120 Evolution News Articles
for May 2017
Click on the links below to get the full story from its source
5-31-17 First words: The surprisingly simple foundation of language
First words: The surprisingly simple foundation of language
How children learn language is one of the oldest controversies in linguistics. But speaking may just be a matter of grasping the relationship between things. SIXTY years ago, renowned Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner published one of the most important books ever written about language. Verbal Behavior offered a comprehensive account of our unique capacity for symbolic communication, arguing forcefully over nearly 500 pages that it was learned rather than innate. The culmination of years of work, it was certainly influential – although not in the way Skinner anticipated. Rather than propelling his ideas into the limelight, it sparked a counter-revolution that catapulted a rival theory to worldwide acclaim. Now, though, that rival theory is in decline and some of Skinner’s ideas are making an unexpected comeback. In recent years, psychologists have discovered that language really is learned, emerging from some general skills that are taught to children in the first few years of life. Surprisingly, these are not grand intellectual feats. Rather they can appear almost trivial – as simple as grasping the relationships between things, such as a large ball and a small one. The debate over the extent to which language is learned or innate is one of the most enduring in linguistics. Most children start to speak around age 2, and within a few short years are proficient, often prolific, users of language. Do they simply listen and learn, or are they born with some language facility that is filled in by the specifics of their native tongue? Learning is obviously involved – children pick up the language(s) they are brought up with. But can this alone account for the complexity and creativity of language?
5-31-17 The appetite genes: Why some of us are born to eat too much
The appetite genes: Why some of us are born to eat too much
Subtle differences in how we respond to food, driven by our genes, are the true reason we can struggle to keep to the weight we want to be. YOU’VE just finished an indulgent meal, the plates have been cleared and you sit back in your seat, stuffed. You couldn’t possibly manage another bite. But then it turns out they have sticky toffee pudding, your favourite dessert. Oh go on then, you can make room. We all succumb to temptation. And it’s no secret that people have big differences in appetite – some eat like birds, others like horses. But only some of these differences reflect our energy needs. The driving factors for weight gain tend to get oversimplified: studies show that most people still think obesity is down to laziness and gluttony. Others tend to shrug and blame “big bones” or “bad genes”. Genes play a part: they may be responsible for as much as two-thirds of our variation in weight. But they aren’t betraying us in the way many assume. Some slow down our metabolic rate, leading to a build-up of fat, but they are the exception. Instead, most make people chubby in a more insidious way: by subtly affecting how appealing food seems to us, and how quickly we feel full.
5-31-17 For babies exposed to opioids in the womb, parents may be the best medicine
For babies exposed to opioids in the womb, parents may be the best medicine
Updates to withdrawal treatment reduce hospitals stays and put fewer babies on meds. The first thing you’ll notice is the noise. Monitors beep steadily, relentlessly, ready to sound a car-alarm blare if a baby is in trouble. The air has an astringent odor — not clean exactly, but reminiscent of an operating room (there’s one next door). Ceiling lights shine fluorescent white. Half are off, but glare from the monitors throws out extra light. It’s midday on a Friday, but it’ll be just as bright at midnight. Here on the fourth floor of Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital, 10 tiny beds hold 10 tiny infants, each with Band-Aid–like patches stuck to their bodies to continuously monitor health. Between beds, nurses squeeze through narrow aisles crammed with folding chairs and plastic incubators. This space, one of five in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit, has the people and equipment needed to keep sick babies alive — heart rate monitors, oxygen tanks, IV poles to deliver medications. Until recently, Yale’s NICU and hundreds like it across the country were considered the place to be for newborns withdrawing from opioid drugs. But now, as the number of drug-dependent babies surges, doctors here and elsewhere are searching for better options. “We’re really focused on trying to get these kids out of the NICU,” says Yale pediatrician Matthew Grossman. “We’re looking at moms and the dads as the first line of treatment.”
5-31-17 Human tests suggest young blood cuts cancer and Alzheimer’s risk
Human tests suggest young blood cuts cancer and Alzheimer’s risk
Exclusive results from a private trial suggest that treatment with young plasma can lower blood cholesterol and chemicals associated with cancer and Alzheimer’s. Older people who received transfusions of young blood plasma have shown improvements in biomarkers related to cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and heart disease, New Scientist has learned. “I don’t want to say the word panacea, but here’s something about teenagers,” Jesse Karmazin, founder of startup Ambrosia, told New Scientist. “Whatever is in young blood is causing changes that appear to make the ageing process reverse.” Since August 2016, Karmazin’s company has been transfusing people aged 35 and older with plasma – the liquid component of blood – taken from people aged between 16 and 25. So far, 70 people have been treated, all of whom paid Ambrosia to be included in the study. Karmazin spoke to New Scientist ahead of presenting some of the results from the study at the Recode conference in Los Angeles today. These results come from blood tests conducted before and a month after plasma treatment, and imply young blood transfusions may reduce the risk of several major diseases associated with ageing.
5-31-17 Mummy DNA unveils the history of ancient Egyptian hookups
Mummy DNA unveils the history of ancient Egyptian hookups
A new dataset aims to redeem Egyptian mummies as a reliable source of ancient DNA and reveals eastern connections. Egyptian mummies are back in style at the summer box office — and in genetics labs. A study of genetic blueprints from 90 mummies repairs the frayed reputation of sarcophagus occupants as sources of ancient DNA. And it reveals evidence of a hookup history with foreigners from the east. An Egyptian mummy served up the first ancient human DNA sample in 1985 (SN: 4/27/85, p. 262). But both chemicals used in mummification and Egypt’s steamy climate can degrade DNA, and scientists weren’t sure if mummies could supply samples free of modern contamination. Carefully screening for quality and using the latest in sequencing tech, Verena Schuenemann of the University of Tübingen in Germany and her colleagues extracted and analyzed mitochondrial DNA, which passes from mom to child. They worked primarily with samples from teeth and bones, rather than from soft tissue. Three mummies yielded readable samples of DNA from cell nuclei, which includes DNA from both parents. The mummies ranged in age of origin from 1388 B.C. to A.D. 426. The analysis reveals genetic ties to the Middle East and Greece — not a huge surprise since Egypt was a center of travel and trade at that time. The conspicuous absence of genetic connections to sub-Saharan Africa seen in modern Egyptians points to a later influx of foreigners from that region, the researchers write May 30 in Nature Communications.
5-31-17 Is ADHD a sleep disorder? Stimulant drug improves symptoms
Is ADHD a sleep disorder? Stimulant drug improves symptoms
A drug normally used to treat narcolepsy appears to be better than Ritalin for ADHD – bolstering the theory that ADHD is a sleep disorder. A DRUG normally used to treat narcolepsy and excessive daytime sleepiness also seems to improve symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms. The finding supports the idea that ADHD might be a sleep disorder. People who have been diagnosed with ADHD find it difficult to concentrate and are generally hyperactive. But many with the condition also find it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep at night, and feel drowsy during the day. Could this mean ADHD is a type of sleep disorder? After all, the brain pathways involved in paying attention have also been linked to sleep. And there’s some evidence of similarly disrupted patterns of chemical signalling in the brains of people with sleep disorders and ADHD. One suggestion is that the circadian rhythm that controls our sleep-wake cycle over each 24 hour period may be misaligned in people with ADHD, causing them to be sleepy or alert at the wrong times. This idea inspired Eric Konofal at Robert-Debré Hospital in Paris to try using a drug for narcolepsy and excessive daytime sleepiness to treat ADHD.
5-31-17 Researchers stumble onto a new role for breast cancer drug
Researchers stumble onto a new role for breast cancer drug
Tamoxifen stops immune cells from destroying injured eye cells in mice. Microglia are one of the first immune responders when photoreceptor cells are damaged or diseased. But when microglia kill those injured cells, vision loss can occur. When the eyes of her mice looked normal, Xu Wang was certain she had done something wrong. She was blasting the mice with blinding light to study how a specific gene affected the animals’ response to eye injury. All the mice were given the drug tamoxifen. Half were engineered to respond to the drug by disabling the gene — a step that would protect their eyes. The control mice, with all genes intact, should have lost sight as photo-receptors — the light-sensitive cells in the retina — died. Instead, the retinas of the control mice looked just fine. “I was kind of despondent because it didn’t agree with our hypothesis,” Wang says. She and her mentor, Wai Wong, both ophthalmologists at the National Eye Institute in Bethesda, Md., could have started over with another kind of mouse. But they decided to do the test again. And again. The spared vision was no mistake. Many experiments later, Wang, Wong and colleagues have shown that tamoxifen, a drug used to treat breast cancer, can help preserve photoreceptors — and sight — in mice with eye injuries.
5-31-17 Floating in microgravity gives bacteria permanent genetic boost
Floating in microgravity gives bacteria permanent genetic boost
Life in simulated zero gravity turns bacteria into reproductive powerhouses and may help them form tough colonies that could pose a risk to humans in space. Space travel might permanently mutate E. coli, helping them to band together and survive. The longest study yet of bacteria in simulated microgravity found that their adaptations remained even when researchers tried to erase them. A major concern for long-duration space flight is how the microorganisms who hitch a ride with us will adapt to the loss of gravity. Astronauts’ immune systems change in space, potentially making them more susceptible to infection, so if these bacteria become more virulent or antibiotic-resistant, they could pose a risk. To assess that risk, Madhan Tirumalai at the University of Houston in Texas and his colleagues placed E. coli in a rotating vessel designed to simulate microgravity. They kept them there for 1,000 bacterial generations, much longer than in previous studies. After giving the cells time to adapt to microgravity, the researchers combined them with another strain of E. coli that hadn’t been subjected to microgravity and allowed them to grow together. The adapted cells grew about three times as many colonies as the others. Even after the cells were taken out of microgravity for up to 30 generations before being combined with the control strain, they maintained 72 per cent of their adaptive advantage, pointing to permanent mutations in the genes rather than merely a temporary adjustment.
5-31-17 Peru’s plenty brought ancient human migration to a crawl
Peru’s plenty brought ancient human migration to a crawl
Abundant food let early Americans stay put. From around 15,000 to 8,000 years ago, New World settlers intermittently camped along Peru’s coast and exploited the region’s marine and inland food sources rather than continuing to trek southward, excavations of an earthen mound called Huaca Prieta show. Some of the earliest settlers of the Americas curtailed their coastal migration to hunker down in what’s now northwestern Peru, new finds suggest. Although researchers have often assumed that shoreline colonizers of the New World kept heading south from Alaska in search of marine foods, staying put in some spots made sense: Hunter-gatherers needed only simple tools to exploit rich coastal and inland food sources for thousands of years. Excavations at two seaside sites in Peru find that people intermittently camped there from about 15,000 to 8,000 years ago, say anthropologist Tom Dillehay of Vanderbilt University in Nashville and his colleagues. Ancient people along Peru’s Pacific coast didn’t leave behind fishhooks, harpoons, nets or boats that could have been used to capture fish, sharks and sea lions, the scientists report May 24 in Science Advances. Yet remains of those sea creatures turned up at coastal campsites now buried beneath a human-made, earthen mound called Huaca Prieta and an adjacent mound called Paredones. Fish and other marine animals probably washed up on beaches or were trapped in lagoons that formed near the shore, Dillehay’s group proposes. Hungry humans needed only nets or clubs to subdue these prey.
5-30-17 Ultra-tough antibiotic to fight superbugs
Ultra-tough antibiotic to fight superbugs
US scientists have re-engineered a vital antibiotic in a bid to wipe out one of the world's most threatening superbugs. Their new version of vancomycin is designed to be ultra-tough and appears to be a thousand times more potent than the old drug, PNAS journal reports. It fights bacteria in three different ways, making it much less likely that the bugs can dodge the attack. It is yet to be tested in animals and people, however. The Scripps Research Institute team hope the drug will be ready for use within five years if it passes more tests. Experts have repeatedly warned that we are on the cusp of a "post-antibiotic era", where some infections could become untreatable. One hard-to-treat infection that has been worrying doctors is vancomycin-resistant enterococci or VRE. It has been found in hospitals, can cause dangerous wound and bloodstream infections and is considered by the WHO to be one of the drug-resistant bacteria that pose the greatest threat to human health.
5-30-17 Boom in human gene editing as 20 CRISPR trials gear up
Boom in human gene editing as 20 CRISPR trials gear up
A pioneering CRISPR trial in China will be the first to try editing the genomes of cells inside the body, in an effort to eliminate cancer-causing HPV virus. The CRISPR genome editing revolution continues to advance at an astounding pace. As many as 20 human trials will be under way soon, mostly in China, New Scientist has learned. One of these trials will involve the first-ever attempt to edit cells while they are inside the body. The aim is to prevent cervical cancers by using CRISPR to target and destroy the genes of the human papillomavirus (HPV) that cause tumour growth. This study is due to begin in July at the First Affiliated Hospital of Sun Yat-Sen University in China. Gene therapy, which involves adding extra genes to cells, was first used to cure people in 1990, but it is mainly useful for treating rare genetic disorders. In contrast, gene-editing, which involves altering existing genes inside cells, promises to treat or cure a much wider range of conditions, from HIV infection to high blood cholesterol. The first gene-editing trial in humans started in 2009. Doctors removed immune cells from people with HIV, disabled the gene for the CCR5 receptor – which the virus uses to get into cells – and returned the HIV-resistant cells to the body. The treatment appears to keep HIV in check. (Webmaster's comment: Again China takes the lead!)
5-30-17 CRISPR causes many unwanted mutations, small study suggests
CRISPR causes many unwanted mutations, small study suggests
Other studies may have failed to spot most of the unwanted mutations caused by the CRISPR gene-editing method, according to a study in only three mice. Does the CRISPR gene-editing method cause hundreds of extra, unwanted mutations? That’s the question raised by a small study in mice. The idea of gene editing is to alter a single DNA sequence in the genome of cells while leaving the rest untouched. However, in practice, every gene-editing method sometimes results in unwanted changes. This is not necessarily a problem if the rate of unwanted changes is low, as most mutations have no effect. But mutations in certain genes can lead to cancer, so the safety of CRISPR depends on how often it makes these off-target mutations. Most studies have found few if any unwanted mutations with CRISPR. However, almost all of these studies looked for off-target changes by predicting what these were likely to be, and then seeing if they could find them. Stephen Tsang of Columbia University Medical Center and his team have now used a more extensive method, sequencing the whole genomes of two CRISPR-edited mice, and comparing these with a non-edited control. In this way, they identified more than a thousand common mutations in the two edited mice that they think were caused by CRISPR.
5-30-17 Gene tweak in gut bacteria could turn faeces blue if you’re ill
Gene tweak in gut bacteria could turn faeces blue if you’re ill
Giving bacteria genes to make them change colour when mice have gut disorders turns mouse droppings blue in lab tests. It could theoretically work in humans. Checking the hue of your faeces could soon reveal why you are feeling off-colour. Gut bacteria in mice have been genetically modified to make coloured pigments when they detect the presence of disease. If the mice have a gut disorder, the microbes turn blue. A similar approach could be used to diagnose inflammatory bowel diseases or colon cancer in people. At the moment, many gut disorders are diagnosed by putting a camera on a thin flexible tube up the rectum. “People often don’t like that,” says Pamela Silver of Harvard Medical School in Boston. And preparing for the procedure requires fasting and taking strong laxatives. An alternative could be to measure chemicals in the gut that are linked to disease states. The idea of using colour-changing bacteria was mooted by a team at the University of Cambridge in 2009. But it has been difficult to develop bacteria that survive in the gut for long enough to be useful. Now Silver and her colleagues have used a harmless strain of E. coli bacteria, which are often found in the guts of humans and mice. The team gave these bacteria genes that are sensitive to a chemical called tetrathionate, which is seen in higher levels in the guts of people with ulcerative colitis.
5-30-17 Prehistoric animal behaviour seen in latest deep-sea dives
Prehistoric animal behaviour seen in latest deep-sea dives
Snails feast on sea lily faeces in the latest videos from submersibles diving in never-before-explored parts of the ocean. It’s like going back in time. NOAA’s Okeanos Explorer has completed more than two weeks of ocean exploration beginning near Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa, and ending near Honolulu in Hawaii. Some of the animal behaviour it recorded has previously been documented only in fossils hundreds of millions of years old. “For all of the places we went, it was the first time we were getting to have eyes down in the deep sea,” says Scott France, a deep-sea biologist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette who was on the ship. Those eyes come in the form of remote submersibles that light up the sea floor and transmit live video to the team and the public around the world. “We saw brittle stars capturing a squid from the water column while it was swimming. I didn’t know that was possible. And then there was a tussle among the brittle stars to see who got to have the squid,” says France.
