Nell Greenfieldboyce

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.

With reporting focused on general science, NASA, and the intersection between technology and society, Greenfieldboyce has been on the science desk's technology beat since she joined NPR in 2005.

In that time Greenfieldboyce has reported on topics including the narwhals in Greenland, the ending of the space shuttle program, and the reasons why independent truckers don't want electronic tracking in their cabs.

Much of Greenfieldboyce's reporting reflects an interest in discovering how applied science and technology connects with people and culture. She has worked on stories spanning issues such as pet cloning, gene therapy, ballistics, and federal regulation of new technology.

Prior to NPR, Greenfieldboyce spent a decade working in print, mostly magazines including U.S. News & World Report and New Scientist.

A graduate of Johns Hopkins, earning her Bachelor's of Arts degree in social sciences and a Master's of Arts degree in science writing, Greenfieldboyce taught science writing for four years at the university. She was honored for her talents with the Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award for Young Science Journalists.

The federal government will temporarily stop funding any new studies that could make three high-risk infectious diseases even more dangerous. The government is asking all scientists involved in this research now to voluntarily halt their current studies.

The unusual move comes after a long controversy over experiments with mutant forms of a bird flu virus.

How many times do top officials have to say that the Ebola virus is not airborne?

A lot, apparently.

Here is President Obama Thursday: "This is not an airborne disease. It is not easy to catch."

And the day before: "It is not like the flu. It is not airborne."

And Friday, a reporter asked the inevitable question about airborne Ebola when Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, held a press briefing about nurse Nina Pham's transfer to the National Institute of Health.

Hospitals have been on the lookout for the Ebola virus in the United States, and Texas Health Presbyterian in Dallas was no exception. A nurse there did ask about the travel history of the patient who later turned out to be infected with the virus. But some members of the medical team didn't hear that the man had recently been in West Africa. So he was initially sent home — even though he was experiencing symptoms of Ebola, and that meant he was contagious.

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Any research institution that receives federal funding will soon have to screen certain kinds of scientific experiments to see if the work could potentially be misused to endanger the public.

The new policy will take effect next year, and it's the latest effort by the U. S. government to come to grips with so called "dual-use" biological research—legitimate medical or public health studies that could reveal how to make already-worrisome germs or toxins even more destructive.

Back in August, scientists reported that the Ebola virus is mutating during this epidemic.

When a virus spreads between people and reproduces, it copies its genetic code in a sloppy way. So there can be unpredictable changes.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

One of the reasons Ebola is so terrifying is that there's no vaccine and no cure. But the World Health Organization hopes to change that, with plans to quickly test experimental products during this outbreak.

By November, two promising vaccines will have been tested on people to see if they're safe, says Marie-Paule Kieny, assistant director-general at WHO.

The latest numbers on the Ebola outbreak are grim: 2,473 people infected and 1,350 deaths.

That's the World Health Organization's official tally of confirmed, probable and suspect cases across Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. But the WHO has previously warned that its official figures may "vastly underestimate the magnitude of the outbreak."

So how bad is it really?

While the Ebola outbreak continues to rage in West Africa, it is also unfolding — in a virtual sense — inside the computers of researchers who study the dynamics of epidemics.

Policymakers look to these simulations to get a sense of how the outbreak might spread. They also can use them to run experiments to see which public health measures should take priority.

A smoldering debate about whether researchers should ever deliberately create superflu strains and other risky germs in the interest of science has flared once again.

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A panel of experts convened by the World Health Organization has unanimously endorsed the idea of offering unproven vaccines or treatments to help combat the unprecedented Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

This outbreak is unusual not just because it has spread to four countries and involves so many people, says Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny, Assistant Director-General at the World Health Organization. It is also the first Ebola outbreak that could possibly benefit from a range of potential experimental treatments and vaccines.

No one likes it when a new drug in people's medicine cabinets turns out to have problems — just remember the Vioxx debacle a decade ago, when the painkiller was removed from the market over concerns that it increased the risk of heart attack and stroke.

To do a better job of spotting unforeseen risks and side effects, the Food and Drug Administration is trying something new — and there's a decent chance that it involves your medical records.

An audacious quest to reconnect with a vintage NASA spacecraft has suffered a serious setback and is now pretty much over.

The satellite launched in 1978 and has been in a long, looping orbit around the sun for about three decades. Earlier this year, NPR told you about an effort to get in touch with this venerable piece of NASA hardware and send it on one more adventure.

But there are no guarantees when you try to recapture the past.

