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76 Evolution News Articles
for May 2016
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5-31-16 Vaccines might be able to stop Alzheimer’s plaques from forming
Vaccines might be able to stop Alzheimer’s plaques from forming
The plaques linked to Alzheimer's disease seem to be made by the brain defending itself from attack. Dialling down this defence may stop the disease.Our brain’s defence against invading microbes could cause Alzheimer’s disease – which suggests that vaccination could prevent the condition. Alzheimer’s disease has long been linked to the accumulation of sticky plaques of beta-amyloid proteins in the brain, but the function of plaques has remained unclear. “Does it play a role in the brain, or is it just garbage that accumulates,” asks Rudolph Tanzi of Harvard Medical School. Now he has shown that these plaques could be defences for trapping invading pathogens.

5-30-16 Nanoparticles beat back atherosclerosis
Nanoparticles beat back atherosclerosis
Scientists are designing tiny “missiles” to find and destroy waxy plaques in blood vessels. Careening through the bloodstream, a single nanoparticle is dwarfed by red blood cells whizzing by that are 100 times larger. But when specially designed nanoparticles bump into an atherosclerotic plaque — a fatty clog narrowing a blood vessel — the tiny particles can play an outsized role. They can cling to the plaque and begin to break it down, clearing the path for those big blood cells to flow more easily and calming the angry inflammation in the vicinity. By finding and busting apart plaques in the arteries, nanoparticles may offer a new, non-surgical way to reduce a patient’s risk for heart attack and stroke.

5-27-16 Bacteria resistant to last-resort antibiotic appears in U.S.
Bacteria resistant to last-resort antibiotic appears in U.S.
Gene from E. coli strain could spread to other bacteria. A last-ditch weapon against drug-resistant bacteria has met its match in Pennsylvania. A 49-year-old woman has tested positive for a strain of Escherichia coli resistant to the antibiotic colistin, researchers report May 26 in Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy. It’s the first time in the United States that scientists have found bacteria carrying a gene for colistin resistance known as mrc-1, write study coauthor Patrick McGann of Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Md., and colleagues. But perhaps even more alarming is that the gene rides on a transferable loop of DNA called a plasmid. “That means we now see a possibility of spread,” says physician and clinical microbiologist Robert Skov. And not just from mother cell to daughter cell, he says, but to neighboring strains of bacteria, too.

5-27-16 Comet 67P carries two ingredients for life: glycine, phosphorus
Comet 67P carries two ingredients for life: glycine, phosphorus
Conclusive evidence of amino acid, DNA-builder detected by Rosetta spacecraft. Two more of the ingredients for life as we know it have turned up in space, this time from a comet orbiting the sun. While hints of both have been seen in comets before, this is the clearest evidence to date. Glycine, the smallest of the 20 amino acids that build proteins, is floating in the tenuous atmosphere of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, researchers report online May 27 in Science Advances. Comet 67P’s atmosphere also holds phosphorus, which is essential to DNA and RNA. Both detections support the idea that comets are at least partly responsible for seeding early Earth with material needed for life.

5-27-16 Building blocks of life spotted around comet for the first time
Building blocks of life spotted around comet for the first time
The Rosetta spacecraft has detected biological components glycine and phosphorus emerging from its comet - suggesting life on Earth could have arrived on a ball of ice. A frosty comet could have delivered the ingredients for life to Earth. The European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft has spotted an amino acid on the comet it orbits – confirming that a ball of ice and dust can hold a major building block of life. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, which control essential reactions in living cells. Astrobiologists have long wondered whether they could have been delivered to early Earth on the backs of comets or asteroids.

5-27-16 Infections resist 'last antibiotic' in US
Infections resist 'last antibiotic' in US
The first case of an infection that resists the antibiotic of last resort - colistin - has been detected in the US. The 48-year old woman from Pennsylvania recovered and the infection was vulnerable to other antibiotics. However, colistin is hugely symbolic as it is used when other drugs fail and officials warned the world was now reaching "the end of the road" for antibiotics.

5-27-16 Making human genomes in the lab?
Making human genomes in the lab?
The prospect of using biotechnology to clone or create a designer human being in the lab has long been the stuff of dystopic science fiction. Fears that this dark prospect is entering the realm of the possible were recently raised, when a select group of researchers, lawyers, and entrepreneurs convened behind closed doors at Harvard Medical School to contemplate building an entire human genome—a person’s complete set of DNA—from scratch. Synthetic bacterial genomes have been created in the lab, but the human genome, which has a sequence of 3 billion chemical pairs, is more difficult to fabricate. If someone could pull it off, though, the result could make it possible to copy certain people—say, Albert Einstein—or design new humans without biological parents. Not surprisingly, the idea has sparked controversy, reports TechTimes?.com. Harvard geneticist George Church, who organized the conference, said the aim of the project is not to manufacture people—just cells, with the goal of improving DNA synthesis in general for applications in plants, animals, and microbes. The meeting’s invitation, however, suggests the primary goal “would be to synthesize a complete human genome in a cell line within a period of 10 years.” Attendees were told to refrain from revealing any details about the event, a directive that fueled suspicion in some quarters. “Discussions to syn­thesize, for the first time, a human genome,” says Northwestern University ­bioethicist Laurie Zoloth, “should not occur in closed rooms.”

5-27-16 GMOs: Safe to eat, says science
GMOs: Safe to eat, says science
There is no evidence “genetically engineered crops have caused health problems in humans,” said Joel Achenbach in The Washington Post. So concludes a sweeping study released last week by the National Academies of Sciences. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been a flash point ever since they were introduced in the 1990s as a means of boosting crop yields and easing world hunger. Fierce opponents push for mandatory labeling of GMO products—now used in most processed foods and including 90 percent of the corn and soybean produced in the U.S.—and claim these “Frankenfoods” might cause allergies, autism, and other diseases. But after reviewing more than 900 studies, the NAS panel—which had no funding from industry—found GMOs are as safe as other crops. Still, the study said, every newly introduced plant food should undergo safety testing, “regardless of how it was created.”

5-27-16 DNA 'tape recorder' to trace cell history
DNA 'tape recorder' to trace cell history
Researchers have invented a DNA "tape recorder" that can trace the family history of every cell in an organism. The technique is being hailed as a breakthrough in understanding how the trillions of complex cells in a body are descended from a single egg. "It has the potential to provide profound insights into how normal, diseased or damaged tissues are constructed and maintained," one UK biologist told the BBC. (Webmaster's comment: It's absolutely amazing what we can do.)

5-26-16 Blogging cells tell their stories using CRISPR gene editing
Blogging cells tell their stories using CRISPR gene editing
Engineered cells can use gene editing to monitor your health - a potentially revolutionary technique that could allow us to spy on infections and cancer. The CRISPR gene editing technique has been adapted to make cells keep a log of what happens to them, written inside their own DNA. Such CRISPR-based logging could have a huge range of uses, from smart cells that monitor our health from within, to helping us understand exactly how our bodies develop and grow. This exciting technology could record the biography of a cell, says synthetic biologist Darren Nesbeth of University College London, who was not involved in the work. For example, therapeutic immune cells could be engineered to patrol a person’s body, recording what they see and reporting back to clinicians when they are recaptured. “That’s just one of many possible examples,” says Nesbeth.

