ultimately drew more attention to the issue.

Trump later dismissed the report, saying he did not “believe it,” and supported a White House effort to conduct a hostile review of the assessment. Administration officials have said the hostile review would likely take place if Trump wins a second term.

Trump has routinely dismissed climate science, which he calls a “hoax,” and has recently said that natural variation, not global warming, was fueling California’s record wildfires.

By law, Congress and the White House are supposed to receive a report no less than every 4 years on the state of climate change and its impacts on humanity and the natural world.

The fourth version made clear that Trump’s criticism of the science is not grounded in reality. “Earth’s climate is now changing faster than at any point in the history of modern civilization, primarily as a result of human activities,” noted the authors.

The U.S. Global Change Research Program will be accepting nominations for authors until 14 November, almost two weeks after Election Day. It is expected to be published in 2023, a year later than expected.

Wuebbles said he hopes the report can remain free from political interference.

“The science is clear, there is no real debate about it. Why are we acting like there is a debate about it?” Wuebbles said. “Let’s move on and figure out the right solutions, and those solutions can’t be companies will just do the right thing.”

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. Copyright 2020. E&E provides essential news for energy and environment professionals. 

Dust Bowl 2.0? Rising Great Plains dust levels stir concerns

A dust storm in the Texas panhandle. Fueled by drought and agriculture, dust levels in parts of the Great Plains have doubled in 20 years, researchers say.

KEITH LADZINSKI/National Geographic

Earlier this month, a storm front swept across the Great Plains of the United States, plowing up a wall of dust that could be seen from space, stretching from eastern Colorado into Nebraska and Kansas. It was a scene straight from the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, when farmers regularly saw soil stripped from their fields and whipped up into choking blizzards of dust.

Better get used to it. According to a new study, dust storms on the Great Plains have become more common and more intense in the past 20 years, because of more frequent droughts in the region and an expansion of croplands. “Our results suggest a tipping point is approaching, where the conditions of the 1930s could return,” says Gannet Haller, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Utah who led the study.

The dust storms not only threaten to remove soil nutrients and decrease agricultural productivity, but also present a health hazard, says Andy Lambert, a co-author on the study and a meteorologist at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Monterey, California. The dust contains ultrafine particles that can penetrate cells in the lungs and cause lung and heart disease.

Lambert came across the trend unexpectedly, while reviewing data from NASA satellites that remotely measure atmospheric haze due to smoke and dust. No matter how far back he went in the data, the trend remained. Using a network of dust sensors in the region, Lambert and his colleagues were able to corroborate the satellite data and push the trend back more than 20 years.

The findings, reported on 12 October in Geophysical Research Letters, show that across large parts of the Great Plains, levels of wind-blown dust have doubled over the past 20 years. One clue that agriculture is responsible is that the dust levels tend to peak during spring and fall—planting and harvesting seasons, Hallar notes.

Experts have blamed the original Dust Bowl events on a combination of climate and agricultural drivers. Beginning in the 1920s, croplands across the Great Plains expanded massively—thanks in large part to mechanized farming and easy plowing. That was followed by an extended drought during the ’30s that included record-breaking heat waves in 1934 and 1936.

But recent studies are showing how climate change is drying out the region. Greenhouse gases are making heat waves like those in the 1930s far more likely, according to a study published in May in Nature Climate Change. And in an April study in Science, researchers suggested much of the western United States is on the brink of a prolonged megadrought that could outrank anything in more than 1000 years. “We really are at the point where droughts could again be as bad as in the 1930s,” says Kasey Bolles, an expert on the Dust Bowl at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and a co-author on the Science study.

Renewed agricultural expansion is adding to the problem. Grasslands are being plowed up to plant corn near refineries that turn corn into biofuels—spurred by U.S. policies that encourage renewable fuels. Soil is left exposed at critical times of the year. “Much of the expansion has been on less suitable land,” Lambert says. “It’s particularly ironic that the biofuel commitments were meant to help the environment.” Underlining the connection, Haller says the new study identifies a strong correlation between new croplands and the downwind areas where dust levels are growing the fastest.