A gung-ho group of space enthusiasts has started the process of putting a vintage NASA spacecraft on a new flight path, so that this venerable piece of hardware will be able to do useful science once again.

For the first time, scientists have expanded life's genetic alphabet, by inserting two unnatural, man-made "letters" into a bacterium's DNA, and by showing that the cell's machinery can copy them.

The advance means that scientists have a new tool for exploring how life encodes information, which could help them understand life's origins.

What's more, this is a step towards giving living cells new abilities, like being able to make more and better medicines, cheaper and faster.

Questions are swirling around a science journal's decision last year to publish a description of a newly discovered botulinum toxin while omitting key genetic details that researchers would normally disclose.

The unusual case highlights important unresolved issues in how to balance scientific openness with the worry that biological information could potentially be misused.

Scientists who have been hunting for another Earth beyond our solar system have come across a planet that's remarkably similar to our world.

It's almost the same size as Earth, and it orbits in its star's "Goldilocks zone" — where temperatures are not too hot, not too cold, and maybe just right for life.

But a lot about this planet is going to remain a mystery, because it's 500 light-years away.

A new report from the United Nations' panel on climate change says major action is needed, and fast, if policymakers want to limit global warming to acceptable levels.

There's an international target to control climate change: keeping the global temperature rise to just 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels — that's 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change now says it's technically possible to meet that goal. But doing so will require rapid, large-scale shifts in energy production and use.

The Dutch virologist accused of engineering a dangerous superflu a few years ago is back with more contentious research.

In 2011, Ron Fouchier and his team at Erasmus Medical Center took the H5N1 flu virus and made it more contagious. Now the team has published another study with more details on the exact genetic changes needed to do the trick.

Throngs of museum-goers mill through the grand entrance hall of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., every day, gawking at such treasures as the Apollo 11 capsule that carried Neil Armstrong's crew to the moon and back, as well as Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis airplane.

But the famous Milestones of Flight exhibit hasn't significantly changed since the museum opened in 1976.

NASA is hoping to soon venture out farther into space than ever before. But these long journeys mean astronauts could face greater risks to their physical and mental health than the space agency currently allows.

Now, an independent group of experts convened by the Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, has weighed in on how NASA should make decisions about the kinds of risks that are acceptable for missions that venture outside low Earth orbit or extend beyond 30 days.

Scientists have spotted a new dwarf planet at the edge of our solar system. It's a kind of pink ice ball that's way out there, far beyond Pluto.

Astronomers used to think this region of space was a no man's land. But the new findings suggest that it holds many small worlds — and there are even hints of an unseen planet bigger than Earth.

A huge amount of ancient helium is rising up from the rocks beneath Yellowstone National Park — about enough to fill up a Goodyear blimp every week.

The gas comes from a vast store of helium that's accumulated in the Earth's crust for hundreds of millions of years, scientists report in the journal Nature this week.

The National Institutes of Health is teaming up with major drug companies in a new effort to identify disease-related molecules and biological processes that could lead to future medicines.

The public-private partnership is called AMP, for the "Accelerating Medicines Partnership," and it will focus first on Alzheimer's disease, Type 2 diabetes, and two autoimmune disorders: rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.

Scientists have reconstructed the genetic code of a strain of bacteria that caused one of the most deadly pandemics in history nearly 1,500 years ago.

They did it by finding the skeletons of people killed by the plague and extracting DNA from traces of blood inside their teeth.

This plague struck in the year 541, under the reign of the Roman emperor Justinian, so it's usually called the Justinian plague. The emperor actually got sick himself but recovered. He was one of the lucky ones.

In their hunt for potentially habitable planets around distant stars, scientists have been so focused on finding Earth-like planets that they're ignoring the possibility that other kinds of planets might be even friendlier to life, a new report says.

So-called superhabitable worlds wouldn't necessarily look like Earth but would nonetheless have conditions that are more suitable for life to emerge and evolve, according to the study published this month in the journal Astrobiology.

For Matthew and Brianne Wojtesta, it all started about a week after the birth of their daughter Vera. Matthew was picking up his son from kindergarten when he got a phone call.

It was their pediatrician, with some shocking news. Vera had been flagged by New York's newborn screening program as possibly having a potentially deadly disease, and would need to go see a neurologist the next day.

Evolution is relentless process that seems to keep going and going, even when creatures live in a stable, unchanging world.

That's the latest surprise from a unique experiment that's been underway for more than a quarter-century.

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