5-26-16 See-through brains reveal memory pathways for pleasure and fear
See-through brains reveal memory pathways for pleasure and fear
Pleasure and fear memories are laid down using different neuronal pathways, a discovery that could lead to more targeted treatments for depression. Pleasure and fear memories are laid down on different pathways within the brain – a finding that might lead to more targeted treatments for depression and other mental health issues. The team used a technique called Clarity to wash away the fatty materials in the mouse brains, making them transparent. With the help of special dyes which highlighted cells that had been active, the team could now see which networks of neurons corresponded to either the pleasurable or fearful experience. While both types of memory were laid down in the medial prefrontal cortex, they were stored along different pathways or axonal projections, which connected to different regions elsewhere in the mouse brain.

5-25-16 Alzheimer’s culprit may fight other diseases
Alzheimer’s culprit may fight other diseases
Amyloid-beta protein attacks pathogens in mice, worms. A notorious Alzheimer’s disease villain may also be a germ-busting superhero. Amyloid-beta gums up the brains of people with Alzheimer’s but also takes out dangerous brain invaders. As strong as steel, tough strands of A-beta protein imprison pathogens that threaten the body and brain, experiments in mice and worms show. Those results raise the possibility that A-beta plays a role in the immune system and its accumulation in Alzheimer’s might be prompted by an infection.

5-25-16 Alzheimer’s may be caused by brain’s sticky defence against bugs
Alzheimer’s may be caused by brain’s sticky defence against bugs
The amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease may be the brain’s way of trapping invading microbes that have crossed the blood-brain barrier. The protein plaques in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s disease could be created as our immune system fights off invading microbes. Alzheimer’s disease has long been linked to the accumulation of sticky plaques of beta-amyloid proteins in the brain, but their function – if any – has remained unclear. “Why does beta-amyloid accumulate in people as they get older? Does it play a role in the brain, or is it just garbage that accumulates.”

5-25-16 Neanderthals built mystery underground circles 175,000 years ago
Neanderthals built mystery underground circles 175,000 years ago
Rings of stalagmites on a cave floor were arranged by our extinct human relatives, hinting at their sophistication and intelligence. They worked by torchlight, following the same procedure hour after hour: wrench a stalagmite off the cave floor, remove the tip and base, and carefully lay it with the others. Today we can only guess as to why a group of Neanderthals built a series of large stalagmite structures in a French cave – but the fact they did provides a rare glimpse into our extinct cousin’s potential for social organisation in a challenging environment. Gone are the days when we thought of Neanderthals as crude and unintelligent. Archaeological evidence now suggests they were capable of symbolic thought, had a basic knowledge of chemistry, medicine and cooking, and perhaps some capacity for speech. They may even have taught modern humans new artisanal skills when the two species met and interbred. (Webmaster's comment: I wonder if they were as brutal as humans are.)

5-25-16 Stone circles show Neandertals’ social, technical skills
Stone circles show Neandertals’ social, technical skills
176,500-year-old stalagmite structures found in French cave. A new study finds that Neandertals built structures out of stalagmites. In at least one part of Stone Age Europe, Neandertals were lords of the rings. Humankind’s close evolutionary cousins built large, circular structures out of stalagmites in a French cave around 176,500 years ago, researchers say. Neandertal groups explored the cave’s dark recesses, where they assembled stalagmite pieces into complex configurations. Two ring-shaped formations and four smaller stalagmite arrangements, situated 336 meters inside France’s Bruniquel Cave, all display traces of ancient fires on stalagmite chunks.

5-25-16 Neanderthal stone ring structures found in French cave
Neanderthal stone ring structures found in French cave
The structures were found deep inside the cave, so the builders would have needed fire to see. Researchers investigating a cave in France have identified mysterious stone rings that were probably built by Neanderthals. The discovery provides yet more evidence that we may have underestimated the capabilities of our evolutionary cousins. The structures were made from hundreds of stalagmites, the mineral deposits which rise from the floors of caves. Dating techniques showed that they were broken off 175,000 years ago.

5-25-16 Six bizarre ways animals have adapted for survival
Six bizarre ways animals have adapted for survival
Over millions of years, in their constant, harrowing battle for survival, animals have evolved and adapted to often impossibly harsh environments. Frequently, these adaptations objectively make sense, like flippers to help with swimming, or camouflage for hiding from predators. Other adaptations are just plain weird. But as Jeff Goldblum wisely said in Jurassic Park, life, uh, finds a way. Hey, whatever it takes to stay alive. Here, a few bizarre evolutionary quirks found throughout the animal kingdom:

  • Lungless salamanders
  • Butt-breathing turtles
  • Orgasm-faking fish
  • Penis-fencing worms
  • Suicide-bomber ants
  • Chemical-resistant bed bugs

(Webmaster's comment: There is bacterial life everywhere. In the deepest ocean, deep underground in rocks, high above in clouds, in hot springs, in acid springs, in hot volcanic vents, in the air we breathe, and inside of all living creatures. If there is any possibility for one bacteria to get into it, many will be living there.)

5-24-16 Evolutionary engineer Frances Arnold wins €1m tech prize
Evolutionary engineer Frances Arnold wins €1m tech prize
US engineer Frances Arnold has won the Millennium Technology Prize for pioneering "directed evolution". By driving a sped-up version of natural selection in the lab, the method has created new enzymes for industrial catalysts, household detergents, and even to make rocket fuel from sugar. The €1m (£0.8m) prize is awarded biennially and Prof Arnold is the first female winner in its 12-year history. It recognises developments that "change people's lives for the better".

5-24-16 The gene's still selfish: Dawkins' famous idea turns 40
The gene's still selfish: Dawkins' famous idea turns 40
As The Selfish Gene notches up 40 years in print, BBC News asked Richard Dawkins whether his most famous book is relevant today (answer: yes), whether he has any regrets about public spats over religion (no), and whether he is quitting Twitter (sort of). "I'd so much rather talk about this than about politics." This, from a thinker most famous as a fearless firebrand, sounds rather incongruous. But as Prof Dawkins hunches over his laptop to dig up examples of biomorphs - the computer-generated "creatures" he conceived in the 1980s to illustrate artificial selection - it is transparently, genuinely felt. Later, we touch on the fact that he sees public debate as a scientist's responsibility. Right now, he wants to talk about molluscs.

5-23-16 See the best new species discovered over the past year
See the best new species discovered over the past year
A ghostly cave critter that builds shelters and perhaps the ugliest fish ever are among the species discovered in 2015. How many species are there on Earth? The best guess is 8.74 million but estimates vary wildly and there is still no consensus. What’s more, most types of life could still be unknown to us: close to 90 per cent of land and marine species are thought to be awaiting discovery – though most of those are likely to be tiny. Every year, we add thousands of new species to the roster – some of them already extinct. Here are a few of the past year’s most remarkable additions, from a compilation by environmentalists at the State University of New York.

5-23-16 Fossil gives clues to extinction 250 million years ago
Fossil gives clues to extinction 250 million years ago
A newly-classified fossil gives clues to how life in the oceans recovered from a mass extinction about 250 million years ago. The reptile is an early relative of the ichthyosaurs - a large group of marine reptiles that swam at the time of the dinosaurs. With its tiny toothless head, the creature is something of a curiosity, say scientists. The specimen suggests marine reptiles evolved quickly after the event. Previous evidence has suggested it took a long time for animals in the seas to bounce back.