5-30-17 Sea scorpions slashed victims with swordlike tails
Sea scorpions slashed victims with swordlike tails
New fossil suggests the body part was used for fighting, swimming. Ancient sea scorpions may have used serrated, swordlike tails for swimming or as weaponry. Some of the marine creatures had a thin, serrated spine on the tip of their tail — and that tail was surprisingly flexible, based on a 430-million-year-old fossil found in Scotland. Slimonia acuminata may have had the range of motion to strike large predators and prey, researchers report online April 18 in American Naturalist. Scientists had thought that the ancient animals largely used their tails for swimming, primarily flapping them up and down like today’s lobsters and shrimp do and, to a limited degree, side to side like a rudder. But the tail on the new, well-preserved fossil curls dramatically to the side — a flexibility not seen in other sea scorpion specimens.
5-26-17 Terrorists' moral judgment probed in psychology test
Terrorists' moral judgment probed in psychology test
A project aiming to "scientifically understand the mindset of terrorists" has published insights that the scientists say could have implications for terror prevention. Researchers worked with a group of 66 incarcerated ex-combatants from a paramilitary terrorist group in Colombia, a country with one of the greatest insurgency rates in the world. This unique experiment revealed what the team described as an "abnormal pattern of moral judgment" in terrorists. The scientists say a psychological "score" based on this could be an accurate way to discriminate between the mindset of a terrorist and that of a non-criminal. The researchers, based in Argentina, the US, Colombia and Chile, published their findings in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.
5-26-17 The science of motivation
The science of motivation
Research shows it's all about how close someone is to their goal. Think of the last time you had to do a big, imposing, complicated project. How did you summon the will to even get started? How did you manage to maintain momentum all the way through? Naturally, these are the sorts of questions that have long fascinated psychologists, and a recent paper in the Journal of Consumer Psychology offers an interesting insight about how people can remain motivated during the long slog of a difficult task. Olya Bullard and Rajesh V. Manchanda, both of the University of Winnipeg, ran a series of five experiments to see how different ways of structuring and framing goals would affect the behavior of a bunch of Amazon Mechanical Turk users and undergraduates. In one of the experiments, for example, respondents were asked to solve a bunch of "relatively simple mathematical equations," and were randomly assigned to be given feedback either early or late in the task. The authors' key findings concerned a switch that seems to occur during the process of completing a goal. Early on, "individuals represent goals as promotion-focused," write Bullard and Manchanda, meaning they focus on what they're positively trying to gain or achieve. But "in later stages of goal pursuit, individuals represent goals as prevention-focused" — If I don't complete this, I'm going to be losing something important. That's likely because early on, people tend to compare their state of progress to the point at which they started, when they hadn't yet accomplished anything. Later, they can envision the completed goal, and begin comparing their current state of progress to the promised land.
5-26-17 Running is contagious among those with the competitive bug
Running is contagious among those with the competitive bug
Running is contagious among those with the competitive bug. Can behaviors really be contagious? Runners log more miles when their friends do — especially if they want to stay leader of the pack, a new study finds. People may think they act independently. But we catch social behaviors faster than colds. Whether or not we vote, try a new food or wear clear plastic pants will have something to do with whether other people are doing it. Unfortunately, it’s often hard to prove exactly how contagious a particular behavior is, or which behaviors will actually spread. A new study shows that among runners using a fitness social network, logging miles is infectious — if the runner you’re comparing yourself to is slightly worse than you. The work shows a clever new way to determine if a behavior is socially contagious. But the results also confirm something about runners: We might be a little too competitive.
5-26-17 When chance intervenes
When chance intervenes
The universe can be random. That's why you exist, and the dinosaurs don't. One pivotal day 66 million years ago, a 6-mile-wide asteroid slammed into the Earth off the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. The explosion — as powerful as millions of nuclear bombs — kicked up billions of tons of vaporized rock, filling the sky with a dark cloud that blotted out the sun for decades. Global temperatures plunged 50 degrees. The dinosaurs that dominated the planet died off for lack of food. Their disappearance led to the rise of mammals, and eventually to the evolution of Homo sapiens. In a new BBC documentary that aired this week, scientists who've drilled down into the asteroid’s crater say that it hit "in the worst possible place" — shallow coastal waters where the underlying sediments were filled with gypsum; if the big rock had entered the atmosphere just 30 seconds earlier or later, it would have landed in the deep Atlantic or Pacific Ocean and not created the catastrophic cloud of sulfur. Most dinosaurs would have survived. The human race might never have arisen. So much is the product of chance: how people meet their spouses, which of our parents' genes we inherit, why this person and not that one gets cancer or dies in a terrorist attack. A cascade of unlikely events can decide a presidential election by 77,000 votes out of 136 million cast, sending history off in an uncharted direction. But the human mind finds randomness emotionally unsatisfying, even threatening. Could we really have so little control over the circumstances that shape our lives? We crave reasons for what happens. So we retroactively see patterns that render events inevitable, or attribute them to fate or divine will or just plain luck. The sages — and life experience — tell us that the truth lies somewhere in the middle: We don't control the cards we're dealt, but do get to use some skill, wisdom, and courage in playing them. But sometimes, stuff just happens. Flaming happenstance can fall out of a clear blue sky. Ask any apatosaurus.
5-26-17 How exercise slows aging
How exercise slows aging
If working out makes you feel younger, a new study suggests it’s no illusion—vigorous exercise can actually slow the aging process on a cellular level, turning back the clock nearly a decade. Researchers analyzed 6,000 adults based on their physical activity and biological markers of aging, Time.com reports. Most importantly, they used DNA samples to measure the length of participants’ telomeres, protein caps that protect chromosomes, like the plastic tips of shoelaces. Telomeres shrink with age—we lose bits of them every time a cell divides. “In general, people with shorter telomeres die sooner and are more likely to develop many of our chronic diseases,” says study author Larry Tucker. Taking into account risk factors such as smoking, alcohol consumption, and obesity, the researchers found people who exercised strenuously—say, running for 30 to 40 minutes five days per week—had longer telomeres. That gave them about a nine-year “biological aging advantage” over sedentary adults; those who exercised more moderately had a two-year edge. The researchers speculate physical activity could help preserve telomeres by reducing stress and inflammation. “We all know people who seem younger than their actual age,” Tucker says. “Exercise can help with that, and now we know that part of that may be because of its effect on our telomeres.”
5-26-17 Dino mummy unearthed
Dino mummy unearthed
When miners in northern Alberta struck some walnut-brown, oddly patterned rock, they were intrigued—and with good reason: They’d stumbled onto what turned out to be the most spectacularly well-preserved fossil of an armored dinosaur ever found, a previously unknown species of plant-eating nodosaur that chomped its last leaf 110 million years ago. Carefully chipping away surrounding rock for some 7,000 hours, paleontologists found the creature eerily intact, its armor, spiky skin, and guts impeccably preserved in a stone tomb dating back to the Cretaceous period. It’s believed a flooded river swept the 18-foot-long, 3,000-pound nodosaur out to sea. While the plates of armored dinosaurs usually fell off during decomposition, minerals in the ancient seabed preserved this one’s remains as it gradually fossilized. The dinosaur “mummy” will help paleontologists learn more about the animal’s coloring and anatomy and understand how it used its horns and armor. “We don’t just have a skeleton,” researcher Caleb Brown tells National Geographic. “We have a dinosaur as it would have been.”
5-25-17 Obscure brain region linked to feeding frenzy in mice
Obscure brain region linked to feeding frenzy in mice
Optogenetics reveals a possible role in binge eating for nerve cells in zona incerta. When scientists used light to stimulate select nerve cells in a region of the brain called the zona incerta, mice began eating voraciously. The results suggest that the little-studied brain region may have a role in eating behavior. Nerve cells in a poorly understood part of the brain have the power to prompt voracious eating in already well-fed mice. Two to three seconds after blue light activated cells in the zona incerta, a patch of neurons just underneath the thalamus and above the hypothalamus, mice dropped everything and began shoveling food into their mouths. This dramatic response, described May 26 in Science, suggests a role in eating behavior for a part of the brain that hasn’t received much scrutiny. Scientists have previously proposed a range of jobs for the zona incerta, linking it to attention, movement and even posture. The new study suggests another job — controlling eating behavior, perhaps even in humans. “Being able to include the zona incerta in models of feeding is going to help us understand it better,” says study coauthor Anthony van den Pol, a neuroscientist at Yale University.
5-25-17 Newly-evolved microbes may be breaking down ocean plastics
Newly-evolved microbes may be breaking down ocean plastics
There is less plastic in our oceans than expected because life is evolving the ability to biodegrade it, one team is claiming. Plastic. There should be hundreds of thousands of tonnes of the stuff floating around in our oceans. But we are finding less than expected – perhaps because living organisms are evolving the ability to break it down. Plastic production is rising exponentially, so ever more of it should be ending up in the oceans, says Ricard Sole, who studies complex systems at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. But surveys of areas where floating plastic accumulates, such as the North Atlantic gyre, are not finding nearly as much plastic as expected. In fact, there’s only a tenth to a hundredth as much plastic as expected – and the amount of floating plastic does not appear to be increasing. “The trend should be there,” Sole says. This lack of trend cannot be explained by physical processes, according to his team’s mathematical models. Instead, they propose that there has been a population boom in microbes that have evolved the ability to biodegrade plastic. Other researchers agree that surveys are finding far less plastic in the oceans than expected. However, they say there are several other possible explanations for this “missing plastic”.
5-24-17 Learning to read and write rewires adult brain in six months
Learning to read and write rewires adult brain in six months
Illiterate adults who have learned to read and write over half a year show brain changes – even in regions not obviously linked to reading, writing or learning. Let’s hear it for the written word. Learning to read can have profound effects on the wiring of the adult brain – even in regions that aren’t usually associated with reading and writing. That’s what Michael Skeide of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, and his colleagues found when they taught a group of illiterate adults in rural India to read and write. Skeide and his colleagues wanted to study how culture changes the brain, so focused on reading and writing. These cultural inventions have appeared only recently in our evolutionary history, so we haven’t had a chance to evolve specific genes for such skills. The team recruited 30 Hindi-speaking adults from two villages near the north Indian city of Lucknow, with an average age of about 31 years. Twenty one people from this group were taught to read and write the Devanagari script, which is used in Hindi and other Indian languages, over six months. Nine people weren’t taught anything. All of the volunteers had their brains scanned before and after the six-month period.
5-24-17 Drugs for reflux disease in infants may come with unintended consequences
Drugs for reflux disease in infants may come with unintended consequences
Babies throw up, a lot. But caution is needed before turning to a drug to help. Infants prescribed proton-pump inhibitors to treat reflux disease broke more bones in the next several years than infants not given the drug. When my girls were newborns, I spent a lot of time damp. Fluids were everywhere, some worse than others. One of the main contributors was milk, which, in various stages of digestion, came back to haunt me in a sloppy trail down my back. I was sometimes alarmed at the volume of fluid that came flying out of my tiny babies. And I remember asking our pediatrician if it was a problem. We were lucky in that the amount and frequency of the regurgitations didn’t seem to signal trouble. But some babies spit up a lot more, and seem to be in distress while doing so. That’s led doctors to prescribe antacids to treat reflux disease in these infants. A U.S.-based survey found that from 2000 to 2003, infant use of a type of antacid called proton-pump inhibitors quadrupled. (Webmaster's comment: Maybe babies do this to gid rid of something that's bad for their young bodies. It may be a necessary survival mechanism.)
5-24-17 Traumatic beetle sex causes rapid evolutionary arms race
Traumatic beetle sex causes rapid evolutionary arms race
Male seed beetles use sharp spikes on their penises to damage females during sex, but females are evolving thicker tissue to resist them. Ever wondered what constitutes extreme sex? Cowpea seed beetles certainly know – their sexual act is brutal, and it also seems to encourage a rapid evolutionary arms race between spiked penises and shielding tissue in females. Extreme genital co-evolution happens in many types of animal, including ducks, fish and fruit flies. For example, female ducks of some species have evolved long and complex internal genitalia, complete with blind alleys, to thwart the unwanted advances of males intent on fowl play. And to counteract this, male ducks have evolved longer and more elaborate penises. Now Liam Dougherty of the University of Western Australia and his colleagues have discovered how female cowpea seed beetles (Callosobruchus maculatus) are fighting back against the males’ vicious spiked penises. Once beetles become sexually mature after emerging from the beans in which they live as larvae, they have only one thing on their to-do list – procreation. They don’t eat, or drink, they just look for partners. “There’s not much courtship,” says Dougherty. “The smaller male jumps on the female and there’s a bit of a struggle. He sort of leans back when he’s fully in. Then there’s a period when the female starts kicking the male. Then they break apart after a few minutes.”
5-23-17 The brain starts to eat itself after chronic sleep deprivation
The brain starts to eat itself after chronic sleep deprivation
Sleep loss in mice sends the brain’s immune cells into overdrive. This might be helpful in the short term, but could increase the risk of dementia in the long run. Burning the midnight oil may well burn out your brain. The brain cells that destroy and digest worn-out cells and debris go into overdrive in mice that are chronically sleep-deprived. In the short term, this might be beneficial – clearing potentially harmful debris and rebuilding worn circuitry might protect healthy brain connections. But it may cause harm in the long term, and could explain why a chronic lack of sleep puts people at risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological disorders, says Michele Bellesi of the Marche Polytechnic University in Italy. Bellesi reached this conclusion after studying the effects of sleep deprivation in mice. His team compared the brains of mice that had either been allowed to sleep for as long as they wanted or had been kept awake for a further eight hours. Another group of mice were kept awake for five days in a row – mimicking the effects of chronic sleep loss. The team specifically looked at glial cells, which form the brain’s housekeeping system. Earlier research had found that a gene that regulates the activity of these cells is more active after a period of sleep deprivation.
5-23-17 Bioelectric tweak makes flatworms grow a head instead of a tail
Bioelectric tweak makes flatworms grow a head instead of a tail
Flatworms regenerate lost body parts, but change the current in their cells and they can regrow the wrong thing, hinting at electricity’s role in body plans. Cut off the head of a planarian flatworm, and a new one will grow in its place. The worm is one of many creatures that have some kind of memory for lost limbs, enabling them to regenerate what was there before. Now it seems that this memory can be altered by meddling with the electrical activity of the animals’ cells. Shifting the bioelectric current at the site of the cut changes the type of appendage regenerated – allowing a head to be regrown in place of a tail, for instance. Michael Levin at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, and his colleagues have shown that after changing the electrical current of the cells once, the animals will continue to randomly regrow a head or a tail. The findings suggest that an animal’s body plan is not just down to its genes and environment – electricity plays a key role, too. “It’s pretty profound,” says Levin. His team has long been trying to understand how electric currents in the body’s cells affect health and the ability to regenerate damaged tissues – what Levin calls the “bioelectric code”.
5-23-17 Tool sharpens focus on Stone Age networking in the Middle East
Tool sharpens focus on Stone Age networking in the Middle East
Implement found in Syria was chipped out of obsidian deposit hundreds of kilometers away. A new chemical analysis finds that this 41,000- to 32,000-year-old obsidian tool, previously unearthed in a Syrian rock-shelter, was transported more than 700 kilometers. That means that long-distance movement of obsidian into the Middle East occurred much earlier than previously thought, researchers say. A stone tool found in Syria more than 80 years ago has sharpened scientists’ understanding of Stone Age networking. Small enough to fit in the palm of an adult’s hand, this chipped piece of obsidian dates to between 41,000 and 32,000 years ago, say archaeologists Ellery Frahm and Thomas Hauck. It was fashioned out of volcanic rock from outcrops in central Turkey, a minimum of 700 kilometers from where the artifact was found, the researchers report in the June Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. Until now, the earliest transport of obsidian into the Middle East was thought to have occurred between 14,500 and 11,500 years ago, when Natufian foragers began to live in year-round settlements (SN: 9/25/10, p. 14). Someone probably shaped the obsidian chunk into a usable tool near its Turkish source, say Frahm, of Yale University, and Hauck, of the University of Cologne in Germany. The tool, which could have been used for various cutting and scraping tasks, was then passed from one mobile group to another, perhaps several times, before reaching Syria’s Yabroud II rock-shelter. Along the way, the implement underwent reshaping and resharpening.
