Apr 18, 2019

Axios Science

By Alison Snyder
Alison Snyder

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1 big thing: Plastics are "potentially everywhere"
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Adapted from Ostle, et. al., "The rise in ocean plastics evidenced from a 60-year time series", 2019; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

In the past decade, plastics have been found in the ocean's deepest and most remote points, collecting in massive, dense clumps, and clogging the stomachs of marine life washed up onto shorelines.

What's new: Tiny plastic pieces from broken down bags and packaging are now being detected in another element: the air.

  • These microplastics are being deposited onto an isolated, pristine site in the French Pyrenees at an altitude of about 4,600 feet, per a new study.
  • There's also been a sharp uptick in plastic pollution in the ocean since the late 1950s, according to another study published this week.

Why it matters: The findings bring new urgency to efforts already underway to assess the potential human health impacts from exposure to plastics and the cascading consequences of plastic pollution for ecosystems.

  • Plastics could harm human health if they are ingested in certain quantities over time but exactly what those quantities and conditions are, and whether humans are exposed to them is not yet known with confidence.

What they did: Researchers examined atmospheric particles collected between November 2017 and March 2018 near a meteorological station in the Pyrenees.

  • They found microplastics, ranging in size from about 100 microns to 3 millimeters, were abundant at the site, despite being far from any large cities that would presumably be sources.
  • Analyses of weather conditions found the plastics were likely coming from at least 60 miles away, lofted by the wind and washed out of the air by precipitation, the researchers report in Nature Geoscience.

But, but, but: The new study is limited in scope, having looked at just one small plot of land, and additional field and modeling studies are needed to understand the scale of the airborne microplastics problem, the study's authors tell Axios.

  • However, the results match other observations of airborne microplastics in the megacities of Paris and Dongguan, and raise the possibility that plastic pollution is hitching a ride with the weather, the authors say.
"It is potentially everywhere, it’s where you breathe… and everywhere the wind blows. So what you do impacts everywhere in the world."
— Deonie Allen, study co-author and researcher in the School of Agricultural and Life Sciences in Toulouse, France

The big picture: It's not just microplastics. Pollution from macroplastics — bags, cartons and other debris — has also increased sharply in the North Atlantic.

  • Researchers traced a history of plastic pollution in the North Atlantic since 1957 using data from the Continuous Plankton Recorder, an instrument towed behind ships.
  • They searched the recorder's log for evidence of entanglement in plastic debris, and found the number of instances dramatically increased between 1957 and 2016, particularly in the North Sea.
  • "Plastics are everywhere, small and large, we are finding them all over the world," study lead author Clare Ostle, a research scientist at the Marine Biological Association in the U.K., tells Axios.

Go deeper:

2. "Bubble boy" disease is cured

Gael Jesus Pino Alva, a 2-year-old treated with gene therapy, with his mother, Giannina Alva. Photo: Peter Barta/St. Jude

Eight children with "bubble boy" disease — the rare genetic disorder that causes a male baby to be born with little or no immune response — appear to be "cured," scientists reported this week.

The big picture: Only 40–100 babies are born each year with this disorder, but almost all die within 2 years unless they are diagnosed early and placed into sterile environments, like those dramatized in movies, Eileen Drage O'Reilly writes.

Background: The genetic disorder — known as X-SCID (X-linked severe combined immunodeficiency) — arises from a mutation in a single gene on the X chromosome.

  • Currently, the most effective treatment is to find a bone marrow match — which can be very difficult — and transplant stem cells.
  • Gene therapy — which uses viruses to deliver a corrected gene — has been tried as a treatment for the disorder with mixed results, and some studies were halted after the therapy caused leukemia in some patients.
  • The National Institutes of Health tested a treatment that used a de-activated HIV virus in 5 older SCID patients and saw promising early results.

What they did: Researchers at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and the Benioff Children’s Hospital of the University of California, San Francisco used the same engineered virus in 8 children, ages 2 months to 14 months, according to the study in the New England Journal of Medicine.

  • They collected their bone marrow and inserted the corrected gene into it in the lab.
  • Before having the marrow infused, the infants received 2 days of chemotherapy to make space for the new bone marrow cells to grow.