5-23-16 Cranky young sun could have kickstarted life on Earth
Cranky young sun could have kickstarted life on Earth
Giant solar storms may have turned early Earth's atmosphere into a cosy blanket and also helped life get going. Giant flare-ups from the young sun might have kept early Earth warm – and any life nicely fertilised. By splitting inert nitrogen molecules in the atmosphere, charged particles from the sun could have sparked chemical reactions that heated the planet and could be the precursor for life. This suggestion is the latest attempt to solve a famous paradox known as the “faint young sun” problem. About 4 billion years ago, the sun was only 70 per cent as bright as it is today, which should have made the Earth a frozen snowball. But geological evidence shows that ancient Earth was warm enough for liquid water. The same holds true for Mars. Now, Vladimir Airapetian of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland suggests that blasts of protons from the hyperactive young sun could be the answer.

5-23-16 For baby sea turtles, it helps to have a lot of siblings
For baby sea turtles, it helps to have a lot of siblings
New research shows that having lots of siblings in a nest could give a baby green turtle a better start in life. Sea turtles do not have an easy start to life. After hatching, they have to break out of their shell, dig their way out from beneath the sand, then make a mad dash across the beach to the water where they may or may not find food and safety — hopefully without getting snapped up by a predator. All of this requires a bit of luck and a lot of energy. And the energy a hatchling expends on breaking out of the nest is energy that can’t be used on surviving the rest of the journey. Now, a new study has quantified the amount of energy a baby sea turtle uses to dig itself to the surface. Having lots of siblings — and, thus, lots of help — can really be a time and energy saver, researchers report May 18 in the Journal of Experimental Biology. That also implies that the conservation technique of dividing clutches may instead make hatchlings worse off.

5-20-16 Scientists find way to break through bad bacteria’s defenses
Scientists find way to break through bad bacteria’s defenses
Enzymes used to build protective biofilms can also destroy them. Pseudomonas aeruginosa biofilms are communities of bacteria encased in a coating primarily of sugar polymers. Enzymes that the bacteria use to build the coating can also chew it up, a new study suggests. Bacteria build biofilms, communities of the microorganisms encased in a protective goo that shields the microbes from antibiotics and immune system attacks. But the very enzymes bacteria use to construct that shield can also destroy some of its molecules and strip away the protection, researchers report May 20 in Science Advances.

5-20-16 Two studies find one gene for red beaks and feathers
Two studies find one gene for red beaks and feathers
A pair of scientific papers has identified the same single gene as the source of red colouring in birds. The gene makes an enzyme that lets the birds convert yellow pigments, which they eat, into red ones, which are deposited in their feathers or beaks. Two separate teams made the discovery, by examining the DNA of birds which either gained or lost their redness.

5-19-16 Gut bacteria influence the birth of new brain cells in mice
Gut bacteria influence the birth of new brain cells in mice
Wiping out a mouse's gut bacteria with a long course of antibiotics hinders the growth of new brain cells – but exercise and probiotics can reverse this. A long course of antibiotics that wipe out gut bacteria disrupts the growth of brain cells in mice – an effect that can be reversed with exercise or probiotics. The findings provide more evidence of a link between gut bacteria and the brain, and suggest that at least some probiotics could be beneficial after all. The trillions of bacteria that line our guts have recently been linked to brain health. Alterations in gut bacteria are thought to potentially play a part in disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, and there have been a handful of cases in which a course of antibiotics has been linked to psychosis. (Webmaster's comment: We are one giant integrated colony of organizisms. We can not live without our member creatures.)

5-19-16 Wiping out gut bacteria impairs brain
Wiping out gut bacteria impairs brain
Nerve cell production, memory affected in mice treated with antibiotics. Antibiotics that target microbes in the gut influence what goes on in the brain, too, a mouse study suggests. Obliterating bacteria in the gut may hurt the brain, too. In mice, a long course of antibiotics that wiped out gut bacteria slowed the birth of new brain cells and impaired memory, scientists write May 19 in Cell Reports. The results reinforce evidence for a powerful connection between bacteria in the gut and the brain. After seven weeks of drinking water spiked with a cocktail of antibiotics, mice had fewer newborn nerve cells in a part of the hippocampus, a brain structure important for memory. The mice’s ability to remember previously seen objects also suffered.

5-19-16 Green light found to ease the pain of migraine
Green light found to ease the pain of migraine
White, blue, red and amber light all worsen migraine pain, but green light seems to reduce it, perhaps by triggering less brain activity. People who experience migraines that are made worse by light might be better off seeing the world in green. While white, blue, red and amber light all increase migraine pain, low-intensity green light seems to reduce it. The team behind the finding hope that specially developed sunglasses that screen out all wavelengths of light except green could help migraineurs. Many people experience sensitivity to light during a migraine. Photophobia, as it is known, can leave migraineurs resorting to sunglasses in well-lit rooms, or seeking the comfort of darkness. (Webmaster's comment: Anything that helps would be appreciated!)

5-19-16 Superbugs will 'kill every three seconds'
Superbugs will 'kill every three seconds'
Superbugs will kill someone every three seconds by 2050 unless the world acts now, a hugely influential report says. The global review sets out a plan for preventing medicine "being cast back into the dark ages" that requires billions of dollars of investment. It also calls for a revolution in the way antibiotics are used and a massive campaign to educate people. The report has received a mixed response with some concerned that it does not go far enough. The battle against infections that are resistant to drugs is one the world is losing rapidly and has been described as "as big a risk as terrorism". The problem is that we are simply not developing enough new antibiotics and we are wasting the ones we have. Since the Review on Antimicrobial Resistance started in mid-2014, more than one million people have died from such infections. And in that time doctors also discovered bacteria that can shrug off the drug of last resort - colistin - leading to warnings that the world was teetering on the cusp of a "post-antibiotic era". The review says the situation will get only worse with 10 million people predicted to die every year from resistant infections by 2050. (Webmaster's comment: Before going to any hospital demand that they tell you how many have died there from superbugs.)

5-19-16 Some Stone Age humans returned to Africa
Some Stone Age humans returned to Africa
DNA from a woman who lived in what’s now Romania around 35,000 years ago indicates that Stone Age humans migrated to North Africa from West Asia. DNA from an ancient woman who lived in what’s now Romania indicates that people in Asia trekked to Africa starting between 45,000 and 40,000 years ago. Evidence for this back-to-Africa trip comes from the partial remains of a 35,000-year-old Homo sapiens discovered in a Romanian cave more than 60 years ago. A distinctive pattern of alterations to mitochondrial DNA extracted from two of the teeth are similar to alterations seen in mitochondrial DNA of present-day North Africans, signaling an evolutionary connection, the team proposes May 19 in Scientific Reports. After evolving in Africa around 200,000 years ago, human populations spread out of the continent by 50,000 years ago. The ancient Romanian woman’s DNA came from a maternal line that originated in West Asia after humans initially left Africa but then ended up in North Africa, the scientists propose.

