News at a glance: A particle’s weighty measurement, Marburg in Africa, and a fossil called “the blob”
Particle mass dispels hint of new physics
A fleeting, weighty elementary particle called the W boson has just the mass predicted by theory, physicists working with Europe’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) reported this week at a conference in Italy. The finding comes from ATLAS, one of four large particle detectors fed by the LHC, and it contradicts the eyebrow-raising measurement reported last year in Science that suggested the W was heavier than predicted by physicists’ prevailing standard model. That discrepancy could have signaled that massive new particles lurking in the vacuum alter the mass of the W, which conveys the weak nuclear force just as the photon conveys electromagnetism’s force. The hint that the W boson might be extra-hefty came from an analysis of data from a particle detector called D0, which was fed by the now-defunct Tevatron collider at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. The analysis disagreed not only with the standard model, but also with D0’s previous measurement. Now it is even more of an outlier.
Marburg cases widen in Africa
Public health experts are combating two outbreaks of the deadly Marburg virus on opposite sides of the African continent. Authorities in Equatorial Guinea have reported nine confirmed and 20 probable cases of the hemorrhagic fever since early January; 27 of the 29 patients have died. The cases are spread across different provinces, and health officials say the lack of connection between some cases suggests there is undetected spread in the community. In Tanzania, eight cases have been reported, including five deaths. This is the first Marburg outbreak in each country, and genome sequencing is ongoing to determine whether the two outbreaks are related. The risk of spread to other countries in the region is also high, the World Health Organization has warned. Unlike Ebola disease, to which it is related, Marburg has no approved vaccines or antivirals.
China’s COVID-19 mRNA vaccine
China last week approved for emergency use its first COVID-19 vaccine using messenger RNA (mRNA) technology. The homegrown product, developed by CSPC Pharmaceutical Group, comes about 2 years after much of the rest of the world began to get shots based on the novel vaccine platform, developed in the United States and Europe. Trials with more than 5500 participants showed the vaccine is safe and effective, CSPC reported. China’s Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical in March 2020 obtained the rights to market BioNTech’s mRNA COVID-19 vaccine in China once it was developed, but regulators never approved it. China has instead relied on less effective, traditional vaccines made with inactivated coronaviruses.
Nearby rocky planet looks bleak
Researchers have used the new JWST orbiting telescope to take the temperature of a roughly Earth-size exoplanet—the first time observers have captured light from such a small rocky world. The nearby star TRAPPIST-1 is a major target for JWST because it is orbited by seven rocky planets—several potentially habitable. The star is also tiny and dim, making it easier to see the faint light of its planets. As expected, the planet closest to the star, TRAPPIST-1 b, is far from habitable, astronomers report this week in Nature: It has a surface temperature of 230°C and no detectable atmosphere. The results were obtained by comparing the light of the star and planet together with that of the star alone, when the planet moved behind the star.
This has to fold into the way we manage other diseases. … If not now, then when?
- University of California, San Francisco, chair of medicine Bob Wachter
- in The Washington Post, on reports that the White House plans to disband its COVID-19 response team in May.
Crime solvers start genetic portal
Two leaders in using genetic genealogy to crack unsolved murders and other cold cases have launched a nonprofit to help law enforcement. Crime scene DNA doesn’t always have a direct match in police databases, but genetic genealogists have tracked down murder and rape suspects and identified murder victims’ remains by linking that DNA to relatives who have deposited their genetic profiles in online ancestry websites. Since the Golden State Killer was found this way in 2018, the technique has been used to solve hundreds of cases. But just two commercial genealogy databases allow law enforcement searches, and their fees are rising. To ensure low costs and stable access to people’s genetic profiles, well-known genetic genealogists CeCe Moore and Margaret Press launched DNA Justice on 12 March, inviting anyone to confidentially share their DNA data and family information. The database only had about 300 DNA profiles this week when Science went to press; it will need 100,000 or more for effective searches.
Rare anemone fossils were mistaken as jellyfish
An abundant deposit of sea anemone fossils had been hidden in plain sight—until now. Well-preserved specimens of ancient soft-bodied organisms are rare in the fossil record, but researchers have identified a trove in northern Illinois’s 310-million-year-old Mazon Creek deposit, they reported on 8 March in Papers in Paleontology. The fossils, known locally as “the blob,” were misidentified in the 1970s as a species of jellyfish, formally named Essexella asherae. But the researchers realized their probable identity as sea anemones (the order Actiniaria) after reexamining thousands of museum specimens. Mazon Creek, renowned for its wealth of fossils, formed as an ancient river spewed sediment into a shallow sea. Underwater avalanches buried anemones and other soft-bodied animals, entombing them to become fossils.
U.S. autism prevalence rises
The prevalence of autism among U.S. 8-year-olds in 2020 reached its highest level since systematic surveillance began in 2000, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported last week. About 4% of boys and 1% of girls were affected—or one in 36 for all children, up from one in 44 in 2018, according to the analysis in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). For the first time, autism’s prevalence among 8-year-olds was higher in children from racial and ethnic minority groups than in white children, the analysis found, based on surveillance programs in 11 communities in 11 states. Autism’s prevalence in 4-year-olds also grew, to one in 47 children in 2020, according to a separate analysis last week in MMWR. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted autism diagnoses, these CDC data showed.
NSF to survey LGBTQ identity
The first tally of U.S. Ph.D. recipients who are LGBTQ may be available in 2026 if a pilot study announced last week by the National Science Foundation (NSF) is successful. Starting in July, NSF will test a series of questions about sexual orientation and gender identity on its Survey of Earned Doctorates, an annual census of the roughly 57,000 graduating doctoral students. Currently, the survey only offers a binary male-female choice for gender. NSF will use responses from the first year to determine which questions best capture information about LGBTQ students. The agency hopes to add a finalized set of questions to the survey starting in 2024 and to release data on sexual and gender identities in 2026. Advocates hope the information can be used to track whether LGBTQ people are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and math.