What worries Lambert is a potential repeat of the 1930s feedbacks, where the wind-borne dust carried away vital nutrients from the soil, leading to crop losses and the need to plow up more terrain—thereby removing stabilizing ground cover and adding to the supply of dust.

Bolles has another concern. Recent research, she says, shows the worst of the dust in the 1930s came not from the fields themselves, but from marginal grasslands scattered around the plains, which perished in the deep droughts and exposed the soil to the wind. With global warming altering regional climate patterns, she once again fears for those grasslands—and is bracing for the Dust Bowl’s second coming.

Wacky tube men could keep dingoes away from livestock in Australia

Inflatable tube men—those wacky, wriggling figures that tower near car dealerships and mattress stores—are typically designed to grab attention. But scientists in Australia have used them for the opposite purpose: to scare away unwanted onlookers. A new study suggests the unpredictable movements of these dancing eyesores could keep wild dingoes from killing livestock.

“It’s exciting … to see real [alternatives] to lethal management of dingoes,” says Colleen St. Clair, a conservation biologist of the University of Alberta, Edmonton, who was not involved in the study. The approach, she says, might not just save farm animals—but the dingoes themselves.

Dingoes have been a bane to Australian farmers for centuries. The medium-size canines often sneak into ranches, killing mostly sheep, but also some cattle and goats. Official reports, though inconsistent, suggest the wild canines kill thousands of farm animals and cause up to $60 million in damages every year.

To confront the problem, farmers and the government have long relied on poisoning and shooting. These inexpensive solutions get rid of some nuisance dogs in the short term, but experts say they could cause more damage in the long term. That’s because apex predators such as dingoes affect the whole of the food chain, from animals to plants: When they hunt kangaroos, for example, they keep populations from exploding and overgrazing the landscape. Lethal control also fractures wild dingo family units, increasing attacks from reckless young dingoes.

Farmers and researchers have tried to drive dingoes away with nonlethal alternatives like high-pitched sounds and fences made of colorful flags, but the dogs quickly get used to these temporary solutions. “They’re very intelligent,” says Bradley Smith, an animal behaviorist at Central Queensland University, Adelaide. “It’s hard to scare them for too long.”

Motivated in part by Suzanne Stone, a wolf conservationist who used a tube man to scare wolves away at a ranch in Oregon, Smith and colleagues decided to test the approach scientifically in Australia. Smith enlisted an engineer to rig up a “Fred-a-Scare” at a Melbourne dingo sanctuary. The team plonked the 4-meter-tall, yellow, grinning tube man in the sanctuary exercise yard near a bowl of dry dog food. Then the team invited breeding pairs of hungry dingoes into the fenced yard downhill from an out-of-sight Fred. (Dingoes typically travel in pairs or families.) In a separate experiment, the researchers replaced the tube man with a speaker that played gunshot noises.

Fred was a hit—at least with the scientists. After rounding a corner and seeing the dancing tube man for the first time, nine of the 12 dingoes ran away in fear, compared with only one that ran from the gunshots, the team reports in Pacific Conservation Biology. What’s more, Fred’s scares were long-lasting: Over 3 days of testing, the tube man successfully protected the food in 75% of trials. “When you have sound, the dingoes will flinch. They’re a bit nervous but they don’t run away,” Smith says. “But the wavy man, boy, they bolted.”

Stone says she’s excited to see someone test this deterrent with dingoes— and she hopes to see conservationists apply the results elsewhere. Still, even though tube men have helped deter wolves for 2 years in Oregon, Stone is not convinced they’re a practical solution for free-range livestock in Australia. Each tube man requires roughly 1000 watts—about the same as a dishwasher—and can only protect a small area. That makes the approach better suited for guarding animals on small farms and campers’ food at campgrounds, she argues.

And although St. Clair says she is “genuinely pleased” with the findings, she adds that it’s still unclear whether the dingoes will stop fearing tube men after a few days of exposure. Instead, she says, farmers might want to combine or rotate many deterrents to keep the predators guessing.