5-19-16 Why baby turtles work together to dig themselves out of a nest
Why baby turtles work together to dig themselves out of a nest
Joint digging saves turtle hatchlings time and energy, leaving them in better shape to head down the beach and into the sea. Baby sea turtles work together to dig their way out of sandy nests, and the more of them there are, the less energy they use doing it. We knew of this group-digging behaviour, called social facilitation, for a long time, but the reasons for teamwork were unclear. Possible explanations included speeding up nest escape or helping the turtles emerge together to swamp awaiting predators on the beach. But Mohd Uzair Rusli, a biologist at the University of Malaysia Terengganu in Kuala Terengganu wondered if it could also help individual hatchlings cut down on energy use while trying to leave their nest. This is a major undertaking for the tiny hatchlings, taking several days, with the only source of energy being the yolk that remains when they hatch.

5-18-16 Twins’ close bond makes them more likely to live to retirement
Twins’ close bond makes them more likely to live to retirement
The close social bond of identical twins seems to protect them against life’s ravages, at least until they are in their 60s. It’s twin power. Identical twins are less likely to die young from unexpected causes, perhaps because of the close social bond between them. David Sharrow and James Anderson at the University of Washington in Seattle have examined data on Danish twins born between 1870 and 1900. By comparing the fate of these twins with the general population from that time, they say they have identified a “twin protective effect”, which seems to boost the likelihood of twins surviving into their 60s. Up until this age, they found that twins are less likely to die unexpectedly. But in later years, genetic factors become more important in determining how likely someone is to die at any given age. “The effect does appear to be strong,” says Sharrow. For example, the proportion of female twins that live into their early 60s is 10 per cent higher than the average for females.

5-18-16 Trees seen resting branches while ‘asleep’ for the first time
Trees seen resting branches while ‘asleep’ for the first time
Birch branches droop by as much as 10 centimetres at night, and return to their usual positions at daybreak. It’s not yet clear whether the effect is deliberate or passive. For the first time, trees have been shown to undergo physical changes at night that can be likened to sleep, or at least to day-night cycles that have been observed experimentally in smaller plants. Branches of birch trees have now been seen drooping by as much as 10 centimetres at the tips towards the end of the night. “It was a very clear effect, and applied to the whole tree,” says András Zlinszky of the Centre for Ecological Research in Tihany, Hungary. “No one has observed this effect before at the scale of whole trees, and I was surprised by the extent of the changes.”

5-18-16 Gigantopithecus: The story of the greatest of the great apes
Gigantopithecus: The story of the greatest of the great apes
Millions of years ago, the jungles of Southeast Asia were home to a veritable King Kong. Yet all we have left of it are a whole load of teeth. Hong Kong, 1935: a young palaeontologist picks his way through the back streets, ducking in and out of apothecary’s shops. He’s looking for dragon teeth, the name the Chinese give to old animal teeth used in traditional medicines. In a dusty drawer of trinkets, his eyes fall on a large molar unlike that of any living animal, and he instantly knows his search is over. The tooth belongs not to a dragon but an ape, and if its teeth are anything to go by, it was huge. So begins the story of the discovery of a truly fantastic beast, the greatest of all great apes. According to some estimates, it stood 3.5 metres tall, weighed over 500 kilograms, and stalked the nightmares of the earliest humans to reach China. Its name? Gigantopithecus. Eighty years after Ralph von Koenigswald stood dumbstruck in a Hong Kong drugstore, fossils of the giant ape remain sparse. A jawbone fragment described earlier this year is just the fourth ever found. The four pieces and several thousand teeth are our only evidence it even existed. But from these scraps, we are slowly piecing together an image of this real-life King Kong*, how it lived and why it eventually vanished from the face of the planet.

5-18-16 Hornbills join toucans in the cool beak club
Hornbills join toucans in the cool beak club
Southern yellow-billed hornbills lose heat through their beaks to keep cool in the Kalahari Desert of South Africa. In the scorching heat of the Kalahari Desert, some birds still manage to keep their cool. Thermal imaging reveals that the southern yellow-billed hornbill (Tockus leucomelas) vents heat from its beak, a phenomenon previously observed in toco toucans (Ramphastos toco). A team of South African researchers snapped infrared photos of 18 hornbills on a farm in the southern edge of the desert at temperatures from 15° to 45° Celsius.

5-18-16 1.56-billion-year-old fossils add drama to Earth’s ‘boring billion’
1.56-billion-year-old fossils add drama to Earth’s ‘boring billion’
China find could shift timing of eukaryotes’ becoming multicellular. Fossils from 1.56-billion-year-old mudstone contain clusters of cells that resemble large-scale multicellular eukaryotes. A form of multicellular life visible to the naked eye may have emerged nearly a billion years earlier than scientists once thought. At 1.56 billion years old, fossils discovered in north China represent the best evidence yet for the early existence of large eukaryotes, paleobiologist Maoyan Zhu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Nanjing and colleagues report May 17 in Nature Communications. Eukaryotes, which have cells containing nuclei and other membrane-wrapped machinery, include everything from plants to people. The new find could mark when single-celled eukaryotes became multicellular organisms capable of drawing energy from the sun, says geobiologist Shuhai Xiao of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, who was not involved in the research. “That’s why it’s important,” he says. “The fossils represent one of the major transitions in evolution.”

5-18-16 Some animals ‘see’ the world through oddball eyes
Some animals ‘see’ the world through oddball eyes
Scientists' understanding of animal sight has taken a turn toward the bizarre. A juvenile purple sea urchin — without obvious eyes — shows an abundance of light-detecting proteins, such as c-opsins. Sea urchins don’t have anything that people recognize as an eye, says Sönke Johnsen of Duke University. Urchin bodies are mobile pincushions in purples and pinks to browns and blacks, bristling with a mix of spiky spines and soft, stretchy tube feet. Yet at times urchins act as if they “see” large-enough somethings in their world, even if the how and what of their visual systems have been hard to pin down. “Maddening,” Johnsen says. “They almost always have what looks like purposeful behavior, but you can’t quite put your finger on it because there’s something so alien about them.”

5-18-16 Why would scientists want to build human genomes from scratch?
Why would scientists want to build human genomes from scratch?
A secret meeting at Harvard Medical School last week discussed synthesising big genomes – and they could be planning to create designer human cells. Last week, more than 130 people met at Harvard Medical School to discuss making large genomes from scratch. The meeting was attended by a select group of researchers, lawyers, ethicists, engineers and government representatives. Other scientists and journalists weren’t allowed, and attendees were barred from relaying any information to the media. But details are starting to leak out, and some think they have significant implications. The meeting is thought to have discussed plans for a 10-year international research project that aims to design and build a complete human genome. “This is a natural extension of the human genome sequencing project,” says Paul Freemont of Imperial College London, who says he is “very familiar with the meeting”, but will not disclose whether he attended. Instead of reading the sequence of the three billion letters that comprises the human genome, which the Human Genome Project accomplished in 2003, the plan this time is to write the sequence, synthesising the code chemically. Synthetic bacterial genomes have already been created, but the human genome is thousands of times larger, making it much harder to synthesise. The project reportedly plans to make genomes this large, place them in cells, and develop cultured cell lines that run using this designer DNA.

5-18-16 The bizarre mating ritual of a bee parasite
The bizarre mating ritual of a bee parasite
The females of Stylops ovinae, a parasitic insect species that lives in mining bees, have pretty dull lives. While the males, tiny winged insects, get to flit about — for a few hours, at least, before they die — the females are literally stuck at home, wedged inside a mining bee for their entire lives with only a bit of their cephalothorax (neck) exposed. And worse, once a female’s offspring hatch, they will eat her alive. Oh, and they’ve got no wings, legs, antennae, eyes, mouthparts or genitalia. How do those offspring come about if the females don’t have genitals? That’s where this female insect’s life gets even more miserable: To get those cannibalistic kids, she has to first undergo traumatic insemination — a mating in which the male pierces her body with his penis.