What they found: James Downing, president and CEO of St. Jude, said in a press conference that the trial had "outstanding results" with children "responding to vaccines and able to live normal lives."

  • Most patients were discharged from the hospital within 1 month, and within 3 months, the 3 main types of immune cells — T-cells, B-cells and natural killer cells — were present in the blood of all but 1 patient, who required a second dose of gene therapy.
  • Acknowledging it is rare in the scientific community to claim a "cure," study co-author Ewelina Mamcarz says, "They are cured because for the first time we were able to restore all three cells that constitute the immune system."
  • A couple of toddlers are already playing like healthy children and even entering day care, according to the researchers.

What they're saying: Rebecca Hatcher Buckley, immunology professor at Duke University School of Medicine who was not part of this study, says the vector in particular is "very promising," particularly as the treatment so far has not produced leukemia.

What's next: The trial is ongoing and St. Jude has signed an exclusive license with Mustang Bio. They hope to determine if the immunotherapy can be commercialized for other genetic disorders, including sickle cell disease.

Read the rest of Eileen's story.

3. Satellite data confirms globe is warming rapidly
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Adapted from J. Susskind et al 2019, “Recent global warming as confirmed by AIRS”; Chart: Chris Canipe/Axios

NASA's global temperature data set, which has found that the past 5 years have been the warmest on record, has received new and independent validation of its readings, per a new study.

Why it matters: The research bolsters confidence in NASA's dataset, which climate change doubters have been trying to poke holes in for years, in part because it tends to find greater Arctic warming than NOAA. The study also signals how global observations might be conducted in the future.

What they did: Researchers took two global surface temperature data sets generated from independent instruments — based on land and in space — and compared them for the first time.

  • One included readings from AIRS, an infrared instrument on NASA's Aqua satellite.
  • The other was comprised of surface temperature measurements from NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies' land-based weather observing stations and ocean buoys, collectively known as GISTEMP.

What they found: AIRS data closely matched the Goddard observations during the period of overlap, from 2003 through 2018, except for one key detail. The satellite data shows greater warming in the Arctic, particularly across the data-sparse Arctic Ocean, suggesting GISTEMP may be underestimating global warming there.

  • The underestimate may be as large as 50% in some places, study co-author and director of NASA GISS Gavin Schmidt tells Axios, noting that the GISTEMP data set relies on interpolating Arctic regional temperatures from readings at far-flung land-based stations. This could cause a blind spot, of sorts, over the Arctic Ocean itself.
  • Scientists have already concluded the Arctic is warming at more than twice the rate of the rest of the world.

What they're saying: “These findings should help put to rest any lingering concerns that modern warming is somehow due to the location of sensors in urban heat islands or other measurement errors at the surface,” Zeke Hausfather, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley who was not involved in the new study, told the Washington Post.

  • Schmidt said in the future surface station readings could be combined with satellite-inferred temperatures and other sources for more complete global temperature monitoring.
6. What we're reading elsewhere

A great white shark near The Neptune Islands, South Australia. Photo: Brad Leue/Barcroft Images/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Want to escape global warming? These cities promise cool relief (Kendra Pierre-Louis, NYT)

It turns out, great white sharks are scared of something, too (Kayla Epstein, Washington Post)

Snailfish is first animal from extreme ocean depths to get genome sequenced (Erin I. Garcia de Jesus, Nature News)

Move over, San Andreas: There's an ominous new fault in town (Geoff Manaugh, Wired)

7. Something wondrous: Hubble turns 29 years old

The Southern Crab Nebula. Image: NASA, ESA, and STS

The Hubble Space Telescope took a new photo of a multi-colored, hourglass-shaped nebula for its 29th birthday.

Details: The Southern Crab Nebula is the creation of interactions between white dwarf and red giant stars at its center.

“The red giant is shedding its outer layers in the last phase of its life before it too lives out its final years as a white dwarf,” the European Space Agency said in a statement. “Some of the red giant’s ejected material is attracted by the gravity of its companion.”

The new photo is just the most recent in a long history of Hubble birthday photos taken by the intrepid space telescope, which is expected to keep on trucking in space through at least the mid-2020s.

Alison Snyder

Thanks for reading! Happy Easter and Happy Passover to those celebrating. See you again next Thursday. Have a great week!