158 Evolution News Articles
for November 2016
Click on the links below to get the full story from its source
11-30-16 Parkinson's disease may start in the gut and travel to the brain
Parkinson's disease may start in the gut and travel to the brain
It seems the nerve damage behind Parkinson's starts in the stomach or colon before spreading to brain cells - but we don't know what's causing it. WE HAVE been thinking about Parkinson’s disease all wrong. The condition may arise from damage to the gut, not the brain. If the idea is correct, it opens the door to new ways of treating the disease before symptoms occur. “That would be game-changing,” says David Burn at Newcastle University, UK. “There are lots of different mechanisms that could potentially stop the spread.” Parkinson’s disease involves the death of neurons deep within the brain, causing tremors, stiffness and difficulty moving. While there are drugs that ease these symptoms, they become less effective as the disease progresses. One of the hallmarks of the condition is deposits of insoluble fibres of a substance called synuclein. Normally found as small soluble molecules in healthy nerve cells, in people with Parkinson’s, something causes the synuclein molecules to warp into a different shape, making them clump together as fibres.
11-30-16 Mitochondria variants battle for cell supremacy
Mitochondria variants battle for cell supremacy
DNA features give some organelles advantage in 3-parent baby procedures. A technique to suck a chromosome-containing structure called the spindle out of a mother’s egg and place it in a donor egg emptied of its chromosomes but with healthy mitochondria can help prevent mitochondrial diseases. Some mitochondria naturally have an advantage over others in the battle for cellular domination, a new study shows. The finding could make procedures for producing “three-parent babies” safer. Doctors carrying out DNA-swapping techniques to prevent mothers from passing mitochondrial diseases to their children should choose egg donors whose mitochondria can hold their own against other varieties or even outcompete them, researchers propose November 30 in Nature. Such a precaution might prevent small numbers of faulty mitochondria — energy-generating organelles — from taking over cells.
11-30-16 Zap to the brain alters libido in unique sex study
Zap to the brain alters libido in unique sex study
Analysing how people’s brainwaves changed when expecting an erotic buzz to their genitals indicates that brain stimulation can boost sex drive. Could a brain stimulation device change our sex drive? The first study of this approach suggests that people’s libido can be turned up or down, depending on the device’s setting. The study didn’t measure how much sex people had in real life, instead it measured participant’s sexual responsiveness. Unusually, this was done by fixing customised vibrators to people’s genitals and gauging how their brainwaves changed when they expected a stimulating buzz. “You want to see if they want what you’re offering,” says Nicole Prause at the University of California, Los Angeles. “This is a good model for sexual desire.” The technique involves transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), where a paddle held above the head uses a strong magnetic field to alter brain activity. It can be used to treat depression and migraines, and is being investigated for other uses, including preventing bed-wetting, and helping those with dyslexia.
11-30-16 UK’s first three-parent babies likely to be conceived in 2017
UK’s first three-parent babies likely to be conceived in 2017
The approach might not always work but it should be safer than existing methods for preventing harmful and sometimes fatal mitochondrial diseases. Women whose children are doomed to develop fatal mitochondrial diseases should have a chance of having healthy babies come the new year. Methods for replacing the abnormal mitochondria in their eggs might not always work, but are safer than existing techniques for selecting embryos and so should be allowed, says a key scientific report. The first ever use of mitochondrial replacement therapy to prevent children inheriting disease was in 2015. A US team carried out the procedure in Mexico for a Jordanian couple, and an apparently healthy baby was born earlier this year, New Scientist revealed in September. But most countries either have no specific regulations, as is the case in Mexico, or do not currently allow the technique, like the US. After years of consideration, the UK is set to become the first nation to formally approve the method. Last year, the UK parliament voted to allow mitochondrial replacement providing the relevant regulator, the Human Fertilisation and Embryo Authority, judged it safe. The HFEA then commissioned the scientific report on the technique, which has now recommended its approval.
11-30-16 Readers ponder hominid hookups and more
Readers ponder hominid hookups and more
Your letters and comments on the October 15, 2016, issue of Science News. Recent genetic analyses of populations around the world showed that a wave of ancient humans left Africa about 50,000 to 72,000 years ago. All non-Africans alive today originated from this single wave, Tina Hesman Saey reported in “One Africa exodus populated globe” (SN: 10/15/16, p. 6). “If the Neandertals were already present when Homo sapiens arrived on the scene, from whence did the Neandertals originate, and how did they get there ahead of the (true) humans?” Peter Goodwin asked.
11-30-16 Buff upper arms let Lucy climb trees
Buff upper arms let Lucy climb trees
Arm, leg bone X-ray data provide clues to famous hominid’s mobility. Relatively long, robustly built upper arms let Lucy, the famous 3.2-million-year-old hominid, spend a lot of time in trees, scientists say. Scans of Lucy’s fossils also suggest she walked less efficiently than people today do. Lucy didn’t let an upright stance ground her. This 3.2-million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis, hominid evolution’s best-known fossil individual, strong-armed her way up trees, a new study finds. Her lower body was built for walking. But exceptional upper-body strength, approaching that of chimpanzees, enabled Lucy to hoist herself into trees or onto tree branches, paleoanthropologist Christopher Ruff of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and his colleagues report November 30 in PLOS ONE.
11-30-16 Early hominin Lucy had powerful arms from years of tree-climbing
Early hominin Lucy had powerful arms from years of tree-climbing
Evolving to walk on the ground didn't stop our famous ancestor and others of her species spending a lot of their time up trees. Lucy, the world famous early bipedal hominin, was a swinger. Scans of her skeleton confirm that she had an exceptionally powerful upper body, thanks to spending a lot of time climbing trees. The research is being hailed as the final word on Lucy’s lifestyle, and means that moving in trees may have remained important to some early human ancestors for millions of years after they developed the ability to walk on the ground. A member of the species Australopithecus afarensis, Lucy had long chimp-like arms and fingers – features that would seem ideal if her life involved a great deal of tree-climbing. But her legs and human-like feet show she was what researchers call a “terrestrial biped” – she could walk in a human-like manner. So Lucy’s chimp-like arms might simply be features she inherited from a tree-climbing ancestor but no longer really used.
11-30-16 Polar species spotted in the deep seas of the Mediterranean
Polar species spotted in the deep seas of the Mediterranean
A host of invasive species, including some polar species, have been spotted in the eastern Mediterranean off the coast of Lebanon, some of them wreaking havoc. Invasive species and those normally found in the Atlantic and polar regions have been spotted in the deep seas of the eastern Mediterranean. The unexpected visitors were seen by a remotely operated vehicle descending to depths of up to 1 kilometre in waters off Lebanon. The team, led by marine conservation agency Oceana, were left speechless by the discovery of an Atlantic Lantern Shark during their recent month-long expedition. Measuring 20 centimetres and glowing bright blue along its spine and belly, this particular species of Lantern is a shark generally associated with the chilly waters of the Atlantic. Why it’s here, no one knows. It was just one of a number of surprises, says Oceana’s senior research director Ricardo Aguilar: “This is an area that is almost completely unexplored. A lot of what we are finding is brand new. It’s very exciting.” With over 200 species collected, the task now is to ascertain what they are, and how and why they got there.
11-30-16 Quitting smoking in your 60s can still boost life expectancy
Quitting smoking in your 60s can still boost life expectancy
A new study suggests that it is never too late to stop smoking - and the earlier you give up, the longer you are likely to live. Quitting smoking in your 60s can still boost life expectancy. Smokers can extend their lives by quitting even if they wait until their 60s to kick the habit, research has shown. A new study confirms that it is never too late to stop smoking – and the earlier you give up, the longer you are likely to live. Scientists found that current smokers aged 70 and over were three times more likely to die over a period of six years than never smokers. Quitting at different points in time between the ages of 30 and 69 progressively reduced the chances of dying. Just 12.1 per cent of the never-smokers in the study group died, compared with 33.1 per cent of current smokers. Of the former smokers, 16.2 per cent, 19.7 per cent, 23.9 per cent, and 27.9 per cent of those who quit in their thirties, forties, fifties and sixties, respectively, died. The US researchers reviewed data on more than 160,000 men and women participating in the NIH-AARP study, a large American investigation into health and diet.
11-30-16 Platypus venom paves way to possible diabetes treatment
Platypus venom paves way to possible diabetes treatment
Platypus venom could pave the way for new treatments for type 2 diabetes, say Australian researchers. The males of the extraordinary semi-aquatic mammal - one of the only kind to lay eggs - have venomous spurs on the heels of their hind feet. The poison is used to ward off adversaries. But scientists at the University of Adelaide have discovered it contains a hormone that could help treat diabetes. Known as GLP-1 (glucagon-like peptide-1), it is also found in humans and other animals, where it promotes insulin release, lowering blood glucose levels. But it normally degrades very quickly. Not for the duck-billed bottom feeders though. Or for echidnas, also known as spiny anteaters - another iconic Australian species found to carry the unusual hormone.
11-30-16 Plant-eating mammals sport bigger bellies than meat eaters
Plant-eating mammals sport bigger bellies than meat eaters
Body cavity volume of 126 animals shows herbivores have larger bellies than carnivores. Using 3-D scans of mounted skeletons, scientists measured the body cavities of 126 animal species, including herbivores such as sloths, elephants and stegosaurus as well as carnivores such as lions, otters and T. rex. These skeletons are spilling their guts about the size of the body cavity that housed these animals’ stomach and intestines. Using digital 3-D scans of mounted skeletons, researchers estimated the body cavity volume in 126 species. Of the 76 mammal species, plant eaters had bigger bellies; their relative torso volumes were about 1.5 times as large as those of carnivores, researchers report online November 4 in the Journal of Anatomy.
11-29-16 Bad memories stick around if you sleep on them
Bad memories stick around if you sleep on them
Students shown disturbing images found it hardest to suppress memories of them after a kip, hinting that sleep deprivation could help after traumatic events. Don’t go to bed angry. Now there’s evidence for this proverb: it’s harder to suppress bad memories if you sleep on them. The discovery could reveal new ways to treat people who suffer from conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder, and reinforces an earlier idea that it is possible to suppress bad memories through sleep deprivation. “The results are of major interest for treating the frequent clinical problem of unwanted memories, memories of traumatic events being the most prominent example,” says Christoph Nissen at the University of Freiburg Medical Center in Germany, who was not involved in the work. In the study, 73 male students memorised 26 mugshots, each paired with a disturbing image, such as a mutilated body, corpse or crying child. The next day they were asked to recall the images associated with half the mugshots and actively try to exclude memories of the rest of the associated images.
11-29-16 Animals give clues to the origins of human number crunching
Animals give clues to the origins of human number crunching
In zoos and barnyards, scientists search for deep evolutionary underpinnings of mathematics. Cats show quantity-related abilities. Without training, cats can pick out differences between groups of a few small objects, such as 2 versus 5, but the felines may be using visual shortcuts. When Christian Agrillo runs number-related experiments in his lab, he wishes his undergraduate subjects good luck. For certain tests, that’s about all he says. Giving instructions to the people would be unfair to the fish. Agrillo, of the University of Padua in Italy, is finishing up several years of pitting humans against fish in trials of their abilities to compare quantities. He can’t, of course, tell his angelfish or his guppies to choose, say, the larger array of dots. So in recent tests he made the bemused students use trial and error too.
11-29-16 This revolutionary parenting insight will help your love life
This revolutionary parenting insight will help your love life
en before children start forming episodic memories, they're learning relationship dynamics that will color their entire lives. Consider a mother holding an infant, in the first weeks and months of life. Their eyes are locked in dyadic bliss. Then, in one of the earliest forms of exploration, the child looks away. After about five seconds — ideally — the child will turn back on their own rhythm. But some parents, called "preoccupied" in relative literature, will interrupt, and call the child's attention back — which already gives the tiny human the message, wait, wait, what about me. "By the time the child is 12 months old, they've figured out what makes a parent anxious," says Kent Hoffman, co-author of Raising a Secure Child and a psychotherapist with over 40 years of experience. If a parent struggles with autonomy — with allowing the child to explore the world on their own — then the child will struggle with autonomy, will feel compelled to always cling close to mom. If the caregiver is anxious about support — as in, providing a steady presence when emotions get overwhelming — then, by the time the kid turns 1, before they grasp language, they've learned not to go to their parent for soothing, for sorting through difficult feelings.
11-29-16 New Zealand is the first country to wipe out unwanted butterfly
New Zealand is the first country to wipe out unwanted butterfly
The great white butterfly is an invasive species whose caterpillars devour both crops and native plant species. Now the country has fully eliminated it. New Zealand has become the first country to successfully eradicate an invasive butterfly species. The great white butterfly (Pieris brassicae) is found in Europe, Africa and Asia. A member of the species was spotted in New Zealand for the first time in 2010. An elimination plan was soon launched by the government to protect agricultural crops from being destroyed by the invaders. Before morphing into a butterfly, P. brassicae starts out as a caterpillar that feeds voraciously on brassica crops – including cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and Brussel sprouts. It can also eat New Zealand’s 79 native cress species, 57 of which are at risk of extinction. “The caterpillars feed in groups on a wide range of host plants and will completely defoliate a plant, and can travel more than 100 metres to find another,” says Jaine Cronin at New Zealand’s department of conservation. Without swift intervention, the butterfly was predicted to spread rapidly through the country.
11-29-16 Rare Antarctic beetle find delights
Rare Antarctic beetle find delights
Scientists have made a rare find: a new species of fossil beetle from Antarctica. It's the first evidence of a ground beetle found on the southernmost continent. And Antarctic insects are themselves a rarity - the absence of biodiversity is considered a consequence of a lack of moisture, vegetation and the low temperatures. The specimen is described in the scientific journal Zookeys. Fossilised forewings from a pair of beetles were discovered on the 200km-long Beardmore Glacier, near the Transantarctic Mountains. The new species and genus has been named Ball's Antarctic Tundra Beetle, after George E Ball - an expert on ground beetles. It lived between 14 and 20 million years ago, when Antarctica was warmer than today.
11-28-16 Cut leaves in bagged salads help Salmonella grow
Cut leaves in bagged salads help Salmonella grow
Juice that escapes from cut leaves encourages the bacteria to thrive. Cut or damaged leaves in bagged salad mixes can leak plant juices that promote Salmonella growth. That past-its-prime bag of spinach buried in the back of your fridge should probably hit the compost heap instead of your dinner plate. The watery gunk that accumulates at the bottom of bagged salad mix is the perfect breeding ground for Salmonella bacteria that could make people sick, researchers report November 18 in Applied and Environmental Microbiology. The culprit? The juice that oozes out of cut or damaged leaves. After five days in the fridge, small amounts of plant juice sped up Salmonella growth. The bacteria grew avidly on the bag and stuck persistently to the salad leaves, so much so that washing didn’t remove the microbes. Salmonella’s success inside bagged salads means it’s important for producers to avoid bacterial contamination from the get-go — and for consumers to eat those greens before they get soggy.
11-28-16 We may be able to tap into our memories from infancy
We may be able to tap into our memories from infancy
Studies in rats suggest that our earliest memories may lie dormant in the brain, ready to resurface given the right triggers. You probably can’t remember life as a 2-year-old. But memory traces from our earliest years might stay in our brains, ready to be reactivated with the right trigger, according to research in rats. Most people can’t remember the first two or three years of their life, says Alessio Travaglia at New York University. “Some people might say they remember things from this period, but these memories are often inaccurate, or based on stories other people have told them.” We remember other things from those early years, however. It’s a crucial time for learning, in fact – we start to figure out how to move and communicate, and what we like and dislike, for example. So why don’t our first autobiographical memories stay with us in the same way? Some have argued that the incredible growth of new neurons during early childhood in brain areas involved in memory formation interferes with the storage of memories, meaning they are lost forever.
11-28-16 Tiny toxic proteins help gut bacteria defeat rivals
Tiny toxic proteins help gut bacteria defeat rivals
Microcins attack pathogens involved in gut inflammation. When iron gets scarce, a bacterium called E. coli Nissle deploys molecules called microsins that kill some other types of bacteria, including other strains of E. coli. Competition is cutthroat in the crowded world of the intestines, so bacteria have evolved ways to kill rivals for a survival advantage. One strain of bacteria, called Escherichia coli Nissle 1917, has tiny proteins called microcins that may help E. coli’s host fight pathogens that cause gut inflammation, researchers at the University of California, Irvine report online October 31 in Nature. Microcins take action only when bacteria are starved for iron, which happens in an inflamed gut. The proteins go after bacteria, many of them pathogens, that make iron-scavenging proteins, the researchers found. E. coli Nissle’s microcins killed diarrhea-inducing bacteria called Salmonella enterica in the guts of infected mice. Microcins also helped Nissle outcompete a different, nasty strain of E. coli.