5-17-16 Life forms 'went large' a billion years ago
Life forms 'went large' a billion years ago
Life was already organising itself into large communities of cells more than a billion years ago, according to evidence from China. The centimetre-scale life forms were preserved in mudstones from the Yanshan area in the country's north and are dated to 1.56 billion years ago. Fossils big enough to be seen by the naked eye became common between 635 and 541 million years ago. But the latest specimens are more than twice that age.

5-17-16 Microbiomania: The truth behind the hype about our bodily bugs
Microbiomania: The truth behind the hype about our bodily bugs
In the wake of the White House’s latest “moonshot” – an initiative to understand the microbiome – New Scientist cuts through the crap about our internal flora and probiotics. Are they for us, against us or just cohabiting? It’s hard to know what to think about the microbes that live in and on us. In the same week that researchers announced that there is no evidence that probiotic supplements work, the White House launched the National Microbiome Initiative. This $500 million “moonshot” is intended to understand the vast colonies of bacteria, fungi and viruses that coevolved with our bodies, lands and oceans. The hope is that it will lead to breakthroughs in health and many other fields of science. On the human health side, thousands of papers have been published over the last few years linking changes in gut flora composition to allergies, asthma, obesity, cancer to Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, anorexia, autism, depression and even ageing. The studies hint that we may one day be able to affect these conditions by tweaking our gut bugs. But there’s quite a gap between this promise and the current science. That vacuum has been filled with misconceptions, snake oil and hype. Jonathan Eisen, a biologist at the University of California, Davis, calls it “microbiomania”.

5-17-16 New analysis: Genetically engineered foods not a health risk
New analysis: Genetically engineered foods not a health risk
Along with corn, soybean and cotton make up nearly all commercial genetically engineered crops. These crops appear to be safe for humans and the environment, a new report concludes. Genetically engineered crops don’t appear to harm humans or the environment, according to a new report released May 17 by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. An extensive analysis of two decades’ worth of evidence dug up no substantial proof that genetically engineered foods were any less safe to eat than those that are conventionally bred. The study’s authors also found no conclusive causal link between the engineered crops and environmental problems. The authors note, though, that it’s not always easy to make definitive conclusions; measuring long-term environmental changes is complicated.

5-17-16 Dog sex cancer's global march mapped in DNA
Dog sex cancer's global march mapped in DNA
For the first time, researchers have traced the global spread of a baffling cancer transmitted between mating dogs. The tumour originated in a single dog 11,000 years ago but outlived its host by transferring to another dog - and is still on the march today. Some of the cancer's more recent travel between continents, they found, aligns with maritime trade routes. But apart from reflecting the shared migration history of dogs and humans, the tumour's genetic history includes a surprising quantity of DNA pilfered from its hosts.

5-17-16 Giraffe’s long neck linked to its genetic profile
Giraffe’s long neck linked to its genetic profile
Influences on embryonic development may explain unusual height, strength of heart. Giraffes’ genes tell a not-so-tall tale about growing necks to great lengths. Tweaks to genes important for development may account for both the giraffe’s stature and turbocharged cardiovascular system, researchers report May 17 in Nature Communications. Researchers compiled the genetic instruction book, or genome, for both the giraffe and the okapi, its short-necked closest living relative. Those two species’ most recent common ancestor lived about 11.5 million years ago, says Douglas Cavener, a geneticist at Penn State University. Overall, giraffes and okapis still have very similar genes, with 19.4 percent that are identical. The researchers compared giraffe, okapi and cattle genomes to see what sets giraffes and okapis apart from other ungulates. About 400 genes differ between those species and cattle. Further comparisons of those genes with DNA from other animals revealed 70 genes in which giraffes had DNA differences from all other mammals. Those uniquely tweaked genes could be responsible for giraffes’ unusual height and physiology, the researchers reasoned.

5-17-16 Giraffes got their long necks thanks to a few dozen gene changes
Giraffes got their long necks thanks to a few dozen gene changes
Comparing the genome of the giraffe and its shorter-necked okapi relative has pinpointed genes likely involved in the evolution of the long neck. Tweaking a few dozen key genes that regulate development gave giraffes their long necks. It’s a discovery that points to the subtle complexity behind this striking adaptation. Biologists now routinely compare genomes of related species to identify the genes that may underpin their differences. Douglas Cavener of Penn State University in University Park, Pennsylvania, realised that giraffes afforded an unusual opportunity because their closest relative, the okapi, lacks the giraffe’s elongated body. Cavener and his team sequenced the genomes of both species and identified 70 genes where the giraffe version showed clusters of unique changes or other signs of natural selection. When the researchers looked more closely, they found that 46 of these genes were involved in regulating the development of the skeleton, cardiovascular system or nervous system. This fits giraffes’ unusual biology: long necks and legs require unusual bone growth, and their great height requires specialised changes in the heart, blood vessels and nerves.

5-16-16 When confronted with a raging wildfire, enchidnas go to sleep
When confronted with a raging wildfire, enchidnas go to sleep
Bushfires are an ever-present threat in Australia, but short-beaked echidnas have found a surprising way to survive them. Short-beaked echidnas – odd little hedgehog-like critters that lay eggs instead of live young – can enter an inactive state known as torpor, which is used by many animals to help them conserve energy. When in torpor, echidnas reduce their metabolic rate and lower their body temperature. This, according to research published in April 2016, gives them an uncanny knack for surviving bushfires. It might also have helped their distant ancestors survive a mass extinction.

5-14-16 Mastodon meal scraps revise US prehistory
Mastodon meal scraps revise US prehistory
Stone tools and bones from a butchered mastodon, found at the bottom of a river in Florida, are shaking up the known history of humans in the region. A four-year investigation of the site has firmly concluded that humans lived there and, in particular, made a meal of a mastodon 14,550 years ago. This is more than a millennium earlier than humans were thought to have settled the south-eastern US.

5-13-16 White House stumps up millions to probe world’s microbiomes
White House stumps up millions to probe world’s microbiomes
A huge initiative aims to get to the bottom of the role bacteria and other microbes play in your body and on our planet, hoping to improve the health of all. The White House is taking an interest in your gut. Today it has announced its National Microbiome Initiative, a half-billion dollar effort to understand microbiomes – the complex communities of bacteria, fungi and other microbes that live on or in everything from soil and the oceans, to our faces and intestines. Disruptions to our own microbial communities have been implicated in a host of diseases, including obesity, autism, multiple sclerosis, irritable bowel disease and mental health. But the microbiome affects the environment too. Imbalances in microbial communities can lead to zones of low oxygen in our oceans – killing off fish – while agricultural depletion of bacteria can lead to barren soils. “We need the means to change dysfunctional microbiomes and make them functional – whether it’s the human gut or the ocean,” says Jo Handelsman, the associate director for science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

5-13-16 Faulty gene can turn colds deadly for babies, toddlers
Faulty gene can turn colds deadly for babies, toddlers
Some children have rare genetic variants that can turn their first encounter with colds and other respiratory viruses deadly. A faulty virus-sensing gene can make the common cold or respiratory syncytial virus deadly for babies and toddlers, a new study suggests. Almost all children catch those viruses by age 2 or 3 years. Most kids quickly clear the viruses, but about one in 1,000 are admitted to the intensive care unit with severe pneumonia. The reason some tykes get really sick is in their genes, Samira Asgari, a computational biologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne reported May 12 at the Biology of Genomes conference.