5-22-17 European fossils may belong to earliest known hominid
European fossils may belong to earliest known hominid
Graecopithecus’ teeth suggest it was part of the human evolutionary family, researchers argue. This jaw and teeth previously found in Greece, along with a tooth unearthed in Bulgaria, come from a line of more than 7-million-year-old primates that might have been the oldest known hominids, a new study concludes. Other researchers are skeptical of that claim. Europe, not Africa, might have spawned the first members of the human evolutionary family around 7 million years ago, researchers say. Tooth characteristics of a chimpanzee-sized primate that once lived in southeastern European suggest that the primate, known as Graecopithecus, may have been a hominid, not an ape as many researchers assume. One tooth in particular, the second lower premolar, is telling. It features two partially fused roots, a trait characteristic of early hominids but not ancient apes, a team led by geoscientist Jochen Fuss of the University of Tübingen in Germany reports May 22 in PLOS ONE. Scientists suspect the first hominids appeared sometime between 8 million and 6 million years ago. New age estimates for previously discovered fossils position Graecopithecus as potentially the earliest known hominid, the investigators suggest. A Graecopithecus lower jaw, found in Athens with most teeth still in their sockets, dates to around 7.175 million years ago, a group led by Tübingen geoscientist Madelaine Böhme reports May 22 in a separate paper in PLOS ONE. An isolated Graecopithecus tooth from Bulgaria, an upper second premolar, dates to approximately 7.24 million years ago, the scientists say.
5-22-17 Our common ancestor with chimps may be from Europe, not Africa
Our common ancestor with chimps may be from Europe, not Africa
The last common ancestor of chimps and humans was an eastern European, claims team that analysed fossils of a 7-million-year-old ape from Bulgaria and Greece. The last common ancestor we shared with chimps seems to have lived in the eastern Mediterranean – not in East Africa as generally assumed. This bold conclusion comes from a study of Greek and Bulgarian fossils, suggesting that the most mysterious of all ancient European apes was actually a human ancestor, or hominin. However, other researchers remain unconvinced by the claim. Go back 12 or more million years ago and Europe was an ape’s paradise. But, about 10 million years ago, environmental conditions deteriorated and the European apes began to disappear. Apes became largely confined to Africa, splitting there into gorillas, chimpanzees and humans. At least, that’s what most researchers think happened. But in 2012, Nikolai Spassov at the National Museum of Natural History in Sofia, Bulgaria, and his colleagues reported the discovery of an ape tooth from Bulgaria that was just 7 million years old. It was, they said, the youngest European ape fossil yet found.
5-22-17 40 more ‘intelligence’ genes found
40 more ‘intelligence’ genes found
Evidence grows for the idea that some of your smarts are in your DNA. A large genetic study turns up more genes that may help build intelligence into the brain. Smarty-pants have 40 new reasons to thank their parents for their powerful brains. By sifting through the genetics of nearly 80,000 people, researchers have uncovered 40 genes that may make certain people smarter. That brings the total number of suspected “intelligence genes” to 52. Combined, these genetic attributes explain only a very small amount of overall smarts, or lack thereof, researchers write online May 22 in Nature Genetics. But studying these genes, many of which play roles in brain cell development, may ultimately help scientists understand how intelligence is built into brains. Historically, intelligence research has been mired in controversy, says neuroscientist Richard Haier of the University of California, Irvine. Scientists disagreed on whether intelligence could actually be measured and if so, whether genes had anything at all to do with the trait, as opposed to education and other life experiences. But now “we are so many light-years beyond that, as you can see from studies like this,” says Haier. “This is very exciting and very positive news.”
5-22-17 Diabetes drug may work by changing gut bacteria makeup
Diabetes drug may work by changing gut bacteria makeup
Metformin dramatically shifts the gut microbiome – and bacteria seem to play a key role in controlling blood sugar levels. The most successful treatment for type 2 diabetes may work by changing the makeup of gut bacteria. Metformin is commonly prescribed to help people with type 2 diabetes control their blood sugar. It is also being tested as an anti-ageing treatment. The drug is generally believed to work by reducing the amount of glucose made in the liver, which would in turn lower blood sugar levels. But some observations suggest this isn’t the whole story. For instance, a slow-release version of the drug appears to be just as effective, even though only small amounts of it ever reach the liver. And metformin works just as well in people with genetic variants that stop it from getting to the liver. Fredrik Bäckhed at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, and José Manuel Fernàndez-Real at the University of Girona, Spain, wondered if gut bacteria might play a role in the drug’s action. After all, the trillions of bugs that line our intestines have been linked to a range of diseases, and are known to influence drug metabolism.
5-22-17 Older adults may not benefit from taking statins
Older adults may not benefit from taking statins
Statins did not cause a meaningful reduction in heart attacks, coronary heart disease deaths or deaths from any cause in people age 65 and older, a new analysis finds. The benefits of statins for people older than 75 remain unclear, a new analysis finds. Statins did not reduce heart attacks or coronary heart disease deaths, nor did they reduce deaths from any cause, compared with people not taking statins, researchers report online May 22 in JAMA Internal Medicine. Recently published guidelines cited insufficient data to recommend statins for people older than age 75 who don’t have a history of cardiovascular disease. The new analysis considered a subset of older adults enrolled in a study of heart attack prevention and mortality conducted from 1994 to 2002. The sample included 2,867 adults ages 65 and older who had hypertension, 1,467 of whom took a statin. There was no meaningful difference in the frequency of heart attacks or coronary heart disease deaths between those who took statins and those who did not. There was also no significant difference in deaths from any cause, both overall and among participants ages 65 to 74 or those 75 and older. Statin use may be associated with muscle damage and fatigue, which could especially impact older adults and put them at higher risk for physical decline, the authors say.
5-22-17 Bacteria engineered to produce living, full-colour photographs
Bacteria engineered to produce living, full-colour photographs
Gut bugs have been modified to turn red, green or blue when bathed in light of the corresponding colour so they create bacterial photocopies. Blind gut bacteria have received the gift of colour vision – of sorts. The bugs can use their new skill to make living photocopies of colourful pictures shone onto their colony. “These images last a while,” says Christopher Voigt at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has had some on the wall in his office for several years. Voigt and his colleagues began experimenting with bacterial “photocopies” 12 years ago. At that point, however, they could generate only black-and-white images. To enable Escherichia coli bacteria to register colour, Voigt’s team modified them by inserting genes that respond exclusively either to red, green or blue light. When activated by the relevant colour of light, these genes feed signals to other newly inserted genes that then produce visible pigment of an identical colour. The researchers grew the engineered cells to create a bacterial film that serves as a kind of living photographic plate. When a bright, colourful image is shone onto this colony, individual cells gradually change colour to match the colour of light striking the bacterial film at their particular location. It takes about eight hours for the light signal to generate enough pigment to make a strong image.
5-19-17 Why sepsis can be a terrifyingly silent child-killer
Why sepsis can be a terrifyingly silent child-killer
Parents and doctors need to know the signs. might start out looking like not much more than an ordinary childhood fever. But within days — within hours, sometimes — the complication known as sepsis can turn deadly. The patient's blood pressure dives. Intense pain floods her body. Her organs begin to shut down. The toll is frightening: Sepsis hospitalizes some 75,000 children and teens each year in the United States. Nearly 7,000 will die, according to one 2013 study. That's more than three times as many annual deaths as are caused by pediatric cancers. And some of the children who survive sepsis may suffer long-term consequences, including organ damage and amputated limbs. Now dozens of hospitals nationwide, including in Fort Worth, are launching an all-out campaign against sepsis, an infection-related complication which can take hold after a viral illness — or an injury as innocuous as a scraped arm or a bug bite. Their ambitious goal: Reduce both childhood sepsis deaths and diagnoses of severe sepsis at participating hospitals by 75 percent by the end of 2020.
5-19-17 Our brains prefer invented visual information to the real thing
Our brains prefer invented visual information to the real thing
When making sense of a visual blind spot, our brains fill in the gaps. We’re more likely to believe it’s version of what’s in front of us than a real image. Seeing shouldn’t always be believing. We all have blind spots in our vision, but we don’t notice them because our brains fill the gaps with made-up information. Now subtle tests show that we trust this “fake vision” more than the real thing. If the brain works like this in other ways, it suggests we should be less trusting of the evidence from our senses, says Christoph Teufel of Cardiff University, who wasn’t involved in the study. “Perception is not providing us with a [true] representation of the world,” he says. “It is contaminated by what we already know.” The blind spot is caused by a patch at the back of each eye where there are no light-sensitive cells, just a gap where neurons exit the eye on their way to the brain. We normally don’t notice blind spots because our two eyes can fill in for each other. When vision is obscured in one eye, the brain makes up what’s in the missing area by assuming that whatever is in the regions around the spot continues inwards.
5-19-17 NSAIDs’ link to heart attacks
NSAIDs’ link to heart attacks
Many people don’t think twice before taking painkillers to ease everyday aches and pains. But new research adds to mounting evidence that commonly used nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)—such as Advil, Motrin, and Aleve—could substantially increase the risk of heart attack. Canadian and European researchers pooled information from several large studies on NSAIDs and their health effects, gathering data on 446,000 people ages 40 to 79. They found that taking NSAIDs for just one week increased a person’s risk of heart attack by up to 53 percent. The risk depends on the drug, and climbs over time and at higher doses. The study doesn’t prove NSAIDs cause heart attacks, and the absolute risk of suffering a cardiac episode after taking the drugs remains small. But lead author Michèle Bally says the findings should encourage patients to discuss their needs with a doctor. “People are often not aware of their own baseline cardiovascular risk,” she tells The New York Times. “You may want to stay with NSAIDs, or you may want to consider other treatments.”
5-19-17 Smartphones stunting speech?
Smartphones stunting speech?
Young children who use smartphones and tablets are more likely to suffer speech development delays, a new study suggests. Researchers at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto asked the parents of nearly 900 children between the ages of 6 months and 2 years to track their child’s screen time. They found that 20 percent of the kids were using an electronic device by the time they turned 18 months, for an average of 28 minutes a day. Assessments of the toddlers’ language development showed that every 30-minute increase in screen time was associated with a 49 percent higher risk of delayed speech. “Parents aren’t talking to [their children],” said Dr. Lolita McDavid, a pediatrician at Cleveland’s University Hospitals, who wasn’t involved in the study. “You learn your speech from parents.” The American Academy of Pediatrics advises that children under 18 months be given no screen time at all, apart from video-chatting with family, and that 18- to 24-month-olds be limited to “high-quality programming.”
5-19-17 Humanity’s surprisingly young cousin
Humanity’s surprisingly young cousin
A distant human relative once thought to have lived millions of years ago may in fact have wandered the earth much more recently—and lived alongside early Homo sapiens, reports The Washington Post. Remains of Homo naledi were first discovered in South Africa’s Rising Star cave system in 2013. The species had a small brain—the size of a gorilla’s—and an ape-like torso, but walked upright like a modern human and had dexterous wrists and hands that could have made and used tools. Paleoanthropologists initially believed that this hominin emerged some 2 million years ago, based on its unusual mix of modern and primitive characteristics, putting it near the base of the Homo family tree. But tests have revealed that the species was alive between 236,000 and 335,000 years ago—not long before early examples of our own species, Homo sapiens, emerged. Fifteen Homo naledi skeletons were found deep in the cave system, leading some researchers to speculate that the species may have purposely buried its dead, an advanced behavior that so far has been confirmed only among Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. The findings suggest human evolution was a complex process, with species diverging and interbreeding—not a linear progression in which human ancestors developed bigger brains and walked more upright over time. John Hawks, a paleoanthropologist who helped lead the Rising Star expedition, says the next step is to “sort the relationship of these different species to each other and also their role in our process of becoming human.”
5-18-17 Flushing fallopian tubes with poppy seed oil boosts fertility
Flushing fallopian tubes with poppy seed oil boosts fertility
A 100-year-old treatment in which women have their fallopian tubes flushed with oil makes them more likely to get pregnant without IVF treatments. An old-fashioned medical technique has turned out to help women get pregnant. The 100-year-old method involves injecting poppy seed oil through the fallopian tubes during an X-ray scan to check for blockages. But the procedure is being replaced by more modern scanning techniques. “This has put the cat among the pigeons,” says Tim Child of Oxford Fertility, who was not involved in the study. “I think this will change people’s practice.” When couples have trouble getting pregnant, a common cause is blockages in a woman’s fallopian tubes. These prevent eggs travelling from the ovaries to the uterus. To search for blockages, doctors may put a liquid containing dye into the uterus. The dye can then be seen on X-ray scans as the liquid flows from the uterus through the tubes, revealing whether they are blocked. The procedure is called a hysterosalpingography.
5-18-17 Transplanted stem cells become eggs in sterile mice
Transplanted stem cells become eggs in sterile mice
Oocyte success raises hopes for infertility treatments. Germline stem cells implanted into a mouse’s ovary move to the edge of the ovary and begin developing into eggs. By day 6 the cells began making a protein called STRA8, one sign that they were starting to turn into eggs. With an assist, an old mouse might be able to make new eggs. Sterilized female mice produced healthy babies after receiving a transplant of egg-generating stem cells from another mouse, researchers report online May 18 in Molecular Therapy. If such a procedure worked in humans — still a distant prospect — it could help women with early menopause or chemotherapy-induced infertility to conceive. These egg-generating cells are germline stem cells — precursors that become either eggs or sperm depending on whether they end up in ovaries or testes. While male germline stem cells differentiate (or become specialized) throughout a man’s life to produce a steady supply of new sperm, a woman’s are believed to differentiate into a stockpile of eggs during a relatively narrow time frame before she’s even born. Some recent studies have begun to question that conventional wisdom, though the idea that germline stem cells could still exist in women after birth is controversial (SN Online: 7/9/12).
5-18-17 Hybrid protein offers malaria protection
Hybrid protein offers malaria protection
Genetic variants found among some East Africans reduce disease risk. A malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum is expert at invading red blood cells. But a hybrid protein that spans the red blood cell membrane can thwart an attack, a new study found. Dogged genetic detective work has led scientists to a hybrid red blood cell protein that offers some protection against malaria. Reporting online May 18 in Science, researchers describe a genetic variant that apparently is responsible for the fusion of two proteins that protrude from the membranes of red blood cells. In its hybrid form, the protein somehow makes it more difficult for the malaria parasite to invade the blood cells. Successful invasion by the parasite can cause flulike illness, and in severe cases, death. In 2015, 212 million cases of malaria occurred worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, and 429,000 people died, mostly young children. People carrying the protective genetic variant are 30 to 50 percent less likely to develop severe malaria than those without, the researchers report. The genetic change was found largely in people from Kenya, Malawi and Tanzania, suggesting that it occurred relatively recently in East Africa.
5-18-17 Human blood stem cells grown in the lab for the first time
Human blood stem cells grown in the lab for the first time
Two labs have found a way to create cells that can form new blood – paving the way for donor-free blood transfusions and bone marrow transplants. The stem cells that produce our blood have been created in the lab for the first time. These could one day be used to treat people who have blood diseases and leukaemia with their own cells, rather than bone marrow transplants from a donor. They could also be used to create blood for transfusions. “This is a very big deal,” says Carolina Guibentif at the University of Cambridge, who was not involved in the research. “If you can develop [these cells] in the lab in a safe way and in high enough numbers, you wouldn’t be dependent on donors.” In a healthy adult, blood stem cells are found in bone marrow, where they replenish the supply of red and white blood cells and platelets. “They are sort of master cells,” says George Daley at Harvard Medical School. When these cells don’t work properly, they fail to maintain an adequate supply of blood cells. As a result, not enough oxygen reaches the body’s tissues. This can cause serious disease if organs such as the heart are affected. Blood stem cells can also be wiped out by chemotherapy for leukaemia and other cancers. People with these disorders tend to be treated with bone marrow – complete with blood stem cells – from a healthy donor. The difficulty is finding a match. There is a one in four chance of achieving this from a healthy sibling, but the odds are slashed to one in a million if a stranger needs to be found, says Daley.