11-28-16 Blue leaves help begonias harvest energy in low light
Blue leaves help begonias harvest energy in low light
Tiny structures give plants iridescent color, aid photosynthesis in shady conditions. The iridescent color of some begonias comes from tiny structures. Those structures also help the plant convert dim light into energy, scientists found. Iridescent blue leaves on some begonias aren’t just for show — they help the plants harvest energy in low light. The begonias’ chloroplasts, which use photosynthesis to convert light into fuel, have a repeating structure that allows the plants to efficiently soak up light. This comes in handy for a plant that lives on the shady forest floor. The structure acts as a “photonic crystal” that preferentially reflects blue wavelengths of light and helps the plant better absorb reds and greens for energy production, scientists report October 24 in Nature Plants.
11-26-16 Croatian scientists 'find 30 new species in caves'
Croatian scientists 'find 30 new species in caves'
roatian scientists say they have discovered 30 new species of animal in subterranean caves, following a two-year search of the Sibenik-Knin County's national park.
11-26-16 Language trends run in mysterious 14-year cycles
Language trends run in mysterious 14-year cycles
An analysis of nouns used over 300 years of writing shows their popularity regularly rising and falling, which may hint at a pattern to how language evolves. The media tends to interpret culture in yearly cycles. Critics publish end-of-year best-of lists and Oxford Dictionaries just selected “post-truth” as its word of the year. But the words we use actually seem to operate on a 14-year cycle, an analysis has found. Marcelo Montemurro at the University of Manchester, UK, and Damián Zanette at Argentina’s National Council for Scientific and Technical Research identified 5630 commonly used nouns and analysed how their popularity changed over the last three centuries. To do this, they wrote computer scripts to dig through Google Ngram, a database of the words used in nearly five million digitised books. They then ranked the nouns in order of popularity and tracked how their rankings changed from 1700 to 2008. A curious pattern emerged. They found that English words rose in popularity and then fell out of favour in cycles of about 14 years, although cycles over the past century have tended to be a year or two longer. They also found evidence of cycles of this length in French, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish. The popularity of related nouns – such as king, queen and duchess – tended to rise and fall together over time.
11-25-16 Making cells ignore mutations could treat genetic diseases
Making cells ignore mutations could treat genetic diseases
Diseases like cystic fibrosis and some cancers can be caused by mutations that make very short proteins. Changing how cells read the genetic code could help. If the instructions for what you’re building are wrong, what can you do? That’s the problem posed when DNA mutations in people with genetic disease lead to the production of faulty proteins. But a new technique could help cells get around that problem and potentially treat conditions like some genetic types of cystic fibrosis. Most of our genes are recipes for making proteins. Each successive three-letter DNA sequence – known as a codon – specifies which amino acid should be added next to a growing chain of amino acids to create a protein. This goes on until the protein-making machinery reaches a codon that says stop. But sometimes, DNA mutations create a stop codon in the wrong place. A single mutation can truncate a protein that should be 100 amino acids long to one that is just 15 long, rendering it completely useless. These are known as nonsense mutations, and they cause about 10 per cent of all genetic diseases.
11-25-16 Teenage depression rising
Teenage depression rising
The number of young Americans battling depression rose by more than a third in the decade leading up to 2014. In a review of surveys completed by more than 170,000 teens, researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that 6 percent of boys suffered a major depressive episode in 2014, up from 4 percent in 2005. Among girls, the figure soared from 13 percent to more than 17 percent. It’s unclear what’s behind this worrying trend—and why girls are more at risk. Researchers note that social media use and cyberbullying are much more prevalent among girls, which could make them more vulnerable to depression. Complicating matters, the number of teens being treated for the disorder remains unchanged. This suggests many young people are suffering in silence, increasing their risk for suicide, reports NBCNews.com. Ramin Mojtabai, the study’s leader, said it was “imperative that we find ways to reach these teenagers and help them manage their depression.”
11-25-16 Alone time
Alone time, after an international study found that highly intelligent people tend to be happier when they spend more time alone, working on their goals and interests, and less time socializing with other people.
11-25-16 Paralyzed monkeys walk
Paralyzed monkeys walk
In a medical breakthrough that offers new hope to people with spinal cord injuries, scientists have used a brain implant to enable partially paralyzed monkeys to regain the ability to walk. Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology implanted the device in the monkey’s motor cortex, or movement center, where it recorded neural activity. This data was then wirelessly routed to a second implant placed on the spinal cord beyond the injured nerves, which triggered the intended movements. Two monkeys fitted with this “brain-spine interface” system regained the ability to walk within days, and were fully mobile after three months. “It was a big surprise for us,” Grégoire Courtine, a neuroscientist who led the research, tells The Guardian (U.K.). “The gait was not perfect, but it was almost like normal walking. The foot was not dragging and it was fully weight-bearing.” The implant’s components—which took seven years to develop, after 10 years of work on rodents—are already approved for use in humans. But helping monkeys walk using four limbs is much less challenging than enabling paralyzed people to balance and walk on two legs. Nevertheless, researchers believe the technology could be transferred to humans within a decade.
11-25-16 Low social status leads to off-kilter immune system
Low social status leads to off-kilter immune system
Monkey study reveals cellular and genetic hallmarks of inflammation. Companionship for low-ranking monkeys might lessen the inflammation spurred by their low social status, a new study suggests. Living on the bottom rungs of the social ladder may be enough to make you sick. A new study manipulating the pecking order of monkeys finds that low social status kicks the immune system into high gear, leading to unwanted inflammation akin to that in people with chronic diseases. The new study, in the Nov. 25 Science, gets at an age-old question that’s been tough to study experimentally: Does social status alone change biology in a way that can make a person more healthy or more vulnerable to disease?
11-24-16 Being popular is good for health - in monkeys, at least
Being popular is good for health - in monkeys, at least
Life at the bottom of the social ladder can be damaging to health – but now a study in rhesus monkeys shows that health can improve in tandem with social standing. Life at the bottom of the social ladder can be damaging to health – even for monkeys. A study of rhesus monkeys has revealed the stress of low social status can be damaging to the immune system of the animals. Researchers believe the findings may help explain why people with poor and deprived backgrounds have higher rates of heart disease and diabetes, both of which are linked to inflammation. “Social adversity gets under the skin,” says Noah Snyder-Mackler, of Duke University in the US, who co-led the investigation. “If we can help people improve their social standing and reduce some of these hierarchies, we may be able to improve people’s health and wellbeing.” In the US, life expectancy between rich and poor differs by more than a decade. American health inequality is often attributed to the availability of medical care and lifestyle habits such as smoking, exercise and diet.
11-24-16 Bacteria taught to bond carbon and silicon for the first time
Bacteria taught to bond carbon and silicon for the first time
Carbon-silicon compounds are used in products like drugs and semiconductors, but are not found in nature. Now scientists have taught a protein to make them. By guiding evolution along, scientists have created a protein that can bond carbon to silicon. This innovation could transform how we make a broad array of products, from drugs to LED lights, semiconductors and computer screens. Silicon is the second most abundant element in Earth’s crust, but it doesn’t naturally bond to carbon. That means manufacturers must turn to artificial methods to make compounds combining the two, which are called organosilicons and feature in materials including adhesives and silicone coatings. It would be more sustainable and perhaps cheaper to create the same bonds with biology, says Frances Arnold at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. But until now, scientists have been unable to find or produce such a reaction in nature. She and her colleagues have now unveiled a protein that does the job. The team created it using a process of artificial selection called directed evolution, and it outperforms all other existing methods of bonding the two elements.
11-24-16 Africa’s tallest tree measuring 81m found on Mount Kilimanjaro
Africa’s tallest tree measuring 81m found on Mount Kilimanjaro
Mount Kilimanjaro is home to centuries-old giant trees around 30 storeys tall – a finding that may help protect the area from logging. Africa’s tallest indigenous tree – measuring a whopping 81.5 metres – has been discovered in a remote valley on the continent’s highest mountain, Kilimanjaro. The colossus in Tanzania has matched Africa’s previous tree-height record established by a specimen of the introduced Sydney blue gum (Eucalyptus saligna) in Limpopo, South Africa, which died in 2006. Andreas Hemp at the University of Bayreuth in Germany first spotted a bunch of tall Entandrophragma excelsum trees while exploring Mount Kilimanjaro’s vegetation 20 years ago. But it was not until recently that he and his team were able to measure their heights accurately using new tools.
11-24-16 Predatory bacteria can wipe out superbugs, says study
Predatory bacteria can wipe out superbugs, says study
Predatory bacteria - that eat others of their kind - could be a new weapon in the fight against superbugs, say UK researchers. Experiments showed a dose of Bdellovibrio bacteriovorus acted like a "living antibiotic" to help clear an otherwise lethal infection. The animal studies, published in Current Biology, suggested there would be no side effects. Experts said the approach was unusual, but should not be overlooked.
11-24-16 Bumper load of new viruses identified
Bumper load of new viruses identified
An international research team led from Australia and China has discovered nearly 1,500 new viruses. The scientists looked for evidence of virus infection in a group of animals called invertebrates, which includes insects and spiders. Not only does the study expand the catalogue of known viruses, it also indicates they have existed for billions of years. The findings were published in the journal Nature.
11-24-16 Brain stimulation guides people through an invisible maze
Brain stimulation guides people through an invisible maze
Completely without seeing it, people successfully navigated a virtual maze guided only by flashes of light in their brain caused by magnetic stimulation. You’re stuck in a maze. You can’t see the walls, or the floor. All you have to navigate is a device on your head stimulating your brain to tell you which way to go. In an experiment at the University of Washington in Seattle, participants solved a maze puzzle guided only by transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). The findings suggest that this type of brain prompt could be used to augment virtual reality experiences or help give blind people “visual” information about their surroundings. Darby Losey and his colleagues created a virtual maze in the style of a simple 2D video game through which people had to guide an avatar. But they couldn’t actually see the maze – instead, they faced a blank screen. At regular intervals, a question box would pop up asking if they would like to move forward or make a turn.
11-24-16 Why diet drinks with aspartame may actually help make you fatter
Why diet drinks with aspartame may actually help make you fatter
Experiments in mice suggest that aspartame neutralises a key enzyme, which could be why some people put on weight even when they have sugar-free soft drinks. It may sound like a healthy switch, but sometimes people who drink diet soft drinks put on more weight and develop chronic disorders like diabetes. This has puzzled nutritionists, but experiments in mice now suggest that in some cases, this could partly be down to the artificial sweetener aspartame. Artificial sweeteners that contain no calories are synthetic alternatives to sugar that can taste up to 20,000 times sweeter. They are often used in products like low or zero-calorie drinks and sugar-free desserts, and are sometimes recommended for people who have type 2 diabetes. But mouse experiments now suggest that when aspartame breaks down in the gut, it may disrupt processes that are vital for neutralising harmful toxins from the bacteria that live there. By interfering with a crucial enzyme, these toxins seem to build up, irritating the gut lining and causing the kinds of low-level inflammation that can ultimately cause chronic diseases.
11-24-16 Genetic testing is infiltrating the sports world
Genetic testing is infiltrating the sports world
Genetic analysis companies are forging alliances with personal trainers, chiropractors, and coaches around the world to market genomics tests that they say can help athletes at all levels tailor their workouts to their DNA. They have struck deals with the Baylor University football team in Texas, with soccer teams in the English Premier League and in Egypt, and with an elite training facility in Arizona for top track and field athletes, including several who competed in the Rio Games. Yet there is little science to back up the claims that a genetic analysis could identify if a particular athlete is, say, predisposed to benefit from a certain type of exercise, prone to tendon injuries, or wired to have trouble recovering from tough workouts.
11-24-16 The devoted spider dads who fix up nurseries for their babies
The devoted spider dads who fix up nurseries for their babies
Male spiders from Brazil build dome-shape homes, fix silk nurseries and actively defend their offspring – a unique behaviour among solitary spiders. Most male spiders bail out after mating – if they make it through the process alive, that is, as females of many spider species cannibalise their mates. But not this spider. Male Manogea porracea in South America not only help with childcare, they often end up as single dads. The male of the species builds a dome-shaped web above the female’s and sets about helping to maintain a “nursery” web. This is built between the two domes and holds the egg sacs. The males also defend the eggs from would-be predators and even remove water from the surface of egg sacs on rainy days.
11-24-16 Meet the crab with the 'mighty claw'
Meet the crab with the 'mighty claw'
The claws of coconut crabs have the strongest pinching force of any crustacean, according to research. What's more, their maximum crushing force is stronger than the bite force of all land animals, except the alligator. Coconut crabs are remarkably strong, lifting up to 28 kilograms (62lb) - the weight of a small child. They use their claws to fight and defend themselves, as well as to crack open coconut shells. At up to one-metre (3 ft) across, coconut crabs are also the largest of all land-based arthropods - the group that includes insects, spiders and crustaceans. They live on small islands in the tropical Indian and Pacific oceans.
11-23-16 Hurt blocker: To treat chronic pain, look to the brain not body
Hurt blocker: To treat chronic pain, look to the brain not body
Rethinking the root causes of chronic pain suggests it will take more than drugs to break the cycle – the answer lies in how the brain processes pain. An estimated 10 million people in the UK and a fifth of the world’s population has chronic pain, lasting 12 weeks or more. For many of them, treatments provide little relief. Even the strongest drugs often don’t eliminate discomfort, and come with serious side effects. Not to mention they are addictive, make pain worse long-term and are all too easy to accidentally overdose on. Now, though, researchers are starting to tackle the problem by rethinking the root causes of chronic pain. Rather than seeing it as a lingering version of the acute form, they have begun to recognise it as a complex disorder of the nervous system that changes the brain’s structure, chemistry and activity. Such thinking could help dispel the myth that there is nothing wrong with those with chronic pain, and could lead to a new wave of treatments.
11-23-16 Why some itches can’t be scratched – and how to combat them
Why some itches can’t be scratched – and how to combat them
One in five of us will experience chronic itch at some point and current remedies provide little relief. Scratching's normal success provides some clues. AS WE improve our understanding of chronic pain, there is a related problem that has researchers scratching their heads. The sensation of itch, which shares many nervous pathways with pain, has long been a mystery. One reason is that it can be conjured up entirely by the brain. Just thinking about something tickly, or even watching someone else scratch, can set us off. Efforts to find out why this is, and why only scratching makes it stop, have led researchers to study how itch is processed in the skin, spinal cord and brain. In recent years they have begun piecing together a more complete
11-23-16 This week the Great Barrier Reef mated
This week the Great Barrier Reef mated
Once a year, all the corals on Australia's legendary reef get together to reproduce. At 7:30pm local time on 21 November 2016, the corals of the Great Barrier Reef took part in "their annual sex festival" – as Chris Jones of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority calls it. "It's a mass coral spawning event," says Jones. "Sperm and eggs are all released into the water at the same time and they join up." The infant corals then look for an algae-covered surface to land on. There, if conditions are right, they will slowly form a new colony.
11-23-16 Coconut crab’s bone-crushing grip is 10 times stronger than ours
Coconut crab’s bone-crushing grip is 10 times stronger than ours
It’s the largest of all land arthropods and it has the strongest claw of any crustacean on Earth – strong enough to lift a child or break bones. A giant crab from the Asia-Pacific region can lift the weight of a small child and has the most powerful claw strength of any crustacean. The coconut crab – Birgus latro – lives on islands in the Indian and Pacific oceans, and can reach a weight of 4 kilograms, a length of 40 centimetres and a leg span of almost a metre. Its large claws are strong enough to lift up to 28 kilograms and crack open hard coconuts – hence its name. However, the squeezing force of its claws has never been precisely measured until now.
11-23-16 It’s time to relax the rules on growing human embryos in the lab
It’s time to relax the rules on growing human embryos in the lab
Researchers can only study human embryos up to 14 days past fertilisation, but new techniques can go beyond that – a change in the law would benefit all of us. WHEN it comes to studying our earliest existence, how far are we willing to go? Growing human embryos in the lab beyond the seventh day after fertilisation – the moment when embryos normally implant in the wall of the uterus – has been a long-standing challenge for biologists, but the latest research is allowing us to extend past that. Earlier this year, a team led by Ali Brivanlou at Rockefeller University, New York, and another group at the University of Cambridge managed to keep embryos alive for longer than seven days, but they stopped the experiments two weeks in. It’s not that the embryos perished. Guidelines set by national medical societies in the US prohibit growing embryos in the lab for more than 14 days. In the UK and 11 other countries, that limit is enshrined in legislation, and embryos must be destroyed before they develop further. (Webmaster's comment: Don't worry, the Chinese have no such dark age supersitions brought about by some primitive idea of religion. They'll surge ahead of us in this just like they have in other scientific endeavors.)