5-13-16 Why bacteria are becoming drug-resistant
Why bacteria are becoming drug-resistant
People suffering from bronchitis, flu, and other ailments often leave their doctor’s office with a prescription for ­antibiotics—even though in many cases it will do nothing to help them. Nearly one-third of the antibiotics taken in this country are unnecessary, says the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), despite decades of warnings that overprescribing is helping fuel the alarming surge in drug-resistant superbugs. All told, the study found, some 47 million unwarranted antibiotic prescriptions are being written out each year. Many of them are for viral illnesses the drugs can’t treat, such as colds and sore throats, or for sinus infections, typically caused by fungi that aren’t affected by antibiotics. The researchers say it’s likely they’ve even underestimated the problem, because they didn’t consider antibiotics doled out over the phone and in urgent-care centers, or cases in which doctors prescribed the wrong antibiotic to treat a genuine bacterial infection. The danger of overprescribing is that once bacteria are exposed to an antibiotic, they start learning how to outsmart it, rendering that drug less effective or even useless. More than 2 million people a year are infected by drug-resistant germs, and some 23,000 die of their infections. If inappropriate antibiotic use continues, CDC Director Tom Frieden tells NBCNews.com, “we’ll lose the most powerful tool we have to fight life-threatening infections.”

5-13-16 First Americans hunted big game in Florida 14,500 years ago
First Americans hunted big game in Florida 14,500 years ago
Tools and butchered mastodon bones challenge the idea that giant mammals went extinct soon after people first settled in the Americas. The finds, removed from the bottom of a water-filled sinkhole 9 metres deep, include 14,500-year-old stone tools alongside the remains of a butchered or scavenged mastodon, a type of prehistoric elephant. The discoveries show that the first people to settle in the Americas, who arrived on the Pacific coast at least 15,500 years ago, must have quickly spread east and south to occupy vast swathes of North America. It also shows that those earliest Americans lived alongside large mammals for at least two millennia before the megafauna went extinct.

5-13-16 ‘Slam-dunk’ find puts hunter-gatherers in Florida 14,500 years ago
‘Slam-dunk’ find puts hunter-gatherers in Florida 14,500 years ago
Big game hunters of the Clovis culture may have just gotten the final blow to their reputation as North America’s earliest settlers. At least 1,000 years before Clovis people roamed the Great Plains, a group of hunter-gatherers either butchered a mastodon or scavenged its carcass on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Stone tools discovered in an underwater sinkhole in the Aucilla River show that people were present at the once-dry Page-Ladson site about 14,550 years ago, reports a team led by geoarchaeologists Jessi Halligan of Florida State University in Tallahassee and Michael Waters of Texas A&M University in College Station. The Clovis people appeared in North America around 13,000 years ago. Radiocarbon dating of twigs, seeds and plant fragments from submerged sediment layers provides a solid age estimate for six stone artifacts excavated by scuba divers, the team reports May 13 in Science Advances. Five of those finds consist of thin pieces of stone hammered off chunks of rock. Divers also recovered part of a stone cutting instrument.

5-13-16 Embryo protein may warn before miscarriage and pre-eclampsia
Embryo protein may warn before miscarriage and pre-eclampsia
A protein that seems to help embryos implant into their mother's womb may one day warn doctors that a women might encounter problems in pregnancy. Scientists have uncovered how embryos stick to the uterus in the first week of life. The discovery might one day help improve treatments for recurrent miscarriages and pre-eclampsia, a life-threatening elevation of maternal blood pressure. After a human egg is fertilised, it tumbles down the mother’s fallopian tubes and into her uterus. There it makes itself comfy by sticking to the wall of the uterus, then burying itself under the wall’s lining. Now, Harry Moore and Bikem Soygur at the University of Sheffield, UK, have shown that a protein called syncytin-1, produced by a gene that humans gained from viruses 25 million years ago, probably plays a vital role in this process.

5-13-16 Dancing dung beetles navigate with 'sky snapshot'
Dancing dung beetles navigate with 'sky snapshot'
Dung beetles record a mental image of the positions of the Sun, the Moon and the stars and use the snapshot to navigate, according to researchers. Scientists in Sweden found that the beetles capture the picture of the sky while dancing on a ball of manure. As they roll away with their malodorous prize, the beetles compare the stored image with their current location. The beetles' navigational skills could aid the development of driverless vehicles, the researchers suggest.

5-12-16 Building blocks of life’s first self-replicator recreated in lab
Building blocks of life’s first self-replicator recreated in lab
RNA molecules are thought to be some of the earliest self-replicators that led to life. Now their building blocks have been made to self-assemble in a lab. One of the hardest steps in the origin of life on Earth may be easier than chemists thought. RNA, or something very like it, has long been a strong candidate as the first self-replicating molecule in the origin of life. This is because it can both catalyse chemical reactions and carry genetic information. But chemists first needed to explain how a large, complex molecule like RNA could form spontaneously to begin the process. They had done so for some, but not all, components of the RNA molecule. The biggest sticking point was that until now, no one had identified a plausible way to generate the two purine nucleosides, adenosine and guanosine – A and G in the genetic code.

5-12-16 Brain waves in REM sleep help store memories
Brain waves in REM sleep help store memories
Study in mice sheds light on information storage. Brain waves during REM sleep solidify memories in mice, scientists report in the May 13 Science. Scientists suspected that the eye-twitchy, dream-packed slumber known as rapid eye movement sleep was important for memory. But REM sleep’s influence on memory has been hard to study, in part because scientists often resorted to waking people or animals up — a stressful experience that might influence memory in different ways.

5-12-16 Dreaming brain rhythms lock in memories
Dreaming brain rhythms lock in memories
Disrupting brain activity in sleeping mice, specifically during the rapid eye movement (REM) phase, can stop the animals remembering things they learned that day, a study suggests. It is the clearest evidence to date that REM sleep is critical for memory. By switching off certain brain cells, the researchers silenced a particular, rhythmic type of brain function - without waking the mice. If they did this during REM sleep, the mice failed subsequent memory tests.

5-12-16 Gut microbe may challenge textbook on complex cells
Gut microbe may challenge textbook on complex cells
Mitochondria go missing in cell found in chinchilla droppings. The gut microbe, known for decades, may change the way textbooks describe complex cells: It appears to be missing mitochondria. A gut microbe collected from chinchilla droppings might be the first complex life form to lack even a shred of a supposedly universal organelle. Monocercomonoides, a one-celled gut microbe collected from a pet chinchilla in Prague decades ago, apparently has no mitochondria, the organelles known as the cell’s power plants. Cataloging DNA in the microbe turns up none of the known genes for mitochondrial proteins. But stealing genetic material from bacteria — which survive without mitochondria — allowed the microbe to do without them, too.

