News at a glance: A bold antitobacco plan, updated Arctic warming rates, and a COVID-19 infection from a lab | Science


Tornado razes agricultural center

A hub of agricultural research in the small city of Princeton, Kentucky, was among the many places left in ruins last week as a series of tornadoes ripped through the region, killing dozens. No employees of the University of Kentucky’s Research and Education Center were killed, and just one person there suffered minor injuries. But nearly all of the 60 buildings on-site—including student housing, offices, and research facilities—have been condemned. Director Carrie Knott estimates it will be at least a year before the center’s 15 principal investigators can resume their research programs, which include agronomy, plant pathology, and horticulture. Center leadership will spend the upcoming days removing debris and setting up temporary offices and storage facilities for employees.


Vaccine mimics virus particle

A vaccine with a unique composition and production method worked in a large COVID-19 efficacy trial, its sponsor, Canada-based biotech company Medicago, announced in a press release last week. The vaccine consists of SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins that self-assemble into viruslike particles (VLPs). Already used in vaccines against human papillomavirus and hepatitis B, VLPs in theory stimulate robust immune responses because of the orderly way they pack many copies of the viral proteins into a particle that resembles a virus. Medicago produces the spike proteins in a genetically engineered plant, a tobacco cousin called Nicotiana benthamiana, rather than in lab cell cultures. The vaccine had 71% efficacy against symptomatic disease in a 24,000-person trial in six countries, where many variants were circulating—although not Omicron. The company is now seeking authorization in Canada and, pending success there, plans to submit data to U.S. and European regulators.


Tabak named acting NIH chief

Lawrence Tabak, principal deputy director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), will become the agency’s acting director on 20 December—the day after current Director Francis Collins leaves his post. Collins, the physician-geneticist who has led the $43 billion agency for 12 years, announced his resignation in October. Before assuming his current role at NIH in 2010, Tabak, a dentist and biochemist, spent 10 years directing the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. Onlookers say he will bring stability as the White House searches for the next director. The permanent position requires approval by the Senate health committee and full Senate.

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This is like a teenager promising to clean their room in 30 years. We need action now.

  • Bill Snape, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity, on President Joe Biden’s 8 December announcement of a plan for the U.S. government to achieve net-zero greenhouse emissions by 2050.

New Zealand to phase out tobacco

The government of New Zealand last week released an unprecedented proposal to outlaw sales of tobacco products to those turning 14 years old, a prohibition that would last their lifetimes and gradually end sales entirely. The country’s Smokefree 2025 Action Plan would also make it the first in the world to only allow sales of low-nicotine smoked tobacco products. Authorities decided on bold action after modeling showed a diminishing effect of existing strategies, including high taxes and bans on public smoking. The plan also calls for greater investment in smoking cessation support for the Māori community, which has a smoking rate of 24.8%, compared with 10.1% among New Zealanders of European heritage. Parliamentary approval is expected next year, with the measures likely taking effect in 2023.

rows of chips in new semiconductor
A new semiconductor chip contains rows of vertically stacked transistors (micrograph above). CONNIE ZHOU FOR IBM; IBM

Vertical leap for chips

Microscopic transistors at the heart of computers and phones may soon pack a bigger punch. Researchers have stood these thin transistors vertically on their ends, making it possible to pack them in tighter on silicon chips to enable faster or more energy-efficient devices, IBM and Samsung reported last week at the International Electron Devices Meeting. Traditional transistors lie flat with electrical current moving through them laterally. But as they’ve shrunk to the nanometer scale, engineers have struggled to get sufficient current through their tiny electrical channels. The vertical transistors offer room for larger electrical channels and other components, which will enable future devices to run either twice as fast, or with 85% less energy use, researchers reported.


Arctic warming understated

It’s a common statistic, found even in this year’s U.N. climate assessment: The Arctic is warming about twice as fast as the rest of the world. But that figure is misleading, scientists reported at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union this week. Since 1990, the Arctic has actually warmed four times faster, an amplification caused by melting sea ice and other factors. One reason for the discrepancy: Climate scientists often use 60°N to define “Arctic” rather than the more technically correct 66.6°N, lumping in lower latitudes where there’s less amplification. Another reason: Many analyses use data from earlier time periods when light-reflecting pollution blocked Arctic warming. As a result, the researchers say, the true toll of global warming on the Arctic has been underestimated.


Researcher gets COVID-19 in lab

A Taiwanese researcher contracted SARS-CoV-2 while working with infected mice in a biosafety level 3 laboratory at the Genomics Research Center of Academia Sinica in Taipei, in the first known case of laboratory transmission of the virus. Authorities suspect the vaccinated researcher was infected via a mouse bite. The genomic sequence of the variant infecting the researcher matched that of the lab’s mice and not strains in the surrounding community, Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center reported on 11 December. More than 800 potential contacts have tested negative, and Academia Sinica has promised an investigation and a review of the lab’s safety procedures. The incident is likely to bolster claims that a lab leak could have sparked the pandemic.

#MeToo Updates

Prominent male scientists faced new allegations this week, while another’s accuser fought his defamation lawsuit.

Paleontologist Leonardo dos Santos Avilla was placed on administrative leave from the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro (UNIRIO) this week following an exposé on the Brazilian TV channel Fantástico in which former students accused him of bullying and sexual misconduct including unwanted kissing, touching, and coercive sex. At least 30 women have raised allegations dating back as far as 2007, the segment revealed. UNIRIO says Avilla will remain on leave until an investigation, begun on 7 December, is finalized. Avilla “vehemently denies the allegations,” his lawyer said in the exposé.

More than a dozen women who worked or studied at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama are alleging harassment and exploitation by multiple STRI scientists, a BuzzFeed News investigation revealed last week. Allegations against soil biochemist Benjamin Turner include rape, unwanted touching, off-color remarks, and abuse of power. Turner, who BuzzFeed reports was removed in 2020 following an STRI investigation, has denied the allegations. Although STRI has implemented new policies to guard against abuse by its staff, lawyers representing 14 women scientists have written President Joe Biden’s Gender Policy Council urging it to address these issues at STRI and other science institutions.

A woman last week lodged a counterclaim in a defamation suit filed in October by former Whitehead Institute biologist David Sabatini. He resigned in August after a probe concluded that he had violated the institute’s sexual harassment policies. Sabatini’s suit names Whitehead, its director Ruth Lehmann, and one of his accusers. That accuser’s counterclaim, entered in Massachusetts Superior Court, says Sabatini’s “frivolous” suit retaliates against her for speaking frankly with Whitehead investigators. It also alleges that he coerced her into sex when she was a graduate student and fostered a “toxic” and “sexualized” lab environment. Sabatini is on administrative leave at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he is a professor. It is considering revoking his tenure.