11-23-16 Dogs form memories of experiences
Dogs form memories of experiences
Tests of mimicking actions suggest dogs have a form of episodic memory. After watching a person do a trick, such as touching an umbrella, dogs can perform the same one, even when they weren’t expecting to be called to action. The results suggest dogs remember personal experiences. Dogs don’t miss much. After watching a human do a trick, dogs remembered the tricks well enough to copy them perfectly a minute later, a new study finds. The results suggest that our furry friends possess some version of episodic memory, which allows them to recall personal experiences, and not just simple associations between, for instance, sitting and getting a treat. Pet dogs watched a human do something — climb on a chair, look inside a bucket or touch an umbrella. Either a minute or an hour later, the dog was unexpectedly asked to copy the behavior with a “Do it!” command, an imitation that the dogs had already been trained to do. In many cases, dogs were able to obey these surprise commands, particularly after just a minute. Dogs didn’t perform as well when they had to wait an hour for the test, suggesting that the memories grew hazier with time.
11-22-16 Zika is no longer an emergency – it’s worse than that, says WHO
Zika is no longer an emergency – it’s worse than that, says WHO
The Zika virus looks like it’s here to stay. It will take years to find out the real risk of the virus and its full effects– and a vaccine is still years away. Zika virus no longer represents a public health emergency, the World Health Organisation announced on Friday. On the face of it, this sounds like good news. But this is not a downgrading of the threat of the virus – if anything, it’s an upgrading, says Christian Lindmeier of the WHO. The emergency status was used when little was known about Zika virus, and an urgent response was required from funders and researchers to learn more. “Today, we are in a very different situation,” Peter Salama, head of the WHO’s health emergencies programme, told a press briefing on Tuesday. Now that we know that Zika causes brain damage in fetuses and newborns, and that it is spreading, we need a long term approach. “It’s critical that we recognise that Zika virus will continue to spread,” he says. “And we need to continue to be able to respond.” From now on, the WHO’s fight against Zika will be referred to as “a medium-to-long term programme of work”. This means that research, diagnostics and treatment projects won’t be able to get money from emergency funders. But these donors tend to only fund projects lasting around 6 to 12 months. The pressing questions surrounding Zika will take years of research to answer, says Salama. He hopes that funding will start to come from other, more sustainable donors. “In many ways, this is actually an acknowledgment that the programme needs to escalate into a longer term programme of work,” he says.
11-22-16 Killer bird flu has spread across Europe – are humans next?
Killer bird flu has spread across Europe – are humans next?
As farmers across Europe fatten up turkeys and geese for Christmas, a hybrid flu strain has killed many wild birds and invaded poultry farms. Could we be next? Bird flu is back, and it’s got nastier – for birds, at least. The H5N8 virus has spread into Europe and is killing wild birds as well as invading poultry farms – a major worry for farmers in the run-up to the festive season. So far the virus doesn’t seem to infect humans, but it is evolving. The current strain is descended from the H5N1 virus, which started killing poultry in China in 1996, and then people too. H5N1 exploded across east Asia in 2004 with the poultry trade, and then spread into Europe and Africa in 2006, thanks to migrating birds. Since then, the virus has lurked mainly in poultry, especially flu-vaccinated chickens in Asia that can carry the virus while being immune to it. So far, 452 people have died after catching it from poultry. But viruses like H5N1 have also been moving with migrating dabbling ducks like mallards, which are usually immune to it. Birds from all over Eurasia mingle in north-central Asia during the summer, swap viruses, then disperse back to Africa, Asia and Europe for the winter. This has recently allowed H5N1 to hybridise with other kinds of flu. “We do not know what is driving the plethora of H5s,” although changes in climate and migration may be involved, says Julio Pinto at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome.
11-22-16 Old blood carries risks for brain
Old blood carries risks for brain
New transfusion process between young, old mice helps pinpoint effects. Young blood doesn’t kick-start nerve cell division in the hippocampus of an old mouse. And factors in old blood interfere with the process in the brain of a young mouse. Harmful factors circulating in old blood may be partly responsible for the mental decline that can come with age, a small study in mice suggests. Irina Conboy of the University of California, Berkeley and colleagues devised a new way to mingle blood in two mice that didn’t involve stitching their bodies together, as in previous experiments (SN: 5/31/14, p. 8). Instead, researchers used a microfluidic device to shuttle blood, a process that precisely controlled the timing and amount of blood transferred between the mice. The method, reported online November 22 in Nature Communications, allows more precise tests of blood’s influence on aging, the researchers believe.
11-22-16 Bacteria help carnivorous plants drown their prey
Bacteria help carnivorous plants drown their prey
Microbes alter surface tension in the water traps of pitcher plants. Hooded, yellow-green California pitcher plants are quick to engulf insects in inner water traps, thanks to lurking bacteria. Bacteria may be a meat-eating plant’s best friends thanks to their power to reduce the surface tension of water. The carnivorous pitcher plant Darlingtonia californica releases water into the tall vases of its leaves, creating deathtraps where insect prey drown. Water in a pitcher leaf starts clear. But after about a week, thanks to bacteria, it turns “murky brown to a dark red and smells horrible,” says David Armitage of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. Now, he’s found that those bacteria can help plants keep insects trapped. Microbial residents reduce the surface tension of water enough for ants and other small insects to slip immediately into the pool instead of perching lightly on the surface, he reports November 23 in Biology Letters.
11-22-16 Glassmaking may have begun in Egypt, not Mesopotamia
Glassmaking may have begun in Egypt, not Mesopotamia
Artifacts from Iraq site show less sophisticated technique, color palette. Glassmaking started in ancient Egypt, not the Near East as often assumed, researchers say. Approximately 3,400-year-old fragments from a decorated glass vessel found in Iraq may even represent a fairly crude attempt to copy more advanced Egyptian glass colors and designs from the same time. Ancient Mesopotamians have traditionally been credited with inventing glassmaking around 3,600 years ago. But Mesopotamians may have created second-rate knock-offs of glass objects from Egypt, where this complex craft actually originated, researchers reported November 19 at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research. Arguments that glass production originated in Mesopotamia largely rest on artifacts recovered nearly a century ago at Nuzi, a site in what’s now Iraq. Glass finds there included colored beads, vessels and pendants.
11-22-16 Ancient cemetery provides peek into Philistines’ lives, health
Ancient cemetery provides peek into Philistines’ lives, health
Burial site of hundreds of Israelites’ mysterious enemies could yield clues to population’s origins. A researcher cleans the skeleton of a person interred around 3,000 years ago at a recently discovered Philistine cemetery along Israel’s coast. A small jug was placed on the dead person’s face at the time of burial. A roughly 3,000-year-old cemetery on Israel’s coast is providing an unprecedented look at burial practices of the Philistines, a mysterious population known from the Old Testament for having battled the Israelites. Work at the Ashkelon cemetery from 2013 to 2016 has uncovered remains of at least 227 individuals, ranging from infants to older adults. Only a small section of the cemetery has been explored. Archaeologist and excavation director Adam Aja of the Harvard Semitic Museum estimates that approximately 1,200 people were interred there over a span of about 100 years.
11-22-16 A pap smear can scoop up fetal cells for genome testing
A pap smear can scoop up fetal cells for genome testing
The technique may be helpful for treating some disorders before birth. A new test using fetal cells obtained from a Pap smear can scan a fetus’s genome as early as five weeks. Scanning a fetus’s genome just a few weeks after conception may soon be an option for expecting parents. Mom just needs to get a Pap smear first. By scraping a woman’s cervix as early as five weeks into a pregnancy, researchers can collect enough fetal cells to test for abnormalities linked to more than 6,000 genetic disorders, researchers report November 2 in Science Translational Medicine. It’s not clear exactly how fetal cells make their way down to the cervix, says study coauthor Sascha Drewlo of Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit. But the cells may invade mom’s mucus-secreting glands, and then get washed into the cervical canal.
11-22-16 GM mosquitoes approved for field trial release in Florida
GM mosquitoes approved for field trial release in Florida
State officials have approved a controversial plan to fight diseases such as Zika and dengue with genetically engineered insects. On 19 November, the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District gave the green light to a controversial plan to test genetically engineered male mosquitoes. The mosquitoes – developed by UK biotechnology firm Oxitec – carry a gene that makes their offspring die early. By letting the GM mozzies mate with native female mosquitoes in the wild, the idea is to slash the population of mosquitoes carrying dangerous diseases such as Zika and dengue. Similar initiatives have already been successful. One trial in Piracicaba, Brazil, also led by Oxitec, reportedly reduced dengue cases by more than 90 per cent.
11-21-16 Unconscious brain training beats phobias without the stress
Unconscious brain training beats phobias without the stress
Facing your fears can be unpleasant. But there may be a new way to treat phobias – encouraging you to think about scary things without you even realising it. No need to face your fears, they could be made to just melt away. A new way of curing phobias can nudge people into unconsciously thinking about their fears, helping them to unlearn their associations of fear in a stress-free way. Phobias are usually treated with “exposure therapy”, which involves showing someone the thing they are frightened of while in a safe environment, to teach them that they don’t need to be scared. But many people find it so stressful that they drop out – or are too scared to sign up in the first place. “We thought if we can do it unconsciously, there’s no unpleasantness,” says Hakwan Lau of the University of California, Los Angeles. Lau’s team are using software that can be trained to identify what people are looking at or imagining as they lie in fMRI brain scanners. This software can even identify things that someone is thinking about unconsciously, by focussing on activity in the visual cortex – the region that processes raw visual data from our eyes.
11-21-16 Gut tissue wired up with nerves created in lab for first time
Gut tissue wired up with nerves created in lab for first time
Lab-grown intestinal tissue could reveal the causes of constipation and diarrhoea, and help treat inflammatory bowel disease and Crohn’s disease. Gut tissue that is almost exactly like the real thing has been grown in the lab and successfully grafted into mice for the first time. The achievement brings us closer to growing gut tissue transplants, an advance that would benefit people with inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease and chronic constipation. “I feel this is one of the most complex tissues to have been engineered,” says Jim Wells of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Ohio. “It has the inner lining that does all the absorption of nutrients and secretion of digestive juices, fully functional muscles that propel the food through the gut, and nerves that control the pulsed muscle movement.”
11-21-16 For some early monks, impaired hearing amplified sounds of silence
For some early monks, impaired hearing amplified sounds of silence
Crypt excavation at Byzantine-era monastery finds evidence of damaged ear bones. An analysis of early Christian monks’ skulls and middle ear bones found in a communal crypt, including those mixed among remains shown here, indicates that a substantial minority suffered mild to severe hearing loss. Early Christian monks’ vows of silence may have attracted not only the devout but also a fair number of hearing-impaired men with a sacred calling. A team led by bioarchaeologist Margaret Judd of the University of Pittsburgh found that a substantial minority of Byzantine-era monks buried in a communal crypt at Jordan’s Mount Nebo monastery display skeletal signs of hearing impairments. Judd presented these results November 19 at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research.
11-21-16 Ginkgo 'living fossil' genome decoded
Ginkgo 'living fossil' genome decoded
The Ginkgo tree has had its genetic code laid bare by researchers. The tree is famed for being a “living fossil” - a term used to describe those organisms that have experienced very little change over millions of years. In the case of the Ginkgo, there are specimens preserved in the rock record from 270 million years ago, in the Permian Period. The Chinese-led research team says the new information should help to explain the tree’s evolutionary success. Its resilience is legendary: it was one of the few living things to survive the atomic bomb blast in the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945. A Ginkgo is known to produce chemicals that are unpalatable to the insects that try to eat it, and will counter the fungi and bacteria that attempt to attack it. Researchers can now more easily identify the mechanisms that drive these capabilities. The specific species sequenced in the study was Ginkgo biloba. It reveals the tree’s genome to be huge, comprising some 10.6 billion DNA "letters". By way of comparison, the human genome contains just three billion letters.
11-21-16 Fijian ants grow their own plant cities and farm tropical fruits
Fijian ants grow their own plant cities and farm tropical fruits
For the first time, ants have been found farming plants in a mutually dependent relationship. The ants get food and shelter and the plants survive too. A Fijian ant first started planting fruit crops 3 million years ago, long before human agriculture evolved. The ant – Philidris nagasau – grows and harvests Squamellaria fruit plants that grow on the branches of various trees. First, the ants insert seeds of the fruit plant in the cracks in tree bark. Workers constantly patrol the planting sites and fertilise the seedlings, probably with their faeces. As the plants grow, they form large, round hollow structures at their base called domatia that the ants live in instead of building nests. When the fruit appears, the ants eat the flesh and collect the seeds for future farming. Guillaume Chomicki at the University of Munich, Germany, and his colleagues discovered that each ant colony farmed dozens of Squamellaria plants at the same time, with trails linking each thriving hub. The connected plant cities often spanned several adjacent trees.
11-21-16 Cretaceous bird find holds new color clue
Cretaceous bird find holds new color clue
First evidence of pigment pods embedded in keratin found in fossil feathers. In the feathers of a new specimen of Eoconfuciusornis lies evidence of pigment-containing pods, and the matrix they were embedded in. A 130-million-year-old bird holds a clue to ancient color that has never before been shown in a fossil. Eoconfuciusornis’ feathers contain not only microscopic pigment pods called melanosomes, but also evidence of beta-keratin, a protein in the stringy matrix that surrounds melanosomes, Mary Schweitzer and colleagues report November 21 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
11-19-16 Oldest alphabet identified as Hebrew
Oldest alphabet identified as Hebrew
Controversial claim argues that ancient Israelites turned Egyptian hieroglyphics into letters. Inscriptions in stone slabs from Egypt, dating to almost 3,500 years ago, contain the world’s oldest alphabet, which one researcher now argues was an early form of Hebrew. New translations of these inscriptions contain references to figures from the Bible, including Moses. The world’s earliest alphabet, inscribed on stone slabs at several Egyptian sites, was an early form of Hebrew, a controversial new analysis concludes. Israelites living in Egypt transformed that civilization’s hieroglyphics into Hebrew 1.0 more than 3,800 years ago, at a time when the Old Testament describes Jews living in Egypt, says archaeologist and epigrapher Douglas Petrovich of Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada. Hebrew speakers seeking a way to communicate in writing with other Egyptian Jews simplified the pharaohs’ complex hieroglyphic writing system into 22 alphabetic letters, Petrovich proposed on November 17 at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research.
11-18-16 Are the US and China heading for a gene-editing ‘space race’?
Are the US and China heading for a gene-editing ‘space race’?
News that researchers in China have become the first to trial the CRISPR technique in humans could see the US relax rules to keep up, says Sally Adee. This week it emerged that the first human test of the controversial gene-editing technique CRISPR had taken place at West China Hospital in Chengdu, where oncologists used it to treat a man with an aggressive lung cancer. Similar trials are expected to start in early 2017 in the US, sparking speculation that the two countries are embarking on a “Sputnik 2.0”-style space race for genetic manipulation. But is this a responsible way to frame the development of a technology that is so fraught with possible risk? The Chinese trial involved collecting the man’s immune cells, editing them using CRISPR to create a much more aggressive version and reinjecting them to fight the cancer cells – this last step took place on 28 October. This and a handful of other pioneering human trials using different gene-editing techniques – including the successful treatment of a 1-year-old girl with leukaemia – are comparatively uncontroversial because the alterations had no bearing on the reproductive system, so the interventions can’t be inherited. However, scientists also have a wish list of medical applications, such as the eradication of rare genetic diseases, that would survive down the generations. The endgame with these is more radical.
11-18-16 An echidna’s to-do list: Sleep. Eat. Dig up Australia.
An echidna’s to-do list: Sleep. Eat. Dig up Australia.
Short-beaked species of this mammal is a valuable ecosystem engineer. Yes, a short-beaked echidna is a mammal—warm-blooded with fur and mother’s milk—but with quirks. With no nipples and reptilelike eggs, short-beaked echidnas look like a first draft of a mammal. Yet, as Australia’s other digging mammals decline from invasive predators, the well-defended echidna is getting new love as an ecosystem engineer. The only mammals today that lay eggs are the four echidna species and the duck-billed platypus. Eggs are probably a holdover from the time before mammals split from reptiles. Each year or so, the short-beaked echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus) lays one leathery egg “about the size of a grape,” says Christine Cooper of Curtin University in Perth. Instead of constructing a nest, mom deposits the egg in her version of a kangaroo pouch and waddles around with it.
11-18-16 Hypochondria and heart disease
Hypochondria and heart disease
Worrying about getting sick may actually make you sick. That’s the conclusion of a new study from Norway that suggests hypochondriacs are at greater risk for heart disease, reports The Guardian (U.K.). Researchers asked 7,052 adults to complete questionnaires about their health concerns and then undergo physical exams. About 10 percent of the volunteers had “health anxiety”—they essentially worried about ailments they didn’t have. When the researchers tracked the volunteers’ heart health for 12 years, they found that those with health anxiety were 71 percent likelier to develop cardiac problems. The more severe their anxiety, the higher their risk. These findings don’t prove that hypochondria causes heart disease, but the study’s authors nevertheless believe that taking steps to ease unnecessary anxiety could have health benefits. “Instead of worrying about what’s going on with your body and running to the doctor for any physical health problem,” says lead author Line Iden Berge, “[people should] seek a proper diagnosis and help for the anxiety disorder.”