5-11-16 A history of love, art, power and religion in 10 graves
A history of love, art, power and religion in 10 graves
We are the only animal to bury its dead, and we have been doing it for a very long time. These moving, fascinating finds reveal how the human mind has evolved. NO OTHER animal buries its dead. It is a peculiarly human thing to do, and we’ve been doing it for a long time. Last year, it emerged that our ancestors may have laid their dead to rest as far back as 3 million years ago. This raises intriguing questions about the evolution of the human mind. To understand the idea of death, you need empathy and intuition. To feel your own mortality and to create rituals that recognise the mortality of others, you must be capable of symbolic thinking – which also underpins language, art and religion. What’s more, burials reflect the cultural concerns and practices of the people who created them. Graves, therefore, hold clues about human curiosity, the dawning of spirituality, ancestor cults, global domination, trade, technological ingenuity and more. In search of these, we’ve unearthed 10 of the most significant gravesites:

5-11-16 'Oldest axe' was made by early Australians
'Oldest axe' was made by early Australians
A tiny stone flake from north-western Australia is a remnant of the earliest known axe with a handle, archaeologists have claimed. The fingernail-sized sliver of basalt is ground smooth at one end and appears to date from 44 to 49,000 years ago. This is not long after humans first settled Australia - and several thousand years earlier than previous, similar ground-stone discoveries.

5-10-16 Social area of the brain sets threat level of animals
Social area of the brain sets threat level of animals
A part of the brain that helps us decode the intentions of other people may also assess an animal’s dangerousness, a study suggests. A particular wrinkle in the brain may be where you separate a scary scorpion from a benign bunny. The brain area, involved in social behavior, also assesses how threatening animals are, scientists propose May 11 in the Journal of Neuroscience. This patch of brain has been linked to social abilities such as reading other people’s expressions and interpreting the direction of their gaze. If these new results hold up, the superior temporal sulcus has a broader job of helping us make sense of others’ intentions, including those of animals that would do us harm.

5-10-16 Ancient trade routes written in camel genes
Ancient trade routes written in camel genes
A study of one of the world's most important domesticated animals - the dromedary camel - has revealed how its genetic diversity has been shaped by ancient trade routes. Scientists examined DNA samples from more than 1,000 one-humped camels. Despite populations being hundreds of miles apart, they were genetically very similar. Scientists explained that centuries of cross-continental trade had led to this "blurring" of genetics.

5-9-16 History of road-tripping shaped camel DNA
History of road-tripping shaped camel DNA
Camels join pigs and cattle in the club for livestock that didn’t follow the traditional storyline of wild and domestic animals becoming fairly isolated after domestication. Arabian camels (Camelus dromedarius) have trekked across ancient caravan routes in Asia and Africa for 3,000 years. But it’s unclear how camels’ domestication has affected their genetic blueprints. Camels run high on genetic diversity thanks to periodic restocking from now-extinct wild populations in the centuries after their domestication, the team reports May 9 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Travel on human caravan routes also created a steady flow of genes between different domesticated populations, except in a geographically isolated group in East Africa. That diversity may give some camel populations a leg up in adapting to future changes in climate, the authors suggest.

5-9-16 Carnivorous plant conned out of a meal by cunning fly larvae
Carnivorous plant conned out of a meal by cunning fly larvae
It's a fly in the sundew's ointment. A species of fly larvae have adapted to wade unscathed through the plant's deadly juices, to steal the insects it catches. Sticky tentacles lining this carnivorous plant’s leaves had done their job most effectively, trapping small insects and condemning them to a gloopy death. Sundew leaves secrete a sweet, viscous mucilage that attracts and smothers them. But in the forests of Brazil, a thief lurks among the carcasses. A grub less than a centimetre in size, gliding in goo and devouring the plant’s food reserves. Soon, an adult fly that looks like a bee emerges with a buzz and sets off at speed. A flower fly or hoverfly, from the family Syrphidae. The hoverfly larvae have made a super-efficient insect death trap, their homes. And they don’t even pay rent. Hoverfly adults are vegetarian and feed on pollen and nectar, but the larvae are ravenous predators of smaller insects, typically aphids.

5-6-16 Quick $2 test reveals if you caught a superbug in hospital
Quick $2 test reveals if you caught a superbug in hospital
A test that can detect bacterial infections within hours, rather than days, could prove a crucial weapon in the fight against antibiotic resistance. Detect, control and contain. At last we have a way to rapidly detect if a patient has picked up a bacterial infection while in hospital. The device could help doctors catch and treat infections more quickly, and slow the rise of deadly superbugs like MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). Hospitals are meant to be places of healing, but 1 in 15 patients in developed countries will catch an infection during their stay. Such bacteria can be resistant to antibiotics, and can spread between patients with fatal consequences. Now Lee and his team have developed a small, portable device that can detect five of the most common infections in hospitals.

5-6-16 Women sleep half an hour longer than men, phone app data shows
Women sleep half an hour longer than men, phone app data shows
App data from 5000 sleepers have revealed that women under the age of 25 sleep the most, and that people who wake up early every day get less sleep overall. The answer may depend on your age, location and gender. A survey of 5000 sleepers from across the world has revealed that women get the most sleep, particularly those under the age of 25. Daniel Forger at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and his team were able to get their huge dataset thanks to Entrain, a smartphone app that people use to track their sleep. With their consent, Forger’s team accessed users’ data on their wake time, bed time, time zone and how much light they were exposed to during the day. Analysing this information, they found that middle-aged men sleep the least, while women under the age of 25 sleep the most. As a whole, women appear to sleep on average for 30 minutes longer than men, thanks to going to bed slightly earlier and waking up slightly later.

5-6-16 Crocodile eyes are optimized for lurking
Crocodile eyes are optimized for lurking
Saltwater and freshwater crocodiles have eyes suited to the animals’ sneaky attack style, a new study reveals. Crocodiles aren’t terrifying just because they have huge teeth and a deadly bite, though. It’s that an attack appears to come from nowhere. The animals lurk just beneath the water, with only their eyes keeping a lookout for something tasty — like one of us. Now, new research shows that, while a croc may not see as well as you or I, its eyesight is quite good and well adapted for lying in wait at the water’s surface. (Webmaster's comment: When an adpation is essential to the animal's survival it developes over time to be exceptionally good.)

5-6-16 Ice core reveals how lush Antarctica changed to icy desert
Ice core reveals how lush Antarctica changed to icy desert
A single marine sediment core holds the entire record of Antarctica's journey from being a subtropical forests to the ice-covered desert that it is now. Antarctica was once covered with tropical forests. Now researchers have fully charted the slow transition from tropical paradise to icy wasteland, thanks to a single marine sediment core. The core shows for the first time that temperate forests were a key transitional stage before falling temperatures turned the continent into a white wasteland. The ice core was taken from the sea floor off Wilkes Land in East Antarctica as part of the Integrated Ocean Drilling Programme. Pollen grains found inside show how vegetation on the continent changed between the early Eocene, around 54 million years ago and into the Miocene, 12 million years ago. “The core from Wilkes Land is the first to give the entire story from the Eocene all the way through,” says Ulrich Salzmann of Northumbria University in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, who presented preliminary results at the European Geosciences Union meeting in Vienna last month. “It seems that vegetation had disappeared completely by 12 million years ago.”

5-5-16 Some Crohn’s genes make cells deaf to messages from good gut bacteria
Some Crohn’s genes make cells deaf to messages from good gut bacteria
When it works, genetic-microbe communication link helps calm inflammation. Good gut bacteria might not help people with Crohn’s disease. Protective microbial messages go unread in mice and in human immune cells with certain defective genes, researchers report online May 5 in Science. The findings are the first to tie together the roles of genes and beneficial microbes in the inflammatory bowel disease, says biologist Brett Finlay of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, who was not involved in the new work.