Strict biodiversity laws prevent Indian scientists from sharing new microbes with the world

Klebsiella indica, isolated from the surface of a tomato, is one of the few microbial species reported by Indian researchers this year.

National Centre for Cell Science

Praveen Rahi spent the better part of the past 3 years identifying and describing a new species of a nitrogen-fixing bacteria he discovered on peas cultivated in the mountains of northern India. But it could take years for Rahi, a microbial ecologist at India’s National Centre for Cell Science (NCCS), to get the new species validated and officially named—if he doesn’t get scooped.

Syed Dastager, a microbiologist at the country’s National Chemical Laboratory, faces a similar problem. He says he has discovered 30 new microbial species over the past several years, but they all sit in his laboratory freezer, unknown to the world, because he can’t publish about them.

These scientists, like many others, are caught in a strange bureaucratic limbo between India’s stringent biodiversity protection laws and the rules of the International Committee on Systematics of Prokaryotes (ICSP), which validates newly discovered microbes. “As a country, we now face the prospect of losing the claim to document bacterial diversity from India,” Yogesh Shouche, a microbial taxonomist at NCCS, wrote in an editorial in Current Science last month that called attention to the problem.

ICSP’s code stipulates that newly discovered bacterial species—or any other microbial taxon—should be deposited in two culture collections in two countries, where it should be freely accessible to other researchers. But that requirement is at odds with an Indian law passed in 2002 under the International Convention on Biological Diversity. The Biological Diversity Act requires that non-Indian researchers who want to access cultures originating from India, even those stored abroad, obtain permission from the country’s National Biodiversity Authority (NBA).

This can cause lengthy delays, and culture collections around the world have increasingly stopped accepting new cultures from Indian researchers. “We have sent emails several times to [NBA] asking about the access availability of Indian resources. However, we didn’t get any replies until now,” reads an email from the Korean Collection for Type Cultures sent to a researcher in Shouche’s lab. “For this reason, we have decided not to take Indian resources/strains from now on.”

Failure to deposit a new taxon in two culture collections means researchers miss out on publication in the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology, ICSP’s official journal, a prerequisite for validation. “This is where we are stuck right now,” Shouche says.

A total of 378 new microbial species were discovered in India between 2008 and 2019, in places ranging from pristine glaciers to grimy mobile phone screens. But then the consequences of the 2002 act began to sink in, and after a peak of more than 50 species in 2016, the number began to decline rapidly, with only 10 new species reported so far this year. “Now everyone’s aware and the full implications are coming into the picture,” Shouche says.

Some Indian researchers have given up and focused on other topics instead. “I could’ve described 10 or 12 species by now, but I only have five,” Rahi says. “The process is so irritating, many times you drop the idea entirely.” Dastager has shifted his research focus from microbial taxonomy to small molecules and metabolites: “After putting years of work behind it, if you cannot publish it, then what is the point?”

The best solution would be to amend the biodiversity act to allow the deposition and use of cultures for research purposes without approval from NBA, Shouche says. Most culture collections have mechanisms to prevent biopiracy. But changing the law would take many years.

In the meantime, Shouche and others have proposed a stopgap solution. The law grants NBA the right to delegate some of its responsibilities—and in principle, they could be shifted to designated culture collections in India that are managed by scientists, not government officials. Although ICSP and culture collections abroad no longer want to deal with NBA, they are willing to work with Indian repositories, he says, which could make culture transfers much faster and easier. “Then the problem is solved,” Shouche says.

Researchers have warned before that the red tape associated with the Convention on Biological Diversity, designed to protect countries from losing control of their biodiversity, could have unintended consequences. In India, one of those is ironic, Shouche notes: The country is unable to document its own microbial riches. “The claim on this wealth is meaningless if we cannot document it.”