5-18-17 Fish boost photosynthesis by wafting water around corals
Fish boost photosynthesis by wafting water around corals
Call it a fin fan. The action of damselfish swimming between coral branches helps the algae inside corals to increase their photosynthesis. The fin fanning of damselfish in the Red Sea helps boost the rate of photosynthesis of the algae that live inside corals. We already knew that the damselfish (Dascyllus marginatus) lives in symbiosis with the coral Stylophora pistillata. The fish use coral branches as shelters and nests, and in return they remove sediment from the coral surface and excrete nutrients. But it turns out there is more to the relationship. Nur Garcia-Herrera at the Alfred-Wegener Institute in Germany and colleagues measured oxygen levels inside the branches of coral kept in tanks either with or without fish. They found that photosynthesis rates were higher during the day in tanks containing fish, probably helped by the fish’s fin strokes wafting away water containing high levels of oxygen. The presence of fish increased photosynthesis by 22 per cent. “This is the first evidence of positive effects by a coral-associated fish on coral photosynthesis,” says Garcia-Herrera.
5-18-17 Frog skeleton allows them to jump horizontally or vertically
Frog skeleton allows them to jump horizontally or vertically
Astonishingly complex bone movements visualised in lab experiments allow some frogs to take off upwards or forwards, propelled by knees or hips. Frogs have a unique skeleton made for jumping that evolved over hundreds of millions of years, new research has shown. Precise control over their long hind legs allows the amphibians to achieve an “amazing” range of jump angles, from near-horizontal to almost vertical. A Royal Veterinary College team focused on the red-legged running frog (Kassina maculata), an African species that not only jumps, but can also walk and climb. High-speed cameras revealed the extreme range of jump angles the frog is capable of. “Some jumps were nearly horizontal, with animals skimming over the ground. In other trials, the frogs rocketed upwards almost vertically,” said lead researcher Laura Porro. “Their capacity to jump at such a wide range of angles and distances is amazing.” Sophisticated computer simulations showed the 3D motions of frogs’ legs are “astonishingly” complex, the researchers said.
5-17-17 Could ants tackle the 'antibiotic apocalypse'?
Could ants tackle the 'antibiotic apocalypse'?
I was born in India and, as a young child, I developed a serious gut infection that would have killed me if it hadn't been for antibiotics. These days a young child in India, with the same condition, would be far more vulnerable because of the huge and rapid rise in antibiotic resistance in that part of the world. The problem is not, of course, confined to India. It's estimated that antibiotic-resistant infections currently kill at least 700,000 people a year. This is projected to rise to 10 million by 2050. What is particularly worrying is that as well as the emergence of antibiotic resistance and the threat it poses - there have been no new classes of antibiotics released in the past 30 years. I wanted to make a documentary that explores the reasons behind the rise of the superbugs and what progress is being made to find new ways to counter them. The producer of the documentary, Peter Gauvain, was keen to expose me to some of the more unpleasant superbugs around and then see if we could treat them. Since this was clearly unwise, we compromised by creating life-size models of my head and body out of a nutrient-rich jelly called agar. We used my body doubles - whom we dubbed "Microbial Michael" - to experiment on. The results were fascinating and rather disturbing. We started by swabbing my real body and then wiping these microbes on to my body double. The right hand side of Microbial Michael had previously been saturated with a powerful, broad spectrum antibiotic. How long would the antibiotic hold the bacteria at bay? Answer: not long at all. Within days both sides of "my" body had become a battlefield of competing microbes, some of them quite nasty pathogens.
5-17-17 Jumping genes are part of all that makes us human
Jumping genes are part of all that makes us human
Ask 10 people what makes humans human and you’ll probably get 10 different answers — and then some. From our biased perspective, it’s seemingly simple to come up with many qualities that define the human experience. We love, we laugh. We form deep personal bonds and complex societies. We use language to communicate, art to express ourselves and technology to accomplish complex tasks. As Aristotle pointed out, although we can often be irrational, we have the ability to reason. We formulate ideas, contemplate and test them, and draw conclusions about our world. We can reflect on our own lives and begin to imagine death. But if we really want to be scrupulous (and we do at Science News), we would have to admit that very few of these qualities are sufficient to set us apart from all other organisms. There are plenty of tool-users and innovators in the animal kingdom. Neither laughing nor loving are limited even to the primate branch of the evolutionary tree. When it comes to mating especially, many creatures appear to have an appreciation for the visual arts. And elephants, some scientists have claimed, have been observed trying to cope with death.
5-17-17 How to daydream your way to better learning and concentration
How to daydream your way to better learning and concentration
Daydreaming need not be the enemy of focus. Learn to do it right and you could reap the benefits from more successful revision to more motivation. YOUR exams start in less than a month. Or there’s that make-or-break meeting next week that you need to prepare for. But no matter how hard you try to focus, you just can’t. The clock is ticking, but the sun is shining and, oh, is that a barbecue you can smell? If losing concentration sometimes feels inevitable, that’s because it is – your brain is hardwired to give in to distractions and take you away with the fairies. To make matters worse, science has long backed up the idea that a wandering mind is the enemy of productivity. Failing to focus has been linked to lack of success, unhappiness, stress and poor relationships. It’s enough to make you give up and head for the beach you were just daydreaming about. But don’t. Recently, psychologists have been having a rethink. If we spend so much time in a state of reverie, they reason, it’s probably not some psychological mistake. It turns out that there are several kinds of mind-wandering, and they don’t all make you unhappy or unproductive. A wandering mind could even be a key weapon in your cognitive arsenal – if you know how to use it.
5-17-17 Resurrected organisms reveal life’s bare essentials
Resurrected organisms reveal life’s bare essentials
Reanimating cells and animals that are centuries or millennia old can offer surprising insights into what it takes to be alive. WIND the clock back 5 million years, to a blustery day in the dry season somewhere in Africa. The winds whip dust high up into the atmosphere, then blow it south and dump it in Antarctica. As fresh snow falls, a small piece of prehistoric Africa gets locked away in the ice. It carries an invisible cargo: thousands of tiny microbes have survived the journey. When their burial chamber is opened, it’s because humans have arrived, keen to probe the continent’s secrets. They drill into the ice, extract a dirt-speckled layer, melt it and incubate the water in a darkened corner of their lab. Months later, something amazing happens: the ancient microbes begin to grow. The man who led this astonishing feat of resurrection was Paul Falkowski at Rutgers University in New Jersey. His microbes were frozen at a time when our earliest ancestors had barely separated from those of chimpanzees. It isn’t the first story of its kind. The oldest “resurrection” claim so far came in 2000, when a team said they had revived microbes found inside a 250-million-year-old salt crystal from the Salado formation in New Mexico. Lazarus microbes aren’t just fascinating oddities. By inhabiting a twilight zone between life and death, they offer a unique opportunity to probe the very nature of life itself.
5-17-17 Hopping miniature parrots suggests how birds first got airborne
Hopping miniature parrots suggests how birds first got airborne
Parrotlets save energy when foraging by jumping from perch to perch with a few wingbeats, a technique that might have predated true flight. You have to jump before you can fly. A species of tiny parrot saves energy by hopping from branch to branch when foraging – a skill that may have helped bird ancestors to first get off the ground. These small birds hop between branches up to 30 times a minute, gaining propulsion from their legs and adding a few wingbeats to extend their range. A new study shows they do this in ways that minimise energy requirements, and suggests bird-like dinosaurs might have benefited from the technique too. To examine the biomechanics of these short flights, the Pacific parrotlets were trained to fly between perches for a food reward. The perches were equipped with sensors to measure the forces generated by the birds’ legs and wingbeats. The birds crossed distances of 20, 40 and 75 centimetres, and made ascending and descending flights. The angles at which the birds took off closely matched those that a mathematical model predicted would minimise energy demands. “They are being very efficient with their jumps,” says Diana Chin at Stanford University, who conducted the study with her colleague David Lentink. At the shortest distances, they jumped rather than flew. “It’s more efficient to push off with your legs than flap your wings,” says Chin. Over greater lengths, the birds used wingbeats to help them get across. “We saw that as a model of how these early birds, who couldn’t fly as well, developed their flights to get farther and farther,” says Chin.
5-17-17 Chaco Canyon’s ancient civilization continues to puzzle
Chaco Canyon’s ancient civilization continues to puzzle
A rash of studies try to piece together an early American society. Recent research suggests that the ancient Chaco society of the U.S. Southwest was founded by locals and run by a female lineage for hundreds of years. The best-known Chaco structures are great houses, massive, multilevel buildings in the remains of Pueblo del Arroyo. Chaco Canyon is a land of extremes. Summer heat scorches the desert canyon, which is sandwiched between sandstone cliffs nearly two kilometers above sea level in New Mexico’s northwestern corner. Bitter cold sweeps in for winter. Temperatures can swing as many as 28 degrees Celsius during the course of a day. Through it all, Chaco Canyon maintains a desolate beauty and a craggy pride as home to one of ancient America’s most enigmatic civilizations. Scientists have struggled to understand Chaco society since its first excavations in the late 1800s. Who first settled Chaco Canyon around 1,200 years ago is still a mystery. Many researchers suspect that it took a few hundred years for a fledgling city-state run by an elite social class to emerge. Political and cultural ties between the ancient society and Chaco-style communities outside the canyon also perplex. Then there’s the puzzle of how people survived from about 800 to around 1300 on the rough, parched terrain. A new generation of Chaco studies and discoveries is under way, partly thanks to a young researcher’s skeleton reassembly project. This jigsaw job required a lot of travel, but not to Chaco Canyon.
5-16-17 Blennies have a lot of fang for such little fishes
Blennies have a lot of fang for such little fishes
Some are venomous, but others are just faking. The two big teeth in the lower jaw of a fang blenny (Meiacanthus grammistes) have a groove for venom delivery. After a recent flurry of news that fang blennies mix an opioid in their venom, a question lingers: What do they need with fangs anyway? Most eat wimpy stuff that hardly justifies whopper canines. Not that fang blennies are meek fishes. “When they bite, they bite savagely,” says Bryan Fry of the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. “If these little jobbies were 3 meters long, we’d be having to cage dive with them.” Real-world blennies, however, grow to only about the size of a cocktail sausage. These little beasts probably got their big teeth before evolving venom, says Nicholas Casewell of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in England. That’s jusssst backward, snakes might say, as they evolved their venom first. Yet when Casewell, Fry and colleagues put together an evolutionary family tree for the blennies, the one genus with both fangs and venom branched off amid four genera that are all fang and no toxins, Casewell, Fry and colleagues report in the April 24 Current Biology.
5-16-17 Snail's DNA secrets unlocked in fight against river disease
Snail's DNA secrets unlocked in fight against river disease
Scientists have decoded the genome of a snail involved in the spread of a deadly parasitic disease. They say the information will help in the fight against schistosomiasis, an infection caused by a parasitic worm that lives in streams and ponds. The disease affects millions of people a year in sub-tropical and tropical regions. More than 100 researchers from around the world have unlocked the DNA secrets of a snail that transmits the parasite. They say it will help in the understanding of the snail's biology, including new ways to stop the parasite spreading to people. "Having the knowledge means we can progress at a much faster pace at understanding the disease and reducing the number of people infected," said Dr Joanna Bridger of the University of Brunel, a co-researcher on the study. The snail (Biomphalaria glabrata) is found in South America.
5-16-17 Where you live can affect your blood pressure, study suggests
Where you live can affect your blood pressure, study suggests
Lack of resources in racially segregated neighborhoods linked to health impact. Moving from a highly segregated neighborhood to one with less segregation is associated with a decrease in systolic blood pressure among black adults, a new study finds. For black adults, moving out of a racially segregated neighborhood is linked to a drop in blood pressure, according to a new study. The finding adds to growing evidence of an association between a lack of resources in many predominately black neighborhoods and adverse health conditions among their residents, such as diabetes and obesity. Systolic blood pressure — the pressure in blood vessels when the heart beats — of black adults who left their highly segregated communities decreased just over 1 millimeter of mercury on average, researchers report online May 15 in JAMA Internal Medicine. This decline, though small, could reduce the overall incidence of heart failure and coronary heart disease.
5-16-17 Jumping genes play a big role in what makes us human
Jumping genes play a big role in what makes us human
Transposons fill huge chunks of our genetic blueprint. Humans and chimpanzees are easy to tell apart, even though they share a primate ancestor. Jumping genes helped sculpt their distinctions. Face-to-face, a human and a chimpanzee are easy to tell apart. The two species share a common primate ancestor, but over millions of years, their characteristics have morphed into easily distinguishable features. Chimps developed prominent brow ridges, flat noses, low-crowned heads and protruding muzzles. Human noses jut from relatively flat faces under high-domed crowns. Those facial features diverged with the help of genetic parasites, mobile bits of genetic material that insert themselves into their hosts’ DNA. These parasites go by many names, including “jumping genes,” “transposable elements” and “transposons.” Some are relics of former viruses assimilated into a host’s genome, or genetic instruction book. Others are self-perpetuating pieces of genetic material whose origins are shrouded in the mists of time.
5-16-17 Microbes might thrive after crash-landing on board a meteorite
Microbes might thrive after crash-landing on board a meteorite
Some extremophile bacteria could survive the a crash-landing of a meteorite or spacecraft, helping them travel between worlds. Bacteria riding on an incoming meteorite may be able to survive the violent shockwave created when it crash-lands on a planet. Their cell walls have been seen to rapidly harden and relax after a sudden shock compression, enabling them to bounce back even after an extreme collision. “When you are exposing life to such extreme conditions, it is a surprise when they survive quite well,” says Rachael Hazael at University College London. Microbes can withstand extreme environments on Earth, including the crushing pressure of the deep ocean or deep beneath the ground. This suggests that life forms could thrive on distant worlds in similar high-pressure environments. But few people have studied what happens to microbes under dynamic “shock compression”, which is a very short-lived high-pressure environment. To find out, Hazael and colleagues subjected a hardy, metal-eating microbe called Shewanella oneidensis to varying levels of sudden, extraordinarily high pressures. After each blast in increasingly high-pressure experiments, the team cultured the microbial survivors and found they fared better in a sudden high-pressure environment than in a long-lasting high-pressure condition.
5-15-17 A drug to reverse hearing loss?
A drug to reverse hearing loss?
This company wants to use a new treatment to restoring hearing. Some 38 million America adults have trouble hearing, whether they went to a few too many rock concerts or are simply getting old. For such a widespread problem, however, the options aren't great. Eighty percent of adults eligible to use clunky hearing aids don't wear them. Surgically-placed cochlear implants, on the other hand, are invasive and expensive. This is why a company called Frequency Therapeutics is developing a simple new way to restore hearing: by simply repairing parts of the ear that no longer work properly. There are lots of ways that the ear can become damaged and stop transmitting sound properly. But one of the most vulnerable parts are tiny, delicate hairs inside and outside the cochlea, a tube-like cavity shaped like a snail's shell in the inner ear. Most people only have 70 percent of these hairs left by age 70, and they never regrow after a person is born. Frequency Therapeutics is aiming to restore hearing by using chemical compounds to stimulate a particular cellular pathway that would cause hairs to regrow in the inner ear. The company has put together combination of small molecules they're calling Progenitor Cell Activation to do so.
5-15-17 Ladybird’s transparent shell reveals how it folds its wings
Ladybird’s transparent shell reveals how it folds its wings
The unusual way ladybird wings fold and unfold could help us design solar array paddles that unfold in space and even pave the way to better umbrellas. They certainly know how to fold. A see-through artificial wing case has been used to watch for the first time as ladybirds put away their wings after flight. Ladybirds have long, transparent wings that they fold under their bright, spotted wing cases, or elytra, when they’re not in use. To get a peek at what happens under the elytra, Kazuya Saito at the University of Tokyo and his colleagues have devised a clear prosthetic wing case. The team used UV-cured resin, much like the material used for long-lasting nail polish, and moulded it like real elytra. The group fastened the artificial elytra onto an anaesthetised ladybird and used high-speed video to watch the insect fold its wings. They found that prominent veins along the edge of the wings allow creases to form and fold the wings away in a complex, origami-like shape. A bend in the wing can drift down a vein as it gets folded, but the wing is ready to spring back to a rigid form when the elytra open. “The wing frame has no joint,” Saito says. “Usually, transformable structures require a lot of parts, including joints and rigid parts. Ladybirds effectively use flexibility and elastic behaviour in the structures and achieve complex transformation by very simple structures.” This folding mechanism could help us build solar array paddles that unfold themselves in space, foldable wings for small vehicles, or even lead to better umbrellas.