11-18-16 Kangaroo-bone nose piercing is oldest bone jewellery ever found
Kangaroo-bone nose piercing is oldest bone jewellery ever found
The carved kangaroo bone ornament shows that Australia's first modern human inhabitants were as advanced as people elsewhere. A crafted piece of bone found in Australia looks as if it were designed to be worn in the nasal septum – making it the oldest bone jewellery belonging to Homo sapiens to be identified anywhere in the world. The finding shows that the first humans to reach Australia 50,000 years ago were as culturally advanced as their counterparts in Africa and Europe. Sue O’Connor at the Australian National University in Canberra found the delicate, 13-centimetre-long artefact in a rock shelter in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Microscopic analysis by her colleague Michelle Langley revealed red ochre stains and scrapes down the side made by stone tools.
11-18-16 Prehistoric sea lizards
Prehistoric sea lizards
Antarctica was once home to a giant predatory sea monster that hunted the reptilian equivalent of whales, paleontologists have discovered. The new species of mosasaur, Kaikaifilu hervei, lived 66 million years ago, when the Antarctic seas were much warmer. About 33 feet long and featuring sharp teeth, paddle-like limbs, and a long tail, the lizard-like beast mainly hunted the aristonectine plesiosaurus, a long-necked marine reptile that fed like a modern-day whale. K. hervei would have been the largest marine predator in the region. Scientists with the Chilean Paleontological Expedition identified the creature after unearthing a huge skull fossil on Seymour Island in the Antarctic Peninsula. At 4 feet long, the mosasaur fossil is the largest ever found in the southern hemisphere, and about twice the size of the next-biggest mosasaur skull to be unearthed on the continent. “Prior to this research, the known mosasaur remains from Antarctica provided no evidence for the presence of very large predators like Kaikaifilu,” the study’s author, Rodrigo Otero, tells LiveScience?.com. K. hervei died off along with the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period 66 million years ago, when a giant meteor impact off the coast of Mexico triggered a mass extinction event.
11-18-16 Genetic breakthrough: Crops use more sunlight to grow
Genetic breakthrough: Crops use more sunlight to grow
Scientists have improved "the most important biological process on the planet" - photosynthesis. The breakthrough, published in the journal Science, used genetic modification to increase the amount of sunlight energy crop plants can channel into food production. That increased yield in an experimental crop by 15%. Researchers say this is a critical step towards increasing crop production to feed a growing global population.
11-17-16 Tweaking how plants manage a crisis boosts photosynthesis
Tweaking how plants manage a crisis boosts photosynthesis
Enhancing just three genes helps plants harvest more light, raising new hopes for developing crops that can keep up with food demands from a crowded planet. Genetically engineered tobacco plants, chosen to test the concept, managed the unusual feat of growing 14 to 20 percent more mass — meaning more crop yield — than untweaked plants, says Krishna Niyogi of the University of California, Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The gains came from inserting different versions of three genes that control how quickly plants ramp back up to full energy-harvesting capacity after going into a protective mode to protect themselves from too-bright sunlight, researchers report in the Nov. 18 Science.
11-17-16 Ancient corn cob shows how maize conquered the world
Ancient corn cob shows how maize conquered the world
Scientific analysis of a cob of corn dating back 5,000 years shows how maize became one of our most popular cereals. Farming by early civilisations started a process of domestication that produced the sweet yellow corn we use today for food or fuel. Ancient DNA extracted from the cob gives a window into the past to the time when maize was first grown. The cob is one of the oldest in the world and was excavated from a cave in the Tehuacan Valley, Mexico. "Based on archaeological evidence and modern DNA evidence, we already know that maize was domesticated in Mexico some time between about 10,000 and 6,000 years ago," said Nathan Wales, of the Natural History Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen. "What we did not know using modern DNA or other information is really how this process gets going and the timing of different events in the past."
11-17-16 Dinosaur-killing asteroid turned planet Earth inside-out
Dinosaur-killing asteroid turned planet Earth inside-out
Pulling samples from the Chicxulub crater shows that the impact caused rocks to move like liquid and form pores in which life could flourish. Earth-shattering, deadly asteroid strikes might also create safe harbour for life. An expedition to the Chicxulub crater has drawn a new timeline of how the cataclysmic impact that probably killed the dinosaurs happened – and how it may have carved out new niches in which life could flourish, even in the face of utter destruction. About 65 million years ago, a giant asteroid plummeted through Earth’s atmosphere and punched through the planet’s crust in what is now Chicxulub, in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. That makes it one of the youngest and most accessible craters in the solar system – others are too distant or have had the story of their origins eroded by time and plate tectonics. So Joanna Morgan, a geophysicist at Imperial College London, and her colleagues boarded an offshore platform in the Gulf of Mexico this April and May and drilled into the crater’s edge, which lies beneath the sea and about a kilometre of limestone.
11-17-16 The astounding whiteness of genetic research
The astounding whiteness of genetic research
e field of genetics isn't paying enough attention to people who aren't white, according to an op-ed published recently in the journal Nature. That could have big implications on the overall health of minorities. In 2009, scientists performed an analysis on all scientific studies that had correlated a genetic mutation with a particular disease, called genome-wide association studies (GWAS). The researchers found that 96 percent of the participants in those studies were of European descent. The researchers behind the current study did the same analysis in 2016. On the upside, the percent of minority participants in these studies rose from 4 to 20 percent in seven years. But the downside is that most of these gains have come from people of Asian descent. "The degree to which people of African and Latin American ancestry, Hispanic people and indigenous peoples are represented in GWAS has barely shifted," the authors write.
11-17-16 50 years ago, fluoridation was promoted as a bone protector
50 years ago, fluoridation was promoted as a bone protector
While fluoridated water isn’t the cure for everything that ails you, it does reduce tooth decay by 25 percent in kids and adults alike. The role of fluoride in bone health has been much less clear than its benefit for teeth. Studies in the 1980s showed treatment with a calcium-fluoride mix increased bone mass (SN: 1/21/89, p. 36) and reduced fracture risk in women with osteoporosis. But an analysis of 25 studies in 2008 showed fluoride doesn’t ease fracture risk. In 1951, only 3.3 percent of the U.S. population had fluoridated water; by 2014, that rate was up to 66.3 percent. Fluoridated drinking water may not help bones, but it does reduce cavities by 25 percent in both adults and children.
11-16-16 Infants' brains attuned to baby talk and nursery rhymes
Infants' brains attuned to baby talk and nursery rhymes
Researchers in Cambridge believe that babies learn best when their brain waves are in sync with their parents'. The study has also shown that infants are attuned to baby talk and nursery rhymes. The research indicates that babies need to feel safe, secure and loved for brain connections to be properly formed to enable them to learn effectively. The findings are emerging from a baby brain scanning project at Cambridge University. To a newborn, the world is a rush of sights and sounds, an overload of information. But then the world gradually comes into focus. Babies soon learn to recognise faces and voices and over the coming months learn how to move, understand language and make sense of what is around them. This is a crucial moment in all our lives when important connections are being formed in the brain.
11-16-16 Heartburn drugs may raise stroke risk
Heartburn drugs may raise stroke risk
Study latest to raise health concern for popular proton pump inhibitors. Popular drugs taken for heartburn may be associated with a higher risk for stroke. Popular heartburn drugs — already under investigation for possible links to dementia, kidney and heart problems (SN: 6/11/16, p. 8) — have a new health concern to add to the list. An analysis of almost 250,000 medical records in Denmark has found an association with stroke. Researchers from the Danish Heart Foundation in Copenhagen studied patients undergoing gastric endoscopy from 1997 to 2012. About 9,500 of all patients studied suffered from ischemic strokes, which occur when a blood clot blocks a blood vessel in the brain.
11-16-16 Downside of yo-yo dieting is rise in heart disease risk
Downside of yo-yo dieting is rise in heart disease risk
Gaining, losing even 10 pounds is problem for healthy weight women, study suggests. Yo-yo dieters, even if they’re not overweight, could be placing their heart health at risk. A new study highlights just how bad yo-yo dieting might be. Women who repeatedly lose and regain as little as 10 pounds may have a higher likelihood of sudden cardiac death and cardiovascular disease — even if their bodies stay within the range of recommended weight. The results are concerning because yo-yo dieting is more prevalent among people who are typically of healthy weight, said Somwail Rasla, an internal medicine resident at Brown University in Providence, R.I. He presented the results November 15 at the American Heart Association’s annual meeting.
11-16-16 Despite Alzheimer’s plaques, some seniors remain mentally sharp
Despite Alzheimer’s plaques, some seniors remain mentally sharp
Proteins linked to dementia don’t diminish memory in some brains. A small number of very old people retain good memories, despite having signs of Alzheimer’s in their brains, a new study suggests. A small number of people maintain razor-sharp memories into their 90s, despite having brains chock-full of the plaques and tangles linked to Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers suspect that these people’s brains are somehow impervious to the usual devastation thought to be caused by those plaques and tangles.
11-16-16 Protein linked to Parkinson’s travels from gut to brain
Protein linked to Parkinson’s travels from gut to brain
Study in mice traces path of alpha-synuclein. Using a method that rendered tissue translucent, researchers were able to see alpha-synuclein clumps in the gut of a mouse intermingled with nerve cells and astrocytes. Over the course of months, clumps of a protein implicated in Parkinson’s disease can travel from the gut into the brains of mice, scientists have found. The results, reported November 14 at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, suggest that in some cases, Parkinson’s may get its start in the gut. That’s an intriguing concept, says neuroscientist John Cryan of the University College Cork in Ireland. The new study “shows how important gut health can be for brain health and behavior.”
11-16-16 Averages can conceal how people and science learn
Averages can conceal how people and science learn
Picture a learning curve. Most of us imagine a smooth upward slope that rises with steady mastery. It is the ultimate image of progress. But that image, as behavioral sciences writer Bruce Bower reports in "Kids learning curve not so smooth" (SN: 11/26/16, p. 6), may well be an illusion of statistics, created when people look at averages of a group instead of how individuals actually learn. That’s what scientists at the University of Cambridge found when quizzing preschoolers’ developing ability to understand that other people can have false beliefs, an important milestone in the development of a theory of mind. For many learners, the study suggests, mastery comes in fits and starts, a graphical zigzagging that denotes steps forward and back. Insight into a problem can be quick for some, but many people follow a more meandering path to knowledge and understanding.
11-16-16 World’s best navigators mostly come from Nordic countries
World’s best navigators mostly come from Nordic countries
In a game that tests sense of direction, people from Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark scored higher than 187 other countries – but we don’t know why. People from Finland have a particularly good sense of direction. That’s according to a study of 2.4 million people who downloaded a phone game designed to test people’s ability to find their way around. Out of the 193 countries where the game was downloaded, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark scored among the top six countries that did best at the game. It was created to help researchers develop a test for Alzheimer’s disease, as one of the first symptoms of this condition is getting lost, says Hugo Spiers of University College London. “It’s seen as a memory condition but the first thing to go is loss of spatial orientation.” So far the team have only tested the game on healthy volunteers. To try the game out on as many people as possible, they made a free phone version called Sea Hero Quest, which systematically tests people’s navigation abilities. After setting off in a boat and making several twists and turns through icebergs, the player has to aim a flare back to their starting point, which they can no longer see.
11-16-16 DNA secrets to life in the deep
DNA secrets to life in the deep
Sampling DNA from seawater may be one way to check up on fish and other marine life, according to research. Sequencing fragments of DNA from water 1km (0.6 miles) below the surface can determine the type and quantity of fish present, say Danish scientists. The DNA-based technique could be used for monitoring fish sustainably without having to catch them. Fish populations are under pressure from over-fishing, pollution and climate change. Dr Philip Francis Thomsen, of the University of Copenhagen, said the environmental DNA (eDNA) approach was "very universal", giving information on many fish, including flatfish, sharks and rays, and deep-sea species. "We are basically doing equivalent to CSI [crime scene investigation] work for a biologist," he told BBC News. "Investigating the biodiversity of the ocean by using environmental DNA as a proxy for what is actually living there."
11-16-16 Chinese patient is first to be treated with CRISPR-edited cells
Chinese patient is first to be treated with CRISPR-edited cells
Researchers used molecular scissors called CRISPR/Cas9 to engineer immune cells that were then injected into a patient with lung cancer, Nature reports. Chinese scientists have injected a person with CRISPR/Cas9-edited cells, marking the first time cells altered with the technique have been used in humans. Researchers used the powerful gene editor to alter immune cells to fight lung cancer, Nature reports November 15. Immune cells called CAR-T cells have already been engineered using other gene-editing technologies. A baby’s leukemia was successfully treated in 2015 with CAR-T cells engineered with gene editors known as TALENs.
11-16-16 Napping before an exam is as good for your memory as cramming
Napping before an exam is as good for your memory as cramming
Revising for an exam? Students who spend an hour napping do just as well in tests as those who cram – and may even develop a better memory in the long run. You’ve got a spare hour before a big exam. How should you spend it? It seems napping is just as effective as revising, and could even have a longer-lasting impact. Repeatedly revising information to learn it makes sense. “Any kind of reactivation of a memory trace will lead to it being strengthened and reconsolidated,” says James Cousins at the Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore. “With any memory, the more you recall it, the stronger the memory trace.” However, sleep is also thought to be vital for memory. A good night’s sleep seems to help our brains consolidate what we’ve learned in the day, and learning anything when you’re not well rested is tricky. Many people swear by a quick afternoon kip. So if you’ve got an hour free, is it better to nap or revise? Cousins, along with Michael Chee and their colleagues, also at Duke-NUS Medical School, set out to compare the two options. The team mocked-up a real student experience, and had 72 volunteers sit through presentations of about 12 different species of ants and crabs. The participants were asked to learn all about these animals, including their diets and habitats, for example.
11-15-16 Electric fields can stimulate deep in your brain without surgery
Electric fields can stimulate deep in your brain without surgery
Deep brain stimulation might help treat obesity and depression, but requires extreme brain surgery. Now researchers have managed to use electric fields instead. It’s one of the boldest treatments in medicine: delivering an electrical current deep into the brain by implanting a long thin electrode through a hole in the skull. Such “deep brain stimulation” (DBS) works miracles on people with otherwise untreatable epilepsy or Parkinson’s disease – but drilling into someone’s head is an extreme step. In future, we may be able to get the same effects by using stimulators placed outside the head, an advance that could see DBS used to treat a much wider range of conditions. DBS is being investigated for depression, obesity and obsessive compulsive disorder, but this research is going slowly. Implanting an electrode requires brain surgery, and carries a risk of infection, so the approach is only considered for severe cases. But Nir Grossman of Imperial College London and his team have found a safer way to experiment with DBS – by stimulating the brain externally, with no need for surgery.
11-16-16 Synaesthetes who ‘see’ calendar show how our brains handle time
Synaesthetes who ‘see’ calendar show how our brains handle time
People who see calendars laid out in front of their mind’s eye provide clues to how we evolved our ability to mentally navigate through time and space. When you think about next December or last January what do you imagine? If you see calendars vividly laid out in front of you, you might be a “calendar synaesthete”. Research into the phenomena gives a clue to how we evolved the ability to mentally navigate through time and space. When we think about the year ahead, most of us conjure up a vague impression of the months hovering somewhere in front of us. However, a small percentage of the population has calendar synaesthesia – crisp calendars that are perceived as images in front of them when thinking about months gone by or still to come. To determine whether these people are having a genuine sensory experience, Vilayanur Ramachandran at the University of California, San Diego, and his colleagues performed a variety of tests on two calendar synaesthetes. One, known as ML, sees her months as occupying an asymmetrical “V” shape. Along this V, she sees each month written in Helvetica font.
11-15-16 How our brains recall celebrities is mirrored by search engines
How our brains recall celebrities is mirrored by search engines
When you Google Bill and Hillary Clinton together, you get over 100 million hits. Now we know cells in our brains group memories of people in a similar way. The brain is often said to be like a computer. Now it turns out that we store memories of famous people in a similar way to Google. Our hippocampi – two small, curved brain structures towards the sides of our head – are crucial for memory. Studies have found that people with damage in these areas can no longer make memories of new events. By studying people who had recording electrodes put into their hippocampi, Rodrigo Quian Quiroga at the University of Leicester, UK, previously found that some neurons in these areas fire only when we see particular celebrities or people we recognise. The experiments involved people trying to memorise pictures of celebrities, and these neurons became known as Jennifer Anniston neurons. Some neurons, though, are active for more than one thing: for instance, in one person, the same cell fired in response to pictures of both Luke Skywalker and Yoda from the Star Wars series of films. The few cases of this happening involved two concepts with obvious connections, but until now there have not been enough examples to know whether this is always the case. Sure enough, whenever neurons responded to more than one concept, there was also a strong association between them on the internet.
