Science

News at a glance: Antibioticmaking clams, marijuana for research, and China’s ‘Friedmann’

EVOLUTION

In a first for animals, clam makes its own antibiotic

Natural antibiotics typically come from bacteria or molds. But some clams make their own erythromycin, a study has found—the first animals reported to possess this ability. The spotted hard clam (Meretrix petechialis) has a mucus-covered outer lip that contains specialized antibiotic-producing cells, according to an international research team. These may protect the clams, which lack adaptive, lymphocyte-based immune systems, from disease. The scientists found no sign of erythromycin-producing bacteria in the clam’s tissues; instead they noticed its DNA contained an erythromycin-making gene that resembled one used by bacteria but differed enough that the invertebrate version might have evolved independently. The researchers found the gene in all the clam’s life stages. Its genome also contains other genes needed to produce erythromycin, and a related species of clam possesses these antibiotic genes as well. The findings suggest scientists can engineer cells in other animals to produce their own antibiotic, the authors write this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

GENE THERAPY

Embryo-editing scientist reboots

He Jiankui, who in 2018 conducted a widely condemned experiment in which his team edited the genes of human embryos and later implanted them into their mothers, says he has opened a new lab to develop “affordable” gene therapies. In 2018, Chinese officials detained He, a biophysicist, for using the CRISPR gene editor on the embryos, created through in vitro fertilization. The experiment led to the birth of three babies. A court convicted him of illegal medical practices, and He was released from prison in April. Last week, He described his latest venture on Weibo, a popular social media platform in China: His lab in Beijing will aim to “overcome 3-5 genetic diseases within 2-3 years to benefit families with rare diseases.” He cautioned about the recent death of a man with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) who was in a trial to test a CRISPR-based gene therapy. “History tells us that when any new technology emerges, it is both an angel and a devil,” He wrote on Weibo. “Blind pursuit of new technologies and aggressive advancement will definitely be punished by heaven.” He told Science he has asked Jack Ma, the billionaire head of the Alibaba Group, for $140 million to fund his new lab’s efforts against DMD.

INFRASTRUCTURE

NSF rules tighten funding race

Researchers seeking National Science Foundation (NSF) grants for research equipment will likely face longer odds under new rules that don’t require institutions to share the cost. This summer, Congress ordered NSF to suspend cost sharing for its $75 million Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) program and foot the entire bill for each successful proposal. In a new solicitation (NSF 23-519), the agency projects the number of awards next year will drop from the current 150 to 100 to accommodate that change, which is intended to diversify the applicant pool and give less wealthy institutions a better shot at winning a grant. The reduction in awards will disappoint some applicants, says comparative biologist Cheryl Hayashi of the American Museum of Natural History, a past recipient of MRI grants. “But I don’t see a downside to having a more diverse pool.” NSF will allow each institution to submit up to four applications, up from three, provided the fourth proposal is for an environmentally sustainable instrument.

Students at Tsinghua University held up sheets of paper on which they wrote the Friedmann equation (above) during protests across China against government repression. The equation, describing the expansion of space, served as a sly reference to “freed man.”
BIOMEDICINE

Cannabis research to open up

The U.S. Congress has approved its first stand-alone bill enabling marijuana research and sent it to President Joe Biden, who is expected to sign it. The measure directs the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to set up a streamlined system allowing scientists to register to study cannabis for medical purposes. The legislation also orders DEA to speedily register new growers, including universities, to raise and distribute it for research. The bill requires the U.S. attorney general to conduct yearly assessments of whether there is an adequate, uninterrupted supply of cannabis for research. The Senate passed the bill, the Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act, on 16 November, following a lopsided vote of approval by the House of Representatives in July. Separately in October, Biden ordered the U.S. attorney general to consider reclassifying the drug, which would also make it easier to study.

CONSERVATION

Dam removal to boost salmon OK’d

The world’s largest dam removal project will begin as soon as 2023, after U.S. regulators last month approved tearing down four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River in Northern California and Oregon. The 17 November unanimous vote by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission was the last regulatory hurdle. Native American tribes and environmentalists have for years sought removal of the dams, which were built in the early 20th century and block migrating salmon from reaching some 600 kilometers of habitat. Salmon runs on the river have dwindled to less than 5% of historic levels.

INFECTIOUS DISEASES

Monkeypox gets a neutral name

The World Health Organization (WHO) announced this week it will start referring to monkeypox disease as “mpox” (pronounced “em-pox”) after the current name drew criticism as evoking racist stereotypes and inviting stigmatization. It is also a misnomer: The virus was first identified in laboratory monkeys but is most likely carried by rodents in the wild. During a 1-year transition period, WHO will use both names. Earlier this year, the agency changed the names of the two different clades, or branches, of monkeypox viruses that had been based on the regions where they were first identified. The Congo Basin clade became clade I and the West African clade, clade II. Weekly monkeypox cases have declined globally since August, but hundreds of cases are still reported every week and health authorities continue to call for at-risk people to be vaccinated.

CONSERVATION

Countries vote for sustainable shark fishing

Blacktip reef sharks
Blacktip reef sharks are among dozens of species for which international trade will be regulated.KIMBERLY JEFFRIES/WCS

Nearly all shark species hunted for their fins must be caught sustainably, according to new trade rules adopted last week under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. In a move that supporters called historic, 183 countries and the European Union voted to place nearly 100 species of threatened sharks and sharklike rays on the treaty’s Appendix II, roughly tripling the number that must be managed to avoid overexploitation. Within 1 year, nations exporting shark fins or meat must certify the animals were caught legally and sustainably. Shark populations have shrunk for 7 decades because of a lack of fishing regulations and enforcement. The trade in fins, which are used for soup, has been particularly devastating, putting 61 species in danger of extinction. Trade in shark products was worth nearly $1 billion in 2015, according to the most recent broad review by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Also newly listed are animals overexploited for the international pet trade, including more than 160 species of glass frogs and 50 kinds of turtles and tortoises.

STANDARDS

Time and other units get tweaks

The controversial leap second, which time keepers add sporadically to keep atomic clocks aligned with Earth’s rotation, will be axed in 2035, the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) decided on 18 November. Devised in 1972 and used 27 times since, the leap second wreaks havoc with modern-day telecommunications, banking, and other networks. Its abandonment means that astronomical time, based on Earth’s rotation, will slowly diverge from Coordinated Universal Time, based on the vibrations of cesium in atomic clocks. BIPM plans to stop adding leap seconds for 100 years, by which time someone may have figured out a long-term fix for the problem. In addition, BIPM added new prefixes to the International System of Units to define very big and very small measurements. For example, 1 ronnameter (Rm) is 1 billion billion billion meters and 1 quettameter (Qm), 1000 times bigger still; 1 rontometer (rm) is one-billionth of a billionth of a billionth of 1 meter and 1 quectometer (qm), one-thousandth of that.

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