5-15-17 Dinosaur asteroid hit 'worst possible place'
Dinosaur asteroid hit 'worst possible place'
Scientists who drilled into the impact crater associated with the demise of the dinosaurs summarise their findings so far in a BBC Two documentary on Monday. The researchers recovered rocks from under the Gulf of Mexico that were hit by an asteroid 66 million years ago. The nature of this material records the details of the event. It is becoming clear that the 15km-wide asteroid could not have hit a worse place on Earth. The shallow sea covering the target site meant colossal volumes of sulphur (from the mineral gypsum) were injected into the atmosphere, extending the "global winter" period that followed the immediate firestorm. Had the asteroid struck a different location, the outcome might have been very different. "This is where we get to the great irony of the story – because in the end it wasn’t the size of the asteroid, the scale of blast, or even its global reach that made dinosaurs extinct – it was where the impact happened," said Ben Garrod, who presents The Day The Dinosaurs Died with Alice Roberts. "Had the asteroid struck a few moments earlier or later, rather than hitting shallow coastal waters it might have hit deep ocean. "An impact in the nearby Atlantic or Pacific oceans would have meant much less vapourised rock – including the deadly gypsum. The cloud would have been less dense and sunlight could still have reached the planet’s surface, meaning what happened next might have been avoided. "In this cold, dark world food ran out of the oceans within a week and shortly after on land. With nothing to eat anywhere on the planet, the mighty dinosaurs stood little chance of survival."
5-15-17 Tiny invasive sea creatures hitch a ride in rabbitfish guts
Tiny invasive sea creatures hitch a ride in rabbitfish guts
Rabbitfish ingest microscopic marine creatures while grazing on algae. Some of them may survive long trips and wreak havoc far from home when the fish defecate. It’s the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Suez Canal. Tiny invasive creatures thumb a ride inside the gut of rabbitfish, hopping from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. This is the first time such a tactic has been seen in the ocean. The rabbitfish are herbivores, but as they eat algae they ingest microscopic marine creatures and then expel them when they defecate. This intestinal journey could be how Amphistegina lobifera, a species of tiny creature called foraminifera, spread throughout the Mediterranean Sea and changed much of sea floor, driving out native species. Over the past several decades, the floor of parts of the Mediterranean has changed from algal forests to turf barrens, as a result of over-grazing by the rabbitfish and expansion of the foraminifera, which carpet the rocky sea floor and cover it in sand created by their discarded shells. “The amazing thing is how small this organism is, but all you need are a few billion of them to change the world,” says James Carlton, a marine ecologist at Williams College and Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, an author on the paper.
5-14-17 'Parental burnout' is a real thing
'Parental burnout' is a real thing
Just like burning out at work, you can burn out at parenting too. This is my life, right now: My children, ages 4 and 5, won't eat anything but plain bow-tie noodles. My 5-year-old won't go outside because a goose chased her at the park last spring, and now she has a paralyzing fear of the outdoors. My 4-year-old still routinely climbs into my bed every night, in the middle of the night, and sandwiches himself between me and my husband, insisting on sharing my pillow and breathing into my face as he sleeps. I'm sleep-deprived. I'm strung out. Between shuffling one kid off to physical therapy multiple times per week and coaxing the other to get on the bus every morning (there are geese in our neighborhood), I frequently feel like I'm at the end of my rope. Parenting is stressful. I don't need a study to tell me that. But sometimes, it feels more than stressful — it feels like total exhaustion. It feels like burnout. And it's not just me. In a survey of more than 2,000 parents recently published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, researchers from the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium confirmed what I definitely already knew: Much like working professionals can burn out on their jobs, so too can moms and dads experience "parental burnout."
5-14-17 New museum exhibit explores science of racism
New museum exhibit explores science of racism
‘Us and Them’ examines why prejudice persists. A new exhibit at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris asks visitors to confront their own prejudices. This “category cylinder” highlights the psychological tendency that people have to classify other people into discrete categories. In a famous series of experiments conducted in the 1970s, social psychologist Henri Tajfel asked how little it would take to persuade one group of people to discriminate against another. The answer was almost nothing. Having assigned boys to two groups based largely on random criteria, he asked them to play a game. Each boy had to decide how many pennies to give to members of his own group and to members of the other group. Tajfel found that the boys were more generous toward their own group, even though the groups had been defined almost arbitrarily. Thus was born the concept of the “minimal group.” Tajfel’s research informs a new, temporary exhibit at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. Titled “Us and Them,” the exhibit explores the science of racism and prejudice. The question at its heart is why, when biologists have swept away the rationale for categorizing humans by race, does racism persist? The exhibit draws on genetics, history, psychology, sociology and anthropology to answer that question. And in both its content and its structure, “Us and Them” reminds visitors how far society has come since the second half of the 20th century, when UNESCO declared that there was no biological basis to race and that the concept was purely a social construct.
5-12-17 Test combo could distinguish Alzheimer’s earlier than ever
Test combo could distinguish Alzheimer’s earlier than ever
A variety of tests can predict at an early stage who might develop Alzheimer’s and who might develop dementia with Lewy bodies – which could improve intervention. Combining multiple tests could help doctors distinguish between two leading causes of cognitive decline at an earlier stage. Being able to separate the earliest signs of Alzheimer’s from another degenerative brain condition called dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB) could be crucial to finding treatments for both kinds of dementia. When someone starts to exhibit mild cognitive impairments, it is often difficult to tell whether these might be the earliest signs of Alzheimer’s or DLB, or just normal age-related declines in cognition. Yet this distinction is vital: so far, despite billions of dollars spent on research, progress towards drugs that stabilise or cure dementia has stalled. Many blame the failure on treating people too late and argue that the same drugs might work better if given a decade or two before symptoms fully develop. Now, Dilman Sadiq at University College London and her colleagues have attempted to rectify this problem by analysing clinical histories, the results of cognitive tests and psychiatric interviews with 429 people originally diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, who were monitored for up to 14 years. Each person was diagnosed at one UK hospital between 1994 and 2015. Of this group, 107 progressed to Alzheimer’s, 21 to DLB and 164 remained stable with mild cognitive impairment. The rest developed a mixture of other conditions.
5-12-17 Why men are impulsive
Why men are impulsive
Testosterone makes men less likely to think before they act, a new study has found. Researchers gave 243 mostly college-age male volunteers a dose of testosterone gel or a placebo, then asked them to complete a short, untimed test that assessed their cognitive reflection. Questions included this head-scratcher: “A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?” The incorrect “gut” response is 10 cents; the correct answer, which people generally come to only after a bit of thought, is 5 cents. The men who received testosterone answered about 20 percent fewer questions correctly in the tests—which were coupled with a basic math task to control for arithmetic skills—than those in the placebo group. They also gave their answers more hastily. Report co-author Colin Camerer, a behavioral economist at the California Institute of Technology, says this disparity may be because testosterone boosts confidence, which could eliminate the self-doubt that prompts people to re-evaluate their decisions. “The testosterone is either inhibiting the process of mentally checking your work,” he tells ScienceDaily?.com, “or increasing the intuitive feeling that ‘I’m definitely right.’”
5-12-17 Too much testosterone?
Too much testosterone?
In Washington, white men are in, and women are out! Let me say right off that some of my best friends are white men. I have been white and male myself for as long as I remember. Yet it must be said there's something odd about the overwhelming white maleness of Washington's current leadership. When the House passed the American Health Care Act last week, only 20 of the 217 votes in favor came from women. Among women House members, the bill lost 63 to 20. A photo of President Trump celebrating the bill's passage shows him surrounded by more than 30 congressmen, with just two women visible. In the Senate, the 13 legislators chosen to draft that chamber's version of TrumpCare are — yep — all white males. No women, blacks, or Hispanics need apply. And it's not just health care. Every time President Trump signs a new executive order, he is surrounded by dozens of grinning aides, congressmen, and industry CEOs, nearly all of them white, male, and over 50. Is there a message there? Remember: Only 31 percent of the U.S. population consists of white, non-Hispanic males. The other 69 percent might well wonder if the disproportionate monochromatic maleness of those making laws and regulations might skew their thinking — leading this fraternity to conclude, for example, that Planned Parenthood should lose all federal funding, or that health insurers should be free to exclude contraception and maternity coverage. (Who needs that? Not us.) Perspective matters. In a new study, researchers found that giving men a shot of testosterone made them more likely to make dumb mistakes, and to insist nevertheless, "I'm definitely right." Now, as my wife and two daughters would tell you, I'm prone to a surfeit of certitude myself. But think about a hyper-male who rushes into poorly considered gut decisions, and refuses to even consider the possibility that he's wrong ... Does that remind you of anyone?
5-12-17 Powerful curses
Powerful curses, after researchers in the U.K. found that shouting expletives during physical exertion can boost strength, especially during tasks that require short, intense bursts of power like opening a tight-lidded jar. “We have yet to understand the power of swearing,” one researcher concluded.
5-12-17 Toddlers’ screen time linked to speech delays and lost sleep, but questions remain
Toddlers’ screen time linked to speech delays and lost sleep, but questions remain
The use of tablets and other handheld digital devices are associated with speech delays and less night sleep in young children, links that scientists, doctors and parents are all eager to explore. One of the most pressing and perplexing questions parents have to answer is what to do about screen time for little ones. Even scientists and doctors are stumped. That’s because no one knows how digital media such as smartphones, iPads and other screens affect children. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently put out guidelines, but that advice was based on a frustratingly slim body of scientific evidence, as I’ve covered. Scientists are just scratching the surface of how screen time might influence growing bodies and minds. Two recent studies point out how hard these answers are to get. But the studies also hint that the answers might be important. In the first study, Julia Ma at the University of Toronto and colleagues found that, in children younger than 2, the more time spent with a handheld screen, such as a smartphone or tablet, the more likely the child was to show signs of a speech delay. Ma presented the work May 6 at the 2017 Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting in San Francisco.
5-12-17 Diabetes harms the brain
Diabetes harms the brain
Diabetes may have an adverse effect on the brain, especially in overweight people, reports The New York Times. An international team of scientists compared 100 people with type 2 diabetes—half of whom were overweight—to 50 healthy people of normal weight. All the participants underwent MRI brain scans and completed tests that assessed their memory, reaction times, and thinking skills. The researchers found that participants with diabetes scored lower on the cognitive tests than those without the condition, and had significantly thinner gray matter in parts of the brain involved in key functions, including planning and concentration. These effects were most severe among the diabetics who were overweight, suggesting the two health issues have cumulative harmful effects on the brain. The study’s co-author, Donald Simonson of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, says these effects are likely irreversible. “On the positive side,” he notes, “patients who maintain good control of their diabetes do seem to have a slower rate of deterioration.”
5-12-17 Brain zaps let minimally conscious people communicate for a week
Brain zaps let minimally conscious people communicate for a week
Daily brain stimulation has “awakened” people with brain damage, allowing them to communicate for a week. The tech could eventually be used at home. People in a minimally conscious state have been “woken” for a whole week after a brief period of brain stimulation. The breakthrough suggests we may be on the verge of creating a device that can be used at home to help people with disorders of consciousness communicate with friends and family. People with severe brain trauma can fall into a coma. If they begin to show signs of arousal but not awareness, they are said to be in a vegetative state. If they then show fluctuating signs of awareness but cannot communicate, they are described as being minimally consciousness. In 2014, Steven Laureys at the University of Liège in Belgium and his colleagues discovered that 13 people with minimal consciousness and two people in a vegetative state could temporarily show new signs of awareness when given mild electrical stimulation. The people in the trial received transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), which uses low-level electrical stimulation to make neurons more or less likely to fire. This was applied once over an area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in “higher” cognitive functions such as consciousness. Soon after, they showed signs of consciousness, including moving their hands or following instructions using their eyes. Two people were even able to answer questions for 2 hours by moving their body, before drifting back into their previous state.
5-12-17 Mussel gloop can be used to make wounds knit without any scars
Mussel gloop can be used to make wounds knit without any scars
Secretions from mussels together with a synthesised skin protein create the ultimate glue – one that seamlessly meshes together skin wounds in rats. The humble mussel could soon help us prevent scarring. A sticky substance naturally secreted by the marine animal is one element of a glue that closes skin wounds seamlessly in rats. The glue could be used to prevent unsightly scars after accidental cuts or surgical operations. “If this can be replicated in humans, it might be the next big thing for scar therapy,” says Allison Cowin at the University of South Australia, who wasn’t involved in the study. Scars form when the collagen scaffolding in skin is broken apart. Instead of re-forming in their original and neat basket-weave arrangement, the collagen fibres grow back in parallel bundles that create the characteristic lumpy appearance of scars. One way to reduce scarring is to apply decorin, a skin protein involved in collagen organisation. But because decorin has a highly complex physical structure it is hard to synthesise and therefore not used in the clinic. To get round this problem, Hyung Joon Cha at Pohang University of Science and Technology in South Korea and his colleagues have created a simplified version of decorin. They combined a small section of the decorin protein with a collagen-binding molecule and a sticky substance secreted by mussels. The resulting glue was tested on rats with deep, 8-millimetre-wide wounds. The glue was spread over each wound and covered with clear plastic film. Rats in a control group had their wounds covered in plastic without any glue. By day 11, 99 per cent of the wound was closed in the treated rats compared with 78 per cent in the control group. By day 28, treated rats had fully recovered and had virtually no visible scarring. In comparison, control rats had thick, purple scars.
5-12-17 Digging for treasure
Digging for treasure
Digging for treasure, after scientists at several U.S. universities revealed that eating boogers can improve dental hygiene and overall good health, thanks to their “rich reservoir” of good bacteria.
5-11-17 Two years later, Zika virus is still a big mystery
Two years later, Zika virus is still a big mystery
Two years ago this May, Brazilian health officials made widely public the discovery of an outbreak of Zika virus, a member of the flavivirus family resembling a dropped gumball that got covered in dirt. Zika had hitched a ride onto Brazil's local pest population the year before, spreading primarily through the bites of the female Aedes aegypti mosquito. It was the first outbreak to ever reach the Americas, the virus having been previously confined to Africa and Asia. In the beginning, though, there was no huge cause for alarm. Upwards of 80 percent who catch Zika aren't affected by it. The rest experience a mild flu; fewer still might get a rash. Compared to much more common and fearsome mosquito-borne diseases like dengue fever, it was considered relatively harmless. But soon enough, Zika became a natural disaster with wings. Months after the initial cases, Brazil saw thousands more children being born with smaller-than normal heads, a condition called microcephaly, than is usual. Others died stillborn. And the only clear connection between these births was that many mothers complained of Zika-like symptoms during pregnancy. Doctors also noticed a small minority of adult Zika sufferers were coming down with Guillain-Barre syndrome, an autoimmune condition that leaves people's muscles rendered useless long after the initial infection was gone.
5-11-17 Selfish genes hide for decades in plain sight of worm geneticists
Selfish genes hide for decades in plain sight of worm geneticists
By poisoning offspring and providing the antidote, the genes spread spookily fast through the population. Covertly poisoning offspring appears to be a common part of motherhood in the C. elegans nematode that stars in biology labs worldwide. A strain of wild Hawaiian worms has helped unmask long-studied genes as just plain selfish. The scammers beat the usual odds of inheritance and spread extra fast by making mother worms poison some of their offspring. Biologists have for decades discussed how two genes in the familiar lab nematode Caenorhabditis elegans might help embryos build their organs. Working with a little-studied wild strain, however, caused a rethink of the genes’ supposedly beneficial role “that flipped it on its head,” says UCLA geneticist Leonid Kruglyak. In 2011, biologists Justine Allen of Brown University in Providence, R.I., and Derya Akkaynak of the University of Haifa in Israel lucked out. They were in the Aegean Sea off the coast of Turkey following a female cuttlefish with an underwater camera to study camouflage, when a male cuttlefish approached the female, and the pair mated. Soon after, another male appeared on the scene and edged in on the female. A battle of ink and arms ensued. “I just remember there being a lot of ink everywhere — so much ink,” Allen recalls.