11-16-16 Dinosaurs may have used color as camouflage
Dinosaurs may have used color as camouflage
Fossilized pigment pouches tell story of ancient animal’s habitat. Researchers hypothesized what sort of environment a parrot-beaked herbivore called Psittacosaurus inhabited based on fossilized pigmentment patterns. The stories of dinosaurs’ lives may be written in fossilized pigments, but scientists are still wrangling over how to read them. In September, paleontologists deduced a dinosaur’s habitat from remnants of melanosomes, pigment structures in the skin. Psittacosaurus, a speckled dinosaur about the size of a golden retriever, had a camouflaging pattern that may have helped it hide in forests, Jakob Vinther and colleagues say. The dinosaur “was very much on the bottom of the food chain,” says Vinther, of the University of Bristol in England. “It needed to be inconspicuous.”
11-15-16 Restless sleep associated with heart rhythm problems
Restless sleep associated with heart rhythm problems
Study links insomnia, other shut-eye problems to atrial fibrillation. Disturbances in sleep are associated with increased odds of heart rhythm disturbances, even when breathing stays normal. Chronic sleep problems are associated with atrial fibrillation — a temporary but dangerous disruption of heart rhythm — even among people who don’t suffer from sleep apnea. An analysis of almost 14 million patient records has found that people suffering from insomnia, frequent waking and other sleep issues are more likely than sound sleepers to experience a condition in which the upper chambers of the heart quiver instead of rhythmically beating, allowing blood to briefly stagnate.
11-15-16 Sounds and glowing screens impair mouse brains
Sounds and glowing screens impair mouse brains
Excessive sensory stimulation produces ADHD-like behaviors. Mice that grew up with lots of flashing lights and noise had brain and behavior abnormalities. Mice raised in cages bombarded with glowing lights and sounds have profound brain abnormalities and behavioral trouble. Hours of daily stimulation led to behaviors reminiscent of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, scientists reported November 14 at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. Certain kinds of sensory stimulation, such as sights and sounds, are known to help the brain develop correctly. But scientists from Seattle Children’s Research Institute wondered whether too much stimulation or stimulation of the wrong sort could have negative effects on the growing brain.
11-15-16 Infant brains have powerful reactions to fear
Infant brains have powerful reactions to fear
Babies as young as 5 months old respond to facial emotions. Babies as young as 5 months old can detect different emotions in human faces, a new study finds. Babies as young as 5 months old possess networks of brain cell activity that react to facial emotions, especially fear, a new study finds. “Networks for recognizing facial expressions are in place shortly after birth,” Catherine Stamoulis of Harvard Medical School said November 13 during a news conference at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. “This work … is the first evidence that networks that are involved in a function that is critical to survival, such as the recognition of facial expressions, come online very early in life.”
11-15-16 Blood from human teens rejuvenates body and brains of old mice
Blood from human teens rejuvenates body and brains of old mice
Old mice ran around like young animals again, and showed signs of improved memory, after receiving injections of blood taken from 18-year-old people. Blood plasma from young people has been found to rejuvenate old mice, improving their memory, cognition, and physical activity. The method has the potential to be developed into a treatment for people, says Sakura Minami of Alkahest, the company behind the work. Previous research has found that stitching old and young mice together has an interesting effect. While sharing a blood system works out well for the older mouse, the younger one isn’t so lucky. The young animals started to show signs of brain ageing, while the brains of the older mice started to look younger. “We see a rejuvenation effect,” says Minami. The key to youth appears to be in the blood plasma – the liquid part of blood. Several studies have found that injecting plasma from young mice into old mice can help rejuvenate the brain and other organs, including the liver, heart, and muscle.
11-15-16 Superagers with amazing memories have Alzheimer’s brain plaques
Superagers with amazing memories have Alzheimer’s brain plaques
Some people manage to retain a youthful memory into their 90s, even when their brains show signs of Alzheimer’s disease – could something be protecting them? Having an agile mind in your 90s might sound like wishful thinking, but some people manage to retain youthful memories until their dying days. Now post mortems have revealed that these “superagers” manage to do this even when their brains have the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s diseases. Superagers have the memory and cognition of the average person almost half their age, and manage to avoid Alzheimer’s symptoms. Aras Rezvanian at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois, and his colleagues have been looking at brain samples donated by such people to try to understand what their secret might be. The group looked at eight brains, all from people who had lived into their 90s, and had memory and cognition scores of the average 50-year-old until their final days. Specifically, the team studied two brain regions – the hippocampus, which is involved in memory, and the prefrontal cortex, which is key for cognition.
11-15-16 Zap to the head leads to fat loss
Zap to the head leads to fat loss
Stimulating vestibular nerve to reduce obesity shows promise in small study. People who received stimulation of the vestibular nerve, which runs just behind the ears, lost on average about 8 percent of the fat on their trunks in four months. A nerve-zapping headset caused people to shed fat in a small preliminary study. Six people who had received the stimulation lost on average about 8 percent of the fat on their trunks in four months, scientists reported November 12 at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. The headset stimulated the vestibular nerve, which runs just behind the ears. That nerve sends signals to the hypothalamus, a brain structure thought to control the body’s fat storage. By stimulating the nerve with an electrical current, the technique shifts the body away from storing fat toward burning it, scientists propose.
11-15-16 Lichens are an early warning system for forest health
Lichens are an early warning system for forest health
Scientists tap symbiotic lichens as sentinels of air quality, and now, climate problems. Aptly named “fairy barf” lichen (Icmadophila ericetorum) clings to bark in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. Lichens are useful for sensing threats to ecosystems, including air pollution and climate change. Ecologist Linda Geiser works her way through thick undergrowth on the steep hills of the Bull Run Watershed just outside of Portland, Ore. Every step in her heavy boots is deliberate. It would be easy to break an ankle here, or worse. A dense sea of ferns and berry bushes hides deep pits and sharp fallen branches. This treacherous slope is a U.S. Forest Service field site, one of many in the United States, recognizable by its bright orange flagging fluttering from the trees. Geiser has patrolled terrain like this for 30 years. As manager of the Forest Service’s air-quality program, she’s tasked with monitoring pollution. So she has come here, not to check sophisticated equipment, but to find lichens.
11-15-16 Dino-bird fossil had sparkly feathers 'to attract mate '
Dino-bird fossil had sparkly feathers 'to attract mate '
An extinct bird that lived about 120 million years ago had iridescent feathers that it may have used to attract a mate, fossil evidence shows. The prehistoric bird, which was found recently in China, may have puffed up its feathers like a peacock. The bird's feathers are "remarkably preserved", including the chemical that gave them sparkle.
11-14-16 Gender equality is boosted by better infection control
Gender equality is boosted by better infection control
The gender gap has been narrowing in the UK and US since the 1970s, and this might be thanks to the lower risk of catching disease in childhood. Fighting germs helps feminism. Improvements in gender equality over the last half-century have been driven by better control of infectious disease, a new analysis suggests. Gender equality is known to flourish when women are able to focus on education and career progression. When women grow up in dangerous, unpredictable environments, there is greater pressure to have children as early as possible and to focus on short-term goals. This often means sacrificing higher education, leading to greater inequality between the sexes. Michael Varnum at Arizona State University and his colleagues investigated whether four different threats – infectious disease, resource scarcity, war and climate stress – had effects on gender equality in the US and UK over the past seven decades.
11-14-16 My biology made me do it? Why some voters may embrace the right
My biology made me do it? Why some voters may embrace the right
The way your body automatically responds to a threatening picture is strongly linked to how likely you are to favour right wing populism, says John Hibbing. A cute bunny or a coiled snake? If given the choice of looking at happy or ominous images, humans spend more time on the ominous ones. We also remember threatening stimuli more readily and display heightened physiological responses to them. This makes perfect evolutionary sense since organisms not attuned to threats in the environment are less likely to survive and prosper. Such tendencies, however, often mask a lot of variation in response. Certain people are significantly more “threat sensitive” than others and react more strongly to threats. They typically favour policy proposals that would seem to mitigate threats. You might think those attuned to threats should be especially likely to want to do something about them. But here is where things get interesting. All threats are not created equal and elevated threat sensitivity appears to favour some policy areas rather than others.
11-14-16 Bunnies eat toxic leaves to conquer Australia’s snowy peaks
Bunnies eat toxic leaves to conquer Australia’s snowy peaks
Rampaging rabbits are colonising Australia's mountains by adapting to a diet of poisonous snow gum leaves. Nothing will stand in their way. After devastating Australia’s low-lying regions, European rabbits are now muscling in on snowy mountainous areas by adapting to survive on toxic snow gum leaves. Rabbits were introduced to Australia in the 19th century and rapidly spread across the continent, creating huge problems for native wildlife and farmers. The only areas they have failed to colonise are those with snow cover in winter, because the grass they eat is buried. But in 2011, Ken Green at Australia’s National Parks and Wildlife Service began to notice rabbits living above the winter snowline in the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales. To understand how they are surviving, he collected their faecal pellets for three years and sent them to the University of Melbourne for dietary analysis.
11-13-16 How video games train the brain to justify killing
How video games train the brain to justify killing
t's play a game. One of the quotes below belongs to a trained soldier speaking of killing the enemy, while the other to a convicted felon describing his first murder. Can you tell the difference? (1) "I realized that I had just done something that separated me from the human race and it was something that could never be undone. I realized that from that point on I could never be like normal people." (2) "I was cool, calm and collected the whole time. I knew what I had to do. I knew I was going to do it, and I did." Would you be surprised to learn that the first statement, suggesting remorse, comes from the American mass murderer David Alan Gore, while the second, of cool acceptance, was made by Andy Wilson, a soldier in the SAS, Britain's elite special forces? In one view, the two men are separated by the thinnest filament of morality: justification. One killed because he wanted to, the other because he was acting on behalf of his country, as part of his job. While most psychologically normal individuals agree that inflicting pain on others is wrong, killing others appears socially sanctioned in specific contexts such as war or self-defense. Or revenge. Or military dictatorships. Or human sacrifice.
11-12-16 Stress 'changes brains of boys and girls differently'
Stress 'changes brains of boys and girls differently'
Very stressful events affect the brains of girls and boys in different ways, a Stanford University study suggests. A part of the brain linked to emotions and empathy, called the insula, was found to be particularly small in girls who had suffered trauma. But in traumatised boys, the insula was larger than usual. This could explain why girls are more likely than boys to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the researchers said. Their findings suggest that boys and girls could display contrasting symptoms after a particularly distressing or frightening event, and should be treated differently as a result. The research team, from Stanford University School of Medicine, said girls who develop PTSD may actually be suffering from a faster than normal ageing of one part of the insula - an area of the brain which processes feelings and pain.
11-12-16 The science of the placebo button
The science of the placebo button
l products and services, everything we buy and use, have but one job — to modulate our mood. The fundamental reason we use technology of all sorts, from stone tools to the latest iPhone, is to make us feel better. To prove the point, consider how perception of relief is tantamount to actual relief. Consider the so-called placebo button. Take, for example, the lowly crosswalk button. When we find ourselves at an intersection, waiting for a light to change, we tap the button, sometimes more than once. Most people believe these buttons are connected to some master control box that will signal the light to change so we can cross the street. In truth, these buttons often do nothing. The crosswalk button is a relic of the age before computer-controlled traffic signals. In New York City, for instance, "the city deactivated most of the pedestrian buttons long ago," a New York Times article reported in 2004. Of the 3,250 walk buttons in the city at the time, some 2,500 were not functional. And yet, the Times noted, when faced with the buttons, "an unwitting public continued to push."
11-11-16 Primal fear can blinker our decisions, even in elections
Primal fear can blinker our decisions, even in elections
We evolved emotions like fear to keep us safe. But in today's world fear can lead us to rank small, personal risks over existential ones, say Dan Ariely and Vlad Chituc. Few researchers in the history of psychology are as controversial as Harry Harlow. His most famous experiment was to socially isolate infant rhesus monkeys and give them a choice between two surrogate mothers: one made of bare wire that dispensed milk and one made of soft cloth that dispensed nothing. Offered these options, the monkeys most often put emotional comfort ahead of material needs, clinging near constantly to their cloth mothers. Did voters in the US cling to Donald Trump in a similar way? In nature, emotions typically align with self-interest: most mother monkeys provide both comfort and milk. Emotions are how evolution motivates us to do what we need to survive. A newborn triggers love, so we nurture; a rustle at night triggers fear, so we run. Our modern environment, however, is far from natural. Emotions still call us to action, but often don’t align with what’s most important. This is why we’re more willing to take our shoes off and wait hours in line at airport security than we are to take steps to address climate change, even if we’re convinced it’s real. One threat, although spectacularly rare, evokes our primal fears on a visceral level, while the other, whose high risk of long-term harm is pretty much beyond doubt, does not. Emotions can also hamper our ability to make decisions that account for wider risks. Consider the aftermath of 9/11, where nearly 3000 people died. With the wounds still vivid, people in the US naturally chose to fly less, and it took about a year for air travel to return to normal levels. In the meantime, they were more likely to drive, something that felt safer but was actually more dangerous.
11-11-16 Poor diet in pregnancy, poor heart health for infants
Poor diet in pregnancy, poor heart health for infants
A cardiac MRI shows how the heart of a baboon born to a mother moderately undernourished during pregnancy has a spherical shape. It pumps blood less efficiently than the hearts of offspring with well-fed mothers. Mothers who don’t eat enough during pregnancy could give birth to babies with long-lasting heart problems. The results from a new study in primates add to accumulating evidence that a mother’s nutrition has more bearing on her child’s health than previously thought. “We pass more biological milestones during development than we will ever pass again in our entire lives,” says Peter Nathanielsz, coauthor of the study published November 6 in the Journal of Physiology. And during those critical nine months, calorie intake at the extremes — too many or too few — appears to have a lifelong influence on newborn weight, future metabolism and chronic health problems (SN: 1/23/16, p. 22).
11-11-16 What not to do when your kid tells a lie
What not to do when your kid tells a lie
At the ripe old age of 3, my older daughter has begun flirting with falsehoods. So far, the few lies she has told have been comically bad and easy to spot. Her dad and I usually laugh at them with an amused, “Oh, yeah?” But now that I’ve stopped to consider, that strategy seems flawed. Lying, it turns out, is actually a sign of something good happening in the developing brain. Dishonesty requires some mental heavy lifting, like figuring out what another person knows and how to use that information to your advantage. Many kids start experimenting with stretching the truth between ages 3 and 4. “In a way, it’s almost like they’re exercising a new ability,” Talwar says. “ And part of that is, ‘Mommy doesn’t know what I just did.’” That thought sounds simple, but it’s actually quite profound. It means that a child is developing what scientists call theory of mind — the ability to understand the perspectives of other people and realize that those perspectives are sometimes different.
11-11-16 Swifts’ nonstop flight
Swifts’ nonstop flight
The common swift flies faster and higher than most other birds, earning it the nickname “greyhound of the skies.” New research reveals swifts are also astonishingly durable, holding the record for nonstop flight: They can stay airborne for up to 10 months straight. Every year, swifts embark on an epic 6,000-mile migration, flying round-trip from Europe to sub-Saharan Africa. A Swedish study tracked 19 of these tiny, torpedo-shaped birds for two years, after fitting them with lightweight devices that monitored how fast and high they flew as well as when they rested. The researchers found the swifts spent less than 1 percent of their migration on the ground. Remarkably, three of the birds never stopped flying. “They feed in the air, they mate in the air, they get nest material in the air,” researcher Susanne Åkesson tells NationalGeographic.com. “They can land on nest boxes, branches, or houses, but they can’t really land on the ground.” Swifts’ long wings and short legs prevent them from taking off from flat surfaces. The birds likely evolved to fly continuously, feeding on insects and possibly even sleeping during flight.
11-11-16 First dinosaur brain found
First dinosaur brain found
Paleontologists say a pebble on an English beach has turned out to be the first known fossil of a dinosaur’s brain. After conducting a forensic analysis, researchers found the 133 million–year-old specimen contains blood vessels and tissue from the cortex (the brain’s outer layer) as well as a portion of the membrane that holds the brain in place. Soft tissue, such as nerves and muscle, usually breaks down quickly after death, but an acidic, low-oxygen environment could slow the rate of decay, allowing mineralization to occur. “It’s not the entire brain—it’s just remarkable preservation of soft tissues you wouldn’t expect to have preserved,” study author David Norman tells The New York Times. The researchers speculate the brain tissue probably came from an Iguanodon or similar large, plant-eating dinosaur that died head-down in a shallow swamp or bog. Gravity likely forced the dinosaur’s brain up against its skull, preserving it for millions of years.