5-5-16 Venus flytraps use defensive genes for predation
Venus flytraps use defensive genes for predation
The genes that allow a Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula) to catch and digest insects might have their roots in basic plant defense, researchers suggest. Venus flytraps (Dionaea muscipula) make carnivory look cool. But the genes that make it possible have roots in herbivory. Though modern flytraps eat insects, their ancestors probably didn’t. In search of clues to this transition, Rainer Hedrich of the University of Wurzburg in Germany and his colleagues looked at protein production patterns in in different parts of the plant. Unstimulated traps seem to decode genes for similar proteins to those found in leaves, which supports the theory that traps originally evolved from foliage. Glands inside the trap, which help with digestion, share common gene expression patterns with roots — perhaps because both process nutrients.

5-4-16 Crocodile eyes are fine-tuned for lurking
Crocodile eyes are fine-tuned for lurking
A new study reveals how crocodiles' eyes are fine-tuned for lurking at the water surface to watch for prey. The "fovea", a patch of tightly packed receptors that delivers sharp vision, forms a horizontal streak instead of the usual circular spot. This allows the animal to scan the shoreline without moving its head, according to Australian researchers. They also found differences in the cone cells, which sense colours, between saltwater and freshwater crocs. (Webmaster's comment: Exactly what we should expect. The better lurkers survive longer and breed more.)

5-4-16 Embryo study shows 'life's first steps'
Embryo study shows 'life's first steps'
Scientists say a breakthrough in growing embryos will improve fertility treatments and revolutionise knowledge of the earliest steps to human life. For the first time, embryos have been grown past the point they would normally implant in the womb. The research, in the UK and US, was halted just before the embryos reached the legal limit of 14-days old. But in an ethically-charged move, some scientists have already called for the 14-day limit to be changed. The earliest steps towards human life are largely a mystery, but the research in Nature and Nature Cell Biology, has been able to study embryos for longer than ever before. (Webmaster's comment: Step-by-step we are learning the mysteries of life, but not in the United States. The darkage philosophy of religion holds us back.)

5-4-16 When does life begin? Lab embryo advance reopens a big debate
When does life begin? Lab embryo advance reopens a big debate
DHuman embryos are surviving ever longer in labs. Any review of political limits on culturing them must fit the biological facts, says Jane Maienschein. At a press conference in London, Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz at the University of Cambridge, who led one of the studies, said that much of value might be learned by studying embryos past 14 days. “Longer culture could provide absolutely critical information,” she said. Even if researchers are not yet calling for an extension, the latest work will inevitably raise heated arguments about personhood and the sanctity of life — all of which will distract us from any serious discussion of how embryo research might provide a better understanding of the biological realities of developing life. Only gradually, at about 8 weeks, does the embryo become a fetus with the essential organs at least roughly mapped out. Only much later is the nervous system developed, and only much, much later does the fetus have the capacity to feel pain.

5-4-16 Labradors get fat thanks to gene mutation linked to hunger
Labradors get fat thanks to gene mutation linked to hunger
Many dogs are obese, and Labradors have the highest rate of obesity – mutations in a gene linked to hunger in humans could be to blame. Almost two-thirds of dogs in developed countries are overweight, with Labradors having the highest rate of canine obesity. Now we know the secret to their insatiable appetite: mutations in a gene that has been linked to hunger in humans. Conor O’Donovan at the University of Cambridge and his colleagues found the genetic variant by studying 310 Labrador retrievers, assessing both their weight and their desire for food. They found that 23 per cent of the dogs carried at least one copy of a mutant form of a gene called POMC, which encodes proteins that help switch off hunger after a meal. For each copy of the mutant gene, a dog was on average 1.9 kilograms heavier than Labradors with no copies of the variant. Problems with POMC also affect humans. Babies with compromised POMC function are constantly hungry, and become obese at a very early age.

5-3-16 These are the simple steps that made us human
These are the simple steps that made us human
Over the course of several million years, primates gradually transformed into humans. This video shows you the key changes along the way.

5-2-16 Breast cancer: Scientists hail 'milestone' genetic find
Breast cancer: Scientists hail 'milestone' genetic find
Scientists say they now have a near-perfect picture of the genetic events that cause breast cancer. The study, published in Nature, has been described as a "milestone" moment that could help unlock new ways of treating and preventing the disease. The largest study of its kind unpicked practically all the errors that cause healthy breast tissue to go rogue. Cancer Research UK said the findings were an important stepping-stone to new drugs for treating cancer. To understand the causes of the disease, scientists have to understand what goes wrong in our DNA that makes healthy tissue turn cancerous. The international team looked at all 3 billion letters of people's genetic code - their entire blueprint of life - in 560 breast cancers. They uncovered 93 sets of instructions, or genes, that if mutated, can cause tumours. Some have been discovered before, but scientists expect this to be the definitive list, barring a few rare mutations. (Webmaster's comment: Genes run the show and our scientists are unlocking the very secrets of what makes us tick.)

5-2-16 DNA secrets of Ice Age Europe unlocked
DNA secrets of Ice Age Europe unlocked
A study of DNA from ancient human bones has helped unlock the secrets of Europe's Ice Age inhabitants. Researchers analysed the genomes of 51 individuals who lived between 45,000 years ago and 7,000 years ago. The results reveal details about the biology of these early inhabitants, such as skin and eye colour, and how different populations were related. It also shows that Neanderthal ancestry in Europeans has been shrinking over time, perhaps due to natural selection. The study in Nature journal shines a torchlight over some 40,000 years of prehistory, showing that ancient patterns of migration were just as complex as those in more recent times. Some of the earliest arrivals on the continent contributed little to later populations. But between 37,000 years ago and 14,000 years ago, different groups of Europeans were descended from a single founder population.

5-2-16 Game of bones: first Europeans’ shifting fortunes found in DNA
Game of bones: first Europeans’ shifting fortunes found in DNA
Prehistoric Europe was a dynamic place where human populations would rise to dominance, get swept aside by others and then rise again years later, and a new genetic analysis shows what happened. A proud lineage with a history stretching back thousands of years is swept aside by newcomers from the south-east – only to rise to dominance once more 15,000 years later. We know that modern humans first arrived in Europe about 45,000 years ago when the continent was still a Neanderthal stronghold. Over the next 30,000 years – archaeological work has revealed – a procession of different cultures, each associated with different artefacts and lifestyles, rose in Europe. Archaeologists tend to think these sort of cultural shifts reflect the spread of new ideas through an unchanging population. But a new analysis of nuclear DNA taken from 51 ancient Eurasians tells a different story. They actually reflected the spread of different peoples. The Aurignacian culture was dominant between about 45,000 and 35,000 years ago. This culture produced fine bone and stone tools, and some of Europe’s oldest and most beautiful art – for instance at Chauvet cave in southern France. By about 33,000 years ago a new culture that began in south-east Europe was beginning to spread across the continent: the Gravettian. This is famous for big-game hunting of mammoths and bison. And later, at the height of the Ice Age about 19,000 years ago, yet another culture swept across west and central Europe. This Magdalenian culture is famous for its reindeer hunts and for its artwork, carved into bones and antlers.

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