Week in Review: February 20–24

Science policy at AAAS; international marches for science; circadian clock and aging; neurons for both itching and pain; a conversation with Iraqi-American epidemiologist Wael Al-Delaimy; “waviness” in whale nerves

Feb 23, 2017
Joshua A. Krisch

Scientists convene to discuss Trump administration

The mood at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is usually quite jovial—scientists from across the world gather to discuss cutting-edge research and catch up with far-flung colleagues. And the 2017 gathering, held last week in Boston, was no exception. But this year’s meeting was also punctuated by panels that brimmed with uncharacteristically somber talks about the state of science policy in the U.S. and worldwide.

One Saturday panel, organized by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), was particularly charged. “The public is going to suffer if the politicization of science is normalized,” said UCS’s Gretchen Goldman. “We cannot allow that to happen. If science is not able to inform policy decisions, we all lose.”

“Please don’t make science partisan,” Jane Lubchenco of Oregon State University said during the same panel discussion. “It isn’t, it shouldn’t be, and don’t buy into that framing.”

The first of many science marches

On Sunday (February 19), around half a mile from the AAAS meeting, hundreds of scientists and science supporters gathered at noon to show support for science in policymaking.

See “Sights (and Signs) of #Stand Up For Science

Inspired by the Marches for Science sweeping the nation, several countries outside of the U.S. are joining the fray on April 22. The Scientist spoked with organizers behind international satellite marches scheduled to take place in Amsterdam, Hong Kong, Ottawa, and Berlin. Like their American counterparts, the organizers of these rallies are working hard to toe the line between support for science and more controversial political statements. “We’re trying to make sure the focus is pro-science, pro-evidence-based facts and not anti-something,” Maja Schubert, a history graduate student at Freie Universität Berlin, told The Scientist. “But of course, [politics] plays into that, because, why do we need to make the stand for evidence-based science? It’s because it’s in danger because of political developments.”

A conversation with Iraqi-American scientist Wael Al-Delaimy

Wael Al-Delaimy is an Iraqi-born American epidemiologist at the University of California, San Diego, who initially came to this country to for a postdoc at Harvard University. He has used his unique expertise and cross-cultural understanding to study the mental health of Somali and Iraqi refugees, and to provide research ethics classes for Jordanian scientists. But despite his many accomplishments (and his green card status), Al-Delaimy and his family do not always feel welcome here. He told The Scientist that his 12-year-old son recently asked whether they would be able to stay in the U.S., given President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric.

“This is very unfortunate,” Al-Delaimy said. “Somebody who is born and raised [in the U.S.] and a citizen like him should feel like he belongs to this country, rather than being alienated in this way, based on faith or national origin or ethnicity.”

A circadian grandfather clock

Circadian rhythms tend to weaken as we grow older, but according to a study published this week (February 21) in Nature Communications, a handful of genes controlled by fruit fly circadian clocks appear to be more active in old age. Upregulation of these genes could help explain the age-related health issues seen in fruit flies. 

“[This] suggests that clock-controlled transcription is not a static phenomenon . . . it changes under conditions of stress that are also associated with age,” Amita Seghal of the University of Pennsylvania who was not involved in the study, told The Scientist. “Cycling of stress-response genes, such as chaperones, may help to combat stress, given that loss of the clock increases sensitivity to certain stressors.” 

That whale has some nerve

Rorqual whales feed on krill by gulping massive volumes of water, which they store in an expandable pouch beneath their mouths. But the mystery of how the nerves within these pouches expand and contract to accommodate feedings has long remained a mystery. In a study published last week (February 16) in Current Biology, researchers demonstrated that the nerves contain two levels of “waviness.” One allows the nerve to coil so there is sufficient slack to stretch without elongating, while the second level of waviness—deep within the nerve—allows it to recoil into tight bands after a feeding, without causing a crease in the nerve fibers.

An itch that only neuroscience can scratch

The current thinking in science is that the neurons that control pain and those that control the itch sensation are unrelated—products of distinct neural networks. But a mouse study published this week (February 22) in Neuron suggests that the two sensations may be neurologically linked. “We were surprised that contrary to what the field believes, neurons [in the spinal cord] coded for both pain and itch sensations,” coauthor Shuhao Sun, a neuroscience graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, told The Scientist. “[This] means there can be some crosstalk between these two sensations in the central nervous system.”

Other news in life science

Spinal Cord Injury Researcher Dies
Neuroscientist Geoffrey Raisman pioneered the study of spinal cord injury and the use of cell transplants to repair the damage.

Smallest Cas9 Ortholog Reported
Researchers demonstrate the delivery of AAV-packaged CRISPR-CjCas9 into the muscles and eyes of mice.

Reprogramming Hair Cells
Researchers isolate stem cells from the mouse cochlea and convert them into auditory hair cells, potentially paving the way for therapies to treat hearing loss.

Drones Covertly Record Songbirds
Unmanned aerial vehicles provide ornithologists with a new way to gather birdsong data.

60,000-Year-Old Life Found in Crystals in Mexican Cave
NASA researchers have discovered ancient microbes locked inside minerals, suggesting a possible niche for interstellar life.

ADHD Linked to Structural Differences in the Brain
Imaging data show smaller volumes in several brain regions among people diagnosed with the behavioral disorder.

Hybrid Mammoth Embryo Coming Soon?
Harvard geneticist George Church says that he will likely be able to create a hybrid wooly mammoth-elephant embryo in the near future.

Publication Ban Affects Former Collaborators
When the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders fired neurologist Allen Braun, the agency also barred his colleagues from publishing data collected over a 25-year period.

Speaking of Science Policy
Notable quotes from the AAAS annual meeting