5-11-17 Ancient whale tells tale of when baleen whales had teeth
Ancient whale tells tale of when baleen whales had teeth
36-million-year-old fossil belonged to oldest discovered member of group that includes humpbacks. The skull of Mystacodon, a 36-million-year-old whale found in Peru, is an early relative of today’s baleen whales. Its skull has a flattened snout and a mouth full of teeth, which baleen whales later lost. A 36-million-year-old fossil skeleton is revealing a critical moment in the history of baleen whales: what happened when the ancestors of these modern-day filter feeders first began to distinguish themselves from their toothy, predatory predecessors. The fossil is the oldest known mysticete, a group that includes baleen whales, such as humpbacks, researchers report in the May 22 Current Biology. Scientists have made predictions about what the first mysticetes might have looked like, but until now, haven’t had much fossil evidence to back up those ideas, says Nicholas Pyenson, a paleobiologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. “Here, we have something we’ve been waiting for: a really old baleen whale ancestor.”
5-11-17 First timeline of a cancer tracks tumours from origin to spread
First timeline of a cancer tracks tumours from origin to spread
One man’s bowel cancer has been tracked from the very start to the very end, revealing some of the surprising ways in which the disease spreads through the body. There’s rarely a silver lining to a cancer diagnosis. But one man’s illness has led to the first precise tracing of a cancer’s evolution. Knowing the exact time at which a particular tumour developed in the patient’s body allowed scientists to create a timeline for how his cancer evolved from a few cells, all the way through to the tumours that caused his eventual death. The study provides clues about what makes some cancers spread rapidly, and may in the future help doctors estimate how a tumour might respond to therapies. The analysis was carried out on a man diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2008, which later metastasised, spreading into other areas of his body. When the primary cancer was surgically removed, Nicola Valeri at the Institute of Cancer Research in London, discovered a nodule in the man’s lung. He suspected this might also be cancerous but decided to keep an eye on it before performing any further surgery.
5-11-17 Why create a model of mammal defecation? Because everyone poops
Why create a model of mammal defecation? Because everyone poops
Mammals with cylindrical feces — like cats and humans — tend to take about the same amount of time to poop, no matter their size, a new study reports. An elephant may be hundreds of times larger than a cat, but when it comes to pooping, it doesn’t take the elephant hundreds of times longer to heed nature’s call. In fact, both animals will probably get the job done in less than 30 seconds, a new study finds. Humans would probably fit in that time frame too, says Patricia Yang, a mechanical engineering graduate student at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. That’s because elephants, cats and people all excrete cylindrical poop. The size of all those animals varies, but so does the thickness of the mucus lining in each animal’s large intestine, so no matter the mammal, everything takes about the same time — an average of 12 seconds — to come out, Yang and her colleagues conclude April 25 in Soft Matter.
5-10-17 Why be conscious: The improbable origins of our unique mind
Why be conscious: The improbable origins of our unique mind
If we ask what consciousness is for, and why it evolved, we may get closer to understanding the nature of our own minds as well as those of other animals. YOU know that you are conscious. Hopefully, you believe me when I tell you that I am, too. But is your pet dog or cat conscious? What about a tool-making crow, or a “clairvoyant” octopus or a worm? You might think it is impossible to find out. There is no distinctive pattern of brain activity that indicates consciousness, and we can’t exactly ask animals about their experiences. We don’t even fully understand what consciousness is. But maybe there’s a way to get a handle on it. What if we tracked consciousness to its origins? Then, instead of asking what consciousness is, we ask why it evolved – in other words, what is it for? Until recently, that question has been largely ignored. But now biologists are starting to feel their way around the tree of life to consider where, when and why something resembling consciousness emerged. Their research is proving surprisingly fruitful. It’s not just shedding light on animal minds, it is also providing insights into the very nature of consciousness.
5-10-17 New rules for cellular entry may aid antibiotic development
New rules for cellular entry may aid antibiotic development
Tests show clues to fighting drug-resistant gram-negative bacteria. An antimicrobial (mostly green and white in this illustration) that has been modified to target gram-negative bacteria travels through a channel (brown) on its way inside an E. coli cell. Like entry to an exclusive nightclub, getting inside a gram-negative bacterial cell is no easy feat for chemical compounds. But now a secret handshake has been revealed: A new study lays out several rules to successfully cross the cells’ fortified exteriors, which could lead to the development of sorely needed antibiotics. “It’s a breakthrough,” says microbiologist Kim Lewis of Northeastern University in Boston, who was not involved with the work. The traditional way to learn how compounds get across the bacterial barrier is to study the barrier, he says. “They decided to attack the problem from the other end: What are the properties of the molecules that may allow them to penetrate across the barrier?” The work describing these properties is published online in Nature on May 10.
5-10-17 Breast cancer cells spread in an already-armed mob
Breast cancer cells spread in an already-armed mob
Most tumor-driving mutations are carried from original malignancy, study suggests. Breast cancer cells may break away from the main tumor in clumps, already bearing most of the mutations that will drive cancer recurrence, a study suggests. When breast cancer spreads, it moves in gangs of ready-to-rumble tumor cells, a small genetic study suggests. Most of the mutations that drive recurrent tumors when they pop up elsewhere in the body were present in the original tumor, geneticist Elaine Mardis reported May 9 at the Biology of Genomes meeting. For many types of cancer, it is the spread, or metastasis, of tumor cells that kills people. Because cancer that comes back and spreads after initial treatment is often deadlier than the original tumors, researchers thought most of the mutations in recurrent tumors happened after they spread. But the new findings contradict this assumption and may indicate ways to stop metastasis.
5-10-17 ‘Exercise pill’ turns couch potato mice into marathoners
‘Exercise pill’ turns couch potato mice into marathoners
Drug tricks the body into burning fat like a trained athlete. An experimental drug increases the running endurance of sedentary mice. An experimental drug touted as “exercise in a pill” has dramatically increased endurance in couch potato mice, even after a lifetime of inactivity. It appears to work by adjusting the body’s metabolism, allowing muscles to favor burning fat over sugar, researchers report in the May 2 Cell Metabolism. Sedentary mice prodded into exercising ran for an average of about 160 minutes on an exercise wheel before reaching exhaustion. But mice given the drug for eight weeks could run for 270 minutes on average. These mice were burning fat like conditioned athletes, even though they had spent their whole lives taking it easy, molecular biologist Michael Downes and colleagues found.
5-10-17 Scientists think lifestyle changes may reverse Alzheimer's
Scientists think lifestyle changes may reverse Alzheimer's
Last summer, a research group from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) quietly published the results of a new approach in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease. What they found was striking. Although the size of the study was small, every participant demonstrated such marked improvement that almost all were found to be in the normal range on testing for memory and cognition by the study's end. Functionally, this amounts to a cure. These are important findings, not only because Alzheimer's disease is projected to become ever more common as the population ages, but because current treatment options offer minimal improvement at best. Last July, a large clinical trial found little benefit in patients receiving a major new drug called LMTX. And after that, another hopeful drug designed to target amyloid protein, one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer's disease, failed its first large clinical trial as well. Just two months ago, Merck announced the results of its trial of a drug called verubecestat, which is designed to inhibit formation of amyloid protein. It was found to be no better than placebo. The results from UCLA aren't due to an incredible new drug or medical breakthrough, though. Rather, the researchers used a protocol consisting of a variety of different lifestyle modifications to optimize metabolic parameters — such as inflammation and insulin resistance — that are associated with Alzheimer's disease. Participants were counseled to change their diet (a lot of veggies), exercise, develop techniques for stress management, and improve their sleep, among other interventions. The most common "side effect" was weight loss.
5-10-17 Baby brain scans reveal trillions of neural connections
Baby brain scans reveal trillions of neural connections
UK scientists have released the first batch of "groundbreaking" medical scans that reveal step-by-step how the human brain develops in babies. Researchers around the world can use the data to understand what healthy growth looks like, say the Developing Human Connectome Project experts. The detailed MRI scans could also improve understanding of conditions such as autism and cerebral palsy. They precisely plot how the billions of neurons form and connect together. The team from King's College London, Imperial College London and the University of Oxford say their task has been incredibly challenging. Newborn human brains contain trillions of pathways, packed into an organ that is about the size of a small tangerine. So far, the scientists have released data they collected by scanning 40 babies a few days after birth.
5-10-17 Identity of famous baby dinosaur fossil revealed
Identity of famous baby dinosaur fossil revealed
The fossil of a baby dinosaur discovered in China more than 25 years ago has formally been identified as a new species of feathered dinosaur. The hatchling, dubbed Baby Louie, was found within a nest of dinosaur eggs. Palaeontologists have called it Beibeilong sinensis, which translates to "Chinese baby dragon". They say it is the first known specimen of a gigantic bird-like dinosaur belonging to the group known as oviraptorosaurs. Although the fossil of the infant dinosaur is small, it would have grown into an adult weighing more than 1,000kg. The discovery of dinosaur eggs in China, South Korea, Mongolia and North America suggests Beibeilong may have been common around 100 million years ago, say the researchers. ''The geographical distribution and abundant occurrences of Macroelongatoolithus egg remains reveal that giant oviraptosaurs were relatively widespread and perhaps even common in the early part of the Late Cretaceous, even though their skeletal remains are scarce and have yet to be identified in many regions,'' they write in Nature Communications.
5-9-17 ‘Baby Louie’ dinosaur identified as a new species
‘Baby Louie’ dinosaur identified as a new species
Famous embryo fossil can add Beibeilong sinensis to its name. Nesting birdlike dinosaurs called Beibeilong sinensis incubated their eggs. This new species was identified thanks to a recent examination of “Baby Louie,” a famous dinosaur embryo discovered in the 1990s. A fossil dinosaur embryo known as “Baby Louie” has a new name. It belongs to a newly identified species of dinosaur called Beibeilong sinensis, researchers report May 9 in Nature Communications. In the 1980s and 1990s, farmers found thousands of fossilized dinosaur eggs in the rocks of Henan Province in China and sold them overseas. It turned out that one chunk of rock, purchased by a company that sells museum-quality fossils and rock specimens, held not only eggs but also an embryonic dinosaur skeleton. It was dubbed “Baby Louie,” after a National Geographic photographer whose images of it appeared in a cover story for the magazine. Archaeologists knew Baby Louie was some kind of oviraptorosaur, a two-legged, birdlike dinosaur. But its species was a mystery. So in 2015, Junchang Lü of the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences in Beijing and colleagues returned to the site in China where the eggs were excavated. They analyzed fossils there and examined Baby Louie’s remains, now housed in the Henan Geological Museum. The embryo measures 38 centimeters from its snout to the start of its tail and dates to about 90 million years ago. Based on the structure of Baby Louie’s facial bones and other anatomical features, the team declared the dinosaur a new species. In Chinese, Beibei means “baby” and long means “dragon.”
5-9-17 Eggs four times bigger than ostriches’ reveal a giant dinosaur
Eggs four times bigger than ostriches’ reveal a giant dinosaur
The creature fossilised as it was breaking out of its huge egg. It would have looked like an overgrown cassowary eight metres long and weighing three tons. A clutch of enormous fossil eggs from China has led to the discovery of a new species of giant bird-like dinosaur. Flightless Beibeilong sinensis, which lived around 90 million years ago, had feathers, primitive wings and a beak, but dwarfed any of its modern bird relatives. Based on their analysis of a hatchling that died while emerging from one of the eggs, experts believe the adult creature was around eight metres long and weighed three tons. Other dinosaurs of the same type, known as oviraptorosaurs, have seldom measured more than about two metres. Several Beibeilong eggs were found in Henan Province, central China, in a ring-shaped clutch which was part of a nest two to three metres in diameter. The eggs are up to 45 centimetres across and weighed about 5 kilograms.
5-9-17 3.5-billion-year-old fossils hint life evolved in pond, not sea
3.5-billion-year-old fossils hint life evolved in pond, not sea
Fossils discovered in rocks in a hot, arid region of Australia raise hopes that we could find evidence of past life on Mars - if it ever existed. It’s the age-old question: where do we come from? New fossil evidence suggests the first spark of life may have occurred in a hot spring on land rather than a hydrothermal vent in the deep sea. Charles Darwin proposed in 1871 that life originated in a “warm little pond”. But the dominant theory nowadays is that primitive microorganisms first assembled in hot, chemical-rich water at hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean. One reason for favouring this marine model is that fossil evidence of early land-based microbial life has been lacking. Until recently, the oldest evidence of life on land was only 2.8 billion years old, whereas the oldest evidence from the sea was 3.7 billion years old. Now, a team led by Tara Djokic at the University of New South Wales in Australia has discovered fossils of land-based microorganisms. They were found in 3.5-billion-year-old rocks in an extinct volcano in the Dresser Formation in the hot, dry, remote Pilbara region of Western Australia.
5-9-17 Homo naledi may have lived at around same time as early humans
Homo naledi may have lived at around same time as early humans
New dating puts famed hominid in South Africa as recently as 236,000 years ago. Excavations in an underground cave in South Africa produced new Homo naledi fossils, including a skull of an adult male. H. naledi fossils in a nearby cave may be as young as 236,000 years old, raising questions about how human evolution occurred. Fossils of a humanlike species with some puzzlingly ancient skeletal quirks are surprisingly young, its discoverers say. It now appears that this hominid, dubbed Homo naledi, inhabited southern Africa close to 300,000 years ago, around the dawn of Homo sapiens. H. naledi achieved worldwide acclaim in 2015 as a possibly pivotal player in the evolution of the human genus, Homo. Retrieved from an underground chamber in South Africa, fossils of this species were thought to be anywhere from 900,000 to at least 1.8 million years old (SN: 8/6/16, p. 12). A younger age for H. naledi resolves one mystery about these cave fossils. It doesn’t, however, answer questions about how long ago the species first appeared and when it died out. What is now known is that H. naledi bodies somehow ended up in Dinaledi Chamber, part of South Africa’s Rising Star cave system, between 236,000 and 335,000 years ago, an international team reports in one of three papers published May 9 in eLife. Paleoanthropologist Lee Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg headed the team. Geoscientist Paul Dirks of James Cook University in Townsville, Australia, directed the dating effort.
5-9-17 Meet ‘Neo’, the most complete skeleton of Homo naledi ever found
Meet ‘Neo’, the most complete skeleton of Homo naledi ever found
This is one of the greatest fossil finds of the 21st century say its discoverers, who also provide a date for when this enigmatic species lived. It’s the cave that keeps on giving. Almost four years ago, researchers recovered 1500 ancient human bones and teeth from a rocky chamber in South Africa’s Rising Star cave system. The team has now recovered 130 additional hominin bones and teeth from a second chamber in Rising Star. They say the discoveries – and the first official confirmation of the specimens’ age – have the potential to transform our understanding of how and where the first humans evolved. Researchers investigating humanity’s deep evolutionary roots rarely find even fragments of hominin bones, let alone relatively complete skeletons. Many must have looked on with jealous eyes in 2013 as Lee Berger at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, and his colleagues pulled hundreds of bones from the Dinaledi chamber in Rising Star. But it wasn’t just the sheer volume of material that was significant. Berger’s team quickly realised that the bones belonged to a species like none seen before. Its short body had hands and feet like a modern human, a small brain like an early human, and a pelvis and shoulders like those of an ape-like Australopithecus. In 2015 the team named it Homo naledi.
5-9-17 Amazing haul of ancient human finds unveiled
Amazing haul of ancient human finds unveiled
A new haul of ancient human remains has been described from an important cave site in South Africa. The finds, including a well-preserved skull, bolster the idea that the Homo naledi people deliberately deposited their dead in the cave. Evidence of such complex behaviour is surprising for a human species with a brain that's a third the size of ours. Despite showing some primitive traits it lived relatively recently, perhaps as little as 235,000 years ago. That would mean the naledi people could have overlapped with the earliest of our kind - Homo sapiens. In a slew of papers published in the journal eLife, Prof Lee Berger from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, Prof John Hawks from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, US, and their collaborators have outlined details of the new specimens and, importantly, ages for the remains.