11-10-16 Giggling rats reveal the most ticklish part of our brains
Giggling rats reveal the most ticklish part of our brains
The neurons involved in the enjoyment of tickling have been discovered in rats, which emit ultrasonic squeals of delight when tickled on their belly or feet. Feeling ticklish? The part of the brain that registers tickling has been identified in rats, and simply activating cells there is enough to make them giggle. It has long been known that rats love to be tickled on the belly, and that it makes them laugh. These giggles take the form of ultrasound shrieks, above the level of human hearing. “It’s remarkable the similarities between rats and humans – the fact they vocalise and clearly enjoy tickling so much,” says Michael Brecht at the Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany. By implanting electrodes into the somatosensory cortex – the brain region that registers touch – Brecht and his team have identified the neurons that activate such sensations. “We managed to pinpoint the ticklish spot in the brain,” says Brecht, who also found that rats enjoy being tickled on their feet. Unexpectedly, the researchers also discovered that rats only enjoy being tickled if they are unstressed and in the right mood for it. While standing under a bright light, a rat’s “tickle” cells were much less active and their response more muted. “This is a new finding,” says Brecht. “We have relatively little knowledge of how mood dictates responses of the brain.”
11-10-16 Protein mobs kill cells that most need those proteins to survive
Protein mobs kill cells that most need those proteins to survive
Artificial amyloid experiment gives insight into Alzheimer’s, other diseases. Researchers have created an artificially clumpy protein, called vascin, which mimics the plaque-forming ability of proteins that cause Alzheimer’s disease. Vascin, a fragment of the VEGFR2 protein, forms fibers that penetrate cells and gum up the normal VEGFR2 protein, killing cells that rely on its action. Joining a gang doesn’t necessarily make a protein a killer, a new study suggests. This clumping gets dangerous only under certain circumstances. A normally innocuous protein can be engineered to clump into fibers similar to those formed by proteins involved in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and brain-wasting prion diseases such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, researchers report in the Nov. 11 Science. Cells that rely on the protein’s normal function for survival die when the proteins glom together. But cells that don’t need the protein are unharmed by the gang activity, the researchers discovered. The finding may shed light on why clumping proteins that lead to degenerative brain diseases kill some cells, but leave others untouched.
11-10-16 'Brain wi-fi' reverses leg paralysis in primate first
'Brain wi-fi' reverses leg paralysis in primate first
An implant that beams instructions out of the brain has been used to restore movement in paralysed primates for the first time, say scientists. Rhesus monkeys were paralysed in one leg due to a damaged spinal cord. The team at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology bypassed the injury by sending the instructions straight from the brain to the nerves controlling leg movement. Experts said the technology could be ready for human trials within a decade.
11-10-16 Dog's dinner: DNA clue to how dogs became our friend
Dog's dinner: DNA clue to how dogs became our friend
Dogs have been dining on human food scraps since the early days of their domestication, it appears. Our canine companions developed the ability to digest starchy foods during the farming revolution thousands of years ago, according to DNA evidence. Scientists think dogs may have been domesticated from wolves when they came into settlements, scrounging for food. Modern dogs can tolerate starch-rich diets, unlike their wolf cousins, which are carnivores. A study of DNA extracted from the bones and teeth of ancient dogs at archaeological sites in Europe and Asia suggests their ability to eat starchy foods goes back millennia.
11-10-16 Unknown dinosaur almost blown to oblivion
Unknown dinosaur almost blown to oblivion
A newly discovered species of dinosaur has been identified from an extraordinarily complete fossil almost destroyed by dynamite. Preserved raising its beaked head, with feathered wings outstretched, in the mud it was mired in when it died 72 million years ago. It has been named Tongtianlong limosus, "muddy dragon on the road to heaven".
11-10-16 Dragon dinosaur met a muddy end
Dragon dinosaur met a muddy end
Feathered oviraptorosaurs surged at the end of the age of dinosaurs. A birdlike feathered dinosaur with a bony crest on its skull is one of several oviraptorosaur species from the time just before the asteroid hit. A bizarre new birdlike dino was part of an evolutionary extravaganza at the end of the age of dinosaurs. And it was a real stick-in-the-mud, too. Construction workers blasted Tongtianlong limosus out of the Earth near Ganzhou in southern China. “They very nearly blew this thing to smithereens,” says paleontologist Stephen Brusatte of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. The find is one of six oviraptorosaur species discovered from roughly the same place and time — around 72 million to 66 million years ago. Like its feathered cousins, Tongtianlong walked on two legs and had a sharp beak. But each species had distinct skeletal quirks. Tongtianlong, for one, had a bony, domelike crest on its skull. Oviraptorosaurs were churning out lots of new species during the last stage of the Cretaceous Period, Brusatte says. Tongtianlong was part of “the final wave of dinosaur diversification before the asteroid came down and ended everything.”
11-10-16 Chemical clue to why seabirds eat plastic
Chemical clue to why seabirds eat plastic
Plastic pollution in the sea gives off a smell that attracts foraging birds, scientists have found. The discovery could explain why seabirds such as the albatross swallow plastic, causing injury or death The smell, similar to the odour of rotting seaweed, is caused by the breakdown of plankton that sticks to floating bits of plastic. About 90% of seabirds have eaten plastic and may keep some in their bellies, putting their health at risk. The rate of plastic pollution is increasing around the world, with a quarter of a billion tonnes of plastic waste recorded in the oceans in 2014. Scientists think seabirds associate the smell of plastic with food - and are tricked into swallowing plastic waste.
11-9-16 The sweet scent of plastic lures seabirds to a dangerous snack
The sweet scent of plastic lures seabirds to a dangerous snack
Plastic beads left to marinate in the ocean develop the same smell that some birds seek out when foraging for food. Birds may follow their noses to dangerous, fake feasts. Bits of plastic left in the ocean develop the same scent that certain seabirds use to locate food – and the aroma could lure hungry birds towards morsels of litter instead of their natural prey. Plastic pollution fouls oceans across the globe: there are more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic swirling around the world’s seas. All that trash makes its way up the food chain, resulting in poisoned fish and leaving birds with bellies full of plastic. It is not entirely clear why some creatures mistake garbage for grub, says Matthew Savoca at the University of California, Davis. Perhaps plastic looks like a tasty treat – to human eyes, for example, a suspended plastic bag resembles a drifting jellyfish. But many seabirds and other marine animals find dinner by sniffing out their quarry. “And yet no one’s actually tested the way plastic smells before,” Savoca says.
11-9-16 Ocean plastic emits chemical that tricks seabirds into eating trash
Ocean plastic emits chemical that tricks seabirds into eating trash
Some seabirds, including blue petrels (Halobaena caerulea), use the smell of dimethyl sulfide to find food. Plastic debris in the ocean gives off the same smell, sometimes tricking the birds into eating garbage. Plastic smells like supper for some seabirds. When the ubiquitous material ends up in the ocean, it gives off a chemical that albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters often use to locate food, researchers report online November 9 in Science Advances. That might lead the birds to ingest harmful junk instead of a real meal. Researchers let small beads of three common plastics linger off the coast of California. After a couple of weeks, the once-clean plastic accumulated grit, grime and bacteria that gave off an odiferous gas called dimethyl sulfide. Phytoplankton give off the same gas, and certain seabirds use its odor as a cue that dinner is nearby. Birds that rely more heavily on dimethyl sulfide as a beacon for a nearby meal are more likely to ingest plastic than birds that don’t, the team found. And other plankton-feeding marine animals could be also be fooled.
11-9-16 Hundreds more species than we thought might be endangered
Hundreds more species than we thought might be endangered
A survey suggests that 210 bird species are more threatened than we knew and it could be true of other animals, too. The velvet-purple coronet lives a life of little concern. Conservationists think that this iridescent hummingbird, found in parts of Colombia and Ecuador, isn’t likely to be endangered. But a new study indicates that this bird, and 210 other bird species, may be at greater risk than we thought. The work, which uses detailed satellite data of elevation and forest cover to assess suitable habitats, suggests that we need to rethink how we classify endangered creatures. “If this bird disappears from Colombia, it disappears from the world,” says Natalia Ocampo-Peñuela of ETH Zurich in Switzerland, who led the work. Since 1964, endangered species have been tracked by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Switzerland. Their Red List assigns species a threat level according to population numbers and changes in their habitat.
11-9-16 Code hidden in Stone Age art may be the root of human writing
Code hidden in Stone Age art may be the root of human writing
A painstaking investigation of Europe’s cave art has revealed 32 shapes and lines that crop up again and again and could be the world’s oldest code. When she first saw the necklace, Genevieve von Petzinger feared the trip halfway around the globe to the French village of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac had been in vain. The dozens of ancient deer teeth laid out before her, each one pierced like a bead, looked roughly the same. It was only when she flipped one over that the hairs on the back of her neck stood up. On the reverse were three etched symbols: a line, an X and another line. Von Petzinger, a palaeoanthropologist from the University of Victoria in Canada, is spearheading an unusual study of cave art. Her interest lies not in the breathtaking paintings of bulls, horses and bison that usually spring to mind, but in the smaller, geometric symbols frequently found alongside them. Her work has convinced her that far from being random doodles, the simple shapes represent a fundamental shift in our ancestors’ mental skills. The first formal writing system that we know of is the 5000-year-old cuneiform script of the ancient city of Uruk in what is now Iraq. But it and other systems like it – such as Egyptian hieroglyphs – are complex and didn’t emerge from a vacuum. There must have been an earlier time when people first started playing with simple abstract signs. For years, von Petzinger has wondered if the circles, triangles and squiggles that humans began leaving on cave walls 40,000 years ago represent that special time in our history – the creation of the first human code.
11-9-16 Stone adze points to ancient burial rituals in Ireland
Stone adze points to ancient burial rituals in Ireland
Ceremonial tool found with cremated remains in island’s earliest known gravesite. Microscopic study of a stone adze, found in a more than 9,000-year-old pit near Ireland’s River Shannon, suggests that it played a key role in ceremonies surrounding an ancient hunter-gatherer’s cremation and burial. A stone chopping tool found in Ireland’s earliest known human burial offers a rare peek at hunter-gatherers’ beliefs about death more than 9,000 years ago, researchers say. The curved-edge implement, known as an adze, was made to be used at a ceremony in which an adult’s largely cremated remains were interred in a pit, says a team led by archaeologist Aimée Little of the University of York in England. Previous radiocarbon dating of burned wood and a bone fragment from the pit, at a site called Hermitage near the River Shannon, places the material at between 9,546 and 9,336 years old.
11-9-16 Implants hack reflexes to let paralysed monkeys move their legs
Implants hack reflexes to let paralysed monkeys move their legs
We only need our brains to initiate walking – our spines can take care of the rest. Now researchers have found a way to use this to reverse paralysis in monkeys. COULD hacking our reflexes allow paralysed people to walk again? Some animals have walking reflexes governed by nerves in their spine – it’s why a chicken continues to run after its head has been cut off. Now these reflexes have let paralysed monkeys regain use of their legs after a week or two of practice. Previous methods have taken months. We have no reliable means to reconnect severed nerves in people with injured spinal cords. One way to overcome paralysis might be to detect a person’s desire to move and use this to stimulate nerves or muscles. Last year, a paralysed man walked thanks to a cap of electrodes that read his brainwaves, and implants that stimulated his leg muscles. But directly stimulating muscles in this way can make movements jerky and uncoordinated. “Walking is a very complex behaviour: you need to coordinate the activity of hundreds of muscles and maintain balance,” says Grégoire Courtine at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne.
11-9-16 Florida polls split on GM mosquitoes
Florida polls split on GM mosquitoes
Voters across one Florida county have signalled their approval for releasing genetically modified mosquitoes in a bid to fight Zika virus. But in a separate poll, the town where officials plan to carry out a scientific trial, voted to reject the proposal. The planned release is being seen as an important test for the technology's acceptance in the US. Florida has reported more than 1,100 cases of Zika this year. British biotech firm Oxitec plans to evaluate the effectiveness of their engineered mosquitoes for combating the virus. They want to release male insects across a 17-hectare region of Key Haven, a small suburb located on an island on Florida's southern tip. Zika is transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito. The idea is that Oxitec's male mosquitoes (which do not bite) mate with wild females, but genetic modification ensures that any offspring do not survive until adulthood. Successive releases across the neighbourhood should cause Aedes aegypti populations to crash.
11-9-16 Speedy bat flies at 160km/h, smashing bird speed record
Speedy bat flies at 160km/h, smashing bird speed record
Brazilian free-tailed bats may have snatched the title for the fastest muscle-powered flight, outpacing even the record-holding common swift. Brazilian free-tailed bats may have achieved speeds of up to 160 kilometres per hour in level flight, which would make them faster than any bird. “These are the fastest powered flight speeds documented yet in any vertebrate that is, in bats or birds,” says Gary McCracken of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. “We didn’t expect these results, even though the Brazilian free-tailed bats are known for their exceptional fast flight.” Previous studies suggested that birds fly faster than bats, but birds have received much more attention, McCracken says. The fastest bird on record for level flight is the common swift (Apus apus), which reaches around 112 km/h. McCracken’s team now claims bats have beaten that record. The team used an airplane tracking device on seven bats from the Frio Bat Cave in south-western Texas to track ground distance covered by bats. They found that all bats achieved speeds of almost 100km/h, with one bat logging a top speed of 160 km/h.
11-9-16 Islands in the sky used as Noah's ark for threatened plants
Islands in the sky used as Noah's ark for threatened plants
An experiment in Melbourne, Australia, shows that the recent vogue for rooftop gardens could have real ecological benefits. It’s a case of lofty living meeting Noah’s ark. Gardens atop city buildings can act as refuges for threatened species and help plants colonise the surrounding landscape. For the last six years, a team of Australian conservationists has been growing critically endangered native plants on the roofs of buildings in Melbourne. The plants form unique communities on the volcanic plains of Victoria, but are in severe decline because of agriculture. One of the major benefits of roof gardens is that threatened species don’t have to compete with plants found at ground level, says project leader Nicholas Williams at the University of Melbourne. Moreover, there are no snails or slugs to eat them. Elevation is another advantage, because the seeds of the endangered plants can drift off in the wind and take root in the wider landscape, Williams says.
11-8-16 Humans have purged the bad genes from our Neanderthal hook-ups
Humans have purged the bad genes from our Neanderthal hook-ups
Early modern humans interbred with Neanderthals, but thanks to our bigger population evolution has purged out many of the deleterious genes we acquired this way. People living today would be a lot more Neanderthal had it not been for a quirk of evolutionary fate, research suggests. The Neanderthals, who once colonised Europe and Asia, became extinct about 30,000 years ago – but not before interbreeding with their close human relatives, Homo sapiens. As a result Neanderthal genes make up between 1 and 4 per cent of the DNA of modern people of non-African descent. The new study reveals how natural selection has purged the human genome of large numbers of weakly disadvantageous Neanderthal gene variants. But this only happened because the ancestral Homo sapiens population was so much larger than that of the Neanderthals, scientists believe. If the Neanderthal genes had mixed into a smaller population, more of them might have survived to the present day.
11-8-16 Old bonobos have bad eyesight — just like us
Old bonobos have bad eyesight — just like us
Older bonobos are longsighted — they have presbyopia — just like many older humans, a new study finds. It’s a familiar sight: Your mom or grandmother picks up a document and immediately holds it out at arm’s length to make out the small letters on the page, while simultaneously reaching for her reading glasses. As people age, their ability to see things close up often fades, a condition known as presbyopia. The eye can no longer focus light on the retina, focusing it instead just behind and causing poor close-up vision. Many have thought that presbyopia was a consequence of living in an era in which people are overburdened by tasks that require frequently focusing in the near-field of vision. But perhaps not: A new study finds that if bonobos could read, they too would need glasses as they age.
11-7-16 Strict breastfeeding rules don’t work and can hurt young babies
Strict breastfeeding rules don’t work and can hurt young babies
Guidelines saying that mums should breastfeed exclusively for the first six months mean hospitals aren’t storing formula – which could be making babies ill. Newborn babies are being made ill by strict rules in hospitals that are aimed at getting more women to breastfeed – and they don’t even work. Global guidelines, set by UNICEF, say that women trying to breastfeed shouldn’t use occasional bottles of formula, even in the first few days after birth when they might not be making much milk. But refraining from using formula during this time can in some cases lead to babies getting dehydrated and developing jaundice. Parents are also told not to give their baby a dummy, or pacifier, in case they prefer sucking on that to the breast. But dummies seem to reduce the risk of cot death, also known as sudden infant death syndrome.
