News at a glance: Welcoming STEM students, a silent radar satellite, and China’s gene-edited crops | Science


Orbiting radar mapper goes dark

The head of the European Space Agency said last week the agency may accelerate the launch of its next Earth-observing radar satellite, after a power supply anomaly caused one of its two orbiting radar satellites, Sentinel-1B, to go dark for more than 1 month. Since its launch in 2016, Sentinel-1B—along with its twin, Sentinel-1A—has peered through clouds and mapped displacements of the planet’s surface caused by earthquakes, volcanoes, and melting ice. The duo surveys much of the globe every 6 days and can detect ground motions as small as a few millimeters. Sentinel-1A, which launched in 2014, continues to operate normally, although it has exceeded its design life. If Sentinel-1B cannot be revived, the agency is likely to speed up work to launch Sentinel-1C by the end of this year, instead of in mid-2023.


U.S. beckons STEM students

President Joe Biden’s administration has announced new rules designed to make the United States more attractive to international students seeking science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) degrees. Higher education lobbyists say the changes, unveiled last week, send an encouraging message to foreign students and mark a 180° turn from former President Donald Trump’s administration’s efforts to restrict visas for students from certain countries. One major change expands by 22 the number of STEM fields whose foreign students can remain in the United States for up to 3 years of additional training after graduation. Another allows those with “exceptional ability” to seek an employment-based visa even without a job offer. A significant fraction of U.S. technical workers in several areas was born abroad.


Brazil’s science budget rebounds

Brazil’s federal research budget will rise this year, a turnaround after several years of steep cuts—unless the increase is derailed by a political dispute. The Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovations will have $1.3 billion for discretionary spending this year, a 135% hike from 2021, according to an analysis by the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science. The final budget, sanctioned by President Jair Bolsonaro on 21 January, will support construction of Brazil’s first biosafety level four laboratory—for research on deadly pathogens—and the expansion of Sirius, a synchrotron light source. But scientists say it’s too early to celebrate. Most of the new money is allocated to a fund that several ministries control and that can be used for purposes other than basic research. And last year, Bolsonaro’s administration withheld these funds despite a new law designed to block him from doing so. Meanwhile, this year’s budget gives much less research money, only about $6.5 million, to the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development, a leading grantmaker.


Computer mimics ‘minimal’ cell

computer simulation of a stripped-down cell
Membrane proteins and protein complexes are shown in a computer simulation of a stripped-down cell.Z. R. THORNBURG ET AL., CELL 185, 345 (2022) CC BY NC ND

For years, researchers have pared down the genes in microbes to create “minimal” cells, with the minimum number of components needed to survive and thrive. Now, researchers have created the most complex computer simulation of such a streamlined cell. The model, reported last week in Cell, maps out the precise location and chemical characteristics of thousands of cellular components in 3D space at an atomic scale. It tracks these molecules as they diffuse through the simple cell, their chemical reactions, and how much energy is required for each step. Among the findings: The cell, engineered from a mycoplasma bacterium, uses most of its energy to import essential ions and molecules across its cell membrane. The researchers hope this and future simulations will help them predict how changing a cell’s genome will alter its metabolism, an advance that could help optimize the design of cells to make chemicals including medicines and fuels.


Mexico’s COVID-19 chief probed

A federal judge has ordered Mexico’s attorney general to open a homicide investigation of the leader of the country’s pandemic response for allegedly failing to avert preventable deaths from COVID-19. In November 2020, relatives of two people who died from the disease filed a complaint accusing health undersecretary Hugo López-Gatell Ramírez of criminally negligent homicide. They blamed the deaths on his controversial advice against closing borders, wearing masks, and conducting widespread testing for the coronavirus. The attorney general’s office had declined to investigate, citing lack of evidence. But after appeals from the plaintiffs, a federal judge on 19 January ordered the office to examine possible omissions by López-Gatell Ramírez and any other officials that resulted in pandemic deaths. More than 300,000 deaths in Mexico have been reported from COVID-19, the world’s fifth highest total.

In other news

STAR-STUDDED STARTUPA Silicon Valley firm that aims to combat the effects of aging by reprogramming human cells formally announced its start last week with a whopping $3 billion in private funding. In addition to former U.S. National Cancer Institute head Richard Klausner as chief scientist, Altos Labs boasts several Nobel laureates as board members or advisers—enzyme specialist Frances Arnold, virus expert David Baltimore, gene editing pioneer Jennifer Doudna, and stem cell investigator Shinya Yamanaka.

AI DREAM FAILSIBM has inked a deal to sell off key data sets and software from its Watson Health subsidiary, a much-touted effort to use artificial intelligence (AI) to transform medical research and care. Started in 2015, the unit hadn’t earned a profit, STAT reported. Critics said its supercomputer-aided analysis of health data merely compiled existing knowledge without producing new insights. IBM said on 21 January that the sale to private equity firm Francisco Partners would help the parent company focus on cloud computing and AI services in other types of industries.

NEW U.K. MEGATRIALSA nonprofit modeled on the United Kingdom’s Recovery clinical trial, a leader in the global effort to test treatments for COVID-19, aims to conduct low-cost studies of better treatments for other common, life-threatening diseases such as heart disease and cancer. Like Recovery, Protas plans to cooperate with the U.K. National Health Service to streamline the recruitment of large, inclusive populations.

ANTIBIOTIC RESISTANCENearly 1.3 million people died in 2019 from antimicrobial-resistant infections, according to a comprehensive global estimate. Such infections are a leading killer, causing more deaths than AIDS and malaria, according to the study, published on 19 January in The Lancet.

GALÁPAGOS RESERVEEcuador has approved a new marine reserve near the Galápagos Islands that increases an existing protected ocean area by 43%, a boon for the region’s endangered marine species. Scientists with the MigraMar marine research network had collected data to justify creating the 60,000-square-kilometer Hermandad Marine Reserve.


China sets rules for edited crops

China’s agriculture ministry this week unveiled safety evaluation guidelines for gene-edited crops as the country moves toward approving their sale. The guidelines, being implemented on a trial basis, are simpler and call for less field testing than is required for genetically modified (GM) crops, in which genes from other species are inserted. Consumer resistance and bureaucratic caution have left China far behind other countries in adopting GM crops, with only a single variety of GM papaya in domestic production. Now, Chinese researchers are well along in developing gene-edited varieties of corn, rice, soybeans, wheat, and other crops, which they hope will be more acceptable to the public and reduce dependence on food imports. China is also revising its regulations for GM crops, and transgenic corn and soybeans might be commercialized this year. Both kinds of genetic engineering give crops useful traits, such as resistance to herbicides sprayed in fields.


Epidemic prevention gets big gifts

Two of the world’s largest foundations last week pledged $150 million each to the nonprofit Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), a global partnership working to prevent, prepare for, and equitably respond to future epidemics and pandemics. Leaders of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust called on nations to pony up at a CEPI “replenishment” conference scheduled for March to help it raise $3.5 billion for the next 5 years. CEPI has financed development of the University of Oxford–AstraZeneca and Novavax vaccines. Its 5-year plan starting this year aims to shorten vaccine development time to less than 100 days after a new pathogen is sequenced, far shorter than the 11 months it took for the first COVID-19 vaccine.