5-8-17 Rare ammonite 'death drag' fossil discovered
Rare ammonite 'death drag' fossil discovered
The "death drag" of a prehistoric "squid" - or ammonite - made 150-million-years-ago has been preserved as an incredible fossil. The animal's shell made the 8.5m-long mark as it drifted along the seafloor after its death. Ammonites are one of the most common and popular fossils collected by amateur fossil hunters. This specimen (Subplanites rueppellianus) was found in a quarry in southern Germany. Its shell was preserved alongside the mark it made as it drifted along the floor of a tropical lagoon in a steady current. Such marks are rare in the fossil record.
5-8-17 Synthetic bone implant can make blood cells in its marrow
Synthetic bone implant can make blood cells in its marrow
An engineered bone that has its own marrow can encourage donor stem cells to produce blood, a feat that could help people with anaemia and rare immune diseases. Scientists have engineered a bone-like implant to have its own working marrow that is capable of producing healthy blood. The implant may help treat several blood and immune disorders without the side effects of current treatments. Bone marrow is the spongy tissue present inside the centre of bones. One of its jobs is to produce red blood cells from stem cells. Bone marrow transplants are sometimes needed to treat immune diseases that attack these stem cells, or in certain types of anaemia, in which the body can’t make enough blood cells or clotting factors. Such transplants involve replacing damaged marrow with bone marrow stem cells from a healthy donor. But first, the recipient must have their own bone marrow stem cells wiped out to make room for the transplanted donor cells. This is done using radiation and drugs, which can have serious side effects, such as nausea and loss of fertility. To get round this problem, Shyni Varghese at the University of California, San Diego, and her colleagues have engineered an implant that resembles real bone. It provides a home for donor cells to grow and proliferate, bypassing the need for any drug and radiation treatment.
5-8-17 Early Earth was covered in a global ocean and had no mountains
Early Earth was covered in a global ocean and had no mountains
Some 4.4 billion years ago, soon after its formation, Earth was a much quieter and duller place than it is today, according to analysis of minerals from that time. Earth 4.4 billion years ago was flat and almost entirely covered in water with just a few small islands, new research suggests. Scientists came to the conclusion after analysing tiny zircon mineral grains from a region of Western Australia containing the oldest rocks ever found. “The history of the Earth is like a book with its first chapter ripped out with no surviving rocks from the very early period, but we’ve used these trace elements of zircon to build a profile of the world at that time,” says lead researcher Antony Burnham, from the Australian National University. “Our research indicates there were no mountains and continental collisions during Earth’s first 700 million years or more of existence – it was a much more quiet and dull place,” he says. “There are strong similarities with zircon from the types of rocks that predominated for the following 1.5 billion years, suggesting that it took the Earth a long time to evolve into the planet that we know today.”
5-8-17 Increased cancer rate in US linked to bad environment
Increased cancer rate in US linked to bad environment
Around 39 in 100,000 cancer deaths could be avoided if US counties improved environment quality – a target that could be hampered by Trump's new legislation. Improving the worst environments in the US could prevent 39 in every 100,000 cancer deaths. That’s according to the first study to address the impact of cumulative exposure to environmental hazards on cancer incidence in the US, which found strong links between poor environmental quality and increased rates of cancer. The environment we live in can influence biological processes such as hormone function and gene expression, or cause DNA damage – all of which can alter the risk of developing certain cancers. For instance, lung cancer incidence can increase due to chronic exposure to certain pesticides, diesel exhaust and the radioactive gas radon. Social factors also take their toll – poverty is linked to liver cancer, for example, due to increased alcohol consumption. Jyotsna Jagai at the University of Illinois and her colleagues investigated these links by comparing data from the Environmental Quality Index – a measure of cumulative environmental exposures between the years of 2000 and 2005 – with cancer incidence across the US from 2006 to 2010. The results showed increases in cancer incidence with decreasing environmental quality. The link was clearest with prostate and breast cancer.
5-8-17 Wish you had a shorter workday? Here’s why that’s a bad idea
Wish you had a shorter workday? Here’s why that’s a bad idea
There’s nothing like a bank holiday to make you wish you worked less, and productivity researchers are starting to agree. But reduced hours might add to your stress. THERE’S nothing quite like a three-day weekend to get us pondering the benefits of working less. What if every working week had four days? You’d get more sleep, more time with your family and friends or just to yourself: what’s not to love? Working stiffs aren’t the only ones asking the question. A high-level conversation has gathered pace in recent years about how long we should be working. Advocates of shortening the standard 8-hour day have long argued that doing so could lead to happier, healthier and maybe even more productive lives. Some research has cast doubt on the idea that fewer hours would make us better able to maintain productivity, but a newly completed study has reopened the case. If we are on the verge of another historic drop in hours, is that a good thing? History is full of fights over working hours. During the industrial revolution, factory owners maximised profit by keeping plants open as long as possible, leading to Dickensian 60-hour working weeks. But in the last century, hours gradually fell away as workers negotiated better terms of employment. By the turn of the millennium, hours were averaging around 40 a week, where they have pretty much plateaued since. As long ago as the 1930s, the economist John Maynard Keynes was predicting that as living standards rose in rich countries, working hours would fall. We should expect a 15-hour week within a hundred years, he said.
5-8-17 In Florida, they’re fighting mosquitoes by meddling with their sex lives
In Florida, they’re fighting mosquitoes by meddling with their sex lives
Florida Keys skeeter police testing one of two opposing strategies for using bacteria to squelch Zika-spreading mosquitoes. Near Key West, Fla., mosquito-control officers are trying something new. They’re releasing more mosquitoes. In a 12-week test running through early July, 40,000 male mosquitoes are being released each week with the eventual goal of preventing the spread of mosquito-borne diseases such as Zika and dengue. Instead of trying to kill the mosquitoes directly, a losing battle in Florida, a Kentucky company called MosquitoMate has infected Aedes aegypti mosquitoes with a strain of Wolbachia bacteria that makes the males disastrous dads. When these males mate with uninfected wild females, their offspring die before hatching. The Florida trial is the latest in worldwide tests of two conceptually opposite approaches to using Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes as disease control officers. The better-known tack is to render mosquitoes less able to carry disease but leave them free to do what mosquitoes do. The approach now being tried in Florida would instead try to stomp down their numbers.
5-8-17 Twisted textile cords may contain clues to Inca messages
Twisted textile cords may contain clues to Inca messages
An anthropologist is unraveling a writing system in villagers’ artifacts from the 1700s. A bundle of animal hairs signals the beginning of a sequence of twisted and knotted cords on an 18th century khipu from a Central Andean village. A bright red tuft of deer hair is followed by a woven cone of hairs from different animals mixed with metallic fibers. New research suggests this and another khipu contain a type of writing. Animal-hair cords dating to the late 1700s contain a writing system that might generate insights into how the Inca communicated, a new study suggests. Researchers have long wondered whether some twisted and knotted cords from the Inca Empire, which ran from 1400 to 1532, represent a kind of writing about events and people. Many scholars suspect that these textile artifacts, known as khipus, mainly recorded decimal numbers in an accounting system. Yet Spanish colonial documents say that some Inca khipus contained messages that runners carried to various destinations. Now a new twist in this knotty mystery comes from two late 18th century khipus stored in a wooden box at San Juan de Collata, a Peruvian village located high in the Andes Mountains. A total of 95 cord combinations of different colors, animal fibers and ply directions, identified among hundreds of hanging cords on these khipus, signify specific syllables, reports Sabine Hyland. Hyland, a social anthropologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, describes the khipus online April 19 in Current Anthropology.
5-8-17 Earth may have been born in a huge flare-up of the young sun
Earth may have been born in a huge flare-up of the young sun
A sudden brightening of the infant sun – called an FU Orionis outburst – could have melted dust grains and made them stick together, building our world. It’s not easy to make Earth. Most of the explanations for how our planet formed have troubling problems. But if a new idea is right, we can thank a hyperactive young sun for Earth’s existence, plus solve a long-standing mystery about Mars. According to standard lore, the planet-building process began when dust particles orbiting the newborn sun stuck together, forming rocks that built still larger objects. But this story is in trouble. “I’ve been really, really disturbed by the problem of making terrestrial planets,” says Alexander Hubbard at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. These planets are the first four from the sun: Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. They’re mostly made of rock and iron – whose particles don’t readily stick together. They could have been sticky enough if they had a coating of snow and organic goo, Hubbard says. But despite all Earth’s oceans and carbon-based life, our planet has too little water or carbon to support this explanation. Now Hubbard has suggested an intriguing solution to Earth’s difficult birth. In 1936, an infant star began to brighten, eventually shining over 100 times more brightly than it did originally. Now named FU Orionis, this star has stayed bright ever since. And several other stellar youngsters have done the same thing.
5-6-17 Why you should work 4 hours a day, according to science
Why you should work 4 hours a day, according to science
Darwin, Dickens, and some of the most accomplished people in history have one thing in common. They worked with intense focus — but for only four hours a day. When you examine the lives of history's most creative figures, you are immediately confronted with a paradox: They organized their lives around their work, but not their days. Figures as different as Charles Dickens, Henri Poincaré, and Ingmar Bergman, working in disparate fields in different times, all shared a passion for their work, a terrific ambition to succeed, and an almost superhuman capacity to focus. Yet when you look closely at their daily lives, they only spent a few hours a day doing what we would recognize as their most important work. The rest of the time, they were hiking mountains, taking naps, going on walks with friends, or just sitting and thinking. How did they manage to be so accomplished? If some of history's greatest figures didn't put in immensely long hours, maybe the key to unlocking the secret of their creativity lies in understanding not just how they labored but how they rested.
5-5-17 The quest to understand chronic fatigue syndrome
The quest to understand chronic fatigue syndrome
For the millions of people afflicted with the debilitating condition of being chronically tired, concrete answers have been in short supply. It was only two years ago that a broad committee of experts assembled by the federal government declared that myalgic encephalomyelitis and chronic fatigue syndrome, or ME/CFS, was a biological disorder — after decades of critics insisting it was largely a psychological illness. But while we now know that many with ME/CFS have a viral infection right before their first bouts of enduring muscle pain, headaches, and the telltale exhaustion show up, scientists still haven't been able to hone in on a clear culprit, or even create an accurate test. Similarly, efforts to find a reliable treatment have floundered, and few sufferers ever gain back the energy they had before. But a study published recently in Microbiome, while not hitting any home runs, may provide us with more evidence of a key role player in CFS — our own gut bacteria.
5-5-17 Diet soda and dementia
Diet soda and dementia
Sugar-free versions of soda may increase people’s risk of suffering a stroke or developing dementia, reports The Washington Post. Scientists at Boston University studied more than 4,000 people over a 10-year period. They found that those who consumed at least one artificially sweetened drink a day were almost three times more likely to have a stroke or be diagnosed with dementia than those who had one or fewer a week. To the researchers’ surprise, a parallel study of sugary drinks did not find a similar association. Matthew Pase, the study’s lead author, offered several caveats on the findings, most notably that the actual number of diagnoses was very low and that the results showed only correlation, not causation. He also urged people not to see the study as an incentive to switch to regular soda, noting that sugary drinks have been linked to obesity, poor memory, and accelerated brain aging. But Pase did say the findings suggested consumers should be “cautious” about their diet soda intake and switch to water or other unsweetened drinks.
5-5-17 Man dreams in colour for first time during cancer radiotherapy
Man dreams in colour for first time during cancer radiotherapy
An Australian who used to dream in black and white began dreaming in vivid colour about cars, fish and former girlfriends while having cancer radiotherapy. A man has dreamed in colour for the first time after undergoing radiotherapy to treat a tumour on his eye. The 59-year-old Australian previously dreamed exclusively in black and white. But when he received radiation therapy to the front and side of his head for four weeks, he began dreaming in vivid colour. Some of these dreams involved mentally flicking through coloured images of former girlfriends, cars, and fish he had caught. In one, he saw colourful algebraic symbols emerge from a blackboard and whizz towards him. Why he had previously dreamed only in black and white is unclear, but it may be because of the type of television he grew up with. People who saw only black-and-white film and television as children seem more likely to dream in greyscale throughout their lives. By the time Australia fully converted to colour television in 1975, the man was already in his 20s.
5-5-17 Early human arrivals in North America?
Early human arrivals in North America?
A group of scientists has claimed that ancient humans may have settled in North America as long as 130,000 years ago—some 115,000 years earlier than previously thought. The controversial assertion, which is viewed with skepticism by most other paleontologists, is based on analysis of the fossilized remains of a mastodon, a long-extinct mammoth-like animal. Discovered beside a freeway near San Diego in 1992, the mastodon bones were scratched and broken into many pieces, surrounded by several large rocks that may have served as hammers and anvils. Researchers at the University of Michigan and elsewhere have concluded that the bones are 130,000 years old, and that they were opened when fresh by a Neanderthal or other ancient human relative using rocks to try to extract bone marrow. It’s widely accepted that Homo sapiens arrived in North America about 15,000 years ago, across a land bridge connecting Siberia and Alaska; the mastodon findings, if confirmed, would indicate that another hominin species somehow reached this continent much earlier. If that hypothesis is true, it would rewrite the story of human migration. Skeptics argue that there are more-plausible explanations for the bone fractures and markings, such as pressure from the sediment on top of it. Paleontologist Thomas A. Deméré, a co-author of the study, acknowledged that the findings seem “impossible,’’ but said, “People have to be open to the possibility that humans were here this long ago.’’
5-4-17 Internal compass guides fruit fly navigation
Internal compass guides fruit fly navigation
Activity in ring of nerve cells corresponds to flight direction, study finds. A ring of nerve cells in a fruit fly’s brain helps it to fly right — and all the other directions, depending on where the insect is trying to go. Scientists have shown why fruit flies don’t get lost. Their brains contain cells that act like a compass, marking the direction of flight. It may seem like a small matter, but all animals — even Siri-dependent humans — have some kind of internal navigation system. It’s so vital to survival that it is probably linked to many brain functions, including thought, memory and mood.Two years ago, Janelia researchers reported that the flies appear to have a group of about 50 cells connected in a sort of ring in the center of their brains that serve as an internal compass. But the scientists could only theorize how the system worked. In a series of experiments published online May 4 in Science, Kim and his Janelia colleagues describe how nerve cell activity in the circle changes when the insects fly.
5-4-17 Parasite living inside fish eyeball controls its behaviour
Parasite living inside fish eyeball controls its behaviour
Young parasites make their fish hosts extra careful – but once they mature they do all they can to ensure the fish are eaten by a bird to complete their life cycle. A common parasite that lives in fish eyeballs seems to be a driver behind the fish’s behaviour, pulling the strings from inside its eyes. When the parasite is young, it helps its host stay safe from predators. But once the parasite matures, it does everything it can to get that fish eaten by a bird and so continue its life cycle. The eye fluke Diplostomum pseudospathaceum has a life cycle that takes place in three different types of animal. First, parasites mate in a bird’s digestive tract, shedding their eggs in its faeces. The eggs hatch in the water into larvae that seek out freshwater snails to infect. They grow and multiply inside the snails before being released into the water, ready to track down their next host, fish. The parasites then penetrate the skin of fish, and travel to the lens of the eye to hide out and grow. The fish then get eaten by a bird – and the cycle starts again. Many parasites can change an animal’s behaviour to fit their own needs. Mice infected with the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, for example, lose their fear of cats – the animal the parasite needs to reproduce inside.