11-7-16 Video-triggered ‘brain orgasms’ are mysteriously disappearing
Video-triggered ‘brain orgasms’ are mysteriously disappearing
Many people experience a tingly feeling called autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) when they watch whispery videos. For some, the effect is wearing off. Isy Suttie has felt “head squeezing” since she was young. The comedian, best known for playing Dobbie in the British sitcom Peep Show, is one of many people who experience autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) – a tingly feeling often elicited by certain videos or particular mundane interactions. Growing up, Suttie says she had always assumed everyone felt it too. Not everyone feels it, but Suttie is by no means alone. On Reddit, a community of more than 100,000 members share videos designed to elicit the pleasurable sensation. The videos, often described as “whisper porn”, typically consist of people role-playing routine tasks, whispering softly into a microphone or making noises by crinkling objects such as crisp packets. The most popular ASMR YouTuber, “Gentle Whispering”, has over 250 million views. To most of us, the videos might seem strange or boring, but the clips frequently garner hundreds of thousands of views. These videos often mimic real-life situations that provoke ASMR in susceptible people. Suttie says her strongest real-world triggers occur during innocuous interactions with strangers, like talking about the weather – “it’s almost as if the more superficial the subject the better,” Suttie says.
11-7-16 Middle-aged bonobos need reading glasses to groom their friends
Middle-aged bonobos need reading glasses to groom their friends
The eyesight of older bonobos appears to deteriorate at almost the same rate as in humans, implying that it’s a natural process, not lifestyle-related. If only they had “grooming glasses” they’d be fine. But in the absence of a pair of specs, ageing bonobos have been found to compensate for dodgy eyesight by focusing on fur that’s further away. The discovery of five cases of age-related long-sightedness at a bonobo colony in Wamba, Democratic Republic of the Congo, has demonstrated for the first time that ageing bonobos and humans develop poor eyesight at almost exactly the same rate. This suggests that it might be an unavoidable throwback to a common ancestor of apes and humans, rather than a result of too much staring at books and computer screens. The team inferred deteriorating eyesight from the increasing distance between the eyes of a bonobo and their grooming target as they got older. “I didn’t expect age to be such a strong predictor of long-sightedness,” says lead researcher, Heung Jin Ryu of the Primate Research Institute at Kyoto University, Japan. Nor did he expect the compensatory increa
11-7-16 Southern Hemisphere recovered faster from dino strike
Southern Hemisphere recovered faster from dino strike
Life in the southern hemisphere appears to have recovered more quickly than expected from the asteroid strike that wiped out the dinosaurs. In North America, it took 9 million years for ecosystems to recover. However, in South America - further from the impact - insect life bounced back after about 4 million years, according to scientists. US experts studied fossil leaves for insect damage at a site in Patagonia, at the tip of South America. Lead researcher Michael Donovan of Pennsylvania State University said: "Here we're showing in Patagonia - far away from the asteroid impact site - insects recovered much quicker than what we have observed in the past from the western interior of North America. "It took about four million years for the associations (between plants and insects) to reach levels similar to before the extinction compared
11-7-16 Massive sea lizards once hunted dinosaur whales in Antarctica
Massive sea lizards once hunted dinosaur whales in Antarctica
The mosasaur, a huge marine lizard with fearsome jaws and paddle-like limbs, lived 66 million years ago when Antarctica was much warmer than it is today. Antarctica was once home to a 10-metre long sea monster that hunted the reptilian equivalent of whales at the end of the dinosaur age, scientists have discovered. The mosasaur, a huge marine lizard with fearsome jaws and paddle-like limbs, lived 66 million years ago when Antarctica was much warmer than it is today. A 1.2m long skull of one of the beasts was unearthed on Seymour Island off the Antarctic peninsular in 2010. Kaikaifilu was the largest southern hemisphere mosasaur discovered to date. It was about twice the size of the biggest creature of this type previously found in Antarctica, which had a skull 70cm long.
11-7-16 Laser probe lets brain surgeons identify cancer cells with sound
Laser probe lets brain surgeons identify cancer cells with sound
It can be hard to see which cells are malignant and which are healthy during an operation – it may be easier to hear the difference. It takes steady hands and experienced eyes to remove brain tumours. Soon, sharp ears could also be crucial, with surgeons being guided by sound as to whether they are slicing through cancerous or healthy cells. In recent brain operations, surgeons used a laser probe to help determine where brain tumours began and ended. In these, a signal showing whether cells were healthy or cancerous was displayed visually on a screen. Now, this signal has been adapted into an audio one with the goal of allowing surgeons to listen for cancer as they operate and instead focus their visual attention on where they are cutting. The development could lead to faster, safer and more successful brain surgery. “We’ve shown how to give accurate guidance to surgeons in a way that allows them to keep their focus on their scalpel,” says Matthew Baker at the University of Strathclyde in the UK. The new audio signalling software has yet to be tested in a clinical setting but could prove a useful surgical tool, says Adam Waldman at the University of Edinburgh, UK.
11-4-16 Time to end the damaging battle over chronic fatigue syndrome
Time to end the damaging battle over chronic fatigue syndrome
All those interested in progress on helping those with CFS should unite in the push to find therapies, be they behavioural or biomedical, says Esther Crawley. We know almost nothing about chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME). And yet it causes misery and suffering for hundreds of thousands of people, including many children. One in a hundred teenagers in the UK miss a day a week or more of school because of it, and 2 per cent are probably missing out on the normal stuff that teenagers do. Those I see in my clinic are sick with disabling fatigue, memory and concentration problems, and terrible pain. On average, they miss a year of school, on top of which mothers give up work and siblings suffer. Yet progress on this illness is being hampered by controversy, with some people disputing both its cause and treatment. Some still dismiss it as a non-illness; others decry attempts to treat it with psychological therapy. The result is that few patients are offered treatment and there is almost no research on the condition. This illness is more common than leukaemia and more disabling than childhood arthritis, but few specialists treat it. How have we arrived at a position where the biggest reason for teenagers to miss school long-term is rarely studied and society allows so few to receive treatment? Part of the difficulty is that CFS/ME is not a single illness. Both children and adults have different clusters of symptoms that may represent different illnesses with different biology, requiring different treatments. This may explain why treatments only work for some – and is a problem for those trying to develop them and for people who don’t get better.
11-4-16 Robot surgeon can slice eyes finely enough to remove cataracts
Robot surgeon can slice eyes finely enough to remove cataracts
The Axsis robot can manage the fine movements needed for cataract surgery. Its makers hope it will cut complications, and find uses in other parts of the body. A new surgical robot can make the micro-scale movements needed for a particularly delicate procedure: cataract surgery. Axsis, a system developed by Cambridge Consultants, is a small, teleoperated robot with two arms tipped with tiny pincers. It’s designed to operate on the eye with greater accuracy than a human. Globally, 20 million people have cataract surgery every year, making it one of the most common surgeries in the world. Although complications are very rare, they still affect tens of thousands of people. Cataracts happen when the natural lens of the eye gets cloudy and obscures vision. To restore a person’s sight, a surgeon cuts a small hole in the lens, scoops out the bit that’s gone cloudy, and replaces it with what’s essentially a permanent plastic contact lens. The whole thing requires a steady hand, and the most common complication arises when a surgeon accidentally pierces the back of the lens, a thin membrane that is only a few millimetres off target, causing hazy vision. Axsis aims to prevent this kind of human error. The device’s articulating pincers are mounted on arms about the size of drinks cans, with extremely light, strong “tendons” made of the same material NASA uses for its solar sails. These pincers can sweep across a 10-millimetre space – the size of the lens of the eye. This is just a demonstrations model; in the final product, the pincers will be replaced with scalpels.
11-4-16 World's smallest snake discovered
World's smallest snake discovered
As slim as spaghetti and shorter than a pencil, the world’s smallest snake has been filmed on the Caribbean island of Martinique. This exclusive clip reveals for the first time the world’s smallest known snake as it tucks in to a meal of young ants. Although not yet formally described, this new snake (Tetracheilostoma sp. nov.) is part of the thread snake family. It is thought to be even smaller than the Barbados threadsnake, its close cousin and the previous holder of the "world's smallest snake" title. This diminutive serpent is just 10cm long and as slim as a strand of spaghetti. In fact, it is so small that it could slither through a pencil if the lead was removed. It is believed that this thread snake is only found on the island of Martinique, a relatively close neighbouring island to Barbados in the Lesser Antilles.
11-4-16 Widnes worm Dave wriggles into record books
Widnes worm Dave wriggles into record books
An earthworm named Dave has wriggled into the record books as the largest found in the UK - measuring a whopping 40cm (15.7in). Experts at the Natural History Museum bestowed the accolade upon the annelid after it ventured above ground in a vegetable plot in Widnes, Cheshire. The Lumbricus terrestris was studied at the museum before being killed in what staff called "the sad bit of science". It is now in a jar and will be "kind of immortal", the museum said.
11-4-16 Dad bods
Dad bods, after researchers at Yale revealed that men who put on weight after fathering children live longer and are more attractive to females than their leaner, more muscular counterparts.
11-4-16 Worried well 'might boost heart risk'
Worried well 'might boost heart risk'
Being one of the "worried well" might actually increase heart-disease risk, a study has suggested. Norwegian researchers looked at health anxiety levels in 7,000 people who were followed for at least a decade. The BMJ Open paper suggests that, while general anxiety is already recognised as a risk, health anxiety might also be an issue. Heart experts said anyone who felt they were experiencing 'health anxiety' should speak to their doctor. Health anxiety describes when people have a "persistent preoccupation" with having or acquiring a serious illness, and seeking prompt medical advice, without any symptoms of an actual disease.
11-4-16 Lying is a slippery slope
Lying is a slippery slope
It has long been said that little fibs lead to big lies—and now scientists have the proof. NPR.org reports that researchers from University College London and Duke University asked 80 volunteers to estimate the value of pennies in a jar, then swap their guesses with an unseen partner. The team incentivized some of the participants to lie, by telling them they could keep the difference in cash between their guess and that of their partner. The volunteers initially inflated their estimates by small amounts, but the exaggerations gradually became bigger and bigger. During the experiment, the researchers monitored the participants’ brains. They found that activity in the amygdalae, the emotional processing hub, was strongest when the participants told their first lie, but decreased as their dishonesty escalated—suggesting their feelings of shame, guilt, and nervousness eased the more they lied. The study’s author, Tali Sharot, compared this adaptation effect to the way a strong scent become less potent the more you smell it. She now wants to examine whether the same is true of “other negative behaviors, such as violent acts and excessive risk taking.”
11-4-16 The science of why daylight saving time is bad for you
The science of why daylight saving time is bad for you
This weekend marks the end of daylight saving time. That means that, on Sunday morning at 2 a.m., clocks across America will magically jump back one hour. For many, this offers a small but valuable treat: An extra hour of sleep. But those extra winks may come at a high cost, according to a new research paper published in the journal Epidemiology. The study shows a drastic spike in diagnoses of depression immediately following the time change. What's going on here? Roughly 1.6 billion people in about 70 countries observe DST. The exact day and time may differ, but the gist is the same: In the spring, we push our clocks forward, and in the fall we put them back. When we jump back in time, the hour of sunlight that was at the end of the day is now at the beginning. The goal is to make the best use of daylight as the seasons change and the days get either longer or shorter. But it seems this transition can have a noticeable effect on many people's psychological health. Why? Because it screws with our circadian rhythm, or internal clock. When this clock gets out of sync, it can alter the chemicals in our brain, leading to depression.
11-4-16 Trials planned for GM superwheat that boosts harvest by 20%
Trials planned for GM superwheat that boosts harvest by 20%
Biologists are applying to carry out UK field trials of a genetically modified wheat that has performed stunningly well in greenhouse trials. Genetically modified crops could help us grow more food on less land in a world struggling to cope with climate change, say biologists. Rubbish, respond those opposed to GM technology — all they do is boost the profits of multinationals. Right now, there is some truth to this criticism. None of the GM crops widely grown around the world are designed to boost yields directly — but that could be about to change. A team of researchers announced today that they have genetically modified wheat to increase the efficiency of photosynthesis. When the plants are grown in glasshouses, the change boosts yields by 15 to 20 per cent. Now they are applying to the UK government for permission to carry out field trials. The field tests are essential to confirm the alteration works, says team member Malcolm Hawkesford of Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, UK, where the trials will begin in spring 2017 if they get the go-ahead.
11-4-16 South hit hardest by smoking deaths
South hit hardest by smoking deaths
Nearly 30 percent of all cancer-related deaths in the U.S. can be traced back to one thing: smoking. That’s the conclusion of a major new study by the American Cancer Society, which also found that a disproportionate number of these fatalities occur in Southern states. The researchers estimate that more than 167,000 American adults over age 35 die from cancer linked to cigarettes each year, reports Reuters.com. About three-quarters of these deaths are due to lung cancer; the rest stem from at least 11 other forms of the disease, including cancers of the bladder, kidney, and liver. The higher rate of smoking among men creates a sharp gender divide: 34 percent of cancer deaths in men are due to smoking, compared with 23 percent in women. But it is the geographical disparity that most surprised the researchers. Seven of the 10 states with the most smoking-related cancer deaths are in the South; Arkansas has the highest rate among men, with 40 percent; Utah has the lowest, 22 percent. The authors of the study blame this disparity on the power of the smoking lobby in the South, where 95 percent of American tobacco is grown, smoking laws are more lenient, and cigarette taxes are significantly lower. Lead author Joannie Lortet-Tieulent says Southern states should implement known preventive measures, “such as increased excise tax, banning smoking in all public places, and reducing nicotine in cigarettes to nonaddictive levels.”
11-4-16 Smoking 'causes hundreds of DNA changes'
Smoking 'causes hundreds of DNA changes'
Smoking leaves an "archaeological record" of the hundreds of DNA mutations it causes, scientists have discovered. Having sequenced thousands of tumour genomes, they found a 20-a-day smoker would rack up an average of 150 mutations in every lung cell each year. The changes are permanent, and persist even if someone gives up smoking. Researchers say analysing tumour DNA may help explain the underlying causes of other cancers. Pamela Pugh, 69, was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2013. She started smoking aged 17 and quit in her early 50s. But she said: "Even though I gave up many years ago, the effects of smoking caught up with me. "Had I known as a teenager that smoking caused mutations which would stay with me for life then I would never had started".
11-3-16 Every 50 cigarettes smoked cause one DNA mutation per lung cell
Every 50 cigarettes smoked cause one DNA mutation per lung cell
We can now precisely count how many cancer-related DNA mutations accumulate in smokers’ organs over time. We can now precisely count how many cancer-related DNA mutations accumulate in smokers’ organs over time. On average, there is one DNA mutation per lung cell for every 50 cigarettes smoked, according to a new analysis. People who smoke a pack of 20 a day for a year generate 150 mutations per lung cell, 97 per larynx cell, 39 per pharynx cell, 18 per bladder cell and six per liver cell. Epidemiological studies previously linked tobacco smoking with at least 17 classes of cancer, but this is the first time researchers have been able to quantify the molecular damage inflicted on DNA. Ludmil Alexandrov at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and his colleagues achieved this by comparing tumour DNA from 2500 smokers and 1000 non-smokers. This allowed them to identify which mutations were associated with smoking. Theoretically, every DNA mutation has the potential to trigger a cascade of genetic damage that causes cells to become cancerous. However, we still don’t know what the probability is of a single smoking-related DNA mutation turning into cancer, or which mutation types are likely to be more malignant. “This is research we are currently pursuing,” Alexandrov says.
11-3-16 Cancer mutation patterns differ in smokers, nonsmokers
Cancer mutation patterns differ in smokers, nonsmokers
Zeroing in on DNA mutations in tumors from nonsmokers and smokers offers clues to cancers’ causes. DNA in cancerous tissues of tobacco smokers shows mutation patterns that differ from those in cancerous tissues of nonsmokers, a new analysis finds. The new study, in the Nov. 4 Science, reveals how smoking contributes to different cancers, enhancing several kinds of DNA damage. “We are doing a sort of molecular archaeology,” says cancer geneticist Ludmil Alexandrov of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, who led the analysis. While smoking’s link to cancer has been known for decades, “it’s always been a bit of a mystery why smoking increases the risk of cancers like bladder or kidney — tissues that aren’t exposed to smoke.” Mutations in DNA arise naturally in a person’s lifetime, but some genetic changes — such as those spurred by smoking — increase the risk of certain cancers. Scientists have identified several patterns of DNA mutations that consistently show up in tissues of some cancers. These patterns, which may appear over and over again in a stretch of tumor DNA, can serve as a signature of the underlying mechanism that led to the mutations, offering clues to how different cancers strike.
