News at a glance: Tackling U.S. plastic waste, targeting Omicron with an antibody, and new AI institute | Science


Hippo gut microbes make a splash

A study of hippo pools in Africa suggests the microscopic gut residents of these massive animals have an unexpected influence outside their bodies. Like almost all animals, hippos (Hippopotamus amphibius) host beneficial gut microbes, such as bacteria that aid digestion. But when hippos defecate into the large pools they wade and swim in along the Serengeti’s Mara River, they release living members of their intestinal microbiome and effectively create a poolwide “metagut,” University of Florida ecologist Christopher Dutton and colleagues reported last week in Scientific Reports. These microbes can change the water chemistry, which could help explain the massive fish kills that take place during seasonal floods, when pool water is washed downstream, the team proposes. The animals also share bacteria with each other as they drink the water, possibly boosting the digestive capabilities and immune defenses of all the hippos in the pond. “Hippos shape the world around them through microbes associated with their feces,” says Robert Naiman, an emeritus ecologist at the University of Washington, Seattle. Other creatures that live in stagnant pools or slow-moving streams, such as alligators, may do something similar, he says.


Call for U.S. to address plastic waste

The United States is the world’s largest generator of plastic waste and among the top dozen sources of plastic pollution in the ocean, yet it lacks comprehensive strategies to study or reduce the problem, reports a panel convened by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The country produced 42 million tons of plastic waste in 2016, with as much as 2 million tons of that winding up in the ocean, the report released last week notes. That’s roughly one-quarter of the estimated global total dumped into the ocean each year. Currently, recycling in the United States is “grossly insufficient” to tackle the problem, the panel warns. The group calls for developing a nationwide research strategy by the end of 2022 to better understand the size and drivers of the plastics problem. It also urged greater U.S. measures to cut plastic waste, pointing to initiatives in other countries, such as restricting free plastic bags and requiring manufacturers to take back packaging.

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In essence, this campaign was a hall of mirrors, endlessly reflecting a single fake persona.

  • From a report by Meta (formerly Facebook) finding that Chinese entities created a phony Swiss biologist on social media and amplified his claims that the United States was intimidating the World Health Organization on COVID-19’s origin

Bringing equity to AI

Computer scientist Timnit Gebru, whose research showed facial recognition software has a bias against women and people of color, announced last week she’s launching the Distributed Artificial Intelligence Research Institute (DAIR). The nonprofit institute will develop artificial intelligence software serving marginalized groups and aims “to counter Big Tech’s pervasive influence on the research, development and deployment of AI,” according to a statement. In an early project, DAIR researchers will create a public data set of aerial images to study how apartheid shaped land use in South Africa. Gebru co-led Google’s Ethical AI group until last year, when she clashed with the Silicon Valley giant over a paper she co-authored raising concerns about potential harm from language-processing technology used by Google and other companies. (Gebru says she was fired, although Google called her departure a resignation.) DAIR will kick off with $3.7 million in funding from multiple foundations and other groups.


An antibody for Omicron?

image of mutations on SARS-CoV-2 variants
A visualization of mutations (blue, red, and white) that distinguish the Omicron spike protein from those of the original SARS-CoV-2 pandemic coronavirus and the Delta variant.MIA ROSENFELD AND FIONA KEARNS/AMARO LAB/UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, SAN DIEGO

A monoclonal antibody (mAb) authorized this year for COVID-19 neutralizes pseudoviruses equipped with all 37 of the mutations in the spike surface protein of the Omicron variant, according to results from Vir Biotechnology. The company, which developed the drug with GlaxoSmithKline, this week added the latest data to a 1 December preprint reporting that the antibody maintains potent neutralizing activity against pseudoviruses with individual Omicron spike mutations. The drug, called sotrovimab, was authorized by the United States in May and by the United Kingdom last week. EU regulators are still evaluating it. The antibody, delivered by intravenous infusion, is for nonhospitalized people with mild to moderate COVID-19 symptoms. Regeneron said last week its COVID-19 mAb cocktail (casirivimab and imdevimab) may lose some potency against the Omicron variant, and it is conducting lab studies to confirm that. Separately this week, the World Health Organization advised against use of antibody-filled plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients as a therapy, saying it does not improve survival.


Abortion case hears little science

Science and medicine barely played a role in last week’s oral arguments for a potentially landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, although fetal viability was mentioned often and several groups had filed amicus briefs summarizing relevant research results. The justices are reviewing the constitutionality of a Mississippi law that bans most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Previous Supreme Court cases had established that abortions could not be banned if the fetus couldn’t yet survive outside the womb, a threshold that is about 23 or 24 weeks of gestation given current medical care. Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted that a pregnant person’s risk of death is 14 times higher in childbirth than in abortion, and that few scientists think fetuses feel pain before 24 weeks. But the court largely focused on nonscience questions, such as whether to overturn precedents and whether viability should be the basis of any policy. A decision is expected by next summer.



Estimated increase in global malaria deaths for 2020 compared with 2019, 70% (47,000) of them attributed to pandemic disruptions and mostly children under 5 years old. (World Health Organization’s annual malaria report)


Biomedical funder expands

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), which 5 years ago set out to devote $3 billion over 10 years to biomedical research, now plans to more than double its spending and develop tools for studying biological processes. Funded by Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and pediatrician Priscilla Chan, who are married, CZI’s science program launched with a wildly ambitious goal: to prevent, manage, or cure all disease by 2100. It funds research in areas such as neurodegeneration and rare diseases, as well the CZ Biohub, which supports studies of cell biology and infectious disease at three Northern California universities. In the next phase, the organization will create a network of biohubs and two free-standing institutes—one focused on advanced imaging and the second to study natural and artificial intelligence. CZI’s total commitment will extend to $6.4 billion over 20 years.


Prizes for defending science

An independent science integrity consultant and a racial health disparities researcher who have both faced scientific or public pushback have won this year’s John Maddox Prize for standing up for science. Microbiologist Elisabeth Bik received the £3000 award for her data sleuthing, notably uncovering duplicated or modified images that can signal fraud and other problems. Physician-scientist Mohammad Sharif Razai of St George’s, University of London won the early career prize for work that included addressing vaccine hesitancy among ethnic minorities and health disparities that result from systemic racism. The award is sponsored by the London-based charity Sense about Science and Nature, where John Maddox was editor until 1995.