Even a car can’t kill this beetle. Here’s why

Jesus Rivera/Kisailus Biomimetics and Nanostructured Materials Lab/University of California, Irvine

When entomologists first told Jesus Rivera that a nondescript black beetle could survive being run over by a car, he was skeptical. Then he tried it, and the insect walked away unscathed (as you can see for yourself in the video below). Now, this newly minted Ph.D. at the University of California, Irvine, has discovered the secret to this bug’s success.

The diabolical ironclad beetle (Phloeodes diabolicus) lives under the bark of oak and other trees in the western United States, feasting on fungi growing there. Like other beetles, it plays dead when in danger. But though this tiny bug isn’t much bigger than a grain of rice, it can withstand crushing forces equivalent to 39,000 times its body weight, the researchers discovered. That’s about four times more than the strongest humans exert when squeezing the beetle between the thumb and forefinger.

In additional experiments, Rivera and colleagues found the beetle’s toughness and strength arise because the two halves of its outer wing cover are connected like joined jigsaw puzzle pieces. The bulbous shape of interlocking lobes and the right number of them—about five—optimize these properties, Rivera and colleagues report today in Nature. In addition, the supports between the wing cover and the body are structured so as to protect vital organs in the midbody during crushing.

The scientists are now using the beetle’s design to build similarly strong fasteners with potential for use in cars, bicycles, and even airplanes. Who knows, one day you might see a Volkswagen Beetle as tough as a, well, beetle.

Cryo–electron microscopy breaks the atomic resolution barrier at last

Cryo–electron microscopy reveals the atomic details of apoferritin, a hollow, spherically shaped protein complex that stores iron.

Paul Emsley/MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology

If you want to map the tiniest parts of a protein, you only have a few options: You can coax millions of individual protein molecules to align into crystals and analyze them using x-ray crystallography. Or you can flash-freeze copies of the protein and bombard them with electrons, a lower resolution method called cryo–electron microscopy (cryo-EM). Now, for the first time, scientists have sharpened cryo-EM’s resolution to the atomic level, allowing them to pinpoint the positions of individual atoms in a variety of proteins at a resolution that rivals x-ray crystallography’s.

“This is just amazing,” says Melanie Ohi, a cryo-EM expert at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. “To see this level of detail, it’s just beautiful.” Because the heightened resolution reveals exactly how complex cellular machines carry out their jobs, improvements in cryo-EM should yield countless new insights into biology.

To map protein structures, scientists have been using x-ray crystallography since the late 1950s. By bombarding crystallized proteins with x-rays and analyzing the way the x-rays ricochet off, scientists can work out a protein’s likely makeup and shape. Decades of improvements to the x-ray beams, detectors, and computer power have made the approach fast and accurate. But the approach doesn’t work well when proteins are exceptionally large, work in complexes such as the ribosome, or can’t be crystallized, as is the case with many proteins that sit in cell membranes. 

In contrast, researchers using cryo-EM fire electrons at copies of frozen proteins that need not be crystallized; detectors record the electrons’ deflections, and sophisticated software stitches the images together to work out the proteins’ makeup and shape. Researchers in Japan had previously shown they could narrow the resolution to 1.54 angstroms—not quite reaching the point where they could distinguish individual atoms—in a gut protein called apoferritin, which binds and stores iron. Now, with the help of improvements in electron beam technology, detectors, and software, two groups of researchers—from the United Kingdom and Germany—have narrowed that to 1.25 angstroms or better, sharp enough to work out the position of individual atoms, they report today in Nature.

The enhanced resolution could accelerate a shift to cryo-EM already underway among structural biologists. For now, the technique only works with proteins that are unusually rigid. Next, researchers will strive to achieve similar sharp resolution with less rigid, large protein complexes, such as the spliceosome, a large complex of proteins and RNA molecules that cuts out “introns” from RNA destined to be converted into proteins.

How climate disruptions revolutionized ancient human toolmaking

Workers from a Nairobi, Kenya, drilling team mark sections of a sedimentary core drilled from Kenyas Koora Basin.