11-3-16 Shape-shifting molecule aids memory in fruit flies
Shape-shifting molecule aids memory in fruit flies
A protein called Orb2 may store fruit flies’ long-term memories, such as those that remind a male fly when its wing-waggling courtship is futile. A protein that can switch shapes and accumulate inside brain cells helps fruit flies form and retrieve memories, a new study finds. Such shape-shifting is the hallmark move of prions — proteins that can alternate between two forms and aggregate under certain conditions. In fruit flies’ brain cells, clumps of the prionlike protein called Orb2 stores long-lasting memories, report scientists from the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, Mo. Figuring out how the brain forms and calls up memories may ultimately help scientists devise ways to restore that process in people with diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
11-3-16 Ebola adapted to easily infect people
Ebola adapted to easily infect people
Ebola dramatically adapted to infect human tissues with ease in the first few months of the 2014-15 outbreak, research suggests. Two studies, in the journal Cell, found a mutation increased the virus' ability to infect human cells fourfold. Scientists have argued the mutation may have been "pivotal" in the outbreak becoming the largest in recorded history. There were 28,616 Ebola cases in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. And 11,310 people died during the outbreak. Researchers at the University of Nottingham and the University of Massachusetts analysed the genetic code of nearly 2,000 Ebola virus samples. What they noticed was a change on the surface of the virus that allowed it to lock on to human cells more easily. Prof Jeremy Luban, University of Massachusetts Medical School, told BBC World Service's Science in Action: The mutation makes the virus more infectious. "It arose early in the outbreak, perhaps three or four months in."
11-3-16 50 years later, vaccines have eliminated some diseases
50 years later, vaccines have eliminated some diseases
Vaccines provide a crucial line of defense against some diseases such as measles and rubella, but other illnesses have frustrated development efforts. More vaccines promised — “The decline of poliomyelitis among more than 350 million people of the world … (offers) a promise of vaccines that will soon be used against other diseases considered hopeless or untreatable until recently. Vaccines against some of the many viruses causing the common cold, as well as those causing rubella, mumps and other diseases are on the way.” — Science News, November 19, 1966. In 1971, vaccines against mumps and rubella were combined with the measles vaccine into one MMR shot. All three diseases are now very rare in the United States. But persistent pockets of lower vaccination rates (spurred in part by the repeatedly debunked belief that vaccines cause autism) have allowed sporadic outbreaks of all three illnesses. A vaccine against the common cold has not yet materialized. Creating one vaccine that protects against the hundred or so strains of rhinoviruses that can cause colds is not easy. But some scientists are giving it a shot, along with vaccines against HIV, Ebola and Zika.
11-3-16 Pasta spirals link neutron stars and the machinery of your cells
Pasta spirals link neutron stars and the machinery of your cells
A balancing act between forces forms similar structures inside cells and dense stellar corpses, suggesting links between astrophysics and life on Earth. The conditions are vastly different, but the pasta is the same. The insides of neutron stars and the membranes inside our cells can form strikingly similar structures resembling cavatappi pasta spirals, which could forge a new link between the cosmos and life on Earth. Neutron stars are the ultra-dense cores left behind after a stellar explosion. They are thought to have a liquid core of free neutrons beneath a solid crust, in which protons, neutrons and electrons clump together under competing attractive and repulsive forces. Simulations had shown that those forces can make the crustal material arrange itself into a dense layer of “nuclear pasta” shapes, sometimes taking the form of lasagna-like sheets connected by spiral bridges. Now, Matt Caplan at Indiana University Bloomington and his colleagues have pointed out that the same patterns show up inside cells. Despite the fact that neutron stars are 14 orders of magnitude denser than the constituents of cells, the forces in both interact in a similar way, making the resulting self-assembling shapes nearly identical.
11-2-16 A bit of disgust can change how confident you feel
A bit of disgust can change how confident you feel
Your heart speeds up after seeing a face of disgust and can make you more – or less – confident, a discovery that could lead to treatments for anxiety. FACING a big problem and finding it hard to decide what to do? A sprinkling of disgust might boost your confidence. Common sense suggests that our confidence in the decisions we make comes down to the quality of the information available – the clearer that information, the more confident we feel. But it seems that the state of our body also guides us. Micah Allen at University College London and his colleagues showed 29 people a screen of dots moving in varied directions. They asked the volunteers which direction most of the spots were moving in, and how confident they were in their decisions. Before each task, the participants briefly saw a picture of a face on the screen. It was either twisted in disgust or had a neutral expression. Although this happened too quickly for the faces to be consciously perceived, the volunteers’ bodies reacted. Seeing disgust, which is a powerful evolutionary sign of danger, boosted the volunteers’ alertness, pushing up their heart rates and dilating their pupils. (Webmaster's comment: Our unconscious mind preceives and responds to, and we respond to, what we do not consciously see.)
11-2-16 You are hallucinating right now to make sense of the world
You are hallucinating right now to make sense of the world
Understanding what is happening in the brain during hallucinations reveals how we’re having them all the time and how they shape our perception of reality. AVINASH AUJAYEB was alone, trekking across a vast white glacier in the Karakoram, a mountain range on the edge of the Himalayan plateau known as the roof of the world. Although he had been walking for hours, his silent surroundings gave little hint that he was making progress. Then suddenly, his world was atilt. A massive icy boulder loomed close one moment, but was desperately far away the next. As the world continued to pulse around him, he began to wonder if he could believe his eyes. He wasn’t entirely sure he was still alive. A doctor, Aujayeb checked his vitals. Everything seemed fine: he wasn’t dehydrated, nor did he have altitude sickness. Yet the icy expanse continued to warp and shift. Until he came upon a companion, he couldn’t shake the notion that he was dead. In recent years it has become clear that hallucinations are much more than a rare symptom of mental illness or the result of mind-altering drugs. Their appearance in those of sound mind has led to a better understanding of how the brain can create a world that doesn’t really exist. More surprising, perhaps, is the role they may play in our perceptions of the real world. As researchers explore what is happening in the brain, they are beginning to wonder: do hallucinations make up the very fabric of our reality?
11-2-16 Protective genetic variant may offer a path to future autoimmune therapies
Protective genetic variant may offer a path to future autoimmune therapies
A study of genetic data from 36,000 people with autoimmune diseases shows that dialing down a protein's activity — but not knocking it completely out — may provide a new way to calm overactive immune systems without raising the risk of getting infections. Tweaking activity of one protein may help protect against 10 autoimmune diseases, a new study suggests. The protein, tyrosine kinase 2 or TYK2, helps regulate how strongly the immune system responds to threats. Using genetic data from more than 36,000 people with a variety of autoimmune diseases, researchers found that one genetic variant in the TYK2 gene protects against a wide range of diseases that cause the immune system to attack the body. The variant changes one amino acid in the protein. As a result, the protein’s activity is greatly reduced, but not completely eliminated, researchers report November 2 in Science Translational Medicine.
11-2-16 Drug that stops brain plaques may show if they cause Alzheimer’s
Drug that stops brain plaques may show if they cause Alzheimer’s
A drug has been shown to switch off plaque production in the brain harmlessly, but trial results due next summer might reveal if this halts disease. IT’S more than a century since Alois Alzheimer first noticed and reported sticky plaques in the post-mortem brain of a patient with what we now know to be Alzheimer’s disease, yet the jury is still out on whether the plaques actually cause the disease. We might soon have a better idea: a new drug appears to be the first to harmlessly switch off production of plaque in the human brain. Further trials due to end next year and beyond might show if that halts the disease. The role of plaque in the disease has been questioned following several high-profile failures of drugs that eliminate plaque that already exists in the brain or which seek to stop it being produced there. The only plaque-clearing drug to have shown any clinical promise so far – aducanumab also caused some quite severe side effects, such as brain swelling. Many of the plaque-blocking drugs that have been tried also caused severe side effects, including degeneration of nerves, the brain and the retina, plus growths in the pancreas and reductions in blood sugar levels. Drugs called gamma secretase inhibitors designed to block plaque production by another route caused severe gut problems and even cancers to develop. Trials of a new drug called verubecestat will give hope of a much milder treatment. Administered as a pill, it switches off plaque production in the brain without these side effects.
11-2-16 Every human culture includes cooking – this is how it began
Every human culture includes cooking – this is how it began
Cooking makes food more digestible and kills off bacteria, and every human society in the world does it. But where and when it started is hotly debated. Breakfast: fibrous and bitter leaves; fruit. Lunch: bark; fruit; raw monkey meat and brains. Dinner: grubs; leaves; fruit. No, not the latest food fad from Hollywood, but the diet of our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees. It is not exactly appetising or varied. We, on the other hand, have thousands of foodstuffs to choose from, and also an incredibly versatile range of techniques for altering their chemical composition through the application of heat. In other words, cooking. Cooking is ubiquitous in humans. All cultures, from the Inuit of the frozen Arctic to the hunter-gatherers of sub-Saharan Africa, are sustained by food that has been chemically and physically transformed by heat. It was an incredible invention. Cooking makes food more digestible and kills off the bacteria that cause food poisoning. But where and when it started is hotly debated. Traces of ash found in the Wonderwerk cave in South Africa suggest that hominins were controlling fire at least 1 million years ago, the time of our direct ancestor Homo erectus. Burnt bone fragments also found at this site suggest that Homo erectus was cooking meat. However, the oldest remains of obvious hearths are just 400,000 years old. “People on a raw vegetarian diet report persistent hunger despite eating frequently and usually have a lower BMI than vegetarians who eat cooked food”
11-2-16 First Australians ate megafauna and used nets for hunting
First Australians ate megafauna and used nets for hunting
Evidence of advanced tools and art found 200km away from the coast shows first humans conquered inner Australia 10,000 years earlier than thought. THE first humans to reach Australia didn’t sit still for long. New evidence suggests they quickly migrated into its hot, dry interior, and developed tools to adapt to the tough environment and exploit its giant beasts. Previous archaeological work has shown that the earliest Australians spread rapidly around the coast after arriving in the north by boat about 50,000 years ago. Within around 2000 years, they had moved all the way to the country’s south-west tip. Now, Giles Hamm at La Trobe University in Melbourne and his colleagues have found evidence that there was also movement into Australia’s arid interior up to 49,000 years ago – about 10,000 years earlier than previously thought. Excavation of Warratyi rock shelter in the Flinders ranges of South Australia, 200 kilometres inland, found ancient stone hunting tools, the bones of wallabies and other animals, the remains of cooking fires, possible sewing tools and ochre that may have been used as body paint.
11-2-16 People settled Australia’s rugged interior surprisingly early
People settled Australia’s rugged interior surprisingly early
Roots of Aboriginal culture may stretch back at least 49,000 years. Excavations at Warratyi rock-shelter, situated in the middle of this outcrop, suggest people reached the southeastern portion of Australia’s arid interior between 49,000 and 46,000 years ago, shortly after settlers first arrived on the continent. Australia’s early settlers hit the ground running, or least walking with swift determination. After arriving on the continent’s northwest coast by around 50,000 years ago, humans reached Australia’s southeastern interior within a thousand years or so, researchers find. This ancient trip covered more than 2,000 kilometers through terrain that, although stark and dry today, featured enough lakes and rivers at the time of Australia’s colonization to support long-distance treks, say archaeologist Giles Hamm of La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, and colleagues.
11-2-16 Rock shelter used by speedy early Australians
Rock shelter used by speedy early Australians
The speed at which the first Aboriginal settlers spread across Australia has been underlined by the discovery of an ancient rock shelter north of Adelaide. The rock fissure in the Flinders Ranges contains tools and other artefacts that date back to around 49,000 years ago. That means Aboriginal people must have colonised large parts of the continent within a few millennia of their arrival. Details of the Warratyi shelter are reported in the journal Nature.
11-2-16 Desert lizard can sip water from sand through its feet and back
Desert lizard can sip water from sand through its feet and back
No water in sight? No worries, if you're a thorny devil: you just cover yourself in soggy sand and water starts flowing to your mouth. The thorny devil lizard uses its entire skin as a web of drinking straws to soak up water from soggy sand. This allows it to drink with its feet and skin, which comes in handy in a desert – especially to a lizard with a mouth structure so specialised for eating ants that it cannot drink water directly. “Thorny devils are one of the most fascinating species that collect and transport water with their skin,” says Philipp Comanns of RWTH Aachen University in Germany. Comanns and his team examined six thorny devils (Moloch horridus) from Mount Gibson, Western Australia, in the lab to figure out where they get their water from. When the researchers placed them in a water puddle, the lizards could drink through their feet: they started opening and closing their mouths within 10 seconds, as their skin channelled water from their feet into their mouths.
11-2-16 Gene gives mice and chipmunks their pinstripes
Gene gives mice and chipmunks their pinstripes
Biologists identify new molecular pathway behind mammalian fur patterns. African striped mice evolved a new trick for an old protein. The protein ALX3, which helps direct development of bones and cartilage in the face, also paints light stripes down the rodents’ backs, a new study suggests. Chipmunks independently evolved the same pinstriping method. Chipmunks and other rodents’ light stripes are painted with a recycled brush, a new study suggests. A protein previously known to guide facial development was repurposed at least twice during evolution to create light-colored stripes on rodents, researchers report November 2 in Nature. The protein, called ALX3, could be an important regulator of stripes in other mammals, including cats and raccoons, says Michael Levine, a developmental biologist at Princeton University who was not involved in the new study.
11-2-16 DNA clues to how chipmunk earned its stripes
DNA clues to how chipmunk earned its stripes
Its stripy back makes it one of the most recognisable of rodents - but until now it has been unclear exactly how the chipmunk earned its stripes. Now, scientists have found the evolutionary gene change responsible for the distinctive markings of both the chipmunk and an African mouse. The gene normally makes the bellies of many rodents light in colour. The stripes may have helped the animals hide from daytime predators with keen eye sight, such as birds, they say. Prof Hopi Hoekstra, of Harvard University, US, who led the research, said: "What these two rodents have in common is that they are both diurnal [active during daylight], when one could imagine stripes could be more valuable than if they were nocturnal. "It is notable that of the rodents that are striped, most are diurnal - again consistent with them being important for evading visual predators (for example, raptors and mammalian carnivores)."
11-2-16 Sword-slashing sailfish hint at origins of cooperative hunting
Sword-slashing sailfish hint at origins of cooperative hunting
A simple form of group hunting which sees sailfish seemingly cooperate to injure prey that others then finish off and eat is more rewarding than going it alone. Cooperation makes it happen. Sailfish that work together in groups to hunt sardines can catch more fish than if they hunt alone, even without a real coordinated strategy. To catch their sardine dinner, a group of sailfish circle a school of sardines – known as a baitball – and break off a small section, driving it to the surface. They then take turns attacking these sardines, slashing at them with their long sword-like bills, which account for a quarter of their total length of up to 3.5 metres. Knocking their prey off-balance makes them easier to grab. These attacks only result in a catch about 25 per cent of the time, but they almost always injure several sardines. As the number of injured fish increases, it becomes ever easier for everyone to snag a meal.
11-1-16 Plants ‘see’ underground by channelling light to their roots
Plants ‘see’ underground by channelling light to their roots
Roots of many plants have light receptors, and now we may have discovered why. They seem to channel light underground using stems as fibre-optic cables. Plants seem to pipe sunlight directly down into underground roots to help them grow. Light receptors in stems, leaves and flowers have long been known to regulate plant growth. Roots also have these receptors, but it has been unclear how they sense light deep in dark soil. Hyo-Jun Lee at Seoul National University in South Korea and his colleagues used Arabidopsis thaliana – a small flowering plant from the mustard family – as a model to study this phenomenon. They found that the plant stem acts like a fibre-optic cable, conducting light down to receptors in the roots known as phytochromes. These trigger the production of a protein called HY5, which promotes healthy root growth. When the plants were engineered to have phytochrome mutations, HY5 production declined. And when they had HY5 mutations, their roots became stunted and strangely angled.
11-1-16 Eyes offer window into brain’s timekeepers
Eyes offer window into brain’s timekeepers
In monkeys, pupil size linked to perception of milliseconds. Pupil size could predict whether Japanese macaques would over- or underestimate a second, a new study of lab monkeys shows. The eyes may reveal whether the brain’s internal stopwatch runs fast or slow. Pupil size predicted whether a monkey would over- or underestimate a second, scientists report in the Nov. 2 Journal of Neuroscience. Scientists knew that pupils get bigger when a person is paying attention. They also knew that paying attention can influence how people perceive the passage of time. Using monkeys, the new study links pupil size and timing directly. “What they’ve done here is connect those dots,” says neuroscientist Thalia Wheatley of Dartmouth College. More generally, the study shows how the eyes are windows into how the brain operates. “There’s so much information coming out of the eyes,” Wheatley says.
11-1-16 Spain's Mislata district collects dog DNA in anti-poo campaign
Spain's Mislata district collects dog DNA in anti-poo campaign
A municipality in eastern Spain is launching a dog DNA database in order to catch owners who allow their dogs to foul the pavements. Officials in Mislata, near Valencia, say police will take samples of dog excrement collected by street cleaners to a local lab for analysis. Owners have until 31 December to take their dogs to a vet so that a blood sample can be taken free of charge. Those who fail to register their dog's DNA will face fines of €300. Similar, but more limited, schemes exist in the US and UK.