5-4-17 Resurrected gene allows time travel to an Earth before oxygen
Resurrected gene allows time travel to an Earth before oxygen
Researchers have rebuilt the gene coding for an ancient form of the photosynthesis enzyme rubisco, which should tell us how life coped with oxygen-poor air. A resurrected gene, brought back from the dead in the lab, is allowing molecular biologists to travel billions of years into the past to study one of the most significant transitions in Earth’s history. About 2.5 billion years ago, oxygen began to build up in Earth’s previously anoxic atmosphere as a result of photosynthesis by cyanobacteria and other microbes. This Great Oxygenation Event must have caused an ecological upheaval, because oxygen is such a reactive molecule. To understand more about this key point in evolution, evolutionary biologist Betül Kacar at Harvard University decided to reconstruct the ancient form of rubisco, the key enzyme in photosynthesis that converts carbon dioxide into the precursors of sugars. Rubisco has been called the most abundant protein on Earth, and its history dates back to the dawn of photosynthesis more than 3 billion years ago. Kacar and her team compared rubisco gene sequences from modern organisms to infer what the sequence must have been in their common ancestor. By doing that repeatedly, she says, “we can walk back down the branches of the evolutionary tree”. Rubisco changed much more quickly around the time of the Great Oxygenation than it did either before or after it, Kacar said last week at the Astrobiology Science Conference in Mesa, Arizona.
5-4-17 The energy generators inside our cells reach a sizzling 50°C
The energy generators inside our cells reach a sizzling 50°C
our mitochondria burn food to produce most of your energy. Now we know this produces a lot of heat, raising them high above our 37°C body temperature. Our body temperature might not ever get much hotter than 37°C. But it turns out that the insides of our cells can reach a scorching 50°C. Our cells effectively burn food in oxygen to produce energy. Unlike a fire, this is a controlled process involving several steps, but it still generates a lot of heat. But because respiration, as this process is known, happens inside tiny structures inside cells called mitochondria, measuring just how hot they get has not been possible. However, in the past year or so, several research teams around the world have developed dyes that fluoresce in different ways as temperatures change. Pierre Rustin of INSERM in France and colleagues have now used a dye developed by a group in Singapore to measure the temperature inside the mitochondria of human kidney and skin cells kept at 38°C. They found that mitochondria operate at temperatures at least 6 to 10°C higher than the rest of the cell.
5-4-17 Jurassic animal found on Skye 'fed milk to young'
Jurassic animal found on Skye 'fed milk to young'
Palaeontologists believe an animal that lived in what is now Skye 165 million years ago fed milk to its young. Milk teeth have been discovered in the fossil jaw of a juvenile Wareolestes rex, a species of mammal from the Middle Jurassic. Scientists suggest adult females secreted milk on to a bare patch of skin for their young to lap up. Nipples and suckling as seen in modern mammals had still to evolve when Wareolestes rex lived. The two centimetre-long jaw was found on Skye in 2015 and is one of the most complete fossils of the early mammal to be found outside of China. Single teeth of Wareolestes rex have previously been found in England. Palaeontologists from National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh and the University of Oxford have been examining the fossil from Skye. Using micro-CT scanning technology, they have identified milk teeth and, inside the jaw, adult teeth that had not erupted through the gums. The scientists said this showed that Wareolestes rex replaced its teeth once, like humans and other modern mammals. It had a set of milk teeth, followed by a set of adult teeth. This pattern of tooth replacement was an important step in the evolution of mammals and is linked to the production of milk to feed young, the scientists said.
5-4-17 African T. rex was one of last dinosaurs alive before extinction
African T. rex was one of last dinosaurs alive before extinction
An African version of a tyrannosaur-like predator has been discovered by chance in a mine in Morocco. One of the last dinosaurs living in Africa before their extinction 66 million years ago has been discovered in a phosphate mine in northern Morocco. The scientist who made the discovery likened it to winning the lottery as the new species – Chenanisaurus barbaricus – is so rare. The dinosaur is a smaller African contemporary of the North American T. rex. Last year, Nick Longrich, from the University of Bath, studied a rare fragment of a jaw bone that was discovered in the mines at Sidi Chennane in the Oulad Abdoun Basin, Morocco. In collaboration with colleagues based in Morocco, France, and Spain, Longrich identified it as belonging to an abelisaur. Abelisaurs were two-legged predators like T. rex and other tyrannosaurs, but with a shorter, blunter snout and even tinier arms. While the tyrannosaurs dominated in North America and Asia, the abelisaurs were the top predators at the end of the Cretaceous period in Africa, South America, India and Europe. “We have virtually no dinosaur fossils from this time period in Morocco – it may even be the first dinosaur named from the end-Cretaceous in Africa,” he says. “It’s also one of the last dinosaurs in Africa before the mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs.”
5-3-17 Electrode can tell you if a baby is really experiencing pain
Electrode can tell you if a baby is really experiencing pain
Grimaces and squints can mean a baby is in pain, but can also be signs of hunger. Now a single electrode device can tell what a baby’s really feeling. When a baby’s crying, it can be difficult to know what’s wrong. Detecting brain signals could provide a more reliable way to tell if babies are in pain. “Babies can’t talk, so we need other ways to tell if they’re in pain,” says Rebeccah Slater, at the University of Oxford. “Currently, doctors use facial grimaces and squints, but they could be caused by other factors, such as hunger or the desire for a cuddle,” she says. Now Slater and her team have developed a method that uses an electrode positioned on the midline of the scalp to detect brainwave patterns associated with pain. They did this by analysing EEG readings taken from 18 babies as they had their blood taken as part of routine health screening. The readings showed a distinctive signal half a second after their heels were pricked. The team then tested the accuracy of this signal in tests on more infants, finding that the size of the pain signal correlated with the degree of facial grimacing, the usual method of judging pain by a baby’s facial expressions.
5-3-17 A baby’s pain registers in the brain
A baby’s pain registers in the brain
Monitor picks up spikes in nerve cell activity after a jab or a stick. During painful procedures, newborns’ brains show a spike in activity that can be detected with electrodes on the scalp, a new study suggests. Monitoring such activity could one day provide an objective measurement of pain. An electrode on top of a newborn’s scalp, near the soft spot, can measure when the baby feels pain. The method, described online May 3 in Science Translational Medicine, isn’t foolproof, but it brings scientists closer to being able to tell when infants are in distress. Pain assessment in babies is both difficult and extremely important for the same reason: Babies don’t talk. That makes it hard to tell when they are in pain, and it also means that their pain can be more easily overlooked, says Carlo Bellieni, a pediatric pain researcher at the University Hospital Siena in Italy. Doctors rely on a combination of clues such as crying, wiggling and facial grimacing to guess whether a baby is hurting. But these clues can mislead. “Similar behaviors occur when infants are not in pain, for example if they are hungry or want a cuddle,” says study coauthor Rebeccah Slater of the University of Oxford. By relying on brain activity, the new method promises to be a more objective measurement.
5-3-17 Immune war with donor cells after transplant may wipe out HIV
Immune war with donor cells after transplant may wipe out HIV
A potentially fatal battle between the immune cells of a blood marrow donor and a recipient seems to kill off any HIV as a side effect. HAVE we had it all back to front? Ten years ago, a man known as the Berlin patient was cured of HIV. It was thought that a bone marrow transplant he received for cancer, from a person immune to HIV, had eradicated the virus from his body. But evidence from a new group of people suggests an immune reaction provoked by the transplant may actually have been responsible. The cancer therapy is so harsh that it wouldn’t be given to people who don’t have that disease, but if confirmed, the finding gives us a new insight into how to fight HIV. The Berlin patient – Timothy Brown – is still the only person who seems to have remained free from HIV for a long period. A few other people have been “functionally cured” – although they have some dormant virus in their cells, they no longer need to take antiviral therapy. HIV targets immune cells, leaving people defenceless against other infections if it goes untreated. The standard view was that Brown was cured by a bone marrow transplant he received to treat his leukaemia. The bone marrow came from someone with a genetic mutation in the CCR5 gene that makes immune cells resistant to HIV. But some believe that a side effect of the transplant may actually have been at least partly responsible for wiping out the virus in his body. Known as graft-versus-host disease, it is caused by immune cells from the donor attacking those of the recipient. Brown’s bone marrow transplant triggered this, causing his own immune cells – and the HIV they contained – to be killed.
5-3-17 Synthetic genes can make weird new proteins that actually work
Synthetic genes can make weird new proteins that actually work
Throwing amino acids together has made a handful of proteins that help bacteria lacking certain enzymes survive, giving us a new route to useful molecules. Novel proteins, created from scratch with no particular design in mind, can sometimes do the work of a natural protein. The discovery may widen the toolkit of synthetic biologists trying to build bespoke organisms. There are more proteins possible than there are atoms in the universe, and yet evolution has tested only a minuscule fraction of them. No one knows whether the vast, untried space of proteins includes some that could have biological uses. Until now, most researchers assembling novel proteins have meticulously selected each amino acid building block so that the resulting protein folds precisely into a pre-planned shape that closely fits the molecules it is intended to interact with. Michael Hecht, a chemist at Princeton University, decided to try a much looser approach. “I was trying to see what the hell’s out there,” he says. Proteins fold because certain amino acids associate easily with water, while others tend to be tucked away in the interior of the protein. Hecht chose a common shape for folded proteins, called a four-helix bundle – reminiscent of four fingers pressed tightly together – and worked out which positions in the protein needed to have water-loving amino acids and which parts water-avoiding in order to take that shape. Then he randomly picked amino acids from those two categories to fill those positions. He repeated the process over and over, eventually designing around a million different semi-random proteins.
5-3-17 Ancient humans: What we know and still don’t know about them
Ancient humans: What we know and still don’t know about them
Confused by the flood of news about ancient humans? Here’s the low-down on what new discoveries are revealing about the complicated story of our ancestors. In recent weeks, we have explored the brain of a species called Homo naledi, speculated on the idea that Neanderthals might have made it to North America deep in prehistory, and found signs of Denisovan DNA in layers of dirt in a Siberian cave that don’t actually contain any fossil bones. But who were these ancient humans? And what about the other species that pop up in the news on a regular basis? Here is New Scientist’s primer to help you understand a little bit more about seven of the most important human species in our evolutionary tree. (Webmaster's comment: Excellent article detailing what we know.)
- Homo habilis (“handy” man)
- Homo erectus (“upright man”)
- Homo neanderthalensis (the Neanderthal)
- The Denisovans
- Homo floresiensis (the “hobbit”)
- Homo naledi (“star man”)
- Homo sapiens (“wise man”, or “modern humans”)
5-3-17 Yes, statins protect hearts. But critics question their expanding use
Yes, statins protect hearts. But critics question their expanding use
For people who haven’t had a heart problem, the benefit-to-risk balance changes. After decades of study, a big question remains about the safety of statins: What are the risks for people who have a chance of benefit but haven’t yet had a heart attack or stroke? Cholesterol is so important to life that practically every human cell makes it. Cells use the compound to keep their membranes porous and springy, and to produce hormones and other vital substances. The body can make all the cholesterol it needs, but Americans tend to have a surplus, thanks in large part to too little exercise and too much meat, cheese and grease. Fifty years ago, researchers began to suspect that all this excess cholesterol was bad for arteries. But the idea remained difficult to prove — until statins came along. Once the powerful cholesterol-busting drugs appeared, in the 1980s, scientists were able to show that a drop in cholesterol could keep a person who had suffered one heart attack or stroke from having a second. Later studies pointed to protection for even relatively healthy people. Researchers writing in the American Journal of Cardiology in 2010 declared that the drugs were such cardiovascular heroes they could essentially neutralize the health risks from a Quarter Pounder with cheese plus a milkshake.
5-3-17 Map of the underworld may let us play plate tectonics in reverse
Map of the underworld may let us play plate tectonics in reverse
An atlas of the ancient continents swallowed up long ago is the first to show the whereabouts of almost 100 tectonic plates that have sunk. The map is the first to show the whereabouts of almost 100 massive remnants of what were once tectonic plates, but which long ago sank into the bowels of our planet through a process called subduction. “We’re pioneering the first map of the underworld,” says Wim Spakman of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, who unveiled plans to launch the atlas at the annual meeting of the European Geosciences Union in Vienna. “We will make our Atlas of the Underworld public for everyone to use, criticise and supplement with new data once our supporting work is published, which is imminent.” Knowing the positions of huge, ancient slab remnants could prove invaluable for geological research and exploration, says Spakman – and could bring us closer to forecasting earthquakes. So far, 98 slabs strewn throughout Earth’s upper and lower mantles have been mapped. Some are found at depths of 2900 kilometres, and with ages of up to 350 million years. All the slabs originated at or near Earth’s surface. Through collisions with other plates, or other tectonic activity, they all at some point began heading downwards, first through the upper mantle, then through the much more viscous lower mantle, which starts at around 660 kilometres down. Some have reached the outer core at 2900 kilometres.
5-2-17 Listening to your heartbeat helps you read other people’s minds
Listening to your heartbeat helps you read other people’s minds
People who are more aware of their heartbeats are better at perceiving the emotions of others, suggesting training might help some autism symptoms. You really should listen to your heart. People who are more aware of their heartbeat are better at perceiving the emotions of people around them. What’s more, improving this ability might help relieve some symptoms of autism and schizophrenia. Can you feel your heart beating softly against your breastbone? Or perhaps you feel hungry, thirsty or in pain? If so, you are perceiving your internal state – a process called interoception. It’s thought that to generate emotions, we first need to interpret our body’s internal state of affairs. So if we see a rabid dog, we only feel fear once we recognise an increase in our heart rate or perceive a sweaty palm. Some people with conditions that involve having poor interoceptive abilities also have trouble interpreting their emotions. But researchers have also speculated that interoception is important for understanding what other people are thinking, and even guessing what they think a third person might be thinking – known as theory of mind. The idea is that if we have trouble distinguishing our own emotions, we might also find it hard to interpret the emotions – and corresponding mental states – of others.
5-2-17 Secrets of tea plant revealed by science
Secrets of tea plant revealed by science
Botanists have unlocked the genetic secrets of the plant prized for producing tea. A team in China has decoded the genetic building blocks of the tea plant, Camellia sinensis, whose leaves are used for all types of tea, including black, green and oolong. The research gives an insight into the chemicals that give tea its flavour. Until now, little has been known about the genetics of the plant, despite its huge economic and cultural importance. "There are many diverse flavours, but the mystery is what determines or what is the genetic basis of tea flavours?" said plant geneticist Lizhi Gao of Kunming Institute of Botany, China, who led the research. "Together with the construction of genetic maps and new sequencing technologies, we are working on an updated tea tree genome that will investigate some of the flavour."
5-2-17 Fossil sheds light on 'Jurassic Park' dinosaurs
Fossil sheds light on 'Jurassic Park' dinosaurs
The fossil of a dinosaur that has been languishing in a museum for decades has been re-examined - and it turns out to be that of a new species. Brachiosaurus, depicted in Jurassic Park, now has an early relative, providing clues to the evolution of some of the biggest creatures on Earth. Scientists say the plant-eating dinosaur was longer than a double-decker bus and weighed 15,000kg. Its remains were found in the 1930s in the Jura region of France. Since then it has been somewhat over-looked, spending most of that time in storage crates in the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. Lead researcher Dr Philip Mannion of Imperial College London said the dinosaur would have eaten all kinds of vegetation, such as ferns and conifers, and lived at a time when Europe was a series of islands. 'We don't know what this creature died from, but millions of years later it is providing important evidence to help us understand in more detail the evolution of brachiosaurid sauropods and a much bigger group of dinosaurs that they belonged to, called titanosauriforms,'' he said.
5-1-17 Water tubing accidents, table run-ins cause Neandertal-like injuries
Water tubing accidents, table run-ins cause Neandertal-like injuries
Analysis shows that comparing ancient and modern bone breaks yields little insight into hominids’ everyday dangers. Among a broad range of sports activities, water tubing produces an excess of upper-body injuries most similar to the pattern seen on Neandertal fossils, researchers say. This finding highlights the futility of trying to understand Stone Age behavior with comparisons with modern pursuits. Rodeo riders’ recent scientific reputation, as the best modern examples of a Neandertal pattern of excess head knocks, has taken a tumble. Taking their place: People who like to be dragged behind powerboats on big inner tubes, among others. An exhaustive comparison of Neandertals’ injuries to those of people today finds that water tubing and mishaps involving tables, not rodeo riding, result in top-heavy fracture patterns most similar to those observed on Neandertal fossils. This analysis illustrates just how little modern evidence reveals about ways in which our evolutionary relatives ended up so battered, said anthropologist Libby Cowgill of the University of Missouri in Columbia. She presented data highlighting the mystery of Neandertals’ many preserved bone fractures on April 22 at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.
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