Human Origins Program/Smithsonian

Impatient for your next smartphone upgrade? Just be glad you weren’t born hundreds of thousands of years ago, when the key technology for survival—stone hand axes—stayed almost exactly the same for 700,000 years. Researchers have long debated the reasons behind this long period of stasis. Now, a study of unusually detailed environmental data from an ancient lakebed in Kenya suggests a turbulent mix of climate change, tectonic activity, and rapid shifts in animal populations about 400,000 years ago forged new social and technological adaptations, including smaller obsidian blades and long-distance trade networks.

It’s an intriguing idea, says Nick Blegen, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge who wasn’t involved in the study. But he cautions it’s impossible to draw broad conclusions about the motivations behind human technological advances from environmental conditions at a single site.

About 1.2 million years ago in Kenya’s Olorgesailie Basin, early members of our genus Homo began to make roughly hewn stone axes with flaked edges. These hand axes were a relatively sophisticated advancement over an even older, cruder stone tool technology. Ancient humans used their versatile, improved tools for a variety of tasks, including butchering animals, scraping hides, sawing wood, and digging up edible tubers. Their new stone technology, known as the Acheulean industry, persisted more or less unchanged for about 700,000 years.

Over that time, the toolmakers’ environment was remarkably stable, with abundant freshwater lakes and vast grasslands that nourished large animals like giraffes, buffalo, and elephants. But about half a million years ago, the picture gets murky, says Rick Potts, a paleoanthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, who led the new study. Large-scale erosion wiped out the archaeological record in the region from 500,000 to 320,000 years ago. By the time fossils and tools reappear at the end of this period, Potts says, it’s clear things had dramatically changed.

The new toolmakers upgraded to smaller, portable, obsidian blades capable of far more precision than the crude hand axes, Potts and colleagues reported in a series of papers published in 2018. “It’s kind of like the history of technology, and it’s been that way ever since,” Potts says. “From big and clunky to small and portable.” The blades could also attach to wood to create spears and projectiles. And because the closest sources of obsidian were dozens of kilometers away, it was likely the site’s occupants traded for it, Potts says. Yet the stubborn gap in the archaeological record thwarted researchers’ attempts to pin down the factors behind these technological and social innovations.

Potts had an ace in the hole, however—a hole that happened to be 139 meters deep. With the help of a Nairobi, Kenyabased drilling company, he and colleagues extracted in 2012 a core of sediment from the bottom of an ancient lakebed in the nearby Koora Basin. The 139-meter core covered about 1 million years’ worth of sediment buildup.

By looking at microscopic features in the sediment, Potts and colleagues, including scientists from the National Museums of Kenya, puzzled out a rough timeline of the region’s climate and ecology. The presence of diatoms and algae told scientists about the lake’s water level and salinity, for example, and leaf wax helped them conclude whether the surrounding environment was woody or grassy. For the core’s first 600,000 years or so, the environment was stable. Then, about 400,000 years ago, “things go a little bit haywire,” Potts says. Freshwater supplies started to wax and wane; the environment rapidly cycled between grasses and woodlands. Between 500,000 and 300,000 years ago, the lake over Koora Basin dried up eight different times. The fossil record reveals that around the time the grasslands became patchy, large grazing herbivores were replaced with smaller, more agile creatures like gazelle, springbok, and kudu.

From past studies, the researchers knew that about 500,000 years ago, the region was rocked by volcanoes that fractured the landscape, draining large lakes and creating smaller basins prone to flooding and drying events. In short, the humans in the region faced an enormously unstable environment, the researchers report today in Science Advances. That instability may have jolted them out of their Acheulean complacency and spurred them to develop tools to hunt smaller and faster prey, wider transport networks, and more complex methods of communication, Potts says.

Blegen is not yet convinced that the obsidian at Olorgesailie is evidence of trade networks. It’s likely, he says, that humans were just venturing farther from home and returning with the precious stone. Even so, the environmental instability seen in the sedimentary core could have influenced the emergence of trade. Long-distance travel, he says, may have fostered contact with other groups and the extended social networks thought necessary for developing systems of trade.